Whether you’re deep inside a cave under the New Mexico desert, high above St. Louis inside the Gateway Arch, or floating down a quiet stretch of the Rio Grande, these National Park Units will surprise and thrill you.
Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas: Fly to Memorial Field Airport in Hot Springs, which takes its name from the 47 springs on the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain that produce about a million gallons of 143-degree water each day. Using carbon dating techniques, National Park Service scientists discovered that the water that reaches the surface in Hot Springs fell as rainfall in an as-yet undetermined watershed 4,000 years earlier. The water percolates very slowly down through the earth’s surface until it reaches superheated areas deep in the crust. It then rushes rapidly to the surface. Downtown, the bathhouses (some still in use) of Bathhouse Row are now a National Historic Landmark District and display remarkable Gilded Age architecture. The Fordyce Bathhouse is the most elaborate and represents the "Golden Age of Bathing" in America about 100 years ago, when spas were built to rival those in Europe. The Fordyce now serves as the park visitor center. It’s not all about the baths though; you can enjoy museums, shopping, dining, and nightlife while in Hot Springs.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas: Known for the world’s premier example of a Permian Era fossilized reef, Guadalupe offers outstanding wilderness hiking, backpacking, and birding opportunities. There is no lodging, but two campgrounds provide primitive camping sites, no reservations needed.
Big Bend National Park, Texas: Big Bend National Park is named for the sweeping bend the Rio Grande makes along part of the U.S./Mexico border in southwest Texas. The Chihuahuan Desert dominates the landscape, and the Chisos Mountains rise above like an “island in the sky.” This stark yet beautiful landscape is remote; the closest airport is Alpine. Reserve a car in advance for the 100-mile drive to the park headquarters at Panther Junction Visitor Center. Big Bend is a magnet for birders, with over 450 species including subtropical migrants like the Mexican mallard, Colima warbler, and Lucifer hummingbird. Stargazing, hiking, river rafting, ranger-led tours, scenic drives, lodging, and dining all promise a well-deserved escape from the ordinary.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas: Arrange for a rental car or ask about the courtesy car and then fly to Emporia, about midway between Wichita and Topeka. Located in the Flint Hills just north of Strong City and 25 minutes from the airport, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve protects a nationally significant example of the tallgrass prairie system that once covered 400,000 square miles of the country (only about 4 percent remains). The preserve is a public/private partnership between the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy. Five maintained hiking trails allow visitor access; narrated bus tours are given in summer. Three preserve ponds are open for catch-and-release fishing. A herd of bison has been introduced, as the prairie is part of their natural habitat.
Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, Missouri: Land at St. Louis Downtown Airport to visit this memorial to America’s westward expansion. The 91-acre park along the Mississippi River houses the Old Courthouse (site of local trials in the Dred Scott case), Museum of Westward Expansion, and of course the 630-foot-tall Gateway Arch. A unique tram of ingenious design will carry you to the observation tower at its top. Not as much fun as flying through it of course, but a lot more legal!