Today is the 100th birthday for the National Park Service. It was President Woodrow Wilson who signed the mandate creating the agency on 25 August 1916. Since then, its charge has remained the same: protect designated land for its beauty and wildlife as well as its historical significance for the enjoyment of future generations. That goal expanded to include assuring public access to these protected areas.
That assurance of public access is what makes the National Parks the best gift ever. Not only can visitors enter the areas, but they will find visitor centers, knowledgeable rangers and volunteers, established paths and scenic drives as well as parking and bathroom facilities. Not all locations are 100% accessible, but most are upgrading their facilities and have at least some hiking options accessible for wheelchairs. The access is not free, but the entrance fee is minimal, typically $30 for a car to have access for a week.* Annual and lifelong passes are options as well.
When you unwrap this gift, you will find a wide variety of places to visit and enjoy. To see the magnitude of what the national parks oversee, I went to National Geographic’s The National Parks: An Illustrated History (May 2015). Through photos and essays, the book explains how the National Park Service “represents freedom, adventure, diversity, dedication, respect, and restraint.” Here is the book’s opening overview, by the numbers:
84,000,000 acres of land
75,000 archaeological sites
18,000 miles of trails
247 endangered plants and animals
407 park properties including
78 national monuments
59 national parks
27,000 historic and prehistoric structures
292,800,082 recreational visits in 2014
Not everyone is a fan of the national parks, however. Some visitors even offer some less than stellar Yelp reviews. According to a few of these reviews, the parks are too crowded, which can happen in the height of the season. The potential of too many other visitors is why I try to visit places in early spring, before summer crowds start showing up. Other complaints, of course, are just downright silly and say more about the complainer than the national park in question: too lonely, too expensive, lack of cell service, poor food, no adequate showers, not seeing enough wildlife, but also seeing rattlesnakes OMG.
More specifically, someone felt Yellowstone National Park smelled too much like sulfur, which—of course—is a bi-product of the thermal features that make the place unique. And one person advises to be careful when visiting that big hole in the ground, the Grand Canyon, because it is a long fall to the bottom: “Do not hover about the Canyon whilst drunk. You will fall over the edge and you will die.” I think my favorite comment was posted about South Dakota’s Badlands National Park: “Waste of time. Thank god I was drunk in the backseat for the majority of the trip.”
I have had the good fortune of visiting many but not enough national parks as I wander on my nature treks, typically in the spring each year. My most recent visits were to Yellowstone National Park, where I was able to see bison up close and personal, and Saguaro National Park, where I finally saw saguaro cacti in bloom. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the nation, with nearly 10.1 million recreational visits in 2014. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area was the most visited property with 15 million visitors in 2014. Utah offers many parks from which to choose, including Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Zion National Parks.
Two of my favorite destinations are Yosemite National Park and the Grand Canyon. They feel the same to me in their majestic and beautiful vistas that encourage quiet contemplation and spiritual connections. But they are different in mood, I suppose. The grays and blues of Yosemite are cool and calm, punctuated by the power of waterfalls. The red and brown hues of the Grand Canyon are warm and soothing, inviting one to sit and enjoy the view of the often muddy Colorado River far below. If you sit quietly at either location, you are apt to see some wildlife as well.
When you visit, wherever you visit, I am certain you will be delighted. There are three great books that provide magnificent photos and details about the national parks and monuments. The books themselves became my souvenirs this year to mark the National Parks’ 100th Birthday.
Here are the book titles—they do make great gifts:
The National Parks: An American Legacy (2105) with photographs by Ian Shive.
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea An Illustrated History (2009) by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns.
National Geographic’s The National Parks: An Illustrated History 100 Years of American Splendor (2015) by Kim Heacox (mentioned above).
Of course, it is the visit to any of the parks that is the real gift. I encourage you to accept the present and get out there visiting a park or monument near you soon! It will be a gift that keeps on giving!
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE NATIONAL PARK?
WHAT PARK ARE YOU HOPING TO VISIT NEXT?
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*For price comparisons: Entry fees to Disneyland are $110 per adult per day; San Diego Zoo, $50 per adult per day, and Los Angeles Zoo, $20 per adult per day. National Parks are certainly a great value!