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There's something special about the awe in a 5-year-old's eyes when they see for the first time the Old Faithful Geyser in full eruption, spitting thousands of gallons of steaming hot water into a robin's egg blue sky, all the while thundering like a rocket engine at liftoff. Too, the sense of accomplishment that a 14-year-old basks in atop a 13,770-foot outcrop of granite called the Grand Teton is something that can't be duplicated in the classroom. And when you're standing beside them when they enjoy these experiences, well, it's something you'll never forget. Collectively, our national parks are a vast, and at times seemingly boundless, touchstone that cradles our nation's conservation ethic, our connection to the North American continent's wild side, and even our own self-inspection. Through parks like Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Yosemite, and Sequoia, we can walk off into the forest, or to the top of a mountain, and discover things about ourselves we never truly realized before: How self-reliant we are or are not, how we can see beauty in something as simple as a lily pad in bloom, how fit we truly are, or how little we really know about the world around us. In the parks, we can find enjoyment in nature without need for electronic stimulation from a video game or stereo, and come to understand how fragile earth is.

With that introduction out of the way, let me toss in a cheat sheet of superlatives that hopefully will help you chart your path through some of the national parks.

Oh Say Can You See

Whenever I visit a park, I seem to gravitate to high spots, and there are some great high spots to take in the surrounding landscape. Perhaps the most notable is the one I mentioned up above, climbing to the top of the Grand Teton in Grand Teton National Park. Lesser in elevation, but not significance, are the views from the North and South rims of the Grand Canyon, from Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park with its view into the rugged canyon cut by the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, from Cadillac Mountain rising over Acadia, and from Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park.

Lions and Tigers and Bears

Although wildlife are residents of our national parks, don't mistake the parks for open-air zoos. These animals aren't restrained by cages or fences, come and go as they please and, from time to time, prey on each other. Yellowstone arguably offers the best views of the most complete wildlife ecosystem in the Lower 48. Pan your binoculars across the Lamar Valley in late spring and you're bound to see wolves, grizzlies, elk, bison, mule deer, ravens, coyotes and maybe even bighorn sheep. At Cape Cod National Seashore and Acadia, sign on for whale-watch cruises that take you out into the Atlantic to view humpbacks and right whales up close. Or simply gaze into the waters off shore and see if you can't spot some seals. At Glacier, walk the trail to Hidden Lake and you're bound to encounter mountain goats practically face-to-face.

Up a Creek, or in a Lake

Although my astrological sign is Scorpio, at times I think I'm an Aquarius, a water baby, for I'm always looking for a park where I can paddle away from shore. Fortunately, there are plenty of places in the national park system to do just that. If you like canoeing, Yellowstone's Lewis, Shoshone, and Yellowstone lakes offer incredible backcountry adventures. Visit Shoshone Lake and you can paddle up to a geyser basin. At Acadia, Cape Cod, Cape Hatteras, and Olympic you can push off from shore in a sea kayak. And in the Grand Canyon, as well as near Glacier and Olympic, you can buck the white water from the relative comfort of a rubber raft.

What A View!

Jaw-dropping views? Parks seem to claim a monopoly on those. Just look down into the amphitheaters at Bryce Canyon National Park, take in the sweep of horizon from atop Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, or look up 2,000 feet into the belly of Zion Canyon Narrows in Zion National Park. Of course, at times you can't see the forest for the trees in Sequoia National Park, where those giant sequoias require a wide-angle lens. Another of my favorites is simply gazing up at the star-crowded skies that seem to hover over our national parks.

Surf's Up

If, during your visit to Cape Cod National Seashore or Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a storm roils up over the Atlantic, a stroll along the beach unveils nature's fury at work, as wave after monstrous wave comes crashing ashore, flinging spray in all directions and even redesigning the beach at times. Cross the continent to Olympic National Park during the stormy season and you'll find that watching the waves explode as they smack into the sea stacks just off the coastline is an incredible pastime.

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