National Parks are not just giant camp grounds where perfectly fit people rock climb, mountain bike, share bathrooms and sleep and cook outside, all while keeping an eye out for cooler-raiding bears. They are luxurious, affordable (although not always at the same time) and well-managed family destinations.
For an introduction and overview to National Parks, the United States National Parks Service (tel. 888/GO-PARKS; www.nps.gov) has an extremely comprehensive Web site with detailed information on each and every state and national park in the country. You can find any park nationwide by name, location, activity and topic. Park hours, camp ground information, educational tools, directions and park history are a click away. You can get lost in this site for hours, exploring parks from the U.S. Virgin Islands (www.nps.gov/viis) with beach cottages, to Alaska Public Lands (www.nps.gov/anch) with wilderness cabins.
While membership fees to National Parks don't usually surpass $40 per individual park, you can purchase a National Parks Pass for $50. Good for a year, the parks pass allows you free admission into any National Park for a year from your first usage, admits you and your passengers in a non-commercial vehicle, and admits your spouse, children or parents into parks charging individual (not vehicle) admission prices. Over 80 per cent of the $50 park pass price goes back into the park system to fund restoration and park upkeep. People 62 years and older are eligible for the Golden Age Access Pass, which allows them more discounts and benefits.
For those looking for a little luxury in their National Park experience, Xanterra (tel. 303/600-3400; www.xanterra.com) operates resorts and properties at thirteen national parks and nine state parks. A handy destination map allows you to select which Xanterra property you want to stay. The Zion Lodge (tel. 888/297-2757; www.zionlodge.com) in Utah's Zion National Park is a top Xanterra property. Meaning "place of peace and refuge," Zion spans roughly 150,000 acres of sandstone rock formations, cliffs, wildlife, and streams. Practically built into the wilderness, the Zion Lodge was originally constructed in the 1920s. Now impeccably maintained, the hotel's features include 40 cabins, 75 hotel rooms, six suites, air-conditioned rooms, and several dining options. This hotel, however, is all about location. The Zion Lodge sits amidst 2,000 foot canyon walls and near three hiking trails: Emerald Pools, the Narrows and Angels Landing. Most of these hikes are really go-at-your-own-pace leisurely wilderness walks offering stunning vistas of the surrounding countryside. Rates start at $140.50 per night for a room in the hotel or $150.50 for a cabin. Check the hotel's promotions page for deals like the recently expired special offering 50% off of the second night.
Crater Lake Lodges (tel. 541/830-8700; www.craterlakelodges.com) is another Xanterra property offering top-notch accommodations at a National Park. Located at Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon, this 71-room property is a 90 year old lodge sitting on hill above Crater Lake. Only open from late May till mid-October, the lodge is booked well in advance. Ground floor rooms with a view start at $129 per night; cabins at the nearby Mazama Village start at $111. Biking, hiking, fishing and even scuba diving into the bowels of Crater Lake are just some of the activities at Crater Lake National Park. Cross-country skiing and snow shoeing dominate the winter fun.
For those looking to go the camping route when visiting a National Park, Reserve America (tel. 800/456-2267; www.reserveamerica.com) manages over 100,000 campsites in 48 states. They spotlight different campsites on a weekly basis and provide all sorts of important information such as electricity hook-ups, exact locations of campsites, cooking facilities, running water locations, bathroom locations and costs.
One of this week's highlighted parks is the Ridgway State Recreation Area in Colorado. The extremely detailed campground maps show individual parking berths making site selection as pin-point as buying tickets to a sporting event. Winter-proof yurts that sleep six start at $60 while electric hook-ups for motor homes cost $16 during the peak summer season and $12 during the winter months.
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