Especially for backpackers, it's easy to take potshots at the National Park Service - or more accurately, at public lands administered by the NPS. Allow me to explain:
In 2015, I hiked a section of the Hayduke Trail in southeastern Utah. My route took me through Canyonlands National Park. I began on land administered by the BLM - wild, remote country. Beautiful canyons wore their way through a million years of sandstone, their watercourses on a path to the Colorado River. I climbed up and out of a drainage, onto a beautiful mesa that jutted into the sky, adorned with rock pyramids that more than slightly resembled chocolate layer cake.
At some point on my walk over the mesa, I crossed into Canyonlands National Park. And I didn't care. You see, the canyonlands of the Grand, Green, and Colorado rivers sprawl far beyond the confines of an arbitrary line on a map. Whether or not I was inside the National Park, I was in the canyonlands. All that the NPS boundary meant was that I was required to purchase a backcountry permit, carry a bear canister, and camp in designated sites. What benefits did the Park afford me? None, other than the benefits offered by the landscape itself.
For many years, I remained skeptical about the value of NPS sites - at least for folks like me, who like solitude and venturing off the beaten path. Let's take Zion as a convenient example:
- Parks are crowded. Stand in line for two hours to get a chance to summit Angels Landing. The entire area smells vaguely from feces. There's a porta-potty right before the "chains" section but one little toilet is ill-equipped to deal with the literal thousands of people that are up here.
- Parks are trite. All those other people you watched for two hours are going to post the exact same photo on social media. But yeah, you go ahead and believe that you're a special little snowflake. #liveauthentic #optoutside #vanlife #nofilter #blessed #findyourpark
- Parks are bureaucratic nightmares. Want to hike the Subway instead of Angels Landing? Get ready to get up early and stand in line so you can get a permit. Once it's your turn, you get to try and convince the infamously cranky ranger that you do know what you're doing, you're not going to kill yourself, etc. Wait for the "don't be an idiot in the backcountry" lecture to conclude, pay your money, and maybe, if you're lucky, you'll hit the trail by noon.
Or so I thought.
Over the past couple of months, I've visited at least a dozen NPS sites. And in so doing, I've gained a new apprecition for places I had previously dismissed. Some of them are well-known, like Sequoia National Park. Others remain obscure, like Fort Bowie National Historic Site. Sure, I could list tips and tricks for improving NPS-unit experiences, but I'd rather show, rather than tell, using some of my recent wanderings:
Carlsbad Caverns National Park: This one took some planning ahead and, yes, bureaucratic nonsense. I had the privilege of joining a small ranger-led tour to an amazing area of the cave that featured tight passages and long sections of crawling on our bellies, so tight were the passages. Helmets, knee, and elbow pads required. Climb those slippery formations and please, please don't fall! A rescue back here would be nigh-impossible. And at the end, I saw an amazing active dripstone formation called the White Giant. I don't have any photos from that particular tour; my phone would have been destroyed as I wriggled through clausterphobia-inducing passageways. But believe me, it was amazing - and inspired me to do more caving. I'm no spelunker... at least, not yet!
Fort Bowie National Historic Site: Behold, the only NPS site that's accessible only by foot. I did this one on a rainy Wednesday morning in February and saw nobody. I learned about the conflict between the US Army and the Chiricahua Apaches, saw the remains of a couple of different forts, and appreciated the geology of an important mountain pass and historic travel corridor. The lack of accessibility keeps the crowds away and I could explore the area at my own pace.
Valles Caldera National Preserve: It's a completely different park during the winter. Although accessible by paved road, Valles Caldera sits at 8,600 feet and is blanketed in snowpack during the winter. We braved the cold (13F if my car's thermometer is correct) and snowshoed across the bottom of the Caldera, as well as around a resurgent dome.
Salinas Pueblo Mission National Historic Site: This site sees only 35,000 visitors per year (mostly during the summer months). And because of that, the rangers seemed happy to answer the dozens of questions that a friend and I asked. We spent all day exploring 500+ year-old Puebloan ruins, as well as the Spanish missions that Franciscans built to spread Catholicism. We learned about the oft-overlooked history of Spanish colonialism in the American southwest.
The National Park system is more than just the crowds at Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and all the rest. It includes unique and special places, places where silence still dominates. I'm still probably not going to visit Zion again in April. But that's alright. The National Park System is big enough for all of us. I guess you can say I've [hashtag] "found my Park"!