National park secrets from ‘On the Trail’ correspondent Conor Knighton

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Conor Knighton explores Arches National Park, one of the most popular in the country. Photo: Courtesy of Efrain Robles

CBS News correspondent Conor Knighton, 35, is visiting all 59 national parks this year as part of his bi-weekly series called “On The Trail.” Some of the most inspiring stories he’s uncovering are about the places and things outdoors that we seem to know least about.

At the halfway point of his epic yearlong journey, he has already visited more than half of the parks, but in August he’ll hit Alaska, the most challenging and time-consuming leg of his adventure.

His travels so far have covered Acadia to Zion, exploring underwater trails to remote islands to the quietest place outdoors. He’s traveled through the marshes of the Everglades, the starkness of Death Valley and the lush greenery of Mount Rainier.

However, he started the new year in Acadia. “About 75 percent of visitors come to Acadia National Park during four months of the year, so it’s a deserted paradise in the winter,” Knighton told GrindTV. “I walked to top of Cadillac Mountain, the first place in continental U.S. to see the sun rise. I woke up at 3 a.m. and walked up snowy mountain the dark. It was the most intense way I’ve ever started the year.”

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Knighton did a “wet walk,” literally wading through alligator swaps under a canopy of trees, in the Everglades. Photo: Courtesy of Efrain Robles

Each park has yielded its own secrets. “It has been the adventure of a lifetime. They are all so different that each one surprises me, and I’ve developed a soft spot for the lesser-known parks,” he says. “I am having a specific type of experience, seen through the lens of TV producer, but I’m not just trying to scratch them off the list. I’m definitely taking notes on which ones I want to go back to.”

GrindTV caught up with Knighton to learn, in his words, about a few of his favorite unexplored parks so far. Here’s what he had to say.

Biscayne — Florida

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In Biscayne, way off the southern tip of Florida, Knighton followed an underwater trail from shipwreck to shipwreck. Photo: Courtesy of CBS News

This national park is 95 percent water. It looks like the ocean. Since most of the scenery is underwater, I got scuba certified, then went driving with a guide.

We went from ship wreck to ship wreck as we were surrounded by coral reef and then every once in a while a lobster comes out and says “hi.” It was certainly a different way to experience a trail — underwater.

Great Sand Dunes — Colorado

My first thought was, how are these in the middle of Colorado, these dunes with the Rocky Mountain in the backdrop? The trails here aren’t exactly trails. Walking over sand is a challenge. For every two steps up you’re falling two steps back.

But once you get up over the ridge you find this type of quiet that you can’t experience anywhere else. It’s like 2-3 decibels. By comparison, the studio where I record the show is like 20 decibels.

People also sand-board down the dunes. It’s an activity that’s actually encouraged here — kind of a free-for-all in a saucer sled. I tried to slide down the dunes and I’m still getting sand out of my clothes.

Big Bend — Texas

You can’t accidentally go to Big Bend, so it attracts a more park-y kind of person — someone who is trying to get there, like hardcore campers or hikers. It’s a large park, so it would take a few trips to explore, but because it’s so large that you have tons of room to roam.

It’s fun to wander off the trails surrounded by massive stone walls. But the focus of my story became Big Bend’s access to Mexico. You can wade across the Rio Grande and spend the day in Mexico. It’s just the most relaxed border crossing.

Dry Tortugas — Florida

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Many of Knighton’s adventures to lesser-known national parks have involved travel to far-off islands. Photo: Courtesy of Efrain Robles

We’re only covering 26 pieces, so this park is not on even on the show. To get there you have to drive to Key West, then go 70 more miles by boat.

The only access to this national park is via boat or sea plane. By the time you come upon Dry Tortugas, a series of small islands, you’re almost to Cuba.

There’s all kinds of weird history here, including this old fort that was built to monitor shipping lanes, and I found it a super rewarding place to visit. You can camp on island, snorkel and just hang out on the beach.

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