2016 may have been a doozy of a year, but one very special birthday was celebrated last summer . . . 100 years of U.S. National Parks. Over the course of 13 months spanning between 2015 and 2016, I found myself in five different National Parks, from Virginia to California, and Arizona to Wyoming. Some were visited for the day, some were visited for weeks, and each of them opened my eyes to the incredible natural beauty within our 50 states.
being outside changes a person inside
Of this, I am a firm believer. Recently, a Boy Scout leader told me a story about a camping trip with boys who were starting to act up, as kids tend to do. In an effort to regain control, he made every boy sit with his back against a tree. The boys were told to close their eyes, listen to the sounds around them, and feel the weight of the tree move with the wind, and within minutes, calm was returned to the group and they were able to focus on their tasks. The Scout leader talked about the power that nature has on a bringing calm to a young boy’s soul. And that’s true for all of us. We might find shelter from the winter chill under blankets and hide from the summer humidity in an air conditioned bedroom, or spend our lives in planned communities and cities, but the earth is a part of us and I believe that we are happiest when we feel connected to it.
there is more to our national parks than just natural wonder
For more than 100 years, people have fought to protect these lands, saved them from exploitation, and convinced the public and the U.S. government that these lands should be set apart for all to enjoy. When you read about the history of Yellowstone National Park, our nation’s first, it’s clear that this was no easy task, especially with westward expansion, the gold rush, and greed that drove attempts to exploit the land for personal wealth. We should all be thankful for pioneers like John Colter and members of the Hayden expedition in 1871, whose conservation efforts ultimately led to President Ulysses S. Grant signing the Yellowstone Act in 1872 protecting the land “from injury or spoilation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within.”
Before traveling to Yellowstone last summer, I read a few books about the history of the park which highlighted just how difficult it was for these early pioneers to defend the land against the interests of powerful railroad tycoons and mining companies who looked at the land not for it’s wild beauty, but for what limited resources they could scrap out of it, a fact that was not limited to the land of Yellowstone. In fact, we hiked to an abandoned gold mine in the middle of Joshua Tree National Park in California this past fall, a sign of what could have become of an amazing ecosystem where two different deserts meet. A widow named Minerva Hoyt fought for 20 years for Joshua Tree to be recognized as a National Park, after she fell in love with the land. It was in this desert that she found solitude and peace following the loss her infant son, and later, after the loss of her husband. If not for the people who recognized the priceless value of our natural resources, these lands might not be here for us to enjoy today.
One of our travel companions in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks shared a fact with us: 90% of visitors to National Parks do not venture more than 100 yards from the main roads. Though I haven’t been able to confirm this fact, based on our experiences being in the 10% who venture away from the crowds, I can tell you it’s probably true. Beyond those 100 yards are endless opportunities to experience nature, to reset your thoughts, and to create incredible, lifelong memories. Be the 10%. Get off the beaten path. Lean against a tree. And find yourself in a National Park.
here are four reasons you should visit a u.s. national park:
one – to unplug
As painful as it might be to detach our eyes from the power of the screen, it’s painfully necessary to unplug regularly. I, for one, am guilty of not unplugging often enough. As much as the digital world has enhanced our everyday experience, we are rarely free of distraction. Unplugging gives the freedom to fully engage with the world around us and the people we love the most. It’s uninterrupted conversation along the hiking trails. It’s taking time to scan the environment (because, you know, bears and snakes) and observe natural elements along the way. Feeling the breeze in the Grand Canyon or listening to the sound of rushing water in the Tetons or smelling the sulfur and watching the muddy bubbles burst in the mudpots of Yellowstone are experiences that I didn’t need a smart phone to appreciate.
In fact, I was relieved by not having technology to distract me, and being fully present in those moments gave me some of the greatest experiences of my life, ones I’ll not forget. When I close my eyes, I can still feel those experiences within my soul. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but actually being a part of that iconic scene, experiencing it in 360 degree views, using all five senses, is worth more than words could ever express.
two – to learn
I have this vivid memory of seeing my husband and our oldest son, sitting together in the cool autumn air high atop massive, fractured rocks in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, staring across a blanket of reds and golds lying across the trees below. They were talking about how the rocks had once been one massive layer of rock and had been shattered during the ice age, when glaciers moved across the earth, flattening the rocks and breaking them apart. They talked about how the Appalachian mountains were old mountains, millions of years older, rounder, and smaller than the Rocky mountains.
They talked about the people who once lived off the land here, for generations and generations before any European had set foot on American soil. They talked about how they hunted, how tools made of elk antlers were used to shape rocks into arrow heads, and how they lived in communities where people were loyal to one another. Science. History. Anthropology. Geology. One conversation on the top of a rock, reading information given to our son by the park ranger at a ranger station, taught us all a lesson that we could have never learned elsewhere.
Being in a National Park is an opportunity to learn lessons about land and history, but I learned so much about myself and what I value about the earth. In Grand Teton, I learned that I love wildflowers after seeing them bloom in the mountains. In the Grand Canyon, I learned that I indeed am afraid of heights, and being with my three daring sons only intensifies my anxiety about falling over a cliff (it happens more often than you’d think). In Joshua Tree, I learned that the haze in the air can partly be blamed on smog and pollution, which has made me think twice about my personal carbon footprint. You see, the earth is one giant classroom, only if we go out and experience it.
three – to see america differently
Forget what social media tells you about the U.S. Forget politics. Forget every negative headline from the past year. Being in a National Park gives us a sense of pride and gratitude for this land that is pure and devoid of politics. We drove into Joshua Tree National Park on Veteran’s Day, our flag standing tall and waving in the breeze, and I felt a sense of pride in my country that I had not experienced before. An immense gratitude for the men and women who have dedicated their lives to fighting for this beautiful land and its people fell over me and truly changed the way I felt about my country, despite every negative headline of the election that had taken place just four days prior.
Every time we visit a National Park, we get an idea of what we’d like to see but before we set out, we head straight to the visitors center . . . with a strategy. (My husband, Dave, swears by this trick and it hasn’t failed us yet.) We look for the most senior (in age) volunteer or NPS employee, one who knows the park like the back of his or her hand, to lead us to the best hikes and some off the beaten path views. What never fails with our strategy is that the people we’ve sought for information have an undeniable passion for the parks where they are working. They want to share what they know, are excited to teach our sons, and are proud representatives of our National Parks. I have no idea what the these parks service employees feel about the election. We could disagree on every political point, for all I know. But the pride and enthusiasm these people feel for our country’s beauty and its history are contagious. America is a wild, majestic, and weird beauty, and for that alone, we can all agree to love her.
four – to connect
My personal favorite. The memories I have of hiking, biking, and driving through National Parks were made more special because of the people who traveled beside me. And let me be very honest: not all moments were pretty. On Father’s Day, we hiked over 8 miles of serious elevation gain and switchbacks in Grand Teton, an in and out hike . . . which had ups and downs on the way in and out. With three boys ages 7, 9, and 10. By the end of the hike, one kid proclaimed he was dying of thirst and tried to drink out of a stream when we were about 50 yards away from the end of the trail, just steps away form the parking lot with a car full of water. There were tears, and whining, and at one point I carried a back pack on my front and a child on my back. But it was an amazing day that I will never forget for as long as I live. We ate our picnic lunch beside the most beautiful waterfall. Our boys had a snowball fight in t-shirts with the little snow that had yet to melt. We saw marmots and butterflies and the most gorgeous evergreen trees I’ve ever seen. It was worth it.
We went off the beaten path. We experienced nature in ways I’ve only read about in books or watched on PBS documentaries. And we did it together. At every park, we had our bright moments and some not so bright moments. There were some real challenges for us on those hikes, particularly for some little legs who walked long miles. But the fact that we were able to experience it together made the view from the top that much sweeter.Published in