Either the headlines or your social media feed no doubt made you aware that this week (Thursday, specifically) the National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday. It has been called the best idea America ever had, and although a good argument could be made in favor of nachos it's hard to dispute that.

Growing up in the featureless, flat, expansive Midwest the NPS was not a thing I was familiar with directly until my late teens. During a trip to Arizona during a very difficult time in my life I passed a sign for something called Walnut Canyon National Monument and, on a lark, I decided to stop and see what this place I had never heard of was all about. I'll spare you the sappy writing about the experience and say simply that I was hooked immediately and amazed that something that obscure could be so great. It was natural (puns!) for me to wonder what else was hiding in plain sight behind those NPS signs.

Having the complete-ist personality that compels me to Collect 'Em All when I become interested in something, from that moment in 2003 (and a few follow-up visits to other sites in Arizona) I decided that before I depart the mortal coil I am going to visit every one of the 413 units and counting of the National Park Service. Oh, I was so naive and ambitious back then. It was an unrealistic goal.

Just kidding. I'm currently at 217. At this rate I'll have them all before I'm 50.

Basically all of my vacations involve me checking as many of them off my list as I can. Very few things make me happier than finally reaching a destination that until that moment has only been a name on a list and a green dot on a map to me. True, not everything in the System qualifies as "mind blowing" but I can count the number of times I have been disappointed or failed to see or learn something interesting on one hand. The NPS is very important to me. It's melodramatic to say it Saved My Life; that's going a bit far. But it did give me a sense of purpose, a mission to complete, a list that seems to go on and on and ensures that there is always something new for me to get in the car and find the next time I can get away from work.

If I can muster the time and motivation this weekend I'll post some highlight pictures of places I've been. I'm not a souvenir buyer, but I do take a ton of pictures. If I could go back in time and tell 2003 Ed that a dozen years down the road he would be more than halfway through the list, he would probably roll his eyes. In hindsight, the only regret I have is not starting sooner.

Happy birthday, NPS. Even George W. Bush couldn't slow you down, although god knows he tried.

31 thoughts on “NPF: THE CENTENNIAL”

  • I feel like I should also point out that the National Park Service also administer the Historic Preservation Tax Credit program. I have been involved with many projects that used these tax credits to renovate, restore, and reuse historic buildings. They are available for commercial projects, AND private residences. We have used them to create museums, restorations, and conversions of buildings to new uses, saving them and augmenting the history; and people love them anew.

    One of my favorite recollections is a reuse of a shoe Factory in West Bend, Wisconsin (yes, the all-white West Bend where Trump chastised black people) where at the Open House, many of the people who worked there, walked through, and pointed out where their machines were located…

  • @Zombie Rotten Mcdonald; wow, that must have been a great feeling to see people proud of where they work and feeling the importance of it! (that's not snark, in case you couldn't tell)

    Years ago, before 9/11, I brought some Dutch clients to Washington DC and showed them around. They were astounded that the Smithsonian museums (which are part of the National Parks system) were completely free to visit. My Dutch wasn't the best and wasn't up to explaining how the park system works, so I said in Dutch that it was a present from the American people to the world. Later on I reflected on those words, which were more true than I knew. I look at what I pay in taxes and I'm glad it goes to maintain the National Parks that anyone can enjoy.

    Is this the part where I point out that the Republicans are trying to sell off the public parks to private owners?

  • @zombie rotten mcdonald thanks for reminding me about that program. Ed, a future real estate project of mine is an old historic house in the Maryland countryside that we're trying to figure out how to rehab. Let me know if you're interested in learning more about it.

  • My son and I just did Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

    Very cool. Highly highly recommend. And us Midwesterners can easily drive there.

  • NPS is where I always say my tax dollars go. Makes me feel better…
    It is one of the best ideas, if not the best ever.
    Thanks for bringing it up.

  • My son and I just returned from a week rafting the Lower Grand Canyon. Beauty beyond our expectations plus it was a week completely off the grid.

    We live 1mile north of Valley Forge National Park. While not a vast expanse of wilderness, it is an important part of our national history and I love riding through it, which I do several times a week. If you ever come to see this one, post a note and I'll buy you a burger and a beer.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I used to love going to some of the parks here in NY. But I only camped there a few times.

    I loved walking the trails around some of the lakes, and the hiking trails.

    There are some NPS parks within the confines of NY City. I had a 5th grade teacher who took us on several trips there. One of them was a bird sanctuary not too far from JFK Airport. Who knew?

    I don't like camping anymore. I was ok with it when I was younger. But now, my idea of "roughing it" or camping, is staying in a hotel/motel without a bar! ;-)

  • @Lou Gravity:
    Those reviews are gold! I love how many of them boil down to the reviewer just hating being outside. I hate being outdoors, but I wouldn't blame that on the park.

  • Very moving! My wife and I moved to Washington State so that we could have near-constant access to Olympic National Park, Mt. Rainier National Park, and the criminally underrated North Cascades. We had very little experience with truly wild places until we took a road trip to Yellowstone–now we spend most of our time schlepping up some goddamn mountain. It is kind of an addiction.

    Stamping my passport at Glacier Bay, Denali, and Wrangle-St. Elias provided a greater sense of satisfaction than graduating college.

  • I grew up in Phoenix. For whatever reason, my parents rarely took us anywhere. Later, as an adult on a road trip with no set destination, I, too, stumbled across Walnut Canyon National Monument and was immediately taken with it.

    The experience made me open to spontaneous random stops on road trips. You never know when you might strike gold. Walnut Canyon fantastically hidden. I liked the NPS signs saying, please leave any artifacts you find alone, they become meaningless out of context. There were no artifacts (think pot sherds), the place had long since picked clean in that regard.

    The southwest is full of stuff like that. These days, if it's not a protected site, they're left off of maps to limit the attention of the irresponsible and the criminal. Also: these days, no one uses maps anymore.

    Thanks for reminding me, Ed.

  • Walnut Canyon is very nice. I would also recommend Montezuma's Well. It's very interesting and has a lovely picnic area nearby. And Sunset Crater is not too far away from both of those. The road to Sunset Crater goes through a lava field for a bit. It's like Mordor. There's an ice cave near the crater, and good camping near the park office.

  • Although I have not made a complete list of national parks and other places to check off I've been to a number of them. The one that has me returning on a regular basis though is Big Bend. Remote. Relatively few people, especially in August and September (the weather's actually not bad down there in those months as long as you don't camp in the desert). Fantastic desert and mountains for hiking, birding, and herping. And just enough creature comforts to satisfy. Reminds me I'm overdue for a visit.

  • strawberry shortfuse says:

    Indiana Dunes National Park–Gary, Indiana. One of the most beautiful places in the world and one of the best-kept secrets, and a factoid about Gary I like to share with non-locals who usually have some pretty terrible things to say about that corner of the state. My grandmother was a docent there up until she passed.

  • Chicagojon2016 says:

    +1 to strawberry shortfuse. It's shocking how awesome the Indiana Dunes are. Glad they got that one

    Is there a G&T map with pins? How about a G&T meetup(s) at various ones?

  • Had a good chuckle the other day: many years ago whilst utterly convinced there had to be someplace better than the Badlands and Cascades of The Oregon High Desert (there isn't) I had occasion to spend several weeks canoeing the Alagash Wilderness Waterways of Maine's Baxter State Park. It was awesome, and is now a National Monument. Thank you, President Obama.


  • Not sure why, probably the subject matter and sense of purpose/fulfillment, but this post makes me very happy and hopeful. Thanks, Ed.

  • You'll need to add scuba diving to your skill set. I know there were some underwater parks before Obama added more of Hawaii yesterday.

    When you get to Sleeping Bear Dunes Lakeshore, don't miss the ferry to South Manitou Island. There's a rare old growth forest stand on the southern shore. Haven't been there in years, I think some of the tallest trees were ash, which I hope they treated for ash borer.

    A quick search confirms some of the coolest places I've seen aren't part of the NPS. such as Big Horn Medicine Wheel and Serpent Mound. Don't go buzzing by such places in your rush to get to the next park!

  • Interesting to know what percentage of foreign tourists visit us to see the parks. God knows we can't wow 'em with our museums, full mostly of European and Asian art, or our landmark buildings a paltry two centuries old. At Yosemite I heard more foreign languages than in the U.N. cafeteria.

  • PhoenixRising says:

    Learn to snorkel; it's cheaper than SCUBA and you can do it anywhere there is water.

    Hawai'i is home to a massive and diverse set of NPS sites. Spent a 10 day trip this spring touring just the Big Island.

    I first stumbled off trail at Yellowstone as an 8 year old and got the bug. Have passed it on to my 16yo, who says it's not summer without our 2 week retreat from every form of connection to a world outside our campsite.

  • PhoenixRising says:

    Oh, the Yelp reviews! of the restaurants!! At parks!!!

    The best one was the review of Yellowstone that gives it 1 star for crowds and a deficit of parking. Can we get that promoted so that guy can take his kids to Kings Island instead?

    My wife once followed that guy, or one just like him, for nearly 50 meters to return his ice cream bar wrapper. He'd dropped it. Inside the walkway around Old Faithful.

    Went there for the 1st time when I was doing undergraduate archaeological field school. So relevant, so beautiful.
    A religious friend of mine was crying from the beauty of it.

  • I do a lot of driving for my job and let me tell you, driving through Brown and Martin County State Parks is one of the best perks of my job. Such beauty.

  • I just started collecting patches from every NP I visit. Unfortunately I didn't think of this idea until recently so Denali, Haleakala, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Badlands, Smokey Mountain, Shenandoah, Acadia, Pictured Rocks, and Rocky Mountain National Parks will all require return visits to obtain patches. So far I have Sleeping Bear Dunes and Linnville Falls from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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