Close Encounters, AFAR, Sept/Oct 2018

AFAR parksThere's always a reason to visit U.S. National Parks, but these four destinations, all within easy reach of big cities, are offering new ways to experience their treasures.

1. Arches National Park
Start from: Salt Lake City (3.75 hours) or Denver (5.5 hours) 
What’s there: Red rock spires and more than 2,000 sandstone arches Why now: Expanded monthly star parties began this summer at Moab-area national parks, thanks to a new partnership with the Utah Dark Skies Astronomy Outreach program. At Arches, stargazers meet at the Visitor Center for a 30-40 minute-long ranger talk followed by constellation spotting and opportunities to peer through telescopes at distant galaxies and star clusters. Also on display: the Milky Way, which 80 percent of North Americans can’t see at home because of light pollution.

2. Statue of Liberty National Monument
Start from: New York (15- 30 minutes by ferry) What’s there: The Great Hall of Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, where more than 12 million immigrants entered the United States between 1892 and 1924, plus Manhattan views Why now: New Acoustiguides provide a more interactive audio tour: Sit on the benches where immigrants awaited their entry interviews and hear inspectors’ questions, then learn about objects immigrants brought. Tours are available in 13 languages, with videos for American Sign Language.

3. Death Valley National Park
Start from: Las Vegas (2 hours) or Los Angeles (4 hours) 
What’s there: Vast dunes, twisting slot canyons, and vistas from 11,049-foot Telescope Peak Why now: A multimillion dollar renovation is morphing the former Furnace Creek Resort into the Oasis at Death Valley, where 22 new casitas will open this fall to join the 66-room inn and 224-room ranch. Natural springs have long made the area a true oasis, but additional date palms and shade trees will create a refuge among the park’s stark hills.

4. Biscayne National Park
Start from: Miami (1.5 hours)
 What’s there: Mangrove islands and tropical reefs in a park that’s 95 percent under water 
Why now: The Biscayne National Park Institute recently launched guided eco-adventures that educate park visitors on trips to remote Elliott Key. Or, on snorkeling tours of the colorful Florida Reef, you might spot graceful southern stingrays or one of four species of sea turtles. Expanded offerings may soon include “paddlebirding” excursions to see mangrove cuckoos and great blue herons.

Click here to see the expanded national parks content for the online edition.