Imagine for a moment that you are an explorer. It’s 1805 and you’re heading out into the unknown territories west of the Mississippi River. Already, you are aware of the changing landscapes of the country—the sand dunes of Massachusetts’ coastline quickly transition to rolling green hills, to flattened farm lands. You’re not exactly sure what the west will offer, but it’s doubtful that you’d expect to stumble upon the snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains rising high above the plains, or the red-yellow sands of the southwest. I think about this every time I travel to one of the 60 National Parks across the United States. It’s hard to not be amazed by these parks, and how they have remained *mostly* untouched since the days of our explorers, and how the National Parks Service has preserved these places for generations to come.
It wasn’t until August 25, 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson established the United States National Parks Service, but these parks have existed far before. This week, the National Parks Service is celebrating National Parks Week, with free admission on Saturday, April 21, and special events across the country.
For me, this week is a great moment to reflect—as a hiker and traveler, I’ve always felt a natural pull to visit these 60 parks. In my travels, I’ve realized that the role of the National Parks Service doesn’t stop at these parks though, with National Monuments, historic sites, cemeteries, memorials, and more, you see their distinct logo everywhere you go, preserving the history and culture of this country.
To celebrate the week, I’ve highlighted stories from parks that have made a mark on my own life. It’s a little different from my usual urban hiking guides, but I hope it inspires your travels just as much. Each day, I will add a section—feel free to comment, share your own story, and ask questions. Enjoy!
April 28: Looking to the Future
For over 100 years, the National Parks Service has protected our countries wilderness, and provided fun and safe opportunities for families and adventurers alike. But while we continue to celebrate all the good that these parks offer, we also must be aware of the threats that our National Parks face today.
Climate Change: This is a very real, growing concern across the world. Researchers in our National Parks are seeing rapid melting of glaciers high in the mountains, while worsening storms are threatening the historic and natural coastlines across the country. Photos of our parks at their establishment look very different compared to now, and it is up to us to help slow this process. While there are ways to help out on your visits, the best way to slow climate change starts at home—use renewable energy, recycle, shop local—all these methods and more help lower your carbon footprint.
Administration Changes: Since Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration has rapidly fought to lower sanctions to preserving National Monuments across the country. As more proposals surface that threaten the future of these monuments, it is up to us as advocates to pressure the government to reconsider. Do your research, sign petitions, talk to your local and state officials about your concerns. Together we can help save these important landmarks for our future!
Want to support the U.S. National Parks Service? We suggest starting here.
April 27: North Cascades National Park
Today we’re heading back to Washington State, this time to explore the mainland. With hiking, camping, backpacking, and plenty of educational programs, this is a great option for visitors traveling to Seattle and looking for an alternative to the city for a few days. When passing through, a must-see spot is Diablo Lake, with its greenish-blue glacial water. Here, you can book a campsite and stay overnight, or make a pit stop and hike up to one of many look out points. Just passing by? The overlook point off the main road is perfect for a bathroom break and some selfies!
April 26: Historical Sites
The National Parks Service is all about history, and where better to look than in your own hometown! The thought struck me a few years ago when I moved back to Boston and met an employee of the National Park Service—at first I was confused, I thought the closest National Park was in Maine. With a little explanation to my naive assumptions, I learned that the National Parks Service actually protects historical sites all over the country.
Here in Boston, the entire city is considered a historic thanks to its Freedom Trail. Spend the day learning about how Boston played a role in the American Revolution, and stop by the Boston Tea Party Museum to toss tea in harbor. An hour south of Boston is New Bedford, famous for its whaling community. Today, you can visit the National Historic Site, which includes the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Want to find a National Historic Park in your state? The National Parks Service has a nifty Find a Park feature where you can search by state—it couldn’t be easier!
April 25: Joshua Tree National Park
We’ve written a lot about this park in the past—it’s one of our favorites! Unlike the towering mountains of the northwest, Joshua Tree provides a perfect setting for climbers. Located just a few hours east of LA and San Diego, you can explore Joshua Tree’s desert landscape in a day, or opt to camp overnight and experience the night sky (a popular activity is night photography, you can try it out yourself or sign up for a workshop).
The park offers hiking trails, horseback riding, and rock climbing, depending on your preference, so be sure to plan ahead. And don’t forget to pack plenty of water!
April 24: National Memorials
The National Parks Service doesn’t just cover the preservation of nature. In fact, the role of the organization goes far beyond that, preserving the history and culture of our country as well. Such is the case with the 29 National Memorials around the country, each dedicated to honor a historic person or event in the United States’ history.
Probably the most well-known (and most visited) circuit of National Memorials reside in the nation’s capital of Washington D.C. In just one afternoon, you can hit all of the significant memorials along the National Mall (we wrote a full urban hiking guide about this, with details on what not to miss).
Fortunately, there are other memorials scattered across the country, so if you are planning a visit somewhere be sure to do your research and see what you might find. A few of our favorites:
- Hamilton Grange: For those still obsessing over the Broadway musical ‘Hamilton,’ you can visit the Founding Father’s home in New York City. It’s a perfect pairing if you manage to score tickets to the show!
- Mount Rushmore: South Dakota’s claim to fame, this memorial honors four former U.S. Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. It’ a perfect stop on a road trip across the country.
- Flight 93 Memorial: A more somber spot, this memorial honors the lives and bravery of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, who on September 11, 2001, stopped their hijackers from reaching the intended target, and crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania.
April 23: Acadia National Park
Another New England vacation staple, Acadia National Park is located in Maine and is perfect for a long weekend or a full week, providing families with ample options for all outdoorsy types. And, the adjacent town of Bar Harbor provides visitors with a change of pace, with shopping, restaurants, and excursions for those who prefer a more leisurely visit.
Like Olympic National Park, Acadia offers travelers both ocean and mountain views. Hiking trails are available for all levels—the Jordan Pond loop is an easy hike (and includes a stop at the Jordan Pond House for lunch!), or if you are looking for more of a challenge, we recommend climbing up the North and South Bubbles, or braving the rocky Beehive. In the warmest of months, the ocean is still cold, but you will see a few brave souls swimming at Echo Lake Beach or Sand Beach. Or, if you love biking, the Carriage Road trails are a fun way to experience the park, with plenty of covered bridges and archways to pass through (bring your camera!). There’s also scenic roads around the park, so take a drive and explore with the whole family!
April 22: Olympic National Park
My first visit to this park happened by accident. The short version of the story is that while our original plan was to backpack in the North Cascades, the horrible string of wildfires that summer caused us to make last minute changes. In the end, I’m glad that was the case because this National Park quickly climbed up on my list of all-time favorites.
Being from the east coast, you don’t really get to see mountains like the ones out west. I think at every twist and turn of driving and hiking through this park, I was amazed by the landscape around me, to the point that ‘Wow’ became my most-used phrase of 2017. We were able to secure backpacking permits to spend some time hiking and camping deep in the park, and encountered a few pairs of mom and cub black bears (aww) and had a family of deer decide it would be fun to hang out with us while we cooked dinner each night. A good tip for backpackers—our trip was in early September, a perfect time to camp (it’s warm during the days, and manageable at night, as long as you bring layers), and with less crowds we were able to get last-minute passes to some of the better camping spots. Don’t bank on that tough, try to secure your permits early so you have a guaranteed spot to stay while you visit.
Olympic National Park isn’t just for die-hard hikers though, with beaches, mountains, and rain forests all within a few hours of each other, it’s a park perfect for all ages. Be sure to take the road up to Hurricane Ridge and stop by the visitor’s center, or spend some time looking at the Pacific tide pools.
April 21: Cape Cod National Seashore
I grew up in Massachusetts. For me, a beach vacation out to Cape Cod was just something everyone did—it was within driving distance and fairly affordable, and a great way to cool off on those hot summer days. What I didn’t realize though was that the Cape Cod National Seashore, which extends along the eastern coast of Cape Cod’s ‘arm,’ is one of the best-preserved coastlines this country has.
We can thank President John F. Kennedy for that. Free of development (including a lack of snack shacks, so be sure to pack in and out all of your food), Cape Cod’s National Seashore is perfect for beachgoers who prefer the quiet. Sand dunes tower over you as you walk along the beaches and if you are lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of a whale out on the horizon! It’s a bit of a hike from the parking lots, but always worth the trek.
Unfortunately, due to the dreadful winter we had this year, the National Seashore has taken a beating from high winds and waves. That doesn’t mean that the Parks Service isn’t working to restore the beaches, but for the regular visitors you may notice some significant changes in the coastline this year, and in years to come—erosion like this has become more and more common each year thanks to the effects of climate change around the world.