For connecting with nature, few places offer the eclectic rewards of our U.S. national parks. From cathedralesque groves of redwoods to dizzying mountain peaks to thunderous shorelines, national parks are the best of America, and in a way, the best of ourselves as Americans. Over the decades we've had the wherewithal to set these fantastic landscapes and ecosystems aside for future generations. Visiting a national park should be a reminder of what conservation really means - that we need nature and nature needs us. NWF's Expeditions Travel Program (www.nwf.org/expeditions) reads like a Who's Who of national parks - Yellowstone, Yosemite, Acadia, Olympic, Grand Canyon, Glacier Bay. Close, convenient, and incredible, national parks are a great way to develop an appreciation of America's wildlife and wild places.
Of course, we've all seen the news stories about park overcrowding, complete with those heinous images of cars lined up as far as the eye can see outside a park entrance. Perhaps you've even had a park trip where you spent more time circling a parking lot like a hungry hammerhead than you did appreciating nature. I feel your pain. Having spent more than a decade planning tours to national parks and other bastions of wildlife, I've learned a thing or two about how to avoid such nonsense. If you can, just flat out skip July and August when visiting most of our national parks. Harsh advice, I know, and maybe not practical for some, but visitation soars in these months, and headaches abound. Spring and fall, on the other hand, are magical times in most scenic areas, and national parks are no exception. Wildlife is plentiful in both periods, crowds are sparser, and the opportunity to reconnect with the natural world becomes an exercise in pleasure, not frustration.
Once you are there, let me make another suggestion - Slow Down! I've seen people on trails who are so intent on completing the exact 3.65 miles shown on their map that they fail to actually see anything along the way. Others get wrapped up in seeing the big blockbusters in our national parks (think Old Faithful or Half Dome), that they zip right past those unscripted, rare, and serendipitous moments like seeing a bear foraging for berries or spotting a rainbow over their shoulder. Speaking of speed, I also don't think the proper way to experience a national park is to zoom through it, cocooned in the mechanized roar of a jet ski or snowmobile or an ATV. That's no way to appreciate a place. Instead, you can savor a national park by taking the opposite approach. A few years ago I did some volunteer work in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I was there to count a particular species of wildflower along some of the trails. Every 100 meters, I had to stop and count. The experience was a revelation! Stopping so often forced me to actually interact with the park, not just walk through it. I saw details and delights I would have totally missed otherwise. So don't forget to just stop - stop in your tracks and look around you - even if you pick your moments completely at random.
While I'd love to see many of the adrenaline junkies and speed demons leave their toys at home when they visit our national parks, there are plenty of recreations that are perfectly appropriate - they don't pollute or raise a ruckus or affect the wildlife. Cross-country skiing, canoeing, and kayaking all come to mind. However, I've noticed something else about even these benign forms of outdoor entertainment. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in outfitting ourselves for pleasure, we forget to enjoy where we are going. I'm guilty of this too. Speaking to my fellow shutterbugs out there: how many times have you spent so much energy trying to get the perfect picture, you forgot to actually take any joy in what you were seeing? I'm not saying give up your hobbies, but every once in awhile try visiting a park without the accoutrement of your favorite sport or activity. Arrive with only your five senses, and absolutely no worries about gear and gadgets. Once you get past that instinct that you've forgotten something, you will notice a wave of relief and liberation. I think you'll be impressed with the results of your visit.
As you journey through our national parks, be sure to absorb all the educational opportunities that are put in your path. The National Park Service is renowned for their interpretation in our parks. The problem is we don't always listen. Or to use the old cliché, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." DRINK! Those signs and visitor centers and ranger talks can help you understand and appreciate your parks all the more. Nearly every park of the National Park System has brochures you can receive upon entering. Read them. Pull off the road and read the signs at overlooks. Pick up pamphlets at trailheads and read those too. Don't let all that good interpretative work go to waste. And at the same time you are connecting with nature, you can enjoy connecting with a little history too. Parks often have fascinating human stories to tell along with all the great biology, geology and zoology. Places like the Old Faithful Inn, the Grand Canyon Lodge, and the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite are beautiful examples of historic "parkitecture," a conscious attempt to meld the natural world with the universe of the traveler. Drop in on these remarkable structures...maybe even spend a night or two. They can add immeasurably to your visit.
Finally, (and apologies up-front if I sound preachy) have fun in our national parks, but please be respectful. Ultimately, the problem with viewing parks strictly as a playground is that we strip them of all their dignity. Many writers have compared our parks to churches or temples, a metaphor I believe is accurate and necessary. Once we start thinking of these precious places (and the amazing wildlife and natural wonders they contain) as sacrosanct, we create a new relationship with nature that benefits us all - one of reverence and awe. It seems only fitting for the places Wallace Stegner called "the best idea America ever had."