1. Joshua Tree National Park, California: Discover a Desert Oasis
Most palm trees in southern California are as genuine as a starlet's figure, but the native fan palms in Joshua Tree's 49 Palms Oasis are the real deal. A barren, rocky one-and-a-half-mile (2.4-kilometer) trail from the end of Canyon Road in the northern part of the park leads to a large concentration of fan palms (more than the advertised 49) and water holes that host, among other visitors, desert bighorn sheep.
Vitals: For park info, visit www.nps.gov/jotr.
2. Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming: Fly-Fish Among Geysers
Fumaroles, steam vents, and Old Faithful itself warm the toes and hearts of fisherfolk who toss flies into the Firehole River. The stream's abundant rainbows and browns have adapted to the strangely warm waters, and the 16 or so miles (about 26 kilometers) between Upper Geyser Basin and Madison Junction are hallowed territory for anglers. You'll find bigger (three pounds is on the fat side in the Firehole) and more plentiful fishing elsewhere in the park, but the Firehole's geothermal weirdness creates an unmatchable aesthetic—and to fly-fishers that can be just as important.
Vitals: For a three-day permit ($15), sign up at www.nps.gov/yell. Blue Ribbon Flies (www.blueribbonflies.com), in West Yellowstone, Montana, offers guide services ($360 a day) and gear to rent ($35 a day). Take note: The best fishing
is in June and September. Avoid July and August, when hot temperatures stress the fish.
3. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado: Walk in the Footsteps of the Ancients
This year only—Mesa Verde's centennial—three ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings will be open to visitors for the first time in more than seven decades. All summer, rangers will lead hikers to the 800-year-old Oak Tree and Mug Houses. Come September the sites will be sealed off again and revert to unvisited obscurity.
Vitals: Space is very limited on the Oak Tree and Mug House hikes, so reserve a spot early. For info and reservations ($20), visit www.nps.gov/meve.
4. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado: Backpack Above Tree Line
Sucking O's is a way of life for hikers in a park where the lowest elevation is 7,840 feet (2,390 meter). Still, with just a smidgen of acclimation, you can bag one of the country's greatest high-altitude backpacking loops. The storied North Inlet-Tonahutu Creek loop is a 26-miler (42-kilometer) that takes in the stunning alpine scenery of Rocky Mountain National Park's southwest corner. On the first day follow the North Inlet Trail to the July Campsite. The next day trace switchbacks through subalpine forest and alpine tundra in the shadow of Flattop Mountain (12,324 feet or 3,756 meters), then drop down to the Renegade Campsite. For this leg get an early start; you'll be hiking through exposed tundra, and afternoon thunderstorms are always a possibility. Complete the loop on the equally dazzling Tonahutu Creek Trail.
Vitals: For park and hiking info and permits ($20), visit www.nps.gov/romo.
5. Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba: Follow the Herds
It's not just reading hoofprints in the mud. Sign on to join a biological study of Riding Mountain's 1,700-strong elk herd and you'll use radio telemetry and GPS to map out the movement of the mighty ungulates. Of course, it's not all work; there's always a chance of actually spotting part of the herd, especially in September, when their bugling renders scientific equipment quaint and unnecessary. Just follow the music.
Vitals: Earth Rhythms runs a three-day elk-tracking trip ($600;
www.earthrhythms.ca). For park info, visit www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/mb/riding/index_e.asp.
PLUS: The Top Five
The Thrill Factor
Five unexpected itineraries that scream action
Trips Through the Ages
Five classic adventures that will never go out of style
Five off-the-charts escapes that reach deep into the wild
Moments to Live For
Five of life's most essential experiences, done perfectly in the parks
Pick up the June/July 2006 issue for 50 top adventures in the national parks; how to move to Montana; the best ten-day Brazil vacation; 11 instant weekend escapes; and new watches, cameras, and sunglasses for summer.
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