The Grand Canyon // © 2016 Insight Vacations
Feature image (above): Canyonlands National Park in Utah. // © 2016 Insight Vacations
“Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
When John Muir penned these words more than a century ago, he was in blissful rapture of America’s landscapes, hoping to inspire an increasingly tired and stressed population to flock to national parks, where they could look inward and draw strength. And thanks in large part to the advocacy of Muir, a Scottish-American naturalist, the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, allowing modern-day travelers to continue voyaging into the forests, mountains, valleys and deserts he once waxed poetic over.
Muir’s 1901 collection of essays, "Our National Parks," caught the attention of then-president Theodore Roosevelt, who was stirred to take up a fight for the preservation of America’s wilderness and historical sites. During his time in office, Roosevelt established many national forests, parks and monuments, setting a precedent for conservation that would ultimately lead to the creation of the NPS. In 1916, seven years after the end of his presidency, the federal government agency was formed to supervise and protect U.S. lands and make them accessible for public enjoyment.
Today, the NPS covers more than 84 million acres and encompasses 410 sites — including national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas and scenic rivers and trails.
And last year, more than 300 million people set out to explore these areas. They beheld wonders such as the deepest lake in the U.S., at Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park; the highest point in North America, in Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve; the world’s longest cave system, in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park; and the greatest concentration of geysers on the globe, at Yellowstone National Park, located in the northwest corner of Wyoming as well as in parts of Montana and Idaho.
Touring America's Parks
For clients who want to venture into what Muir referred to as “nature’s temple,” there are a number of tour operators that organize trips to national parks. And all agree: These tours are more popular than ever, so it’s important to book early.
“Demand for our national parks tours is consistently high, but this year we’re seeing even stronger demand as a result of the centennial,” said Jeremy Palmer, senior vice president of Tauck. “Our guests want insider access to unique experiences they can’t get on their own, they want their travel to be hassle-free, and they want fully inclusive pricing so they’re not constantly reaching for their wallets.”
Tauck, which has included national parks in its itineraries since its first tour in 1925, has partnered for more than five years with renowned filmmaker Ken Burns to infuse his expertise into the guest experience. Burns, who spent nearly a decade working on “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” his award-winning NPS documentary series, has helped design Tauck itineraries, as well as created exclusive short documentary films that guests view during their travels to the national parks. This year, 26 of Tauck’s 31 domestic itineraries include at least one NPS-administered site.
Steve Born, vice president of marketing for Globus Family of Brands, also reports strong demand for the company’s extensive selection of parks tours. He says bookings for national parks products from brands Globus and budget-minded Cosmos are up 70 percent year over year.
“Most of our national parks tours link America’s best-known parks, including Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Denali, but also include dozens of lesser-known parks and monuments that are the unsung heroes of the NPS,” Born said. “For us, it’s the ideal combination of must-see parks and hidden gems that bring the tours to life.”
In partnership with the National Parks Foundation, the operator also designates some of its trips as GoParks! tours; these encompass all of Globus’ tours that overnight in national parks, and a portion of the revenue from the itineraries goes to the foundation.
For NPS’ anniversary, Globus has even created a 103-day national parks tour, Centennial Celebration: 100 Days of GoParks!, starting at $28,487, which visits 34 national parks and historic sites, starting in Honolulu and ending in Las Vegas.
There are also plenty of operators that offer tours for those more pressed for time. Yankee Holidays offers rail journeys and vacation packages that start at $209 and visit destinations such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore and Rocky Mountain national parks. Yankee’s itineraries include accommodations, sightseeing tours, meals and activities.
Insight Vacations visits the perennial favorites, as well, in addition to sites such as Maine’s Acadia National Park and the ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings of Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park.
“Visiting a national park is nothing less than a magical and enlightening event that intimately connects you to nature, from the startlingly fresh air to the colorful, panoramic landscape millions of years in the making,” said Phil Cappelli, president of Insight.
According to Cappelli, national parks tours are the company’s most popular U.S. product. Because of the heightened demand for these itineraries, he recommends travels agents book them at least six months in advance. Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, vice president of product development and delivery for Collette, suggests booking even further out.
“We encourage guests to make their reservations between nine and 12 months from date of travel,” she said. “However, Collette will always accommodate a reservation when there is availability.”
Nearly any type of client is a great fit for guided national parks tours. While baby boomers have typically been the prime market, the demographic has shifted in recent years, with younger travelers and families increasingly booking these trips. Operators are also including optional active excursions on their itineraries — such as flightseeing, rafting, canoeing and hiking — that cater to a sportier crowd.
Companies such as Backroads, which plans small-group hiking, biking and multisport trips, specifically focuses on active clients. Expect national parks itineraries that involve everything from hiking among the hoodoos of Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park to kayaking alongside volcanoes and glaciers in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park. According to KC Hoppe, travel industry relations manager for Backroads, families make up a large part of the company’s clientele. In fact, 25 to 30 percent of departures are geared toward them. Families can even choose to sleep in tents rather than hotels on some of Backroads’ all-inclusive, fully escorted tours — without having to rough it.
“Our trip leaders do all the camp chores,” Hoppe said. “You come into the campground from bike riding, and your tent is set up. You’ve got your luggage and sleeping bag in the tent waiting for you, and wine and warm hor d’oeuvres are on the table.”
No matter where or how a client wants to wander, there is likely a tour that will get them there. Agents will find that booking national parks tours through an operator is far easier — and provides better commission — than customizing an independent trip. While certainly doable, it can be much harder to fulfill all the requests on a client’s wish list.
For example, in-park lodges — which are often small to begin with due to building and expansion restrictions — are usually fully booked, as tour operators secure blocks of rooms far in advance.
“Some of the best moments to be savored inside the national parks occur in the early morning and late afternoon, when the lighting is softer, wildlife is more active and the throngs of daily visitors aren’t around,” Tauck’s Palmer said. “The best way to take full advantage of those times is by staying at one of the historic lodges or hotels located right inside the parks.”
Many in-park lodges do not offer agents commission except through tour operators, and while many lodges outside national parks do, clients will face the problem of getting to all the spectacular places they want to see in a feasible time frame.
For instance, travelers staying outside the park in West Yellowstone must drive 30 miles just to visit Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser. And to see more of the nearly 3,500-square-mile park, clients must stick to a strict itinerary, leaving little room for spontaneous exploration.
Then there’s the matter of visiting multiple national parks, which requires a great deal of driving time, as well as planning around meals and rest stops. When traveling with a tour operator, clients only have to worry about taking it all in.
“The distance between these parks is vast,” said Lynn Fuller, a Lansing, Mich.-based travel agent, owner of Fuller Travel Service, Inc. and a frequent seller of national parks tours. “I think there’s great worth to getting on a tour and letting the driver do the heavy lifting so you can just enjoy the scenery.”
However, it’s important to manage clients’ expectations for what they will be able to see, says Henry Dennis, a Charlotte, N.C.-based travel agent with AAA Carolinas who sells many national parks tours and guided vacations.
“A lot of people don’t understand how big these parks are,” he said. “The Grand Canyon stretches for more than 200 miles; think about how many acres are in Yellowstone. You’re not just going to pop in for a half-day and see the park.”
Dennis advises going over what clients wish to accomplish on their trip, then thoroughly reviewing an itinerary to make sure it matches what they want. It’s also important they understand how much time they’re actually getting in each destination, he says. For example, an itinerary may include three days in the Grand Canyon, but with travel time to other sites on the trip, it really comes out to about 1 ½ days of actual time in the park.
“But the good part of these tours is that they’re going to get you to the high points — the places you really want to see,” Dennis said.
And thanks to the creation of the NPS 100 years ago, clients from around the globe can enjoy these spectacular places year-round — and help keep them pristine for the next centennial. They’ll surely discover what Muir knew back in the early 1900s: “Nature’s sources never fail.”