National Park Vacays

Want to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial, but have a paralyzing fear of the outdoors? Follow our tips and give these great wonders a chance. 

With the National Park Service celebrating its centennial this year, there’s no better time to discover what so many others before us have: that trekking through the wide open wilderness can be so much better than binge-watching Netflix in a cramped city apartment. (Maybe not all the time, but at least once.)
 
Of course, not every queer woman knows how to start a fire or wants to climb a mountain (imagine that!). Luckily, the National Park Service operates monuments and historical sites, beaches and museums. All have a way of transporting us back to another era, whether through the unspoiled beauty they preserve or through artifacts that engage with human history.
 
Outdoor-phobes, though, should consider taking a chance on the sparkling lakes and majestic mountains, the hot springs and the grassy prairies. I should know: I was an outdoor-phobe once, too. Then I embarked on a spontaneous 10-day camping trip to six na-tional parks, monuments and historic sites. By the end of my journey, I was kicking back with a beer in my camping chair, watching a fuzzy buffalo splash around amid the purplish North Dakota badlands that once enamored Teddy Roosevelt so much, he devoted his presidency to protecting natural wonders like them. Even I, with my deathly fear of spiders, grew to love the great outdoors.
 
For other city girls who are still dubious, here are 10 tips to help you begin your exploration of our nation’s “best idea,” and some ideas of my own about where to figuratively pitch your tent.   
 
Get your passport
 
The National Parks are all in the United States, you say, so why do I need a passport? Well, for nerds like myself, the service’s official “passport” acts as a chronicle of your travels, a kids’ game, and brag-ging rights. The pocket-sized book lists every park by region, and leaves room for cancellation stamps and stickers, which are available in park gift shops. It might sound silly, but parks enthusiasts take it very seriously. I always keep mine in my glove compartment, because you never know when you just might happen to swing by a national battlefield or ride along a national parkway.
 
Go there: The Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects two national parks, winds for 470 miles through gorgeous, mountainous stretches of the southern Appalachians. Just driving on it gains you “been there” status; no museum stop necessary.
 
Start small
 
If you can’t commit to sleeping on the ground and enjoying the deafening quiet of the great West, there are alternatives. Begin your National Parks journey by hopping a ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, or taking the train up to Hyde Park, New York, to learn about our nation’s rumored First Lesbian Eleanor Roosevelt. In D.C., hit several monuments and memorials in a day (and fill that passport!). In fact, many of our nation’s most revered sites are in urban settings—the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.
 
Go there: One of the newest national memorials, in D.C., remembers Martin Luther King, Jr. Positioned between the memorials of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, the great civil rights leader carved out of stone stands for equality and justice.
 
Make it a beach vacay
 
The Park Service knew what it was doing when it brought some of the country’s best sun and surf into the fold. Gateway National Recreation Area, for instance, preserves some 27,000 miles of coastline in New York and New Jersey, and with good reason—have you seen “Jersey Shore”? Hit up Sandy Hook on the N.J. side or Fort Tilden in Brooklyn for some pristine bathing amid the grassy dunes. Further afield, the whole of the U.S. Virgin Islands are clas-sified as a national park.
 
Go there: Fire Island, summer’s LGBT playground, also happens to be a National Seashore. The barrier island, a ferry’s ride off the coast of Long Island, offers a steely mix of sandy beaches, thumping clubs and drag shows.
 
Do your homework
 
Whenever I travel to someplace new, I like to prep by studying up on it—not just guidebooks, but the literature, TV and movies, etc., that depict that locale. I had perhaps no greater joy on my western parks journey than spotting the grooves in Devil’s Tower after seeing the alien landing site/pile of mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
 
Go there: “Hamilton” fans have a place to rap about American Independence at the Yorktown Battlefield, part of Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia. This was the site of the last major battle of the American Revolution, where the “world turned upside down.”
 
Don’t skip the lesser known parks
 
The big names—Smoky, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon—might be the most popular National Parks, but there are loads more in between. Like, say, any in the middle of the country. You won’t encounter nearly as much of a tourist crush at places like Herbert Hoover’s birthplace in Iowa, where the Depression-era president grew up, played and prayed; or at Voyageurs National Park in northern Min-nesota, where the roads are made of water.
 
Go there: Theodore Roosevelt National Park may be named for the big-shot conservationist, but the park is low in traffic, probably due to its way-out location in western North Dakota. Venture here, and you’ll have dusty roads dotted with prairie dog holes, verdant hills and wallowing buffalo all to yourself.
 
Think about the bigger issues
 
National parks are not just about pretty scenery and exhilarating outdoor adventure. Many bigger themes deserve to be a part of our encounters. For example: What does it mean that the faces of Amer-ican presidents are carved into mountains sacred to the Lakota Sioux? Ponder this during the nightly light show projected on Mt. Rushmore, in this slice of the Black Hills.
 
Go there: In the heart of the prairie, Homestead National Monu-ment in Nebraska commemorates the Homestead Act of 1862, which, for both good and bad, made the western half of the country what it is today. The interpretive exhibit doesn’t shy away from the complicated history of the settlement of the frontier.
 
Follow the rules
 
Please, please, trust what parks staff tells you and don’t approach the animals or stray off path. With recent deaths of both wildlife and humans that could have been avoided, the rules are not just suggestions. Besides, the parks get really in your face about it, and you won’t have a good time if you’re constantly worried about your safety. Non-outdoorsy types like me will feel way less jittery in the backcountry with a jingle bell and a can of bear spray on hand. That said, don’t let the dangers of nature scare you out of having an in-credible time. Just remember, you are the visitor here; show respect to the home you’ve been invited into.
 
Go there: Yellowstone National Park is the closest thing to an outdoor science lab you’ll find, with bubbling clay pots and geysers that erupt like clockwork, all set within stunning mountain scenery and serene fields of grazing bison. You should definitely look, but don’t touch.
 
Tack a park on to your other travels
 
So you’re in Vegas for a bachelorette party? Extend your trip a cou-ple days and hit up Death Valley National Park, home to North America’s lowest point, on the border of California and Nevada. In Portland for work? Learn about the mingling of explorers and native peoples along the Oregon Coast at Lewis & Clark National Historical Park. On a leaf-peepers’ cruise with your family? Don’t miss autumn’s marble-leafed madness in Maine’s Acadia National Park.
 
Go there: Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the system, with free entry and a prime location bordering what is, in my opinion, the best reason to go anywhere ever: Dolly-wood. If you’re on a Parton pilgrimage, make time for the surround-ing scenery that’s so much a part of Dolly’s art.
 
Mix camping and glamping
 
A national parks tour doesn’t have to be all about roughing it. Camp some nights, and stay in the parks’ historic lodges the other nights—if you can snag one of their no-frills rooms. Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn, which has a deck looking out at the geyser, books up a year out, but calling the day before you arrive might get you a last-minute cancellation. The log and stone building, with a colossal central fireplace, is itself a national historic landmark. 
 
Go there: Staying at Glacier National Park’s Many Glacier Hotel is practically a rite of passage. The Swiss-style mountain chalet sits on Swiftcurrent Lake, and offers ridiculous views of several active glaciers. The game-oriented menu in the lodge’s dining room is an extra perk.
 
 
Get ready to feel like you’re way small on this great big planet
 
Boating on Jackson Lake in the shadow of the snow-capped peaks of the Grand Teton mountain range has a way of reducing our human existence to a tiny, miraculous speck in space and time. The national parks’ fine-tuned ecosystems, otherworldly landscapes and untamed flora and fauna reveal the interconnectivity of life and land. Think of what it took for these places to form, and all that occurred there before you ever dipped your oar into the water. It’ll do a wonder for stress-relief.
 
Go there: Take your pick. Statuesque saguaro cacti, snow-white dunes in the middle of the desert, Dr. Seuss-like Joshua trees, or a gaping hole in the earth in northern Arizona—any of these treasures have the ability to transport you out of your own head, and into someplace larger-than-life.
 
NEW YORK STATE’S NATIONAL TREASURES
 
You don’t have to travel far to find meaningful history and daz-zling nature in these New York-based sites overseen by the National Park Service. Here are our 10 favorite spots to experience America right here in our home state.
 
Women’s Rights, National Historical Park, Seneca Falls
The first Women’s Rights Convention was held here in 1848, and the park tells the story of women’s rights leaders and abolitionists who struggled for equality and civil rights. 
 
Lower East Side Tenement Museum, National Historic Site, NYC
This preserved example of a cramped tenement brings visitors to the doorstep of the American immigrant experience at the turn of the last century. 
 
Roosevelt-Vanderbilt, National Historic Sites, Hyde Park
 
Two hours north of the city, you’ll find several sites that can be combined into a full day trip. The home of the longest-serving first lady, nicknamed Val-Kill, is today a museum devoted to the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home, library and cottage are nearby. And the Vanderbilt Mansion, the Gilded Age country home of some of New York’s most elite citizens is truly a look into the life of the one-percent. A shuttle takes visitors to all three sites. 
 
Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, National Monument, NYC / NJ
She’s been inviting the tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to be free into New York Harbor for 230 years, and the green-toned copper dame is as majestic as ever. The museum at Ellis Island, the one-time gateway to America, tells some of those immigrants’ heroic stories. 
 
Upper Delaware, Scenic & Recreational River, Delaware, Orange and Sullivan Counties
Catch your dinner in the pristine waters of the Delaware River, which is perfect for fishing, canoeing down rapids and taking in the lush scenery. 
 
Hamilton Grange, National Memorial, NYC
The “10-dollar founding father without a father,” Alexander Hamilton built this country estate in Harlem. Learn more about everyone’s favorite Broadway musical character here. 
 
Niagara Falls, National Heritage Area, Wheatfield, Niagara Falls, Youngstown and Lewiston
Designated by Congress only in 2008, the region along the Niagara River welcomes visitors to bear witness to the overwhelming natural phenomenon of a 165-foot drop that shuttles 750,000 gallons of water per second. 
 
African Burial Ground, National Monument, New York City
A long-lost resting place for free and enslaved Africans was unearthed in 1991 due to the construction of a federal office building. The 6.6-acre plot of land outside the settlement of New Amsterdam was active from the 1690s to 1794. 
 
Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, National Historic Site, NYC
Visit the home of the only U.S. President to be born in New York City. The East 20th St. townhouse, with its fine furnishings and sparkling accessories, was where sickly little Teddy came into this world on the way to becoming the 26th president. The site is closed for renovations until later this summer. 
 
Governors Island, National Monument, NYC
Open only during summer, this former U.S. Army outpost recently became a playground for city folk. Picnic, bike, catch a concert or just take a walk on 172 acres that are mercifully off the city grid. 

Photo credits: Yellowstone: Sharyn Jackson