Photograph Courtesy of NPS, Neal Lewis
“Bear Jam on the 441.” That’s ranger-speak for a traffic backup along the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s main artery caused by grazing black bears. To be fair, the bears aren’t to blame; they’re happily munching their way along the hillside, oblivious to the rubbernecking humans who are passing by at 2 mph, phones and cameras thrust out of windows and sunroofs. So if you’re trying to make it from Clingmans Dome to the Grotto Falls trailhead, be prepared to wait. But it just so happens that slow is the best speed at which to take in the breathtaking beauty of the park.
The history of our National Park system extends well beyond its 100 official years. Yellowstone became America’s first National Park in 1872, but in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that formally created the National Park Service, which, at the time, comprised 35 parks. Today, NPS manages more than 400 congressionally protected areas in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. From our home base here in southern Ohio, we’re lucky to have several treasured National Parks within easy reach—a day’s drive, or less.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park → Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, this park is an easy five-hour journey south. Established in 1934, it has become the most popular of the system’s 59 parks based on annual attendance (Grand Canyon is second and Rocky Mountain third). Cross-stitched with hiking trails that accommodate a variety of abilities, the path affords visitors a heap of choices: tramp through old-growth forests full of mountain laurel, wend your way along creeks, climb up to mountain waterfalls, or poke around the historical buildings of Cades Cove. In addition to black bears, you may spot white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and if you visit the Cataloochee area at the park’s eastern edge, elk. On September 17, immerse yourself in Appalachian history and culture at the Mountain Life Festival, which takes place at the Mountain Farm Museum near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. nps.gov/grsm
Shenandoah National Park → Further east, Shenandoah National Park hosts more-than-100-mile-long scenic Skyline Drive, the route that winds through much of the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia. The hiking trails are a balanced mix of strenuous summits for breathtaking views (including Hawksbill Summit, the park’s highest peak at 4,049 feet) and easier routes that can accommodate families. Hiking Old Rag Mountain is one of the park’s most popular—and challenging—endeavors: The last mile is a rock scramble, so read the preparation guidelines on the NPS website carefully. Nothing spoils a vacation like the words search and rescue. Looking for something with a big payoff but less risk? Try one of the park’s stargazing evenings at the Big Meadows area, held on select Fridays throughout the summer (including August 26 and September 23). nps.gov/shen
Cuyahoga Valley National Park → This 33,000-acre oasis just south of Cleveland is best known for Brandywine Falls, a 65-foot cascading waterfall, which you can hike to along the Brandywine Gorge Trail. But there is plenty to explore beyond the falls. Take in the diverse wetland community at the Beaver Marsh, or bike along the Ohio & Erie Canal—pedal in one direction, then hop aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for the return trip. The railroad features numerous special events throughout the summer, including sunset beer and wine tastings. nps.gov/cuva