Today it is my great pleasure to interview Mike Oswald, the award winning author of “Your Guide to the National Parks: The Complete Guide to all 58 National Parks,” which is a National Outdoor Book and Ben Franklin award winner and is currently ranked 5 stars on Amazon. Today he’ll help us understand the best of the best when it comes to national parks here in america, along with budget travel tips, and insider tricks for the trip of a lifetime. To get a different perspective, also consider checking out our original national park interview with Gary Arndt from “Everything Everywhere,” which is quite a bit shorter than the following, but nevertheless does in fact offer a different view of the system. So, without further ado, here’s my interview with Mike himself.
What’s something that few people know about Americas national parks?
Senior citizens (62+) can get a lifetime pass for $10. It’s probably the best deal in the country! People also need to know that there are 59 national parks and 401 National Park Service Unites, everybody knows about Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite, but there’s always an NPS unit nearby no matter where you are.
Out of all of America’s National Parks, which would you say are the 3 best?
My personal favorite is Glacier in Montana; it’s right on the border of Canada and the United States. As you travel north along the Rockies they continue to get bigger and bolder. While their elevation decreases, their prominence increases. I really like Hawaii Volcanoes. You’re basically staring into the Earth’s molten core, looking at a lake of lava or at it as it pours out across Kilauea Crater. It’s a pretty unique experience. I’d probably put Yosemite up there in the top three, too. The crowds can be a pain but they are a testament to how beautiful the park is.
Glacier National Park
Which are the newest and oldest?
The newest is Pinnacles National Park, which was christened a park by President Obama, January of 2013. I believe the second newest is Congaree in the South Carolina. I believe it was added in 2003. Pinnacle by the way is in the San Francisco Bay area. The oldest is Yellowstone, the world’s first national park. A fun little fact is that Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is in fact the oldest NPS unit, as it was made a National Reservation to protect its healing hot springs, some 40 years before Yellowstone became the first park.
Pinnacle National Park
Describe the Alaskan parks to first time visitors?
There are 8 Alaskan national parks and 5 are fly-in only. The fly-in only parks are extremely cost prohibitive. When I was visiting the parks I calculated that I’d need somewhere around $50k to visit the Alaskan parks alone—my entire budget. I ended up thoroughly researching 48 of the 58 parks (at the time), adding American Samoa and U.S. Virgin Islands to the list of omissions. Not wanting to leave these ten parks out of the book, I discussed them with friends and park rangers. The cost to visit versus quantity of tourists ratio was just too high for me to rationalize over-extending myself for this, especially at a point when I wasn’t sure what my finished product would even look like or how far I was willing to take it. Limitations aside, you can drive to three of the Alaskan parks. Wrangell St. Elias is the largest national park at more than 10 million acres. Denali is extremely popular. It’s also huge, but most tourists don’t venture far beyond Denali Park Road, which is used exclusively by park buses, except for a brief period when they have a car lottery. Finally, you can drive into a small corner of Kenai Fjords National Park, which is near a popular cruise ship port of call. There definitely is an allure and to visiting The Last Frontier and it’s become this kind of romantic idea.
Denali National Park
What can be found in Hawaii?
Hawaii has two national parks. There’s Haleakala on the island of Maui. They call it Haleakala Crater, but it’s really a valley. Lava rock erodes easily, and scientists believe the unique landscape visible from Haleakala Summit is caused by erosion not its volcanic past. Although cold and windy, the view from the summit is surreal. You’ll even find these endemic plants called hawaiian silversword. You won’t find them anywhere else in the world there. Providing the perfect contrast to the arid “crater” is the Kipahulu District of the park which is rainforest. Waterfalls abound. You’ll find Seven Sacred Pools, and 400-ft Waimoku Falls which is the reward at the end of a muddy 4-mile hike into the rainforest and through dense bamboo forest. I briefly mentioned Hawaii Volcanoes National Park already and that one is on the Big Island (Hawaii). It’s a world of creation and destruction. Land is created as lava pours out of the Puu Oo Vent, destroying everything in its way, including a small residential area. The last home left standing was just razed last year. There’s also rainforest here on the slope of Mauna Loa.
Volcanoes National Park
hat’s the most visited national park in America?
The Great Smoky Mountains, right on the border of Tennessee—your home state—and North Carolina. They receive about 9 million annual visitors. I believe Golden Gate National Recreation Area is the most visited NPS Unit at 14 million annual visitors. But it might be the Blue Ridge Parkway; I’m not 100% sure.
What’s Death Valley like?
This is one of the more polarizing parks. A lot of people love it, many others hate it. I fall in the former group. Ubehebe Crater, Mesquite Sand Dunes, Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point and Titus Canyon are really cool attractions. Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. The Racetrack is this mysterious mesa where rocks called sailing stones move across the flat expanse powered by wind and aided by a reduction in friction when condensation forms on the mesa floor (scientists think, no one has ever witnessed the stones moving). You know they move because they leave a trail. The whole place is totally bizarre and I love it.
Death Valley National Park
Can you describe Yellowstone to us?
It’s definitely a driving park. And it’s huge and very remote—actually most of the western parks are on the isolated side. You meet a lot of travelers that aren’t from the United States and their first complaint is that there is a lot of driving. Denver is the closest major metropolitan area. Anyway, Yellowstone is all about geysers and wildlife. Rangers can always tell you where to go if you want to see bison and elk, and you’ll have a really good chance of seeing bears or catching trout. I believe you find something like 75% of the world’s geothermal features in Yellowstone National Park, including 300 geysers, but the one everyone knows is Old Faithful. There’s a lot more, too. Like Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, petrified trees, the backcountry is great and there’s some really good paddling opportunities. It also offers a lot of unique winter activities like snowmobiling, x-country skiing and snowcoach tours. It should also be noted that Grand Teton National Park is connected to Yellowstone via the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway and it’s incredible. So many Yellowstone visitors say, “oh yeah, we’ll spend a day at Grand Teton.” No! Allow more time, but I’d say that about all of the parks no matter how long you’re staying.
Do you have any advice for those visiting the Grand Canyon?
Grand Canyon has more visitor-related emergencies than any other park and most of these could be prevented if people realize how difficult it is going to be coming back out of the canyon. Hiking in, via South Kaibab, Bright Angel, or North Kaibab Trail seems pretty easy, but at some point (especially for those day-hikers) you have to turn around and climb back out, and it’s hard, really hard. So, no your limits, turn around before you’re tired and bring plenty of water. It’s a lot more challenging than it looks. I day-hiked in-and-out at the North Rim, which is a bit higher than the South Rim, and on my way back out I had to tell the gentleman I was hiking with to carry on without me because I was completely exhausted and needed to sit down for a while and collect myself. Fortunately I started at dawn, so there weren’t any issues, but it gives you an idea of how challenging it is.
Describe the Dry Tortugas?
That’s one of the most unique parks in the entire system. It’s just off the Florida Keys, you can take a ferry out there or a float plane. Unlike most of the parks, you’re fairly limited activity-wise: you can camp, see the migratory birds, snorkel, but the big thing to do is see Fort Jefferson, a massive military base. I don’t know if I’d recommend it to most people, The Everglades are typically much more convenient and more interesting. Alligators!
Is Mount Rushmore within a national park?
It is actually a national memorial, so it’s an NPS unit but not a national park.
Do you think it’s worth it to take the drive to Mount Rushmore?
It’s going to be different for everyone but I really liked it. There are tons of things to do over there. Obviously the four presidents carved out of rock are neat to see but how long can you stare at these four stoic men? But there’s also plenty to do nearby. Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks aren’t far away. Theodore Roosevelt is just up the road in North Dakota. Jewel Cave National Monument and Custer State Park also warrant a visit. Crazy Horse, which is under a sort of permanent construction, is cool too. So, yeah, I’d say it’s worthy of a road trip.
“The Other Side of America”
Where is the Arches national park?
Arches is in South Eastern Utah, just north of Moab, mountain bikers’ Mecca. There are 2500 arches in Arches National Park so you can’t go far without bumping into one. You’ll find really good hiking here and some unique ranger programs like the Fiery Furnace Tour. Definitely visit Arches!
Arches National Park
How have the Everglades evolved over the past few decades?
All of the parks’ history seems to have deep political roots, but Everglades is still entangled in a political mess. So, the park was established to preserve a wetland—again, this was the first time a park was established to preserve a threatened ecosystem—but later private industry built a bunch of concrete canals and flood control structures, cutting off the lifeblood of the Everglades, water. So, the Everglades went from this vibrant ecosystem, to being on life support as water from Lake Okeechobee was being diverted to Miami. More than a decade ago, political action was swayed by public opinion—more like outrage—and President George W. Bush signed a law providing funds to restore the Everglades (and the water flow) to its original state. A lot of money has been spent, but not much work has been done. So, let’s call it as “in progress.”
Should people come really expecting to see alligators?
Yes, definitely. The alligators follow the fresh water. The park is really flat and the flow of water is so slow that it’s tough to figure out where you’ll find the brackish water that separates the ocean and freshwater, but you can always stop by the visitor center and ask the rangers where you’ll find Alligators. Anhinga Trail, Shark Valley and anywhere along the Tamiami Highway are always good bets. I was extremely confused when visitors told me they didn’t see any gators. They must have been looking by the ocean.
A true Florida gator
What would you consider to be the best cave in America?
Among the National Park you’ve got Wind Cave in South Dakota, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky—it’s the biggest in the world, but it’s not very cave like. It lacks the stalactites and stalagmites you come to expect in caves, because its caprock isn’t that porous, but there is one section called Frozen Niagara with a few impressive features. One of the coolest things to do at Mammoth or any of these caves are the Wild Cave Tours. They are wild. Then there’s Carlsbad Caverns and the main ballroom was often considered to be the most beautiful cave in the world, until Lechuguilla Cave was discovered within Carlsbad Caverns boundaries (along with more than 100 other caves). However, Lechuguilla is not open to the public as it’s considered a laboratory due to scientifically important bacteria.
Which parks would you consider to be overrated?
This is going to seem contradictory, but I’m going to say Yellowstone because nothing there other than Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and an occasional geyser eruption really blows your mind. Taken as the sum of its parts, it’s absolutely magnificent, but to me, it’s easy to come away feeling underwhelmed if you just rip around the Grand Loop Road. Old Faithful is weird to me because you can predict with reasonable accuracy when it will erupt and there’re bleachers to watch the show. It’s so bizarre it seems unnatural. Then there’s Hot Springs in Arkansas that you can’t help but wonder how it made it into the parks system because it consists of manmade spas and structures, not natural landscapes, mountains, or canyons or seashores you’ve come to expect. In general, and it saddens me to say this, everything gets bigger and better as you head west. The East Coast Parks are nice but they’re just not as big and compelling as those found on the other coast.
Out of all of America’s National Parks, which do you consider to be the most unique?
I’d probably say the Hawaiian volcanoes. It’s hard to pick one, but I find lava irresistible.
Kiluea Volcano In Hawaii
What’s the craziest experience that you’ve ever had at a nation park? Have you ever felt like you were in danger?
Actually, no. I bumped into a few bears and other wildlife while tramping around, and one night in my tent I heard an animal ripping into another animal. I think it was a coyote but I wasn’t willing to take a closer look to find out. Another time I was hiking solo in the backcountry and I passed a grizzly cub, all by itself, about 25 feet from me. I thought “oh God I hope mamas not around” and tried to remember the last place I saw another human, which was a few miles behind me. Obviously, nothing happened and typically animals are more afraid of you than you should be of them.
What should someone do if they run into a bear?
I know you aren’t supposed to run! In general, the bad bear-human interactions you hear about are from people doing something stupid: feeding bears, keeping scented items in their tent, I don’t know what else, posing for pictures with bears? People walk around with bear spray on their belts, have guns, or covered from head to toes in bells. If that makes you feel safer, I say do it, but the best method—and the method I generally broke—is to travel in a group and carry on a conversation. Should you find yourself pitted against an aggressive bear you need to make yourself look big and intimidating in an attempt to scare the bear away as you slowly walk away from it.
Which would you say is the best national park for photographers?
They are all awesome, but photographers love Arches because the red sand stone and brilliant blue Southwestern sky makes an exceptional setting and color to play with. The arches can create interesting lighting as well. But if you’re looking for big landscapes and lots of wildlife, you really can’t go wrong with any of the parks.
Any photograph tips?
The usual: shoot at dawn and dusk. I do a good job of that but I’m not a particularly patient photographer. However, I am always willing to climb a tree or rock to score vantage points the average photographer isn’t going to get.
Which is best for bird watchers?
All of the Southern parks: Dry Tortugas, Everglades, Biscayne, Big Bend in Texas.
What would you say is the best rafting spot?
Hands down the Grand Canyon, rafting the Colorado River is a really special experience and a great way to see the canyon from the bottom up.
Is there something that you always pack for national parks?
Oh yeah. My headlamp is indispensable. I’m not sure if you could ever overrate the usefulness of duct tape. Have a stash somewhere and I’m sure you’ll find a million ways you can use it while exploring the parks, especially if you’re doing any significant amount of road-tripping or backpacking.
What are some of the most expensive national park lodges?
Yellowstone has a few expensive lodges, El Tovar at the Grand Canyon is pricey, then there’s the Ahwahnee at Yosemite, but Jenny Lake Lodge at Grand Teton in Wyoming is the undisputed winner. I believe it’s something like $600 per night.
Do you have any budget travel tips?
The best is to cut out the lodging and food expenses. I spent almost two years going park-to-park and averaged right around $1,000 a month, thanks to minimizing my food and lodging costs by eating out of a cooler and living in a tent. Obviously, most people will want some luxuries, maybe an occasional shower or meal. You can make exceptions or KOA Kampgrounds typically let you use their showers for a nominal fee or truck stops have showers. You also don’t have to be that extreme, the parks in general are a great budget travel destination, and a lot of the campgrounds are free. If you’re willing to truly “rough it”, your biggest expense can be gas on a national parks vacation.
What’s a common mistake that people often make at national parks?
Not spending enough time. A lot of people have a strict itinerary with no room for detours or sidetrips. That’s honestly one of the last things you should want to do. I know people want more, more, more, but with the parks less is more, as you can actually take the time to appreciate these natural wonders, and even reflect upon yourself and your insignificance in the presence of such magnificence. I saw in your bio that you want people to go and explore on their own and I couldn’t agree more with you.
Any tips for first time backpackers?
You should go to a park that is less visited, less wild and small. A place like Isle Royale, which is in Michigan—actually closer to Canada than the United States—situated in the middle of Lake Superior. You literally can’t get lost here. If you lose track of where you are, just keep hiking and sooner or later you’re going to run into a familiar sight: the shoreline, the lodge, a visitor center, a campground. Isle Royale is a small park with well-maintained trails that is very manageable, and the perfect place to get your feet wet when it comes to backpacking. Or just live out of your pack at home for a couple of nights. You don’t have to hike to backpack, you can do this right in your backyard, or heck even your living room if you really wanted to—just leave the TV off, please. So, yeah, I like that, try it out in your backyard and see what you think.
What’s something that people often forget to bring?
Probably proper footwear. Many people take footwear for granted, because they walk around a lot during the day and think sneakers will be fine, and they are for many—heck, I wore these flimsy little moccasins for most of my excursions until a cobbler told me “there’s nothing more I can do for them.” I got sidetracked and sentimental, shoes, yes I hear a lot of people complain about blisters from not breaking in their brand new hiking shoes or complaining about not having a good waterproof show with sufficient traction and comfort. So the right shoe, broken in, is essential. Even though I mentioned that I’m not very patient when it comes to taking pictures, I still like to take them, so a tripod, extra battery and sometimes an extra memory card are important.
Any other tips?
Make a concerted effort to consider everybody in your group. When hiking you really need to think about the most inexperienced or least capable member of your group. It’s simple and sound advice. You don’t want crying kids or have to give a 5-mile piggyback ride back to the trailhead. You want everybody to have a great experience because it’s everyone’s vacation.
What else can we learn in your book?
Basically anything about the parks. It’s camping and hiking centric, but you’ll find valuable information on many other activities as well as all the logistical stuff like when to go, weather, pets info, etc. I even suggest a few road trips; provide “best of” lists, nearby hotels, campgrounds, grocery stores, festivals, restaurants and attractions. It’s pretty comprehensive.
Where can we find a copy of your book?
Please check at your favorite local bookstore and if it’s not there they should be able to get it from their favorite wholesaler. Otherwise, it’s available online at Amazon, Walmart, Powells, Books-a-Million and in stores and online at Barnes and Noble, we’re even starting to get it in many of the national park bookstores.