TEN TERRIFIC NATIONAL PARKS YOU CAN VISIT FOR $35 A WEEK
By JAMES E. REYNOLDS

(MONEY Magazine) – THIS MONTH:

--Don't waste a lot of green overdoing your lawn care. --New motorcycles provide age-defying transportation.

We've got some surprisingly upbeat news about America's 54 national parks for you, despite all the grim stuff you've been hearing in recent months. That's not to say you should totally dismiss the negative, however. For example:

--Federal budget cutbacks have slashed both staff and amenities at the parks. Many have hired far fewer summer rangers; that means a corresponding decline in guided tours and nature walks, less frequent trash patrols and a general erosion of maintenance. A few parks have even had to close campgrounds.

--Natural disasters have damaged some of the most beloved locations. Severe January flooding in Yosemite, for example, destroyed most of the valley's housing, campsites and sewage systems. Repairs probably won't be completed for two years.

--Prices for admission, camping, boating and other attractions have doubled in some parks since last year.

--Worst of all--natural disasters or not--many parks remain crowded beyond their capacity. A record 29 million travelers packed into them last summer. Traffic jams on park roadways sometimes rival the urban rush-hour backups that many parkgoers thought they were leaving behind.

But don't despair. After consulting a cabin-full of guidebook writers, park rangers, park service officials and recent park visitors, we've identified 10 pristine gems that the hordes have not yet discovered (see the table on page 172), ranging from Utah's Grand Canyon-like Arches National Park to Alaska's super-remote Gates of the Arctic. And at an average price of about $35 for a week of camping for a family of four--not including food and transportation to the parks--each of our picks rates as a resounding bargain that's a fraction of the cost of, say, a weeklong beach-house rental. If you make plans now, you can get reservations at campgrounds or hotels at all of them this summer.

While the entire national park system has undoubtedly seen better days, the worst problems tend to plague the most heavily trafficked parks. The three most popular--Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon and Yosemite--together draw a whopping 28% of all national park visitors. They're also the ones raising fees the most this year. The increases follow the federal government's budgeting just $257 million for the 54 national parks in 1997, well short of the billions needed for long-postponed repairs and renovations. In an attempt to boost the parks' bottom line, last fall Congress agreed to allow 26 national parks to increase their entrance and recreational fees by as much as 100%. Result: You'll pay a $20 entrance fee per vehicle this summer at both the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, double last summer's charge--if you can get in at all.

By contrast, many less visited parks offer equally breathtaking vistas while allowing you to maintain a comfortable distance from like-minded travelers. If you crave spectacular hiking and canyon views, for example, consider Arches (see the photograph on page 172) in eastern Utah, or Capitol Reef in central Utah. While southwestern Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park is better known--admitting almost 1.3 million visitors last year--our two equally beautiful alternatives got just 856,000 and 678,000 visitors, respectively. "Capitol Reef is truly one of my favorite places," says Robert L. Casey, author of the guidebook Journey to the High Southwest (Globe Pequot, $19.95).

If you want water, think about North Cascades in northern Washington or Voyageurs in northern Minnesota, which both offer fishing, canoeing, water-skiing or swimming--as well as camping in secluded coves where you won't see another boat until the next morning. On the other hand, if you want to get away from everyone, hop a plane to Gates of the Arctic in northern Alaska, 8.5 million acres of mountains, tundra and forest populated mostly by grizzlies, arctic wolves and caribou. Or are North Woods wilderness and leave-no-trace camping what you're looking for? Then head to Isle Royale on Michigan's Lake Superior. You'll share space on this 37-mile island with moose and timber wolves.

When mapping a park vacation, keep these tips in mind:

--Ferret out the place that suits you best. Start with our table on page 172. Then for more information, visit ParkNet, the NPS Website (http://www.nps.gov). It provides general facts about entrance fees, campground reservation policies and the like. From its home page, you can jump to any of the 54 individual park Websites for more specific information, including the park's history, recommended clothing and supplies, as well as possible activities.

If you're not Web-ready, write to the National Park Service (Office of Public Inquiries, P.O. Box 37127, Room 1013, Washington, D.C. 20013) to request free park guides. While you're waiting the usual four to eight weeks for the official material, pick up a solid guidebook at your local bookstore such as Guide to the National Park Areas: Western States and Guide to the National Park Areas: Eastern States by David L. and Kay W. Scott (Globe Pequot, $15.95 each) or National Geographic's Guide to the National Parks of the United States (National Geographic Society, $18.95).

--Reserve now for this summer. "Even the lesser-known parks are becoming increasingly popular, so expect competition for space," says Charles Hardy, director of outings for the Sierra Club. No national parks require reservations for day visitors (one possible exception this year: Yosemite). But if you'd like to stay overnight--most parks offer lodging or camping or both--call the park you're interested in as soon as possible. Hotels and campgrounds at the most popular parks require advance reservations, and they're filling up now for this summer. Typically, they accept reservations five months in advance. Cost: about $10 to $20 a night for a family of four to camp, vs. $40 to $150 for an in-park hotel. To book sites at the most popular parks, get out your credit card and call the NPS reservation line (800-365-2267).

Many parks, however, don't accept reservations and instead dole out campsites on a first come, first served basis. You must show up in person to register for that night. During peak summer season, get there before noon. At Utah's Arches, for example, sites can fill up as early as 10 a.m.

A word of warning: Some parks' lodgings can be tough to reach. For instance, Ross Lake Resort in Washington State's North Cascades National Park is composed of 13 cabins accessible only by ferryboat or by hiking 2 1/2 miles from the nearest road. If the park you're interested in does not offer accommodations (or its options don't appeal to you), turn to a hotel or campground nearby. To find one, call the park and ask for the telephone number of the chamber of commerce for the nearest town. Many guidebooks also list nearby hotels and campgrounds.

--Consider visiting more than one park. If you've got the time, you may want to buy a $50 Golden Eagle Passport that will get you and your family into any park in the country for a full year. Considering that park entrance fees run as high as $20 per vehicle, the passport can be a good deal. On one typical two-week tour of the western parks, for example, you can easily hit Grand Canyon ($20), Sequoia ($10), Yosemite ($20), Crater Lake ($10) and Mount Rainier ($10). And if you're 62 or older, you can get a $10 Golden Age Passport, which lasts a lifetime. You can buy either passport at any park that charges entrance fees.

--Come prepared. For example, if you're headed for Texas' Big Bend National Park in June, pack sunscreen, a hat and at least one gallon of water per person per day: The desert temperatures can reach 115[degrees]F. If you plan to fish at Voyageurs, you must buy a $27.50 Minnesota fishing permit at a local bait and tackle shop beforehand. And if you're bound for Alaska's Gates of the Arctic, pack a $100 backcountry first-aid kit and a small $150 antiviral water-filtration system: The closest supply store is in the park's Anaktuvuk Pass, which is accessible only by air. Then settle in to enjoy the serenity--and solitude--that are the hallmarks of a great national park vacation.