National Parks Gear Up for Summer Rush

TerraVelo Tours, specializes in bike and hike tours with a glamping component.

Last year saw a record number of visitors to the National Park Service’s more than 400 parks, monuments, battlefields, seashores and other sites. Those numbers are expected to increase as the agency approaches its centennial anniversary on Aug. 25, 2016.

The wealth of visitors is great but spreading it around can be a challenge, Kathy Kupper, a spokeswoman for the park service, said on the phone from her office in Washington, D.C.

“The iconic parks are always jammed, but there is incredible wildlife in Theodore Roosevelt too,” she said, referring to the national park in North Dakota. “It’s just not on people’s radar.”

The same is true for the agency’s growing number of historic and cultural sites, she said. “There’s a lot of focus right now on finding gaps in our collective history and culture. Not to take anything away from the classics, but the parks are more than wilderness.”

For Dan Wenk, interim president of the National Park Foundation and a director of Yellowstone, the parks can be a place for spiritual and emotional renewal, “whether you’re in Alcatraz or Yellowstone,” he said. “I consider them societal institutions that tell the stories of our triumph, joy, despair and history,” he said. “So how people connect with the parks is important.”

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Petrified Forest National Park is now mapping self-guided hikes to its more off-the-beaten-path destinations. CreditNPS/Andrew Kearns

To assist with those connections, the agency and its foundation createdFind Your Park, an interactive website that registers a users’ intellectual, geographical and activity preferences in order to suggest a park that’s right for them and then lets them share their experiences in the parks with “like-minded souls,” as Mr. Wenk put it.

The digital outreach continued with the start of the first National Park Service Instagram account last month; and a pilot program is designed to test a digital platform from which individual parks can create their own mobile apps. Some parks already offer apps independently from the park service and are enhancing them with GPS-enabled maps, digital park ranger tours and junior ranger activities.

Within the parks, visitors are likely to see a nominal increase in entry fees across the board, the upside of which is enhanced programming and visitors’ centers, lodging expansion and trail restoration, especially for bike use. And in so-called “gateway” towns to the iconic parks in the west, new glamping options, breweries, distilleries and attractions for children are helping take the “rough” out of roughing it.

What else is new at the national parks? Below is a list of highlights by state. Be sure to share any of your own discoveries in the comments section.

ARIZONA

Petrified Forest National Park is now mapping self-guided hikes to its more off-the-beaten-path destinations, in part to remind visitors that the parks are theirs to roam, Richard Ullmann, a park official, said in an email. “Historically, this was not always the case based on a theory that petrified wood was being stolen,” but “a multiyear rephotography effort now shows that the vast majority of visitors have done the right thing.”

Tours range from leisurely walks to strenuous hikes and can lead to petroglyphs, Triassic-era conifers or fossil beds in the Red Basin, the park’s newest land acquisition.

In August, a new field institute, sponsored by the Petrified Forest Museum Association, will begin offering classes led by geologists, archaeologists, photographers and other experts. And in 2016, look for electric vehiclecharging stations to appear at the north and south entrances of the park.

CALIFORNIA

Are you still “roughing it” if pre-seasoned rib-eye steaks are delivered to your cabin door? After a long day of hiking around steaming fumaroles and boiling lakes, who cares? The steaks are just one perk in the new Deluxe and Dinner Date amenity packages being offered at the Manzanita Lake camping cabins in Lassen Volcanic National Park this season. Cooking supplies, pillow-top mattress covers and s’mores kits are also included. (Packages start at $100.)

Yosemite is all about restoration this year. This month the park’s main corridor, Tioga Road, is undergoing major repairs to fix pavement and signage, add parking and improve bathrooms. In March, the park welcomed a herd of Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep back to its Cathedral Range after the conclusion of a multiyear project to repopulate the endangered species. The park’s Ansel Adams Gallery, which showcases the famous nature photographer’s works, reopened to the public in April after remodeling to allow full accessibility for the disabled. Even John Muir, known as the father of the national parks, is being revived by the actor Lee Stetson, who will answer audience questions about the park and its history at the Yosemite Theater as part of the park’s new theatrical programming.

COLORADO

Wetherill Mesa, known as the quieter side of Mesa Verde National Park, will have an extended season this year (through mid-October), giving cyclists ample to time to enjoy new access to the park’s six-mile Long House Loop, a paved path formerly used for tram service, and the backcountry routes on the park’s most popular hike, which has added a cycling component to its itinerary. Naturally, plans are in the works to open an on-site bike rental operation within the year.

Downward dog may be an ideal body posture for fossil hunting. AtFlorissant Fossil Beds National Monument, a park guide, who is also a certified yoga instructor, leads groups in that and other poses at stops along different trails during Yoga Hikes, part of the park’s Hikes for Your Health series.

And this summer marks the end of the Rocky Mountain National Parkcentennial celebration, and so too, its special programming like the climbers’ oral history project, concerts from the Colorado Wind Ensemble and the Celebrating Rocky Invitational Art Show (June 6).

Just a year after local officials eased regulations on opening breweries and distilleries in Rocky Mountain’s gateway town, Estes Park, a number of operations are in the works. Lumpy Ridge Brewing Company, a 15-barrel microbrewery with an indoor tasting room and outdoor patio, is the first scheduled to open this summer, with two distilleries and three more breweries to follow before the end of the year.

Estes Park is adding two festivals: Western Days (May 29 to 31), which celebrates the area’s regional heritage with music, an art show and, to keep things real, a barrel-racing competition; and, after a short-lived run in Fort Collins, Colo., the Rocky Mountain Irish Gathering (June 18 to 21), is to be resurrected in Estes Park with a beefed-up list of international music groups, highland dancing, genealogy exploration and a new sporting competition, Irish Road Bowling.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

The new Rock Creek Park GPS-enabled mobile app is in the final stages of development, according to the Rock Creek Conservancy, and is likely to be ready in time to assist with the park’s 125th anniversary (can you say “Quasquicentennial”?) in September. It is to feature a park map, trail maps and a schedule of events for what can seem like a confusing sprawl of paths winding through the nation’s capital.

HAWAII

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is helping campers take a load off at its Namakanipaio campground with a tent and supply rental option. Hawaii Volcanoes Lodge Company will set up and break down a camp site for two, including a tent, an 8-inch memory foam mattress, linens, a cooler, a lantern and chairs. Access to the refurbished community bathrooms is included, as is the toilet paper, a true camping luxury. ($40 per tent plus $15 to book the camp site.)

A second option for those who abhor tent pole configuration is Namakanipaio’s recently refurbished one-room cabins, which now offer wood floors, full-size and bunk beds with full-size mattresses, linens, towels and the survival tool every teenager needs: an electrical outlet.

Oh, and that recent eruption at the park’s Kīlauea Volcano? Good news, it’s less than five miles from the campground. The park website recommends the nearby Jaggar Museum overlook for the best views.

ILLINOIS

In February, President Obama gave Chicago its first national park site when he designated the Pullman Historic District a national monument. The first planned industrial community in the United States and the birthplace of the first African-American labor union, the remaining Pullman Palace Car Company buildings are “an evocative testament to the evolution of American industry, the rise of unions and the labor movement, the lasting strength of good urban design and the remarkable journey of the Pullman porters toward the civil rights movement,” the presidential proclamation stated.

Programming and public visiting hours are still being established, but those who can’t wait to witness its historical significance can find guided tours and more at the Historic Pullman Foundation, the Pullman State Historic Site or the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum.

LOUISIANA

No matter what you do in New Orleans, someone will be playing jazz, even at Pilates class. So the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park is now offering weekly Jazz Pilates classes, taught by Stephanie Jordan, a jazz vocalist and Pilates instructor who integrates the traditional practice with dance and the music of Coltrane, Kidd Jordan and others.

Inspired by programming organized for the bicentennial celebration of the Battle of New Orleans in January, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is in the process of revamping its educational and junior ranger programs to include workshops focused on life in 1815, including period games, dancing, music and crafts.

MAINE

Acadia National Park is to begin managing a new campground on Maine’s Schoodic Peninsula this fall, just east of its popular neighbor,Mount Desert Island. The site will offer almost 100 R.V. and tent sites, as well as new hiking and biking trails connecting to Gouldsboro Village and existing park trails leading to the peninsula’s tip. Record snow this winter delayed the opening for now, but look to book a spot (first come first served) beginning in September.

One welcome byproduct of road closures at Acadia during the 2013 government sequestration was the realization that the park was best seen on foot or vehicles, Aimee Beal Church, a communications coordinator at Friends of Acadia, a nonprofit, said. The park is obliging with a pilot program for car-free mornings this season (Sept. 26 is the next date), when bikes, skateboards, rollerblades and feet will have free rein on Park Loop Road until noon.

NEVADA

Though it’s already been a year, it’s worth noting that the Black Canyon Water Trail, which flows through Lake Mead National Recreation Area, was the first in the southwest to be named a national water trail by the Department of the Interior, and only the 16th in the United States. The trail offers access to the lower Colorado River from several launch sites, the most impressive of which is surely the Hoover Dam. Permits for private boat use can be obtained, though renting from an approved outfitter will get you on the river faster.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Once home to the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, New Hampshire’s only national park site, has one of the oldest artist-in-residence programs in the system and a significant body of work from which to choose pieces for its retrospective exhibition opening in September. Among the works will be Saint-Gaudens’ famous Standing Lincoln, a 12-foot bronze likeness of the 16th president,recast from the original plasters to honor the park’s 50th Anniversary.

PENNSYLVANIA

Independence National Historical Park is one of several with its ownmobile app, featuring maps, self-guided tours and historical facts about the Liberty Bell and the park’s other famous attractions. Last month, the park unveiled a new Independence Junior Ranger app as well, which offers interactive games for kids who want to earn a ranger certificate and badge. (Available on Apple and iOS devices.)

SOUTH DAKOTA

The new visitor center at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site sounds more like a museum than an information desk. Interactive exhibits and films there cover the intercontinental ballistic missile system once hidden under the prairie and its role in the Cold War. New programming will begin at the facility in a leadup to the grand opening on Sept. 26.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial just opened a Youth Exploration Area, where interactive children’s programs will be hosted by park rangers beginning in June. Additionally, the Mount Rushmore Society is working with the state to develop a new recreational hiking, biking and horseback-riding trail that is to connect the park with the state’s 109-mile George S. Mickelson Trail, to be completed in the next two or three years. And though it won’t directly affect your visit, it may be comforting to know that the park has installed a new, more energy-efficient lighting system with which to highlight the faces of our forefathers, cutting the park’s energy usage by 90 percent and greatly reducing light pollution.

TENNESSEE

Chimney Tops, the most the heavily trod trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has reopened after major maintenance to help ensure its long-term sustainability and safety. The work, done by hand with organic materials, included the installation of 367 rock steps (weighing 300 pounds each), 291 locust log steps, 700 square feet of retaining walls, 1,600 linear feet of uphill drainage ditches and 40,000 cubic feet of rock crush fill to help harden trail tread, among other improvements.

The park’s narrow Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail also reopened this month with new bridges, allowing a safer drive for motorists who want to explore the scenic five-mile road that winds parallel to Roaring Fork Creek.

UTAH

Protecting the night sky isn’t an initiative you hear many park activists touting, but for areas like Capitol Reef National Park, it’s a major mission. Isolated by the white sandstone cliffs of the Waterpocket Fold and with mostly cloudless weather conditions, it’s ideal for stargazing. Now, after more than a decade of projects to educate both staff and visitors about light pollution, the park has finally earned the International Dark-Sky Association’s Gold Star designation, which should help boost the park’s growing astro-tourism industry. The park celebrates this fall with an expanded schedule of events at the annual Heritage Starfest (Oct. 9 to 10).

To reduce motorized traffic, Bryce Canyon National Park is building a six-mile paved bike and hike path that will lead visitors past points of interest on the canyon rim and connect to gateway communities like Bryce Canyon City and the more rugged plateaus of the nearby Dixie National Forest. The first portion is scheduled to open this fall, with the entire path expected to open by next spring.

St. George, a gateway town to several of Utah’s Mighty Five parks, opened its first outdoor adventure booking center in February. The St. George Adventure Hub can assist with reserving jeep tours, guided hikes, mountain bike rentals, horseback riding excursions and other sporty activities, as well as golf outings, spa services and concert tickets.

Moab Giants, a new dinosaur exploration park, should open just in time to feed on the frenzied fans of “Jurassic World” this summer. The 40-acre grounds north of Moab, another popular gateway town, will focus on the tracks of Utah dinosaurs from the early Jurassic through the early Cretaceous periods. Some tracks will be true fossils; others are to be cast from area excavation sites. The park will also serve as a museum and research lab for paleontologists working in the area.

Sitting between the entrances to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, Moab Under Canvas provides safari-style tents and tepees with wood floors, plush bedding (on actual beds) and prepared meals, plus add-on options like guided mountain biking. Additional operations are in Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, with two more — near Yosemite and Grand Canyon — expected to open in 2016.

Or, see how the other half camps at the A.C.T. Campground and Learning Center near Moab, designed in part by an environmental engineer and wastewater specialist. Its “Act Responsibly, Sleep Comfortably” motto emphasizes minimalism, especially when it comes to waste at its R.V. and tent sites, small cabins, clubhouse, community kitchen and learning center, where the owners organize bio-geology classes, field adventures, photography tours and writing workshops.

VIRGINIA

Shenandoah National Park is expanding its programming for children. In addition to redesigning its Junior Ranger program, the park is to designate Blackrock Trail an official Kids in Parks Track trail. A national program aimed at encouraging children to hike, geocache or explore nature on trails around the country, Track offers self-guided brochures of trails, their historical and scientific significance — in this case, the development of the Appalachian Trail — and then has them track their progress online to win prizes. A dedication ceremony is planned for May 29.

WYOMING

TerraVelo Tours, a relatively new outfit specializing in bike and hike tours with a glamping component, has expanded its operations from the “Arches, Canyons and HooDoos” of southern Utah to the “Mountains, Geysers and Bison” of Wyoming. Tours to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks stop at Old Faithful, the Norris Geyser basin, the Hot Springs loop, Mammoth Hot Springs and the Lamar River Valley, among other destinations throughout the summer and include meals prepared by a private chef, a tent suite akin to an upscale hotel room, sunrise yoga classes, laundry and massage services, as well as the use of a lounge tent with games and other entertainment options.

New family tours are designed for children 8 and older and offer movie nights, archery lessons and cooking demonstrations.

Three of five lodges planned for Yellowstone’s Canyon Lodge & Cabinscomplex should be ready in August. The $70 million project headed by Xanterra Parks & Resorts was set in motion to replace more than 300 outdated cabins and to increase sustainability practices at the park’s largest accommodations.

And for those with an eye to history, a major renovation of the Lake Yellowstone Hotel is to restore much of its Colonial Revival style in preparation for its 125th anniversary in 2016. To be completed in June, updates extend to guest rooms as well as public spaces and add Internet service and a business center to the complex. As with most national park lodges, don’t get your hopes up for air-conditioning or televisions. There are none. (Rooms start at $160 a night.)