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Yellowstone National Park

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The National Park Service, which turns 98 this August 25, will be celebrating by waiving admission to its parks across the country on its birthday. Tagged as “America’s Best Idea” in a PBS series for its part in preserving our natural landscape, the NPS now protects 84 million acres in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

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It’s no surprise that vacation rentals have stolen the hearts of savvy travelers everywhere. Great savings, extra amenities, even the chance to get some local advice…what’s not to love? The fact that HomeAway has hit one million listings — making its inventory almost twice the size of other similar companies — just comes to show how this once-alternative means of accommodation is going mainstream. To celebrate, we’ve rounded up five affordable rentals that you can book this summer and beyond, for a taste of something different:

1. Santa Teresa, Costa Rica: $80/night
For the design enthusiast, this Costa Rican rental delivers on one-of-a-kind digs with a futuristic, geodesic design. Sleeping four to five with two bedrooms spread over two floors, this villa is less than a five-minute walk to Santa Teresa Beah and the area’s shops and cafes. We recommend getting out early to beat the heat, then settling in for an afternoon siesta if the rain hits. And, don’t worry, the AC units are well-equipped to keep you cool. 4-night minimum.

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Channel Islands National Park - Santa Cruz Island - David Wan - 620Nothing against Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, but some national parks can get crowded, especially during the summer. Instead of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other tourists at scenic vistas this summer, head over to these often overlooked national parks.

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yosemite - colors 1The United States maintains more than 6,000 federally-protected sites, spanning over 1 million square miles and totaling roughly 27 percent of the U.S.’s entire land area. Attracting millions of visitors worldwide, the U.S. National Park System offers tourists incredible variety, from the lush Everglades, to windswept Death Valley, to the grandaddy of national parks, the Grand Canyon.

Traveling to each, individually and together, can cost a fortune, so if you’re planning a road-trip, you can save a ton with a national parks pass, or consider showing up on one of the many free-admission days. For those still wondering where, when, and how to visit, here is our guide on planning a trip to the country’s top six national parks in 2014. Read more

Yellowstone National Park

UPDATE: Five national parks in Utah have re-opened, though the government shutdown remains in effect. CNN reports that since October is one of the busiest months for visitors exploring Utah’s stunning canyons, deserts, and million-year-old rock formations, the state has decided to fund the re-opening of five national parks (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion), plus three other sites (Natural Bridges, Cedar Breaks national monuments, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area) with its own money. The sites are scheduled to re-open fully on Saturday October 12 for at least the next 10 days, with plans to continue funding the parks if the shutdown drags on further.

Of the many facets of day-to-day life that will be directly affected by a government shutdown (healthcare, IRS, the military) that begins today, travel and tourism concerns are relatively low on the list. However, for travelers who booked their trip months ago – not to mention tourism offices who rely on those visitors actually showing up – the closures can seriously upset your plans. Though flight and hotel bookings (and, thankfully, public transportation) remain unaffected, some itineraries (especially to destinations in the Western U.S.) will have to be re-arranged entirely.

Of the thousands of worthy sightseeing spots in the U.S., 401 of them are national parks. These include everything from preserves like Florida’s Big Cypress Swamp to monuments like the Statue of Liberty to the massive, hugely popular Yellowstone National Park, which receives over 3.5 million visitors per year. A full database of sites can be found here. Below, we’ve compiled five of the most-visited national park sites, coupled with alternative sites you can visit instead. Read more

fowl-cay-resort-exumaLast week, while a few of my fellow travel writers were sharing their favorite family destinations for 2013, my colleague Eileen Ogintz was shepherding her own family through the Bahamas.

That made me a little jealous, but also eager to talk with Ogintz –a syndicated family travel columnist, author, and creator of TakingtheKids.com – as I wanted to pick her brain about the trip. And as soon as she put her bags down, she graciously permitted me to do just that, as well as get some of her picks for 2013 family travel.

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Yellowstone Bison buffaloIt’s been a rough couple of weeks for travelers who enjoy America’s national park, with the hantavirus outbreak at Yosemite and now a way-too-close encounter between a young park guest and a very large bison at Yellowstone National Park. It’s not uncommon for visitors to Yellowstone to witness wildlife up close, and bison present the majority of those opportunities. However, nearly every map, brochure, posted sign, and announcement from the Parks Department urges people to maintain a safe distance between themselves and the park’s four-legged inhabitants. The folks in the video below, however, chose to ignore these warnings and narrowly avoided disaster.

Bison frequently cross over paths that have been installed for park visitors. Common sense dictates that you give these massive creatures a wide birth as they go by. Park rules require that guests stay 25 feet away from large animals and 100 feet from bears. The people shown in this video are closer to the bison than most commuters are to each other in a New York City subway. Before too long, they were running for their lives, and one young guest was nearly trampled. Sound terrifying? The adults involved seemed to find the whole incident delightfully amusing. Read more

wildlife survival tips mooseSpring has officially arrived, and with it, the anticipation of long hikes, weekend camping trips, and more time communing with nature.

Of course, nature also encompasses wildlife, some of which – bears, mountain lions, or even a seemingly docile bison – can turn an outdoor adventure into a trip to the hospital (or worse). And though animal attacks on humans are extremely rare, spring, when animals are coming out of hibernation and caring for their young, presents a good time for a primer on what to do if you cross paths with a potentially dangerous animal.

For expert insight, I spoke to Kurt Johnson, the resident naturalist at Spring Creek Ranch in Jackson, Wyoming, who’s also a wildlife photographer with decades of experience in the wilderness. “What’s really interesting about wildlife interactions with people is that they’re communicating with us constantly,” Johnson says. “They’re telling us when they become uncomfortable, when they get agitated.”

A good rule of thumb with any animal, Johnson says, is to understand that if “what you’re doing is changing the behavior of the animal, you’re doing something wrong.” Here, more tips on understanding animal instinct and staying safe in the wild.

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Grand Teton National Park winterLooking to squeeze in one last winter adventure before temperatures start to climb in the spring? Consider Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and the nearby Grand Teton National Park, both of which offer breathtaking, snow-swept landscapes, an abundance of winter sports, and a welcome absence of the fanny-pack-wearing masses of tourists who descend in warmer months.

Exploring these stunning national parks – Yellowstone is the country’s first, designated as such in 1872 by the Western explorers who were dazzled by its beauty – is a perfect respite for  shredded quads after skiing in nearby Jackson, or a stand-alone trip for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or traveling by snow coach or snowmobile.

Plus, it’s supremely affordable: An entrance fee of $25 per car for 7-day period covers admittance to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.

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