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.

 

Let’s Go to the (National) Mall: 24 Hours in Washington DC

Washington D.C. typically requires a long weekend to visit properly. However, when given a time constraint, it’s helpful to have a plan in place. Luckily, most of my trips to D.C. occur over a short period, giving me a maximum of about 24 hours to fit as much as I can into the day. So, if you’re looking for a classic walk through D.C., here’s what I recommend:

19424494_10209769113404660_4999474512496128198_nCapitol Building: If you have enough time, start the day with a guided tour of the United States Capitol Building, but be sure to book ahead. D.C. in the early hours is wonderful, especially before the crowds hit the major sites, and since this building functions as both a tourist attraction and government hub it’s best to make this your first stop. Many Congressional offices offer their own guided tour, so you can either book through your Representative, Senator, or on your own. You can find more information through the U.S. Capitol Building’s visitor center.

Memorials: The highlight of any visit to Washington D.C. Whether you are new to the history of America, or a seasoned fun-fact nerd, it’s essential to take some time to visit these iconic memorials. And for us urban hikers, this is the ideal city walk, complete with shaded parks, water features, and plenty of stairs. In total the loop is about five miles if you start at the Capitol Building and head west towards the Washington Monument. The full loop includes stops at the World War II Memorial, walking along the Reflecting Pool to the Vietnam Memorial, up to the Lincoln Memorial, over to the Korean War Memorial and across the street (be careful of cars, this is a busy crossing!) to the MLK, FDR and Jefferson Memorials, all bordering the Tidal Basin.

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Quiet mornings on the National Mall. 

This loop is by far one of my favorites to do either first thing in the morning, or at sunset when the crowds are low. Most of the monuments are open 24/7 (minus the gift shops), so you can enjoy them at your leisure.

 

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Look Up: The National Museum of African American History and Culture has stunning detail outside the building.

Museums: The other highlight of this area is of course the array of museums lining the National Mall. I tend to visit DC in the summer months when by 10 a.m. the sun has already warmed the city sidewalks to unbearable temperatures, which makes walking during the daytime difficult. So, a perfect escape from the heat is to pop into any one of these museums (all National museums are free), where you can learn more about America’s history from the comfort of an air-conditioned space. While it’s nearly impossible to see everything in a day, here’s some of our favorites:

 

  • National Gallery of Art. An underground corridor connects the more traditional West Building to the modern East Building, with highlights from Van Gogh, Degas, David, Vermeer, and Da Vinci. It’s a wonderful museum for art history lovers, as well as for architecture fans looking to explore the space.
  • National Air and Space Museum. This one is perfect for travelers with kids (or kids at heart!). Here you can explore the wonders of aviation and space travel, and see how this has evolved over the years and helped us learn more about the world outside our own.
  • National Museum of American History. Explore Julia Child’s kitchen, U.S. President memorabilia, First Lady dresses and more in this museum dedicated to the life and innovation of Americans. If you want to feel proud of all we’ve accomplished, this is the place to go.
  • National Museum of African American History and Culture. Opened in September 2016, this is the newest museum added to the National Mall. Getting tickets is difficult the day of (unless you arrive and wait in line), so we recommend booking tickets ahead of time. If you can’t get in, we at least suggest taking some time to observe the detail on the building (it is one of the most intricate and beautiful).

Around the Corner: If you haven’t gotten your share of museums yet, you can stray a few blocks outside the National Mall to tour some of the *other* museums in the country. There seems to be theme to each, but here are our favorites:

  • National Archives Museum. The main attraction here is of course the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. You’ll have to wait in line to get up there since they only allow a certain number of people in each day, but if historical documents are your thing then this is worth the visit.
  • United States Holocaust Museum. I’ve visited this museum many times, and each time I am brought to tears. A well-curated museum, you are transported through the history of the Holocaust, from the start of World War II through the aftermath. You will read stories about survivors, heroes, and those lost, and leave with a reminder of why we must never let something like this happen again. Be sure to take a moment of silence in the room of shoes as well.
  • Newseum. Another favorite for me, this museum chronicles the history of journalism, with special exhibits for different beats, as well as permanent exhibits about 9/11 news coverage, photo galleries, and the outdoor terrace overlooking Washing D.C. (ok not exactly an exhibit, but on a nice day this is a great view!).

Honorable Mention: Arlington Cemetery: Just across the Potomac is the Arlington Cemetery, which welcomes tourists during the day to pay respects at the final resting place of many of America’s military men and women, as well as John F. Kennedy and his family. If you have family buried here, use the cemetery’s website to locate a grave, or reach out to their customer service for help. And remember, this is a burial ground, so be respectful when walking through.

Day Trip: Joshua Tree National Park

By mid- to late- February those of us who live in the northern hemisphere tend to get a little antsy. Cold, frigid temperatures combined with regular and unpredictable snow and sleet tend to force us indoors for most of the season. While yes, there are winter adventures we can participate in, those tend to rely heavily on the weather for safety reasons. As such, us outdoorsy-types tend to go a little crazy this time of year.

Winter, however, can be an ideal time for day trips (and some overnights) if you head south. A favorite spot is Joshua Tree National Park, a desert haven for hikers, climbers, and bikers. While during usual tourist season this park can reach temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the winter months can be quite pleasant (we do always advise that before heading out to these parks, you check the weather and other important information on the NPS website).

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For views like this, be sure to make time for a longer hike (and note the ruins of a former house to the left).

For this particular guide, you can hit most of the major spots in the park in a day trip by car. It’s a three-hour drive to Joshua Tree from San Diego or LA, so plan for a long day if you are returning to one of those cities afterwards, pack food and lots of water, and be sure your gas tank is full. We start our tour at the West Entrance Station, heading southeast into the heart of the National Park.

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Reminds us of Breaking Bad…

1. Viewpoints. Before you read on, a warning: BE SURE YOU CAN SEE YOUR CAR AT ALL TIMES. As you drive through the park, you’ll notice that coming in from the west entrance the desert is filled with the towering trees that give the park its name. Many visitors will pull over at designated picnic spots and small parking lots, where you can access shorter trails, hike, and take a few photos. This is a great way to get acquainted with the park, but be sure to not wander too far. While yes, the terrain is fairly flat and open, it’s important to be safe when you explore.

2. Hidden Valley. One of my favorite parts about Joshua Tree is that as you travel along, there are moments when you look out to the horizon and focus on a steep rock formation, and upon a closer look realize that there is a person at the top. It’s no surprise that Joshua Tree has become a mecca of sorts for rock climbers, and winter is prime season for groups to camp out and spend a few days challenging their skills. Hidden Valley, which is a part campground, part hiking trail loop through former cattle rustler hideouts, is a great spot to stop and watch the climbers (or try it out yourself!). For those who aren’t into climbing, the one-mile loop hike is fairly easy, and lets you explore inside some of the rock formations without having to strap on a harness.

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Keep an eye out for climbers in high places.

3. Barker Dam. Continuing past Hidden Valley, this hike is friendly for all levels. It takes you on a one-mile loop past an old dam, which was once used for cattle and now acts as reservoir for wildlife within the park. You’ll also have a chance to see a few etchings in the rock from past inhabitants before this park became a park.

4. Ryan Mountain. With the summit at 5,458 ft overlooking the Lost Horse and Pleasant Valleys, this three-mile out-and-back hike is ideal for the hiker looking for more of a challenge. Be sure to bring lots of water for this trek, as even in the winter you’ll feel that desert dryness.

5. Skull Rock. Park Boulevard eventually splits to a north-south intersection. For our day trip, we turned north to head back to Route 62, which created a nice loop for our drive and had us back in San Diego by dinner time. On the way, you’ll notice sections where tourists have pulled over to crowd into certain spots for photos. One such location is Skull Rock, which at certain angles appears to be pulled right from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It’s worth checking out, even for just a few minutes before you head back into civilization.

6. Star Gazing. Ok, so a day trip wouldn’t include this part, but if you have the chance, book a campsite and spend the night in the park. Joshua Tree National Park is famous for its night sky views. Don’t believe us? A quick image search will convince you.

 

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Dead men tell no tale…

It’s Quiet Uptown

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A rainy Sunday outing to the Hamilton Grange National Memorial left me a little too excited.

In the second act of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Revolutionary (ha ha ha) musical, ‘Hamilton,’ the title character and his wife, grieving from the loss of their son, move to uptown Manhattan to learn to deal with their pain. The song itself, “It’s Quiet Uptown,” gives us a snapshot of this grief, set to the backdrop of Manhattan in the early 1800s, when everything north of Canal Street was still farmland.

It’s strange to picture Manhattan being anything but skyscrapers and brownstones, yet beneath the concrete of the city’s present lies hints to its past—one most relevant in the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, the preserved home of our favorite founding father, Alexander Hamilton.

This house, located now on the northern edge of St. Nicolas Park at 141st Street in Hamilton Heights, is the only home Hamilton owned during his lifetime. It was designed by architect John McComb Jr. and completed in 1802, just two years before Hamilton died in a duel against then Vice President, Aaron Burr.

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A statue of Alexander Hamilton stands at the site of the second location for his home.

Over the last 200 plus years, the historic memorial has moved twice, once in 1889 when it was acquired by nearby St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, who moved the house next to the church on Convent Ave. The house was moved a second time in 2008 to its current location, where historic preservationists and the U.S. National Parks Service restored the home based on original design blueprints. It now stands as a museum commemorating the life and legacy of Hamilton.

I’ve already written about my love (obsession?) for Manuel’s musical depiction of Hamilton’s story, so I won’t repeat myself. But what really brought me up to the Grange this past weekend was a craving for a little exploration. My timing was a little too perfect—Hamilton’s birthday is today (January 11), and because of the rain yesterday, the usual crowds that have flocked to the memorial since the show’s success all decided to stay indoors for the day, leaving me with a chance to have a private, intimate experience with the former home of my historic crush.

In terms of historic preservation and replication, the Hamilton Grange National Memorial transports you right back to the 1800s, when farmland would surround the home, and the commute to downtown took an hour and half by horse and carriage (today, you can get to the Financial District in roughly the same time, just by subway instead of carriage). Original pieces once owned by Hamilton mingle with replicas—Philip Hamilton’s original piano, where he and his younger sister, Angelica, would play duets together still rests in the sitting room, while Alexander’s office captures that energy you would expect from a man who played such a vital role in the creation of our country.

Still, the most interesting part of the tour is the story of moving this building. As it was handed over to the care of the National Parks Service, they carefully planned to raise the entire house in one piece over the church, and then onto the hill. That alone, is terrifying to execute—one slip and you could lose this historic landmark. And yet, with careful maneuvering, and very strong equipment, the move was successful and we now have the ability to experience a piece of history (and maybe drop a few song lyrics during the guided tour).

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Alexander Hamilton was born on January 11, 1789. To celebrate, the National Parks Service set out a card to sign at the Hamilton Grange National Memorial.

For my fellow urban hikers, this is a great way to spend a day—Hamilton Heights in itself is a gorgeous area, with plenty of sights to see. I’d suggest starting at the Grange and poking around there first, then moving on to some simple wandering around the neighborhood until you stumble upon a cute café for lunch.

And for my fellow Hamilton Heads—indulge yourself in an hour of historic obsessing over the fact that you are standing on the same foundation where that young, scrappy, and hungry man once lived.