Celebrating the Tiny Moments that Make the National Parks and #NPS100 Special
The celebration of 100 years of moments and memories that, stitched together, make up the reason why we've protected these parks for 100 years and why we should continue protecting them in the future.
Last May, I set out on a 15,000 mile solo journey through almost thirty five national parks sites with nothing more than a backpack full of clothes, a tent, a sleeping bag, and bear mace. I left my apartment in Georgia expecting to explore new places and to return to my second year of grad school feeling refreshed and reenergized. I expected to have stories as big as the views I would try to keep with me through pictures that turned out to barely capture a sliver of what I saw. I expected to hike. A lot. I expected to not shower for nearly a month. And, as clichéd as it looks as I type it out, I expected to stereotypically find myself, even if just a little bit. While so many of these expectations were spot on, I did not expect the small, seemingly unimportant moments in each Park to stick with me as resoundingly and long as they have. It is those moments, however fleeting and odd to remember so vividly, that made up my experience within the Parks that summer. It is those same moments that make #NPS100 so special to me, and it is those moments that I feel most compelled to write about.
My first visit was to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. I took a tour led by a Park Ranger whose ancestors led tours of the caves as slaves in the mid-1800s.
I visited Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, close to my hometown in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, with my best friend from childhood and we giggled about jokes we made while riding the bus together in 4th grade as we watched waves push pancake ice up onto the shores of Lake Superior.
While in Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, I hurt my foot while hiking, but the break I took led me to watch a doe and fawn graze on grass for a half hour.
In Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I was pushed off the trail I was hiking on by two bison, neither of which wanted to move from their comfortable spot in the sun.
As I drove to Mount Rushmore, a blizzard hit Rapid City, SD and closed the Park. Seeing the snow-covered faces from outside the gates was not what I was expecting, but the snow looked a little like powdered wigs from the 1700s.
The same blizzard was still happening as I got to Wind Cave National Park, and I talked with a family from Florida who were collectively learning to drive their RV through the snow.
I arrived at Badlands National Park in the height of the storm, and slept in my car curled around seats that wouldn't fold down and my backpack that didn't quite fit right where I wanted it, but woke up to the sun shining on fresh snow which brought out the formations so vividly that my cold night was totally worth it.
I stopped at Devil's Tower National Monument as it opened for the day, and laughed as a group of elementary schoolers remembered it from the Oregon Trail computer game they played in school. I wasn't planning on stopping, but saw the sign from the road and also remembered it from the Oregon Trail computer game that I played in school almost twenty years ago.
Photo: Rob Witt
I made it to Grand Teton National Park just in time for sunset over the mountains, and talked with a father and his son who had just graduated from college and was deploying with the Navy the following week. As the son stepped away to get a better picture, the father talked about how he was both so afraid for and so incredibly proud of his son for what he was doing with his life.
At Yellowstone National Park, the people in the tent next to mine debated for hours about who the best Canadian musical artist was. Celine Dion won, rightfully so.
While hiking to Anderson Lake in Glacier National Park, the toddler hiking the trail with his parents in front of me kept thinking he saw bears, and would scream about them. I believed him every time. Every time, it was a stump.
It was foggy at Crater Lake National Park during my visit, and I couldn't see the lake at all. Something told me to try again as I was leaving at sunrise, and that morning, the fog cleared to show off just how stunning the lake actually is, and a team of Clark's Nutcrackers heckled me, thinking I was going to share my granola bar with them.
Lassen Volcanic National Park felt like winter at the higher parts of the park, and the image of the snowshoes I left at my parents' house in Michigan was with me the entire time I was there. My boots didn't quite keep me on top of the snow like I wished they would have, but the views were worth some wet socks and pants.
The Tall Trees Trail in Redwood National and State Parks was a whole other world, and sleeping on the beach as waves crashed in from the Pacific at Gold Bluffs Beach is how I'd like to spend every night for the rest of my life.
I met a couple from Portugal on the steps to the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore who laughed at how slowly I climbed and how winded I was walking back up the steps. They were on a tour of California's national parks that they had seen pictures of in an Ansel Adams book.
In Pinnacles National Park, I slipped and fell while hiking and now have a really cool scar to remind me that a hike, no matter how many band-aids it leads to, is almost always worth the view.
Photo: Michael Fernandes
At Yosemite National Park, I didn't know that the road to Glacier Point was open yet, so I hiked to it from the Valley and planned to hike in the dark back down after sunset. A nice man named Mike gave me a ride back to the Valley after sunset that night, and I haven't forgotten that I owe him a beer whenever we meet again.
At Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, I hiked up Moro Rock in the fog and tried my hardest to see something out in front of me other than fog. I couldn't, but I saw a mama bear and her three cubs on the hike back to my car.
I got lost exploring the dunes in Death Valley National Park, and for a few minutes thought about how I'd make some kind of shelter out of sand. Then I realized I could actually see the road and didn't have to think that creatively anymore.
I accidentally woke up two hours earlier than I planned in Great Basin National Park, but stumbled upon one of the most beautiful sunrises I've ever seen as a result.
While hiking to Observation Point in Zion National Park, I met a man who had graduated from my undergrad 30 years before me. We ended up hiking together and talked for hours about how things had changed and still stayed the same in the time between each of us being there.
In Bryce Canyon National Park, it started raining while I was down in the canyon. Even without a rain jacket, the ways that the rocks changed colors in the rain made wet clothes and a camera that needed to take a break in a bag of rice totally worth it.
Photo: Nick Oman
I drove the Cathedral Valley Loop in Capitol Reef National Park in my Subaru, and a man in a lifted pickup told me that it was no place for "mom cars." My mom car and I made it through the whole loop just fine.
I (ironically) re-injured the arch of my foot in Arches National Park, but still managed to hobble up to Delicate Arch. I rewarded myself by drinking more than normal at my campsite that night.
As a result of aforementioned campsite drinking, I missed sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, but the sunset later that night was still pretty great.
A young girl asked her mom if the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park had TVs. Conclusively, they did not.
A couple walking through the petrified trees at Petrified Forest National Park made a lot of bad puns about the trees not even looking that scared. I, without shame, stole that for a caption on Instagram.
At 3:30 am while trying to go watch the sunrise, I set my car alarm off in Grand Canyon National Park trying to sneakily unlock it to load up my campsite without using the remote which made a quick beeping noise. My continued apologies to everybody who I woke up, but you probably wanted to be up for sunrise anyway.
I heeded the warning of the park rangers in Saguaro National Park who told me that the heat was too intense during my visit to explore very far on foot, but still managed to prick myself on a few cacti during my fifteen minute hike.
At Guadalupe Mountains National Park, I managed to camp next to people who knew, but did not like, some of my friends from college. I like to think I convincingly pretended to agree with them because they didn't ask me to leave, but I still haven't told those friends about this.
I tried to take in Carlsbad Caverns National Park on an unguided tour, which was beautiful, but ended up re-walking through on a guided tour and felt much smarter for doing that.
Hot Springs National Park was (pleasantly) much less naked than I imagined it would be, and I appreciated the gentle reminders to wear a bathing suit in most of the soaking pools.
Despite almost a full day of rain in Shenandoah National Park while I was there, the views out into the Shenandoah Valley were incredible.
While at Acadia National Park, I walked along the shore and bumped into two women sitting in beach chairs that reminded me of a painting of my grandma and her best friend sitting in their beach chairs. These two women had been friends as long as my grandma and her best friend, and were excited to let me take their picture while they lounged to send to my grandma.
As strange and insignificant as these memories may seem, each of them brings back the larger experience I had in each park, the things that I saw, the people that I met, and the way that I felt being wrapped up in all of it. That, to me, seems to be what #NPS100 is all about: the celebration of 100 years of moments and memories that, stitched together, make up the reason why we've protected these parks for 100 years and why we should continue protecting them in the future. 60 years from now, I want to be the older people that I met in the parks, whether the ladies sitting at Acadia or the men who were a little too eager to ditch their towels at Hot Springs, enjoying these incredible examples of the beauty of the United States. I want to know that future generations, whether in 100 years or in 1000 years, can and do still enjoy these beautiful places. #NPS100 is certainly a celebration of the richness present across the United States, but is also a reminder that we must continue to protect, to preserve, to honor, and to cherish these lands. While we celebrate #NPS100, may we look forward to #NPS1000, too.
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.