Offer big value and historical enrichmentBy Karen Olson House
When it comes to vacations, America's national parks are a perennial favorite. These unique treasures number nearly 400 now, boasting magnificent landscapes and historical enrichment.
Lately, they've been getting even better. Visitors are reaping the benefits of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in 2009, which funded improvements to national park facilities and roads. Ninety-nine percent of those park projects are completed, according to Jeff Olson, spokesman for the National Park Service (NPS) in Washington, D.C. As just one example, the scenic Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia sports dozens of new overlooks with jaw-dropping views and new interpretative signs.
The beauty and slower pace found from a park vacation have a way of drawing families or couples together. Kids remember how to make their own fun, and those in their twenties finally bond, adult to adult, with their parents. And even the most sullen teenager will crack a smile by the end of a day or two.
"For generations now, people have introduced members of their family to national parks," says Olson. "Parents and grandparents are now introducing their children to parks. These are places where you learn about American heritage and culture."
For lodging, people sometimes picture a grand historic lodge or a tent campground. While these are great options, there are typically other choices through concessioners in national parks or in nearby towns. One reason that beautiful Great Smoky Mountains Park is continually ranked the No. 1 most popular U.S. national park is accessibility. It's close to Gatlinburg, Tenn.; Cherokee, N.C.; and Bryson City, N.C., which cater to visitors with a wide variety of affordable accommodations, restaurants, shops, museums, and other attractions.
At North Carolina's Outer Banks, you can also choose from a range of lodging options and fun attractions while visiting interesting National Park Service sites such as the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, Fort Raleigh Historic Site on Roanoke Island, and some 70 miles of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Whether you are visiting a rural or urban national park, if you enjoy technology you won't be disappointed. Nowadays, you can deepen your experiences through your smart phone and other mobile devices at visitors' centers and exhibits. National park websites sport live webcams, podcasts, and links to lively social media as well. Apps are abundant. For example, visitors to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., can use the NPS's free app, which displays the user's location, highlights historical and cultural points of interest, provides tour suggestions, and gives directions to more than 70 sites. The Great Smoky Mountains Park app includes trip planning, recreation and services, along with a park map. Everything works without a cell signal, too.
For more information about these parks and others across the U.S., call the National Park Service at (202) 208-3818 or visit www.nps.gov.
The majority of America's nearly 400 national parks don't have any entrance fee, including Great Smoky Mountains Park. Admission for parks that do charge is from $3 to $25 (good for an entire carload of people for a week). There are also bargain annual passes, good for more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including one for seniors for $10.
Many park-related hotels, restaurants, shops and tour operators offer specials on fee-free days. For more, visit the National Park Hospitality Association at www.parkpartners.org and the National Parks Promotions Council at www.nationalparksonline.org/special-offers.