With the National Park Service’s centennial celebration taking place this past year, America’s “Best Idea” is experiencing a moment: these travels are adventurous and unforgettable, and relatively easy for any budget too. We’re focusing on 3 in the Southwestern region and while there’s often so much to include on a vacation itinerary, this travel allows for a bit of vagabond spirited fun.
Here’s a look at three locations worthy of a visit this summer:
White Sands National Monument
Drive into the 275 square miles of sand amidst yucca and cholla cactus plants and take heed of the sign: “No Water Available Beyond This Point”. This is a destination to consider additional preparations for: for example, pack a compass so as not to get turned around within the dunes. The sun is intense, the only respite – modern, space-like picnic shelters midway through the park. Bring a sled or rent one at the gift shop and plan to hike for hours, with minimal sightings of other visitors, enjoy dune sled rides in between. The dunes are softer than snow, slide all the way down from the highest points and feel as if you’re rolling along through a cloud, perhaps.
Time your trip to be in White Sands on the night of the full moon. From May to October the park rangers lead a 2 mile hike into the dunes to experience the rising moon and the nocturnal creatures that make the dunes their home. Hear stories of mammoth, giant ancient camels and sabertooth tigers, whose fossilized tracks have been found here dating back 30,000 years. Registration for the hikes are limited – they open 2 weeks in advance and the 40 slots fill up quickly.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park, larger than the state of Rhode Island, is remote and wildly diverse. The park encompasses the Chihuahuan Desert, the Rio Grande and the Chisos Mountains.
A good starting point is a hike in the Santa Elena Canyon; it includes a trail that crosses Terlingua Creek, ascends to a vista overlooking the Rio Grande and then journeys deep into the Canyon. Another fantastic activity to be experienced after a day of hiking is a soak in the geothermic waters of the Big Bend Hot Springs. The water carries dissolved mineral salts reputed to have healing powers.
Rising 7832′ in elevation, a drive through the Chisos Mountains includes a view of the relict forest with the end point being the Chisos Mountain Lodge. It’s a good place to stay or dine, and a worthy stop for a sunset dinner. In addition to the 100 miles of paved roads, there’s miles of primitive dirt roads too, traipsing across khaki-colored deserts to verdant forests, passing through ancient settlements and cemeteries – it’s critical to check with the rangers regarding road conditions before heading off grid.
The Grand Canyon is certainly one of the most famous of all National Parks, and the one on this list that will, without a doubt, include the most tourists. It is, however, an incredible adventure, and one not to be missed. There’s an abundance of things to do in the Grand Canyon – you could create adventure-packed itineraries for days. The North Rim and South Rim are accessed from opposite sides of the canyon, but most travelers visit the park’s South Rim.
Time your arrival into the Grand Canyon’s South Entrance during daylight hours. Stop into the visitor’s center and take a walk to Mather Point Overlook to get perspective of the enormity of the place. The colors of the canyon are illuminated as thes sunset approaches and Grand View Point is the perfect viewing location. You’ll catch a vision of the polychromatic buttes reaching up from the canyon basin as the sun’s glow reflects on the canyon walls on it’s way down.
In the mornings plan for day hikes: Bright Angel and Rim Trail are both fantastic, and keep in mind, you’ve got to climb back out the way you came down. For lengthier trips make an advanced reservation at the Phantom Ranch accessible by mule, by foot, or by rafting in via the Colorado River.
No matter which you park choose, remember supplies are critical: load up on necessities: Sunscreen, Bug Spray, Bear Spray, a Traveling First Aid Kit, jugs of water, baby or makeup wipes. Bring a bathing suit, hiking boots, a change of shoes, and layers of clothes as the hot days transition to cold nights quickly.