The other day I was talking with a co-worker who knew I had lived in Philadelphia. She and her family were considering a trip to Philadelphia and she asked me about Independence Mall. Is it worth it? My immediate answer was “Yes, absolutely!” Then I followed with don’t limit yourself to just that small area. There is so much more to see if you are interested in history. I then gave her a short list of other must see sites in the area from Penn’s Landing up to Valley Forge. We talked for about ten or fifteen minutes, but that got my wheels turning.
When we started talking she mentioned just the Independence National Historic Park. As I told her about other places in the area I was hearing myself say the same thing. National Historic Site, National Historic Landmark, National Historic Park. After our conversation ended, I began to think about all of the places I have been that fall under the auspices of the National Park System. Just from memory, quite a number.
When I woke up this morning, I found myself still thinking about where I had been and began to look at the National Park Service’s website. I was surprised to find just how many places I really had seen and experienced. I have even lived very close to several of these sites. That is not completely shocking since there are currently 413 places that fall under the Park Service. They range from the largest at over eight million square miles to the smallest being the size of one historic home. They also vary from the well-known and much visited Blue Ridge Parkway and Yellowstone to Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. There are also less obvious but well known places that are managed by the Service including Mount Rushmore and the White House.
I am throwing out what may be boring statistics to some to illustrate that National Parks are all around us and probably even close to you. To that end, I want to tell you about a few of the ones that have made the greatest impact on me.
The Grand Canyon – The name really speaks volumes. I had seen pictures all of my life of the canyon, but they did not really resonate until I went there. To say it is beautiful is an understatement. We did not venture down into the canyon itself, but we did make a point to visit several points along the rim. We were at the very crowded south rim observation point at Grand Canyon Village and the views were spectacular. From there we drove east stopping several times at less crowded places. We did this until we reached Lipan Point where you have what I think is the best view of the canyon looking down river instead of across to the north rim. That is a memory I will keep forever.
Zion National Park – This was a hidden gem. When we left the Grand Canyon, we drove up through Utah and were heading to Las Vegas. We both knew of Zion but had no plans to stop there. I cannot tell you how glad I am that we decided to take it in. If I am honest, it is more visually stimulating than the Grand Canyon. Being at the bottom looking up does give a different perspective, but the rock formations and colors are amazing. The Three Patriarchs, the Narrows, the Subway, the Pulpit and many other formations are worth the drive. Among all of the parks I have been to where nature is the focus, Zion is my favorite.
Fort McHenry – The place that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen a poem that would become our national anthem. The fort is on a point that is now in the center of Baltimore. To get there you need to travel the busiest of streets and find your way through some industrial areas, but once there, it is a little oasis in the city. The site is well preserved and pristine. The guides here are some of the friendliest that I have encountered in my travels. They tell the story so well and at all times there is an enormous 15-star flag used as the focal point of the story. If you are in a patriotic mood, this is a must.
The National Mall – Where do I begin with how great this is to visit? It can be a little hard to define since it is not strictly the strip of land running from the US Capital Building to the Lincoln Memorial. It is much more than that. It includes all of the monuments from the iconic Washington Monument to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial, the African American Civil War Memorial, and several more. Then there are the buildings under the Park Services care including Fords Theatre and the Frederick Douglas National Historic Site. I would also be remiss if I did not mention the Smithsonian Institution. Although the many museums are not part of the Park Service, they frame the National Mall and provide endless days of enjoyment and education.
Shenandoah National Park – Blue Ridge Parkway – Great Smokey Mountains National Park – I group these together because essentially, where one ends the next one continues. If you love nature this is a great place to visit. It is a large part of the southern half of the Appalachian Trail, a hiker’s delight for longer than it has been a defined trail by the Park service. If you are not that into hiking but still want to enjoy the park, this is one of the best driving parks we have. In the fall the Blue Ridge Parkway is a foliage lover’s destination making it the most visited park in the system. I have driven just about the entire length several times. These three parks are friendly to just about every level of outdoor aficionado.
Gettysburg National Military Park – I saved this one for last as it is my absolute favorite. My parents brought me to Gettysburg almost every summer for a few days and we would explore new parts every year. Later in life, my wife and I lived there for about three years. We would spend hours on the battlefield. We rode our bicycles around some trails walked with our dogs down others. Many of the monuments are beautiful and tell a tragic story of our history. Yes, there are many monuments to the men who fought for the Confederacy, but the town also has a deeper history. Gettysburg was home to a community of “free blacks”, African Americans who made a life for themselves and were a part of the greater community in a very contentious time. Everyone knows about Lincoln’s visit to Gettysburg, but George Washington also came through and stayed just outside of the town on his way to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. There is so much more to learn about this great place. I know the battlefield as well as some of the guides, but I learn new things all the time.
I want to mention a few more that I have visited and have left a definite impression on me. They are in no particular order; Saguaro National Park, Boston National Historic Park, Everglades National Park, Petroglyph National Monument, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Colonial Historic Park, Antietam National Battlefield and of course, where I started this train of thought, Independence National Historic Park. There are more, but these are at the top of my list. I have an entire other list of places I could go into but I have kept this to our National Park System. You can find many just as fascinating place in National Forests, State Parks and private sites all over the country.
Why did I limit this to the National Park System? Because on August 25th of this year, our National Park Service celebrated their 100th birthday. On a rough count, I am nearing a quarter of the sites visited. I want to see many more. I invite you to send the Service a birthday gift by visiting any one of the sites under their care. You may learn something. You may see things you have never seen before. You may just sit and enjoy nature. Take a look. I bet you have one near you.
I hope you have had the same wonderful experiences. I would love to hear about your favorite National Park visit. Please leave a comment. You may give me my next excursion idea.