If you appreciate magnificent wild scenery and simple pleasure from the great natural wonders of the world found all across the country, then this is a special year to soak some of it in during the National Park Service celebration of its 100th year.
As winter begins to subside, now might be a good time to start thinking about making some plans to visit a national park this summer.
Formed in 1916, the National Park Service is responsible for day-to-day administration and caretaker duties for the 59 designated national parks. I’ve had the pleasure to visit eight national parks, and none of them are disappointing, as each have spectacular geological features, unusual ecosystems and recreational activities to share at any month of the year.
My list of national parks I’ve visited include Grand Canyon, Saquaro and Petrified Forest, all in Arizona; Rocky Mountain In Colorado; Isle Royale, Michigan; Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico; Badlands, South Dakota; and Minnesota’s Voyaguers National Park. I expect to add at least two more parks this year.
President U.S. Grant and Congress designated Yellowstone National Park as the nation’s first national park in 1872 followed by Yosemite which actually began as a state park in California before becoming a national park in 1890.
It was at Yosemite where President Teddy Roosevelt camped with the passionate environmentalist John Muir and discussed the future of parks in America. When Roosevelt returned to Washington he wrote a letter to Muir stating: “How happy were the days in Yosemite I owed to you.”
Roosevelt, who is my all-time favorite president, rightly has his face carved on Mt. Rushmore as one of the most influential outdoors-orientated president ever to hold office. He was a visionary in preserving our country’s natural wonders from encroaching development.
During his time in the White House (1901-1909) Roosevelt set aside vast preserves of the “People’s Land” as he established the first 51 national wildlife refuges, 150 million acres of forest preserve, created five national parks and designated 18 historic and scientific areas as national monuments.
Filmmaker Ken Burns, who produced a public television documentary about the national parks, once wrote: “We, the people, are co-owners of some of the most beautiful places one can see.” The job of guarding the nation’s wild heritage originally belonged to the U.S. Army until the dark days of WW I arrived which led to the formation of the U.S. National Park Service that was organized in 1916.
There are many national park facts that could fill this space but some of them that I find interesting are that 27 states have a national park with California leading the way with nine followed by Alaska (8), Utah (5) and Colorado (4).
Two of the national parks in California are unique in that Death Valley is the hottest, driest and lowest place in elevation for the U.S. Meanwhile, the country’s newest National Park is in California at Pinnacles National Park.
The largest national park is Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska at over 8 million acres. It’s larger than each of the nine smallest states in America. If you’re wondering, Minnesota is the 12th largest state in the country.
The next three largest national parks are also found in Alaska and the smallest is Hot Springs in Arkansas at less than 6,000 acres. The total area of land protected by national parks is about 51.9 million acres.
Surprisingly, the most visited is Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is shared on the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina with over 10 million visitors in 2014 followed by the Grand Canyon with over 4.7 million visitors.
In contrast, only 12,669 people visited Alaska’s remote Gates of the Arctic National Park in the same year. The park is so isolated that it has no facilities.
There’s another rather inaccessible location at Dry Tortugas National Park which is a collection of seven tiny islands consisting of about 64,657 acres on the western edge of the Florida Keys. Travelers can only get to the island by plane or boat. The same goes for Isle Royale National Park in Lake Michigan that allows no motorized vehicles on the island. When I traveled there in the mid ‘70s we arrived by ferry from Grand Portage to backpack around the island (in the rain) and got a glimpse of a few wolves and moose.
Seaplane taking off from Windigo, Isle Royale National Park, MI. Photo by Bob Walker.
It seems a strange location to build a fort, but Fort Jefferson is the main feature of Dry Tortugas which has been preserved largely intact. The Civil War era fort is the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere as it’s composed of 16 million bricks. Construction began in 1847 and continued on into the Civil War, ultimately becoming a military prison.
It seems ironic that a prison in the deep south would be the place where Dr. Samuel Mudd and three other conspirators were imprisoned after they were convicted of conspiring and aiding John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Lincoln in April 1865. Mudd was later freed from Fort Jefferson and the prison was closed in 1874. The prison once housed Union Army deserters and held about 600 prisoners when Mudd arrived. He was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869.
Today, less than one percent of Dry Tortugas is dry land, as the park mainly protects one of the least disturbed coral reefs in North America.
And so it goes. Each park is unique and available for the enjoyment of all generations who have benefited from what writer Wallace Stegner called: “The best idea America ever had.”
How many national parks have you visited? Gas prices are still low, so get busy and see a few more parks this year.