10 Fascinating Facts About the 10 Most Popular National Parks in America

iStock/Bkamprath
iStock/Bkamprath

The U.S. is home to 61 national parks, and each one has something special about it. If you're pressed for time, though, you may want to turn your attention to the 10 most popular parks. These destinations saw the highest attendance of any national park in 2018, according to a list compiled by the National Park Service. From Acadia to Zion and the Rockies to the Smokies, here are just some of the factors that make the 10 most-visited parks so unique.

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the salamander capital of the world.

A salamander
iStock/Betty4240

Location: Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee
Total visitors in 2018: 11,421,200

This sprawling national park in the Smokies might be the most visited because it's also one of the most accessible, considering that it's located roughly within a day's drive of one-third of the U.S. population. The biodiversity is also undoubtedly a draw. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been dubbed the "salamander capital of the world," and it's home to 30 different species of "spring lizard," as they're called in Appalachia, including the largest one in North America—the hellbender.

2. Grand Canyon National Park visitors could see a sea of clouds.

The Grand Canyon surrounded by clouds
Erin Huggins, Grand Canyon National Park, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Location: Northern Arizona
Total visitors in 2018: 6,380,495

Everyone knows the Grand Canyon, and for good reason—but did you know that its drastic landscape is capable of influencing the weather? Sharp changes in elevation mean that different parts of the park experience totally different weather conditions. North Rim is the coldest, wettest area in the region at an elevation of more than 8200 feet, but just 8 miles away lies Phantom Ranch, the hottest and one of the driest areas at 2460 feet. If you’re lucky, you may be able to witness a rare weather phenomenon called "total cloud inversion," which sometimes occurs at the Grand Canyon when cool air gets trapped beneath a layer of warm air creating a virtual sea of clouds.

3. Rocky Mountain National Park has the highest continuous paved highway in the U.S. running right through it.

A road high up in the mountains
iStock/SeanXu

Location: Northern Colorado
Total visitors in 2018: 4,590,493

As the third most-visited park in the U.S., Rocky Mountain sees a lot of foot traffic. Visitors can also drive along the scenic Trail Ridge Road, which has been called the "highway to the sky" because it soars two miles above sea level at its highest point. This 48-mile strip connects Grand Lake and Estes Park and delivers unparalleled views of the forests, tundra, and meadows below.

4. Zion National Park has its very own "Subway."

The Subway tunnel at Zion National Park
iStock/jezdicek

Location: Southwest Utah
Total visitors in 2018: 4,320,033

Only the adventurous can traverse The Subway in Zion National Park. To get to this tunnel carved out of rock, visitors must hike for 9 miles (round-trip), scramble over boulders, climb down waterfalls, and swim through creeks—"and the water is cold," according to Utah.com. The tubular landmark not only looks like a subway tunnel, but it also sounds like one, with the rushing water resembling the roaring sound of a subway as it pulls up to the station.

5. Yellowstone National Park once had a "bear lunch counter."

Bears gather to eat
Yellowstone National Park, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Location: Northwest Wyoming, Southern Montana, and Eastern Idaho
Total visitors in 2018: 4,115,000

Hungry black and grizzly bears used to feast on trash at an open-air dump in Yellowstone. These "bear shows" were a popular tourist activity between 1890 and the 1940s, and the park eventually installed wooden bleachers for spectators and a sign that read "Lunch Counter—For Bears Only." Unsurprisingly, this set-up was a recipe for disaster. Several park visitors were injured, and the feeding grounds ultimately closed to the public during World War II. The dump itself was shuttered in the '70s, and all waste is now removed from the park.

6. Yosemite National Park's "Firefall" was a huge spectacle for nearly a century.

The firefall at Yosemite
Scfry, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Location: Central California
Total visitors in 2018: 4,009,436

In 1872, a local hotel owner by the name of James McCauley tossed campfire embers over the top of Yosemite's Glacier Point, inadvertently creating a cascading "firefall" that looked pretty spectacular from a distance. Thus, a tradition was born, and each summer evening at 9 p.m. sharp, someone would shout "Let the fire fall!" before pushing embers over the edge. These shows were banned from 1913 to 1917, and again during World War II, but they weren't officially eliminated until 1968. The National Park Service said the man-made attraction was better suited to Disneyland than the natural world, and reasoned that the huge crowds also damaged local meadows.

7. For part of the year, Acadia National Park's Cadillac Mountain is the first place in the U.S. to see the sunrise.

A sunrise over the water
iStock/Ultima_Gaina

Location: Maine's Mount Desert Island
Total visitors in 2018: 3,537,575

If you want to be the first person in America to see the sunrise, visit the top of Acadia's Cadillac Mountain between October 7 and March 6. The 1528-foot peak is the highest point along the North Atlantic, making it a great vantage point to watch the Atlantic Ocean's glistening waters as they're bathed in sunlight. At other points in the year, the first sunrise can be viewed from either West Quoddy Head or Mars Hill, both of which are also in Maine.

8. Grand Teton National Park's name is a reference to boobs.

A barn framed by mountains
iStock/KenCanning

Location: Northwest Wyoming
Total visitors in 2018: 3,491,151

To 19th-century French-Canadian fur trappers, three of the highest mountain peaks in what is now Grand Teton National Park apparently looked like the female form. They called them les trois tétons, which translates to "the three breasts" or "the three teats." It's believed that the trappers were referring specifically to Grand Teton, Teewinot Mountain, and Mt. Owen. At any rate, the name stuck and was later anglicized.

9. Olympic National Park is home to one of the world's few temperate rainforests.

A bridge in the park
iStock/laytonjeff

Location: Washington's Olympic Peninsula
Total visitors in 2018: 3,104,455

Temperate rainforests can be found in just a few places around the world, including Chile, New Zealand, Australia, and America's Pacific Northwest. Thanks to all the moisture coming from the nearby Pacific Ocean, swathes of Olympic National Park are a lush oasis of mosses, ferns, lichens, and Sitka spruce.

10. Glacier National Park has some residents who love visitors: the mountain goats.

A mountain goat
iStock/RhondaSuka

Location: Northwest Montana
Total visitors in 2018: 2,965,309

Mountain goats are perfectly at home along the rugged terrain of Glacier National Park. They can scale slopes at a 60-degree angle and withstand temperatures as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit, plus winds of 100 mph. (Confusingly, though, they're not actually goats at all. Rather, they're more closely related to gazelles and African antelope.) If you want to see these nimble mascots of Glacier National Park, you can head to Goat Lick Overlook, where the animals come to lick the salty, mineral-rich cliffs. Or, just go about your merry way and you'll surely see a few—the Glacier goats have learned that staying in the general vicinity of humans keeps them safer from predators.

9 Royally Interesting Facts About King Cake

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iStock

It’s Carnival season, and that means bakeries throughout New Orleans are whipping up those colorful creations known as King Cakes. And while today it’s primarily associated with Big Easy revelry, the King Cake has a long and checkered history that reaches back through the centuries. Here are a few facts about its origins, its history in America, and how exactly that plastic baby got in there.

1. The King Cake is believed to have Pagan origins.

The king cake is widely associated with the Christian festival of the Epiphany, which celebrates the three kings’ visit to the Christ child on January 6. Some historians, however, believe the cake dates back to Roman times, and specifically to the winter festival of Saturnalia. Bakers would put a fava bean—which back then was used for voting, and had spiritual significance—inside the cake, and whoever discovered it would be considered king for a day. Drinking and mayhem abounded. In the Middle Ages, Christian followers in France took up the ritual, replacing the fava bean with a porcelain replica engraved with a face.

2. The King Cake stirred up controversy during the French Revolution.

To bring the pastry into the Christian tradition, bakers got rid of the bean and replaced it with a crowned king’s head to symbolize the three kings who visited baby Jesus. Church officials approved of the change, though the issue became quite thorny in late 18th century France, when a disembodied king’s head was seen as provocation. In 1794, the mayor of Paris called on the “criminal patissiers” to end their “filthy orgies.” After they failed to comply, the mayor simply renamed the cake the “Gateau de Sans-Culottes,” after the lower-class sans-culottes revolutionaries.

3. The King Cake determined the early kings and queens of Mardi Gras.


A Mardi Gras King in 1952.

Two of the oldest Mardi Gras krewes (NOLA-talk for "crew," or a group that hosts major Mardi Gras events, like parades or balls) brought about the current cake tradition. The Rex Organization gave the festival its colors (purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power) in 1872, but two years earlier, the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe brought out a King Cake with a gold bean hidden inside and served it up to the ladies in attendance. The finder was crowned queen of the ball. Other krewes adopted the practice as well, crowning the kings and queens by using a gold or silver bean. The practice soon expanded into households throughout New Orleans, where today the discovery of a coin, bean or baby trinket identifies the buyer of the next King Cake.

4. The King Cake's baby trinkets weren't originally intended to have religious significance.

Although today many view the baby trinkets found inside king cakes to symbolize the Christ child, that wasn’t what Donald Entringer—the owner of the renowned McKenzie’s Bakery in New Orleans, which started the tradition—had in mind. Entringer was instead looking for something a little bit different to put in his king cakes, which had become wildly popular in the city by the mid-1900s. One story has it that Entringer found the original figurines in a French Quarter shop. Another, courtesy of New Orleans food historian Poppy Tooker (via NPR’s The Salt), states that a traveling salesman with a surplus of figurines stopped by the bakery and suggested the idea. "He had a big overrun on them, and so he said to Entringer, 'How about using these in a king cake,'" said Tooker.

5. Bakeries are afraid of getting sued.

What to many is an offbeat tradition is, to others, a choking hazard. It’s unclear how many consumers have sued bakeries over the plastic babies and other trinkets baked inside king cakes, but apparently it’s enough that numerous bakeries have stopped including them altogether, or at least offer it on the side. Still, some bakeries remain unfazed—like Gambino’s, whose cinnamon-infused king cake comes with the warning, "1 plastic baby baked inside."

6. The French version of the King Cake comes with a paper crown.


iStock

In France, where the flaky, less colorful (but still quite tasty) galette de rois predates its American counterpart by a few centuries, bakers often include a paper crown with their cake, just to make the “king for a day” feel extra special. The trinkets they put inside are also more varied and intricate, and include everything from cars to coins to religious figurines. Some bakeries even have their own lines of collectible trinkets.

7. There's also the Rosca de Reyes, the Bolo Rei, and the Dreikönigskuchen.


"Roscón de Reyes" by Tamorlan - Self Made (Foto Propia).

Versions of the King Cake can be found throughout Europe and Latin America. The Spanish Rosca de Reyes and the Portugese Bolo Rei are usually topped with dried fruit and nuts, while the Swiss Dreikönigskuchen has balls of sweet dough surrounding the central cake. The Greek version, known as Vasilopita, resembles a coffee cake and is often served for breakfast.

8. The King Cake is no longer just a New Orleans tradition.

From New York to California, bakeries are serving up King Cakes in the New Orleans fashion, as well as the traditional French style. On Long Island, Mara’s Homemade makes their tri-colored cakes year round, while in Los Angeles you can find a galette de rois (topped with a nifty crown, no less) at Maison Richard. There are also lots of bakeries that deliver throughout the country, many offering customizable fillings from cream cheese to chocolate to fruits and nuts.

9. The New Orleans Pelicans have a King Cake baby mascot—and it is terrifying.

Every winter you can find this monstrosity at games, local supermarkets, and in your worst nightmares.

5 Wild Facts About Mall Madness

Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The mall, home of fashion brands, bookstores, and anchor locations like Sears, was a must-visit location for Americans in the 1980s and 1990s—and especially for teenagers. Teens also played Mall Madness, a board game from Milton Bradley introduced in 1988 that tried to capture the excitement of soft pretzels and high-interest credit card shopping in one convenient tabletop game. Navigating a two-story shopping mall, the player who successfully spends all of their disposable income to acquire six items from the shopping list and return to the parking lot wins.

If you’re nostalgic for this simulated spending spree, you're in luck: Hasbro will be bringing Mall Madness back in fall 2020. Until then, check out some facts about the game’s origins.

1. Mall Madness was the subject of a little controversy.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Milton Bradley put a focus on the tween demographic. Their Dream Phone tasked young players with finding the boy of their dreams; Mall Madness, which began as an analog game but quickly added an electronic voice component, served to portray tweens as frenzied shoppers. As a result, the game drew some criticism upon release for its objective—to spend as much money as possible—and for ostensibly portraying the tweens playing as “bargain-crazy, credit-happy fashion plates,” according to Adweek. Milton Bradley public relations manager Mark Morris argued that the game taught players “how to judiciously spend their money.”

2. The original Mall Madness may not be the same one you remember.

The electronic version of Mall Madness remains the most well-known version of the game, but Milton Bradley introduced a miniature version in 1988 that was portable and took the form of an audio cassette. With the game board folded in the case, it looks like a music tape. Opened, the tri-fold board resembles the original without the three-dimensional plastic mall pieces. It was one of six games the company promoted in the cassette packaging that year.

3. Mall Madness was not the only shopping game on the market.

At the same time Mall Madness was gaining in popularity, consumers could choose from two other shopping-themed board games: Let’s Go Shopping from the Pressman Toy Corporation and Meet Me At the Mall from Tyco. Let’s Go Shopping tasks girls with completing a fashion outfit, while Meet Me At the Mall rewards the player who amasses the most items before the mall closes.

4. There was a Hannah Montana version of Mall Madness.

In the midst of Hannah Montana madness in 2008, Hasbro—which acquired Milton Bradley—released a Miley Cyrus-themed version of the game. Players control fictional Disney Channel singing sensation Hannah Montana as she shops for items. There was also A Littlest Pet Shop version of the game, with the tokens reimagined as animals.

5. Mall Madness is a collector’s item.

Because, for the moment, Hasbro no longer produces Mall Madness, a jolt of nostalgia will cost you a few dollars. The game, which originally sold for $30, can fetch $70 or more on eBay and other secondhand sites.

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