National Parks Week: April 21-29

Imagine for a moment that you are an explorer. It’s 1805 and you’re heading out into the unknown territories west of the Mississippi River. Already, you are aware of the changing landscapes of the country—the sand dunes of Massachusetts’ coastline quickly transition to rolling green hills, to flattened farm lands. You’re not exactly sure what the west will offer, but it’s doubtful that you’d expect to stumble upon the snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains rising high above the plains, or the red-yellow sands of the southwest. I think about this every time I travel to one of the 60 National Parks across the United States. It’s hard to not be amazed by these parks, and how they have remained *mostly* untouched since the days of our explorers, and how the National Parks Service has preserved these places for generations to come.

It wasn’t until August 25, 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson established the United States National Parks Service, but these parks have existed far before. This week, the National Parks Service is celebrating National Parks Week, with free admission on Saturday, April 21, and special events across the country.

For me, this week is a great moment to reflect—as a hiker and traveler, I’ve always felt a natural pull to visit these 60 parks. In my travels, I’ve realized that the role of the National Parks Service doesn’t stop at these parks though, with National Monuments, historic sites, cemeteries, memorials, and more, you see their distinct logo everywhere you go, preserving the history and culture of this country.

To celebrate the week, I’ve highlighted stories from parks that have made a mark on my own life. It’s a little different from my usual urban hiking guides, but I hope it inspires your travels just as much. Each day, I will add a section—feel free to comment, share your own story, and ask questions. Enjoy!

 

April 28: Looking to the Future

For over 100 years, the National Parks Service has protected our countries wilderness, and provided fun and safe opportunities for families and adventurers alike. But while we continue to celebrate all the good that these parks offer, we also must be aware of the threats that our National Parks face today.

Climate Change: This is a very real, growing concern across the world. Researchers in our National Parks are seeing rapid melting of glaciers high in the mountains, while worsening storms are threatening the historic and natural coastlines across the country. Photos of our parks at their establishment look very different compared to now, and it is up to us to help slow this process. While there are ways to help out on your visits, the best way to slow climate change starts at home—use renewable energy, recycle, shop local—all these methods and more help lower your carbon footprint.

Administration Changes: Since Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration has rapidly fought to lower sanctions to preserving National Monuments across the country. As more proposals surface that threaten the future of these monuments, it is up to us as advocates to pressure the government to reconsider. Do your research, sign petitions, talk to your local and state officials about your concerns. Together we can help save these important landmarks for our future!

Want to support the U.S. National Parks Service? We suggest starting here.

 

April 27: North Cascades National Park

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FUN FACT: This October, the North Cascades turns 50!

Today we’re heading back to Washington State, this time to explore the mainland. With hiking, camping, backpacking, and plenty of educational programs, this is a great option for visitors traveling to Seattle and looking for an alternative to the city for a few days. When passing through, a must-see spot is Diablo Lake, with its greenish-blue glacial water. Here, you can book a campsite and stay overnight, or make a pit stop and hike up to one of many look out points. Just passing by? The overlook point off the main road is perfect for a bathroom break and some selfies!

 

April 26: Historical Sites

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Boston’s Freedom Trail is the best urban hike–an entire walking tour of the history of the city and its involvement in the Revolutionary War!

The National Parks Service is all about history, and where better to look than in your own hometown! The thought struck me a few years ago when I moved back to Boston and met an employee of the National Park Service—at first I was confused, I thought the closest National Park was in Maine. With a little explanation to my naive assumptions, I learned that the National Parks Service actually protects historical sites all over the country.

Here in Boston, the entire city is considered a historic thanks to its Freedom Trail. Spend the day learning about how Boston played a role in the American Revolution, and stop by the Boston Tea Party Museum to toss tea in harbor. An hour south of Boston is New Bedford, famous for its whaling community. Today, you can visit the National Historic Site, which includes the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Want to find a National Historic Park in your state? The National Parks Service has a nifty Find a Park feature where you can search by state—it couldn’t be easier!

 

April 25: Joshua Tree National Park

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Joshua Tree’s unique desert landscape allows you to hike out to far distances and still see the road. 

We’ve written a lot about this park in the past—it’s one of our favorites! Unlike the towering mountains of the northwest, Joshua Tree provides a perfect setting for climbers. Located just a few hours east of LA and San Diego, you can explore Joshua Tree’s desert landscape in a day, or opt to camp overnight and experience the night sky (a popular activity is night photography, you can try it out yourself or sign up for a workshop).

The park offers hiking trails, horseback riding, and rock climbing, depending on your preference, so be sure to plan ahead. And don’t forget to pack plenty of water!

 

April 24: National Memorials

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TIP: Get up early to explore the National Memorials in Washington D.C. You’ll beat the crowds, and get some beautiful shots.

The National Parks Service doesn’t just cover the preservation of nature. In fact, the role of the organization goes far beyond that, preserving the history and culture of our country as well. Such is the case with the 29 National Memorials around the country, each dedicated to honor a historic person or event in the United States’ history.

Probably the most well-known (and most visited) circuit of National Memorials reside in the nation’s capital of Washington D.C. In just one afternoon, you can hit all of the significant memorials along the National Mall (we wrote a full urban hiking guide about this, with details on what not to miss).

Fortunately, there are other memorials scattered across the country, so if you are planning a visit somewhere be sure to do your research and see what you might find. A few of our favorites:

  • Hamilton Grange: For those still obsessing over the Broadway musical ‘Hamilton,’ you can visit the Founding Father’s home in New York City. It’s a perfect pairing if you manage to score tickets to the show!
  • Mount Rushmore: South Dakota’s claim to fame, this memorial honors four former U.S. Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. It’ a perfect stop on a road trip across the country.
  • Flight 93 Memorial: A more somber spot, this memorial honors the lives and bravery of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, who on September 11, 2001, stopped their hijackers from reaching the intended target, and crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania.

 

April 23: Acadia National Park

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Jordan Pond is a must-see when visiting Acadia. Take a hike around the pond or head up to the North and South Bubbles for more of a challenge.

Another New England vacation staple, Acadia National Park is located in Maine and is perfect for a long weekend or a full week, providing families with ample options for all outdoorsy types. And, the adjacent town of Bar Harbor provides visitors with a change of pace, with shopping, restaurants, and excursions for those who prefer a more leisurely visit.

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TIP: For first time visitors, we highly recommend getting up early to catch the sunrise at the top of Cadillac Mountain. You can either drive, or, for those willing to get up at 2 a.m., hike to the peak and watch the sun poke up over the horizon.

Like Olympic National Park, Acadia offers travelers both ocean and mountain views. Hiking trails are available for all levels—the Jordan Pond loop is an easy hike (and includes a stop at the Jordan Pond House for lunch!), or if you are looking for more of a challenge, we recommend climbing up the North and South Bubbles, or braving the rocky Beehive. In the warmest of months, the ocean is still cold, but you will see a few brave souls swimming at Echo Lake Beach or Sand Beach. Or, if you love biking, the Carriage Road trails are a fun way to experience the park, with plenty of covered bridges and archways to pass through (bring your camera!). There’s also scenic roads around the park, so take a drive and explore with the whole family!

 

April 22: Olympic National Park

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Whether you are doing a day hike or an overnight trek, hiking in the Olympics is a popular activity in the summer months. Be sure to secure your permit early if you plan to camp!

My first visit to this park happened by accident. The short version of the story is that while our original plan was to backpack in the North Cascades, the horrible string of wildfires that summer caused us to make last minute changes. In the end, I’m glad that was the case because this National Park quickly climbed up on my list of all-time favorites.

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Early morning sunrise by Deer Lake.

Being from the east coast, you don’t really get to see mountains like the ones out west. I think at every twist and turn of driving and hiking through this park, I was amazed by the landscape around me, to the point that ‘Wow’ became my most-used phrase of 2017. We were able to secure backpacking permits to spend some time hiking and camping deep in the park, and encountered a few pairs of mom and cub black bears (aww) and had a family of deer decide it would be fun to hang out with us while we cooked dinner each night. A good tip for backpackers—our trip was in early September, a perfect time to camp (it’s warm during the days, and manageable at night, as long as you bring layers), and with less crowds we were able to get last-minute passes to some of the better camping spots. Don’t bank on that tough, try to secure your permits early so you have a guaranteed spot to stay while you visit.

Olympic National Park isn’t just for die-hard hikers though, with beaches, mountains, and rain forests all within a few hours of each other, it’s a park perfect for all ages. Be sure to take the road up to Hurricane Ridge and stop by the visitor’s center, or spend some time looking at the Pacific tide pools.

 

April 21: Cape Cod National Seashore

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The early crowd at Cape Cod National Seashore.

I grew up in Massachusetts. For me, a beach vacation out to Cape Cod was just something everyone did—it was within driving distance and fairly affordable, and a great way to cool off on those hot summer days. What I didn’t realize though was that the Cape Cod National Seashore, which extends along the eastern coast of Cape Cod’s ‘arm,’ is one of the best-preserved coastlines this country has.

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TIP: There are multiple beaches you can visit along the Cape Cod National Seashore, each with its own charms. My favorite is Race Point, located at the tip of Cape Cod near Provincetown. It’s a perfect trip to pair beach time with exploring Provincetown after, but be sure to leave some time to catch the sunset—Cape Cod sunsets will always be my favorite.

We can thank President John F. Kennedy for that. Free of development (including a lack of snack shacks, so be sure to pack in and out all of your food), Cape Cod’s National Seashore is perfect for beachgoers who prefer the quiet. Sand dunes tower over you as you walk along the beaches and if you are lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of a whale out on the horizon! It’s a bit of a hike from the parking lots, but always worth the trek.

Unfortunately, due to the dreadful winter we had this year, the National Seashore has taken a beating from high winds and waves. That doesn’t mean that the Parks Service isn’t working to restore the beaches, but for the regular visitors you may notice some significant changes in the coastline this year, and in years to come—erosion like this has become more and more common each year thanks to the effects of climate change around the world.

 

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Old and New: Exploring Zürich, Switzerland on Foot

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View of Grossmünster from across the river.

When it comes to tourism in Europe, Zürich doesn’t always make the top of the list. It’s labeled as a banking city, a college town, but with a small old city center, it typically serves more as a quick stop before travelers head out to the countryside. That doesn’t mean that Zürich doesn’t have anything to offer though. In fact, it’s a perfect city for leisurely urban hiking, with enough to see and do before you catch that train to the mountains. This guide can easily be done in half a day to a full day, depending on how long you linger in each spot.

 

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As you wander the streets of Zürich, look up to catch glimpses of the clocktower of St. Peter’s.

Zürich HB Train Station

It’s worth mentioning the train station for those who may only have a few hours in Zürich. Located at the northern tip of the old city center, you’ll quickly get acquainted with this busy station. With trains traveling to/ from the airport, as well as around the country and into other parts of Europe, it’s likely you will start your journey here. If you arrive in the morning before you can check into your hotel, there are luggage lockers conveniently located on the lower level—drop your heavy bags there and head out for a walk around the city!

 

Bahnhofstrasse

Head south of the train station (and keep an eye and ear out for the extremely quiet tram cars!) onto Zürich’s main shopping drag, Bahnhofstrasse, which extends parallel with the river and all the way down to the north tip of Lake Zürich. Here, you’ll find most of the modern shops you can find in most cities—H&M, Zara, etc.—demonstrating the city’s function as what I’d like to call a ‘livable city.’ You’ll also notice Zürich’s cleanliness as you walk down this street—unlike other major metropolises like New York, Milan, or Paris, which have a distinct grittiness to their streets, Zürich is meticulously pristine. Spend some time popping in and out of shops if you have the time, and continue south until you reach…

 

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Zürich’s streets are winding, and at every turn you find beautiful little gems like this. 

Münzplatz/ Lindenhof

THIS was my favorite part of Zürich. Turning left off Bahnhofstrasse and onto Oetenbachgasse, then right onto Lindenhofstrasse, you’ll go through a small arched tunnel to an elevated park that overlooks the Limmat River. On a warm, sunny day, this is a perfect spot to stop and rest, catch up on some writing, or check your map to make a plan for the rest of your route. Snap some photos of the city, with the famed Grossmünster church across the way, and watch locals play chess or picnic with family members. Continuing south through the park, you’ll encounter the upscale Münzplatz, the medieval-aged neighborhood that now boasts trendy gift shops, chocolate boutiques, and custom watch makers. Whether you’re looking for a gift, or just browsing, this area is a wonderful snapshot of Swiss city homes—just wandering around I found myself taking notes on how to replicate the design on my future home.

 

Fountains

Zürich is famous for its numerous fountains around the city—approximately 1,200—and all dispense clean drinking water. Be sure to stop and fill up your water bottle at one of these fountains, you’ll be able to taste the difference!

 

Church Hopping

Swiss churches are far more modest than those you may find in Italy or France, but as you trek along the country’s landscape, you’ll regularly spot the distinct pointed towers of these churches. Probably the best example of this in Zürich is the Kirche Fraumünster, on the west bank of the Limmat River. You’ll have to pay to go inside, but you can also take a step back in the adjacent plaza to marvel at the Swiss design. Before you check this church off your list though, be sure to stop at the Church of St. Peter, located between Fraumünster and Lindenhof (look for the clock tower, you can’t miss it).

When it comes to churches in Zürich though, the most famous is Grossmünster, the two-towered Romanesque church on Zürich’s east bank. Entry is free, so take some time to step inside this city landmark and learn more about Switzerland’s history.

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Fraumünster’s pointed tower looms over the river and its many bridges.

Lake Zürich

If you follow the Limmat south, eventually you hit the mouth and get a full view of Lake Zürich. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see the Alps in the distance, and in the summer months, you can swim or take a boat out on to the lake. But don’t be fooled by its size, at 25 miles in length and another 2 miles wide, you could spend all day on the water. Grab a sandwich and have a picnic, or catch the sun setting at the end of the day.

 

Niederdorf Neighborhood

When you’re tired from the walk, head back towards the train station along the east bank of the Limmat, and take a detour into the Niederdorf neighborhood. This area is more hip, with trendy gift shops and plenty of bars and restaurants, and adorable side streets to explore. Take some time to sample some local favorites, and don’t forget to try the fondue!

 

BONUS: Thermalbad

Looking for something a little more relaxing? Take an afternoon or evening to visit Zurich’s Thermalbad Spa, with a rooftop bath that overlooks the city and plenty of spa services indoors—it’s a nice way to relax after a long walk around the city.

 

 

48 Hours in Milan

Milan is a very livable city. While it may not be as packed with landmarks as Italy’s Florence or Rome, it provides travelers with a nice getaway filled with Italian charm, while also catering to the day to day lives of locals. With ample shopping and charming streets, Milan is perfect for urban hikers who love to people watch. On our last visit, we had 48 hours to take in as much of the city as possible, making time for some must-see attractions, and plenty of gelato.

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Milan’s Duomo lights up the streets at night.

Duomo di Milano

Dedicated to St. Mary of the Nativity, this breathtaking cathedral is a must-see when you visit. As you wander into the heart of Milan’s old city, you will catch glimpses of the Duomo’s pinnacles and spires, typical to Gothic style. The best view of the cathedral itself is from the piazza that surrounds it, but to really get a full experience, we recommend heading straight up to the roof, where you can walk among the spires and gaze out at the surrounding city. Tickets cost 9 euros to walk, or 13 euros to take the lift (NOTE: It is actually faster to wait in line for the lift instead of climbing the stairs) and you have to purchase tickets ahead of time either online or at the ticket center to the right of the cathedral’s façade. You can also buy tickets to enter the cathedral and visit the museum.

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View of Milan from the Duomo Rooftop.

 

The Last Supper

Art history lovers flock to Milan for this painting. Located in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, this 15th century painting by Leonardo da Vinci shows the story of Jesus and his Disciples breaking bread the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. It is da Vinci’s second most famous painting, only behind the Mona Lisa, and is slowly deteriorating due to the painter’s methods and environmental factors. Only a small number of people are allowed to view the painting daily, so you need to book tickets far in advance, or book through a tour group (we recommend booking through Walks of Italy, which includes a guided tour and tickets to the Duomo roof).

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Take a break at Sempione Park, located just behind the Castello Sforzeco. In the distance you can view one of Napoleon’s many triumphal arches. 

Castello Sforzesco

This former castle for the Duke of Milan is now home to a complex of Milan’s best museums. The highlight is of course a visit to see Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pieta, but you can also explore museums dedicated to Ancient Art, Musical Instruments, Archaeology, and more. Entry to the castle is free, but you will need to pay to visit the museums. If it’s a nice day out, we recommend also walking through the castle and into Sempione Park (and be sure to grab some gelato on your trek!)

Urban Hiking

Milan’s layout stretches far beyond the old city’s walls, but when planning your trip, try to book a hotel close to the center. This way, you can spend your evenings eating in one of Milan’s many charming pizzas and people watch in front of the Duomo. If you’re an early riser like me, take some time in the morning to wander Milan’s narrow Italian streets, where you will encounter pockets of old world Italy molded into the modern feel.

If shopping is your thing, Milan offers plenty of opportunity to pop into stores on your walk. Visit the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (with its famous gold and glass roof) and browse top designer stores, or wander outside of the city center for more affordable fashions, food, and more. And if it’s food you’re looking for, keep an eye out for cheese and charcuterie shops to sample some of the best in the region!

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Even on a rainy day, Como has plenty to offer for travelers. 

Day Trip out to Lake Como

If you are in Milan for a weekend and want a change of scenery for day two, you can easily venture to one of the many towns surrounding the picturesque Lake Como. Como, the village at the southwest corner of the wishbone-shaped lake, is only an hour by train from Milan and has plenty to see in one afternoon. On a sunny day, take a ferry tour out onto the lake or rent a paddleboat, and even if it is raining, be sure to take the funicular up into the hills for a view of the Lake and its surrounding villages. On a clear day, you may even be able to see the Italian Alps in the distance. If it’s glitz and glamour you’re looking for, head a little farther by train to Bellagio, which has played as a backdrop for films including Casino Royale and Star Wars.