In all of my 56 years, I’ve only been in a handful of national parks. But, this year, millions of people will flock to America’s 58 designated national parks and 73 national monuments to celebrate the park service’s 100th anniversary.
I’ll never forget my first experience visiting a national park. It was Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. I was in the neighborhood with my fiance who was participating in a friend’s wedding. The Sunday after the ceremony, we drove from Estes Park to the Alpine Visitor’s Center before heading back.
We encountered a flock of bighorn sheep strolling down the side of the mountain and crossing the highway right in front of us. I was able to capture some spectacular pictures of the mountains, lakes and rivers, especially in the mist that was descending upon the park.
The mist should have been a warning. We were visiting the park in June, mind you, when the temperature dropped 30 degrees in 30 minutes. Part way down the mountain, we were caught in a wicked snow storm. Lesson learned — mountain travel can be unpredictable.
The next park I visited was Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. I was 33 years old living in Wisconsin when I traveled to Las Vegas with a friend when we decided on a whim to make the four-hour one-way trip. It was mesmerizing to see the canyon walls change color as the sun shifted to cast shadows.
Pictures certainly don’t do the Grand Canyon justice. It is a place that must be experienced. I have since been at that park four or five times. Living in Arizona for six years, it was a frequently-requested destination when friends and family came to visit. Each time, I found something different to admire.
I once encountered a juvenile elk in the parking lot of the visitor’s center, and wondered where mama might be. I also discovered there is a campground steps away from one of the most beautiful canyon views I have ever seen. An overnight stay there has been added to my bucket list.
An acquaintance of mine once participated in a race that required him to run about 6.5 miles from the north rim down to the canyon floor, which was 4,400 feet below. Then he raced across the floor and ran up to the south rim. THAT is not on my bucket list.
The next park I visited was Everglade’s National Park in Florida. I was on assignment to write a feature story for the now defunct Scenic Route magazine. I innocently told my publisher I hoped I would encounter an alligator on the trip, and he just rolled his eyes.
When I got there, I learned there are alligators galore in the swamps and along the trails of the park. I’m not a really big risk taker in the first place. Knowing that alligators can run about 12 miles per hour on their stubby little legs did make me wonder if my life insurance policy was paid up as I gingerly walked past several gators without even garnering a flinch.
It was on that trip that I saw my first bald eagle in the wild, sitting on a tree, which was another majestic site. But, the coolest part of that trip was listening to the bullfrogs croaking and the alligators barking at dusk. I was tagging along with a ranger who shined his flashlight across a swamp as hundreds of weird looking eyes stared back — close by and from a distance.
A few years later, I was on an another assignment, this time to Alaska to interview ABC Motorhome Rentals. After my work was done, the owner graciously allowed me to borrow a Class C motorhome for a few days to explore the state.
The last day of my trip took me to Denali National Park. It was a Kodak moment around every corner. I captured some breathtaking images of the mountains, valleys and wildlife that encompass the park. The largest mountain in the United States, Denali creates its own weather system, which can lead to spectacular images of the clouds hovering just beneath its peak.
It was there that I saw my first elk in the wild, but I really had my heart set on seeing a moose. As I left the park to head back to Anchorage, about a quarter mile from the entrance, I encountered a female moose. It lacked the impressive rack found on males, but she was mighty large herself.
Yesterday, I visited Grand Teton National Park. It was just opening for the year and some of the roads were still closed to vehicular traffic.
But, that made it an ideal way to tour the area by bicycle. The temperature was brisk, about 48 degrees, but the scenery was incredible. It was the first real chance I had to put my new cell phone camera to the test, and I was impressed with the results.
The most incredible part of that trip was the absolute silence staring at the mountain and watching the last remaining pieces of ice float by on the lake. The word awesome, which means “awe inspiring” would be an appropriate description.
Today, I arrived in Yellowstone, the nation’s very first national park. I’m here to interview the superintendent for a podcast, and had to race up to Mammoth Campground, one of two open at the park, to grab one of the 85 sites.
On my way into the park, there were several traffic delays as herds of bison, deer and elk meandered their way down the middle of the highway, oblivious to the onlookers snapping pictures and following behind at a snail’s pace.
These are just a few of the parks I have visited, and I haven’t even mentioned America’s national monuments. Every trip has been a memorable adventure for me.
This year, as our country celebrates the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service, it’s a wonderful opportunity for people of all ages to explore these incredible lands.
As you plan your summer travels, I encourage you to join in the centennial celebration. There are special activities planned at every park. For more information, click here.