May 11, 2000 -- Millions of Americans build summer holidays around a visit to America's extraordinary collection of national parks and it's hard to argue with their choice. From the glory of Yellowstone and the grandeur of the Grand Canyon to the pristine beauty of Acadia and the raw power of Hawaii's volcanoes, there's more to see and do in the parks than most Americans can pack into a lifetime of travel.
How do you plan a summer parks visit in the best and most efficient way? Here are some suggestions.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK ONLINE
Researching recreational opportunities and lodging options at the nation's parks used to be a tedious and time-consuming burden. But no more. Thanks to the Internet, virtually everything you need to know about any park is literally at your fingertips.
The official site of the National Park Service, called Parknet (http://www.nps.gov), is naturally everyone's first stop when it comes to finding a federally managed recreation area. But guess what? The Park Service covers only 80 million acres and just 379 parks, monuments and historic sites. The Forest Service (http://www.fs.fed.us) manages more than twice that many acres of National Forests, many of which are mistakenly assumed to be National Parks. The prosaically named Bureau of Land Management (http://www.blm.gov) controls a staggering 264 million acres, including National Conservation areas, wetlands and rivers. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (http://www.fws.gov) manages more than 500 National Wildlife Refuges.
MAKE A SINGLE RESEARCH STOP
All those Web sites are good, allowing flexible, intuitive searches. But recognizing that average Americans are flummoxed by the differences between all the park categories and jurisdictions, six federal agencies have created a website called Recreation.gov. Itís an invaluable one-stop site: If a place is federally managed and available for public recreation, it's here. You can search by state, by activity or by agency. Once you find your park or recreation area, Mapquest.com can supply all the travel directions and maps you need.
A familiar complaint voiced by travelers in recent years is that each park or recreation area charged a separate admission. There was no way to get blanket entry to the parks. This year, however, the National Park Service has launched the National Park Pass, an all-in-one program that permits unlimited access to the nation's 379 national parks, national monuments and historic sites. The $50 pass is valid for one year from the month of purchase. It is sold at the parks or directly from the Parks Web site. If you're a member of the AAA, you can buy the pass for $48 from AAA offices. But there is a caveat: the Pass only covers what the NPS classifies as "entry" costs, not all admissions, fees and parking charges. Check the fees list before your travel.
KNOW THE NEW RULES
Under pressure from nature groups and environmental activists, the Parks Service is cracking down on some active recreational uses of the most popular sites. That includes new restrictions on snowmobiles and personal water craft such as Jet Skis and Waverunners.
Obviously, the water-craft rules changes are mostly likely to affect your summer holiday. Use of these devices was already specifically prohibited at Yellowstone, the Everglades and the Ozark Riverways. The new rules now close a number of other parks--including Golden Gate, Glacier, Olympia and Cape Hatteras--to the watercraft. Many other popular areas, including Cape Cod, Padre Island, the Delaware Water Gap and Fire Island, may be restricted if the local superintendents choose to do so. Check with the park you're planning to visit about current regulations before you travel.This column originally appeared at Mapquest.com.