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National parks -- for the thrill of it

Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon National ParkThink of them as the original theme parks. Most people know that when it comes to education, inspiration and value, nothing beats a vacation in a U.S. national park. What’s not as well-known, however, is that a variety of thrilling adventures are also available in national parks.

From riding on the back of a mule along a precarious-looking, switchback-laden trail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to canoeing the Yellowstone backcountry and seeing a golden eagle soar directly above you, national parks offer thrills that will be remembered for a lifetime.

National parks are often associated with one or several “themes.” Yellowstone, with its world-famous geo-thermal features, is clearly about geology. But the wildlife and colorful human history of the world’s first national park are also overriding themes that visitors quickly come to appreciate.

The most obvious draw of Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park is its clear, blue lake, the deepest lake in the country at 1,932 feet. California’s Death Valley, on the other hand, has elements of human history -- it was the destination of Old West pioneers -- as well as spectacular and unusual geologic features. And Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park explores ancient geologic mysteries dating as far back as the Triassic Period, 220 million years ago.

Each U.S. national park is unique, and each offers a different kind of experience. These national treasures can be considered Mother Nature’s theme parks.

Following are examples of adventures popular with fun-seekers visiting national parks.

Riding “long-eared taxis” in Grand Canyon National Park
Mules have been carrying tourists to the bottom of the Grand Canyon for 118 years. And in 1922, the Fred Harvey Company constructed the Phantom Ranch, an iconic and immensely popular lodge on the floor of the Canyon. The switchbacks and vertical descent experienced on a Bright Angel Trail mule trip from the rim to the floor of the Grand Canyon is the dream of a lifetime for many people. Leaving every morning from the corral and heading down the Bright Angel Trail, these sure-footed creatures have become famous in their own right. Riders must meet age, weight and other restrictions.

Cross-country skiing in Yellowstone National Park
Some say winter is the best time of the year to visit the world’s first national park. Adventures abound, particularly for Nordic skiers. One of the most extreme -- and breathtakingly beautiful -- ski trails is Washburn Hills, rated “difficult to most difficult” and intended for advanced skiers only. The trail begins by taking a snowmobile road 2½ miles north from the Canyon Warming Hut towards the Washburn Hot Springs Overlook. Skiers can expect an elevation gain from 8,200 feet to 9,700 feet. The National Park Service recommends those who ski this all-day thriller take along avalanche transmitters, climbing skins and ski buddies.
 
Boating in Crater Lake National Park
The first boat was lowered into Crater Lake 140 years ago, and touring the country’s clearest and deepest lake by boat remains an immensely popular activity in this stunning national park. The volcano boat cruises are available from early July through September several times a day.

Hiking in Zion National Park
''Wall Street'' section of Zion Narrows at Zion National ParkSometimes the biggest challenge when it comes to hiking in Utah’s Zion National Park is making a decision. Celebrating its 90th anniversary as a national park this year, Zion is home to world-class -- and world-famous -- hikes that range from the flat and spectacular box canyon experience of the Narrows of the Virgin River to the white-knuckle climb to Angel’s Landing. With more than 146,000 acres, this national park is noted for the striking cliffs and rocks that form Zion Canyon and the breathtaking Finger Canyons of the Kolob.

Riding horses in Bryce Canyon National Park
A merry-go-round is fun, but after 360 degrees the views don’t change. On the other hand, in Bryce Canyon, the scenery is overwhelming and constantly changing as the sunlight plays upon the rocks as horseback riders make their way up the canyon. Up close is the best way to explore this 36,000-acre land of red rock spires, pillars and temples in Southern Utah. Guests learn about the geology and stars during campfire programs on guided trail rides. Bryce Canyon is a land of awesome contrasts best exemplified by the deep green mountain forests growing right to the edge of its gold, orange and pink cliffs.
 
Hiking explorers’ trails in Death Valley National Park
With the ruts from wagons still visible, today’s guests can follow the trails made by explorers searching for a shortcut to gold in the 1840s. Breathtaking scenery surrounds hikers as they travel to the Harmony Borax Works, Golden Canyon, Mosaic Canyon and sand dunes. Celebrating its 15th year as a national park this year, Death Valley features the lowest point in the Americas at Badwater, 282 feet below sea level, and high alpine vistas of Telescope Peak at an elevation of 11,043 feet. Spectacular road and mountain biking adventures also abound.

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