Jaci Lapointe, a mom from Van Buren, ME, woke up her son at 3:30 a.m. one June day. The sky was still pitch-black as they made their way to a national park to watch the sunrise over Cadillac Mountain in Maine, the first place to see the light of day in the United States during much of the year. "Because of the fog over the ocean, we didn't see anything until the sun burst through the clouds," she says. "Then we were totally stunned-I think my son will always remember that moment."
While gas prices are not so high, visiting one of our nation's wonderfully diverse national parks is a relatively inexpensive vacay that will send you home feeling like you really did something special. Here are five national parks that are particularly trip-worthy:
The subtropical wetlands of the Everglades are a great place for families. Where else can you take a slough slog (that's ranger-ese for a wet walk) through a swamp? Put on high boots (or wear old sneakers and pants and bring a change of clothes) and wade along with a ranger pointing out miniature grass frogs and geckos hiding among the diverse plants. "It's not icky or smelly like some people think -- it is really quite beautiful," says Linda Friar, public information officer at the park. Now is the time to see the endangered and threatened species (like the wood stork and the American crocodile): The Everglades is half the size it used to be. Nervous about the crocs? In 60 years, not one person has been attacked.
When To Go: Winter is a sure bet, weatherwise (and bugwise).
Good to Know: There are no overnight accommodations in the park, though you can bring a tent and camp. The beaches of the Florida Keys are less than an hour away, so you could make this trip a two-for-one.
The 411: Check out activities for all ages, like tram rides and boating trips, on Nps.gov/ever. For hotel options in the Keys, head to Fla-keys.com.
Yellowstone: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
The 2.2 million glorious acres of Yellowstone are teeming with wildlife. (Keep a lookout for majestic bull elk, affectionately nicknamed the Big Boys of Summer.) Take your little Yogis to see Old Faithful, sure, but don't miss the hundreds of other magnificent geysers. Check into the Junior Ranger and Young Scientist programs, some of the best children's nature programs.
When to Go: Late August is prime time. The temperature's perfect and some of the crowds have cleared.
Good to Know: "Most people under-estimate how long it will take them to get from place to place inside the park," says Al Nash, a longtime employee. "If you run into a bison-jam or bear-jam, it could take hours to get from one site to the next." The many lodges inside the park stay true to the rustic environs -- that means no TV or AC!
The 411: The park service keeps ranger podcasts on Nps.gov/yell.