I am in love with America’s National Parks. From the depths of the Grand Canyon to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome, the parks have been an obsession for as long as I can remember.
My first exposure was probably when my family took us kids to the mountains of sand in Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Then, in college, I studied the geology of parks and learned the effects of forces, such as wind and water, on rock to form great arches and caves.
As an adult, I began hiking and have since visited about a dozen parks, sometimes just driving through, such as Petrified Forest National Park and Joshua Tree National Park. Others I’ve spent days or weeks exploring the back-country wilderness, such as Sequoia National Park and Muir Woods National Monument.
I’m already planning how I will expose my little girls to these wonders as I know one thing to be true, no amount of marveling at pictures or watching documentaries prepared me for the awe that seeps into every cell when you visit the parks first-hand. They are majestic, breathtaking and in-your-place-putting.
In the coming weeks, some of them will have no entrance fee. The National Park Service offers several Fee Free Days throughout the year and there are two left in 2013. Park fees help support the infrastructure, such as roads, security and campgrounds, needed to protect the lands and allow visitors to enjoy the natural environment. But knowing you can save a few dollars may encourage you to finally take that vacation or day trip you’ve been dreaming of.
It’s easy to forget that the parks have always existed without boundaries and borders and entry fees and camp sites and brochures. These landscapes bled one into another, towering volcanoes in the west, canyons gouged in so many layers of history, caves of the desert southwest, the great plains and the rolling, blue ridges of the Appalachians in the east.
This is our country. Vast. Wild. Without foresight, partnerships and acceptance of radical ideas, much of what is now preserved could have been plowed over in pursuit of settlements and business and entertainment. Not that we don’t need these things. We do. But we also need to preserve these spaces that remind us of what we were before population expansion and to protect our finite resources.
The country’s first park, Yellowstone National Park, was established in 1872. From this designation, the culture of preserving vital lands has yielded some 400 sites overseen by the National Park Service (268 of which are free year round.)
My experience on Half Dome
One of my most profound experiences came at the beginning of a three-week hike in the California back country — the hike to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
The day trip from Yosemite Valley is a workout not for the faint hearted. Eight miles out and 4,500 feet up, the climb is strenuous on trails shared with hundreds of like-minded adventure seekers and pack mules carrying supplies for those venturing or living or working deeper in the wilderness. Those mules also leave behind a not-so-fresh reminder of their presence. (Plug your nose and pack or filter your water.)
But few things worth doing are easy and this trail is no exception.
My day was filled with so many stunning views it dizzied the mind. Keep walking or stop to take another picture? Every turn seemed to unfold a scene more surreal than the last.
Yosemite is filled with plunging valleys carpeted with deep green foliage, towering rock walls and rivers that catapult over their cliffs in stunning falls. A suburban dweller my whole life, the natural expanses seemed alien, a massive set in some Truman Show experiment.
You can stop at the backside of Half Dome or join the 800 or so people who brave the steel cables up the rock face to the top every day. The ascent tested my nerve. Twenty-five minutes with my chicken arms pulling my full body weight up the granite slope worn slick from overuse. Let go and you could tumble hundreds of feet to your death. It’s happened on occasion. I tried not to remember. The climb was exhilarating.
A rolling slope on one side and sheer cliff on the other, the summit of Half Dome stands some 4,700 feet from the valley floor. And the view from its broad flat top is nothing short of breath-taking. In every direction, the Earth bends and bows with rock and pines.
Sit down and take it all in. Before too long you’ll be headed back down the way you came. Cables. Holding on for dear life. And then another eight miles back down to the valley or however long to your camp site.
This is just one of many, many types of experiences you can find in the National Park System. And believe it or not, people of all ages can find adventure. When I climbed Half Dome, I followed a 3-year-old boy who pulled himself up and down the cables on his own, tethered to his father. I told the dad that he was braver than me. He said his wife was down at the base, couldn’t stomach watching this. I’d probably force my kids to park it by the trail head. But every parent sets their limit.
A word on tourism
Sometimes I would close my eyes and imagine how the parks would be even better if “they” (tourists) weren’t there blocking my view of grazing bison, or wetting their heads in the waters of the Merced River while I’m trying to get that perfect picture, or creating long lines in entrance ways, or filling up campsites.
Forget the fact that I am part of the “problem.” I’m someone else’s “they.”
These parks were most likely a success because of those annoying tourists.
According to accounts I’ve read on the creation of Yellowstone National Park, it won approval not only on the shoulders of environmental protectionists, but the railroad barons who saw the money to be made from people like you and me who want to see first hand this slice of American majesty.
Tourism is a bane and boon for environmentalism, so please remember where you are, whom you affect, for whom these places exist. We are a guests in America’s backyard.
Know before you go:
- National Park Services, parks throughout the USA
- The last Fee Free days in 2013: September 28 (National Public Lands Day) and November 9-11 (Veterans Day Weekend)
- Fee waiver includes: entrance fees, commercial tour fees and transportation entrance fees
- Fees not included: reservation, camping, tours and concession
- Where’s your closest National Park? Check out the state-by-state parks list