The first time I watched Old Faithful erupt at night, I cried.
The dark skies draped over my shoulders, calming that rush of thoughts and emotions I balance inside. I felt only the coolness of the air and saw only the stars.
And then, Old Faithful did what it has done for centuries. It sputtered a bit, and then it erupted, throwing steamy water 100 feet in the air and kissing my upturned face with drops of mist carried on a light breeze. Its power was all the more palpable because I was nearly alone and completely still.
I grew up just outside Yellowstone National Park. I’d seen Old Faithful erupt a couple dozen times in my life. But this time was different. In that moment, I realized there is a way to experience our national parks the right way.
“How?” you ask. As a verb.
In our over-screened, over-stressed world, we must give these wild lands the time to bust through our shell, unravel our pent-up emotions, and leave us better inside.
To “National Park” the right way, you must get your boots off the beaten path and spend some time exploring. Sip coffee by the shore of an alpine lake, enjoy a picnic by that shimmering waterfall, spend time gazing at the lined face of that mountain — just as you would another human being you are trying to get to know.
Several studies have shown that, on average, visitors spend less than one day in any of our 59 national parks. Many parks see visitors top out their time at 5-8 hours. And some parks host their visitors for two hours or less.
As an adventure travel company, we appreciate any effort to get out and explore. But, we think there is a way to ‘National Park’ the right way, and it involves more than driving up, stepping out, glancing at the scenery, snapping a selfie, and moving on to the next viewpoint.
1. We spend time getting to know the park
Our trips are 6 days and 5 nights, and a majority of our time is spent in the chosen park experiencing its beauty in a variety of ways. We hike, bike, kayak, and rock climb. We picnic. We trek little-known trails and find hidden viewpoints. Sometimes we set up chairs and simply gaze at the landscape long enough to let it sink deep into our memories and become an impression rather than just a scene.
2. We see famous sites in unique ways
Remember that story about how I cried when I first saw Old Faithful at night? That could be you!
You may not cry (I’m a bit of a softie when it comes to the beauty of nature), but you’ll have the chance to experience Old Faithful under a starry sky on our Wyoming: Yellowstone National Park adult and family trips.
Famous national park sites are famous for a reason. We strive to make them memorable and deeply meaningful.
3. We give the parks some sweat equity
What do you get when you hike down into the Grand Canyon? A little sweaty. A little out of breath. And an amazing eyeful of a different view than the majority of visitors peering over the South Rim for a few moments.
What do you get when you bike over the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park? You guessed it: sweaty, winded, and filled to the brim with breathtakingly beautiful scenes that you earn with every single rotation of your pedals.
We believe in giving our national parks some sweat equity, and they return the favor in spades.
4. We (gourmet) picnic in the parks
Have you ever noticed that food just tastes better when eaten outside? Us, too. Most of our lunches on our trips are expertly prepared gourmet picnics. Our guides are amazing chefs, but taking the time to simply enjoy food in the surrounding grandeur of our national parks ups the savor of the flavor — and the views.
5. We stay in the parks
One of the things we’re really proud of is that we’ve earned the right to book our guests at in-park lodging on most of our national park trips. While these accommodations may not be the poshest, they offer the most intimate experience of these locations. There’s no hustle and bustle of shuttling in and out of the park; you can simply step out your door, breathe in the fresh air, and enjoy.
6. We learn about what we’re admiring
Did you know that Bryce Canyon National Park experiences over 200 freeze/thaw cycles every year, one of two primary weathering forces that continuously shape the brilliant red hoodoos it’s famous for? If not, now you do! Our guides are extremely well-educated about the history, geology, and other important tidbits that make our national parks and surrounding landscapes so special. We believe that understanding what you’re admiring can only increase your appreciation.
7. We give back to the parks
Our national parks were originally protected for a reason: our nation’s leaders saw their value and didn’t want them to disappear. But, they need ongoing support to remain the pristine, life-changing destinations we want ourselves and our children to enjoy.
Austin Adventures strives to give back to our national parks in a variety of ways. For example, this year we are donating $100 to the Grand Canyon Conservancy for each adult guest on one of our Grand Canyon adventures in honor of this stunning national park’s 100th anniversary.
8. We gratefully accept the parks’ remoteness and lack of connection
Ever feel like you’ve lost your kids (or yourself, if you’re totally honest) behind the screen of a phone or tablet? We are a digital world. Screens — and their ever-present stream of news and information — are part of our life. But sometimes, wouldn’t it be nice to disconnect?
At Austin Adventures, we relish our national parks’ remoteness and lack of “digital connection.” In fact, we relish it so much, we are launching a new trip this year called “Digital Detox.” Guests will sign a pledge to refrain from all screens (as well as conversations about controversial and stress-inducing topics) in order to commit to connecting with their family, their friends, and the natural world around them.
9. We allow the beauty of these wild lands to leave us better inside
What can you find in 100 hours that you can’t adequately find in 7 or 8? Simply put, more time, and more time allows you to experience our national parks rather than just see them.
Time lets you unwind, ponder, find a slower pace, notice small details, and learn about what you’re looking at. Time lets you breathe. Time lets the beauty of these wild lands bust through our shell, unravel our pent-up emotions, and leave us better inside. If you leave our national parks better than you found them, you have figured out how to “National Park” the right way.