Where in the national parks?
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1. Brightest light shows
The night sky in Denali National Park can be a light show—if you're awake to catch it. From mid-August through September, arrange for a wake-up call at any of the four Denali Park Resorts, and when the aurora appears, they'll ring you.
2. Most dramatic waterfall
In a park full of waterfalls, one of the most spectacular is also the most
ephemeral: In the light of sunset, for about a week at the end of February, Horsetail Fall, in Yosemite National Park, becomes a cascade of fire and
light streaming off El Capitan.
3. Clearest, bluest lake
Ultrapure rainfall and snowmelt feed Crater Lake, so its water, 1,943 feet
deep (592 meters deep), is as clear as any in the world. Now, go fig: It's also considered the bluest; few contaminants mean blue light can penetrate
deeper. Crater Lake's nearest rival in the bluest-blue contest is the ocean around Easter Island.
4. Hottest melt-your-boots hikes
The fiery tongues of lava in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are more than
just visual dazzle. Standing at the volcano's edge—which, yes, you can do,
carefully—the glassy sound of new lava rolling along in the up to 2,100-degree Fahreheit (1,150-degree Celsius) flow creaks underfoot, and the smell, somewhere between sulfury and metallic, is unforgettable.
5. Tallest uninterrupted rock face
"Auyuittuq" means "permanently covered in ice," but enough ice melted after the last ice age to reveal the world's tallest uninterrupted rock face. The west face of Mount Thor, in Auyuittuq National Park on Baffin Island, looms 4,100 feet (1,250 meters) above its glacial valley floor and is a beacon to climbers everywhere.
6. Largest nonpolar ice field
The Bagley Icefield, in Wrangell National Park, is part of the largest nonpolar ice field in the world—a remnant of the last ice age—and it feeds most of Kluane National Park's 2000-plus glaciers, some up to 70-miles- or 113-kilometers-
long, making the park the most glaciated in North America.
7. Biggest bat colony
Every evening from May to October, 400,000 Mexican free-tail bats pour out of Carlsbad Cavern, in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, in search of a hearty
insect dinner. The seething river of wings and chirps is so impressive you may want to come back the next morning and watch it in reverse.
8. Bird-watcher's heaven
Point Pelee National Park, in Ontario, is a tiny spit of land in Lake Erie (and the southernmost point in Canada), but well known in winged migration circles. It's one of North America's top spring and fall birding spots (382 species recorded), and come September, monarch butterflies by the hundreds of thousands pass through before flying to their winter grounds in Mexico.
9. Highest concentration of brown bears
Some 2,000 brown bears live in Katmai National Park, the greatest concentration in the U.S. parks system, and each July, they head to fish in the Brooks River, part of the world's largest sockeye salmon run. Watching the
action from one of the park's two observation platforms is a safe way to get a glimpse. If you miss it, show up in September, when the bears repeat the performance on spawned-out fish.
10. Best place to watch a whale superhighway
Off the coast of Fundy National Park, the world-renowned big tides—their 12-hour flow equals the combined 24-hour flow of all the rivers in the world—churn up a nutrient feast that draws fifteen species of whales, more than in any single spot in the world. Part-time residents include humpbacks, finbacks, minkes, and the rare North Atlantic right whale. Just outside of Tiverton Harbor, Ocean Explorations offers Zodiac excursions to see the whale migration.
11. Top spot for high tea
After a hike, paddle, or a bike ride in Acadia National Park, visitors can partake in one of the park system's most unique pleasures: high tea on the lawn at Jordan Pond House, where they've been serving fresh popovers with strawberry jam since the early 1870s. Worth it? Um, yea.
12. Huckleberry headquarters
The meadows of Glacier National Park burst with huckleberries in the
summer, and they're yours for the picking, especially along the Upper
Loop Trail or the aptly named Huckleberry Lookout Trail. Or take the lazy
man's route and chow down on the freshly baked huckleberry cheesecake at the Lake McDonald Lodge.
13. Steamiest soaks
Of all the national parks, only one is exclusively devoted to comfort: Hot Springs National Park. Built around a cluster of steaming hot springs, the park is outfitted with a series of old-time bathhouses and 143-degree-Celsius (289-degree-Fahreheit) pools. While you soak, consider that the springwater in which you luxuriate fell as rain 4,400 years ago, about the time of the pharaohs.
14. Freshest lobster
Lobster doesn't get any fresher, nor dinner more indulgent, than at Dalvay by the Sea in Prince Edward Island National Park. Island lobsters go straight from pots to the inspired, wood-paneled dining room of a 111-year-old estate.
15. Coolest view from a lodge
The Bucky O'Neill Suite, a freestanding cabin built in the 1890s that is now part of the Bright Angel Lodge, in Grand Canyon National Park, might be the coolest room in the U.S. park system: It's perched right on the South Rim of the canyon and is about as close to the big ditch as you'd care to sleep.
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.