It’s a family tradition. A yearly visit to one of this country’s 423 incredible National Parks is a summertime highlight for so many Americans — and the travel trend has only grown since the pandemic. The post-pandemic urge to spend time outdoors and away from crowds is part of the pull alongside the ever-present desire to escape the urban areas we’ve been cooped up in and instead wander across new terrain. Accordingly, overall attendance at National Parks regained 91% of their pre-pandemic visitor numbers in 2021, with some popular parks like Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve leapfrogging 2019 numbers to see a 154% increase in attendance — making camping permits and even day passes hard to come by, especially with most visitors staying longer at each site.
Booking a guided tour might not immediately come to mind when planning a National Park visit but the perks and insider access that come with this type of organized trip can be well worth the additional cost.
Major tour operators like G Adventures or Intrepid Travel offer expeditions that allow travellers to see several parks in one trip. Others, like Natural Habitat Adventures, offer an exclusive experience in a single park.
For example, the eco-conscious travel company launched a new tour this summer taking travellers and wildlife lovers to Lake Clark National Park near Homer, Alaska for a five day journey into bear country. The Alaska Bear Camp trip is a guaranteed escape from crowds, a benefit of its secluded, fly-in setting on an inholding inside the park. “The camp’s location makes it unique enough, but what is truly special is the presence of brown bears — lots of them,” says Ben Bressler, Natural Habitat’s president and founder.
There’s an additional layer of comfort and ease when it comes to equipment and lodgings. The Lake Clark beachside camp which welcomes just 14 guests at a time is set up with weatherproof tents, an on-site chef who takes care of meals based on local seafood specialties, and (drum roll please) hot showers. The bears, however, are the stars. What would be a rare experience anywhere else in the US is an embarrassment of riches at the Alaska Bear Camp, with brown bears on view in their natural habitat at camp’s edge as well as along the adjacent lakeshore.
The naturalists employed by the company also lead tours in Yellowstone National Park which are centred on that park’s wolf population.
While there’s an undeniable romance in “roughing it” (spending nights in a tent it took hours to set up, surviving on fire-blackened hot dogs and tins of beans, splashing lake water on your face each morning while dreaming of your espresso machine) there’s nothing redeemable about driving hours to a favourite park and not gaining access or having your vacation truncated by overbooking. This summer, the smart traveller will not only book ahead, but they may go the extra distance to ensure the exclusivity and tranquility of an experience away from the crowd.
Especially for travellers intent on viewing a park’s native wildlife, guided tours provide a much greater chance of this type of encounter, with an expertise on hand that comes only from the knowledge shared by wildlife professionals.