This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service. August 25th, to be exact. It’s a Centennial worthy of celebrating because without the NPS we wouldn’t have 407 amazing National Parks to enjoy, as well as the conservation and historical preservation programs that ensure the health of wildlife and the ability for future generations to soak up the peace, serenity, and sense of adventure these wild spaces provide.
To highlight this occasion, the National Parks Service and the National Parks Foundation have been collaborating with their partners to promote Find Your Park, crowdsourcing collections of stories and photos from people loving on our National Parks. There have been multiple educational events and programs to draw more people into the parks as well, and the launch of the Every Kid In A Park program for 4th graders.
Visiting National Parks is all the rage right now.
Over these 100 years visitation numbers in our National Parks have been growing due to easier access from the invention of cars and the ability to travel, and more recently exploding due to marketing campaigns like Find Your Park. Take Rocky Mountain National Park, for instance. Established as a National Park in 1915, visitation numbers began at 31,000 for that year. In 2015 we saw over 4,115,916 pass through those elk-traffic jam crowded gates. It is the third most-visited National Park in the entire Nation, right behind the Grand Canyon with 5.5 million visitors, and the most visited, Great Smoky Mountains, topping out at 10 million visitors in 2015.
We’ve certainly been feeling the impact of that growth in most recent years. There are constant updates from Rocky Mountain about full parking lots and limited access on roads to Bear Lake and on Old Fall River Road due to traffic congestion. Not only that, there’s a significant increase of uneducated (or apathetic, entitled) visitors making ill-informed mistakes, like the infamous bison calf being put into the back of a car in Yellowstone, and while in the middle of writing this piece, people parking on the natural vegetation in Rocky Mountain. There are countless problems being addressed that don’t even make it on social media – littering, vandalism, wildlife harassment, and venturing off-trail.
This growth often makes me wonder if we’re helping or hurting our National Parks. Are we inadvertently loving them to death?
I’m in Rocky Mountain National Park frequently each month throughout the year. While I tend to prefer more secluded, less popular trails, I cannot ignore the beauty of this park that’s right in our backyard. In fact, some of my most moving outdoor experiences have been in Rocky Mountain National Park. So, I grumble to myself about tourists using their phones as boomboxes on the trail and hike in farther where the crowds begin to thin out.
The popularity of our National Parks is something I think about often, and I’m frequently torn between being an elitist and an ambassador.
Sometimes I grumble to myself about tourists, especially after hearing that Rocky Mountain National Park had a record-breaking 4 million visits in 2015, and how crowded the trails are getting because of it. But today I helped a couple from Tennessee put on their snowshoes correctly, and told them the best pair to rent for tomorrow, as well as where my favorite trails were. And then I helped another young couple find the trail to Mills instead of getting lost on some of the backcountry off-trails by Alberta Falls. I kind of felt like a park ambassador today. And I had to smile when I saw this snow angel, because it reminded me of how much happiness this part of Colorado brings everyone.
On July 1st, I packed up my gear and hit the road to go on a month-long adventure through four National Parks – Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier. It was an epic adventure full of mishaps, stunning scenery, abundant wildlife, and life-changing epiphanies.
I also struggled quite a bit with the dichotomy between people and preservation.
I really disliked my time in Yellowstone because of this. While Rocky Mountain has more visitors, Yellowstone seems more crowded. It’s certainly more commercialized. I spent one day there between Grand Teton and Glacier, packing up at 6am the next day to get the hell out of dodge. I felt bad about ditching this park and returned for more time on the way back home.
I went to see Old Faithful at sunset. I skipped doing this on my first go through the park because I saw the parking lots and amount of traffic and noped right out of there. Sunset is always a great time to do anything in any National Park because the crowds are considerably smaller.
However, smaller does not mean less annoying.
I sat there for 15 minutes before the next eruption. In that entire 15 minutes, a crowd of people next to me yelled and screamed at the top of their lungs, “Come on already!!! Erupt!!! I didn’t drive 9 hours for nothing!!!” As if there was a park ranger hanging around to flip the geyser switch.
Once Old Faithful bubbled and skyrocketed 30 feet into the air, more screaming and yelling echoed, similar to the response to a 4th of July fireworks show. Where the hell am I? I thought to myself.
Nope, not hiking here, I texted my husband. I hate this park during peak season. I’ll come back during the winter.
I was there for 3 hours before throwing in the towel and driving through to Grand Teton to set up camp for the night. I didn’t care if I was setting up a tent in the dark in Grizzly Country, I just had to get out of there. Yellowstone was the worst. However, on the opposite end of this struggle, I had a deeply moving experience with crowds on a packed, most-popular trail in Glacier.
I was solo for this trip. Usually when I’m on a solo hike in the wilderness I’m mulling over my own thoughts about life. These thoughts tend to be about my place in this world, what the wilderness means and how it speaks to me, and other outdoor-hippy philosophies. But on this hike I was ruminating about how I already know these thoughts, so my mind began to wander to thinking about the people I was sharing the trail with. What did this hike mean to them? Did they appreciate it too or was this just a simple vacation? Are they as moved as I am being surrounding by this incredible beauty?
With this transition in thought my perception drastically changed. Instead of noticing wildflowers and fungus dotting the trails, I saw parents teaching their kids about proper trail etiquette so that they would be good hikers – now and in their future.
I saw a disabled guy in a wheelchair sitting next to a glacial waterfall letting the mist gently fall on his face. A moment made possible by the paved trail that he was able access.
There were morbidly obese corn-fed midwesterners gradually making their way up the trail, thrilled to be able to accomplish this hike and see the things that outdoor enthusiasts take for granted, because they live in a state without majestic glacier-carved mountains.
I saw a tour of senior citizens in their 70s and 80s – the tour guide wearing a microphone headset talking about the wildflowers on the trail and the ground squirrels scurrying about, and each senior on the tour with ear pieces to hear the info, smiling and talking to themselves about the chipmunks that they remember running around in their own yards.
It was my own Thoreau moment of going on a walk through the woods and coming out taller than the trees. It was so deeply moving and eye-opening.
National Parks provide the opportunity for people of all abilities to experience some of the most beautiful places in our nation, without having to train and make it part of their lifestyle like I may have.
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt said in his speech at the laying of the cornerstone of Gateway to Yellowstone National Park:
“…The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world, so far as I know. Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the Park are scrupulously preserved; the only change being that these same wild creatures have been so carefully protected as to show a literally astounding tameness. The creation and preservation of such a great natural playground in the interest of our people as a whole is a credit to the nation; but above all a credit to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. It has been preserved with wise foresight. The scheme of its preservation is noteworthy in its essential democracy. Private game preserves, though they may be handled in such a way as to be not only good things for themselves, but good things for the surrounding community, can yet never be more than poor substitutes, from the standpoint of the public, for great national playgrounds such as this Yellowstone Park.
This Park was created, and is now administered, for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. The government must continue to appropriate for it especially in the direction of completing and perfecting an excellent system of driveways. But already its beauties can be seen with great comfort in a short space of time and at an astoundingly small cost, and with the sense on the part of every visitor that it is in part his property, that it is the property of Uncle Sam and therefore of all of us. The only way that the people as a whole can secure to themselves and their children the enjoyment in perpetuity of what the Yellowstone Park has to give is by assuming the ownership in the name of the nation and by jealously safeguarding and preserving the scenery, the forests, and the wild creatures…”
Those last few sentences ring so true to me and sum up the struggle I feel between people and preservation – with the sense on the part of every visitor that it is in part his property, that it is the property of Uncle Sam and therefore of all of us. The only way that the people as a whole can secure to themselves and their children the enjoyment in perpetuity of what the Yellowstone Park has to give is by assuming the ownership in the name of the nation and by jealously safeguarding and preserving the scenery, the forests, and the wild creatures.
I don’t have an easy answer on how to stop loving our National Parks to death while welcoming the masses that also share them. Constant education seems to be the only key. But this trip, and these thoughts will stick with me forever. I may still struggle with sharing these places with massive crowds of tourists, but I have a better understanding as to why – and why it’s important that everyone is there.