Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Park info: nps.gov/meve; 1-970-529-4465
Driving through the Southwest in the middle of the summer may not have been the best idea, but in 2013, my wife and I did it anyway. Our goal was to see nine parks in 17 days, and with a mix of camping and hotels, driving and hiking, we pulled it off. My most vivid memory from that whirlwind trip comes from a park that, unlike most others, protects a piece of human history rather than natural scenery.
Mesa Verde National Park, located in southwest Colorado, preserves nearly 1,200-year-old puebloan cliff dwellings. While they are empty and quiet now, they once were the epicenter of a thriving civilization that hunted and farmed the area’s canyons and mesas.
… Our civilization will leave behind pieces of itself, too, and I can’t help but wonder how future generations will view us. Will they see us as silly and quaint? Embarrassingly barbaric? It’s hard to know, but I do hope that they’ll uncover whatever remains of our national parks idea and know that we did what we could to preserve and protect some of the most incredible and fragile places on Earth. That wouldn’t be too bad a legacy.
John VanOverbeke, Eagan
Zion National Park, Utah
Park info: nps.gov/zion; 1-435-772-3256
When my parents said that we would be spending spring break of my eighth-grade year in three national parks — Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion — what I heard was essentially “the Grand Canyon and blah blah blah.”
Little did I know that Zion was going to become my favorite national park of all time. That’s because until I got to Zion, I didn’t know about Angel’s Landing.
Angel’s Landing is basically a giant red rock. It reaches 1,500 feet high, not from sea level but from base to summit. In the summer, you need a permit to hike the trail, because it is dangerous to have too many people there at once. The first half of the hike is fine — just a ton of switchbacks — but the second half is so steep and narrow that the park has added chain railings. The chains won’t keep you from falling, but they give you something to hold onto when the trail is so narrow that you might fall off, and they provide leverage for pulling yourself up the steepest bits …
For me, the joy of climbing Angel’s Landing had nothing to do with the beauty of what I could see from the top. Nor was it even about the bragging rights I knew I’d have once I’d completed the hike. The joy was about using my body, my whole body; about the attention and skill required to put my hands and feet in just the right places so that I could make it to the next rock without falling; about doing something physical in real time that had tangible stakes, stakes measured in safety and physical progress rather than in grades or approval; about the way such tangible stakes can bring out the kindness in people who might otherwise keep to themselves. That’s the joy I get from every national park, especially on the steep hikes.
Linnea Peterson, St. Paul
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Park info: nps.gov/romo; 1-970-586-1206
The bellowing sounded loud near our viewpoint in West Horseshoe Park, although it came from far across the valley — the pathetic call of a lonely male elk. The echoing bellow from the bull elk nearest us sounded angry, as if warning the other bull away.
Which he was.
To view wildlife doing something other than grazing, visit Rocky Mountain National Park during “the rut,” otherwise known as elk mating season. It begins in mid-September. During this time, young bull elk attempt to create a harem while other bull elk try desperately to hang onto their own.
We saw bull elk stripping the velvet off their antlers by rubbing them against small trees. We witnessed two males who alternated eating side by side with clacking antlers in battle. Surrounding us was the constant bugling of male elk trying to attract females as well as other bull elk trying to warn them off. The bugling sounds varied — some were low grunts, while others were high-pitched whistles. The most enjoyable sights were watching a bull elk attempt to corral his harem, consisting of cows, or females, plus any young.
Heidi Hunter, Eagan
Glacier National Park, Montana
Park info: nps.gov/glac; 1-406-888-7800
Glacier National Park was the first park I colored in on my map of places I had visited. For me, growing up in Minnesota, the mountains were inspiring and mind-blowing at the same time. I was 7 years old and loved the West. I wore my white cowboy hat and a grin on my family’s first of many summer vacations traveling from one national park or historic place to the next.
This started my love affair with American history and all wild places. Each summer for two weeks my mom, dad, brother and I would load into our Chevrolet Impala and cruise the country. One of the best trips was to the Grand Canyon. It was the year we finally got air conditioning in the car. We traveled through time and history. We got an education in how people lived, fought for freedoms and how natural places were set aside because someone loved them so much they worked to get them into congressional legislation or a president took action to create a national monument.
Suzanne Hanson, Duluth
“You’ll have to take an alternate path off the trail, but it should be doable,” said Rene, the director of Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park during the first trip I took there with my 19- and 21-year-old sons in July 2014. Yeah, right. We didn’t make it to Sperry Glacier. June snow had left snowfields and washed out a footbridge, closing the trail from the chalet to its namesake glacier.
That summer, my sons and I discovered that no matter how well planned a trip into the wilderness might be — and despite how well the national parks are managed — Mother Nature won’t necessarily offer up her most remote and spectacular sights easily.
A few years earlier, I’d read about the rapidly melting glaciers in the Montana park. If we were going to see them, it seemed we didn’t have much time (estimates suggest that Sperry could be gone by 2020, and all the park’s glaciers by 2030). The chalet is open only from early July to early September, and you must reserve a spot months ahead. At the time, I thought we were lucky when we got a room during the opening weekend in July.
We hiked to the Sperry Chalet, a remote hostel with limited amenities, and discovered the trail to the glacier was closed due to the late snowfall. Nevertheless, Rene tried to describe how to tackle the mountain off-trail. Except for the warnings about the snowfields, known to give way and cause broken legs, it sounded so simple!
We climbed up slippery grass and rocks for an hour, until our knees throbbed and we were exhausted. Still, we were only partway through the roughly 2,000-foot-high, 3½-mile elevation gain. This was no longer hiking, but bona fide mountain climbing. We again met up with the trail, but then there were the snowfields. We started to cross, but realized that we flatlanders were out of our league in these conditions. We had no idea how to find a safe foothold, or even where the trail would resume if we did get across the snow. We finally had to admit we had to turn back.
Saying we felt disappointed would not do justice to our sense of defeat. But as we hiked back down to the chalet, we vowed we’d be back. August of 2015, we were.
Martin Schoen, St. Paul
My love affair with Glacier National Park is enmeshed with a second love story, and it is not possible to separate the two. The first story goes like this: In early June 1964, I found myself standing at the top of Logan Pass, transfixed by the impossibly blue sky, the towering ice-capped peaks, the flower-filled tundra, and the immensity of it all. It was my first day in the park after a long and stultifying train ride from St. Paul, and my new boss told me to “take the day off and hitchhike up to the top of the pass.”.
After a less than wonderful first year at the University of Minnesota, I was ready for adventure, and working at Glacier was my choice for a satisfying getaway. It was a wonderful time in which I found new friends, climbed Chief Mountain, hitchhiked all over the park, swam at Lost Lake, and found the me I had lost during my freshman year. Emotionally, I felt that I had found my true home. It was a visceral response to the natural beauty of Glacier Park, to the wildness and the wilderness, and it was a very comfortable feeling. It seemed as if I had never really belonged anywhere else, and now I belonged to this park in a way that was impossible to describe.
All this rhapsody neglects the second love story. Shortly after arriving, I was setting tables in the dining room when I happened to notice two tall horsemen riding through the parking lot. They wore Stetson hats, had on chaps, boots, spurs and bandannas, and rode their horses with a nonchalance that left me breathless. Upon inquiry, I learned that the two cowboys were “the Mattsson brothers,” and they were helping the full-time wrangler to manage his horses. They were also working for a local rancher, breaking horses and rounding up cattle. My heart did a flip-flop.
It was only a day later when one of “the Mattsson brothers” deposited himself at the dining room counter and I proceeded to take his order. Things progressed quickly after that, and I was soon taking riding lessons and losing my heart to a Montana cowboy.
This most idyllic of summer romances almost came to a rocky halt, however, when I discovered that my Montana cowboy actually graduated from Southwest High School in Minneapolis, and he lived a few blocks from Lake Harriet. That unsettling news burst a little bubble of mine, but the romance persisted, and all these years later, we are still together.
We’ve been back to Glacier many times.
Kathy Mattsson, Minnetonka
Virgin Islands National Park, U.S. Virgin Islands
Park info: nps.gov/viis; 1-340-776-6201
I still can’t believe that in 1975 my parents allowed me, an unworldly 18-year-old, and a girlfriend to take a weeklong camping trip to Virgin Islands National Park to mark my senior year of high school. Two unaccompanied 18-year-olds, long before the advent of cellphones. But thankfully, they did. I’ve been back twice for reasonably priced “senior trips,” when my two sons graduated in 2009 and 2013. It’s now a family tradition. I’d wager we’d all go back tomorrow.
In 1956, John D. Rockefeller donated nearly half of the 12,500-acre island of St. John to the National Park Service, so the northern rim of the island is pretty much one public beach after another. And not just any beaches, but drop-dead-gorgeous, palm-lined, white sand beaches that regularly make island-calendar covers. And free, except for a $5 entrance fee at Trunk Bay, where the cruise ship passengers from St. Thomas descend. You simply rent some snorkel gear, hop the north shore open-air shuttle buses, get off at the beach of your choice, and wade into those generally tranquil and sparkling turquoise Caribbean waters.
Laura Zahn, Duluth
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Park info: nps.gov/havo; 1-808-985-6000
In 1994 our family took a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. Our experiences of that trip turned into “family legend” that we still joke about 22 years later.
One day, we drove up to the national park and followed the Crater Rim Drive to the visitor center. Twenty-two years later I still remember the captivating view of the Kilauea Caldera at the volcano summit. It is 3 miles wide and drops off over 400 feet in certain areas. It was somewhat uncomfortable being so hot and dry with the smell of sulfur in the air from the still-active volcano. We then got relief when we hiked down into the Nuhuku lava tube, where the temperature cooled about 15 degrees and water dripped from the ceiling of the tunnel, created by a lava stream cooling and crusting at different times.
The family legend comes from the experience we had when we were walking around a scenic turnout near the Kilauea Iki crater. My husband and I, with our son in a little stroller, encountered the Hawaiian state bird, the nene, as we were walking back to the car. The nene is a large, flightless bird that resembles a Canada goose and is on the endangered species list. We thought to ourselves, what a great opportunity to get a photo of this big bird.
We snapped a few shots and then noticed that the bird took a special interest in me, getting closer and closer. It started taking aggressive postures toward me so we decided it was time to leave. As my husband put our son in the car seat, the bird started chasing me around the car. It was quite impressive how fast it could move. I made at least one full lap around our car and jumped in as we pulled out with the bird in hot pursuit.
Paula Kochen, Minneapolis
Upon arriving at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, the recommended first stop is the Visitor Center, with exhibits, park rangers and friendly volunteers who will cheerfully answer questions and give suggestions to make the most of your visit. Because Kilauea is an active volcano, road closings, safety information and viewing opportunities are constantly changing. There were warnings about the possibility of dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide gas in the park, which can be a concern for those with breathing difficulties. (For updated park conditions, call the Eruption Update Hotline at 1-808-985-6000 or check the nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit website).
The short trip along Crater Rim Drive passes the steam vents (reminiscent of Yellowstone) and leads to the Jaggar Museum, with its large stone terrace overlooking Kilauea Caldera. If you are expecting a cone-shaped volcano (of the middle school science fair variety) Kilauea will be a surprise. It’s a shield volcano, located in a 400-foot-deep, 3-mile-wide depression, with the main vent in the center continuously spewing billowing clouds of steam, along with the occasional squirt of lava. An impressive and mesmerizing sight.
Also located in the park is the Thurston Lava Tube, formed when a river of lava builds up walls and a ceiling, then subsides, leaving a tunnel. The easy half-mile loop trail winds through a lush rain forest filled with birds and exotic plants, and takes you through the cavelike lava tube, said to be 500 years old.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park offers much more than we had time to experience. The Chain of Craters Road is a 38-mile round-trip drive, descending 3,700 feet to the coast. It requires about two hours to traverse, and offers overlooks and petroglyphs, and ends where the road is buried by previous lava flows. We’ll put that on the list for next time, along with a nighttime viewing of the caldera, when it is said to glow spectacularly, eerily red.
Nancy Armbruster, Mankato
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
Park info: nps.gov/grsa; 1-719-378-6395
My wife and I have enjoyed hiking in more than a dozen national parks. While some of our favorite hikes have been in and around North Cascades National Park in Washington, we found one of our most unique hiking experiences in south-central Colorado. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve near Alamosa is an awe-inspiring park with the Sangre Cristo Mountains framing the 30-square-mile dune field.
In the summer of 1999, while traveling to visit Mesa Verde National Park and to hike in Arches National Park, we noticed the road sign to Great Sand Dunes and could faintly see the dunes in the distance. Although we didn’t have time to drive the 15 or so miles to reach the park, the view intrigued us so much that we decided to return someday to explore it.
In July of 2013 we made it back to Colorado. As we turned off the main road and headed toward the park, the incredible size of the dunes was fascinating. A stop at the visitor center allowed us to gain the necessary information about the park and its origins. It also gave us a spectacular view of High Dune, which rises 700 feet above the valley floor. When we saw visitors climbing to the top of the dune, we could at last comprehend its immense size. Some people were using plastic sleds or pieces of cardboard to slide down the steep slopes of the nearer dunes.
Bruce Fingerson, Breckenridge, Minn.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Park info: nps.gov/jotr; 1-760-367-5500
Joshua Tree was my brainchild … We found ourselves in a prehistoric-looking wonderland of giant boulders, rocky slopes and mysterious flora. The topography was gentle enough that youngsters could find their way up and over the endless piles of stone but held enough challenges for big sister to be engaged on larger structures. Soon this was actually pretty cool. A couple of us drove back to town to pick up Chinese takeout for a picnic among the sand and stone and everything began to feel like a vacation.
The week wound up quickly and I felt good about how the trip panned out. I imagined an alternate reality where my family and I were battling crowds of people at amusement parks or cafeteria lines and felt thankful for the amazing wide open places just outside our hotel door.
The true measure of success came when I asked my three girls what kind of vacation they want to do next, and they answered “More trips like Joshua Tree!” I’ll just make sure they pack warmer clothes.
John Lundquis, Minneapolis