With 61 national parks to choose from, selecting a park to visit can feel overwhelming. We get it! So, Krystle Pyrzynski, Goose Island's go-to park enthusiast, put together a park primer. Now, get those boots ready to hit the trails. —INGRAIN, Winter/Spring 2020
STORY / Krystle Pyrzynski
I am on my way to explore all sixty-one national parks of the United States, but that takes time. Here are those I have visited so far and a few tips for each.
HUGE! The altitude in Estes Park starts at 7,500 feet, and in the park as a whole it ranges from 7,800 to more than 14,000 feet. Altitude sickness is no joke. A good practice is to set up camp at Moraine Valley Campground (8,160 feet), get some sleep, and take on a hike the next day. Alberta Falls is an easy day hike with a beautiful payoff, or if you’re feeling more adventurous, head up to the Bear Lake trailhead. From here you can explore a series of alpine lakes and if you are ready, take on the challenge that is Emerald Lake Trail, where you will climb up to just more than 10,000 feet and be rewarded with one of the most beautiful alpine lakes around.
TIP Give yourself some time to adjust to the altitude. Drink plenty of water and consider bringing canned oxygen if you hail from a sea-level state.
Trails upon trails upon trails. Short trails, long trails, easy trails, and extreme trails...there is something for everyone here. You will find old-growth forests and waterfalls, animals and abandoned structures, and much more to explore. Jeremy and I got married at Chapel in the Park on the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, side of the park. The day before our wedding, we hiked the Ramsey Cascades Trail, a 14-mile round-trip trek up the tallest waterfall in the park. For a roadside break, the Blue Ridge Parkway, which stretches between two states, is a beautiful drive! Old graveyards, more waterfalls, and ghost towns await on the North Carolina side of the park, and on the Little Cataloochee Trail, you can find the old Little Cataloochee Baptist church—and an old graveyard on a hill dating from the 1800s and covered in moss and haunted with spirits of the past. The trail is speckled with log cabins and even an old school dating back to 1903, all fully accessible without the fear of trespassing charges.
TIP There are many barbecue shacks along the entrance roads (all are amazing, or maybe I just always work up an appetite). Hungry Bear BBQ, a not-to-miss Smoky Mountain jaunt, has a shack right outside the park for refueling.
Favorite park, hands down. I don’t think Death Valley gets enough credit, but that’s fine by me, as it’s never very busy and you almost always feel like you’re the only ones out in this vast desert land. Take your time at this park; the trails aren’t very long or extreme. The earth here is so grounding. The place really gets cool at night, with a slight desert breeze and a sky full of stars overhead.
Visit the salt flats of Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America; when you walk out onto them, it looks like you are surrounded by snow. It’s wild and beautiful. After that, scoot over and admire the geological phenomenon that is Devil’s Golf Course, a large salt pan on the Death Valley floor made up of intricate salt crystal formations (rest your head on the ground and you can hear a popping sound as the salt crystals expand and contract due to the heat); it was created after the lake that stood there hundreds of years ago dried up. From here, take a drive to see the Artist’s Palette on Artist’s Drive, a beautiful display of all the colors that oxidized minerals have left behind over thousands of years. Just before sunset, head to Zabriskie Point for the amazing sunset views, then get over to the sand dunes. There is no shade and it is strenuous (I suggest this is something you don’t do during high sun), but the dunes are so fun to climb and photograph. (We have yet to make it to the farthest dune from the parking lot...one day.)
TIP Death Valley is easily accessed by way of Vegas, and the off-season is actually during the summer months, the opposite of most other parks. But be careful. Furnace Creek Visitor Center records daily temps of more than 110 degrees during the summer. Drivers are warned to always have a spare tire in case of hot roads and to always bring water AND backup water (and food) in case you get stranded.
Trees that vibrate with so much age and soul. These two parks technically have separate entrances, though they are often lumped together as one park. They are meant to be explored on foot as John Muir would have done, as there are limited roads—perfect for wilderness backpacking! If you aren’t backpacking, get out and stretch your legs while standing in awe of the mammoth sequoia trees by way of short trails from the parking lots. (We stopped to tour these on an epic road trip from Los Angeles to Yosemite National Park.) Sequoia is home to the world’s largest living tree, the General Sherman, a 2,700-year-old giant sequoia at the north end of the Giant Forest. Just twenty-seven miles north in Kings Canyon National Park, you will find the General Grant Tree, America’s Christmas tree, as proclaimed by President Coolidge in 1926. It is the third-largest tree in the world and is estimated to be 1,700 years old. Think of all the things these ancient trees have seen and how much they have lived though. It brings a tear to your eye to stand at the base of these beauties.
TIP Remember to get a permit at the visitor center if you are backpacking.
Epic road trip to California! You may have seen a little movie called Free Solo, about a guy named Alex Honnold who free-climbed the face of El Capitan. Though I was not aware of the rich climbing culture within this park when we visited, we ended up spending many hours during our three days in the park just watching climbers. It’s wild—they are amazing. A fantastic, simple trail is the Valley Loop Trail. It’s only about eleven miles round-trip, but you can catch views of Half Dome, El Capitan, the Valley Floor Loop, and the Merced River. (Favorite memory: enjoying a backpack pizza on a log alongside a riverbank with El Capitan looming over us. It was probably one of the most enjoyable hikes I have ever taken.) On our last day, we woke up with the sun and took the road less traveled. We followed the northernmost highway, Tioga Pass, through the entirety of the park. It was cold and we were exhausted, but it was a great way to see so much of the park that goes vastly unexplored.
TIP Yosemite has the largest retail village of any of the parks we have been to, with gift shops, restaurants, a full grocery store, an art gallery, and even a post office; you could basically live here.
Bring your rain gear. While exploring the islands of this park nestled in the Olympic Peninsula (the north and westernmost “fist” of land that juts off of Washington State), I was probably the soggiest I have ever been in my life. Highlights include the lush Hoh Rain Forest (each winter, this forest receives an average of 140 inches of rain), Quinault Valley, and the Hall of Mosses Trail (start out at the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center).
The sixty miles of protected coastline, composed of miles and miles of rugged terrain met by the howling, salty Pacific Ocean, is my favorite part of the park. Be sure to understand how to read a tide map while exploring the coastline, as you can get caught here by the high tide and stranded. Ruby Beach proved to be the most photogenic of our journey, but a beach simply called “Beach 4” (also in the Kalalouch area) was our favorite place to just sit and listen to the ocean. A little way up the road is Second Beach Trail, which leads to another photogenic, enjoyable beach, albeit more populated.
TIP An umbrella won’t help you here. An impenetrable rain jacket, rain pants, waterproof boots, LAYERS...bring it all.
Bring more provisions than you think you need. We only got to spend one wonderful day at this park. Eat a hearty meal at the Paradise Village Lodge, a hotel just outside of the gate entrance; the restaurant is open to the public daily from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. Stock up on proteins to get you through miles and miles of walking. Situated around an active volcano, Mt. Rainier National Park brings views of luscious greenery from the trees growing in the rich volcanic soil, waterfalls, wildlife, and ample hiking trails. We could have spent a week here and not run out of trails! We opted for the Naches Peak Loop and hiked it clockwise so we could catch the last half of the loop with sweeping views of the high mountain meadows framing Mt. Rainier.
TIP The area we visited was freezing compared with the rest of the state of Washington during early October, so make sure you check the weather and layer up if necessary.
The closest thing in America to the alien terrain that is Mars. We enjoyed driving through most of this South Dakota park (it was part of a road trip from Chicago to Custer State Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and back), but we also hit a few trails to stretch our legs. The Notch Trail was the winner here; the 1.5-mile trek takes you up a rope-and-log ladder that is bolted to the side of a canyon. On top, you’ll find a breathtaking view of the White River Valley.
TIP Pack some bandannas; it is windy and dusty at Badlands!
They can’t all be the Grand Canyon, now can they? In the heart of St. Louis sits the Gateway Arch, which memorializes the “Gateway to the West.” This long-standing national monument was upgraded to a national park in 2018. The arch is the tallest structure in St. Louis and boasts a tram ride to the top. (I have not taken the tram. Something about tiny train cars inside of a narrowing arch that high in the sky just doesn’t do it for me.) But nevertheless, a sight to see.
A sight to behold. The granddaddy of our national parks, Grand Canyon National Park is a vast wonder full of endless activities. From hiking to camping, climbing to backpacking, and even white water rafting, you can fill so much time in this steep canyon carved out by the Colorado River. In my two visits to the South Rim, I haven’t even scratched the surface of sights to see. A favorite was the Hermit Trail, a winding trail at the end of the main road that goes down to the river. It cuts deep into the canyon and is less populated in this very popular park, so you almost feel like you’re the only one out there. Take lots of pictures and enjoy the ride!
TIP Hermit Trail is steep and the rocks and pebbles can be slippery; wear sturdy boots and get yourself some good trekking poles.
Best visited on weekdays so as to avoid the hordes. A small park a couple of hours east of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree was the most populated park we have visited, even despite the dusty winds and high temps in mid-fall. This park is mostly known for its scenic drives and some short trails. If you enter the park on the west side, head to Hidden Valley and take the scenic 1-mile loop hike from the parking lot. From here, go down the road to the Barker Dam Loop, another loop trail of roughly the same length. After this, head to Key’s View overlooking the Coachella Valley (you can see the Salton Sea and the San Andreas fault). The best part of this portion of the drive is the thick grove of Joshua trees you drive through.
TIP If we had more time, we would have done the Geology Tour Road, an eighteen-mile motor tour, though only the first few miles are advisable for most cars. You’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate the sandiest portions.
Interested in Krystle's personal story? Check out Happier Trails to learn about her wellness journey.