For Christmas Ray Ray gave me a coupon to tour three national parks in the West/Northwestern part of the country: Glacier, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. I’m still relatively new to that corner of the country, save a few visits to see mom and dad in the Seattle area since they moved there in 2007, so the opportunity to explore it would have been exciting enough. Exploring three national parks was an idea so great, I was a disappointed I hadn’t thought of it myself.
I’ve just returned to D.C. after our three-week visit to what I am told is called the “inland Northwest,” and it was absolutely incredible. I have pictures and stories galore from myriad hikes and a few encounters with wildlife that were probably not the wisest decisions we made while out there. I’ll save those for later. For now I find myself reflecting on just how I came to be so excited about our National Parks. It’s another one of those great experiences I inadvertently stumbled into.
As a kid in California, my parents took me to Death Valley, but I was too young to really remember it. We saw the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest on our move from San Diego to Connecticut, but never visited any other parks once we were settled in New England. In 2000, I visited some friends in Denver and we took a day to hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, but without the cache of Yosemite, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, I seemed to miss the fact that it was, in fact, a National Park, or the broader idea of a “system” of parks, monuments and historic sites.
A couple of years later one of those Denver-based friends married and, as a gift to a few of us participating in the wedding, gave us a National Parks passport. I still didn’t fully understand the broader reach of the park system and, to be honest, did not really know what to do with the passport. It sat unused on my shelf for the next five years.
Fast forward to 2007 when my family decided to take a group vacation to Hawaii. During our time on Maui we visited Haleakalā National Park. Technically we visited the pools at Ohe’o, which happen to be within the park’s boundaries. While stopping to use the restroom at the Kipahulu visitor center, I saw a display with the same blue National Parks Passport I received as a gift five years prior, accompanied by a stamp with the day’s date. With my non-aware-outside voice I said, “Wait a minute. You mean you use this book to collect stamps from every park, site and monument?”
“Yep,” answered the Park Ranger manning the store, whom I did not see.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Ranger gave me a few slips of paper to stamp, which I would tape in the passport upon returning to Chicago, and I was on my way. I also had an “ah ha” moment as I pieced together the visit in 2000 to Rocky Mountain National Park and the passport gift from my friend two years later.
Fast-forward to late 2009 and Ken Burns’ series on PBS about the National Parks. I became more than just a little excited when I saw it advertised, and that’s when Ray Ray and I discovered our shared love of the outdoors and the parks. I couldn’t wait for the series and Ray Ray knew it. She jumped on the gift idea quickly. Shortly after graduation we headed west and I got my first glimpses of Montana and Wyoming. Two more states off my list. We saw remarkable sites in nature that are damn-near impossible to describe. It reaffirms the government’s decision to set these lands aside for preservation, its decision to create a system for managing it all and why people flock to them year in and year out. I would argue the parks, sites and monuments are good part of any envy the rest of the world may feel toward us, and we should be doing more to ensure the system has the resources necessary to maintain it. Sadly, after talking with more than a handful of Park Rangers during our visit, it’s very clear we are not.
This will probably start a new corner of these pages: entries devoted to exploring National Parks. Or maybe it will become a celebration of nature. Not sure yet. For now, head on over to the gallery and see some of what we saw.
Then start planning your own visit!