Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike. John Muir, The Yosemite (1912)
Today the National Park Service of the United States celebrates its 100th birthday. Though we are celebrating a century of these beautiful places to “play in and pray in,” the vision of the National Park idea can be traced back to 1832 when artist George Catlin first encouraged the protection of our country’s wilderness and the people and animals inhabiting these untamed places. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed an act establishing Yellowstone as our country’s very first National Park. Between 1872 and when the National Park Service was officially established in 1916, the United States government had designated 13 more National Parks and 21 National Monuments.
And now the National Park System protects 413 areas encompassing more than 84 million acres. I’d say it’s been a good 100 years. With over 400 venerated areas, the goal to visit every single one can be a bit daunting. Several enthusiasts stick to the 59 National Parks, and while I believe these are certainly the showstoppers of the system, the monuments, historical sites, memorials, parkways, etc. are not to be underestimated. They each offer something unique worth visiting.
I wish I were observing this milestone birthday in one of these treasured places, but alas, the schedule and obligations of being an adult forced me to postpone an on-location celebration until next month. Ben and I will spend a few days in the Great Smoky Mountains, celebrating both the monumental birthday of the National Park Service and my slightly less monumental (only slightly, mind you) 29th birthday.
It is fitting that the Smokies are where I will kick off my final year in my twenties and commemorate 100 years of “America’s best idea.” After all, my love affair with the National Parks began in the mountains spanning Tennessee and North Carolina.
According to family photo albums, I made my first trip to the Smokies as a baby, but of course, I have no personal memory of this inaugural visit. I sure was a cute, chunky baby, though. 🙂
My family vacationed in the Smokies nearly twice a year from the time I was 10 years old, and my love for those misty mountains deepened with each visit. My parents clearly valued this beautiful haven and it was from them I learned to appreciate not only the Smokies but nature as a whole.
We always hiked during our vacations, with favorite hikes typically being treks ending at a rewarding waterfall. As my family grew more familiar with the mountains, the mileage of our hikes also grew. To be honest, I don’t know how to “vacation” by relaxing on a sandy beach; vacations have always been about hiking and exploring.
As I grew older, I developed interest in the history of the mountains and the people who once called them home; I couldn’t get my hands on enough books and guides about the area. And my parents were always up for trying any trail with historical significance that peaked my curiosity. After one unpopular trail took us many miles out of the way and three attempts to complete in three separate years, they probably started to regret their willingness to let me lead the way, but that’s another story for another post entirely. 🙂
Now that I’m older, my trips to the Smokies aren’t nearly as frequent, but I try to make a pilgrimage at least once every few years. I often affectionately refer to them as my home-away-from-home. They spurred my love for the great outdoors and the National Park Service; now I want to explore as many of the National Parks as I possibly can.
And I consider myself fortunate.
My family traveled the Blue Ridge Parkway, admiring the vistas of lush green mountains against azure skies.
In Big Bend, my mom and I watched the sun set in the endless Texas sky over the Chisos Mountains.
I had a brief glimpse of the 300-year-old history and culture embodied in the San Antonio Missions.
By standing in a single spot at the Pinnacle Overlook in Cumberland Gap, I looked across and into the states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia simultaneously.
Ben and I experienced an abbreviated version of the grandeur of Yosemite—dominating giants such as Half Dome and El Capitan, the vast Tuolumne Meadows and ancient sequoias of Mariposa Grove—on our honeymoon.
We stood in awe of the snowy summit of Mount Rainier perfectly framed in a cloudy sky.
In Olympic, we explored the wild coastline of Ruby Beach, the temperate Hoh Rainforest and the soaring peaks Hurricane Ridge.
We witnessed glaciers up close and personal as we sailed through Glacier Bay.
And in Sitka we reverently gazed up at towering totem poles that whisper the stories of the Pacific Northwest tribes who created them.
And there’s still so, so much left to experience.
I relate to nature enthusiast John Muir, one of the first National Park advocates, because of the connection he felt with nature. To me, the National Parks are about family and memories; history and learning; faith and healing; adventure and living.
If you’ve never experienced our National Parks, what are you waiting for? Mountains, rivers, monuments, battlefields, lakeshores, volcanoes, glaciers, historic sites, parkways, trails, preserves, memorials… the National Park System encompasses so much. Find your park and join the celebration!
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. John Muir, Our National Parks (1901)