The summer travel season is here, and all 397 national parks will offer free admission this Saturday, June 9 for National Get Outdoors Day. Here are a few NPCA staff favorite destinations that are a little off the beaten path.
Dog-Watching, Denali National Park, Alaska
Joan Frankevich, Alaska Regional Office Program Manager
Whenever I’m in Denali, I like to stop by the park’s kennel, near mile 3 of the park road, and visit the sled dogs. This is a unique opportunity—the only national park in America with working sled dogs. Historically, park rangers used dog teams to patrol the park and deter poachers. Today, sled dogs are used for work projects in wilderness areas, such as hauling materials to repair remote cabins. In summer, visitors can tour the historic kennel buildings, visit the dogs, and learn about the importance of sled dogs to Denali. Rangers give presentations and demonstrate a team in action by using a sled with wheels on a gravel path.
For me, visiting the park kennel is also a reminder of my first winter in Alaska, spent as a kennel volunteer more than 25 years ago. My memories are fond, even though learning to mush dogs was so much harder than I anticipated. My intelligent lead dog, Mike, was all too happy to take advantage of my inexperience. He was well-trained to keep the line taut, but with me he would stop and lift his leg as he pleased, resulting in a tangled mess of dogs and lines. However once I learned how to mush, I had some stunning experiences traveling through Denali in winter. Mike is long since gone, but when I’m in the park, I remember him and am glad that the cultural tradition of dog sledding remains alive in Denali.
Hiking the Obstruction Point to Deer Park Trail, Olympic National Park, Washington
David G. Graves, Northwest Regional Office Program Manager
After reaching the Olympic Peninsula and the visitor center in Port Angeles, visitors can take the road up to Hurricane Ridge. On a clear day, the mountains of Olympic National Park stretch out across the horizon—the view encompasses more than 10 major peaks, including Mt. Olympus at 7,980 feet above sea level. At the top of Hurricane Ridge, some visitors may enjoy a short hike near Klahhane Ridge or Hurricane Hill, but for those who are able and willing, the 7.4 mile one-way trail from Obstruction Point to Deer Park Trail is the real jewel to explore. It’s not easy getting to Obstruction Point or Deer Park. The unimproved gravel road from the Hurricane Ridge parking area to Obstruction Point is steep, rocky, and only open a few months each year, and RVs and trailers are definitely not allowed. The road to Deer Park isn’t much better—it’s also a steep, narrow, gravel road. But the trail is well worth it. The highest trail in the park, it is surprisingly mellow, starting at 6,000 feet and only losing 700 feet over the 7.4 miles. The views of the peaks are even more spectacular than from Hurricane Ridge, and visitors can sit on a cliff ledge and observe the river valleys several hundreds of feet below. You cross near Elk Mountain, Maiden Peak, and Green Mountain, which are interspersed by wind-swept meadows and the aptly named Roaring Winds Camp. It’s unlikely you’ll see many people out on this trail since leaving a car at either end is extremely difficult, but even if you only go out a few miles and turn back, it’s well worth exploring this magnificent ridgeline trail with stunning views.
Hiking the Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah
Scott Kirkwood, Editor-in-Chief of National Parks magazine
Note: Be sure to check the the river conditions and bring proper gear before attempting this hike. If in doubt, call the Zion Canyon Visitor Center at (435) 772-0170.
To me, no hike compares to the Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah. That’s because it isn’t like any other hike I’ve been on—it’s more like a walk through a riverbed. The Virgin River carved a spectacular gorge through the upper portions of Zion Canyon—16 miles long, up to 2,000 feet deep—and from spring to fall, thousands of people walk much of its length and enjoy amazing views. Canyon walls are on either side, and the dramatic views change with every few steps. Stop by Zion Adventures in nearby Springdale and ask about the river’s conditions and what sort of gear you’ll need. I hiked the Narrows in September, when the water level ranged anywhere from ankle-deep to waist-deep. Water temps were warm enough that I needed only my hiking boots and a walking stick, but you can rent neoprene socks and other gear if the conditions require it. I packed a snack, stowed my camera inside two water-proof bags and I was off for a four-hour round-trip hike, joining dozens of other hikers who were smiling along the way, like little kids splashing around in a neighborhood stream on a summer afternoon.
Biking Gold Medal Park to Minnehaha Falls to Pike Island, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, Minnesota
Christine Goepfert, Upper Midwest Program Manager
As a city-dweller, I like to get away to wide-open spaces, but I can’t always find the time. Luckily, I have a national park in my backyard. The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area is a 72-mile stretch of the mighty Mississippi that cuts right through Minneapolis, where I live. On a nice summer day, this iconic American river is only a bus or bike ride away. Given that Minneapolis is one of the nation’s most bike-friendly cities, there are lots of designated routes for biking to the river.
My first stop is Gold Medal Park, a great picnic spot along the river on West River Parkway. From there you can stroll through Mills Ruins Park, site of 19th-century ruins that were once mills powered by St. Anthony Falls. Not far away is the Stone Arch Bridge, with its 23 arches made of native granite and limestone, which spans the river below the falls and is a reminder of our nation’s railroad era. As you cross the bridge, you get a great view of the river, the falls, and the city, as well as a working lock and dam! In that same area along the Mississippi’s banks, I can grab a meal, take in a play at the world-renowned Guthrie Theater, or visit the Mill City Museum, which celebrates Minneapolis’ history of flour milling.
If I continue south on the River Parkway, which is part of the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway, there are lots of bird-watching spots, where I might even catch a glimpse of the majestic bald eagle. Once I reach Minnehaha Falls, I am usually ready for a cold refreshment at my favorite spot, the Sea Salt Restaurant, where I can listen to the falls and, if I’m lucky, live musicians. I then like to continue south along bike trails to Fort Snelling State Park and hike Pike Island, where the Mississippi meets the Minnesota River. The island is a haven for deer, wild turkeys, and other wildlife. Off the island’s banks, you’ll see folks canoeing, kayaking, and fishing on the river. You almost forget that you are in the heart of a major metropolitan area.
Birding at Fort Foote, Civil War Defenses of Washington, Washington, D.C.
Nick Lund, Civil War Associate
When the Civil War broke out, Washington D.C. was surrounded by states sympathetic to the Confederacy and found itself vulnerable to attack. President Lincoln quickly ordered the construction of a ring of earthen forts around the city, and more than 65 forts were built by the time the war was over. Today, many of these remaining forts are managed by the National Park Service as a unit called the Civil War Defenses of Washington. I enjoy these forts for their history, of course, as well as their unique locations all over the city. I also enjoy them—in particular Fort Foote along the Potomac in Maryland—for their wilderness. Fort Foote was built on high riverside bluffs, with massive cannons aimed downriver to protect D.C. from attacking ships. One of those huge cannons still remains, and now it sits in one of the most peaceful spots in reach of the District. As a birder, I love visiting Fort Foote because the deep woods and riverside location host a remarkable variety of species, from nesting osprey to dozens of migrating songbirds. It’s a beautiful and often overlooked park—and believe me, the sound of birds singing is much nicer than cannons booming!
Hiking White Rock and Sand Cave, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky
Don Barger, Director, Southeast Regional Office
Note: This is a fairly strenuous hike recommended for experienced hikers.
Cumberland Gap offers a number of wonderful natural areas along the length of Cumberland Mountain at the junction of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. The trailhead to White Rock and Sand Cave is off of Highway 58 in Ewing, Tennessee. Turn at the only flashing traffic signal in Ewing and drive toward the mountain (with White Rocks looming in front of you); the road dead-ends at the trailhead. The trail climbs about 1,500 feet to the ridgeline of the mountain to the spectacular views of White Rocks, sheer bluffs overlooking the Tennessee Valley. Continue hiking down the Ridge Trail and you’ll reach Sand Cave–one of the most splendid sandstone features in the eastern United States. The size of the cave and the erosion patterns of the sandstone will occupy you for a while, so allow yourself the time to sit, look, and listen. Going just beyond the turnoff to the Sand Cave on the ridgeline trail will allow you to complete the 7-8 mile loop and return to your car. This hike can be especially spectacular during the fall season.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.