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National Parks: Top Picks for Family Vacations

Our little group of two adults and four kids joined the campers for the annual ghost walk through the woods at McGregor Point provincial park. As the costumed narrators held lanterns up to their faces so that we could see them in the dark, they told of shipwrecks that happened offshore long ago. Suddenly, the "ghost" of a shipwrecked sailor and his wife appeared in the clearing. In a quavering voice, she spoke about walking the Lake Huron coastline searching for her marooned love in the fog. The flickering lights, the clouds sweeping over the moon, the chill in the air heightened the suspense. But then, she faltered, unable to continue. "Can I start again?" she asked in her own voice, before she darted away into the trees. Take two began with the ghostly wife arriving yet again to recite her tale from the very beginning. It was one of those travelling moments we still laugh about. Though we may have forgotten details of the stories told by the sailors and the Scottish pioneers that night, we will never forget the ghost who forgot her lines and had to start over.

Both national and provincial parks offer more than trees and lakes for the traveling family. In searching out these environmental treasures, we've seen sunken ships from a glass-bottom boat (Fathom Five National Marine Park, Tobermory), learned about Voyageurs (Nancy Island Historic Site, Wasaga Beach Provincial Park), visited Anne of Green Gables house (Prince Edward Island National Park, Cavendish) and swum in underwater caves (Cyprus Lake, Bruce Peninsula National Park). Best of all, much of it is free or at least available for a modest cost. In addition, parks often come with swimming pools (especially in the U.S. state parks), rental cabins and lots of family-friendly activities from horseback riding to owl prowls led by the rangers and symphony concerts.

Now is not too early to start booking camping sites in the parks. Popular parks such as Algonquin, with its canoe trails and August wolf howls, fill up fast. In the U.S., the National Park Service has just changed its booking system. At 16 of the country's most popular parks, such as Acadia National Park in Maine, Great Smoky Mountains straddling the Tennessee -North Carolina border, and the Everglades in Florida, it's now possible to reserve a site five months in advance instead of only eight weeks by calling Destinet, a telephone reservation service operated from San Diego (call 1-800-365-2267). That means that they are taking bookings now for camping vacations scheduled between July 15 and August 15.

With that in mind, here are some national parks that are particularly interesting for families. So get out the atlas, dream about warm weather and sleeping out under the stars, and pray for an early spring:

ACADIA, Mount Desert Island, Maine: The ocean waters here are too freezing for swimming, even in summer, but kids can travel by canoe (rented at the Mount Desert Campground), catch crabs and pick blackberries. Two special programs for kids, Nature's Way and Island's Edge, teach about the ecology of the park. Energetic families can hike up to Mt. Cadillac, the highest spot on the Atlantic coast; to take a break, head for the craft shops and ice cream parlors in nearby trendy Bar Harbor.

BANFF, Banff, Alberta: Many families say that visiting this huge park is a highlight of a trip out West. There are over 2000 campsites in 14 campgrounds from fully-serviced sites with interpretive talks to those with simply water and outhouses. All sites operate on a first-come first-serve basis; you cannot reserve. Park officials advise leaving Rover at home. Even gentle dogs can antagonize bears and elk, both of which are abundant in the area.

BRUCE PENINSULA, Cyprus Lake, Ont: Last August, our family hiked into this park and were rewarded with two surprises-a rare sighting of a rattlesnake shaking his tail right beside our path (it sounded like a loud sprinkler shooting off) and the translucent turquoise-colored waters in the caves carved into the giant cliffs. On the day we were there, dozens of kids were jumping into the cold waters of Georgian Bay, swimming into the caves and having a ball. One suggestion: have the kids wear socks and running shoes instead of sandals. Some of the rocky terrain is rough.

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS,Tennessee and North Carolina: There's a reason why this spot draws more visitors than any other National Park in the U.S. Families can hike around the tallest peaks east of the Rockies, ride horses (available at the Cosby Stables), pedal the 11-mile cycle loop or try to spot the abundant wildlife including black bears. Ranger programs offer owl call walks and wolf howls. Nearby Gaitlinburg offers kitschy entertainment.

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND, Cavendish, PEI: The sand dunes, the warmest waters north of South Carolina, and seven sandy beaches offer a perfect playground for families. Three campgrounds offer supervised activities and there's a slew of nearby attractions such as mini-golf and amusement parks for rainy days. Anne of Green Gables fans will enjoy seeing the house immortalized in Lucy Maud Montgomery's books. After June 1, you can drive to PEI over Canada's latest engineering marvel- the Confederation Bridge, the longest bridge in the world over ice-forming water.

GRAND CANYON, ARIZONA: Kids may not admire the view as much as the squirrels or the colors reflecting off the rocks at sunset. For some camping sites and activities such as riding mules here, you must reserve a year in advance. It's best to avoid the summer months when the heat and the crowds are at their peak. Kids from ages three to teenagers can earn badges by attending ranger-led activities focusing on the zoology and gelogy of the park. Call 602-638-2401.





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