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In the nearly 150 years since Yellowstone Park became the world's first national park, the National Park Service (NPS) has developed a long list of distinctive activities to entertain recreational visitors and nature enthusiasts.
In 1936, when a young Gerald Ford was employed at Yellowstone (the only U.S. president to serve as a NPS park ranger), his duties included working as an armed guard at the park's bear-feeding truck.
Although bear feeding is no longer offered at America's national parks, activities extend well beyond traditional hiking, biking and picnicking options. Here are some of the distinctive programs available to visitors.
Bird BandingNaturalists at Lassen Volcanic National Park, in California, monitor migratory birds that make their seasonal home in the park. A yearly capture-and-release program allows visitors to help attach bands to birds so that rangers can track their health and population growth.
Dive-In TheaterDuring the summer months at Maine’s Acadia National Park, “Dive-in Theater” boat tours head into Frenchman Bay in search of seals, porpoises and eagles. Boat crew members dive with an underwater camera, and as images are projected topside, park rangers narrate the crew’s findings.
Fruit PickingAlthough visitors are generally encouraged not to remove anything they find in national parks, several historic orchards at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah provide an annual bounty of cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, apples, plums, almonds and walnuts. For a small fee visitors can consume the fruit while visiting the park.
Helicopter ToursGuests of the Four Seasons Resort and Residences in Jackson Hole, Wyo., can enjoy a three-hour helicopter ride over the area surrounding Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks in a comfortable Bell helicopter. Participants are accompanied by a resort biologist who points out geysers, hot springs, waterfalls and wildlife.
LobsteringDuring lobster season, visitors with a valid fishing license can catch up to six lobsters per day at Florida’s Biscayne National Park. Regulations apply, including a ban on lobstering inside an area sanctuary, but the park offers a free fisheries awareness class to help visitors stay abreast of fishing laws.
Low-Light CavingExploring natural caves can be an exhilarating adventure, but using only the light of a candle or a lantern to guide you can add a spooky spin to the journey. At Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, visitors can walk in the footsteps of early explorers guided only by the light of a handheld candle bucket. Lanterns are used to navigate the steep hills and uneven terrain in the oldest passageways at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park.
Owl ProwlThe mossy low country at Congaree National Park in South Carolina protects such wildlife as river otters, opossums and bobcats. On select summer nights, guests can participate in an owl prowl, where park rangers help identify the call of the owls who make their home here.
Geocache TrailAt Florida’s Everglades National Park, a GPS Geocache Trail encourages guests to locate hidden caches, which ask participants to think about conservation issues faced by park rangers. One location, for example, asks guests to consider how they would minimize chance encounters between humans and alligators. Geocachers can log their suggestions online while also learning how the park is addressing these issues.
QuestingSimilarly, questing also involves finding hidden locations. While GPS Geocaching relies on the use of an electronic unit, at Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park, questers must follow written clues to find the secret locations. Here, rangers have developed 37 quest trails, which are located throughout four counties.
SandboardingThe wide-open spaces at Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve are perfect for adventure seekers who want to try something new. Sandboarding, skiing and sledding are available at designated areas within the park. Equipment — snow gear does not work here — can be rented from area retailers.
Search and RescueAt Yosemite National Park, park ranger John Dill became one of the first members of the Yosemite Search and Rescue team in 1974. He has participated in almost every significant rescue in Yosemite National Park. Every Tuesday, Dill, in conjunction with the Yosemite Conservancy, shares the inner workings of the park’s emergency response missions, including videos of past rescues.
Stand-Up PaddleBoardingThe popular activity of stand-up paddleboarding has made its way to Alaska. Liquid Adventures delivers participants to the base of Bear Glacier, the largest glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, where they can paddleboard next to stunning glaciers and icebergs.
Star Train ToursNevada’s Great Basin is the stage for an evening of star gazing as part of a program run by the Northern Nevada Railway. Passengers board a historic train accompanied by Great Basin National Park’s Dark Rangers, who provide narration on astronomical topics. A remote desert stop provides high-powered telescopes for viewing celestial objects.
Wagon RidesFor old-fashioned fun, Xanterra Parks & Resorts offers covered wagon adventures through the sagebrush flats of Yellowstone National Park. At the end of the ride, guests enjoy an Old West dinner cookout and western songs performed by a singing cowboy.
Watch a Symphony OrchestraIn August 2014, the Utah Symphony will embark upon an epic tour of Utah’s red rock country. The full symphony orchestra will perform four concerts in outdoor venues near the state’s iconic national parks, including Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon and Zion, known collectively as “The Mighty 5.”
National Wildlife Refuge SystemAmerica’s national parks are just one way to enjoy the country’s natural bounty. While travelers may tend to overlook the refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System, they are often easier to access and less crowded than their national park counterparts.
“We’re so fortunate in this country to have an unsurpassed network of lands dedicated to conserving wildlife, including iconic species like the bald eagle, bison and American alligator,” said Jim Kurth, chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System. “The Refuge System not only preserves our natural heritage, it also provides outdoor recreation and cleaner air and water for our communities.”
Archery LessonsGuests can learn the fundamentals of shooting a bow and arrow at North Dakota’s Audubon National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), where a refuge instructor teaches the basics of target shooting in a safe environment.
Bats Among UsAnyone who’s ever been afraid of bats might be surprised to learn the important role they play in helping preserve the ecosystem. Cowboy Lake NWR in Washington and McKay Creek NWR in Oregon both offer “Bats Among Us” programs during the summer months, allowing visitors to learn about bats as they emerge at dusk.
Bunker ToursThirty soil-covered ammunition bunkers known as “igloos” can be found in Assabet River NWR in Massachusetts. Constructed in 1942, the bunkers were used to store war materials and ammunition being shipped to and from Boston for transport overseas during World War II. Today public tours of the bunkers are available.
Honey Harvest FestivalEvery September, the Maryland State Beekeepers Association celebrates the annual Maryland Honey Harvest Festival. Unfolding at the state’s Patuxent Research NWR, the festival features arts and crafts, honey tastings and candle-making demonstrations.
Evening Moth TourAuthor and zoologist Jim Sogaard, a volunteer at Minnesota’s Sherburne NWR, guides a nighttime tour that searches for moths and caterpillars while discussing the ecological importance of these creatures.
Pony SwimAt Chincoteague NWR, visitors can view the famous wild ponies, which gained notoriety in Marguerite Henry’s well-known children’s book Misty of Chincoteague. Every summer, the wild horses are herded at neighboring Assateague Island, and then they swim over to Chincoteague Island in the famed pony swim. Proceeds benefit the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department.
Scorpion HuntThe hunt for scorpions is on. While searching for these predatory arachnids using UV black lights, guests at Nevada’s Moapa Valley NWR learn how animals adapt to thrive in the dark. Guests also keep their eyes and ears open for coyote, deer and owls.
Snakes AliveSome 22 species of migratory snakes make their home in the swampy lands at Missouri’s Mingo NWR. During Snakes Alive, a refuge ranger discusses the habits of these snakes; the bravest visitors can even handle the snakes if they desire.
Sugar Cane BoilTake part in a traditional sugar cane boil at Georgia’s Okefenokee NWR. Cut your own sugar cane, grind it using a traditional mule-operated grinder and sample the sweet cane juice. Staff and volunteers then boil down the sugar cane juice to produce authentic pure cane syrup.
Red Wolf HowlsNorth Carolina’s Alligator River NWR — the only place in the world where red wolves still exist in the wild — offers a program in conjunction with the Red Wolf Recovery Program, where guests can listen to the harmonious howl of this endangered species.
At Wind Cave National Park, visitors are guided by candlelight in a handheld bucket. // © 2014 Wind Cave National Park
Adventure seekers can try sandboarding in the park. // © 2014 Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
A GPS Geocache Trail invites guests to locate hidden caches. // © 2014 Everglades National Park
Visitors can try paddleboarding next to icebergs and glaciers at Kenai Fjords National Park. // © 2014 Liquid Adventures
At the end of a covered wagon ride at Yellowstone National Park, guests can dig into an Old West cookout feast. // © 2014 Xanterra Parks & Resorts
You'll need lanterns to navigate the passageways at Mammoth Cave National Park. // © 2014 Mammoth Cave Park
Enjoy a beautiful symphony performance in one of Utah’s “Mighty 5” parks. // © 2014 Utah Symphony
Four Seasons Resort guests can enjoy a gorgeous view of Jackson Hole, and the neighboring Grand Teton National Park, via helicopter // © 2014 Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts
Guests howl with the wolves at Alligator River NWR. // © 2014 Steve Hillebrand/USFWS
Every week, the Yosemite Conservancy shares the inner workings of the Search and Rescue team at Yosemite National Park. // © 2014 NPS Yosemite National Park
Guests can learns about the life cycle of bees at Patuxent Research NWR Honey Harvest Festival // © Nell Baldacchino/USFWS
"Bats Among Us" is a program offered both at Cowboy Lake NWR in Washington and McKay Creek NWR in Oregon. // © 2014 Sue McDonald/USFWS
At Chincoteague NWR, visitors can view the famous wild ponies as they swim the channel between Assateague and Chincoteague Islands. // © 2011 Chincoteague NWR/USFWS
America the Beautiful
The easiest way to visit America’s federally protected lands is by purchasing an “America the Beautiful: The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass.” The $80 annual pass includes admission to more than 2,000 recreation areas managed by five federal agencies, including those listed here.
National Park ServiceThe National Park Service (NPS) protects some of the most magnificent and historic sites throughout the United States and its territories, including national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails and the White House.
National Wildlife Refuge SystemThe National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS), under the auspices of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, protects and manages wildlife and habitats.
Bureau of Land ManagementVisitors to the Western United States might be most familiar with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages wilderness areas in 12 western states.
Bureau of ReclamationThe Bureau of Reclamation is known for its oversight of the dams, power plants and canals constructed in 17 western states, including Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and Grand Coulee on the Columbia River.
U.S. Forest ServiceThe U.S. Forest Service (USFS) oversees national forests and national grasslands, which include more than 10,000 developed recreation sites and 9,100 miles of National Scenic Byways.
Voluntourism in National Parks
While most national parks and wildlife refuges offer short-term volunteer programs, visitors who want a more in-depth experience can also participate in a number of multi-day programs.
REI Adventures: REI, the award-winning sporting-goods brand, has teamed up with the Conservation Volunteers International Program to offer a number of volunteer adventure programs in America’s national parks. For example, travelers can choose a 12-day getaway at Virgin Islands National Park that includes trail work, free time for snorkeling and swimming and accommodations at the Virgin Islands Environmental Research Station. www.rei.com/adventures
Conservation Vacations: Conservation Vacations, managed by the American Conservation Experience, offers several 11-day volunteer experiences in Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon national parks. Participants often work to remove invasive species and perform light trail work, and they use free time at night and on the weekends for exploring the parks and their offerings. www.usaconservation.org
National Park Servicewww.nps.gov
National Wildlife Refuge Systemwww.fws.gov/refuges