Insider’s Pass to our National Parks

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One learns that the world, though made, is yet being made. That this is still the morning of creation. That mountains, long conceived, are now being born, brought to light by the glaciers, channels traced for rivers, basins hollowed for lakes. When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe…The whole wilderness in unity and interrelation is alive and familiar…the very stones seem talkative, sympathetic, brotherly… Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike. This natural beauty — hunger is made manifest…in our magnificent National Parks — Nature’s sublime wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world. – John Muir
Gerard Baker and his mother.
Visitor to Wind Cave National Park.
Crater Lake.
William Gladstone Steel.
Stephen Mather, second for left, and Horace Albright, far right, at the dedication of Rocky Mountain National Park, 1915.
Ty Sing, the cook for the “Mather Mountain Party.”
Mather and his friends around a campfire.
Arches National Park.
President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, 1903.
Grand Canyon.
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS Established: 1934 Acreage: 521,085 Annual Visitors: 9.3 million Miles of Streams: 2,115 Miles of Trails: 800 Campgrounds: 10 developed, 1,000 back-country sites More info: Snapshot Spots For a great family photo, pose among the historic buildings found throughout the park- the best are in the Cades Cove and Cataloochee areas. A visit to Clingmans Dome will give you a 360-degree, mountain-vista view. New Found Gap Road (U.S. 441) has several places where you can pull over to take pictures of rapids and waterfalls or scenic shots from overlook points. Encompassing more than 800 square miles of the southern Appalachian range, Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosts more visitors annually than any other national park. Among the oldest mountains in the world, the Smokies have served as the back-drop of Appalachian peoples for more than 9,000 years. Today the park is a true American escape. In contrast to the iconic parks of the West, the majority of visitors to the Smokies hail from surrounding states, and less than 2 percent are from foreign countries. Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, the park booms with biological diversity- species endemic to the South occupy the lowlands, while those native to the North find refuge in higher elevations. Harrison Shull / Getty Images
Fishing: This park boasts thousands of miles of waterways and a varied terrain. You can catch three species of trout in high-mountain streams and then fish lower-elevation waters for smallmouth bass. Thanks to successful restoration efforts, fishing for brook trout reopened two years ago. Though small, the colorful brookies are the true trophies of the Smokies- even when compared to the 20-plus-inch brown and rainbow trout that lurk in some of the park’s larger waters. The Little River on the Tennessee side and Cataloochee Creek and Oconaluftee River in North Carolina are solid fisheries with miles of roadside access. Lower Abrams Creek, just inside the park boundary, is noted for smallmouths weighing up to 2.5 pounds. Fish like a local: Convenient, roadside access to fishing holes ensures two things: lots of anglers and pressured fish. To ditch blacktop-hugging tourists, catch a shuttle boat at Fontana Village. It will deposit you on the north shore of Fontana Lake- the doorstep to fishing backcountry creeks like Eagle, Hazel and Forney. Stock the box: Mayfly (light cahills and sulfurs), terrestrial (crickets, bees and beetles) and stonefly (stimulators) patterns, as well as a selection of caddis imitations and palmers, will cover you in most instances. Contact: Smoky Mountain Fly Fishing (828-497-1555; Camping: Ten developed campgrounds and more than 1,000 back-country sites are available for overnight stays. While several operate on a first-come, first-served basis, four campgrounds take online reservations (Cades Cove, Cosby, Elkmont and Smokemont). With more than 9 million visitors crowding the park, mostly during the spring and summer, it’s a good idea to reserve a spot. For the best camping on the Tennessee side of the park, stay at Abrams Campground to fish Abrams Creek, while Cades Cove gives you access to Laurel Creek and the middle prong of the Little River. Elkmont campground is the closest to the Little River proper. Cosby Campground, in the northeastern corner of the park, is an overlooked site that’s worth checking out if the others are full. To fish the northeastern corner of the park on the North Carolina side, stay at Big Creek and Cataloochee campgrounds to fish those respective rivers. From Smokemont you can fish the Bradley Fork and Oconaluftee River, but the campground is popular, so make reservations early. Grant Heilman
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK Established: 1938 Acreage: 922,651 Annual Visitors: 2.9 million Miles of Streams: 3,000 Miles of Trails: 611 Campgrounds: 16 developed More info: Snapshot Spots Each area of the park has a distinct backdrop that serves as the perfect tapestry for a family photograph. The rain forest’s shaggy trees and lichen-enveloped rocks act as a vibrant green setting, while seascapes of weathered cliffs and crashing waves frame the action along the coast. For the best views, head up to Hurricane Ridge, where panoramic scenes featuring the Strait of Juan De Fuca and glacier-coated mountains unfold as you ascend. Famous for its rain forests, the western slopes of the Olympic Mountains receive nearly 14 feet of precipitation a year. Several river valleys, including the Quinault, Queets, Hoh and Bogachiel, support the unique rain-dependent ecosystems, featuring fern-littered forest floors and ancient moss-carpeted trees. While rain forests are the highlight of the park, they¿re far from the only natural landscape. The snowcapped Olympic Mountains rise to nearly a mile above sea level, offering panoramic views of surrounding valleys and the Pacific Ocean to the west. In fact, a separate stretch of the park protects 73 miles of the rugged coast and gives visitors an opportunity to explore tidal-pool-lined beaches and to view seabirds nesting among sheer cliffs. Tom and Pat Leeson
Fishing: With more than 3,000 miles of rivers and streams and hundreds of lakes, the park features some of the best steelhead, salmon and trout habitat in the world. The Hoh, Queets, Bogachiel and Sol Duc rivers all support runs of beautiful steelhead, as well as various salmon fisheries, wild rainbow and cutthroat trout and Dolly Vardens. In the northwestern corner of the park, you’ll find Lake Crescent, an incredibly deep (nearly 700 feet in some places) and clear (the bottom is still visible in water deeper than 100 feet) lake that was carved by glaciers during the last ice age. The lake holds two strains of trout native only to its waters: the Beardslee trout, a subspecies of rainbow trout, which is often called a “blueback” by locals, and the Lake Crescent cutthroat trout. Restrictions on gear make fishing the lake difficult, but the puzzle can be worth piecing together, as big bows can push 20 pounds. From the 73 miles of coast, you can fish the surf for lingcod, rockfish, greenling, cabezon and surfperch, or dig for delectable mussels or horse, littleneck and razor clams. Fish like a local: If you want to experience some of the best steelhead action ever, you’re going to have to work for it. Lace up the hiking boots and pack a load of Power Bars, because you’ll need to venture 5 to 7 miles up the Bogachiel River. The boulder-strewn river makes for a difficult trek- for fish and man alike- but anglers are rewarded with rarely fished waters filled with heavy-shouldered steelhead that can hit the 30-pound mark. Stock the box: The fertile waters of the Pacific Northwest fluctuate drastically with the amount of rain that falls in the Olympics. To catch the attention of the area’s steelhead, you’ll need some serious hardware. B.C. Steel and Rvrfshr spoons, pink plastic worms and chunky flies all provide adequate eye-catching flash or color and have big profiles for well-muscled steelies to zero in on. On Lake Crescent, cast a size 10 or 12 stimulator or caddis pattern under overhanging trees and skitter it across the surface of the lake to entice the local cutthroats into biting. For the big Beardslee trout, you’ll have to troll as deep as possible. Contact: Angler’s Guide Service (800-577-8781; Camping: With no through-roads bisecting the park, drive-in campgrounds are limited to perimeter entry points. Olympic has 16 campgrounds, with a total of 910 sites, and two resorts¿the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort and Log Cabin Resort on Lake Crescent. With the exception of Kalaloch Campground, which accepts reservations from June 20 to September 1, the park’s campsites operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Walk-in back-country camping is available in eight wilderness areas throughout the park, but reservations are required and stays are limited. Turner Forte Photography
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK Established: 1872 Acreage: 2.2 million Annual Visitors: 3.1 million Miles of Streams: 2,650 Miles of Trails: 950 Campgrounds: 12 developed, 301 back-country sites More info: Snapshot Spots If you’re looking for the iconic Yellowstone photo-album shot, you’ll have to join the crowds in Geyser Basin and snap a frame at Old Faithful. However, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, with its thermal-enhanced yellow and orange rock faces, also makes for a dramatic setting. Geysers and hot springs, grizzly bears and wolves, picturesque landscapes and legendary rivers have come to define Yellowstone as the quintessential national park. As the first park in the country, Yellowstone set the stage for protecting wild lands both here and around the world. Spread over more than 2 million acres, the park’s diverse ecosystems and topography offer an array of environments and activities for visitors. The northwestern section features bubbling hot springs near Mammoth, and to the south lies Geyser Basin and the inveterate Old Faithful. Crossing the Great Divide into the southeastern corner, you’ll find the lake area. Following the Yellowstone River northward, you enter the colorful canyon section and eventually the wolf haven of Lamar Valley. John Elk III / Getty Images
Fishing: The storied rivers of Yellowstone have made the park a mecca for flyfishermen. The Firehole, Madison, Gardner, Yellowstone and Gibbon rivers provide miles of blue-ribbon water for anglers in search of rainbow, brook, brown and cutthroat trout, as well as arctic grayling. Prior to Memorial Day, the best action takes place on the Firehole, Madison and Gibbon rivers. Starting June 15, the big lakes, like Yellowstone, Shoshone and Lewis, begin to open. Later in the summer, after the runoff trickles out, the early season geyser-basin drainages become too warm to fish, so anglers head to the Yellowstone, Lamar and Soda Butte systems until fall. Fish like a local: You’d be hard-pressed to find a secret fishing spot along the park’s world-famous waters, but with millions of acres and miles of shoreline, finding a site to yourself isn’t especially difficult. Only about 50,000 of the park’s 3 million visitors fish- and of those, only a fraction get very far from trailheads and roadways. To ditch camera-toting tourists and their gaggles of kids, follow the lead of those who make Yellowstone their second home: – Pick almost any stream and start walking to shed the company of the masses; tourists have an affinity for the road and easy access, and don’t typically make it far from either. The only exception is Slough Creek in the northeastern corner of the park. It¿s known as a walk-in waterway, and the campground at the confluence of Slough and Buffalo creeks makes it a popular tourist spot. – A run-and-gun approach can keep you fishing some of the best stretches of water with minimal effort- just drive the rivers and pull over at promising points. Flexibility is the key to drive-by fishing- don’t wed yourself to one spot. If another angler crowds you, pack it up and drive until you find some elbow room. Stock the box: Dry flies to pack include Coachman Trude, Yellow Stimulator, Parachute Adams, Elk Hair Caddis and Blue Wing Olives. Bead-Head Prince, Copper John and a black Woolly Bugger are some subsurface flies to bring. Beginning in mid-July, terrestrials become vital, so keep hopper, ant and beetle patterns handy. Contact: Park’s Fly Shop (406-848-7314; Camping: There are a variety of overnight options in the park- from campgrounds to lodges. You can secure first-come, first-served spots early in the season, but starting in July, you’ll need reservations made well in advance. Gearld D. Tang
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK Established: 1890 Acreage: 750,000 Annual Visitors: 3.2 million Miles of Streams: 1,600 (500 of which contain fish) Miles of Trails: 800 Campgrounds: 13 developed, several back-country options More info: Snapshot Spots From famous landmarks to isolated back-country scenes, the park has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to great photo sites. For the classic overlook shot, travel to the end of Glacier Point Road, where the Yosemite Valley and High Sierra will serve as your backdrop. Yellowstone is officially our first national park, but Abraham Lincoln’s granting of the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the state of California as a scenic area in 1864 was the spark that ignited the idea of permanently protecting the country’s wildlands. Located 150 miles east of San Francisco and encompassing 1,200 square miles of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite is a testament to the forces of nature. Created by continental uplift and scoured by glaciers and flowing water, the park’s landscape features world-famous landmarks, geological wonders and awe-inspiring views. John Ditti
Fishing: Thanks to the slow carving of millions of tons of ice, Yosemite contains thousands of miles of streams and hundreds of lakes. Unfortunately, glacier-polished granite and nearly pure water tend to inhibit fish-friendly ecosystems. However, in the rivers and back-country lakes that do support fish, you’ll find four species of aggressive trout (rainbow, brown, brook and golden) and solitude from the millions of visitors crowding the valley. The best fishing in the park takes place on the Tuolumne and Merced rivers, as well as on the South Fork of the Merced- although drought has hurt fishing there. For the most accessible water, follow Tioga Road and fish the Dana Fork. High-elevation lakes scattered throughout the northern half of the park contain aggressive brookies and large golden trout. By following the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail, you can access both the Tuolumne River and the Lyell Fork. A trail leading out of the valley parallels the Merced River and leads into higher elevations around Merced Lake, which holds chunky brown trout. Fish like a local: If you can see a stretch of water from the road, don’t bother fishing it; you’ll spend valuable time casting to ultra-spooky trout with advanced degrees in imitation identification. Instead, start hiking the trails. The farther and higher in elevation you go, the fewer people and more aggressive fish you’ll encounter. To find fishable lakes in the high country, look for bodies of water with a year-round inflowing and outflowing stream; those are the only ones that contain fish. Stock the box: Because the glacial waters don’t support a robust insect community, trout will hit just about any fly offered. A selection of basic patterns in size 14 and smaller will get you into fish. Include mayfly (Pale Morning Duns, Blue Wing Olives and Adams) and caddis (October caddis and elk hair caddis) patterns, as well as terrestrials (hoppers and ants). Contact: Tim Hutchins (209-379-2746; Camping: The key to spending a night under the stars in Yosemite is to make reservations. Of the 13 campgrounds, 7 are on a reservation system. If you¿re gambling on a first-come, first-served site, get up early, as most are claimed within minutes of becoming available. Hike-in High Sierra Camps and other lodging alternatives are also available ( If you get locked out of a campsite, don’t despair. The gateway communities of Lee Vining (to the east), Oakhurst (to the south), Mariposa (to the west) and Sonora/Groveland (to the north) all provide additional lodging. Lee Foster / Digital Railroad

Ken Burns’ “National Parks:America’s Best Idea” debuts on PBS Sunday. Here’s an exclusive sneak peek at this cinematic milestone.