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National Park Memories

All 10-year-old Matt wanted was to meet a moose.

For once, it didn't take long to get his vacation wish. We'd barely entered Grand Teton National Park when Matt excitedly spotted one nonchalantly breakfasting not far from the road.

Matt couldn't grab the camera fast enough. We followed him out of the van, just as awe-struck to see such a gigantic creature -- they can weigh 900 pounds -- wandering freely. No one moved until he ambled away.

Matt was jubilant that his wish had been granted so quickly and easily. To me, that moose was just as important -- an omen for a rare family vacation day when everything goes perfectly, even with three often-bickering kids.

Five years later, I still smile when I think of that excited 10-year-old boy and ``his'' moose in Grand Teton National Park. Even a pounding rainstorm one night just added to our memorable adventure there. It seems many of our National Park forays -- and we've been to many -- have been just as special.

When we spend so much time in front of TV and computer screens, there's no better place than a National Park for those I-can't-believe-I'm-seeing-this vacation moments that are never forgotten. They're not going to bust the budget either, with tent cabins starting as low as $30 a night, campsites less.

To get started planning your next trip, here's a guide to a few of my favorite national parks, starting with Grand Teton, just north of the cowboy town of Jackson, south of Yellowstone and a fifth the size:

Cool Fun: A float trip on the Snake River. At least 10 outfitters offer half-day and longer trips. The park can provide a list.

Nighttime Action: Grab your cameras after dinner to catch the sun setting over the Tetons and the grazing wildlife. Wolves will be the hot topic around the campfire at ranger talks this summer.

Best Kid's Souvenir: Anything with a moose -- T-shirts, hats and stuffed animals.

Beating the Crowds: Avoid the Jenny Lake area mid-morning till late afternoon. Instead, head to Antelope Flats to see bison in the meadows. Take a free ride across the river on historic Menor's Ferry. Stop for penny candy at the general store.

Lodging Smarts: Keep trying if you haven't been able to get a room in the park. There are always last-minute cancellations. Arrive before 11 a.m. to grab a place for your sleeping bag in the park service's campgrounds.

Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle has glaciers, jagged mountains, beaches and even a rain forest within its hundreds of acres. Many think it's like visiting three parks in one

Cool Fun: A hike through the Hoh Rain Forest, one of the few examples of a temperate rain forest in this country. The Sitka spruce trees look like they're on stilts.

Night action: After a day on the trails, soak in the three big hot springs pools at Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort in the park. They're open till 9 p.m. -- a bargain at $6.75 per person.

Best Kid's Souvenir: A book about tide pools. Use it to explore the fantastic pools at the beaches along the southern edge of the park.

Beating the Crowds: You'll find fewer people at the Queetes, Quinault and Elwha areas of the park.

Lodging Smarts: Because campsites here are first come, first served, come early in the day and avoid the weekend. Call ahead to see which of the 17 campgrounds has the most space.

Acadia National Park on Maine's Mount Desert Island has 17 mountains, 12 lakes and 40-plus miles of Atlantic coast. The quaint town of Bar Habor is on the island.

Cool Fun: Climb Cadillac Mountain. It's more than 4 miles miles round trip, but the view's great from the top. Hit the beach at Echo Lake -- a lot warmer than the ocean.

Nighttime Action: Head just outside the park to the nearby towns of Southwest Harbor, Bass Harbor or Bernard to eat lobster outside on the dock.

Best Kid's Souvenir: A lighthouse book or anything with a lighthouse on it.

Crowd Smarts: Head to the western side of the island and hike the Wonderland Trail through the woods to the rocky coast.

Lodging Smarts: In summer, to grab a spot at Seawall Campground, arrive before 8 a.m. You can reserve a spot at Blackwoods Campground. There's no other lodging in the park, though there are hundreds of rooms on the island.

Whichever park you choose, just don't expect the kids' memories to match yours. Matt swears he doesn't remember that moose.

IF YOU GO:

If you're planning to visit several parks, buy a Golden Eagle Passport for $50, which allows entrance to all national parks for an entire year. (It costs $20 to get in to some of the major parks, including Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Teton.) If you're traveling with grandparents, tell them they can get a Golden Age Passport for $10, which allows lifetime entrance to all National Parks. Disabled Americans get a free Golden Access passport. Visit the National Park Service Web site at www.nps.gov.

Call Grand Teton National Park at 307-739-3600 or www.nps.gov/grte/. The Grand Teton Lodge Company is the biggest of the four lodges in the park. Its Colter Bay cabins and tent cabins are the best budget bet. Call 307-543-3100 or go to www.gtlc.com. Park officials can provide information on the other lodges

Call Acadia National Park at 207-288-3338 or go to www.nps.gov/acad. Call Blackwoods Campground at 800-365-2267 or go to the Web site reservations.nps.gov. Call the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce at 800-288-5103 or www.barharborinfo.com.

Call Olympic National Park and general lodging information at 360-452-4501 or check www.nps.gov/olym. For Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort call 360-327-3583 or visit www.northolympic.com/solduc. For Lake Crescent Lodge, the largest in the park, 360-928-3211 or www.olypen.com/lakecrescentlodge. Tent camping is first come, first served.

(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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