As a kid, my family visited Mammoth Cave’s “Fat Man’s Misery.” It’s the first time I recall when being a kid had advantages—the cramped passage was only a problem for adults! Our family also went to the Grand Canyon one year. At the time, I didn’t comprehend the significance of national parks.
Years later, I worked at Mammoth Hot Springs, in Yellowstone National Park. I was a room attendant. This wasn’t a glamorous job. What mattered was the scenery. Although, as the summer progressed, the spectacular views became hazy from that summer’s historic forest fires.
Frequent fire updates showed the estimated burned acres. Each total resembled a lottery jackpot that kept growing. Stories of harrowing escapes spread, especially from Old Faithful. Thousands of firefighters arrived, yet couldn’t stop a single fire.
On my last day of work, ash fluttered down like snowflakes. I watched literal pillars of flame erupt along the surrounding mountain ridges. The fiery pillars dwarfed the helicopters dumping red fire retardant. The futility was apparent. Our location, the last still open, closed hours later. Employees were evacuated. Days later, an early snowfall snuffed out the widespread fires. The final jackpot total was a million acres burned.
Despite the forest fires, that summer was when I began to fully appreciate national parks. Parks preserve wilderness, history, and unique ecosystems. It’s humbling that past generations protected these areas for us to enjoy. But these public lands also help future generations. As we enter the age of genetic engineering, saving valuable habitat and biodiversity is allowing scientists to make breakthrough discoveries. Isolated ecosystems, such as Yellowstone’s hot springs and Carlsbad Cavern’s Lechuguilla Cave, have extremophile microbes. These rare organisms are helping develop future antibiotics, and understand what life might be like on other planets. Who knows what future scientists will learn in our national parks?
This fall, my admiration of national parks led me on another road trip out west. In seven weeks I visited five national parks, as well as other state parks and a national monument. With limited time and countless national and state parks, it’s overwhelming deciding which to visit. Each park is unique. Each, incredible in its own way.
To date, I’ve been to fourteen national parks, visiting several of these multiple times. What I’ve learned is in 1872 Yellowstone became the world’s first national park. Although America has inspired many ideas, I find myself agreeing with Ken Burns. He made an award-winning documentary series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. There’s a book adaptation too. His belief is that America’s “invention” of national parks is its biggest legacy. Yellowstone inspired humanity to begin preserving wild lands for future generations.
However, we shouldn’t take America’s best idea for granted. New threats and ongoing challenges face all parks. I’ll touch on this topic with a “Part II” blog post. Safe travels to all amid our ongoing pandemic.
(For those interested, what follows are comments and photos of the parks I visited this fall.)
Fall 2021 Camping Trip Parks
Badlands National Park. Rapid erosion of sedimentary rock has created a maze of hills, canyons, and colorful rock layers.
Craters of the Moon National Monument. Sixty lava flows have created a surreal, barren landscape that gives the park its name. Bonus points for those venturing into the rugged lava tunnels.
Cultus Lake State Park in Oregon. A remote, scenic lake with wild huckleberries around the campground!
Ecola State Park in Oregon. This park’s epic coastline has beaches and sea stacks featured in movies like The Goonies, Twilight, Kindergarten Cop, and Point Break.
Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria, Oregon. This is a great base camp to visit two museums dedicated to Lewis and Clark’s historic journey (Fort Clatsop and Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center). Goonies fans can geek-out in scenic Astoria, the movie’s setting, and explore the Oregon Film Museum (where the Goonie’s opening scene took place). Astoria also has a cool observation tower overlooking the Columbia River’s mouth. This river mouth is nicknamed “The Graveyard of the Pacific” after sinking over 2,000 ships with its treacherous sandbars, tides, and currents.
Glacier National Park. This “hiker’s paradise” is filled with stunning views. Its Going-To-The-Sun Road is an engineering and scenic wonder, but not for faint-hearted drivers or bicyclists.
Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park in Montana. Abundant cave formations are this park’s highlight. Incredible staircases and a literal slide descend to a blasted out tunnel that leads you back to daylight. Its visitor center also has an outstanding park ranger talk about bats. I highly recommend this cave for children.
Mount Rainier National Park. This photogenic park is far more than its namesake mountain.
Olympic National Park. Park rangers describe this famous park as three amazing parks/ecosystems in one (coastline, temperate rainforest, and mountains). They’re right. Of note, if you rely on solar panels while camping, they’re useless in most of this park’s campgrounds because of the towering trees.
My favorite experience here was portaging my bike around a washed away bridge. This Elwha River washout has isolated a part of the park for three years, making it like a ghost town. I biked two hours, rising 1,500 feet to Appleton Pass. There, I turned around and coasted downhill for thirty minutes. For fun, I shot a rough video during my descent to make a hyperlapse video. This experimental video condenses my descent to less than three minutes. That’s like going 150 miles per hour. If you’re curious about hyperlapse video, click on the Youtube link below.
Wind Cave National Park. The boxwork cave formations here are extremely rare. Even more fascinating is whether Wind Cave and Jewel Cave are actually connected? Air-flow studies suggest they are. As cave mapping technology advances, time will tell if this becomes the longest cave complex on Earth.