Ken Burns’s National Parks: Insider Escapes in Yellowstone, Yosemite

If you've been watching Ken Burns's The National Parks: America's Best Idea series this week on PBS, you've probably already started dreaming of your next escape. The first episode, which aired on Sunday night, captured the grandeur of Yosemite and Yellowstone enough to make anyone want to find their inner John Muir and head out West. 

Just makes sure you do it right and far from the crowds with these unexpected adventure trips. Then get more game plan ideas from Editor at Large Robert Earle Howells's national parks feature story and photo gallery. Or read an essay by Ken Burns about his love for the national parks.

YOSEMITE

We've heard about the thrills Half Dome and the Mariposa Grove, but getting to Yosemite can be just as big an adventure as being there. If you're coming from the North West, break off of CA-120 at Sonora and opt for a detour on Wards Ferry Road. As steep and windy as they come, its crumbling single lane twists down over 700 vertical feet in under two miles with no guardrail in sight. It might take you an extra hour and leave you with a few gray hairs, but the stunning view of the wildflower covered valley makes the detour worth it. Calm your nerves in Groveland with a drink at the Iron Door Saloon, a kickback to the Old West of its early days in 1896.

VITALS: Hit Vernal Fall, 1.5 miles up the Mist Trail. The 317-foot plume refracts concentric rainbows, and if you hike above it you’ll reach Emerald Pool then Silver Apron, where the Merced River flows off a granite dome.

BASE CAMP: Set at the foot of the Royal Arches cliffs, the Ahwahnee Hotel is the iconic national park lodge. The views of Glacier Point and Yosemite Falls from its great room are jaw-dropping. Tip: Book a cottage instead of a lodge room. Same price, more privacy (doubles from $449; yosemitepark.com).

YELLOWSTONE

When Theodore Roosevelt visited Yellowstone in 1903, he was more interested in the wildlife than the scenery. Rightly so: Yellowstone's two-million-plus acres lie at the heart of the largest intact ecosystem in the continental U.S. Herds of bison graze in the valleys. Bighorn sheep clatter across the slopes of the Absarokas. And in the wilds of Lamar Valley, wolves are again slipping in and out of the shadows. For any visitor with a pair of binoculars, all this can translate into some heart-pounding wildlife encounters.

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VITALS: To hedge your chance of seeing wildlife, consider going guided. Yellowstone Safari runs four-day, three-night trips that track the recent movements of animals ($1,600 per person, including meals and lodging; yellowstonesafari.com). The Yellowstone Association offers three-day Wolf and Elk Discovery programs ($619 per person, including lodging and most meals; yellowstoneassociation.org).

BASE CAMP: Built from 1903 to 1904, the Old Faithful Inn gave birth to the concept of "parkitecture"—the notion that park lodges should be big, grand, and bear the spirit of their surroundings. To wit, the inn features massive timbers, a 76-foot-tall stone fireplace, and a killer setting beside its namesake geyser (doubles from $93; travelyellowstone.com).

Photograph by Ryan Bradley

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