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Secret Tips on U.S. National Parks This Insider Wants You to Know

AFAR logo AFAR 9/11/2020 Annie Fitzsimmons

a herd of sheep standing on top of a mountain: Secrets of the National Parks © Courtesy of Abercrombie & Kent Secrets of the National Parks

For those traveling this year, we know there’s a need to return to the raw, the remote, the real—and the distanced. In 2016, there was a splashy celebration for the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service. This year, we’re reminded why these parks are so special. 

I interviewed Marty Behr, managing director of Abercrombie & Kent USA, a top parks expert who has decades of experience, including founding his own tour company, which he later sold. You can watch the full 45-minute chat for great inspiration—or read the highlights below. 

As Behr reminded me, the NPS is responsible for 410 park units, 62 of which are national parks. There are also national monuments, wild and scenic rivers, seashores, battlefields, and more. 

Where to start, when there is so much to see and do? Here are a ton of trip-planning insights learned in our conversation.

The Q&A was edited for brevity.

Top five insider tips for visiting national parks

The best season to visit Yosemite is the spring just before Memorial Day. That’s if you love waterfalls. The weather is temperate, crowds are fewer, but best of all—it’s the time of the maximum flow of waterfalls as the snow starts to melt. 

For the best wildlife viewing in Grand Teton and Yellowstone, you best get up (really) early. To see the herds of elk, bison, moose, and bears, it’s worthwhile to get up at five in the morning. Even though Yellowstone is down 50 percent right now, there are still people there.

You can visit Switzerland in America. North Cascades National Park on the Canadian border in Washington State is known as “America’s Switzerland,” with more than 1,000 cascades and waterfalls, high peaks, and gorgeous scenery. It’s number 62, the least-visited national park in the U.S. 

The best time to see the wolves of Yellowstone is in the winter. It’s much easier to see the wolves of Yellowstone, which were reintroduced in the mid-90s, against the white snow than it is in the summer. 

One of Colorado’s greatest natural attractions is its sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park. And you can slide down the 750-foot dunes, the tallest in North America, on a disk. 

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More tips from the expert 

National parks trends include rock star buses and flying safaris

One of the most popular programs we’ve done this year is the National Parks flying safari. If you have a private plane or access to one, you have your choice of almost any park. 

The most popular is the Big Three flying safari through Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. We’ve done at least 15 to 20 of these trips. Sometimes we’ll add an extra park in transit. For example, we can make a day stop at Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah flying from the Grand Canyon to Yellowstone. We’ll have five to six hours there. 

We’re also doing rentals, driving, and guiding in rock star buses. Picture a 45-foot bus outfitted for rock stars. There are no concerts this summer, so all the buses are lonely. 

One of the most popular trips we’re doing is Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles with all sorts of interesting stops along the way. Most of our clients are not staying in the bus, but it’s a very comfortable way to go along the long stretches of road. There are some parks along the way, like Petrified Forest National Park and the Grand Canyon. In Santa Fe, we have a special program with a Native American elder on the native people of New Mexico and the pueblo culture. 

You can also have dinner with Abraham Lincoln on this trip. The first stop out of Chicago is Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln was a lawyer for many years. We have dinner in an 1853 home that Lincoln actually dined in with the best of the Lincoln impersonators in costume and character: Lincoln and his wife, Ulysses S. Grant and his wife. 

We have a lot of grandparents doing this trip with their grandchildren. 

How do you ensure that guests have more space and areas to themselves, during COVID and not? 

We want people to focus on the shoulder season, true even in non-COVID times. After Labor Day is a fabulous time to go when kids are usually back in school. Of course, this year is a little different. We have people renting homes and they’re able to do distance learning and wildlife safaris. But it’s still not the huge numbers in the July 4–Labor Day timeframe. The birch and aspen trees are turning color with gorgeous yellows, the elk are gathering in larger herds, and the male elk are bugling for mates—almost like a symphony orchestra. 

We also take people to national monuments that have far fewer visitors. One is Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, just north of the Grand Canyon. There are slot canyons, petroglyphs, some dinosaur footprints and fossils. And a favorite of the 6- to 10-year-olds: dinosaur turds. There is also wonderful hiking and beautiful colored rock formations. 

Visit the smaller, less-visited national parks, like “America’s Switzerland”

Right below the Big Three are parks like Arches, Canyonlands, and Grand Teton, but there are also smaller parks that are fabulous. 

North Cascades National Park on the Canadian border in Washington State is known as “America’s Switzerland,” with more than 1,000 cascades and waterfalls, high peaks, and gorgeous scenery. It’s the least-visited national park in the U.S. But it’s also only open in the summer. State Highway 20 is snowed in and usually closed by October 1. People really go for spectacular hiking, but there is also whitewater rafting and horseback riding. 

Near North Cascades, there is Sun Mountain Lodge, a beautiful property up on a hillside with gorgeous views, a rustic feel, and a good restaurant. 

Another one of my favorites is known more as a pass-by park, because there’s no lodging right there. It’s Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado with the tallest sand dunes in North America, 750 feet tall formed by the great deserts of the Southwest being blown over the millenia up against the Rockies. So it’s sand dunes up against 14,000-foot peaks right behind you. And then in the front, downhill from the dunes, are marshlands and wetlands with a huge variety of birds. It’s like three ecosystems in one—extraordinary and diverse. They don’t allow any motorized vehicles, but you hike 750 feet up and slide down on a disk. 

The closest city is Colorado Springs, and in the other direction is Durango, an old, historic town. Most of our guests are either staying in Santa Fe or at Vermejo Ranch, a Ted Turner Reserve. From those places in transit to Durango, our clients can spend a day or a few hours at the Great Sand Dunes. It’s also very close to Mesa Verde National Park, another favorite. It has more Native American cliff dwellings than any other park that’s open to the public. 

Luxury lodging options in the parks 

The five-star properties closest to the parks are Amangiri near Zion and not too far from the Grand Canyon and Bryce; Amangani in Jackson near Grand Teton and Yellowstone; and a small Relais & Chateâux property we use near Yosemite called Château du Sureau. We work with Sorrel River Ranch in Moab, a beautiful ranch with horseback riding and good hiking. It’s right at a point on the Colorado River where it’s gently flowing. 

The best parks to visit in the winter—for a wintry or summer feel 

In the winter, you can go to a park that’s wintry or a park in the south with more moderate temperatures and no snow. Starting with the wintry experiences: In Alaska, most visitation takes place in the summer, focused on coastal glaciers, marine wildlife, the interior and seeing bears. That involves several of the national parks like Denali and Katmai National Park in the southwest famous for the bears.

But in the winter, we do special trips for the Northern Lights. We work with a very unique property called the Sheldon Chalet. It’s on a nunatak—an outcropping of rock—in Denali National Park surrounded by ice fields and glaciers. It’s a dark sky area, with nothing for 50 miles, with a great chef. You’re being wined and dined nicely, but it’s a great place for viewing the Northern Lights. You can do winter sports like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, but of course, the days are short, four to five hours of daylight. 

There is also the Iditarod Dog Race the first weekend of March. We go to Anchorage to watch the start of the race and fly up to checkpoint number four [there are 26 checkpoints total] and to Winterlake Lodge, a beautiful lodge with only seven cabins. The owner studied under Julia Child in southern France. You stay there for a couple of nights while the racers are coming through checkpoint four and you stay on for a couple more nights to do your own dog sledding on the Iditarod trail after the racers have gone through. It’s a really amazing program. 

In Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Jackson, we also do wintry programs. It’s much easier to see the wolves of Yellowstone, which were reintroduced in the mid-90s, against the white snow than it is in the summer. We do wolf watching with one of the biologists who helped reintroduce them. We also do some winter sports like snow machining, cross-country skiing, and dog sledding. Of course, you also see elk and other animals. You don’t see the bears; they’re hibernating. 

Then there are the southern parks. There is Death Valley, which just broke the August record for 130 degrees of heat. It’s more moderate in the winter. 

There is also Joshua Tree National Park near Palm Springs. You have the beauty of the desert flora but you have old mining camps and silver mines that became part of the national park. We have a Hummer tour that can go off road to places where few others can go. And there is one of the few bicycle trails that’s all downhill through beautiful desert country for about 15 miles. There is great rock climbing and people who have no prior experience can go. In Palm Springs itself, there is an art deco tour and very nice places to stay. 

There is Saguaro National Park near Tucson with wonderful hiking and horseback riding. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is very interesting, a living museum with most of the desert wildlife that exists. 

Then there’s Big Bend National Park in Texas. It’s hot in the summer but really nice in the November to March timeframe. It’s a wonderful park for hiking, rafting on the Rio Grande, and horseback riding. The whole history of south Texas is brought out by our guides, with old historic buildings in the park itself. There are some three-star properties there, but most of our guests are staying at the Cibolo Creek Ranch about two hours away, near Marfa—talk about combining culture and nature. The drive is very beautiful because a good part of it is along the Rio Grande, but some of our clients also charter a Cessna for at least one direction. 

Food highlights: gourmet picnic lunches and grand dining rooms  

We do a lot of gourmet picnic lunches when you’re out in the field, often from the properties where guests are staying. People also want to go to the classic and historic lodges to eat. The food isn’t three-star Michelin but it’s good. The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite is a must and the Grand Dining Room is as grand as the name implies with 40-foot ceilings and extraordinary carvings and construction. This year, the Ahwahnee never opened so that’s not an option. But El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon is open and we have people dining and visiting there. 

Booking tips in a COVID world 

Accommodations are the critical factor—in a normal year, you have to book by March or April of the same year. But for 2021, we’re suggesting to not wait until next year. Many people deferred to 2021 from 2020, so we already have dates that are sold out for next summer. It’s going to be a very unusual year. We’ve blocked some space so we know we have some, but it’s not a lot of space. It’s going to be very important to book earlier than normal. 

How Abercrombie & Kent USA has approached safety standards during this time 

We’ve always specialized in private touring—the first step in safety during this time—as an upscale, active, and adventure company. Our guides are tested before every new party. We’re focusing on properties that have outside entrances and in many cases, separate buildings like casitas, villas, and cottages. To the extent that we can, we’re also focusing on people driving from home with a private car and driver or self-driving. The more upscale clients are flying by private aircraft. So far, we’ve had no issues with COVID-19. 

For Americans, a visit to the national parks is high on the list now 

They are among the most popular destinations for Americans at this time. The number of people going to the parks this summer is far less than what we normally have. For instance, visitors to the Grand Canyon are down 70 percent. But for those who are traveling, they are one of the most popular choices. People want to be out of doors and they’re accessible by car from your driveway. 

Abercrombie & Kent plans high-end, personalized trips with insider access and stops along the way.

>>Next: Why Lake Como Will Forever Be a Dream Destination 

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