Author Todd Gallicano takes Fodor’s on a cryptozoological safari through the United States’ wildest territories.
Our national parks are not-so-hidden treasures that imbue us with a sense of wonder at the power and beauty of nature…and leave us humbled by our place in it. My book, Guardians of the Gryphon’s Claw, exposes the secret that mythical creatures are living in our national parks and forests. (Shh! It’s classified!) In fact, a clandestine organization within the Department of the Interior called the Department of Mythical Wildlife helps to ensure they stay hidden (They can be visited at www.mythicalwildlife.com). With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of ten national parks, forests, and scenic areas where you might just be able to spy a local mythical creature.
Badlands National Park
If you have a dinosaur lover in the family, this is the park for you. Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota offers views unlike any other park in the system…and it’s a view that changes every time it rains! That’s because the rock that makes up these strange formations is so soft, it erodes one inch per year. The park boasts one of the world’s richest fossil beds and with its speedy erosion, new fossils are constantly exposed. But be forewarned, if you find one, leave it be or you might get yourself in a T-rex sized amount of trouble. There are myriadways to experience the park, but one of the most popular is to view right from your car via the Badlands scenic loop road.
INSIDER TIPLocal mythical wildlife includes the Banshee of the Badlands, a female ghost with a horrific shriek.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is the location of one of the most pivotal moments in Guardians of the Gryphon’s Claw, and it’s also one of the country’s most unique parks. The park service promotes it as the “Hottest, Driest, and Lowest National Park,” and it truly is a land of extremes. But it also offers some incredible sights both on and above the ground. Dante’s View is a great spot to catch a view of the entire park and there’s even a resort that’s surrounded by the park if you’re looking to hang around awhile. Stargazing in Death Valley is an especially extraordinary experience, as the park boasts the darkest night sky possible (recognized by the International Dark Sky Association–that’s a real thing!). We’d avoid visiting in the dead of summer or you might come to understand its ominous moniker.
INSIDER TIPLocal mythical wildlife includes giant iguanas.
Everglades National Park
If you love mangrove trees and alligators, look no further than Everglades National Park in south Florida. Dubbed the “river of grass” by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Everglades is more than just a national park, it’s also a World Heritage site and biosphere reserve. Bird watching, boating, wildlife viewing are among the favorite activities, but I would suggest the slough slogging. You read that right. It’s a ranger-led, off-the-trail hike into the deepest recesses of the mangrove swamps. Word is the best time to visit Everglades is in mid-December through mid-April–that way you avoid the hot, humid weather and all those darned mosquitos.
INSIDER TIPLocal mythical wildlife includes skunk apes, or the Bigfoot of the swamp.
Grand Teton National Park
If you want to feel insignificant, you can go to either of the two parks with “Grand” in their name. Let’s start with the glacial-carved canyons of Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming, which is part of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. This place will wow you with ten thousand years of cultural history and a view that’ll leave you breathless. There are things to do all year round at Grand Teton from camping and biking to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The park boasts one of the widest diversity of species and wildlife that’s so pervasive, you’d have a hard time missing it. Driving is a great option for taking in the views, but with all those critters wandering about, it’s sorta like a drive-through safari, so be careful! In addition to black bears and grizzlies, the park is known for elk, wolves, and moose.
INSIDER TIPLocal mythical wildlife includes jackalopes, or jackrabbits with antelope horns.
Grand Canyon National Park
The iconic Grand Canyon is often referred to as one of the seven wonders of the natural world…and a wonder it is. As someone who visited the park when he was a kid, I can say that the time I spent there was truly unforgettable. Standing on the edge of the south rim is a humbling experience, and noo picture can do this place justice. The beauty and scope are simply stunning. Even though most think of hiking as an upward activity in a national park, at Grand Canyon you’ll want to hike down to the bottom via mule or your own two feet. Of all the visitors the park sees annually, only 5% head to the canyon floor–that means 95% miss half the experience!
INSIDER TIPLocal mythical wildlife includes Mogollan Monsters: stinky, tall, humanoid ape-like creatures.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The most visited national park in the United States–that says about all you need to know about the appeal of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which can be found in North Carolina and Tennessee. It’s got everything you could want in a park and more. Historical sites to visit, mountains for hiking, colorful flowers to photograph, wildlife viewing, and waterfalls.It’s the ultimate catch-all for outdoor activities. Of particular note is the fall change of color, which makes for a remarkable sight and accounts for one of the busiest times for the park. Many visitors just drive through the landscape, as it allows them to experience much of the park’s natural wonders.
INSIDER TIPLocal mythical wildlife includes the Tennessee Wildman, a red-headed Sasquatch with red eyes.
Ozark National Scenic Riverways
You might not be as familiar with this park, especially since it’s official name doesn’t include “park.” But Ozark National Scenic Riverways is indeed part of the National Park system. Given the name, you can probably guess the preferred activities: fishing, canoeing, kayaking, etc. As for wildlife, there’s one particular non-mythical beast you will want to keep an eye out for: the hellbender. Hellbenders are large aquatic salamanders with flat bodies that grow up to two feet long. In addition to the hellbenders, the park also offers sights of rare and unusual wildflowers.
INSIDER TIPLocal mythical wildlife includes Ozark Howlers, bear-sized creatures with a cry that sounds like a combination of wolf howl/elk’s bugle.
Redwood National Park
If you think cities are cool because of all those towering buildings, you need to experience nature’s skyscrapers: Sequoia sempervirens, aka the coast redwood. These colossal trees reach heights close to 400 feet and are among the oldest trees in the world–we’re talking 500-700 years old. Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of the car tunnel that was carved in the base of one of the redwoods to give reference to the sheer size of these trees. The park itself is located in northern California and encompasses a huge swath of land that reaches all the way to the coast. Best to visit in late spring or early Fall, as winter can be rainy.
INSIDER TIPLocal mythical wildlife includes Bigfoot. The one and only!
Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Having driven Interstate 5 from California to Oregon countless times, I was always struck by the majesty of Castle Crags in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. I loved it so much, it found its way into the book (with my own–let’s say unusual–take on its creation). Located just southeast of Redwood National Park, this 2 million acre wilderness offers just about every kind of recreational activity you can imagine from boating to mountain climbing, and you can do it all amid the stunning beauty of a national forest and two lakes. Houseboat here I come.
INSIDER TIPLocal mythical wildlife includes Hyampom Hog Bears, which are just as they sound.
Zion National Park
My favorite national park is Zion National Park in Utah. It was my first national park experience and it was love at first sight. To me, Zion has everything you could want in a national park: colorful sandstone cliffs, hidden waterfalls, winding rivers, and lush green valleys. Apparently, I’m not the only one who loves Zion – the park sees 4 million visitors per year! So if you’re planning a trip during peak season (June through August), be sure to arrive early or you’ll be in for quite the wait. Zion offers trails for all types and can also be experienced via bike or car. It’s most famous hike is Angel’s Landing, which is not for the faint of heart. If you’re curious about Zion, I strongly suggest heading over to the park’s website to view the fantastic welcome video.
INSIDER TIPLocal mythical wildlife includes Thunderbirds, flying bird-like creatures with lizard features.