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I've spent the last eight months traveling, most of that time spent in bigger cities where it's easy to find all the action—art, dining, entertainment, culture, etc. National parks, while on the bucket list, had always been a distant afterthought.

In spite of my father's numerous, sometimes comical and sometimes traumatic attempts, I'm not particularly outdoorsy. Living the van life with a full kitchen, bathroom, Apple TV and satellite Wi-Fi isn't exactly "roughing" it. I had never considered going to a national park as a primary vacation or weekend getaway destination. However, planning my way east from California finally gave me a chance to build a six-week route that included stops in Yosemite, Sequoia, Bryce, Zion, Teton, Yellowstone, Arches and the Grand Canyon. I graciously admit that my opinion has changed.

There are hundreds of national parks, forests and monuments, covering millions of acres that are just waiting to ignite your spirit of adventure, connectedness, belonging and place. It doesn't matter if you're a city-dweller, avid backpacker or scene queen; here are nine reasons you should take your next vacation to a national park.

1. GRANDEUR
Nature has crafted scenes of wonder that are simply breathtaking. Whether gazing out over the vibrant rock formations of Bryce Canyon or at the base of El Capitan in Yosemite, one cannot help but to be humbled. Expansive pastures, free roaming bison, gently grazing moose, rushing waterfalls, and orchestras of birds blend together to ease the nerves and usher in a sense of calm.

2. AFFORDABILITY
Nearly every American lives within a short drive of a national park or monument. Most, like the Stonewall National Monument in NYC, are free to visit every day. To encourage discovery and visitation, the National Park Service offers free entrance days five times a year with at least one park in each state. Here's a list of 15 parks that are free year-round.

3. BE A NERD
It's perfectly OK to whip out a pair of binoculars to spot a distant bird (or to be inconspicuous while catching your breath), squat low to the ground to check out a massive colony of ants or stop along the trail to sniff some flowers. The parks are an ideal place to embrace your sense of curiosity, learn about nature, art, history and culture. Ask a ranger, use google, and leave with a richer understanding of the land than you arrived with.

4. HAVE AN ADVENTURE
Mild to wild. The parks make it pretty easy to see these highlights without having to saddle up, tether oneself to climbing gear or pack in a bunch of gear. They've done a great job to increase accessibility by adding ADA campsites, trails, visitor centers and more. For those who seek a bit of an adrenaline rush, there are options for you, too. Hikes, climbs, dives, backcountry camping, rafting, etc. are available in many parks.

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5. PERSONAL HEALTH
Being close to nature has some notable health benefits. Increase your daily step count with a nice walk or hike while also strengthening your heart, lowering your blood sugar, getting a boost in energy and improving your mood. Take a moment to meditate in the wild to clear your mind and relieve stress. Crisp fresh desert air, wafting smells of the forest, and salt spray from the ocean all contribute to feeling refreshed when you return home. There's a reason the Japanese practice forest bathing.

6. SHARE SPACE & TIME WITH REAL HEROES
"The sites that appeal to me as a gay man are those that have a story of equality and the fight for rights," said John Harlan Warren, Chief of Communications for the National Park Service, Region 1.

Recently, the National Park Service unveiled its Pride Guide, an interactive resource for exploring lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) history and places in the U.S. At more than 80 pages, it's an impressive collection of inspiring, thought-provoking stories that overlap with other important moments, places and people in American history.

"We've been able to uncover more LGBTQ+ stories and talk about them in frank, open dialogue with all of our visitors," Warren continued. "We've always been here. If you're looking for inspiration and looking for heroes, this is where you can go to find them. Marsha P. Johnson and Harriet Tubman were tough, so were the suffragists and Frederick Douglas. When we see our stories merge together, it can be very inspiring to LGBTQ+ visitors; I know it is to me."

7. DISCONNECT
Before visiting Yosemite National Park, I met with Ken Yager, active climber and founder of the Yosemite Climbing Museum. Ken's advice to me:

"Get out of your car. Turn your cell phone off. Embrace the place you're in."

With intermittent cell coverage, that may be easier than you imagined. The task we face is to welcome that time away from our gadgets.

8. WOW YOUR CUSTOMER
Warren said it best: "These are places that are so special that they were set aside by an act of Congress or Presidential Proclamation; they're some of the most important and beautiful sights we have in this country. They're a great way to wow your visitors, who will always enjoy a national park."

Warren also suggested those who are planning group visits be sure to call the park directly for insight and advice from the local rangers.

9. THEY BELONG TO YOU
"For anyone to get outdoors and enjoy the national parks is something that you want to do," said Stephanie Roulett of the National Park Service. "As a citizen, they belong to you no matter who you are, what you believe in, what you subscribe to."

The national parks far exceeded my expectations not just for the natural escape they are most known for, but for the context they offer that made me feel more connected to time, place, history and myself. I've got a couple more parks to hit up on my way east. If you enjoyed this post, please like, share and subscribe.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Stephen Ekstrom is the Chief Strategist at The Tourism Academy. In addition to holding leadership roles within the tourism industry, he's been profiled by the New York Times, lectured at leading universities, appeared on numerous television and radio programs, and been published by trade media around the globe.

Photos Courtesy of Stephen Ekstrom

 

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