With spring weather coming a little late this year, you still have time to prepare a trip to see the first bloom of spring flowers. All over the country, the National Parks are bulking up for heavy travel season. The Grand Tetons, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore, Bryce Canyon, Joshua Tree, Monument Valley and the Great Smoky Mountains are all places of astounding beauty whose grandeur is comprehensible only by seeing them with your own eyes. And those are the big boys. There are smaller parks whose names you may not know but whose grounds dot the prettiest corners of the 50 states.
The best resource on the web for beginning your national park experience is www.nps.gov, the official site of the National Parks Service (tel. 800/365-CAMP) run by the United States Department of Interiors. Broken into four distinct sections including Parks and Recreation, History and Culture, Nature and Science, and Interpretation and Education. Not only does this site guide you to the National Park of your choice (you can literally hop across the country by camping at national parks), it also tells you about yearly rainfall and attempts to predict best times to see the wild life in full bloom. For example, because of record rains of over six inches at Death Valley National Park in California, the park expects one of its best years ever for flora and fauna. See www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm for detailed information on the park and fees for visiting. The site also alphabetically lists all the national parks and lists all activities and amenities, lodging possibilities, as well as touring and activity fees.
To make reservations for camping and overnight stays inside the parks, check out Reserve America (tel. 877/444-6777; www.reserveamerica.com). The site partners with the National Parks Service as their reservation arm and charges a very small fee to secure your reservation at any national park in the country. Reserve America gets so detailed, you can actually select your camping site right down to the number and the specific spot where the campsite lies inside the park. For example, at Rising Star near Pine Bluff, Arkansas on the Arkansas River (Arkansas, by the way, is a hot spot of national parks), you can reserve a riverfront camp spot or one closer to the bathrooms or showers. Great tips can be found as well, like watching out for poisonous snakes and keeping a sharp eye out for the indigenous red fox at Rising Star Park.
If camping isn't your fancy and you like the warmth of sheets, the comfort of a toilet in your immediate vicinity, and the indulgences of room service and an ice machine on your floor, Xanterra Parks and Resorts (tel. 303/600-3400; www.beautiful-places-on-earth.com) several outstanding resorts from which to choose. With properties on the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Mt. Rushmore, the Petrified Forest, Yellowstone, the Everglades, Crater lake and Death Valley, Xanterra has resorts at some of the country's most popular and beautiful national parks. At Death Valley, for example, where those April showers will bring some spectacular May flowers, Xanterra has two large properties. The Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort has two hotels on its ground, a stories romantic inn and a larger family resort open all year round for family fun. Just 24 miles away, the Stovepipe Wells Village is an affordable hotel very close to what Xanterra calls the "most photographed sand dunes in the world." Xanterra makes their lodging affordable. Rates at the Stovepipe Wells Village start at just $83 for a standard room and $103 for a larger deluxe room. Expect slight fees ($5 to $10) for cribs or rollaway cots. Xanterra also has properties at several state parks in the Ohio River Valley and some other resorts in Napa and New York State. See the site's property map for links to all Xanterra resorts and rates and special packages.