Visionary leaders recognized the need to think long-term
This post updated July 2021: In 2016, we celebrated the 100th birthday of the National Park System (NPS). In 2019, we also celebrated the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), originally known as the National Parks Association, and its century of advocacy, support, and education on behalf of these amazing properties that all belong to you and me!
In 1916, during President Woodrow Wilson’s administration, when the National Park Service was created to manage America’s parks and historic sites, there were only 14 national parks and a few national monuments. By 2021, the system included 423 units (parks) and more than 150 “related areas” that cover more than 85 million acres in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Besides national parks, these include “national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House.” Before COVID, they collectively welcomed well over 300 million visitors a year, a statistic that is both exciting and alarming, since, in some places, rangers tell us we are “loving our parks to death” because of the negative impact of too many visitors.
I marvel at the vision of those 1916 legislators and naturalists.
Why do they matter?
These properties are so much more than just lovely places to go on vacation, though providing natural spaces for Americans to experience and benefit from immersion in the natural world is reason enough to rejoice that they exist. The National Park Service is a remarkably broad and diverse organization, however. “At our essence,” said NPS Director Jon Jarvis (in 2017), “the NPS tells story through place,” differentiating it from other types of museums that tell stories through objects. Besides wild spaces and breathtaking American landscapes (e.g., Yosemite, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains), along with historic battlefields (e.g. Gettysburg, Manassas, Antietam), NPS also preserves and tells the stories of ordinary places where extraordinary events occurred, such as Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and Little Rock High School.
Shenandoah was my first national park
My first memory of a national park was visiting Shenandoah National Park and its nearby Skyline Caverns. The Front Royal entrance to the park and the Skyline Drive was less than 30 minutes from my childhood home, and we occasionally took picnics and did some hiking. Smoky the Bear was a prominent icon on park signage, even back then, and I remember, as a child, both hoping and fearing we would run into him in the forest. By the time my own children were old enough to go, in the 1980s, we especially loved hikes that took us to a waterfall or stream. Sadly today, it is rare to find a very clear vista from any of the overlooks on Skyline Drive. Haze and smog have become increasing problems here and in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
Our newest national parks
- As of this update in 2021, White Sands National Park in New Mexico is the newest addition to the NPS, so designated in December 2019. It protects the largst gypsum dune on Earth, a remnant of ancient seas and lakes.
- Camp Nelson National Monument in Jessamine County, Kentucky, is the site of a Union supply depot and hospital during the Civil War that became a recruitment and training center for African American soldiers and a refugee camp for their families. Since it was the site where emancipation papers were issued to former slaves after the Civil War, many considered Camp Nelson to be their “cradle of freedom.”
- Valles Caldera National Preserve, in New Mexico, added 250,000 acres of land and a 13-mile-wide caldera that formed from a volcanic eruption 1.2 million years ago that was 2,000 times bigger than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. John and I visited several years ago when our daughter moved to Santa Fe, and it is truly spectacular. While you’re in that region, you’ll want to also visit Los Alamos (home of the future Manhattan Project National Park) as well as Bandelier National Monument, which includes magnificent ruins—carved from the cliffs—of ancestral Pueblo people who lived there from approximately 1150 CE to 1550 CE.
- Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park, in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, is considered the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. In 1790 the country’s first successful water-powered cotton-spinning factory operated on the Blackstone River, a watershed that drops more steeply and quickly than the Colorado River.
- Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, in Nevada, is a 22,605-acre desert oasis a few miles north of Las Vegas. It was once home to ice age-era mammals including extinct camels and giant sloths, and has been a target for archaeologists and paleontologists for over a century. It is still considerably under development for visitors. No cars are allowed, but hikers can come and look for fossils, and interpretive trails and fossil displays are planned for the future.
- For those reading this post later, see recent changes to the National Park System HERE.
Travel with Esther Miller
My friend and fellow writer Esther Miller shared some of her experiences in a few of our best known and much beloved national parks:
- “Unexpected Discoveries Near The Grand Canyon”
- “When Is A Rock More Than Just A Rock?”
- “The Road To Yosemite”
I’d love to hear from you about the national parks you’ve visited, what you most remember (good or bad), what your favorite NPS properties are, and any tips you might have for those of us who’d like to follow in your footsteps. Send pictures and stories to me using this site’s Get In Touch page. I will assume I have your permission to use what you send here on my blog unless you tell me otherwise.
National Parks: our natural and historical legacy
How grateful I am that my children and grandchildren have these amazing places preserved for their enjoyment and education. They are ensured of many ways to connect with nature even if they live in a high-rise apartment in the middle of a city, and in many instances, they are also provided with lively and appealing ways to see and understand the natural and cultural history and legacy of their great country.
Support our national parks
These organizations do a good job with financial support, education, and promotion of our nation’s national parks and properties. Many of them have property-specific support groups too.
- National Park Foundation – This is the official nonprofit support organization for the National Park Service
- National Parks Conservation Association – I particularly enjoy this organization’s National Parks magazine.
- Authorized NPS partner organizations
- A 2019 guide from Million Mile Secrets “Donating to National Parks: How to Give Back and Save on Your Next Trip”: This might include outdated links, but though it includes lots of links from advertisers, there is some valuable information on visiting in off-seasons, taking advantage of fee-free days, and minimizing travel and lodging expenses. Check it out, but verify information before you set out to visit one of the parks.
Plan your next trip to a national park
As this is updated in summer 2021, properties are opening after COVID shut-downs, but there may still visitor limits, so be sure to call ahead. Find your nearest NPS locations and look for special seasonal events, including “Free Days” and “Junior Ranger Days.” Wildflower and star-gazing activities are very popular.
When you discover our country’s National Park System, you discover the heart of America. Take your children and grandchildren—take your friends and family— and help them discover why Nature is one of the four essential keys to unlocking the #HeartspokenLife. Another essential key is Connection, and through learning about the past, we have a stronger connection with those who shaped our lives today.