5 National Parks to Visit First When You Retire
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Since retirement — and our introduction to the world of points and miles, thanks to our daughter, Mommy Points — my wife and I have traveled far more than we ever dreamed possible. Just call us Grandpa and Grandma Points.
I am now approaching my 70th birthday, and my wife is, well, let’s just say she’s a little younger than me and leave it at that. Even before we retired, travel always played a significant role in our lives.
As a photographer by trade, I’m mostly a storyteller, and images are imperative to my narratives. My wife (who was an educator for almost 40 years) and I love exploring nature, and our travels are often US-centric as we enjoy finding beauty close to home.
Now, of course, with age come certain physical boundaries that previously did not exist. The limitations may be minor or major, but they are very real. Grandma Points and I tailored our own retirement travel to-do list to best match the requirements of a destination with our current or anticipated state of health.
In no particular order, here are some of our favorite national parks for those young of spirit but gray of hair. Note that we are not referencing any extreme hikes or adventures, and are considering the average senior visitor and their approximate level of fitness.
And before you plot out your first parks to visit upon retirement, make sure to purchase an America the Beautiful Lifetime Senior Pass, available to US citizens and permanent residents age 62 and older. The current fee for a lifetime senior pass is $80 — a great deal if you plan to visit multiple national parks, since many now have a $35 vehicle entrance fee.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park, in southwest Colorado, is home to the famous Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and might easily be considered the Machu Picchu of North America. There are hundreds of sites of varying size and state of preservation, with the most famous being the Cliff Palace , the Long House, Spruce Tree House and Balcony House. A Park Ranger-guided tour will be required to access most of the dwellings.
Visiting the cliff dwellings requires a shortish walk with some elevation change, and climbing and navigating narrow passages, but it’s certainly doable for most visitors. The Balcony House presents more challenges and does require a moderate level of conditioning. You’ll need to negotiate narrow doorways, skinny halls, tight turns and several 35-foot, steep wooden ladders during this one-hour tour.
The Spruce House is easily accessed from the nearby parking area and is also the start and terminus of a 2.5 mile-long hike called the Petroglyph Loop Tour. It featured a few steep and rocky segments, but introduced us to the area’s stunning prehistoric rock drawings, and also led us to the top of the mesa for panoramic views. The hardest part of the Spruce House visit may be the winding pathway back to the parking lot, but there are benches at well-placed intervals.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Some great hikes of varying difficulties can be found here. Our favorite hike within Bryce Canyon is the Navajo Loop.
This hike would be a real test for anyone with mobility, breathing or heart issues. It is not long, but it features significant elevation gain. The Navajo can be between 1.5 and 3 miles in length, depending on whether or not you link it up with another popular trail, the Queens Garden. There are narrow canyons, forested walkways, arches, bridges and hidden alcoves. The loop’s most famous feature is the series of switchbacks that crisscross the slope as you climb back to the top.
This section is aptly called Wall Street, and if you use your imagination, you can imagne yourself ascending a New York City skyscraper as you climb out of the shadows toward the sunlight.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is a big place with vast and distant vistas that can present certain challenges in terms of stamina, endurance and ease of access. For travelers with physical restrictions, even the walk from the parking area to Old Faithful can seem daunting and make the anticipated hourly eruption feel like a chore rather than a pleasure.
To view the brink of the famous Lower Falls, visitors must negotiate a relatively short distance — a little under half of a mile — with a significant drop of roughly 600 feet in elevation. This stretch features a number of nice switchbacks that control the grades (there’s a maximum pitch of 22 degrees). Your quadriceps will definitely get a workout going down as you fight the descent angle and the pull of gravity.
On the return ascent, you’ll drop into your lowest gear as your lungs and muscles burn and you scan the path for the next spot to take a break. A sign at the top can be taken as either a congratulatory message that you made, it or a warning to consider the consequences of your next action.
The view of the fall’s brink and the accompanying roar of water as it plunges 300 feet down to rejoin the river is impressive — even for someone who has had a phobia of waterfalls since going over a 40-footer at the age of eight. True story.
The boardwalk access and route to get an up-close look at the Grand Prismatic Springs and the Mammoth Hot Springs may also be discouraging for some travelers.
While we personally love traveling in the fall when families are back in the school routine, and while much of Yellowstone is fantastic in September and October, there is a downside when viewing the hot springs and thermal pools at this time of year.
The hot water bubbling to the surface interacts with the cooler air, forming steam that tends to obscure the landscape. The Grand Prismatic Spring, which is usually colorful and vibrant in the summer, can become less visually impressive in fall and winter. Even Old Faithful can lose some its punch when its water-cannon explosion is shrouded by a cloud of gray mist.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes. It can be blinding bright and oppressively hot, or dry, cool and ominously dark. It can be a mild and easy destination to visit, or it can be challenging and downright dangerous. The heat between the months of May and September can be overwhelming, and not ideal for travelers with certain physical conditions. Warning signs stressing the dangers of the high temperatures are all over.
When traveling through Death Valley in the summer heat, both you and your car should be in good working order and equipped with plenty of water.
There’s a delightful number of scenic drives in the area, including Artist’s Drive. If you’re feeling up to it, you can take a short walk around Artist’s Palette from the parking lot for an intimate look at the multi-colored rock formations.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is called Arches for a very good reason. There are roughly 2,000 arches within the park — delicate, natural sculptures varying from three to over 300 feet high. Arches is also full of towers, spires, hoodoos and ochre-colored sand. There is a lot to see and appreciate, but some of the best of these natural attractions can only be seen by hiking right up to them.
One of these attractions is the aforementioned 300-foot arch, the Landscape Arch, the world’s longest. A well-maintained path provides access, but it’s about two miles out and back.
Another wonder is the Delicate Arch. To get to this popular formation, a trek of about three miles across an open and exposed area is necessary. Part of the journey is across a rocky slope with about 500 feet of elevation gain, and this hike in the warmer months really mandates significant hydration. It is also possible to view the Delicate Arch from a distance with a hike across a sandy and brushy expanse of several hundred yards.
To get close to the Double Arch and the Windows requires a one mile, round-trip hike. One of our favorites at Arches National Park was the Sand Dune Arch, close to the main road but not visible from it. A shortish hike to a tight one-way canyon with narrow passageways and deep sand floors makes this small detour very interesting.
Arches can get very crowded during peak tourist months, so if off-season travel is possible in your retirement, you will likely be rewarded by cooler weather and far fewer visitors battling for parking spaces and photo ops.
We have noticed during our travels to many of the country’s National Parks that many highlights can either be viewed from well-maintained roads or from strategic turnouts and scenic overlooks. This allows every visitor the chance to have their breath taken away by exquisite natural beauty, rather than by physical exertion.
But if you still have a hop in your step, there is simply no time like the present to hit the parks’ trails. Plan the details of your travels thoroughly, tell your kids and grandkids you’re going on vacation and don’t forget to pack some just-in-case Advil.
Feature image by @meric via Unsplash.
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