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National parks leave us breathless with their beauty

A view of Cathedral Rocks in Yosemite, Calif. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

By JILL SCHENSUL | The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) | Published: July 7, 2016

You can't go wrong in a national park.

I mean, yeah, you can take a wrong turn. Well, I can, for sure. (If not for my husband's input, the rangers might still be looking for me somewhere in the national park wilderness.)

I've also forgotten to bring water on a hike alone in Big Bend in, what was it, July? I walked too far out, and by the time I emerged from the trail, I was pretty much crawling. The hiking gods were kind, though, because a convenience store was within shouting — croaking — distance of the trailhead; I chugged down a shelf-full of Gatorade.

Yes, there are maybe some ... challenges. But if you want a destination that will rock your world, a national park will never disappoint. Since this year marks the centennial of the National Park Service, the agency that oversees our park system, the parks are ramping up their programs and facilities. Pick a park that strikes a chord with your particular interests. Or one that sounds too good to actually be real. Then go. You'll see.

Look, I am from Brooklyn. I am paralyzed by the sight of a spider or snake, and I am not a fan of scorpions, either. I can barely start a fire with a book of matches, and I don't like wearing hiking boots. A trail with even a slight uphill grade eventually ends in an asthma attack.

But just mention the words "wanna go" and "national park" in the same sentence, I'll pack whatever gear I need. Yeah, gear. I bought hundreds of dollars of scientifically created clothing to go wolf-watching in Yellowstone in winter. A good investment considering the consistent 30-below temperatures. Then again, freezing cold is easily trumped by gorgeous.

Which reminds me. That word: gorgeous. It's one of the problems with national parks. A word, even gorgeous, doesn't really convey what you'd like to describe. You kind of have to be there. Once you're rendered speechless by some view around a bend, you'll see the limitations of spoken language. My husband and I just call these jaw-dropping times "holy (well ... something)" experiences.

It's all about experience. Your experience. Every visitor has a story. Just as every one of the 411 sites in the park system has a story — a uniquely American story.

They're not all about beautiful landscapes, though. When you hear national park, you think of the rock stars first. The Yosemites and Grand Canyons — the vast ones with the buffalo and the forever rolling vistas. There are 59 official National Parks — each must be passed and designated by a congressional vote.

The rest of the 411? Well, there are National Battlefield Parks, National Historic Parks, National Lakeshores, National Recreation Areas, National Scenic Rivers, National Historic Landmarks, etc. They are classified according to why they are significant — history, archaeology, cultural preservation, natural beauty and rarity, significant events. Their common thread is that they are quintessentially America.

The park system has grown, stretching its definition of significant as awareness has grown, new discoveries were made, and history was revisited. The national park system now includes places that commemorate more recent, and sometimes more sobering, history. The stories of the fight for civil rights, the World War II Japanese-American internment camps, and Sand Creek, the site of a tragic Indian massacre in 1864, are all told in national parks. One of the most recent additions, last November to the roster is the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, comprising three sites in Tennessee, New Mexico and Washington State that were significant in the creation of the first atomic bombs.

"Andersonville is one of those sites that is breathtakingly dramatic," said Elizabeth Paradis Stern, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, referring to the Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia, once a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp. It tells the story of the horrors of Civil War prisons.

"That's a really important part of our history and our experience," Stern said. "We can learn from it going forward."

Find Your Park (www.FindYourPark.com) is helping spread the wealth of park visitation to lesser-known sites. You can find all the parks, big and small, near and far. It's also been a way to promote the variety and diversity of sites in the park system, making it more relevant and appealing to the next generation of park visitors.

The park service, part of the Department of the Interior, has been fretting over that next generation for several years, as boomers like me, are getting older, creakier maybe, and are dwindling. Young visitors have been noticeably absent; a report last year found that the number of visitors under age 15 had fallen by half in the last decade; the average age of visitors to Denali was 57; to Yellowstone, 54.

So the centennial was a good time for a good push to reach out and grab the next generation. FindYourPark seems to be doing its job — along with all the publicity about the centennial. Overall, park attendance was up about 2 percent before the summer started.

During National Park Week, so many people tweeted the #findyourpark that it was a top 10 trending story, and Twitter gave it its own emoji: a ranger with a flatbrimmed hat.

"So we know that we are reaching that audience, that target audience," Stern said. "We've captured interest from the White House to Sheryl Crow. I think that the fact that this is resonating with so many people speaks a lot to the power of these places."

The next generation may connect with a different aspect of the parks than we older fans do but will find those amazing, speech-fails-you moments. When even OMG won't really do it justice.

 

UNDER-APPRECIATED NATIONAL PARKS

 

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Kelso, Calif. (www.nps.gov/moja): Solitude is among its best features. Explore tall sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, the world's largest forest of Joshua trees, and the remnants of a history of mining, ranching and military activity. The preserve encompasses three of the four major North American deserts—Mojave, Great Basin and Sonoran.

SUNSET CRATER VOLCANO NATIONAL MONUMENT, near Flagstaff, Ariz. (www.nps.gov/sucr): If you're going to the Grand Canyon, you can easily visit Sunset Crater, but most don't make the detour to this fascinating park northeast of Flagstaff. Set in a landscape full of dozens of symmetrical cones and other evidence of six million years of volcanic activity, Sunset Crater is a classic example of a cinder cone, named for the reddish oxidized material at its top. Many volcanic features can be seen along trails, including lava squeeze-ups, spatter cones and lava bubbles.

WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK, South Dakota. (www.nps.gov/wica): Not only does the park feature Wind Cave, the fourth-largest cave in the world with passages full of unusual and beautiful formations, but the 44-square-mile landscape above ground is home to a diverse array of wildlife, including bison, elk, pronghorns, mule deer, coyotes and prairie dogs, whose colonies are easily visible near roads. Ranger-guided tours include one suitable for people with physical limitations.

JEAN LAFITTE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK AND PRESERVE, various sites, Louisiana. (www.nps.gov/jela): Made up of six sites across southern Louisiana from the swamps of the Mississippi River Delta to the prairies farther west. One can take a history walk in the French Quarter of New Orleans, see abundant wildlife in a nature preserve, attend a live radio broadcast of Cajun music in an old-time theater, visit the site of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, watch a Cajun-cooking demonstration and enjoy many other activities.

CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK, Nageezi, N.M. (www.nps.gov/chcu): From around 850 to 1250, Chaco Canyon was a major ceremonial, trade and administrative center for the culture called the ancient Pueblo, with elaborate and spectacular architecture. In recognition of its importance, Chaco Culture National Historical Park and associated locations (including Aztec Ruins National Monument, 60 miles north) have been designated a World Heritage Site. The park's nine-mile Canyon Loop Drive accesses six major archaeological sites.

 

LEAST-VISITED NATIONAL PARKS

 

(Note that in some cases, the town listed for the national park is only for its mailing address.)

ANIAKCHAK NATIONAL MONUMENT AND PRESERVE, King Salmon, Alaska (www.nps.gov/ania) Number of visitors in 2014: 134. Aniakchak is not only remote — accessible by a long journey of flying, boating and/or backpacking — it's also rugged and rainy. It also boasts a lot of bears and wolves and also rewards those who visit with a stunning 6-milewide, 2,000-foot-deep volcanic caldera. Within this deep, ashy crater is Surprise Lake, source of the Aniakchak River, as well as Vent Mountain, a 2,200-foot-tall cone formed by a volcanic eruption in 1931.

RIO GRANDE WILD AND SCENIC RIVER, near Big Bend National Park, Texas (www.nps.gov/rigr/index.htm) Number of visitors in 2014: 321 (not including visitors to Big Bend) Most of the river is popular and well-visited. The part that isn't is the section designated "wild and scenic," a 196-mile stretch that travels east from the Mexican border into Texas and winds through some of the more remote vistas in the Chihuahuan Desert. Traveling in the lower canyons requires that you register, pay a fee and sign a release form. And part of the river is pretty difficult. The park service suggests speaking with a ranger before attempting a trip.

PORT CHICAGO NAVAL MAGAZINE NATIONAL MONUMENT, Martinez, Calif. (www.nps.gov/poch/) Number of visitors in 2014: 786 The worst homeland disaster of World War II happened on a dock not far from San Francisco. Thousands of black sailors served at Port Chicago in segregated units during the war in limited roles; one of these jobs was loading weapons and ammunition into ships. One evening in July 1944, more than 5,000 tons of munitions exploded, killing 320 men and injuring hundreds of others. Two weeks later, when sailors were ordered to return to the same dangerous conditions, 258 men refused and 50 were court-martialed and found guilty of mutiny. This was one of the events that led to desegregation of the Navy and, subsequently, all U.S. armed forces. The memorial is on an active military base, so you need to make reservations at least two weeks in advance of your visit.

THADDEUS KOSCIUSZKO NATIONAL MEMORIAL, Philadelphia (www.nps.gov/thko) Number of visitors in 2014: 1,475 Polish-born Kosciuszko helped American colonists win their independence from the British in the Revolutionary War by meticulously designing and fortifying military defenses. After the war, Kosciuszko returned to Poland and led an uprising in 1794 in a failed attempt to liberate Poland and Lithuania from Russian occupation. After suffering serious injury and imprisonment, he lived the rest of his life in exile, returning briefly to America in 1797. The memorial in Philadelphia is where he stayed on this second visit.

YUKON-CHARLEY RIVERS NATIONAL PRESERVE, Eagle, Alaska (www.nps.gov/yuch) Number of visitors in 2014: 2,329 This wilderness preserve near the Arctic Circle protects the site where two pristine rivers meet in the state's interior. The entire Charley River basin is contained within the park, as well as about 130 miles of the Yukon, one of the longest and wildest rivers in North America. The geology exposed by these rivers is some of the oldest in the world, dating back 600 million years to the Precambrian Era. Visitors can paddle through the vast mountains and bluffs and see caribou, peregrine falcons and other wild creatures. The preserve sits between two former gold-rush towns dating from the late 1800s to early 1900s; the ruins of prospectors' cabins and other historic buildings are part of the park's landscape.

BERING LAND BRIDGE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Nome, Alaska (www.nps.gov/bela) Number of visitors in 2014: 2,636 This roadless wilderness sits on the western edge of Alaska on the Seward Peninsula. Although few people travel here today, archaeologists believe that ancient populations migrated from Russia into the Americas across this stretch of land during the Ice Age 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, when ocean levels dropped and exposed a 1,000-mile path between the continents. Once the stomping grounds of mastodons and mammoths, the preserve is now home to reindeer, muskox, wolverines, and other hardy animals, and is also a nesting site for birds traveling the Asiatic-North American Flyway. Unusual geological features include tors, hot springs with year-round geothermic activity, and the four-largest maar lakes in the world, created when magma contacts groundwater; the largest maar at Bering Land Bridge is more than 5 miles wide.

EUGENE O'NEILL NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE, Danville, Calif. (www.nps.gov/euon) Number of visitors in 2014: 3,202 O'Neill, America's only Nobel Prize-winning playwright, wrote many of his best-known works here, including "A Long Day's Journey into Night," "The Iceman Cometh" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten." O'Neill and his wife, Carlotta, designed the home, known as the Tao House, which sits on 13 acres. Reservations are required; call a week or two in advance for a tour.

ALIBATES FLINT QUARRIES NATIONAL MONUMENT, Fritch, Texas (www.nps.gov/alfl) Number of visitors in 2014: 4,513 This park in the Texas Panhandle encompasses geology and history. Its remote flint mineral deposits are unlike any type of flint found elsewhere. Native Americans have quarried it since the Ice Age for its superior durability. Walk through grassy mesas sprinkled with manmade mineral shavings and learn about the history of the quarries, which include more than 700 excavation sites. Rangers offer "flintknapping" demonstrations, showing how native craftsmen once made tools. Reservations required.

NICODEMUS NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE, Nicodemus, Kan. (www.nps.gov/nico) Number of visitors in 2014: 3,374 In 1877, seven men from Kentucky— most of them formerly enslaved — set out to create the first all-black settlement on the Great Plains, inspiring many other black families to travel west, too. Life was difficult, however, and many of these early settlers left quickly; others lived in sod houses or holes in the ground and suffered without enough food until a second wave of settlers brought horses, plows and other resources several years later. In its heyday, roughly 600 people lived in Nicodemus; about 60 still do.

SALT RIVER BAY NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK AND ECOLOGICAL PRESERVE, Christiansted, Virgin Islands (www.nps.gov/sari) Number of visitors in 2014: 5,192, This Caribbean park preserves 2,000 years of indigenous culture on the island of St. Croix, as well as the history of Europeans attempting to colonize the area. Members of Christopher Columbus' crew once set foot on the beach there. The area's natural wonders include mangrove forests, coral reefs and a rare bioluminescent bay. Several outfitters offer guided tours.

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