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Why Your Next Vacation Should Be To A National Park

The parks formed my understanding of geology, history, biology. They symbolized fond memories, unforgettable sights, togetherness as a family.

I'm no travel agent, but if you're thinking about where and what your next vacation will be, I have a suggestion for you: Go to a national park or three.

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I know this from experience. Growing up, I went on a lot more national parks vacations than any other trip, which I didn't think much of at the time, but in retrospect, makes perfect sense.

Terri Pous

For starters, I grew up in a big family, and it was a lot easier to pile all six of us into the Ford Taurus station wagon my sisters and I called "the big ugly bump" and drive around and between national parks than it was to fly anywhere exotic. But also, the parks had something for everyone: history and science that awed my parents, and a zillion of activities for the rest of us. You can hike in national parks, sure, but you can also canoe, snorkel, stargaze...the list goes on. Even though my sister once asked, "If this is a park, where are the swings?" there was always plenty of things to do to keep us occupied and happy.

The beauty of a national parks trip, though, is that it actually offers you the chance to reset and de-stress your system...which is kind of the point of a true vacation.

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"If you have time for a vacation, don’t go to a city. Go to a natural area. Try to go one weekend a month," Qing Li, an immunologist in the department of environmental medicine at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, says in Florence Williams' The Nature Fix. Li knows from research that spending time in nature increases disease-killing NK cells, promotes happiness and reduces stress. And the positive effects of this outdoor time only increase the longer you do it, especially when combined with exercise. So yeah, a couple-day trip to the Grand Canyon where you walk around the rim is a science-backed good vacation idea.

They’re also — depending on where you live, of course — relatively inexpensive.

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As you probably learned last year when President Trump tried to increase park entrance fees, it's decently affordable to get into them. The fees vary from park to park, but generally, it's no more than $20 a person and $30 a vehicle to enter. That's great news if you leave within driving distance from 417 National Park Service-recognized sites, including the 60 official national parks.

Also, depending on where you go, it can be easy to see several in one trip. Fly into Utah, for example, and you can visit Capitol Reef, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonland, and Arches by driving just a few hours between each.

And when you're there, you can go on free tours with literally the most knowledgeable people.

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National park rangers, aka your personal guides to the great outdoors, will lead you around the parks, telling you the history, biology, and ecology of everything you see. Every time I've jumped on a ranger tour, I've been left feeling stunned at their breadth of knowledge and grateful that they — many of whom are volunteers — are there to act as translators between me and the miracles and wonders of nature.

Which is honestly wild, because there are so many things to see: Tunnels into the center of volcanoes. Ancient dwellings carved right into the side of cliffs. A world of underwater coral.

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These aren't settings in a fantasy movie or video game, they're iconic features in the US National Park Service, and they belong to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, and Dry Tortugas National Park, respectively. And amazingly, they're all on this earth. They look like they could be on Mars, but they're all somehow on (or near) this continent, which is just wild. I see a lot of unbelievable things, like people manspreading so wide on the subway that no one else can sit down, but rarely anything that fills me with the good kind of awe that these do.

People often scoff at Americans who've never been out of the country, but the simple fact is that it's expensive, and America is so freakin' large that you can see some pretty incredible sights without having to cross a border or even necessarily board a plane.

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Literally. Look at General Sherman in Sequoia National Park and tell me you wouldn't put that on top of your travel bucket list. People come from outside the country, from all over the word, to see things like that firsthand. When I was in Yellowstone last year, I ran into a group of Israeli women in the bathroom who'd just come off of 24 hours of travel to get there, but were beside themselves with excitement to see Old Faithful.

Getting to see something like the view from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park is kind of like paying your respects to nature itself. It's a pilgrimage, and one that can be incredibly emotional and rewarding.

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The last time I was in a national park, it was August 2016 and I was in Grand Teton National Park. It was a few weeks before the NPS’ 100th anniversary, and there was a festive, reverential mood in the park. There was going to be cake, Ranger Brian informed us during our three-hour hike through the Tetons, but the celebration was about a lot more than cake. He asked all 15-20 people on the tour to tell him what the national parks meant to us. Other people in our group, who hailed from as far as Poland, talked about their love of outdoors and appreciation for preserving so much it. By the time it was my turn, tears were springing out of the corners of my eyes — and not just because of that three-hour hike.

I was just so grateful for all of the experiences the national parks gave me just by existing. The parks formed my understanding of geology, history, biology. They symbolized fond memories, unforgettable sights, togetherness as a family. Our trips there were the biggest gift we could possibly be given, a haven from buildings and corporations and anything that remotely resembled the stressors of everyday life.

Given all of this, it's no wonder that writer and historian Wallace Stegner called the national parks "the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."

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I don't know about you, but I'm a fan of good ideas and democracy. If you are too, then I'm guessing you'll enjoy a trip to a national park.

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