Yesterday, we shared our five favorite national parks of 2016. And because planning ahead is just as much fun as looking back, we thought we’d share our 2017 national parks wishlist — all the epic parks we’re hoping to visit in the coming year. (We are dreaming seriously big this year!)
Eight of the 59 national parks are located in Alaska, and it was reeeeeeally hard to pick just one to make the list. But take a look at that view and it should be pretty self explanatory why we can’t wait to explore a few of Denali’s six million acres.
It seemed like last summer all the cool kids were in Glacier, and we had a serious case of Instagram jealousy. (It’s called the Crown of the Continent for a reason!) And its proximity to Banff National Park in Canada only bumps it higher on the list.
I couldn’t make a national park wish list without getting some beach action in there, and since we’ll be in California this spring Point Reyes seemed like an obvious solution. The camping situation looks on point — and how gorgeous are those bluffs?
Ahhhh, Utah. We were so sad to leave you off our southwest adventure last winter after lingering too long in Arizona. But we vowed we’d be back for you — and your jaw-dropping national parks are a big piece of the draw. It was hard to pick just one (clearly, Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands are all crazy beautiful too) but I can wait to see those arches for myself.
It’s an eight-thousand-year-old volcanic lake. What more do I need to say? We should be in Oregon by late spring, and we can’t wait to seeing those blue blue waters in the United States’ deepest lake with our own … four eyes.
If I’m being honest, Dry Tortugas is actually #1 on my personal national parks wish list. But with no plans to visit Florida any time in the near future, it seemed futile to put it any higher on the list. In spite of that, I’m still dying to explore the 19th century Fort Jefferson (accessible only by boat or seaplane!) and snorkel in those ridiculous crystal clear waters.
We have seriously neglected the Midwest in our travels, both in terms of states visited and national parks. But there are some crazy beautiful national parks wayyyyyy up north (Isle Royale and Voyageurs both look awesome, too) and I’d love to get up there. It’s possible we’ll pass through here in the fall after we’ve left Alaska!
Hopefully we do better checking parks off this list than we did on last year’s list! Tell us in the comments: What’s on your 2017 national parks wish list?
Last December we shared our 2016 National Parks Wishlist — the top five parks we hoped to hit in 2016. Tomorrow we’ll be sharing our 2017 National Parks Wishlist (my, how time flies!) but first we wanted to take a look back at 2016. Today we’re rounding up our national park stats from 2016 … reviewing how we did on last year’s wish list … and talking about our five favorite national parks we visited this year!
First up: Numbers, names, and fun facts.
In 2016, we visited 28 national park sites!
We checked off parks in five of the nine national park regions. (Curious which regions we missed? National Capital Region, Midwest Region, Rocky Mountain Region, and Pacific Northwest & Alaska Region. Fingers crossed, we should get to all of those in 2017!)
We checked off all the state parks in one state — and not even one of those funny ones with just one national park site! (Which, if you’re wondering, includes Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Delaware.) And, even though we wrote about how to visit all of New Jersey’s national park sites in one day, it isn’t New Jersey, either! Drum roll please: After visiting Bluestone NSR, Gauley River NRA, Harpers Ferry NHP, and New River Gorge NR, we’ve now visited all the national park sites in West Virginia!
So: How did we do on our 2016 national parks wish list?
Short answer: Not very well. In fact, we only managed to visit two of the six parks on our 2016 national parks wish list (Grand Canyon National Park and Acadia National Park). Two of them (Zion and Hot Springs) I was hoping to make part of our Southwest Adventure, but we were having so much fun in deserty places like Big Bend that we just didn’t have time. And the final two (Shenandoah and Cuyahoga) were planned as summer trips that just didn’t materialize.
And, last but not least: What were our five favorite national parks of 2016?
The good news is, we visited so many amazing national parks that it was hard to narrow them down. But you can certainly tell from our list that we learned to love the desert in 2016!
If you’ve been following our travels for any length of time, this should come as no surprise to you. Big Bend National Park was the breakout surprise and a highlight of our 2016. In fact, it’s become a strong contender with Acadia National Park as our favorite national park of all time. We stayed there twice as long as we planned, and can’t wait to go back this winter for two full weeks — the longest you’re allowed to camp in the park during peak season. Big Bend was a magical combination of wide desert skies, gorgeous river views, and spectacular mountain hikes and we had no trouble declaring it our #1 favorite national park of 2016.
Is it possible to visit the Grand Canyon in any given year and not put it on your favorite parks list? I submit to you that it is not. The camping was spectacular, the weather was gorgeous, and the views were so incredible they actually looked unreal. We both expected to be a tad disappointed in the Grand Canyon; we were not, even a little bit.
Carlsbad Caverns was a surprise hit (and another stop on our Southwest Adventure itinerary). Will Rogers called it “the Grand Canyon with a roof on it,” and the comparison is apt; it’s overwhelmingly deep and has become the standard by which we measure all future cave visits. There’s just something mind-boggling about hiking down a 750-foot trail into the earth.
We both loved Saguaro National Park but it found a particularly cozy spot in Ryan’s heart — it’s the one he almost always mentions second (after Big Bend!) when we talk about 2016. We weren’t sure what to expect when we visited, but there was just something incredibly friendly about those giant cacti! And the combination of a scenic drive, short hike, and pleasant picnic were exactly our speed. (It’s like the national parks version of “the perfect combination of sexy and cute.”)
We left Great Smoky Mountains marveling that we’d never been there before; as die-hard East Coasters, you wouldn’t think it’d have taken us thirty years to make it to the United States’ most visited national park. We could easily have spent weeks there, hiking, camping, and enjoying the gorgeous views — we’ll most definitely be back. (My favorite thing about the park? The constant gurgle of streams and brooks that was audible seemingly everywhere we traveled in the park. It made me want to sit on a rock with a picnic and a book and never leave.)
We want to know: What were your favorite parks of 2016 … and of all time?
Today we’re launching our first-ever giveaway … and we want YOU to be a part of it! We’ve teamed up with Anderson Design Group to introduce you to some incredible artwork … and give you a chance to get some of it for yourself — just in time for Christmas!
We first discovered Anderson Design Group while doing some random Googling about the national parks. (Yes, that’s something we do a lot.) We immediately fell in love with their gorgeous national park art prints … t-shirts … calendars … and even the coloring book that made it onto our holiday gift guide! And their National Park collection isn’t the only thing to love at Anderson Design Group! We’re also crazy about their Lake and Lodge and American Travel collections!
Anderson Design Group was generous enough to send us a few products to check out for ourselves, and we loved them even more once we got our hands on their beautiful, high-quality work. As soon as he started turning the pages of their coffee table book, Ryan was immediately inspired to drop everything and start plotting our 2017 map across the United States. (The vintage-inspired art for each of the 59 national parks is jaw-dropping, and there’s tons of interesting information about each park, too.) And we extra loved this company after learning that in 2015, Joel Anderson — the artist and founder of Anderson Design Group — took his family on a national parks road trip from Nashville to New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Total kindred spirits!
They also sent us this gorgeous calendar (I can’t get over how beautiful that oil painting of Redwood National Park is!) and the 59-piece national parks postcard set (which we are currently scheming to use in a fun blog project for 2017 … seriously, if you’re a national parks enthusiast, the possibilities for ways to use these postcards are endless!).
We knew you guys would love Anderson Design Group as much as we do, so we were thrilled when they offered to give two of our readers a $25 gift card, good for anything in their online store! Whether you’re a full-time traveler like us … a weekend warrior intent on seeing the world … or a homebody who loves celebrating your hometown, there’s something at Anderson Design Group for everyone! (And their products would make the perfect gift for the traveler or national park enthusiast in your life, too!)
Here’s How To Win:
To enter, leave a comment at the end of this post telling us which item from Anderson Design Group’s online store you’d use your $25 gift card to buy.
Use the Rafflecopter widget below to track your entry (mandatory). Simply log in with your Facebook account or email. Once you’ve left your comment on this post, check it off in the box below, which will unlock additional options to enter.
OPTIONAL: Earn ADDITIONAL entries by completing more actions in the Rafflecopter widget, including sharing our post on Pinterest and liking Our Streamlined Life and Anderson Design Group on Instagram and Facebook.
So jump in and enter! We are dying to give these gift cards away!
This giveaway closes Friday, December 23, 2016, at 11:59 p.m. EST.
Before our trip, whenever people would ask where we were headed on our Appalachian Adventure, Ryan would say: “We’ll be spending time in West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.” Then I’d glare and say, “HONEY, we’re not going to Kentucky.” And yet … we ended up in Kentucky.
I guess I just didn’t think we had time to do it justice — but when we ended up trimming a few Gauley weekends from the schedule, we suddenly had a week or so to kill. So to Kentucky we headed — and it ended up being one of the best decisions of our trip.
In the dead center of the state was Mammoth Cave National Park — our first destination in Kentucky.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but most of the park was quiet and wooded, with rolling treed hills and almost a dreamy quality.
The dreaminess quickly ended when we locked our keys in the car. Fortunately a sassy-yet-helpful ranger was kind enough to lend us a coat hanger, and Ryan put his cat burglar skills to work in the parking lot. It’s a good thing he was able to rescue them, because we had absolutely no cell service to call AAA with!
Crisis averted, we headed inside to explore the visitor’s center. Well … sort of. It turns out visiting Mammoth Cave takes a little more planning ahead than we were used to; unlike at Carlsbad Caverns, where self-guided tours were standard, the majority of Mammoth Cave’s toursrequire a tour guide and reservations. And … it was spring break. The park was packed. When we arrived, the tours we were interested in were all sold out. Instead, we took a short jaunt down to the one cave that was open for self-guided tours, just to whet our appetites.
We also checked out the visitor’s center at Mammoth Cave, and it was really cool. We loved this cross-section model of one of the larger caves …
As well as this relief “sculpture” of the cave system. (Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known cave system, with more than 400 miles explored!)
And I loved this Find Your Park poster emphasizing the park’s history. In 1838, the cave was purchased by Franklin Gorin, who intended to operate Mammoth Cave as a tourist attraction. Gorin used his African-American slaves as tour guides — and one of them, Stephen Bishop, would become one of Mammoth Cave’s most celebrated historical figures. Stephen was one of the first people to make extensive maps of the cave, and named many of the cave’s features.
Stephen was very respected by Gorin, who described Stephen after his death as “the celebrated and great Stephen … a self-educated man [with] a fine genius, a great fund of wit and humor, some little knowledge of Latin and Greek, and much knowledge of geology, but his great talent was a knowledge of man.” Despite his contributions to the cave, Stephen lived most of his life as a slave, although Gorin freed him just a year before his death in 1857.
Mammoth Cave was an interesting contrast to Carlsbad Caverns because while Mammoth is the longest known cave system in the world, it is not nearly as deep as Carlsbad. The entrance to Mammoth felt very shallow compared to the 750-foot trail of Carlsbad’s Natural Entrance.
The interior of the cave looked totally different from Carlsbad, too! The caves were very rocky, and there were fewer formations than we saw at Carlsbad.
One of the cool things about Mammoth Cave was the wide variety of cave tours offered. We did the Domes & Dripstones tour and it was excellent. We would have loved to do the River Styx tour, as well, but there were only a few tour times offered and none while we were in town.
Mammoth Cave National Park was definitely a park where planning ahead would have served us well. You guys know we love to wing it but between the limited tour times and crowds due to spring break, this one needed a little more foresight. (We also didn’t camp in the park because it was super unclear if there were showers and restrooms available — we stayed at the solidly meh Horse Cave KOA campground — but when we took a spin through the park , it looked like there were facilities. It would have been wonderful to stay right in the park — next time!)
We had one more experience in central Kentucky: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park. Unfortunately, this ended up being another poorly planned excursion on our part. First fail: While the NHP is only a 40 minute drive from Mammoth Cave … it’s in another time zone. Yeah. Second fail: the park’s website lists its hours as 8am-4:30pm … buuuuuut the buildings all actually close at 4:00. So, we showed up at what we thought was 3:00pm, which was actually 4:00pm, still thought we had half an hour to zip through the buildings, but they were all closed.
Fortunately, a kind park ranger saw the desperation in my eyes and went into the closed visitor’s center and stamped my passport for me. And we did take a quick tour around the grounds, which were super beautiful — so it wasn’t a total loss! We would have loved to take in the visitor’s center, and check out the “symbolic birth cabin” — turns out the one in the mausoleum above isn’t the real Lincoln birth cabin, as they thought when it was constructed — but hopefully you can learn from our mistakes.
Despite a few setbacks, we loved our first foray into Kentucky! Has anyone else made the same mistakes we did? And is there anything else in the area you’d like to recommend to our readers?
After our beautiful and invigorating morning hike, we were back on the road, and ready to hit Big Bend National Park! We had gotten over our bout of grumpiness, enjoyed Seminole Canyon, and were excited to explore a new spot, having heard wonderful things about Big Bend. Per our usual levels of preparedness, we had not made reservations, and when we pulled up to the campground where we hoped to stay in the park (Chisos Basin Campground), we learned it was completely full. Dang.
So, we headed over to the Rio Grande Village Campground, which turned out to be very beautiful, spacious, and only a few hundred yards from Mexico! After driving a few loops around to check out all the spots, we chose one we liked, and started setting up. What we weren’t prepared for was the heat — it was in the mid 90s as we were setting up at 5 pm! Since it had been down in the 40s the night before at Seminole Canyon, it was a little bit of a shock.
We had been told that there was nearby short trail that had phenomenal sunset views, so once we had set up and eaten, we headed for the trail to watch the sun go down. And we were not disappointed.
We were blown away by how beautiful it was, and as it turned out, this was only a small taste of the incredible vistas we’d see over the next week. We went to bed as excited as kids on Christmas Eve, looking forward to all the exploring we had in mind.
The next day dawned clear and bright, and after some discussion, we decided to do what we usually do in new areas — give ourselves the driving tour to get the lay of the land and see what we might be interested in exploring on foot. After a discussion with some very helpful volunteer park rangers, we decided to up the ante and take the Tahoe on a 23-mile, four-wheel-drive-only road. I’d been wanting to take the truck into the backcountry for the first time, and Old Ore Road sounded like the perfect place!
Rebecca was a bit nervous, so to be on the safe side, we brought all our food, topped off the gas tank, and stashed about 6 gallons of water. That way, even if we got stranded, we could sleep and eat comfortably while we awaited rescue. Armed with our gear, and a giant new map of the park we’d gotten at the ranger station, we headed for the trail head! I was incredibly excited — I’d been longing for some real wilderness for a while, and it sounded like I was finally going to get it! We got to the trail head, and off we went. The views were immediately amazing, and the road wasn’t too bad!
Our first detour was a stop at Ernst Tinaja, a spring back in the valley. We were told that the spring formed beautiful crystal blue pools, and we were very excited to see them, especially in such a sparse and dry environment, but when we arrived, this is what we found:
Smelly, green, bug-filled pools, buzzing with flies. Not exactly what we’d seen on the postcards. However, the hike into the canyon was stunning — there were amazing rock formations unlike anything we’d ever seen before. Actually, pretty much ALL the scenery the whole week was unlike anything we’d ever seen before. Made it a lot of fun!
We jumped back in the car, and continued down the road. We passed a number of cars going the opposite direction, but never any going our way. Traffic continued to thin out until about mile 12, when IT happened. The Big Bend Blowout of 2016.
Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, this was the one thing I was really hoping would not happen on this trip, and here’s why. Despite building this great camping rig, buying a compressor/battery jumper, packing a tire patch kit, bringing all our food, and having the car checked out before the trip, and all the other preparations we did … I had never actually checked and made sure A) that I had the jack and all the pieces I needed to actually change a tire, and B) that my spare tire was in good shape. I know, I know, it was like amateur hour, and now here we were: 12 miles from the nearest road, zero cell service, and not a soul in sight.
It’s not a real adventure till something goes wrong, right? But in our case, all’s well that ends well — the jack and all the necessary pieces were there, the spare was fine, and within an hour we were back on the road. Despite a nagging fear that we’d blow a second tire and be left without a spare, really and truly stranded, we were able to enjoy some amazing vistas and cool ruins.
Our tires stayed strong, and after a total of 7 hours on a 23 mile road, we emerged victorious on the pavement!
We headed back towards the campground, but the views weren’t over yet. The drive back was incredibly beautiful…
And once we were back to camp, all fed and showered and safe and sound, we were treated to another glorious sunset. So far, we were big fans of Big Bend!
Pros: Flat, paved, spacious sites with picnic tables and large bear boxes. Easy access to water and decent bathroom facilities. Convenient location to trails on the east side of the park, as well as Boquillas, Mexico. General store, coin-operated showers and laundry, pay phones, WiFi, and ATM just a short walk from the campground.
Cons: Lackluster showers — especially for not being free. The hot water was lacking and they ran out of quarters in the change machine a few times.