Famed naturalist and conservationist John Muir once said that climbing a mountain could wash your spirit clean. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees,” he wrote.
The words of Muir, one of the earliest (and most eloquent) advocates of America’s national parks, continue to ring true. Today, millions of people visit national parks in search of peace. Here are five of America’s natural wonderlands and ways to recenter yourself within each—so you’re ready the next time you’re eager for a little quiet.
Note: Many U.S. national parks are closed due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus outbreak. Please check park status at nps.gov/coronavirus before making plans to visit.
The dense forest and rocky coastline of Maine’s Acadia National Park won over John D. Rockefeller Jr., who yearned for quiet, car-free roads to travel around Mount Desert Island. He preferred the rhythmic, soothing clip-clop of a horse and carriage. From 1913 to 1940, he funded construction of 45 miles of rustic carriage roads, all devoid of motor vehicles.
Today, a guided cycling tour is perhaps the most serene way to experience Acadia. The tours offer a ranger’s insight and a purpose-filled perspective of the park—including the ways Rockefeller engineered his roads to follow the land’s natural curves and take advantage of the best views. (A ranger may tell you about the slabs of granite that line the roads and serve as guardrails—lovingly referred to as “Rockefeller’s teeth.”) Tours run from July to September and last 2.5 hours, but cyclists can keep bikes longer and explore until day’s end.
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Ponder the power
The scenery of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park began changing one May morning in 1969 when Mauna Ulu started spewing lava across roads, cultural sites and, eventually, into the sea during an eruption that would last until 1974. Today, the park is a land of contrasts: cracked, charcoal-colored lava-earth and trees brimming with cherry-red blossoms.
The power of Mauna Ulu (which means “growing mountain”) is evident in the landscape its eruption left behind. Take it in during a day hike, and keep a keen eye out for lava crickets, which lost their ability to chirp somewhere along the way and are found nowhere else in the world. Climb 210 feet to the top of the cinder cone to appreciate the views of Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea and the Pacific Ocean. Here, it’s tempting to pause, breathe deeply and reflect on the magical island where life is continually regenerating.
Tucked away in the Four Corners region is an ancient community—intricately built of stone, wood and earth—hiding in shadowy canyon walls. The Pueblo people slept, ate and raised families in the area for more than 700 years, until the late 1200s. Today, the remnants of their lives are on display at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, a fascinating historical tribute to what came before us.
At the Cliff Palace, it’s easy to imagine the residents going about their lives in the sprawling abode, rediscovered by ranchers in the late 1800s. Autumn kept the Pueblo people busy with harvesting corn, beans and squash, while elders regaled youngsters with stories. During twilight tours, dramatic lighting dances across canyon walls, bringing the past to life once more.
Alaska’s untamed beauty leaves us awestruck. Just as wondrous as its snowcapped peaks and glistening glaciers is the roaming wildlife in Denali National Park. Lucky explorers may spy a wayfaring wolf; others strain their eyes against a backdrop of clouds to spot angelically white Dall sheep.
The remainder of the park’s “big five” are easier to see from a distance: grizzly bears, caribou and moose. Savvy travelers sign up for narrated bus tours that traverse the Park Road, which winds through valleys and across high mountain passes (Sable Pass, in grizzly country, is a highlight). Certified naturalists lead the journey and point out photo ops along the way. One of the best options is the Tundra Wilderness Tour, a seven- to eight-hour trek traveling some 60 miles into the heart of the park.
Surrounded by the crystal-clear waters of Lake Superior and the untamed North Woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Isle Royale is a wonderland for those seeking isolation and adventure. The island—the largest in Lake Superior—is more than 45 miles long but no more than 9 miles wide. It’s only accessible by boat or float plane, and it’s closed each year from November through mid-April. But those who make the effort to get here are rewarded with an abundance of peace and quiet and a never-ending supply of scenic beauty.
The island’s rugged terrain is crisscrossed by 165 miles of hiking trails—which you’ll likely share only with the resident moose and wolves. (Although the wolves will usually leave an area if they smell humans nearby, don’t be surprised if you happen upon a quietly grazing moose or two.) Those looking for more than just a day hike can stay overnight in one of 36 campgrounds. Go fishing, gaze at historic lighthouses and ancient copper mining sites, or simply enjoy being far from the worries of civilization.
This story was featured in the May/June 2020 issue of AAALiving Magazine
Start Your National Parks Escape
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