Photo courtesy of Brian Day
Featuring free admission and events, National Park Week (April 21-29) is a reminder that our 397 parks really are “America’s best idea.” There’s a lot to see–and learn–in the collective 84 million acres, especially at parks where field institutes provide in-depth courses lasting from a half-day to a full week (from under $100 to over $1,000). Experts share their knowledge of photography, sociology, archaeology, art, writing, history, astronomy, and the outdoors. All this can turn a casual national parks adventure vacation into a lasting “edventure” vacation.
Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
With surreal sandstone arches that would look at home in a science-fiction film and deep river canyons sliced into the Colorado Plateau, these expansive neighboring parks between the outdoor-sports capital of Moab and panoramic Monument Valley in southeastern Utah naturally encourage learning. At the Canyonlands Field Institute, you can pick a Desert Wildflower Workshop or be dazzled by the primitive canyon landscape on a free-flowing kayak excursion. Customize your curriculum for team-building adventures or perhaps a ladies-only hike to Rainbow Bridge led by Navajo naturalists.
Denali National Park and Preserve
Four hours north of Anchorage, you’ll enter a campus hundreds of times larger than a hundred universities. This park’s 9,400 square miles encompass the 2.1-million acre Denali Wilderness and 20,327-foot Mount McKinley. It’s a sprawling Alaskan landscape, with everything from low brush bog to alpine tundra. Through the Murie Science and Learning Center, you can get to know nature through creative-arts courses, hikes, and lessons in botany, biology, wildlife tracking, and fly-fishing. Just watch out for locals–the moose, bears, sheep, and wolves that call Denali home.
Grand Canyon National Park
By river course, the 6-million-year-old canyon is 277 miles long. A mile deep, it can stretch 18 miles across. At sunset, the hues within it spin like a color wheel. How can you understand anything so immense? Start by taking one of the more than 100 courses at the Grand Canyon Field Institute. Hikes or mule treks to the bottom of the canyon are on many a bucket list, as are rafting adventures on the Colorado River. The canyon’s natural palette provides inspiration for courses in art, photography, writing, and yoga (on the rim, no less). You can even study archaeoastronomy and see the cosmos as viewed by ancient cultures.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Nuzzled against Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to the west and Cherokee, North Carolina, to the east, this park tops out at 6,643 feet along the Appalachian Mountains. Wetlands, grassy balds, spruce forests, and cove hardwoods shelter creatures found no place else on earth–a compelling reason to pursue Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification through the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. Younger teens are attracted by summer camps and lessons in field sciences; older teens can test their mettle on weeklong backpacking and rafting adventures. July Family Camps offer activities for all ages.
Joshua Tree National Park
This park in southeast California is a land of cacti, pinyon pines, juniper, and Seuss-ian Joshua trees. It’s larger than Rhode Island and touches both the Mojave and Colorado deserts. Edventure offerings at the Desert Institute include rock climbing, desert survival, animal tracking, archaeological surveying, and courses focused on Native American rock art, intaglios (mammoth figures “carved” on the ground), and the medicinal and utilitarian purpose of plants. Arts courses help you capture the surrounding beauty in words, pictures, and even Native American basket weaving.
North Cascades National Park
Roughly two hours northeast of Seattle, a half-million-acre wilderness of water, ice, and glacier-piercing peaks flows south from the Canadian border, bending across the Cascade Crest into a world of ponderosa pines. Only a lone paved highway (SR 20) leads through the “American Alps,” home of the North Cascades Institute. Its offerings include guided hikes, canoeing on Diablo Lake, natural history presentations, campfires, and courses in wilderness skills. Arts activities touch on painting, basket-weaving, poetry, and yoga—each lesson designed to make you feel closer to nature.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
There’s no better way to learn about America’s towering monarch sequoias than on a day-long stroll with a Fulbright scholar/retired park ranger through the Giant Forest. Just an hour east of Fresno, California, these two contiguous parks also protect more than 600 historic and Native American archeological sites. At the Sequoia Field Institute, trained guides lead quiet walks and backcountry treks along portions of the park’s 850 miles of trails; naturalists explain its wildlife, geology, and weather; astronomers reveal the evening sky; and photography instructors frame ancient lands in new ways.
Yellowstone National Park
An hour and a half north of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Yellowstone isn’t one park, it’s five, with more than 2 million acres across Mammoth Country in the northwest, Geyser Country in the southwest, Lake Country in the southeast, Roosevelt Country in the northeast, and Canyon Country in the epicenter. Have a penchant for geology? At the Yellowstone Association Institute, you can learn about geothermal hot springs, mud pots, and geysers (including the famed Old Faithful). Interested in wildlife? Experts educate on the world of wolves, raptors, and bison. Inspired by nature? Open-air painting and photography classes will draw out your inner artist.
Zion National Park
Within Zion you’ll find 70% of Utah’s plant species–in hanging gardens, forested canyons, and isolated mesas–thanks to a kaleidoscope of elevations, temperatures, and microenvironments. A little over two hours northeast of Las Vegas, Zion’s colorful, swirling sandstone cliffs, towers, and slot canyons are otherworldly. Instructors at the Zion Canyon Field Institute inject new perspectives into poetry, photography, painting, writing, wildlife, and botany–encouraging you to both see and share what you observe.
For additional information on these and other programs, check out National Park Service Institutes and Field Schools.