I was 12 when the family cross-country road trip took us to the Grand Canyon. I remember lunching at El Tovar, one of the historic lodges in the National Park system, and peering over the russet-red expanse of the canyon, those endless craters and ridges, heat shimmering in waves.
I had never seen anything like it — or like the strange, figural shapes of the cacti in Saguaro National Park. Or the towering Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Or the hazy, undulating green ridges of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, all that majesty belonged to me — and to all of us. We the people of America are all joint owners of the 59 properties administered by the National Park Service, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year with myriad events encouraging us to explore our geographic patrimony.
In a summer that can feel unnervingly divisive, a focus on what unites us is greatly welcome. In my next column, I’ll talk specifically about the Jewish heritage sites that are part of the NPS network — but this week is about the landscapes that remain neutral territory for all Americans, inspiring us with beauty and awe, the opportunity for escape from the quotidian, and the enduring laws of nature.
As befits our diverse nation, these national parks offer staggering variety. While the dramatic, expansive landscapes of the American West come immediately to mind — Yellowstone was the first park, established 44 years before the NPS — the system includes everything from the tropical Virgin Island beaches to the Hawaiian volcanoes, the rocky Channel Islands off California to the swampy Everglades in Florida. Deserts, canyons, glaciers, forests, valleys, caves and waterfalls are all preserved for our appreciation by that 100-year-old act of Congress.
There are a lot of ways to celebrate this anniversary — and a lot of revelers: After record-breaking crowds at National Parks last year, this year’s numbers are expected to be even higher, with well over 300 million visitors projected. Attendance is likely to be greatest during the free-entry summer days that celebrate the centennial (most parks charge a low-two-figure entrance fee per car).
Crowds aside, a plethora of anniversary events — from organized hikes to concert series — make 2016 a terrific year to visit the parks. The NPS website has a full listing, including service activity days, when visitors can sign up to work together on maintenance of trails such as those on Washington’s Mount Rainier, as well as organized centennial hikes and excursions around iconic landscapes and guided tours, talks, concerts, and family-oriented festivals.
A small sample: You can take an all-day boat tour through Alaska’s Glacier Bay, listen to jazz by the New Orleans-based NPS Centennial Band at parks around the South, jump on evening hayrides through the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, hike through Hawaii’s volcanoes, or ride a canoe through the swamps of South Carolina’s Congaree National Park. Closer to home, ambitious boaters can join a leg of the summer-long 100 Mile Paddle, joining the Park’s Centennial River Ambassador to paddle the Upper Delaware River and the Delaware Water Gap.
If you do head outdoors this summer, here are some guidelines for staying safe — and making the most of our American heritage:
1. Be proactive about the two biggest summer health hazards: dehydration and heatstroke. Body temperature can rise dangerously quickly, so keep the cold drinks flowing, dunk in water where possible, and seek out shade. Good sunscreen is a must — I swear by baby sunblock, which is highly protective and gentle — but don’t rely exclusively on it.
2. Don’t rely on cell phones, either. Wireless access is spotty in rural areas, so always carry paper maps and write down other important information, such as the names and phone numbers of lodgings.
3. Road safety 101: When driving in rural areas, start with a tuned-up car, keep an eye on the gas tank and fill up at every opportunity. Stock your vehicle with safety essentials — flashlight, bottled water, backup chargers, first-aid kit. And make sure you have an up-to-date membership with a road assistance program like AAA.
Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Park in Utah. LAKE POWELL CREDIT: NPS Photo/Gary Ladd
4. Pack for every climate, even if you’re not camping. Many parks are in mountain and desert climates where evenings, even in midsummer, can be surprisingly cold. Park retailers sell a lot of sweatshirts for this reason.
5. Be prepared for ticks and other nuisances. While bears make the headlines, your biggest animal threats in the wild are actually very tiny—ticks and mosquitoes. Diseases associated with both pests are dramatically on the rise throughout much of the U.S.; anyone planning to spend time in wooded, shady areas should cover up and use a repellent containing DEET.
Your risk for encountering all kinds of pests — including bears and sharks as well as mosquitoes — rises in the cool dawn and dusk hours. Park rangers advise hiking in midday, preferably in groups of at least three for safety. And wherever you see rocks, consider the possibly that a snake may be near.