12 Great American Destinations
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12 Great American Destinations

Do you know where you'll go on your next family trip? Here are 12 locations that are not to be missed.

Great National Parks: Acadia, Yosemite

Believe it or not, winter will soon be over. Snow shovels can be put away, picnic baskets can be filled with bread and wine, and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" can be heard at ballparks across America. Celebrate the start of warmer days to come by taking the family on a trip to one of America's many great destinations. To help you get started, here is a list of 12 must-see locations -- from the Grand Canyon to Disney World -- that are known to build memories that are not easily forgotten.

Great American National Parks

Chaotic cities, clogged highways, and mile-high skyscrapers: if this sounds like the environment you find yourself in everyday, then take a break and come to a completely different world. The National Park Service has set aside 84 million acres of land for the creation of national parks where your early-morning commute along a quiet trail might lead you to misty waterfalls, granite domes, or a gorgeous view of the ocean. The best part is, you don't have to travel the world to see some of these spectacular wonders -- most of them are not too far from home. So why not pack up the car with a tent and sleeping bags and take the whole family on a tour of America's national parks?

Acadia National Park, Maine

At the northeast edge of the country there lies an island where the waves of the Atlantic come crashing into the cliffs. Welcome to Mount Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park.

Acadia has more than 40 miles of tree-lined carriage roads, perfect for families looking for a gentle stroll or an afternoon of biking. From bird walks to stargazing, there is no shortage of Ranger-led activities in the park. Learn about the history of the land where native people began settling 5,000 years ago. Then, come sunset, make sure you find yourself in one of the many spots of the park offering shimmering views of the Atlantic.

Contrary to popular belief, moose sighting in Maine is not very high. Consider yourself lucky if you happen to spot one strolling in the woods.

Yosemite National Park, California

Naturalist John Muir fell in love with Yosemite at first sight. He writes: "Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society. Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree."

Based in the Sierra Nevadas, Yosemite is where all aspects of nature come together. Visitors to the park hover mostly in the Yosemite Valley, but when you go, do what Muir would've done -- see it all. Ride to Glacier Point for an overlook with an immaculate view of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and the High Sierras; drive Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows and watch the flowers of the meadow blossom in the spring. Then head on over to Mariposa Grove and crane your neck to the sky to witness the largest living creatures on earth -- sequoia trees.

And when you do eventually make your way down to the Valley, take time to admire four of the world's largest waterfalls. You can drive right up to the base of the largest -- Yosemite Falls, where the sheer force of 2,000-plus feet of falling water will make your knees quiver.

Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

Shenandoah, Smokies, Everglades

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Cutting through the entire length of Shenandoah National Park is Skyline Drive, one of the most impressive scenic roads you will ever drive. Keep your eyes open as you cruise at the strictly enforced 35 m.p.h. speed limit, because you're sure to encounter deer and other wildlife frolicking alongside the road.

If you like to learn about where you are and what you're looking at, Shenandoah (Native American for "Daughter of the Stars") will not disappoint. Along the length of the 105-mile Skyline Drive, there are 75 overlooks giving background to the land's geography, history, and early settlements. When you're ready to leave the car, test-hike a few of the 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail that run through the park. At the end of the day, lie down and stretch your weary body in Big Meadows, appropriately named for its enormity.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, North Carolina

Continuing south along Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive, you will meet the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, guiding you all the way to America's most visited national park: The Great Smoky Mountains.

At 800 square miles, the Smokies are the largest federally protected area east of the Mississippi, allowing for the 10,000 species of living things that have been documented there. Perhaps the most famous resident of the park is the black bear. Somewhere around 600 of these captivating creatures wander the park, making it one of the most populated bear areas in the country. If you are looking for a snapshot, your best bet of spotting one is at Cades Cove.

If you would rather avoid bears, there are plenty of other exotic animals in the park to arouse your interest. Among them are elks, red and gray foxes, coyote, bobcats, and bats. While it's rare that you'll encounter any of these creatures (especially in populated areas), you are almost sure to spot a deer or two at some point during your visit.

Everglades National Park, Florida

At 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is the largest national park east of the Rocky Mountains. It spans the southern tip of Florida and is home to rare breeds of birds and wildlife, including the much discussed gator. In fact, you won't find both alligators and crocodiles at the same place anywhere else in the world.

If you're feeling adventurous, rent a canoe and take the family paddling along marshy rivers (being careful to avoid the camouflaged croc heads). Others might prefer to leave the steering to the experts and sightsee the mangrove islands on a boat tour, available all year long.

Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountains

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon plunges 6,000 feet at its deepest point. From above, the view into the madness of geologic wonder is a sight most people never forget. It accomplishes every feat nature was intended for -- to inspire, to provoke thought, and, in some cases, to bring man to tears.

Yet looking down into the canyon is only one way to experience one of the world's most fascinating geologic formations. Hiking down to meet the Colorado River is another part of the adventure. But unlike most national parks, there are no roads cutting through Grand Canyon. Most of what lies in the 277-mile gorge has to be experienced on foot. Mule rides and helicopter tours are much pricier alternatives.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

With the signing of a law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, Yellowstone became America's first national park. It continues to be one of the most popular parks today, having the largest concentration of geysers in the world.

The landscape to Yellowstone was formed about 640,000 years ago by a volcanic explosion that created a crater 30 miles wide and 45 miles long. Geysers like Old Faithful and Giantess serve as reminders of one of the world's largest volcanoes. You can witness Old Faithful's eruption about every 90 minutes.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Much has been written, said, and sung about the great Rocky Mountains of the West. Here peaks climb higher than 14,000 feet above sea level. The easiest way to reach them is through Trail Ridge Road. At 12,183 feet, it's the highest continuous, paved road in the country. Those with aged hiking boots might prefer to challenge one of the 60 summits rising 12,000 feet. Along the way, watch for sighting of bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, or perhaps even a friendly moose.

At the end of the day, gather your friends and family around a campfire and watch the stars. It'll probably be the closest you'll ever get to them.

Great Theme Parks

Theme parks are a great place to bring the family together for quick thrills and good times. They're not just for kids either. You'll find a variety of entertainment -- from musical performances to golf courses to keep the grown-ups occupied while the children line up to ride the Matterhorn for the umpteenth time. There is probably a theme park in your area that you visit regularly, or maybe this year you'll finally make the trek to Orlando and explore a castle promising unlimited happiness.

So whether you're seeking the old-time charm of a wooden roller coaster or the latest in 4-D technology, here are a few theme parks that are sure to fill up the empty pages of your photo album.

Walt Disney World Resort, Orlando, Florida

Theme parks begin and end with Walt Disney World Resort. The stories we grew up with and continue to read to our children are given a setting in Orlando, Florida. Here you will find the largest concentration of theme parks in the world, including six owned by Disney.

There are enough rides, shows and attractions within the confines of Disney World to keep that magical feeling going for weeks. Whether you go along with the kids for another stroll through Pirates of the Caribbean, take a dive down Splash Mountain, or simply hang back at a resort for spa treatments are just some of the many difficult choices you'll have to make.

Universal Studios, Hollywood, California

Consider your visit to Tinseltown incomplete without a studio tour at Universal Studios Hollywood. During the action-packed tram ride, you'll encounter armed stormtroopers, a killer shark known for having very sharp Jaws, and King Kong himself -- in all his massiveness and full of roars.

Thrill seekers will find satisfaction in rides like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future, and families will come together for shows like the new OgreVision hit Shrek 4-D. After a day of blockbuster fun in the world's largest theme park and movie studio, cool off with a stroll on the CitiWalk.

Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, Virginia

Think green as you travel back to 17th-century Europe at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, voted "most beautiful theme park" by the National Amusement Park Historical Association for 12 consecutive years. The park's well-maintained and scenic landscape is split into six European countries -- from Scotland to Italy -- where you'll find over 50 rides and attractions including Apollo's Chariot, a hypercoaster that plummets over 200 feet at 73 m.p.h. The park puts on several great performances including the crowd favorite, Pet Shenanigans, a live-action show featuring animals, and debuting this year is Imaginique, a new European-inspired circus performance.

Sea World and Wild Animal Park, San Diego, California

If you need a break from roller coasters and revolving horses, take a day to see what's floating at Sea World. Here aquatic creatures are the stars and you can touch, feed, and play with many of them. The biggest draw in the park continues to be the Shamu Adventure. The world-renowned killer whale teams up with Baby and Grandbaby Shamu to show off all their aqua-acrobatic skills. If you're catching an evening performance, you might want to sit closer to the back. Shamu's pool holds seven million gallons of water and he's not afraid to share some with you.

Less than half an hour from Sea World, more than 3,500 animals of 429 species make their home in San Diego's Wild Animal Park. This year, after several years of absence, the park will bring back an exhibit featuring life-size models of robotic dinosaurs at the Conifer Forest. Other highlights of the park include a rare California condor exhibit and the largest rhino population you'll find in any zoo.

 
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