From guide school in Big Bend to an Acadia solo trip: 4 of my most memorable national park trips
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Editor’s note: In celebration of National Park Week, which runs from April 16-24, The Points Guy is publishing a series of articles focusing on the beauty and diversity of America’s national parks. We will share personal stories from the TPG team, as well as news and tips that will help you get the most out of your next national park visit. The following story is part of this series.
My family didn’t visit many U.S. national parks when I was young. So, I didn’t understand the appeal until I tagged along on a national park road trip with my husband’s family (at that time, my boyfriend’s family) in college.
Then, when I moved to Austin for graduate school, I discovered two amazing national parks (Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains) and a national seashore (Padre Island) were all within a day’s drive. After taking my first camping trip ever to see the early morning release of a sea turtle nest at Padre Island, my love of national parks quickly grew.
Today, I’ll describe some of my most memorable and inspirational national park visits, and include some tips on how you can plan similar trips yourself.
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Guide school in Big Bend National Park
While in graduate school at The University of Texas at Austin, I was looking for something new to challenge me in my free time. So, I decided to apply for guide school through my university’s outdoor recreation program.
I was surprised the program chose me over applicants with more outdoor experience. But, after a semester of classes and short trips, we set off for a seven-night guide school capstone trip to Big Bend National Park.
I’d been to Big Bend once before, staying within the park at the Chisos Mountains Lodge and taking day hikes. But this guide school trip was my first true backcountry trip.
We spent five days and four nights canoeing the Rio Grande from Lajitas through Santa Elena Canyon to the pullout just after the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead. Those days and nights were exhausting but magical. We camped at backcountry campsites along the river, hiked to remote canyons, stopped at overlooks above Santa Elena Canyon, and spent the evenings in deep discussions and learning sessions.
It was memorable to stay along the U.S. and Mexico border for so long, landing on both sides to scout rapids. And the landscapes, especially at sunset, were amazing.
It was also surreal to only see two other people during our entire time on the river. But, what was particularly affecting and memorable about this trip were the friendships and bonds I made, the skills I learned and the things I began to recognize in myself and others.
We also spent time hiking in the Chisos Mountains before returning to Austin. We did a long day hike on the South Rim trail and to Emory Peak before concluding the trip with a meal at the Chisos Mountains Lodge.
If Big Bend’s beauty sounds appealing, you can do a version of this trip yourself. You can hire a guide in Lajitas to take you on a similar river trip and do as much (or as little) of the planning and preparation as you’d like. One option is Far Flung Outdoor Center, which provided river information and vehicle shuttles for our trip.
You can also hike in the Chisos mountains as a long day trip or an overnight backpacking trip. The trails in the Chisos Mountains are all well maintained and easy to navigate — just don’t expect to find reliable water sources once you leave the visitor center. As such, the hike up from the basin can be strenuous if you’re carrying water for multiple nights. The backcountry campsites in the Chisos Mountains have bear boxes, so there’s no need to bring your own.
Removing invasive plant species in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
My first assignment after completing guide school was a nine-night alternative spring break trip to remove invasive plant species at Lees Ferry, in Arizona, which is jointly managed by Grand Canyon National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. We spent five nights at Lees Ferry on the service project and two nights in Mather Campground at the Grand Canyon.
We had two large group sites at Lees Ferry Campground and we camped alongside the two Grand Canyon staff members who were running the project. We spent four days at Lees Ferry removing invasive Sahara mustard plants around the campground. And we used a few hours each evening before sunset to walk nearby canyons, swim in the Colorado River, hike to the Spencer Trail lookout and visit Lonely Dell Ranch.
And although we only spent two nights at the Grand Canyon, we fit in a ranger-led stargazing talk, a hike deep into the canyon and walks along the Rim Trail.
This trip required five guides, who split driving duties across three vehicles for over 1,200 miles from Austin to Lee’s Ferry. While driving, I had plenty of good discussions, but I also saw firsthand how poverty afflicts some Southwestern U.S. communities. This trip let me see an entirely different side of the country that you miss when flying.
It’s likely impossible to replicate this exact experience. Some alternative spring break trips offered by universities accept alumni, though. And if you have a group of your own, you may be able to arrange a similar trip. Several organizations also organize volunteer trips to national parks, including ConservationVIP and the American Hiking Society.
Alternatively, you could camp at Lees Ferry Campground and Mather Campground on your own and do nearby hikes. Or, if you live near a national park (or want to), you could become a national park volunteer for a more extended period.
Solo camping in Acadia National Park
Most of my national park trips have been with family or guiding a trip. But, after representing my university at a robot soccer competition in Brunswick, Maine, I added on a few extra days to visit Acadia National Park. Since I was traveling alone, this became my first solo national park visit.
I camped in Blackwoods Campground for two nights. As with any solo trip, I enjoyed the freedom to see the park at my own pace and exactly as I wanted. I did several hikes, drove around the park, walked on a beach and stopped at Jordan Pond House for their famous popovers (but found it closed for the season).
My visit was in the shoulder season, so the park and campground were relatively uncrowded. Ferries weren’t running and multiple trails were still closed for nesting birds. It also began snowing as I drove back to the airport in Portland, Maine, to catch my flight home.
Despite the closures and snow, however, this national park trip was one of my most memorable because it was my first solo national park trip and one of my first times hiking and camping alone. Plus, due to the off-season, I felt wonderfully alone in parts of the park.
If you’re looking to take an off-season or shoulder season trip to Acadia National Park, note that Blackwoods Campground currently only opens from May to October, so an April camping trip such as I took would be off the table. As many of the accommodations in Bar Harbor are seasonal, you’ll want to plan your lodging in advance. Check the national park website for opening dates for roads, campgrounds, picnic areas and more.
Visiting Zion National Park in an RV
Back in 2018, my husband and I rented an RV for just $1 a day from Las Vegas to Denver. This rental was a relocation rental, meaning we paid very little to take on the job of relocating an RV from one location to another. Even better, we were given extra incentives, including a gas and travel stipend.
One downside of relocation rentals is that you often don’t have much more time than is necessary to relocate the vehicle. But, by driving more miles on three of the four days, we were able to spend two nights and one full day in Zion National Park. I made the most of the day with a hike to Observation Point and a short hike up the Narrows in the water.
This trip was memorable because it was our first time driving an RV and I snagged two coveted nights at Zion’s Watchman Campground at the last minute. The trip was also meaningful because it showed us we could confidently drive an RV — which likely had a role in us buying a similar RV in 2020 to keep traveling during the coronavirus pandemic.
If you want to try an RV relocation rental yourself, keep an eye on imoova and book quickly if you see a trip that looks appealing to you.
Find your own alternative national park adventures
There are many different ways to enjoy national parks. I prefer camping (both in tents and by RV), backpacking and hiking. But, regardless of how you prefer to enjoy nature, you can likely find an unexpected or alternative national park adventure that’s right for you.
Of course, your experience and preferences will strongly dictate what this looks like in practice. Perhaps you want to focus on less well-known national parks. Or, you may want to venture into the backcountry at popular national parks instead of sticking to well-trafficked trails.
It’s good to get out of your comfort zone, as doing so can create memorable experiences and help you grow. But, for more intrepid journeys that require complex planning, you may want to join a group or hire a professional guide.
Unexpected adventures can’t be designed — by nature, they are unplanned. But, patience and curiosity will often avail you to chance encounters. By doing your research online or chatting with locals, you may discover alternative viewpoints or hidden gem experiences. For example, we wouldn’t have known about most of the canyons we visited in Big Bend if we hadn’t traveled with individuals incredibly familiar with the park.
Likewise, consider exploring outside the primary areas of a park. Hiking the backpacking loop trail in Zion’s Southwest Desert allowed me to see an entirely different side of Zion.
Whether you venture far from home or to a nearby park, I wish you happy adventuring.
Featured image by Julius Reque/Getty Images.
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