A Century of Wonder: Our National Parks by Bonnie and Bill Neely

Thanks to President Woodrow Wilson, the National Parks Service in the United States is celebrating its 100 year birthday this year, 2016, although the first National Park to be designated as such was Yellowstone, which was so designated by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Now the Service protects 394 areas with total of over 84 million acres, but some of these have the designation of military parks, battlefields, scenic rivers and trails, even the White House. We have had the privilege of visiting 49 of the 59 areas designated as National Parks.  These are incredible places, in which natural beauty is preserved for as long as we the people appreciate and protect it.  Twenty-seven states have at least one National Park, and California has the most, nine.  Each of these is preserved because it is a unique landscape in all the earth. Each has its own special, unusual and wondrous beauty, and each is awe-inspiring in a way no human-built place could ever match.


We all have a part ownership in these marvelous wonderlands through our taxes and donations, and there is one fairly near anywhere you live. Bill and I urge you to take advantage of these natural cathedrals and go to see any that you possibly can, whether for a day or a week or more. You will experience the wonder of vastness beyond any human’s ability to create. You will be inspired to look up in wonder at the huge trees and mountains and cloud pictures and the starry nights beyond imagining. You will look down as you walk and see tiny creations of beauty on the forest floor, or the rugged and colorful rock formations, or the clear lake or river waters, or the meadows of abundant blooms no person planted. You will hear the happy chatter of other people expressing the joy of being out in nature, away from city noises. You will hear birdsongs, animal calls, and even the insect world communicating with their kind, and you will experience total silence you didn’t even know existed. The wondrous aromas of the evergreen needles beneath your feet and swaying in breezes all around you inspire healing, deep breaths. In the evenings the smell of the campfires throughout quiet campgrounds fills you with a kind of nostalgia for ancient times long forgotten but still part of our human collective memory.  And the canopy of billions of twinkling stars above you as you look up at night is totally overwhelming. It makes you know what a tiny spec we are in the vast, mysterious Universe. Give yourself this gift of experiencing humility, peace, and extreme joy of freedom you cannot experience in your everyday life of normal, busy, overwhelming daily demands and noises of civilization. The time you spend in one of our National Parks is the least expensive and most rewarding of any vacations you could ever experience.

Find a way to go visit a National Park soon, and you will be forever enlarged and the memories will inspire joy always. Well-maintained trails are available for every type of ability: walking, hiking, backpacking into the wilderness, wheelchairs, walkers, strollers, climbing, scaling steep rock faces, biking, horseback, or jeep trails. And each is in a carefully chosen place where you will see different forms of natural beauty. Campgrounds are the least expensive and best maintained ones you will find anywhere. You can choose perfectly planned tent sites, or large RV spaces with full hook-ups or no hook-ups, or backpack into the wilds of nature undisturbed. You can drive your own vehicles through the vast parks on carefully maintained highways at low speeds, or you can take the free site-seeing buses which transport you to any trails or carefully chosen places of wonder and beauty beyond any you have ever imagined.

Rangers provide free programs daily and many at night for all ages and interests, from nature walks to films. In each of these you will learn so much about the nature around you and you can ask questions to learn more. The free Visitor Centers are filled with information and tell the history, geology, wildlife habitats and behaviors of many of the native plants, animals, and rocks of that particular Park, with real life displays and professional photos of each. There are easy, short, accessible hikes and programs at each of these Centers. You’ll find clean restrooms and pure drinking water, souvenirs, snack-bars, maps, and supplies. In many there are free films made by professionals to explain and give an overview of what you can anticipate as you experience the wonders of each Park.

We have been so privileged to visit National Parks, Monuments, Historic Park, Designated Waterways, etc., in every state, and each is unique in its natural landscape, and that is why it has been carefully chosen to be preserved for us and future generations to appreciate and enjoy. School children brought pennies to their classrooms to help raise the money to preserve this vast mountain scenery and wildlife and create Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. With the deep, gentle streams and waterfalls, and blue-green forests and understory of wildflowers and ferns blanketing ancient mountains of up 6,643 feet high at Clingman’s Dome, which are some of the oldest mountains in the United States. This Park is beckoning any nature lover on the Eastern side of the United States. And the Appalachian Trail, which traverses it leads on up to the North-East.


In the South-West the mountains and scenery preserved in the National Parks of Utah are so very different. Many of these much younger mountains have no vegetation covering their multi-colored, enormous rock formations, which provide an open book to geologists who study the layering of the formation of our Earth. From the gigantic gray boulders in Zion National Park, which make you look up in awe, to the weird orange rock formations of Bryce National Park, which look like giant drizzle sand castles and inspire your imagination to see different familiar statue shapes as if formed by a human sculptor, you will be fascinated.  In Canyonlands National Park you gaze down into a vast pit of enormous rock sculptures formed by river waters, and in nearby Arches National Park your eyes are drawn upward to more and different huge orange formations carved by wind, rain, snow, freezing and thawing.


In the North-West you will marvel at the beautiful fairy-lands of the Cascade Mountains and of many different kinds of waterfalls, streams, and gigantic evergreen trees, some over 2,000 years old. The Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula is one of our top favorites with moss covered paths and windy ocean shores and some of the tallest trees on earth with gnarled, exposed roots higher than any person.

In the South-East places like Everglades National Park and Pensacola Gulf Islands National Seashore preserve waterways and ocean shores with a totally different kind of natural beauty with tropical vegetation, beautiful under-water wonders, and varieties of ocean life as you have never imagined but can experience in these peaceful places of birds, whales, manatees, alligators, shells, sandy beaches, mangrove forests with walking trees, and much more.


Mid-America’s Rocky Mountain Range, which extends into Canada, has many different National Parks with conifer forests hosting large herds of elk in the wild-flower filled meadows and shyer long-horn sheep on the steep, bare, rocky precipices. Snow-covered peaks and deep glaciers are part of the wonderland in winter. Sadly, for the past decade global warming has increased the North American mountain pine beetle, whose population had been kept in check in the past by sub-freezing temperatures. These little creatures have destroyed over half percent of the magnificent evergreen forests. Scientists are working to find a solution for this destruction.


But each of us can do a small part to help heal our increasing global temperatures by turning our air-conditioners up a few degrees and our heaters down a few degrees, by turning off computers and other electronics when they are not in use, since keeping them plugged in drains a little electricity constantly. We can install solar panels, which are now free in many areas, to take us off the grid totally. We can use water sparingly, as if we had to walk a mile with a heavy jug to get water from a stream for daily use, as millions of people in the world still must do. We can choose to walk or bicycle more and drive less. These are little things each of us can do to save our planet for future generations and to insure our own comfort in the near future while still enjoying the easy advantage of modern life, which we take for granted and so overuse unnecessarily. Tiny changes are easy and make a huge difference.  Remind ourselves and our children that 21 days create a habit so we can practice and create the habits of conservative use of our precious resources. Going to a National Park will inspire you to do this. GO AND ENJOY!