Places I Remember with Lea Lane

U.S. National Parks: The Best Of 'America's Best Idea'

March 02, 2021 Mona Mesereau and her family have been to over 75 National Parks and Monuments! Season 1 Episode 5
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
U.S. National Parks: The Best Of 'America's Best Idea'
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Mona Mesereau, husband Tom and family have explored at least 75 of America's national parks and monuments. Mona shares history, tales, tips and the joys of family travels, exploring  the U.S.A.'s precious public parks system.

-- "America's Best Idea"- Mona shares the history of our National Parks, starting with the oldest, Yellowstone.

-- Lea shares some of her park experiences including sunrise at Acadia; a drive around southern Utah parks; the blue water of Crater Lake; dawn at Zabriski Point in Death Valley; Denali in Alaska; Dry Tortugas, 99% underwater -- "ya have to want to get there," on a catamaran from Key West;  birds of the Everglades, "brightened my mood, pumped me up,"says Mona; Gateway Arch in St. Louis; popular Great Smoky Mountains, "near the salt and pepper museum"; Hawaii Volcanos National Park, sometimes active; Joshua Tree (really  bushes and surreal boulders; Kenai Fjords, "whole bunches of bears"; Painted Desert, spectacular colors; Yosemite, stayed at the historic lodge, the waterfalls.

--  Mona tells of pleasures including Great Smoky National Park -- "a bear jam";  and Grand Teton in Wyoming, catching trout.

-- Mona recommends going off-course, a balance between planning and wandering, and using guides and tours; Grand Canyon,  Lake Powell/Glen Canyon, veering off to Wupatki National Monument; reservations for lodges, and the benefits of shoulder season.

-- On Mona's 50th birthday, she details a magnificent day at the bottom of the Grand Canyon,  exploring the back country.

-- She reminds us to protect our parks 'these are our houses in nature"; pick up trash, make purchases, get National Park passports.

-- Mona says take lots of photographs; great lodges and the beauty  of the parks remain much the same.

-- Leave crowds behind, there are plenty of trails, "I've seen Old Faithful erupt at midnight"; solitude of Glacier National Park -- "a chance to think."

-- Lesser known parks:  beyond ruins at Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly; Eastern Parks? New River, the newest National Parks in West Virginia; Gauley River nearby, to raft;  Harpers Ferry.

-- Mona's most memorable experience, at "the American Serengeti" in Yellowstone
Mona Mesereau, editor and executive, launched Mesereau Travel Public Relations with her husband Tom, marketing executive and former magazine editor.; (@monasays) / Twitter; Mona McCoy Mesereau/ Facebook.

Podcast host Lea Lane has traveled to over 100 countries, written eight travel books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to dozens of guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter and  blogs about travel at  Contact her at
Please subscribe and leave a quick review! New travel episodes every Tuesday, wherever you listen. 

* Transcript edited for clarity.

Lea Lane  00:04

Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award-winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world.


Lea Lane  00:25

In this episode, we're talking about America's national parks with Mona Mesereau, an editor and an executive at Messereau Travel Public Relations. Mona estimates that she's gone to more than 75 national parks, monuments, memorials, historic sites, and other NPS or national park service units, often with her family. And many of them have worked in national parks. Welcome, Mona.


Mona Mesereau  00:52

Well, thank you. I'm pleased to be here.


Lea Lane  00:55

You know, I saw the Ken Burns series, the PBS series about the national parks and I remember that he called America's national parks America's best idea. And that really stuck with me, because I think we take them for granted pretty much. But they weren't always there. Can you tell us a little history of our national parks,


Mona Mesereau  01:19

I can tell you a little history about the parks. Absolutely. And it all started in Yellowstone National Park, which next year has a very big celebration, it's going to turn 150 years old. It was established in 1918 72. After groups of explorers went out to the remote areas of Wyoming and found these weird geothermal features and things they didn't never seen, and they brought back the word to Congress about this place that was so beautiful and so mesmerizing. And they convinced Congress to photographs and paintings that they should protect and preserve this, this spot, far, far in the West. And that was the start of it all. So Yellowstone National Park was set aside in 1872.


Lea Lane  02:23

And then I think in 1916, President Wilson, Woodrow Wilson signed the the act, I guess that created the National Park Service. And that started things going right is that the moment where we sort of expanded.


Mona Mesereau  02:38

Yes, that is, the moment that we expanded. The Yellowstone had been managed up until that point by the US Army. As a matter of fact, you can still see some of the original buildings in an area that was called Fort mammoth. It's in the northern part of the park. And so the the the army manage the parks are that Yellowstone National Park at first, mostly just to catch poachers, and that sort of thing.


Lea Lane  03:09

I read that today, there are more than 400 areas with more than 84 million acres in 50 states, the District of Columbia, Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, and so forth. So we've come a long way, baby.


Mona Mesereau  03:24

We certainly have.


Lea Lane  03:26

You know, I think you have a million ideas and thoughts about parks, but I thought perhaps I will give some idea of some of the parks I've been to I wanted to just give brief word images of some of the wonderful experiences I've had at some of the parks. I have a list here of some of them and I'm just going to look go through them for a little while if you want to type in at any time you can. But it starts with a Katy which is right at the top on Mount desert island. I remember that's the most eastern part of the country. And you see the first sunrise and many people go there a New Year's day to see the first sunrise of the year and I remember going there and it was very beautiful and sort of a lovely how the rocks came down to the ocean. And it's just a very unusual physical look on that on that part of in that part of the world. I liked it very much. Another area that I am crazy about is Utah. I'm sure you've been to arches and Canyonlands Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, those are national parks and people if you are looking for a perfect drive, you know, you could spend your time at one of the parks or drive between them and it's just one of the most exquisite areas of the country and of the world. I think each of them so different. Do you have a favorite?


Mona Mesereau  04:54

Well, you know, it's funny that you mentioned a kitty that is the last Park I went I visit Before everything hit this year, we we visited Acadia last summer and stayed there for about two weeks on a beautiful area, just just south of one of the bays and it was just stunning. And I agree with you Southern Utah is about the prettiest place you'll ever see.


Lea Lane  05:25

It is, I think we're so lucky and I hope people think about adding that to their bucket list because I don't think there's anything more beautiful in the States. Speaking of beauty, I have to mention the blue water of Crater Lake if anyone has seen that is for some reason, I guess because it's in a crater of like, volcano, former volcano it's it's so purely blue and I remember that death Sally, another place where the colors. There's a place called Zabriskie Point. And I think I went to dawn I even went to Dawn it was sunset. But the colors when the sun hits the the I guess they're hills, they're painted. And I think in this day of Instagramming it's probably a very popular thing to do just for that. But I do remember it was very empty at the time I went there and it was very stunning. Denali, that's another memory because, you know, very often in Alaska, it is clear, it's very cloudy. But it was perfectly clear the day we saw Denali, and everybody was very excited, including the guide. I don't know how long it had been since he had seen the whole mountain. But he was very, very excited that it was all there. And it's very beautiful. We also saw lots of moose, which I expected, but I was very pleased that we could see the entire mountain. There's a place Dry Tortugas. Have you heard you know about that when it's there? You've been it's 99% underwater? That's very interesting. Yeah, fabulous. Where would you say how would you pinpoint that as far as geographically?


Mona Mesereau  07:02

Well, you have to want to get there because you go to the end of Land's End and Key West and that's your starting point. It's 90 miles off the coast of Key West and you take at least I did took a high speed catamaran which was tons of fun. Yeah, it gets fun before it. It's it's, it's affordable.


Lea Lane  07:22

It's absolutely fine and nearby is Everglades, which is near to where I live. And, of course you know about the alligators. But I think the birds of the Everglades are among the most wonderful collection you can find in the States for sure. And it's a perfect place to see a sunset because it reflects in the very shallow water with the grasses. It's you know, a big river the Everglades is a river. Correct.


Mona Mesereau  07:47

One of my most memorable experiences was driving through Everglades after a rather dark and bleak business trip to Brazil and I had some business in the Everglades as well. I got off the plane in Miami and drove down to the Everglades and I was feeling kind of dark and moody. And it was early. It was a an overnight flight. And it was early as I was driving the 38 miles to what was then Flamingo Lodge, which has since been destroyed in a hurricane but, um, the sun was coming up and the birds were starting to sing the bird life and the Everglades. Is is abundant and rich and colorful and it it brightens my mood and national park can have that kind of effect on you. And it took all of my bleak thoughts out of the equation and and pumped me up and got me ready for the next bit of business that I had.


Lea Lane  08:46

Yes, you know, so many people come to Miami for the wildlife of Collins Avenue and South Beach but I say the wildlife of the Everglades is a little bit more my speed. I agree with you. One of the places I went was the Gateway Arch National Park. That's a surprise. That's the beautiful arch and it's a park right. It's considered a national park.


Mona Mesereau  09:07

I'm not sure if that's the designation but it is a fabulous place to go and with tremendous history. I took my kids there once.


Lea Lane  09:16

Yeah, it's very different in terms of what we're talking about. The variety is much more than we realize. You know, when you think of all the parks Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular one in the country. And you know, I when I went there, I saw he loads of pancake places and salt and pepper museum all kinds of, you know, folksy things, but the thing is, it's extraordinarily beautiful. There's a mist it's called the Smoky Mountains for a reason. There's a kind of mist over the mountains. It's very beautiful and very accessible to many people who want to drive there. Let's see Hawaii, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park I remember seeing lava sort of oozing around there. I was lucky once you No, it's a it's made. It's built of lava. So it's sometimes active. And that's extraordinarily exciting. And let's see Joshua, Joshua Tree. You know, I realized when I went there that they're fragile, but I didn't realize that Joshua trees are trees, they're bushes. They're not. They're considered bushes, but they're so you could only find them in that area of the world. And what's also very unique, I think, are the boulders, you have a combination of these very odd looking trees, or bushes and these wonderful boulders. It's a very surreal experience, and very close to Las Vegas. So I think a lot of people who go there should, should try to think of, you know, going off and seeing, you know, beautiful area. Let's see, can Can I fjords? Can I'm pronouncing that right? I hope that's where I flew over these fjords, and we landed and saw whole bunches of bears. Very few people, lots of bears, very special if you can ever do that. And let's see Petrified Forest in Arizona, magnificent colors. Again, so many of these places are visually stunning. And you never forget them. You remember them when you're, you know, moody, as you said you can go back and think of these things, just as beautiful things. And let's see Yosemite. So many people have been there. Did they still like the falls at night? I wonder I heard they might have stopped doing that for safety. Yeah, but when I went there, they did that. And it was very, very special. We stayed at the lodge there. And saw saw that. So these are just a few memories I have I know you are such an expert at this. I would love to hear some of your tips and your stories about national parks.


Mona Mesereau  11:49

I would love to share them. You know, it's funny that you mentioned Great Smoky National Park because one of my favorite all time memories, what occurred there. I was driving to the east with my children from Colorado. And what I have, I have two grown kids. And we used to take them on road trips all the time, National Park Road trips, we made it to Great Smoky National Park. And we stopped at the Visitor Center and I got a CD as I often did, we would get the automatic CDs as we would drive through the national parks. And we were told that we probably wouldn't see any beers, even though they're abundant bears in the in the park. So we started driving, I was driving and started driving through the park. And my two teenage kids Michael and Mariah with me and Mariah is this extraordinary wildlife spotter. If there's something to see she's gonna spot it. So I'm driving along and she yells mom, I just saw a bear. So I quickly turned around and pulled back to that side of the road. And I we looked up into the shadows and we could just barely make out mama and two cubs. And so we decided to watch and pretty soon other cars stopped as they do in a national park. If you're getting out and you've got your binoculars they want to see what you're seeing. And eventually the mama and two cubs came over the ridge and out of the shadows so that they were very clear. And we watched see from a safe distance. And car after car after car park joined us in this moment. By the time we left there were probably 100 cars that we had personally we were we my my children still laugh about this is this is one of those family moments. We still laugh about it that we personally started a bear jam.


Lea Lane  13:54

Is that what it's called? 


Mona Mesereau  13:58

Almost 15 years later we're still laughing. Yeah.


Lea Lane  14:00

That happens sometimes when you go on a safari in Africa and you spot, you know, one group spots something in every every Jeep and every vehicle from all around gets word of it and it's the same thing. You've got 100 vehicles, looking at whatever it is. That's great. So what else what tips What tips can you offer? 


Mona Mesereau  14:23

Well, you know, when we decided that we would have this chat I checked with my family because many of my National Park experiences were for business but many were also with my family. My two now grown children my husband did my my parents would often come out and join us for multi generational experiences. They my mom and dad live in Ohio and they would they would come out and join us in and we'd go to a different section every year. So, so I I asked them what were some of the things that they remembered from those years of exploring And, by the way, everybody had an opinion. Yes. But what you know, one of the memories we had, we all share, at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. My husband, Tom, and I had to do some business and my parents took the kids fishing on Jackson lake. And my son, Michael caught a trout. And he was very proud of it. Everybody was very excited. So we had the chef at Jackson Lake Lodge, cook it up for dinner. And we all remember just how proud we all were. It was just one of those family moments. 


Lea Lane  15:40

So you suggest as a multi generational trip, it's just about the best, right?


Mona Mesereau  15:46

If you can. This is it was at least for my family, one way to establish share shared memories, even if we're not that close together. 


Lea Lane  15:57

So how about the idea of going off course that staying on the main drag? What do you think you go for that?


Mona Mesereau  16:03

One, I think that you have to find a balance between planning and wandering. And if you can, if you can find that balance, you are going to certainly see an experience a national park with more knowledge. If you go out with a guide, I highly recommend guides. I recommend tours and activities. Yellowstone National Park, for example, has has great tours like the cookout at Roosevelt lodge where you go out on a horse and you go to this remote area and they have this cowboy dinner and entertainment is this great experience. And you're gonna learn about the park that way or go out with that on a tour, but then also wandering on your own. And and I remember, one time my daughter was working in Grand Canyon National Park, and my husband Tom and I went out to visit her. And we were going to go up to Lake Powell and Northern Arizona and spend the night there. So we were driving up. And we hadn't really paid attention to the route, we passed a national park sign it was clearly marked it was for will pop key national monument, which is a pueblos as you've seen in Arizona. So we turned around and stopped and spent a good two hours poking around there, the three of us we all loved it. And it was just one of those. One of those places that we'd never would have seen had we not been a little it had we not been open to taking a different path or going off the route that we had planned.


Lea Lane  17:44

Do you recommend getting reservations every night? Or just the beginning and the end? Or how do you how do you work that when you when you go to a park National Park.


Mona Mesereau  17:55

Um, if there is a place you definitely want to stay like the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. It's a classic 1904,, if you have the chance, you should stay there. But you're going to need to make some reservations in advance. However, you could leave open some other nights and just let yourself go on a whim. i It depends on the time of year you're visiting. If you're going to visit in July, I think you should probably have plans for every night, right?


Lea Lane  18:30

I think shoulder seasons are the best times you know, spring and fall when the crowds are less. Fewer you have birth animals birthing and that kind of thing. And if you can possibly do it, that's the best time I think How about challenging yourself? How do you challenge yourself physically when you when you go to these parks? 


Mona Mesereau  18:53

Well, I like to do that, it's what I think makes you feel good about yourself. When I turned 50 a few years ago, I gathered a group of friends and family and we all trained for months and we hiked down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and stayed at the historic Phantom ranch for a couple of nights. I was very proud of myself for doing that. And I think we all were we hiked back out but but we allowed ourselves this is this is the wandering part we allowed ourselves a day at the bottom of the canyon for no particular with no particular purpose. And we found ourselves exploring finding that country waterfalls and soaking in a stream and and just exploring the canyons and the hiking trails and maybe even hiked a little ways up towards the north around. So those those experiences you couldn't plan them and then we hiked back out and we were very proud of ourselves and we went directly to the bar hotel and had a fabulous dinner and celebrated it.


Lea Lane  19:59

Perfect. I think in these times, it's so wonderful to have the restorative ability when you go to a park like that, to really breathe the fresh air and, and cloud your mind, and I think it's more important than ever. And we're very lucky to have them. As in that regard, how about protecting and preserving the parks? What would you suggest? What are things we can do to to honor these beautiful parks?


Mona Mesereau  20:26

I have become almost militant about protecting these parks belong to us, they are ours, we own them. And just as we would take care of our own house, these are our houses in nature. And it's an incumbent on each and every one of us to do our part. And there are a lot of things you can do. I mean, you can certainly pick up a piece of trash, if you see it and and my my kids figured that one out that that mom's mom and dad are pretty focused on that if you see a big piece of trash, you know, pick it up. But you can also support the parks by with purchases in the visitor centers. We all have national park passports, which are these little blue books. And with every park, you visit, you can get a stamp that shows the date that you visited in a different Park and after, after 25 years or more of exploring national parks, it all kinds of kind of runs together. So I had fun flipping through my National Park passport and remembering who I was with and what my purpose was and where I wanted a certain time. 


Lea Lane  21:37

So do you take many photographs?


Mona Mesereau  21:39

I do, I do. I'm not a particularly good photographer. I take lots and lots and lots of photographs. And that's a good way to remember.


Lea Lane  21:51

One of the nicest things is, it doesn't change much these parks are beautiful. Now, if you keep them beautiful, they were beautiful before and the lodges, the old lodges that you're talking about, even if you don't stay at them, you can go in and look at them and have a drink or, you know, a meal. They're worth seeking out as part of the beauty. What about leaving the crowds behind? We mentioned shoulder season. Are there any other suggestions? Because I know one of the problems of these gorgeous parks is there. You know everyone wants to go and that's wonderful. But is there a way to avoid crowds that you suggest?


Mona Mesereau  22:24

Absolutely, it's not that hard, even in a park like Yellowstone, which is which is huge, but only a small percentage of that park is actually developed meaning it has a structure on it or a road or something like that. But there are plenty of trails. So avoid the crowds. I would never go see Old Faithful Geyser, for example, erupt erupts roughly every night, 90 minutes. When you don't really want to go between 10 and two. That's when the crowds are there. I've seen your Old Faithful Geyser erupt at midnight,


Lea Lane  23:04

And in the moonlight, oh my.


Mona Mesereau  23:07

Very, very few people. So you can avoid the crowds even in these fairly touristy areas by going at a different time. But it's also really fairly easy. Even if you have mobility issues to just walk aways away from the crowds. If everybody's at this particular viewpoint go to a different one. Good idea or go go at a different time. And you mentioned the shoulder seasons, absolutely Death Valley National Park. This this is a wonderful time to visit right now. But you have to really like the heat if you're going to visit in the summer so and Death Valley is this spectacular National Park just with so much to offer.


Lea Lane  23:52

And other other places that our kind of non, let's say like Glacier Park, maybe they'd have fewer people there. And it's also very wild and beautiful. Maybe you can seek out parks that are perhaps not as popular. If you if you think about it, if that bothers you if crowds bother you, because it's a wonderful thing that we love our parks. And but one of the joys is the solitude and the quiet. If we can mix both of them if we can find gorgeous parks that have space and you know you can have your own chance to think and dream and said and all that without hearing crowds. It's perfect. How about some of the lesser known national parks? In that vein, what would you recommend?


Mona Mesereau  24:35

Absolutely, you can you can see the ruins at Mesa Verde and in southwestern Colorado and they're pretty spectacular and I recommend that park for everybody. But in the in the summer season it gets a little crowded. You can instead go to Kenya to shade National Monument in northeastern Arizona which is is now operated by the Navajo Nation and in partnership with the National Park Service at well, it has been for a while, but you go into that can and you're going to see ruins, equally spectacular, all by yourself or practically by yourself. In that case, you have to go into the park with a Navajo Guide, which, in and of itself is a great way to travel. Because they're going to tell you from their perspective, what you're seeing.


Lea Lane  25:27

What about some of the Eastern parks and we've talked a lot about Western parks. I know one that you're very familiar with golly, River National Recreation Area. Tell me about that. 


Mona Mesereau  25:38

I'm so excited, the New River National River was named a National Park and Preserve in December. This is in southern West Virginia, which has become a region that I have just grown to love. I grew up in Ohio, near Cuyahoga Valley National Park has that effect but but we I never really ventured to West Virginia as often as I clearly should have. The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world and like many national parks, it brings multiple dimensions you have to an area has to in order to be named a National Park, there have to be several different reasons they have to have natural resources, fabulous human history. Other Other reasons to name it a national park and the New River. Absolutely brings all that to the table. Nearby is the Gullah River National Recreation Area. So that's where rafters This is an adventure Mecca. That's Raptors come from all over the world to wrap the Gauley in the New River.


Lea Lane  26:44

I did that many years ago. And it was great. It was really great. I didn't realize it was so great and so close at the time, because on the eastern side, you don't think you know the eastern part of our country has some wonderful rivers, but we don't always hear about them. And one of them is the golly, and the New River that you can do it as well. Harpers Ferry is there to nearby in West Virginia. That's a great one.


Mona Mesereau  27:10

I saw that for the first time just a couple of years ago. And I could have spent days just exploring that area. 


Lea Lane  27:17

Well, this is very interesting. All of it is interesting. There are so many parks and not enough time. But I asked everybody at the end of our talk to just remember the most memorable or one of the most memorable, memorable experiences you've had to share with us. Can you share one with us about national parks?


Mona Mesereau  27:39

I can. And it's in our first national park, Yellowstone. Not a few years ago, I was traveling with a group of people and we were with a guide. And we had spent the morning spotting wildlife in Lamar Valley, which is the northern region of that National Park. It's we often call it America's the American Serengeti because it's so rich and full of wildlife. And we had a pretty successful morning of wildlife spotting and we are on our way back to Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel for lunch and driving along and we were all kind of quiet. The the guide suddenly changed directions and turned into a pole off on the opposite side of the road. She instructed all of us to be quiet. She said she had spotted a fox that was on a hill and it suddenly bolted. So we just sat there not really knowing what we were about to see. And within a minute three full grown wolves raised over the ridge through the trees and down into a gully right below the road and started feeding on a carcass that we couldn't see it until we started looking very closely at it. And then they these three wolves so we it was it was an up close experience. They weren't very far away, and we could see them very very clearly. And then they started playing romping like dogs do. And then they the sun was out and then they started kind of setting themselves on the ridge. Then one wolf sat up and started howling. Wow. And within just a moment or two. He was answered by wolves on the opposite side of on the opposite side of the road. So another packet heard his call. And this went on for a few moments. But it was raw and wild. And it reminded me that we almost lost these wolves they were almost gone. We killed them to the point of extinction. But we brought them back we had the foresight as humans who, who own these national parks, these are our parks, we had the foresight to remedy that. And we were successful. And I don't know that we all have enough of those wild, raw experiences in our lives, national parks can often bring those to us. So I think it's I was reminded and can recommitted to helping to preserve and protect national parks any time I can, but also reminded that this is, it is our job to make sure that the next generation of Meszaros, and the next generation of lanes will have that same opportunity to see and hear that.


Lea Lane  30:48

Thank you. That's absolutely true and absolutely beautiful. We really feel your passion, and and we've learned a lot as well. So thank you very much, Mona. And I hope, I hope to see many more national parks. I hope we all get to do that. Indeed. Thank you very much. Thanks. And And remember, if you have questions or comments on this episode, or any episodes, go to my website places I remember Lea


Lea Lane  31:24

Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and in bookstores, in print, on Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.

"America's Best Idea"- History, starting with Yellowstone
Lea gives a sampling of park highlights throughout the country.
Great Smoky National Park -- "a bear jam"
Grand Teton in Wyoming
Going off-course -- a balance between planning and wandering
Mona recommends guides and tours
Reservations for lodges, shoulder season
Mona's 50th Birthday Challenge in the Grand Canyon
Protect our parks
Take lots of photographs
Great lodges and beauty remain;
Leave crowds behind
Eastern Parks
Lesser known parks
Mona's most memorable experience: