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In 1872, Congress founded Yellowstone National Park and inspired a worldwide movement to preserve parcels of land for public enjoyment and education. It wasn’t until 1916, however, that then-president Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service (NPS), a federal bureau charged with managing all U.S. national parks and monuments. Today, the NPS oversees 408 parks, battlefields and more, from Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina to Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.And just as the number of sites has increased, so has visitation, especially in recent years. According to MMGY Global’s “2015 Portrait of American Travelers,” 70 percent of millennials hope to visit at least one national park over the next two years — up from 2013 and 2014 — and 48 percent of those respondents have children under the age of 12 in their home. That’s a remarkable pool of potential clients for travel sellers.“The complexities of this kind of vacation are often underestimated,” said Linda Rasmussen, owner of World Travel Collection Corporation, an independent agency of Avoya Travel Network in St. George, Utah. “Travel professionals can work with tour companies and other contacts even a year in advance to find the right option for a family’s budget, group size and wish list.”Also fueling national park interest is the upcoming centennial of the NPS — Austin Adventures’ founder Dan Austin reports that his company has nearly doubled its national park offerings for next year in response to demand.The surge in national park appeal may be partially due to the Find Your Park campaign, a public awareness and education initiative launched last March. With former first lady Laura Bush and current first lady Michelle Obama as honorary co-chairs and beloved faces such as science educator Bill Nye acting as initiative ambassadors, Find Your Park is wielding some serious star and social media clout. The corresponding #FindYourPark hashtag has been wildly successful, too. According to Elizabeth Paradis Stern, public affairs specialist for the NPS’ Centennial Office, social media engagement with the hashtag (including posting, sharing and liking) has surpassed 1.3 million incidences since its launch.As more travelers head to America’s treasured parks, it’s a good idea for travel agents to get a handle on the various ways families might explore the sights.Get Thee to a GuideLimited in-park accommodations, lengthy drives and massive crowds are among park pitfalls that a good tour operator can avoid. So while a self-created national park trip can be great for groups on a budget, some travelers — especially those with children — will find that passing the buck to an experienced tour company is well worth the additional cost. Austin Adventures, Backroads, G Adventures and Tauck Bridges are among those offering fully escorted, national park-focused itineraries specifically designed for families.“The core of what we do is enable groups to have great experiences — to bond, to connect — while we take care of the logistics,” said Dan Mahar, CEO of Tauck. “Moms and dads aren’t distracted by the choreography of the trip. They can focus on each other, their kids and the destination.”Part of that choreography is dodging crowds within a given park. The strategy? Securing in-park lodging, which allows guests to explore during the wee hours of the morning and late into the evening. Travelers staying outside the parks often miss these ideal sightseeing times, due to the drives required to get to and from accommodations.“If you go to see Old Faithful at 2 p.m., you’re going to be there with 2,000 of your closest friends,” Austin said. “Our groups will see it at sunrise over hot chocolate or coffee. And it’s absolutely surreal at that time of day, when you’re practically alone.”Maneuvering from sight to sight alongside an experienced guide is another reason to join a fully escorted trip.“Our guides are experts on the history, geology, flora, fauna and geography and of the parks they’re in,” Austin said. “It’s like traveling with an encyclopedia, and that makes each hike so much more than just a hike. Additionally, our guides have longstanding relationships with almost everyone in the park, and they’re willing to pass us critical information.”Oftentimes, that information includes where to spot wildlife — an opportunity that park guests of all ages usually yearn for. In Yellowstone National Park, Austin Adventures’ groups have a particularly high success rate spotting bears and wolves, thanks to tips from rangers and researchers who know the guides well.“If those folks see bears in Lamar Valley at 6 a.m., they let us know,” Austin said. “Then we can get up early, have breakfast in the valley and likely see the wildlife ourselves.”All AboardFor more family time and flexibility, travel agent Dina Dini of Dina Dini Travel, an independent agency in the Avoya Travel Network, works regularly with Amtrak Vacations, a Yankee Leisure Group brand. The Wellington, Fla.-based agent considers a national park rail vacation an iconic American experience.“On the train, families are uninterrupted by road detours,” Dini said. “Plus, Amtrak Vacations’ packages allow them to ride right into the parks.”For example, Amtrak guests heading to Glacier National Park step off the train about 100 yards from historic Glacier Park Lodge. The same convenience is also offered on trips to Grand Canyon National Park and Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, both of which Frank Marini, president of Yankee Leisure Group, says are top picks for families. Accommodations and hop-on, hop-off sightseeing excursions are included, as well.According to Marini, however, the train does more than just transport families from point A to point B; it adds a whole other layer to the journey.“A train ride is a fascinating experience for kids,” he said. “You’re in the dining car, you’re playing Monopoly or Uno, you’re hanging out in the overnight cabins. The train isn’t fast, but that’s kind of the point.”Families can choose from “roomettes” — air-conditioned, bunk-style rooms that sleep two and share a bathroom located at the end of the carriage — bunk rooms that sleep four or accommodations with private bathrooms.“How often do you sleep above or below your kid?” he asked. “It’s a chance to reconnect with each other in a way you might not on a cruise ship or a plane.”For a similarly independent trip without the train rides, Marini points travel agents to tailor-made itineraries by sister brand Yankee Holidays.Make It Your OwnMost tour operators are happy to customize a national park tour for family clients, but National Parks Revealed (NPR) offers only that — detailed itineraries made to fit a particular group’s interests. Such an itinerary might look like a trip that’s entirely self-drive but painstakingly planned by NPR; a vacation that is partially escorted; or a journey helmed by a private guide from start to finish. Because certain national parks are classic family destinations, NPR has a few suggestions listed online.For example, depending on a client’s preferences and budget, NPR can secure everything from basic in-park lodging to five-star luxury properties such as Chateau du Sureau outside of Yosemite National Park. Expert guides that know off-the-tourist-path trails and other regional insights can also be arranged.“With special access and information, our guides make a trip — every evaluation we get says so,” said Mark Campbell, chief operating officer of NPR. “Some people are research fanatics and prefer to stitch things together themselves, but we work with a select group of guides and outfitters that have been carefully curated over the years. It makes sense to have us plan for you.”No matter what road a client chooses, a national park vacation is sure to yield one thing: an acute sense of pride in our land and its history — and that’s likely to inspire a future park trip.“My best advice for clients is to try not to rush and to try not to cram too much in,” said Kay Sanderford, owner of A+ Cruises and Tours Inc. in Edinburg, Texas. “Slow down, and soak in the grandeur that unfolds before you.”
PARK TOURS AT A GLANCEAmtrak VacationsTop Pick: Glacier NP Family Adventure; 7 daysHighlights: Roundtrip overnight rail service from Seattle to Glacier NP; wildlife viewing on Big Sky Circle TourPrice: From $1,309Recommended For: All ageswww.amtrakvacations.comAustin AdventuresTop Pick: Montana Yellowstone Family Vacation; 6 daysHighlights: Rafting Yellowstone River; wildlife viewing in Hayden Valley; time at historic Chico Hot Springs Resort & Spa in Montana’s Paradise ValleyPrice: From $2,598Recommended For: Ages 7 and upwww.austinadventures.comBackroadsTop Pick: Bryce, Zion & Grand Canyon Family Multisport; 6 daysHighlights: Biking in Utah’s Red Canyon; mule ride on Grand Canyon rim; swimming The Narrows, a gorge of Zion NPPrice: From $2,398Recommended For: Ages 7 and upwww.backroads.comG AdventuresTop Pick: National Parks & Bright Lights; 15 daysHighlights: Stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, plus Yosemite NP, Death Valley, Zion NP, Bryce NPPrice: From $3,299Recommended For: Ages 12 and upwww.gadventures.comNational Parks RevealedTop Pick: Fully customized tripsHighlights: In Yosemite NP, full-day tour to waterfalls, rock formations and a Sequoia grove; private historical walk in Yosemite Valley with storyteller; hike to top of Sentinel Dome and Glacier PointPrice: VariesRecommended For: All ageswww.nationalparksrevealed.comTauck BridgesTop Pick: Red Rocks & Painted Canyons; 8 daysHighlights: Time in Sedona, Ariz.; sunrise in Grand Canyon NP; private pizza party at Lake Powell Recreation Area; trail ride in Bryce Canyon NPPrice: From $3,446 (children 12 and under discounted $200)Recommended For: Ages 8 and upwww.tauck.comYankee HolidaysTop Pick: Grand Canyon & Sedona Ultimate Experience (self-drive); 5 daysHighlights: Two nights in Sedona; Pink Jeep Tour and two nights’ accommodations in Grand Canyon NPPrice: From $709Recommended For: All ageswww.yankeeholidays.com
In September, President Obama launched the Every Kid in a Park program, giving all U.S. fourth-graders and up to three adult family members free access to National Park Service lands and waters. Passes can be obtained online.