US NATIONAL PARKS: CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION

This past month was the 100th Anniversary of the US National Park Service, which was created in August 1916 through the National Park Service Organic Act. The NPS now manages 59 separate parks throughout the United States, encompassing 84.4 million acres!

When I was a kid, my parents made a point to take my brother and I to a new National Park once a year (when possible), so I have many wonderful memories hiking through these beautiful wilderness preserves. To this day, my “bucket list” includes every single US National Park I haven’t had the chance to explore yet. To celebrate the Centennial (a little bit late), I wanted to share some of my favorite National Park trips:

  1. Glacier National Park (Montana) – While I’m not ranking this list per se, I have the fondest memories of visiting Glacier. The massive mountains, bright blue sky, crystal clear lakes, and pristine glaciers set a spectacular backdrop for a week of hiking and exploring with my family. Definitely don’t miss a drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Road and the 10-mile roundtrip hike (it’s worth it!) to Iceberg Lake
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    Glacier National Park, Montana [Photo Credit: Kerry Bollerman]
  2. Olympic National Park & Mount Rainier National Park (Washington) – This was our very first National Park trip and I still treasure the amazing photo of my brother and I in front of Mount Rainier, the tallest mountain in the Cascade Range. Both parks are an easy trip from Seattle. If you have extra time, I also recommend a visit to the Mt. Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument, where the 1980 volcanic eruption took place.
  3. Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming) – While the majority of visitors to Yellowstone arrive in the summer months, I highly recommend visiting in the winter. A few years ago, I was skiing in Jackson Hole over Christmas and we decided to take a day trip to Yellowstone to go snowmobiling. It was an incredible day that I’ll never forget. Not only did we get to zip through the pristine winter wilderness with nary another soul around, but we also saw plenty of bison, thermal pools, and even a pack of wolves far off in the distance. 
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    Stopped by bison, while snowmobiling in Yellowstone [Photo Credit: Daphne Hagan]
  4. Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), Zion National Park and Bryce National Park (Utah) – The Grand Canyon is indeed grand and an amazing natural wonder to see. On the South Rim, El Tovar is one of the top National Park lodges you’ll find and well positioned for a perfect sunrise viewing over the canyon. But, don’t skip exploring the less popular North Rim, which is much greener and still offers amazing hikes and magnificent vistas (with fewer crowds). A trip to the Grand Canyon can also easily be combined with two Utah parks – Zion and Bryce Canyon. My two favorite hikes in Zion National Park are The Narrows, where you actually hike through water (great for a hot day) and Angel’s Landing, a strenuous 5 mile hike that leads you to the precipice of a cliff for an awesome view. And while Bryce is much smaller than the Grand Canyon, the hoodoos are such a unique geographical phenomenon that it’s well worth the hour plus drive from Zion.
  5. Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii) – A must-see if you’re visiting the Big Island of Hawaii. A full day trip to Volcanoes National Park includes great hiking through rainforests and along the lava fields. But for a true volcanic experience, you can stay in the park past nightfall, when the lava in the caldera emits a bright orange glow and the night sky dazzles with The Milky Way. Unfortunately my camera didn’t do it justice!
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    Volcanoes National Park at night [Photo Credit: Daphne Hagan]
  6. Denali National Park (Alaska) – A cruise along the Inside Passage is a great way to see Alaskan wildlife, glaciers and coastal towns inaccessible by land, but if you have some time to head inland, Denali National Park is just spectacular. When I visited Alaska a few years ago, we didn’t quite have enough time to head into the park on foot, but from our base at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, just south of the park, we booked an aerial tour. The eagle’s eye view of the park from our tiny plane really put the grandness and jaw-dropping beauty of Alaska into perspective. We even flew directly over Denali, the highest peak in North America reaching 20,310 feet at its summit.
  7. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina / Tennessee) – Surprisingly, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park, boasting 10 million visitors annually, almost twice that of the park in the #2 spot (Grand Canyon). A perfect time to visit is in the fall, when the leaves are changing and you can hike amid brilliant autumn colors. In 2001, the National Park Service, reintroduced elk into the park which had been absent since the 1800s due to over-hunting and habitat loss. Now the elk are thriving in the Smokies and are relatively easy to spot in the meadows early in the morning or in the evening. (While I have only visited the NC portion of the park, a dream of mine is to return and stay at Blackberry Farm, a luxurious, yet rustic Relais & Chateaux property just 15 miles from the park’s border in Tennessee). 

  8. Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) – Only an hour and a half from Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the easiest parks to visit! I wrote more about my visit to Rocky Mountain in my Denver post. I definitely recommend a stay at the Stanley Hotel in nearby Estes Park, Colorado (where the Shining was filmed).

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    Rocky Mountain National Park

There are so many more National Parks on my list, but the top parks I am dying to visit are:

  1. Yosemite National Park & Joshua Tree National Park (California)
  2. Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)
  3. Katmai National Park (Alaska)
  4. Arches National Park (Utah)
  5. Badlands National Park (South Dakota)

What are your favorite National Parks?

 

ISLAND HOPPING IN HAWAII

Hawaii, the 50th U.S. State, is made up of a collection of 8 main islands: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, Kahoolawe, and Hawaii (“The Big Island”) – from west to east, although Kahoolawe is largely uninhabited and Niihau is restricted to individuals of Hawaiian ancestry. Each island has distinct topography, history and attractions so I definitely recommend visiting more than one on a trip to Hawaii. On this trip, I traveled to: Kauai, Maui, The Big Island and Oahu (in that order). Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit Lanai, owned by Larry Ellison and known for its beautiful golf resorts, or Molokai, previously home to Hawaii’s leper colony (as described in one of my favorite historical fiction novels, Molokai).

KAUAI

Of the islands I visited, Kauai was the most remote and lush island. I stayed on the Northern shore, at the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort & Villas, near Hanalei Bay (home of Puff the Magic Dragon) and the famous Na Pali coast. The two must-do activities for the north shore of Kauai are: a helicopter tour (the majority of the island is only viewable by air), and a hike along the Na Pali coast. For the helicopter tour I recommend Sunshine Helicopters. A typical tour lasts about 45 minutes and offers you the chance to view Waimea Canyon, Manawaiopuna Falls (seen in the film Jurassic Park), and the Na Pali coast, among other notable canyons, waterfalls, and lush green valleys. The scenery is truly stunning.

“Jurassic Park Falls”

Hiking along the Na Pali coast also offers jaw dropping landscapes. While the full Na Pali coast Kalalau Trail hike is 11 miles (one way) intermediate hikers can hike 2 miles from the trail head at the “End of the Road” to the remote Hanakapiai Beach. The trail is quite rigorous so this portion of the hike still requires several hours and offers stunning views of the famed Na Pali coastline. Returning back to the trailhead, I was covered head to toe in mud and so I took a dip in the pristine waters at Ke’e beach in Ha’ena State Park. This was one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve been to – a true paradise!

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MAUI

I have to admit, I think that Maui was my favorite of the islands I visited. Partially that was due to the fabulous hotel we stayed at – The Hotel Wailea. In years of traveling, I’ve found you can never go wrong with a Relais & Chateaux property, and the Hotel Wailea did not disappoint – from fresh leis and chilled champagne upon arrival to beautifully decorated 2-room suites all with balconies, to the complimentary Mercedes Benz shuttles and tea-lit garden dining at the famous Capische? restaurant, the Hotel Wailea is relaxation perfection.

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One of the top rated activities in Maui is to drive “The Road to Hana” – a several hour drive that twists and turns along the east coast of the island to the town of Hana. However, the journey is the highlight rather than the destination – with lots of little stops to make and explore along the way. The route has become so popular that many destinations can become touristy, especially during peak season. I recommend booking a small private guide to drive you for the day. Not only can you sit back and enjoy the scenery, but your guide will also know all the little off the beaten path spots to stop. I spent the day with Nick from Maui’s Private Guide and had a blast. We went swimming in remote watering holes, exploring in centuries hold lava tubes, and swimming/rock climbing through an underwater cave labyrinth with an underwater flashlight. We also stopped along the way for mouthwatering banana bread (a staple on the route), Coconut Glen’s vegan ice cream (made with coconut milk) and fresh caught fish tacos. The highlight at the end of the tour is to swim at Black Sand beach, so named due to the volcanic origins of the sand. Unfortunately the day I was there, there was high surf so we couldn’t take a dip, but we still got a great view.

Road to Hana Tour
Road to Hana Tour

The other activity I did on Maui, was a snorkeling trip to Molokini Island (a crescent shaped island off the shore of Maui) on the Kai Kanani II. I did the deluxe tour which left at 9 am and included breakfast, lunch, an open bar with unlimited beer and cocktails (including delicious Mai Tais – the signature drink of Hawaii) and several hours of snorkeling, including equipment rental. It was a delightful morning out on the boat, swimming around with the fish at the reef, and even seeing some wild sea turtles swimming around the reefs at “Turtle Town.”

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The Kai Kanani II

For dining on Maui, I strongly recommend Morimoto Maui at the Andaz Hotel as well as the Capische? restaurant at Hotel Wailea. It’s also worth checking out the breakfast at Hotel Wailea – including their signature waffles which change daily.

Waffles at the Hotel Wailea - served with fresh watermelon, yogurt and caramel syrup
Waffles at the Hotel Wailea – served with fresh watermelon, yogurt and caramel syrup

THE BIG ISLAND

On the Big Island, a trip to Volcanoes National Park is a must. Hawaii is an archipelago of volcanic islands and The Big Island is one of the only places to see live volcanic activity on display, especially at Kilauea. Walking through Volcanoes National Park, you can traverse lava flows from previous eruptions and view the smoke emitting from the massive volcanic crater. If you stay past sunset, you can even see the magma glowing bright orange from out of the crater – a truly magnificent contrast against the pitch black sky emblazoned with stars.

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New life emerges among the lava flow from the 1972 eruption at Volcanoes National Park

If coming from the Kona side, as I was, definitely allow a full day for the trip, as you will need to drive to the other side of the island. While many choose to rent a car, I chose again to hire a private guide. Akamai Adventures Tours is a small, family-run business and Tyler, the primary mountain guide is extremely knowledgeable about the ecology, history, geography and culture of the region. I learned a tremendous amount from being on that tour. Plus we got to make a few stops along the way, notably at the beautiful Akaka Falls and to pick up some delicious Malasadas – a Portuguese-style donut covered in granular sugar and stuffed with the filling of your choice, a Hawaiian favorite.

Akaka Falls
Akaka Falls

On the Big Island, I stayed at the Hilton Waikoloa Village – a very large hotel excellent for families. It had so many activities on offer, I spent a whole day enjoying the hotel – from tennis, to swimming with dolphins, to water slides, to paddle boarding in the manmade lagoon. I even rented a sea-facing cabana and in the evening attended the Legends of Hawaii Luau – a traditional Hawaiian luau complete with “pupus” (appetizers), Mai Tais and “Blue Hawaii” cocktails, a huge buffet including a fire-roasted pig, and an amazing show of hula dancers and fire batons. Though a little more on the touristy side, this hotel was just plain FUN and I would definitely recommend it to anyone traveling to the Big Island.

OAHU

My last stop was Honolulu on the island of Oahu, home to Waikiki Beach and Pearl Harbor. I stayed at the historic Halekulani Hotel which still retains its old world luxury, complete with dress code. Highlights of the hotel include the beautiful mosaic swimming pool overlooking Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head, 5-star dining at French restaurant, La Mer, and afternoon tea at Orchid’s (although I love afternoon tea everywhere).

Halekulani Pool
Halekulani Pool

Waikiki Beach and Honolulu are definitely more crowded and touristy than any of the other destinations I visited. Waikiki almost feels like Miami or a version of Rodeo Drive transplanted in Hawaii. Still, its worth a visit for a day or two since most flights to the mainland depart from Honolulu. Not to be missed is Pearl Harbor. Once again you can visit on your own, however I learned so much more from my guide Jessica of Keawe Adventures. There are several options when planning your visit to Pearl Harbor. I definitely recommend a visit to the USS Arizona, which is the primary memorial for the Pearl Harbor attacks (over the sunk USS Arizona ship), and includes a 30 minute informational video. I also chose to visit the USS Missouri (run by a separate non-profit so it requires a separate fee), which while not present at Pearl Harbor during the attacks, was an active battleship in WWII (along with other wars) and is representative of many of the ships that were hit on that December 7th.

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USS Arizona from the Pearl Harbor Memorial

Also worth a visit is Diamond Head State Monument, where visitors can hike 3/4 of the mile to the top of a volcanic crater wall to view the surrounding Waikiki Beach. The trail gets crowded and hot so its recommended to go early.

View of Diamond Head from Waikiki Beach
View of Diamond Head from Waikiki Beach