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Ignore your national parks next summer.

Ignore Your National Parks Next Summer

We are loving our national parks to death. Consider a few statistics. In an ordinary year, more than 282.5 million Americans spend at least one day visiting our national parks and other sites within the 354-unit national park system, which covers 80 million acres in all 50 states plus Guam and the Virgin Islands. And the 282 million visitors come almost all at once. In Yellowstone National Park, in a year, an average of 2.2 million people come to enjoy this prototype for more than 1,200 similar parks in 100 countries throughout the world. But more than a million of Yellowstone's 2 million visitors come in July and August. November visitation dips to only 7,000 or so--a fraction of that in the summer peak period--and the totals for each of the other off-season months aren't much higher.

By custom, we vacation in summer, even if there is no more logical reason for doing so than that the young are out of school. But few are the national parks that can't be enjoyed in the off-season.

Animal Watching

Because fewer humans are milling about, birds, mammals, and other animals are less wary, more readily seen.

* In Yosemite National Park, for instance, bobcat, bear, raccoon, fox, and porcupine are among the park residents, but like many people-wary creatures, few venture into view when the area is filled with crowds of summer vacationers.

* From December to mid-February, bald eagles can be seen feeding on salmon in the Skagit River of Washington's North Cascades National Park Service Complex. It's the only time of year the eagles can scavenge for salmon that have died after spawning.

Animal Migration

Fall and spring are the times when many animals migrate.

* The coastal section of California's Redwood National Park, for example, is an outstanding place to watch California gray whales as they swim from the Bering Sea in Alaska to warm-water calving grounds in Baja California. These behemoths pass by close to the shore, spouting and diving, from about December to March, long after summer crowds have gone.

* And few who have seen the stately wapiti elk of Grand Teton National Park during their fall migration would want to visit Teton at any other time, even if that means having the kids play hooky for a week or two. One favorite way to observe the elk is on board an old-fashioned sleigh that visits the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, adjoining the park. The sleigh operates only in winter.


If you are a photography buff, midsummer can be the worst time to pursue your hobby in many of the national parks, especially those in hot, dry regions where summer haze frustrates even the craftiest of lensmen.

* Point a camera at the Grand Canyon in November through March (Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim is a favorite vantage point), and the panorama is haze free. After a fresh snow, the dusting of white on age-old rock provides some of the most magnificent photos of any time of year. (And there will be fewer people around to kibitz while you shoot.)


And consider the advantage of off-season weather in such desert-like national parks as Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, or Canyonlands.

* Mesa Verde, in Colorado, which preserves many artifacts of the pre-Columbian Anasazi civilization, can sizzle in temperatures above 100 [degrees] F. in midsummer; it cools to a comfortable 45-50 in winter.


Spring, after winter snows have begun to melt, is the best time to observe, photograph, or sketch the spectacles of waterfalls and tumbling rivers and streams. In spring, too, wildflowers are at their finest.

* In Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, the season's birth is heralded by explosions of buttercups and purple and yellow shooting stars.

* In Olympic National Park, Washington, delicate glacier lilies push up through the snow sometimes even before winter is over, followed later by lupine, valerian, bistort, false hellebore, and buttercup in their finery of purple, white, and yellow.

Fall is the time to see aspens and other deciduous trees in full glory before they shed their leaves for the winter.

* A special treat for fall visitors to Redwood National Park, for instance, is seeing the golden yellows and rusty browns of maples along rivers and streams after the first frost.


Fishing slows down at some park sites in midsummer; if you prefer your angling sans insects, fall, winter, and spring, when it's cooler, are best. And it's obvious which season you'll choose if you like skiing, snowmobiling, or other snow sports. Many of our national parks seem precisely tailored for the winter visitor.

* Yosemite, for instance, has 90 miles of ski touring trails skied best from Thanksgiving to mid-April.

* And among the 800 campsites at Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, those in the Longs Peak, Aspenglen, and Timber Creek areas are kept open especially for winter visitors--and best of all, they're free.

PHOTO : The national park system's patrons overwhelmingly choose July and August for their

PHOTO : visits--but the parks' splendors aren't confined to any one season. Just a few reasons to

PHOTO : parks off-season: more elbow room and less congestion; more wildlife-viewing

PHOTO : opportunities; and unique seasonal phenomena (fall color, snow, spring flowers, milder

PHOTO : temperatures in some locations).
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Brown, Joseph E.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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