Dear Umbra,

We are considering a driving vacation this summer with the intent of visiting as many of America’s wonderful national parks as we can — both to enjoy them and to add some money to their coffers, which have been depleted in recent years. But as we all know, burning up lots of gasoline is bad for the environment. My question is: would it be a better environmental choice to drive around and support the national parks, or stay home and not spew all those hydrocarbons into the atmosphere?

Jan McCreary
Silver City, N.M.

Dearest Jan,

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Our parks are indeed in trouble. And the sad answer to your question is that it’s better to stay home and not spew any more hydrocarbons than necessary. If you did that, you could support the parks by randomly sending them money, or supporting the National Parks Conservation Association, or letting your elected representatives know that parks are a priority. Then you could buy a few pretty national-park posters, hang them up around the house, and walk quickly by while eating granola for an ersatz experience.

To see or not to see? That is the question.

Photo: National Park Service.

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But the parks must be seen and breathed, and I can’t endorse your missing them. From what I’ve read, visiting by car in the summer can be unpleasant, as you sweat in a long line stuck behind a slow RV and then duke it out for scarce parking places. So … how about the train?

Besides being a relaxing way to travel, here are the super-great aspects of taking the train: you would be able to visit and help fund the parks; you would share fuel use with fellow passengers; and you would support the notion of car-free parks, which is taking hold with shuttle buses and car-free days in places like Zion National Park in Utah, and Maine’s Acadia National Park. You would be an “early adopter” of this trend, and a happy environmentalist.

Train travel can be combined with buses or parks-operated transit. And there are even park-themed trips already out there, such as the ones operated by American Orient Express and Amtrak’s on-board interpretive program Trails and Rails with Lewis and Clark.

OK, Jan, here’s the bad news (and what, in life, comes without it these days?): train trips can be expensive, and I don’t know what your budget is. Also, in all honesty, if your car is going to be full, the per-passenger energy burden would be about the same as it is on a train. But still, as you make your plans, consider riding the rails. I think you’ll have a more restful summer if you go that route — and it sure beats pining from your living room.