National Parks Offer Nature Study With a Twist


Through the eyes of a trout or from the inside of a volcano, visitors to America’s national parks can get a new perspective on the wilderness.

Usually thought of in terms of gorgeous scenery, the parks have a little something extra these days: outdoor summer-school courses on campuses that embrace vast expanses of mountain and desert.

For example, you can study:

--The curious habits of the grizzly bear.


--Life in a mountain stream through the eyes of a trout.

--The brilliant sky of a summer night.

--Volcanoes, as seen from inside the crater of Mt. St. Helens.

Visitors to more than a dozen of the nation’s popular parklands can enroll in these and many other college-level courses lasting from a day to a week or more.

The courses are offered by more than a dozen outdoor institutes and other educational organizations closely associated with national parks and forests. They are not U.S. Park Service programs, but several of the institutes are operated by national park support groups and are within park boundaries.

Because they often provide low-cost lodging, institute programs can be one of the least expensive ways to visit a national park, whether you go as an individual, with friends or as a family group.

Special educational institutes operate at such popular national parks as Yellowstone and Grand Teton in Wyoming; Olympic, North Cascades and Mt. Rainier in Washington; Crater Lake in Oregon; Yosemite in California; Canyonlands and Arches in Utah; Rocky Mountain in Colorado; Big Bend in Texas; Everglades in Florida, and Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.

Yellowstone Institute, one of the largest of the educational organizations, offers more than 80 courses annually from its headquarters at Buffalo Ranch in the lightly visited Lamar Valley area of the park.

Among the more adventurous of the institute’s classes is a five-day horsepacking expedition following the probable route taken in August, 1877, by the Nez Perce Indians, led by Chief Joseph as they tried to flee the Army. The area “was wild and rugged then,” notes the institute’s catalogue, “and remains so today.”

The ride covers about 20 miles a day. One aspect of the trip is learning how to travel in the wilderness without damaging the fragile country. The course, offered July 30 to Aug. 3 and Aug. 9-13, costs $405 per person, which includes food and horse.

A topical course is “Fire Ecology,"three days of exploring the response of the park’s vegetation to the massive forest fire two summers ago. The instructor will lead field trips to areas of both old and recent burns.

You should be in good physical condition, because at least one five- to six-mile hike is planned. The cost for this course, offered July 30 to Aug. 1, is $105 per person, which covers only class activities.

A most popular course each year, available at several parks, is “Alpine Wildflowers.” At Yellowstone the class is scheduled for two days, July 9-10. Participants make day trips to the high country of the Beartooth Plateau to study wildflowers found only in an arctic environment. The instructional cost is $75 per person.

The Yellowstone Institute is one of several that can provide low-cost accommodations for participants. Its Lamar Valley ranch has 13 rustic cabins, each with two or three single beds and not much else. None of the cabins has electricity, plumbing or heating, but bathrooms, showers and a communal kitchen (you cook your own meals) are available in a nearby classroom building.

You must take a sleeping bag, and you may be expected to share a cabin with a stranger. However, the fee for a cabin bed is only $7 per person a night. The institute calls the experience “indoor camping.”

The ranch is in the least-traveled part of Yellowstone where the principal vegetation is sagebrush and grass. It is an area frequented by herds of elk and bison, black bears and an occasional grizzly.

All of the institutes listed below are nonprofit organizations that have a close affiliation with one or more national parks or forests. Many, like the Yellowstone Institute, are within a park. They are sponsored by one or more organizations that may include colleges and museums.

Most offer programs for adults as well as elementary- and high-school-age children, although not necessarily at the same time. Several offer summer courses designed for vacationing families.

A few play host to Elderhostel groups, in which the minimum age is 60. The big season for classes is the summer, but programs are offered all year at warm-weather parks such as Big Bend.

College credit is available for several of the institutes’ courses, although there is usually an additional enrollment fee. The programs have proved especially popular with schoolteachers, who compose a large percentage of summer participants.

Class sizes are limited, often to no more than a dozen, and many fill up months ahead. Travelers who would like to visit one of the parks and join an institute course should send for a course catalogue as soon as possible.

Among the nonprofit organizations providing educational programs in America’s park and forest lands:

--Yellowstone Institute: Entering its 15th season, Yellowstone offers the widest variety of summer courses for adults. Its 24-page catalogue lists such subjects as the grizzly, elk, wolf, Indian history and edible plants.

“Streams Through the Eyes of a Trout” is a three-day program for experienced anglers, scheduled for Aug. 13-15 ($105). You wear a wet suit so you can watch trout behavior directly. Family programs on other outdoor subjects are available.

Course fees vary, but generally begin at about $75 for a two-day class and $105 for a three-day class. Accommodations are at the institute’s Buffalo Ranch in the Lamar Valley in the northeast section of the park. A dorm bed in a rustic cabin is $7 a night per person. Limited kitchen facilities are provided for cooking.

For information: Yellowstone Institute, Box 117, Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. 82190; (307) 344-7381, Ext. 2384.

--Glacier Institute: One- to five-day classes focus on the ecology and wildlife of Glacier National Park. For example, “Glacier’s Wildlife,” a program of morning lectures and afternoon field trips, is scheduled for Aug. 6-10. The instructional cost is $200 per person.

Accommodations for most classes are in the institute’s rustic cabins just inside the park entrance at West Glacier. A bunk in a four-bed cabin is $7 per person a night. Participants can dine in restaurants at nearby West Glacier Village.

For information: Glacier Institute, P.O. Box 1457, Kalispell, Mont. 59903; (406) 752-5222, Ext. 254.

--Pacific Northwest Field Seminars: If you want to descend partway into the interior of an active volcano, sign up for the institute’s three-day volcano class at Mt. St. Helens National Monument in Washington.

You must be physically fit because the climb to the crater rim is tough and two nights of camping are involved. The hike is planned for Aug. 17-19 and again for Aug. 24-26. The fee for food and instruction is $85 per person, and you must provide your own camping equipment.

Entering its third season, Pacific Northwest Field Seminars offers 55 summer classes in 13 national parks and forest lands in Oregon and Washington. Most are two to three days.

Course fees range from $30 for a one-day program to $250 for six days. Participants are expected to make their own lodging and dining arrangements in or near the park where their course is being offered.

For information: Pacific Northwest Field Seminars, 83 S. King St., Suite 212, Seattle, Wash. 98104; (206) 442-2636.

--Rocky Mountain Seminars: The catalogue lists 55 summer courses, including such one-day topics as “American Indians in Rocky Mountain National Park,” “Wetlands of the Park” and “Outdoor Writing and How to Get Paid for It.” The fee is $50.

Weekend and five-day programs also are offered. Among the five-day topics: bird ecology, plant identification, tundra ecology, mountain geology, mushroom identification and Rocky Mountain history. The five-day course fee is $150.

Seminar headquarters is just inside the eastern boundary of the park. Participants must make their own lodging and dining arrangements. The nearby tourist community of Estes Park offers a wide choice of motel, ranch and resort accommodations.

For information: Rocky Mountain Seminars, Rocky Mountain Nature Assn., Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, Colo. 80517; (303) 586-2371, Ext. 294.

--Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont: The institute’s summer program is limited but interesting and inexpensive. Two one-week naturalist courses are offered in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Participants explore such topics as bears, boars, birds and beetles as well as mountain storytelling and cultural history.

The courses are scheduled from June 30 to July 3 and July 23-29. The fee for instruction, lodging and meals is an unusually low $150. Accommodations for about 50 participants are provided in a dormitory facility in the Tremont area of the park. Meals are served in the institute’s dining hall.

For information: Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Townsend, Tenn. 37882; (615) 448-6709.

A similar course for the Elderhostel organization is scheduled in the Great Smoky Mountains for Aug. 12-18. The fee for instruction, dorm lodging and meals is $225. Contact: Elderhostel, 80 Boylston St., Suite 400, Boston, Mass. 02116; (617) 426-8056.

--Olympic Park Institute: A schedule of 55 courses called field seminars has been planned for spring through fall to take advantage of Olympic’s dual nature as both a mountain and a coastal park. They generally are held over a weekend.

One of the most popular seminars over the years has been “Wildflowers of the Olympics,” which will be offered this summer for four days from July 19-22. Other seminars explore coastal tidal pools, Indian basket making and the park’s geology.

Participants are accommodated in the park in historic Rosemary Inn on Lake Crescent near Port Angeles, and all meals are provided. Inn cabins have four rooms, each lodging two persons. A modern bathhouse is adjacent. The cost for lodging, meals and instruction averages about $55 per person a day. Usually, three courses are presented simultaneously. The inn houses up to 48 persons.

The institute also offers a full program of Elderhostel weeks.

For information: Olympic Park Institute, HC 62, Box 9T, Port Angeles, Wash. 98362; (206) 928-3720.

--Big Bend Natural History Assn.: The majority of the association’s 28 adult courses are held in the spring when Big Bend’s Texas temperatures are milder. Topics of one- to five-day programs include wildflowers, birds, archeology and geology. Occasionally the association will sponsor a three-day raft trip down the Rio Grande. The instructional cost is $40 per person a day.

For its courses the association reserves a group campsite at Big Bend, or it will assist in making reservations at Chisos Mountain Lodge in the park or at motels in Study Butte (pronounced stoody ) just outside the park.

For information: Big Bend Natural History Assn., Seminar Coordinator, Box 68, Big Bend National Park, Tex., 79834, (915) 477-2236.

--North Cascades Institute: Sixty field seminars are scheduled, mostly in July and August when the weather warms sufficiently in the mountains of Washington state. Topics include alpine ecology, alpine flowers, birds of prey and nature photography. Courses run from one to five days. A popular two-day outing for backpackers is a visit to the park’s fire lookout tower at Green Mountain, Aug. 13-14.

Course prices vary. The two-day backpacking trip is $75 per person. The institute is at park headquarters in Sedro Woolley. Most participants camp in park campgrounds, but some private cabin and resort accommodations are available.

For information: North Cascades Institute, 2105 Highway 20, Sedro Woolley, Wash. 98284, (206) 856-5700.

--Canyonlands Field Institute: The Canyonlands private organization offers intensive one-day seminars at Canyonlands and Arches national parks in Utah, as well as at several national monuments in the area. Among program topics, held mostly in spring and fall, are desert wildflowers, red rock geology and “Lizards of Arches.”

The course fee is $35 per person for about an hour of indoor instruction plus eight or nine hours of field study. Participants make their own lodging and dining arrangements in Moab, where the institute has its offices.

In addition to the seminars, Canyonlands organizes several small van tours of Indian archeological sites of the desert Southwest.

A three- to four-night trip might visit Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona and Aztec Ruins National Monument and Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Accommodations are in quality motels.

A five-day, four-night trip is $565 per person, which includes instruction, lodging, van transport and most meals.

For information: Canyonlands Field Institute, P.O. Box 68, Moab, Utah 84532; (801) 259-7750.