I remember my first national park. It was Big Bend National Park and I was a junior in college. We drove from Florida to Texas, picking up friends along the way until it was 6 of us in two cars driving the long distance across the longhorn state. We pulled into Big Bend in the dark, our car headlights catching a pack of javelinas scampering across the road. Our trip was filled with hikes, tumbling down sand hills, splashing through the Rio Grande River only to get stuck in the mud, campfires, and having s’mores for the first time. At night we walked through the campground to admire the endless parade of stars across the sky. And once we were too tired to stay awake, we all squeezed into one cheap tent.
Back then and even a few years afterwards, the national parks felt empty when I visited. We felt like modern day Lewis and Clark exploring trails and unearthing lizards hidden behind rocks. But now, we’re one of a million “explorers” at national parks.
I am bittersweet about what national parks now mean to me. By no means do I disagree that they are America’s best idea. Without visionary individuals like George Caitlin (who’s been credited with the national park idea), John Muir (an advocate for preserving our wild places), Gifford Pinchot (developing the first forest management plan), and Theodore Roosevelt (establishing the U.S. Forest Service, creating our first five national parks and many other public lands), the millions of acres of protected land would otherwise have been bulldozed and turned into private property. It is without a doubt that our national parks contain the most spectacular and sacred parts of America.
But then why do I wince after my excitement subsides at the thought of going to a national park? It’s because of two things: dogs and crowds.
For seven years I lived 75 miles from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smoky Mountains are the number one most visited national park in America, yet I’ve been there once – for work. The only hiking I did was down the trail we did maintenance on for National Public Lands Day. Dogs are not allowed in national parks. It’s because of this that I’ve never recreationally visited the Smokies. Tybee and Tyki are my family and it’s important to me to share my outdoor experiences with them. Being in nature is an essential part of the life I vowed to provide them when I adopted them. They find as much joy running through the wood or splashing in a creek as I do. Jerud and I have been to a handful of national parks since we’ve been on the road, but the visits have been hurried, brief, and superficial. And while we’re there, we scout out the few paved trails that allow Tybee and Tyki to experience a small piece of what millions of people do.
I love nature for its solitude, grandness, beauty and wildness. These natural places are necessary for my soul and for my sanity. But this isn’t what I find at national parks. Instead it’s like attending a sold out concert: the lines, the hordes of people, the endless procession of cars, and the wait on trails to let groups of hikers by. I run from cities in search of unspoiled natural areas, but instead discover myself in another version of a city. My heart breaks as we drive through national parks to be stopped by cars that have been abandoned by drivers who are surrounding a herd of wildlife. My anger flares when I come across initials carved into rocks and trees, defacing places that so many people have fought hard to protect and preserve. While part of my negativity towards national parks is simply the crowds and the lack of solitude, the other part is the lack of respect some visitors have for these amazing places. Those people approach national parks like it’s another amusement park, a place that’s been preserved simply for their enjoyment or a quick photo on social media, rather than for their appreciation.
Despite those two downsides, I can’t stop being drawn to national parks. I love the parks I’ve visited and everything I’ve seen within their boundaries. I long to make trips to the other national parks. Hiking on a trail that winds through a city of hoodoos, or up a mountain covered in wildflowers past alpine lakes, or wander boardwalks next to bubbling technicolor hot springs is so special. Our national parks contain the best of the best of nature and I want to get more intimate with them, but I’m not able to.
I understand that national parks have sensitive areas that dogs shouldn’t be allowed in for the safety of the wild animals who call those places home. At the same time, I wish they could take a similar approach as Canadian national parks. Dogs are allowed in the parks, not just on paved roads and parking lots, but on the actual hiking trails that are in the front and backcountry. There are trails that dogs are not allowed on and visitors respect that. A potential reason why Canada is able to allow dogs in their national parks is that they don’t see the crazy high volume of traffic like the parks in the U.S. does.
I also know that there are benefits to the overwhelming popularity of our national parks. As someone who adamantly hopes more people will support the continued conservation of our public lands, our national parks may be part of the solution. For many people, national parks are their first introduction to the outdoors. The easy access and short hikes to mind-blowing places allow them to experience what avid outdoor enthusiasts cherish. It’s an opportunity to see in person what nature has to offer. Perhaps a trip to a national park will inspire these visitors to start a lifelong love affair with nature and understand the importance of preserving these incredible places and others that are in dire need of it. After all, I was one of those newbies. My early trips to Big Bend then Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks were some of the hooks that drew me deeply into nature’s arms. The love and need that has become so strong that I’ve chosen to live in an RV to immerse myself in the outdoors.
So even though I don’t visit national parks often, I happily celebrate its centennial anniversary this year. I continue to support America’s best idea and thank our forefathers who were progressive enough to see the importance of these places and protect them early on. Even though there are many national parks that aren’t as popular as Great Smokies, Grand Canyon or Yosemite, I’m still not able to visit them with the enthusiasm I have for non-national parks. It is in those other public lands that my family of four explores, wanders and soothes our souls. But I am glad to know that there are places that millions of people can easily access and hope that they will respect and adore our natural places the way they deserve to be.