National Parks are beginning to reopen just as we head into the prime time of the year to visit them. Like the closures themselves, the re-openings are happening on a park-by-park basis. Some parks are already open or have announced reopening dates, including Denali in Alaska, Utah parks including Bryce Canyon and Zion, and Grand Canyon.
Glacier Park superintendent Jeff Mow, working from his home in Whitefish, sends some words of wisdom from 20 years in the parks, “Most visitors get really focused on standing in that one spot, or you know there’s that photo they saw on social media and they said, 'I really haven’t been to Glacier until I take that exact same photo with my own phone.' And we literally see people lined up in a line just to sort of stand in this one spot for that same photo. I’d like people to think more broadly about how they visit.”
With Mow’s words of wisdom ringing in our ears, we asked our expert local guides to share with us the secrets to getting the most out of the parks once you are there in person.
So there you are in your first slot canyon. Whorled walls of stone twist up to a narrow sliver of sky. Except for a burble of sandstone-red water, it’s totally quiet. Just ahead, a young woman has stopped, head bowed. You don’t want to interrupt so you sidle past quietly. And you can’t help but notice that she’s praying … to her smartphone. Specifically, to the guidebook she downloaded to figure out what she’s seeing.
For too many visitors, that’s how national park visits work — plenty of awe, and an awful lot of head scratching. Of course, the National Park Service offers excellent visitor centers, but they take you inside to learn about the great outdoors. Park rangers are amazing sources of information, but they’re stretched to the max by shrinking budgets and the tourists who arrive without a plan or a clue about what to do.
You, on the other hand, can take your time, go deeper than the crowded lookout points, and get an intensely personal take on these national treasures in the company of the experienced local guide on your Classic Journey. Our friend Marcia, who’s been a professional guide for 15+ years, says it just right. “I like to help you get a little outside your usual comfort zone and have a blast.” She adds an observation that we’ve seen over 20 years of exploring in the national parks: “80% of visitors drop out in the first 20 minutes of a hike. So leaving the crowds behind really contributes to the sense of discovery and fun.”
“Ask questions until you’re hoarse.”
Because you’ll be part of a small group of no more than 18 travelers, your guide has plentiful time to satisfy your curiosity — whatever form it takes. How tall were the Puebloans? Are those layers of stone slanting up or down? How do trees survive flash floods? Is the Grand Canyon still getting deeper? You get answers that help you understand what you’re seeing, as you see it.
“Avoid erosion overload.”
It’s no joke! You’ll see countless kinds of outlandish rock formations. But where do you look first? In Bryce Canyon, there are hundreds of hoodoos, those pillars of crimson stone. Zion’s slot canyons branch and curve out of sight. Every view of the Grand Canyon is, well, grander than the last one. Many overwhelmed visitors call it a day without realizing what they’ve missed. An informed guide brings it all down to size and makes sure you see the crème de la crème sights with an elegant efficiency.
“Commune with the neighbors.”
With so much focus on the geology, it’s easy to overlook the fact that human habitation in these parts dates back about 12,000 years. Your Classic Journeys guide makes certain you learn about the Ancestral Puebloans and visit their ruins. You’ll also meet the couple that maintains the home of Maynard Dixon, one of the region’s leading artists. They have lunch ready just as you arrive. And a local cowboy musician tunes up his guitar for the evening, right after he’s done tending his mules.
The premier accommodations in these parts are already booked up far in advance, but you don’t have to worry. Classic Journeys reserves these coveted spaces one to two years in advance, so you’ll stay at the classic park lodges that most visitors only get to peek into. You’ll also love the Desert Pearl Inn, a scenic and super-civilized resort set on the banks of the Virgin River at Zion. And your guide takes your comfort to an even higher level by timing walks carefully, advising you whether it’s a day to wear shorts or jacket, and making sure you stay hydrated. When you go national parking, it really pays to know the right people!