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.
The Blue Ridge Mountains are a stunning backdrop to Skyline Drive. This route is ideal if you aren't feeling so peppy. You can see one panoramic view after another without getting out of the car. Also take a hike on the famed Appalachian Trail -- most of it is smooth and level.
When to Go: "The vibrant tree tunnels are breathtaking in the fall," says Karen Beck-Herzog, a park officer. Also consider spring, when colorful wildflowers fill the meadows.
Good to Know: While the Appalachian Trail is an easy enough walk for most, the Limberlost Trail -- short, wide, and flat -- is perfect for strollers. (The handicapped-accessibility information on all national-park websites clues you in to where you can take a stroller.)
The 411: Check out the Hiking with Children classes on Nps.gov/shen.
Olympic: Washington State
Can't decide on mountains, beaches, or woods? Here, you get three parks in one. From Hurricane Ridge, there are views of snowcapped mountains and alpine meadows. Take a short hike through the rain forest, where the lush floor is filled with ferns and big-leaf maples, and Sitka spruces and Douglas firs droop in to form a canopy. Then relax on the beach -- there are 73 miles of protected coastline here.
When to Go: Because the park is a rain forest (140 inches of annual rainfall!), plan a trip during the driest time of year, August to September.
Good to Know: Each of the lodges has a short hiking trail that starts just outside its doors, so if you overnight in the park, you can take a morning walk without much fuss.
The 411: Nps.gov/olym has separate guides for each of the park's zones: mountains, rain forest, and coast.
Grand Canyon: Arizona
We couldn't leave out this larger-than-life experience. Nicole Bateman, a mom of three in Tucson, AZ, took her kids to the park. "It was totally amazing," she says. "Once you clear the trees, there's just this huge... hole! The kids were so wowed, they were actually quiet." Most visitors head for the South Rim, but the North Rim, at a higher elevation, offers nearly as expansive views in more tranquil environs -- and from there, adventurers can take the famous mule ride into the canyon. Kids 7 and up can ride for an hour, 10- and 11-year-olds for half a day, and 12 and up can take a full-day journey.
When to Go: May, or mid-September to mid-October, for the nicest weather and fewer people.
Good to Know: Come prepared with plenty of water, snacks, and layered clothing. The weather can vary a lot from one rim to the other and from one hour to the next.
The 411: Take a virtual tour at grandcanyon.org/fieldinstitute/virtualtour.asp.