I have a confession to make: When my parents first started bringing my brothers and me on family vacations to National Parks, I wasn’t thrilled.
Like many kids, I longed to run wild at Six Flags or Disney World — not spend hours hiking through the woods and posing for dorky pictures at the park’s entrance sign, like my mum always wanted us to.
During drives through National Parks, my brothers and I played Pokémon on our Game Boys rather than looking at the awe-inspiring landscapes right outside the car window. (That is, until my dad forcibly removed said Game Boys from our bratty hands.)
Now, as an adult, I understand the mere ability to go on vacation with my family was a rare privilege. Visiting eight National Parks during my childhood was an even rarer one.
It’s a privilege that I’m especially thankful for today, on the 100th birthday of the National Park Service.
National Park — hopping made me appreciate America in a way that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or watching July 4th fireworks never did.
In elementary school, we learned and sang songs about our country’s natural diversity. But all those iconic images — purple mountain’s majesty, amber waves of grain, shining seas — didn’t feel real. They were only words.
Seeing that diversity with my own eyes was entirely different.
Haleakala — a 10,000-foot-tall dormant volcano — looked like the surface of Mars. Yellowstone (the country’s first National Park) was more like a desert, but with hot springs so brilliantly turquoise they almost hurt your eyes to look at. Glacier had real glaciers — and frigid lakes just tenths of degrees away from becoming ice. Bryce Canyon’s spindly orange rock spires were like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
We made dumb jokes about buttes in the Badlands. We saw snowbanks taller than my six-foot-two dad at Rocky Mountain. We hiked along snaking, narrow canyons in Zion. And we gazed out at the Grand Canyon stretched all the way to the edge of the horizon.
And as I got older, I noticed how many tourists from other countries were strolling along the paths of the Parks we visited. I began to realise that all these breathtaking scenes existed here, in my home country — and that people were travelling across the globe just to see them.
Because of what I saw at National Parks, I became proud to live in such a beautiful country. Seriously — we are up to our eyeballs in natural beauty. There are 59 National Parks covering 51.9 million acres of land. That’s almost the same size as the entire state of Kansas.
Yes, our society faces plenty of problems. The National Parks themselves face major threats, too, from climate change and invasive species to human development and overcrowding.
But it’s nice to know that, scattered across the country, America still boasts 59 pockets of pure, protected beauty.
This fall, I will visit my 10th National Park: Acadia, on Mount Desert Island in Maine. I won’t be with my parents, but I’ll be thinking of them when I turn off my phone (no Game Boy this time) and absorb everything around me.
And, at my campsite, I’ll raise a glass (or maybe a water bottle) to wish the National Park Service a happy 100th.
Here’s to many, many more.
Learn more about the National Park Service Centennial (and the many ways to celebrate it) right here.
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