Five reasons to visit a National Park this weekend

America’s National Parks system is one of the greatest institutions ever created by our country – if you ask me, at least. These sacred slices of our nation’s finest ecosystems and delicate environments are critical to American’s ability to access and enjoy the untouched outdoors.

Any day offers a great excuse to visit a nearby National Park, but certain dates hold a particular perk for patrons – which I’ll dive straight into with the first of my top five reasons to visit a National Park:

1. IT’S FREE!

That’s right – admission fees into National Parks around the country are waived during certain times of the year to provide access for those who may not otherwise be able to make it to the parks. That includes everywhere from to Grand Tetons and Rocky Mountains to the Everglades and Kings Canyon, so no matter which outdoor haven is closest to your hometown, you’ll be able to partake in the free fun.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been a proud National Parks annual pass holder since March 2011, but I can still appreciate the gift of complimentary park admission – I can only imagine how expensive my summer road trip would have been if I had paid entrance fees at every park I visited!

 Five reasons to visit a National Park this weekend2. Fresh air for your lungs.

If you’re confined within city limits during the workweek like me, you likely reach the weekend with a raging thirst to leave the concrete jungle for some natural surroundings. Making a trip to a National Park offers a fantastic way to escape city life for a while. Spend the day trading in traffic lights and steel skyscrapers for towering trees and exhilarating landscapes. You’ll return home with a renewed vigor, and a newfound itch to make a hasty return trip to your National Park of choice.

3. Watching for wildlife.

National Parks are one of the best places to get in touch with your wild side. Whether you’re an avid birdwatcher, or simply want to spend an afternoon chasing chipmunks after climbing in the Rocky Mountains, America’s National Parks are home to some of the most magnificent creatures on earth. Not to favor fauna over flora, I must also highly recommend that you spend some time getting to know the unique plant-life that thrives in the various terrains at the parks across the nation. Tiny leaves and silky flowers are one of the main reasons a macro-lens is at the top of my must-have list.

 Five reasons to visit a National Park this weekend4. Bountiful recreation and activities.

While my preferred park activities revolve around climbing, hiking, and photography, there is a bounty of possibilities for active park visitors. Hop aboard a guided tour to better acquaint yourself with a new park, set out on a rafting excursion, or plan a scenic picnic – the options are endless. I always love to stop by park visitor centers to scope out maps and chat with rangers about their favorite things to do and see in the area.

5. Experiencing something new.

Every time I visit a National Park, I am treated to a new and wonderful experience – even if I’ve visited the same spot a dozen times before. Nature is constantly changing, adapting, blooming, and presenting us with gracious chances to appreciate the natural world around us. Some of my favorite moments at National Parks include spending a night at the legendary Camp 4 in Yosemite National Park, watching my crew attempt to summit the Grand Teton in Wyoming, and going on a photographic hunt for alligators in the Everglades.

 Five reasons to visit a National Park this weekendWith so much to be discovered and absorbed right in your own backyard, there’s no excuse not to pay a visit to a National Park this weekend. Free admission fees, recreational activities for every visitor’s lifestyle, and a bevy of outdoor beauty is beckoning for you to come play. Not sure which park to visit? Check out a complete list of all the parks and monuments offering complimentary – and be sure to check out additional dates for 2012 free National Park days.

Want more? Check out these articles about my experiences at National Parks across the country:

– Read about my visit to Gulf Islands National Seashore during a trip to Pensacola, Florida
– Explore my favorite sights and scenes from Yosemite National Park, and check out my favorite all-time climb, Beached Whale (V5) near the Ahwahnee Lodge.
– Discover the vibrant desert hues I photographed during my hike through Arches National Park.

Hermit crab parties, mason jar feasts, and kayaking across the bay in Pensacola

During my last brief stint in Tallahassee, I was convinced to extend my stay to witness the homecoming of two darling friends, Jeff and Ryan, who had spent their summer toiling away as river guides in Moab, Utah. I agreed, and naturally, my plans were thrown into the blender of life, which led me to meet them out in Pensacola for a few days of seaside adventuring.

The crew consisted of myself, Niko, Jeff, Ryan, and our lovely host, Dan. We all met Dan during our stay at the Lazy Lizard Hostel in Moab. A constant explorer traveling the world with permanently tanned skin and a rusty pick-up truck, Dan embodied everything the boys aspire to be. During our adventures together in Utah, which included a wild day of hiking through Arches National Park, Dan extended constant invitations for us to come visit him in Pensacola when we all finally returned to the state of sunshine. None of us ever expected those invitations to come to fruition, but a little luck and three spontaneous hours of driving brought the clan back together on the coast.

dsc 1359 Hermit crab parties, mason jar feasts, and kayaking across the bay in Pensacola

This trip’s highlight was the day that Jeff and Niko decided to attempt a five-mile open water trek across the bay. Jeff has an uncanny knack for acquiring free swag, and during his Moab escapades he stumbled upon two virtually free kayaks – that bastard. We loaded those bad boys onto the roof of my Pilot, and headed to the Gulf Islands National Seashore to take a dip in the bay and launch the kayaks out to sea.

dsc 1412 Hermit crab parties, mason jar feasts, and kayaking across the bay in Pensacola

You may not be able to tell from the photo, but neither of those kayaks were outfitted with skirts, and the bay waters weren’t exactly calm on this slightly overcast day. Nevertheless, the two adventurers set out from the sand with smiles plastered on their faces, and the remaining three of us retreated back to Dan’s abode on the opposite end of the bay to kill time down at the dock.

The 5 mile trek was supposed to take them about two and a half hours, but the gruesome twosome managed to extend their trip by at least double the time – and 5 extra miles. How did this happen, you ask? Well, first, those knuckleheads managed to get themselves caught in an afternoon sea storm that blew them way off course. The new direction in which they veered guided them towards unknown land, but they beached their kayaks anyways and journeyed onto shore. Upon receiving quizzical glances from this strange place’s inhabitants, they realized the boys realized they had managed to infiltrate a high-security Navy base. Typical.

All the while, Ryan and I were left to ponder their fates as we bode our time waiting on the dock. As the hours melted together, we found a fantastic way to kill the lull of the clock: hermit crab parties. The dirty sandbanks below the dock were laden with hermit crabs, and Rya and I managed to collect a hefty heap of living shells to attend our crustacean celebration. Piled all over each other, the crabs provided excellent entertainment as they scurried towards the end of the dock planks, and promptly plummeted back down to the safety of the sand.

dsc 1467 Hermit crab parties, mason jar feasts, and kayaking across the bay in Pensacola

After a few too many hours of waiting for Jeff and Niko to surface on the horizon, the weather began to take on a menacing tone, and Dan decided we should take his dinghy out into the bay to search for our kayakers. A couple hundred yards into the choppy water, we were forced to retreat as the small boat was tossed about in the looming storm. Dan suggested that it might be an appropriate time to call the Coast Guard, and you can bet I got a bit nervous at this point.

Dan unloaded Ryan, myself, and our cooler of snacks back onto the dock, and continued to search for the lost boys while I sat with Ryan to impatiently wait on the shore for an update. Eventually, the three of us were forced to retreat up the street to Dan’s home to prepare for a supper of curried chicken out of mason jar, and a continuation of the waiting game.

dsc 1323 Hermit crab parties, mason jar feasts, and kayaking across the bay in Pensacola

Let’s pause from our harrowing kayak adventure to take a moment to bask in the glory of Dan’s saucy hoard of mason jar meals. It was impressive and inspiring. As soon as I return from my big trip, I’m investing in a pressure cooker so I can whip up insane batches of food like this. The curry chicken we devoured for dinner was prepared over a year ago, and it  tasted like it was freshly made that day. Genius – but back to the boys.

After sitting on Dan’s front porch for a bit, I grew restless and dragged Ryan back to the dock with me to wait for Jeff and Niko. As divine timing would have it, we strolled up to the waterfront just as the two waterlogged kayakers beached on the shore. They were sun-beaten, raisin-handed, and pumped on the completion of their epic adventure.

dsc 1485 Hermit crab parties, mason jar feasts, and kayaking across the bay in Pensacola

We returned to Dan’s home a reunited foursome, and gorged ourselves on a spicy supper while Jeff and Niko regaled us with tales of bailing out their kayaks with broken plastic cups, losing sight of land during a sudden storm, and pioneering blindly onto a Navy base.

Just another day in the life, I suppose.