Since we're featuring many of the wonders of the national parks on MNN this summer, I had to chime in with my favorite experiences. I've been lucky enough to travel to the following parks: Volcanoes, Acadia, Badlands, Everglades, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Smoky Mountain, Rocky Mountain, Redwood and Yellowstone — so far! Here are my most memorable moments in each.
Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii is one of the most amazing places I have ever spent time. Between walking through giant lava tubes in the cloud forest filled with orchids and giant ferns from out of some prehistoric era, to traversing a giant plane of just-cooled lava (complete with vents steaming away), the whole place is just mind-blowing. But my favorite part was the ancient petroglyphs carved into the hard lava rock, interspersed by poofs of grass right on the ocean. It's windy in that part of the park, and with all sound and stuff stripped away, you can easily imagine being transported back in time to when the petroglyphs were first carved out.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the national park system, which is great, but the truth is that people rarely get out of their cars to explore the incredible ecosystem there. I backpacked and hiked the park with a friend about a month after breaking up with a partner who I'd been with for almost seven years. To say I was a bit raw is an understatement. I'll never forget just leaning up against one of the ancient-growth trees next to the trail and crying my heart out. It was incredibly comforting to lean on the tree — which had been around for hundreds of years before I was even born — and how reassuring that was. Old-growth trees are extremely rare on the East Coast and the Smokies are one of the few places you can find them. Go see the Smokies for the views, but stay for a hike and check out some of the magnificent trees. Park staff can direct you to some easy-to-find examples.
Glacier National Park is a jaw-dropping marvel of geology, with all kinds of massive dropoffs and amazing precipices of rock. The photo ops are endless, but the most memorable time I spent there involved running for about 30 minutes straight to a glacial lake and jumping in (even though it was summertime, the water was absolutely icy). (Which lake was it? I'll never be sure, what with Glacier containing about 130 of them). Walking back on the path, I came across a wild mountain goat who looked me right in the eye. As I rounded the corner of the path, I came across its baby, who skittered away when I gave it a lopsided smile. Honestly, I don't think I've ever seen anything as cute — ever — as that wild baby mountain goat.
The Everglades is a huge, mysterious place — and an incredibly important natural filtration system for the Gulf of Mexico. I visited the Everglades when I was 8 with my grandma, and we had good fun watching the pelicans swooping down and catching, tossing in the air, and eating fresh fish from the pond below. When I was 16, I took a sea kayaking trip to the 'glades outer islands with my good friend from high school; we paddled all day and stayed on all-sand keys at night. Since I was taking a week off from school to do the trip, I had some homework to complete, and reading "Hamlet" for the first time, I finally "understood" Shakespeare as I sat on a key one afternoon, toes in the sand, salt water lapping at the tiny shore just below me, laughing and crying at The Bard's amazing story. Not all of the Everglades are swamp (though that's fun too); there are miles of islands and sea that are part of the preserve too.
Related: Dream big and find more parks to explore this summer