Image: Gettysburg National Military Park
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP file
A conservator works on a section of the famous "Battle of Gettysburg" cyclorama painting, a 360-degree canvas that gives viewers the feeling of being placed in the middle of Pickett's Charge, the climactic clash on the final day of battle, at the new Museum and Visitor Center at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/22/2008 10:01:50 AM ET 2008-04-22T14:01:50

Is it just me or has this winter gone on just about long enough? From fresh snow in the Northwest to flooding down south, it seems the latest round of April showers has set the stage for everything but May flowers.

The National Park Service, it seems, feels our pain and is gung-ho to get spring underway with plenty of new programs and facilities. You may want to bring gloves or raingear along, but there’s a lot going on in the National Park system these days — and even more to come this summer and fall.

In fact, as I write this, the Park Service is celebrating National Park Week (through April 27), with hundreds of park units offering nature walks, beach clean ups and other activities. This year’s theme is “Kids in Parks,” and approximately 200 parks and historic sites will offer kid-friendly programs and events as part of Junior Ranger Day on April 26. For a complete list, visit here.

Meanwhile, units throughout the system have either opened new facilities or plan to over the next several months. As you make your spring and summer travel plans, here’s a look at where to go and what you’ll find:

Opened on April 14, the new museum and visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park commemorates the most important battle of the Civil War. The $103 million facility features 12 galleries, a new 22-minute film on the battle and more than 300,000 historical objects and artifacts.

The museum will also house the colossal circular oil painting, “The Battle of Gettysburg.” Painted in 1883, the wraparound-style “cyclorama” measures 377 feet long and 42 feet high. It’s currently being restored and will be unveiled during the museum’s official grand opening on September 26.

April 14 also saw the official opening of a new destination center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. (A soft opening took place in December 2007.) Located outside Asheville, N.C., the facility is the Parkway’s first year-round visitor center and the only one dedicated to the entire 469-mile route. Inside, visitors can view a new 24-minute film and explore specific sections via an I-Wall, a 22-foot-long map with a plasma-screen slider.

At Big Bend National Park, an expanded visitor center at Panther Junction will open on May 1. Built to complement the existing center’s vintage ‘60s style, the new facility will feature a larger bookstore, more ADA-compliant facilities and hands-on exhibits ranging from touch tables to dinosaur bones.

On May 16, the historic (1916) Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier National Park will reopen after a two-year closure. Although most of the improvements at the 121-room lodge are structural, new amenities include an expanded snack bar and six ADA-compliant guestrooms. (The inn is currently accepting reservations with overnight rates starting at $99 per night; 360-569-2275.) The park also plans to unveil the new Henry Jackson Memorial Visitor Center this year, although it’s not expected to open until October.

Located at Mile 66 on the Denali Park Road, the new Eielson Visitor Center is just 30 miles from Mt. McKinley, the crown jewel of Denali National Park and Preserve. It was designed to attain LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certification and is expected to open in mid-June, followed by an official dedication ceremony on August 12.

Set in the southwest corner of Grand Teton National Park, the 1,106-acre Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve was deeded to the park last fall. In late June, the preserve is expected to open its own interpretive center, a small facility that will tell the story of this quiet, less-visited part of the park.

As a component of Boston National Historical Park, the Charlestown Navy Yard is best known as the home of the USS Constitution, aka “Old Ironsides.” On July 3, the park will open a new, 8,500-square-foot visitor center in the yard’s one-time officers’ club. The facility, known as Building 5, will feature a theater and bookstore and offer more convenient access to Old Ironsides and the USS Cassin Young, a World War II-era destroyer.

It’s been three years since Hurricane Katrina roared through the Gulf Coast and, like much of the region, the Gulf Islands National Seashore was hit hard. The park’s Davis Bayou Visitor Center, outside Ocean Springs, Miss., has been closed since, but is expected to reopen in late summer or early fall. When it does, visitors will be able to enjoy interpretive programs and a new film called “Gulf Island National Seashore: Stories of Survival.”

Finally, come fall, visitors to Lassen Volcanic National Park will be able to access the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center, the park’s first official (and first year-round) visitor center. Occupying the footprint of the park’s former ski chalet and built to LEED Platinum standards, the 8,100-square-foot facility will feature an exhibit hall, auditorium, bookstore and concession. Grand opening is scheduled for October 2.

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