Imagine two options: exploring Yellowstone National Park’s 3,000 square miles of incomparable beauty with a three-hour drive-by, or a three-day tour with a slew of options including close encounters with wildlife, luxury camping and kayaking to a hidden geyser. The first option allows for a few photos and a chance to quickly move to the next item on the itinerary. But the second allows a more immersive experience, for a lasting impact on the group.
National parks have long sold well for many affinity travel programs, though the touring styles have differed. Some tours still focus on flying past as many natural wonders as possible on a tour, which leaves little time to stop and soak in the scenery. A tour of a park might even be a day long; but with little variety beyond shuttling guests from one view point to another, it might fail to engage participants.
Instead of following the CliffsNotes version of touring a national park, you could, without sacrificing novelty, find or create tours that stay longer at one park. Your group could develop a love for a particular national park, not through a list of must-sees but by incorporating the park into a variety of engaging activities.
Waking and Sleeping
What better way to fully experience Glacier National Park than by waking to a view of a glacial lake surrounded by the Rocky Mountains? The park’s Swiss-chalet-styled Many Glacier Hotel proves that groups can embrace both wilderness and comfort. Many national parks offer similar accommodations that become selling points in themselves.
You can also opt for outside-the-box accommodations near many national parks, such as luxury camping with Far and Away Adventure into Yellowstone National Park. By seeking tours with these scenic accommodations, you can offer your groups more time in the parks and less time shuttling to and from the park.
Groups can also benefit from accommodations that allow individuals in the group some autonomy, such as Zion Lodge, which connects guests to the park’s shuttle. This setup makes it easy to incorporate free time into the itinerary.
Groups unable to stay overnight at a park property can extend their time in the park with meals. For an immersive culinary experience, look for cuisine authentic to the area and, if possible, with a landscape to admire over dinner.
Whether you plan your own trips or browse premade itineraries, you should always try to offer national park trips with interesting ways to experience the scenery. Astronomy programs, boat rides and hot-air balloons jump off the page on an itinerary.
Group members that might not want to plan guided activities on their own could welcome a way to explore Arches National Park by hot-air balloon instead of the standard tour. These activities make your tour more tempting, as well as engage with the scenery in a physical way that can prove more memorable.
A trip to the Grand Canyon becomes an even better story when coupled with a mule ride down the canyon trail. Denali National Park can similarly come alive when groups book a dog-sled ride.
For a twist on a typical national park trip, travel planners can opt for an educational tour. From natural history to literature, intriguing topics relevant to America’s national parks prove easy to find.
“On one of our trips to Alaska, a professor talked about Jack London and the gold rush,” said Cary Allyn, director of the Vanderbilt Travel Program. “She had wonderful talks about why Jack London found Alaska so appealing. We’ve also had lectures about wolves, flora and fauna, and Native Americans that lived there. Our educational focus is one thing that makes Vanderbilt trips so special.”
Play With Options
Knowing you will include immersive activities at national parks is one thing, but knowing which to choose can prove challenging. Some loyalty program directors handle this by segmenting their tours to appeal to various levels of physical fitness. This can allow the tour to either embrace outdoor adventure for more active travelers or stick to soft adventure for the less-mobile members.
Oberlin College offers annual OBIEAdventures for members seeking highly active trips to national parks and other wild areas of the country.
“The ages really vary on these trips,” said Danielle Young, executive director of the alumni association. “The group is often kayaking, biking, hiking or camping.”
Instead of watering down the tours because of worries that older members might not be as interested, Oberlin College presented an adventure product that they thought would attract only younger alums but that ended up also interesting older members.
If segmenting tours with highly active and passive activities won’t work with your group, optional excursions can help all types of travelers feel welcome on the tour. For example, one afternoon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park allows members to choose between a guided horseback ride and a ranger talk about the president’s Maltese Cross Cabin.
Though finalized details may differ greatly, immersive park tours allow participants to connect more deeply with these national treasures.