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If you think National Parks in the United States are all about campsites, outhouses, tent-living and grilled hot dogs, think again. Yes, of course, national parks are great sites for weekend camping trips and experiencing the great outdoors. But they're also filled with affordable resorts adjacent to the parks' most picturesque vistas and close to the areas' best hiking and sightseeing trails. As for activities, how about skiing, golf, beach, surfing, wildlife and oceanography? America's national parks are protected and designated as such because, quite simply, they are the most gorgeous outdoor landscapes this country has to offer. See for yourself.

If your anywhere near the San Diego vicinity the weekend of January 28 and 29, 2006, the Cabrillo National Monument (tel. 619/557-5450; www.nps.gov/cabr) near Point Loma is throwing a "Whale of a Sea-lebration." What's that mean for you? It means you get a first row seat to the 12,000-mile migration of 30,000 grey whales and sea anemones as they make the trek from warm waters of Baja and Mexico to Alaska. The tide pools around Point Loma hold some of the more interesting and numerous examples of intertidal life on the California Coast. In addition to all that whale watching, Cabrillo will feature lectures, one-on-one time with park rangers and a puppet show for the children. The best place to view the migration is from the cliffs overlooking the tide pool. Bringing binoculars and dressing warmly is advised. And, to top it off, it's darned cheap. All of the events are included with regular park entrance fees which come to a whopping $5 per vehicle and $3 per walk-in, bicyclist and walk-in. Tickets are good everyday for seven-days after purchase. Admission is free for holders of a National Parks Pass or other access passes to national parks such as a Golden Access pass.

How do you get one of those passes? You can purchase a pass by visiting any national park, calling 888/467-2757, or going online to https://buy.nationalparks.org/default.asp?ref=nps. Costing $50 per year, the National Parks Pass provides admission into any National Park for you and anyone else traveling with you in your single, private, non-commercial vehicle, and admits spouse, parents, and your children to the park. The Golden Access Pass is available only to those individuals deemed blind handicapped by a medical professional. Lifetime access to any national park is free for any person showing proof of the above. The Golden Age Pass is a lifetime pass good for those individuals 62 years old or above. The charge for a Golden Age Pass is a one-time fee of $10 dollars. Savings on per-night camping and parking fee are available for holders of Golden Access or Golden Age passes.

In Utah, Zion National Park (tel. 435/772-3256; www.zionnationalpark.com) near the four corners where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet in a footstep of a place, winter deals can save you approximately 25 percent on lodging. Zion's new visitor's center with larger tourist services gives visitors a fresh perspective on the parks history and present offerings. One of the country's and the world's most incredible outdoor scenes with red rock formations jutting out from the red-clay ground and cascading rivers and brooks offering a symphony of water sounds, Zion feels like a heaven on Earth to first-time and returning visitors alike. Offering hikes through a section of Zion called the narrows, vehicle and walking tours of the park, and horseback rides through the parks trails, Zion invokes images and memories of an early, unscathed America. A "Zion in Winter" special has lodging deals at the Zion Lodge (tel. 888/297-2757; www.zionlodge.com). Cabins come down to $89 per night and lodge rooms normally $90 per night go for $79 per night. This deal is good through March 9, 2006. Daily breakfast is free with mid-week bookings.

Zion Lodge is a property managed by Xanterra Parks & Resorts (tel. 303/600-3400; www.xanterra.com) the country's biggest park's hospitality management company. Xanterra has luxury resorts and hotels in National Parks from the Grand Canyon to the Everglades. Current deals and promotions include packages at Xanterra's Hueston Woods Resort and Conference Center (tel. 513/664-3500; www.huestonwoodsresort.com) in southwest Ohio. On Acton Lake and amidst 200 acres of "virgin" forest, Heuston Woods has golf, canoe, fishing, horse back, and even "paintball" facilities. Lasting until April, a bed and breakfast promotion offers one night at the resort with a full breakfast included for just $99 per night. With inexpensive activities and full use of the grounds, you can't beat a night at a national park for getting away it all, even smack in the middle of the United States.¿

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