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As summer draws near, more and more people will be visiting our national parks - but what should they expect from their visit? Jeremy Sullivan of ParkRemark.com joins David Lytle to discuss changes to the National Parks System during the off-season, talk about some issues facing the parks today including costs and construction, and also reveal some of the underrated and overlooked parks (of our 390 national parks!) that offer a great experience without the crowds.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Fees: Expect to pay more than in the past, a Nationals Parks Pass is now $80.
  • Trip Idea: The Grand Loop.
  • Places to go: Visit the smaller, lesser-known parks for smaller crowds and a different experience.
  • Park Info: Visit www.nps.gov for the National Park Information.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

David Lytle: Welcome to the Frommers.com Travel Podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.Frommers.com.
Kelly Regan: This podcast is sponsored by Visit Britain. Be "a Brit different" on your next vacation. Find out how on VisitBritain.com/US.
David: Hi, this is David Lytle, the editorial director for Frommers.com. Welcome to the Podcast. Today we are talking with Jeremy Sullivan. He runs a national parks blog called "Park Remark." He will be a contributing writer to the site at Frommers.com.


Jeremy has been surrounded by national parks his whole life. As a kid he would play on the beaches of Olympic National Park, and picnic at the campgrounds of Mount Rainier. After college, Jeremy's summers were spent as a seasonal ranger for the National Park Service, giving tour interpretation. That means he was the guy giving the slide program around the campfire at night.


Today he works for a small contracting company, which provides technical and creative services to museums and visitor centers for the National Park Service and other federal agencies. In this role Jeremy has a chance to see parklands across the country from behind the scenes; and as I mentioned earlier, he is the editor of the web blog called ParkRemark.com. Jeremy, welcome.
Jeremy Sullivan: Hey, thanks David.
David: You're in a Holiday Inn somewhere right now?
Jeremy: Yes, I'm in Fort Smith, Arkansas, actually, just finishing up a project we are doing here for the National Historic Site which is located here in Fort Smith.
David: Are you pretty much traveling year-round?
Jeremy: Yes, year-round. I end up taking a trip about once a month.
David: That's nice.
Jeremy: Sometimes they're local--I'm based out of the Seattle, Washington area--but I travel across the country. Mostly in the West, though.
David: Would it be true to say that most of our parks are in the West?
Jeremy: In terms of areas managed, acres managed, yes, but parks really have a pretty good distribution across the country, even into the Virgin Islands and all the way up to the tip of Alaska. So it is actually a pretty even distribution. But in terms of acres managed, yes, most of them are out West. The big natural parks are out West.
David: Right. They're the ones that get the heavy throngs in summer, like Yosemite, and Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone.
Jeremy: Yes, but the East has some pretty remarkable parks too, like the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah, and even the Appalachian Trail is managed by the Parks Service. So the East has some really big natural parks as well.
David: And the national parks, it all falls under the auspices of the Interior Department?
Jeremy: That's right.
David: Because I know there are some parks that fall under, I think, Agriculture, right?
Jeremy: Well yes, this is something that gets a lot of people kind of turned around, and it is something even my own family gets confused about occasionally. There is a big difference between the United States Forest Service and the United States Parks Service. The Forest Service is managed under the Department of Agriculture, and the Parks Service is under the Department of the Interior.


Then, aside from being under totally different sort of federal departments, their management objectives are completely different. What gets really confusing, though, is that there are forests in the park. You would think that you're in the forest, so that causes a lot of confusion for people. And the bigger picture, it's confusing in terms of what you can and can't do in different places. Like, you're going to find logging, for instance, in Forest Service, but you shouldn't see any logging in Parks Service areas. Typically, the two land areas are butted right up against each other.
David: They have different land management rules, basically.
Jeremy: Yes.
David: That's interesting. So what's new for the National Parks coming up in the spring and summer? I mean, what are some standout issues that people should be aware of.
Jeremy: If you are planning some trips this summer, there are kind of some big changes to be aware of. A couple of Mother Nature-caused events to be aware of: last November there was a huge storm that blew through the Northwest, through the State of Washington and Idaho and into Montana, so the three big national parks in the State of Washington really took some severe damage, estimated at all three parks, the damage estimates could total up to 100 million dollars. What that has meant has been, campgrounds have washed away, literally, and roads have washed away.
David: Really?
Jeremy: Yes, and so it is big, big changes. But probably the heaviest hit was Mount Rainier, but even Olympic National Park had roads washed out. They are working real hard to get those roads rebuilt for summer. Now it's not all roads, but some key roads, like into the whole rainforest, which is a really popular destination within Olympic. And then in Glacier National Park, probably the most popular feature in Glacier is this road, just a gorgeous, gorgeous road with gorgeous views on the road, I should say, that goes up and over the Continental Divide there in Northern Montana. The road is called Going To The Sun Road, and it was built in the 30s by the Civilian Conservation Corp, so even the road has to be repaired.
David: Oh, Yes, yes, yes.
Jeremy: But because of its location, every winter it is battered by avalanches and all these different things. So it is just in a place where it just needs some attention every once in a while, so this summer they are rebuilding a big stretch of it. So if you are planning on going out there to Glacier, know that you are probably going to get stuck in some construction delays.
David: Are they closing lanes down? I mean, keeping the road open but doing part of it at a time?
Jeremy: Yes. It is a skinny little two-lane road. In fact, really long RVs aren't even able to go up it. So I think what they are doing is, they are going to close one side of the road at a time and have kind of a shuttle car drive you through the areas of construction. I think I heard that one could expect the trip would take a half-hour longer than normal; but if you left for the summit thinking you were going to hit the restroom at the top, you might want to consider making that stop at the bottom of the hill.
David: Right, and not drink in the car!
Jeremy: Right, yes.
David: I guess if it's going to take you 30 more minutes to get to the top you can just appreciate the views while you're on the road as well.
Jeremy: Oh yes, it is, it is one of the most incredible views, from that road. It's a steep canyon, but you'll probably see mountain goats near the top. It's just a beautiful road.
David: Is it one of those mountain passes that is not for the faint of heart?
Jeremy: You are right. If you are behind the wheel and you are feeling skittish, there is sort of no escape. I mean, it is a tight road, very skinny, and it looks like the car coming down the hill is in your lane. That's how tight it is. Because it was built so long ago they have got these little stone walls kind of protecting you from driving off the edge, but even then it is pretty scary up there. I would say you're right. If you have got a little bit of a fear of heights, maybe get some blinders or something.
David: Or let somebody else drive the car.
Jeremy: Right.
David: In our emailing back and forth before we talked today, one of the topics that we had said we really had to talk about was sort of across-the-board increases in admissions to the parks. I mean, one of the things is, the Annual Parks Pass, which forever has been 50 dollars, is now going up to 80 dollars.
Jeremy: Yes, I think that's going to catch a lot of people off guard this summer, and that's a big increase. I think for travelers just traveling around, 50 dollars is kind of one of those, like, "Oh well, I guess I can stomach that," but when it's bumped to 80 dollars, that's a big difference. I mean, in terms of percentages that's a 60 percent increase in one year.
David: Do you know what the justification was for that steep of a raise?
Jeremy: Yes. It's a program called the Federal Lands and Recreation Enhancement Act, which grew out of a program called the fee demo program, and had been this program that's been developing for over ten years.


Now, it used to be parks had fees of around five dollars to enter, as recently as ten years ago. But when this fee demo program, the rules have changed. They kind of keep changing, and the prices keep going up and up and up, just for entrance into these parks, and so the Federal Lands and Recreation Enhancement Act gave approval for this federal lands pass. And that's what the 80 dollars is.


Now, a year ago you could buy a National Parks pass for 50 dollars, and for 15 dollars more, get this little sticker called a golden eagle sticker, which would let you into other federal lands like Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Now what they've done is they've combined those two, so you don't have a choice. You can't buy a park only pass or a Forest Service only pass. It's a combined pass, and that's what 80 dollars this year.
David: So it's access to all public lands.
Jeremy: Pretty much. Pretty much. Now, there is still going to be exceptions, which I think is going to catch people even more off guard. Just one of those exceptions just off the top of my head is Mount Rushmore. A very, very popular location, and just a few years ago, to accommodate the cars, they worked with a contractor to build a parking lot. So, it's kind of one of these really funny things. Entrance to the park is free, and always will be. But, nobody gets in without paying an eight dollar parking pass, even if you've got a park pass! So you can say, well, I just spent 80 dollars on this park pass, and they'll say, well, good for you. But you still owe us eight dollars to park here.
David: You still have to pay for access to the lot.
Jeremy: Yes. So fees are going to catch a lot of travelers off guard this summer, and then, just even entrance fees to specific parks are going up too. Like Zion, this year is five dollars more than last year, and Big Bend in Texas is five dollars more. But it's really just the start of kind of a wave of entrance fee raises across the board. Next year, 88 sites will have their entrance fees go up, and by the summer of 2009, probably all 145 units that take an entrance fee will have their fees go up. This year and the next few years it's going to cost more to go visit your parks.
David: I wonder if we're going to see a drop in numbers because of that.
Jeremy: Well, that's a really interesting question, and it kind of gets into kind of an area where there's a lot of debate today. Now, over the last ten years, visitation numbers to the parks service have been on the decrease. And there have been a lot of people kind of speculating and trying to figure out why this decrease has happened. Some people have said, well, after 9/11 we lost a lot of foreign tourists. And other people said, well, with the rise in gas prices you can't take that cross-country trip anymore, because it's too expensive. And some said the American vacation has totally changed. Instead of taking a week long vacation, people now take four-day vacations. They'll tack on a Monday and a Friday on a weekend. So, those are some of he contributing factors people think.


But then, a lot of people, including me, have said, well, why don't we take a look at these fees. You know what else happened ten years ago, when visitation started to decline, was this rise in the entrance fees. In my opinion, and I think there are a lot of people who would agree with this, where the fees were supposed to help with things like the maintenance backlog and special projects in the past. To that end they have. They've build new visitor centers and things like that. I think the parks and the parks service have become a little too dependant on these fees, and there's kind of an incentive for them to raise these fees. It takes the burden off the federal government in terms of our income taxes, and starts to put the burden on the citizens visiting the public lands.
David: I guess it's a question of balance. In one sense you want to limit the number of people who are going into a national park, just because wherever people go, they sort of leave a trail of destruction, visible or invisible.
Jeremy: That's another interesting point, David, and I would say that's true to a point, but when you're talking about limiting access, you're really starting to talk about who are you limiting access to? And when you start raising these fees, you are cutting out lower income folks, and you are creating access for the people that can afford it. So in a way you are limiting access, but you're limiting it to a certain class of American. Really, the Park Service is a very democratic idea; this idea of social equity, and we're sort of taking that away when we limit it to certain Americans. The funny thing is, ten years ago we were talking about loving our parks to death, and the impact of so many people and so many cars. And that's still something that should be considered. How we limit people is the topic for probably another discussion.
David: So, the park fees are going up, that's per-car, right? It's not per person.
Jeremy: Right. That means, the Parks Service has these records online, but yes, it's per-car. Some people enter the park say, on a bicycle or a motorcycle and things like that, and even those fees are going up. There are even fees for commercial buses and things like that, too. Pretty much across the board fees are going up for everyone no matter how you get into the park, but most figures you read will be on a per-car basis.
David: It's something that readers and listeners obviously need to know about. Just be prepared for just another hit on your wallet. What's your favorite park, by the way? Can you pick one?
Jeremy: Yes, I really do have a big bias there, and I probably should be in a position where I should say, oh, I don't have a favorite, but I really do have a favorite. It's Olympic National Park. It's just the most amazing place. It's like paradise to me. It's got beaches, sandy beaches, rocky beaches, and just the rugged natural beauty, and these rain forests. I mean you've got moss dripping of these old big leaf maple trees, and a whole rain forest. These are places that get literally over ten feet of rain on average a year.


Now, most of that happens in the winter. That's a big misconception is that most people who go to Olympic in the summer will expect it to rain. And it does rain in the summer, but not nearly to the degree that it does in the winter. And to top it all off, Olympic has the most pristine mountain hiking you can imagine. You walk up out of these deep rain forested valleys, up the side of these mountains, and you're in the sub alpine and alpine ecosystems and it's just beautiful. I hate to reveal such a huge bias, but I definitely love Olympic National Park.
David: But you grew up near there. That's basically your backyard. That's also familiarity.
Jeremy: Yes.
David: Yes, I think you get a pass on that one, right?
Jeremy: Okay.
David: And it's fun, everybody has favorites. You should feel free to say what it is. How should people go about picking the park that's right for them? There are a lot to choose from. What sort of things should they look at?
Jeremy: One of the reasons why I love the parks are that they really represent everything that is great about our country. I'm kind of a patriot there. The parks protect our very early history, including the Revolutionary War, like Minuteman National Historic Site, in Massachusetts, and the Civil War, of course, Gettysburg. And here I am, right now, at Fort Smith, Arkansas where the story is about the Trail of Tear, one of the stories, which was the forced relocation of these Indian tribes out of the Southeast. And Frontier Justice, I mean, it's got all the great things, and then as you head west to some of the bigger parks we've talked about, you've just got that rugged beauty and unique geologic features. But then part of the parks, and it's really been the history of the parks, have been these great lodges too.
David: Oh, yes.
Jeremy: So places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier, and Crater Lake all have these gorgeous lodges built, a lot of them in the 30s, a lot of them earlier too...
David: Yes, a lot of them were WPA projects, right?
Jeremy: That's right. I hate to say it like this but it's almost like a choose your own adventure, in a way. And it kind of depends on what things that you're interested in. For instance, I know my mom hates history, she finds it totally boring, but I like it, so I might pick one of these history parks and do a history tour. But if you want to go lay out on the beach you've got the opportunity for that too.


One of the things that really is fun, and it's kind of an American tradition, is the idea of a road trip. I mean, if you are doing a road trip places like the Southwest, you can easily spend, I mean you can easily spend, two weeks driving, I think it's called the Grand Loop. And it includes parks like the Grand Canyon, and Zion, and Brice, and Arches, and Canyonlands, and all the gorgeous red rocks of the Southwest.
David: Right, well that's a fairly large area.
Jeremy: Yes, and you could just get lost down there, in a good way.
David: Yes, absolutely. That's the idea behind the road trip, right? Get lost on the road and find yourself.
Jeremy: Yes, and the thing is with the Southwest you have big cities, but you have a lot of little cities, and you have a lot of open space. And if you've grown up in a big metropolitan area, then the contrast in the landscape is just so amazing when you get down there. It just feels like the sky is so big, and that you can see so far, and the roads are these little two lane roads that just wind through the country down there. And it's a lot of fun.
David: Yes, absolutely. What else would you like people to know about the parks, before we close out, Jeremy?
Jeremy: I'll just say quickly that I think when people plan their park visits they look at the really big name parks. Parks that we have all heard of: Glacier, Yosemite, Yellowstone, those sorts of things. But the Park Service is made up of 390 different parks service units. And, I would say, take a look at some of those lesser known parks. I think you might be surprised about how unique and the story they tell in their own way. As you plan your park visits check out these parks you have never heard of before, and stop in, maybe even plan a day. And hit the Park Service website and figure out if it is going to match your idea of a vacation, I guess.
David: The Park Service website is www.nps.gov, right?
Jeremy: Yes, that's right.
David: Nps.gov. Another good point in looking for these smaller parks is that you're not going to have the crowds.
Jeremy: Yes, typically not. I mean, anywhere in the summer you're going to get more crowds than say in the shoulder seasons of spring or fall. But, yes, usually not nearly the crowds, and a lot of times these smaller parks have campgrounds that don't fill up. So, you can arrive in the afternoon and still get a spot, where some of the more popular parks around the country you've got to literally show up before 10: 00, or even some places, 9: 00 in the morning to get a spot.


The type of travel I like to do is I like to wing it a little bit. If I show up at a park at 5:00 at night and I'm hoping there is a campsite open. And some of those smaller parks that's true at a lot of those.
David: What's the most recent park that's been added to the system?
Jeremy: I think 389 and 390 were two little historic parks. I think 389 was in New York City, called the African Burial Grounds. It's an interesting story, I think they were excavating for a building, and they discovered this mass graveyard. It's this interesting story about Africans who had been in New York; I can't quite remember the story. But, it's very new and it's right in the middle of New York City. And then 390 is a historic house just outside of Washington, DC, or maybe in Washington, DC. So, two small units, but just added within the last couple years.
David: I think that is a great contrast to point out that something as small as a burial ground or just a house can be classified as a national park.
Jeremy: That's right.
David: Or, it's under the auspices of, that it's not always sweeping vistas and rugged outdoors. That it can be, as you alluded to earlier, historical nature of some points in the country.
Jeremy: Yes. And the Northeast is full of a lot of places like that: Boston, Faneuil Hall; I think part of it is managed by the Park Service. There's a bigger, I think its Boston Historical Parks, is a big unit they're talking about. Some of the Revolutionary era history and New York City has a number of places...
David: Well, it makes sense. It's the birth of the country.
Jeremy: Yes, exactly. And Philadelphia, of course, with the Liberty Bell. Yes, a lot of big cities have park units.
David: If you walk along Fisherman's Wharf, here in San Francisco, if you go to the end, you end up at the National Maritime Museum, which is part of the national parks. And it's just this long set of, I think two to three piers, but it has all these historical ships on it that you can tour.
Jeremy: Yes, that's right, that's right.
David: It's really fantastic. I mean, I'm all for the history parks.
Jeremy: Yes, and that's right. And that actually is a very popular area there in San Francisco. In fact, Maritime area there is among the top 20 most visited park units in the whole park system.
David: Really? I didn't realize that.
Jeremy: Yes.
David: It's probably because of its proximity to Fisherman's Wharf, which is my least favorite part of the touristy city. It's just very kitschy, but everybody has their place.
Jeremy: But hey, you got to do it!
David: Yes, exactly. OK, that's all the time we have today. Jeremy thanks for talking with us about the national parks.
Jeremy: Sure David, it's been a lot of fun.
David: Yes. I'm personally looking forward to reading your columns in our National Parks Newsletter, which readers can signup for, just go to our main page, left hand side is our newsletter signup form. And you can put in your email address and away they go. Thanks Jeremy.
Jeremy: Sure, thanks David.


[music]
Kelly: This podcast is a production of Frommers.com. For more information on planning your trip, or to hear about the latest travel news and deals, visit us on the web at www.frommers.com. And be sure to email us at editor@frommermedia.com with any comments or suggestions.



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