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Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Overview

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, with both sides offering incredible views.  The park is similar to Shenandoah National Park in that it was mostly purchased from private landowners before its establishment by the federal government in 1934.  With around 11-million visitors annually, it is easily the most visited of the 61 National Parks in the National Park Service system, perhaps because it has no entrance fee.

Highlights

Clingman’s Dome, Cades Cove, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Foothills Parkway, Oconaluftee, Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

Many interesting sections of Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserve the human history of the region, like the popular Cades Cove with its iconic old grist mill.  To learn more about the Cherokee indigenous to this region, visit Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the North Carolina side.  While there you might also spot a herd of reintroduced elk.

Best Trail

Even on the bumper to bumper Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, all you have to do is park and take a hike to find some solitude.  Grotto Falls Trail passes through old-growth hemlock forest, an area very popular with black bears.

Instagram-worthy Photo

As you can imagine, this park is incredibly popular in October and November because of the beautiful fall foliage.  Early in the season, head to 6,643-foot Clingman’s Dome, then drop in elevation as the autumn progresses.

Peak Season

Summer and fall

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Newfound Gap Road is the major thoroughfare connecting the two sides of the park and it is plowed throughout the winter.  The 11-mile loop road through Cades Cove is open year round, but the 7-mile spur road up to Clingman’s Dome and the 6-mile one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail are seasonal.

Camping

There are 10 campgrounds within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but if you need RV hookups you will have to find a private campground outside the park.

Related Sites

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (Tennessee-Kentucky)

Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina-Virginia)

Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

This design we created to celebrate Great Smoky Mountains National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – While most National Parks do not allow dogs on trails, what are the two trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that do?

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Rocky Mountain National Park

Overview

This truly is a National Park for all seasons.  In the summer, it is worth the extra time it takes to drive eleven miles up the unpaved curves of one-way Old Fall River Road to Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet.  Elk bulls spar and bugle in the autumn, when aspen trees briefly turn the mountainsides gold.  Winter is a wonderful time for outdoor recreation if you come prepared for the cold and snow.

Highlights

Bear Lake, Dream Lake, Trail Ridge Road, Adams Falls, Ouzel Falls,

Must-Do Activity

From the famous Trail Ridge Road, you do not even have to get out of your car for amazing panoramas.  If you want to walk, the one-mile Toll Memorial Trail at Tundra Communities Trailhead is paved and flat enough to not be too strenuous at 12,000 feet in elevation.  Elk, pikas, and yellow-bellied marmots frequent the parking area around Rock Cut. 

Best Trail

If you are looking to climb straight up the side of a mountain, there are plenty of options, including popular Flattop Mountain and the strenuous climb up Longs Peak.  For a less busy trail, head to Ypsilon Lake and continue up the hillside, scrambling over boulders all the way to spectacular Spectacle Lakes.

Instagram-worthy Photo

In Grand Lake on the west side of the park, hiking or snowshoeing past Adams Falls up the East Inlet Trail is breathtaking in all seasons.

Peak Season

Summer is the busiest, but winter brings opportunities for snowshoeing.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$35 per vehicle ($25 for one day) or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Almost all roads are paved; one-way Old Fall River Road is gravel and only open a few months in the summer.

Camping

There are multiple campgrounds within the park and Glacier Basin is open year round.  Several National Forests surround the park and provide opportunities for dispersed camping, although around Grand Lake it does get crowded on summer weekends.

This design we created to celebrate Rocky Mountain National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – How do the winter survival strategies differ between pikas and yellow-bellied marmots?

This photo from Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park is for sale on Imagekind

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Shenandoah National Park

Overview

At one time Shenandoah National Park was entirely private owned, then in the 1930s the government of Virginia went about “procuring” the land for a grand National Park in the east.  These mountains are renowned for their colorful fall foliage, which peaks in October, when 18% of annual visitors arrive.  If you are looking to avoid traffic in a park only 70 miles from Washington, D.C., we recommend coming in February when almost every park amenity is closed.

Highlights

Skyline Drive, Stony Man, Limberlost Trail, Dark Hollow Falls, Rapidan Camp, Old Rag Mountain

Must-Do Activity

Skyline Drive runs 105 miles to form the backbone of this narrow National Park.  Driving at the posted 35 mile-per-hour speed limit, it takes 3 hours to drive in its entirety if you do not stop once.  But with 75 overlooks and 513 miles of trails to choose from, who would want to do that?  Skyline Drive is paralleled by 101 miles of the famous 2,185-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Best Trail

The trailhead for Old Rag Mountain is located east of the park off Highway 231 (not Skyline Drive), but it is the most popular hike.  The challenging route over slick rock faces and narrow corridors provides wonderful views of the ridgeline that comprises Shenandoah National Park.  Due to the number of hikers, it is recommended you complete a 7.1-mile loop by connecting Ridge Trail with Saddle Trail. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

Throughout the park there are numerous trails to waterfalls, though some may run dry in the summer.  The shortest hike, at 1.4 miles roundtrip, leads to 70-foot tall Dark Hollow Falls. 

Peak Season

Summer, plus mid-October for fall foliage

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$30 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

The park’s paved backbone Skyline Drive is occasionally closed after major snowstorms.  Located at Mile 32 (measured from Port Royal, Virginia in the north), the 670-foot long Mary’s Rock Tunnel allows a maximum vehicle height of 12 feet, 8 inches.

Camping

There are four seasonal campgrounds located along Skyline Drive and backpacking is allowed with a free permit.  West of the Shenandoah River Valley, George Washington National Forest also provides camping opportunities.

This design we created to celebrate Shenandoah National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – What percentage of the 199,218 acres in Shenandoah National Park is designated Wilderness?

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Badlands National Park

Overview

Badlands National Park is known for its fossils, but not all of the mammals here are extinct.  Bison and bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the park, in addition to common prairie residents that include pronghorn, mule deer, prairie dogs, and coyotes.

Highlights

Door Trail, Notch Trail, Conata Basin, Sage Creek Road

Must-Do Activity

Driving the dirt road back to the free Sage Creek Primitive Campground, you will likely encounter a roaming bison herd and several prairie dog towns.  Bighorn sheep and pronghorn can also be found near the road.

Best Trail

The Notch Trail is only 1.5 miles in and out, but is an adventure with a large ladder, badlands, cliffs, and an excellent overlook at the end.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Bighorn sheep, many with large curling horns, seem to pose atop the badlands formations, especially around the Pinnacles Overlook.

A big horn sheep in Badlands National Park

Peak Season

Summer, but we prefer the fall when it is less crowded, especially in Sage Creek Primitive Campground.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/badl/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$25 per vehicle or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Badlands Loop Road is paved, and Sage Creek Road and Conata Road are both graded and passable to all vehicles.  Sheep Mountain Table Road in the Stronghold Unit may be more difficult when wet, but otherwise does not require four-wheel drive as designated on the park map.

Camping

Cedar Pass Campground has RV sites and the free Sage Creek Primitive Campground is located down a good dirt road on the west side of the park. Backpacking is free and only requires registration at the trailhead.


This design we created to celebrate Badlands National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – How many endangered black-footed ferrets were reintroduced to the park in 1994?

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Overview

The tallgrass prairie formerly covered 170-million acres of North America, but today only 4% of that exists in a few isolated pockets due to conversion to agriculture.  The Flint Hills of eastern Kansas were too rocky for tilling, so this was an ideal place to create Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in 1996.  Occasionally, land managers utilize fire to support fire-adapted native grasses against invasive species. Before our visit in November 2014, large areas were burned.  The bison that live here enjoy eating the fresh green grass that sprouts following a fire and wildflowers thrive with the release of available soil nutrients.

Echo at Tallgrass Prairie

Highlights

Spring Hill Ranch, Lower Fox Creek School, bison herd

Must-Do Activity

After reading the interpretive panels at the visitor center, walk around the buildings next door at the historic Spring Hill Ranch.  The 1881 ranch house is open for tours seasonally.

Best Trail

There are many trails that wander through the 10,894-acre preserve that is jointly run by the Nature Conservancy and National Park Service.  Many loop options are possible, but no backpacking is allowed, possibly due to the bison herd.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Just down the road from Spring Hill Ranch is the one-room Lower Fox Creek School which was open from 1884 to 1930.  Its walls are made of local limestone.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/tapr/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

Chase State Fishing Lake has 10 primitive campsites two miles outside Cottonwood Falls, Kansas.  Several U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds surround Council Grove Lake, which is located 20 miles north.

Explore More – At first the grasslands may all look the same, but how many species of plants are found within Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve?