by Erin Kirkland – Most national park memories are vivid collections as diverse as the locations themselves. Waking to the sound of a crackling fire and the smell of frying bacon at a campground. Watching a waterfall tumble down a steep canyon trough far, far below. Observing an intricate science of fossils and painted hills. Feeling the solemnity of a ceremony for those lost to war.
What began as a congressional effort to preserve one park in the middle of the rugged Montana and Wyoming Territories in the late 1800’s brought forth a concerted movement dedicated to wild and sacred places. The National Park Service is headlong into a series of events commemorating 100 years of service as a federal agency, and in between rounds of Happy Birthday, NPS is also asking park users to reflect on impacts the agency’s 400+ parks, monuments, and historical landmarks have had on us, our families, and the communities in which we live.
Historically, the National Park Service was born of administrative necessity once Yellowstone National Park was officially designated in March of 1872. The United States had momentum with respect to outdoor spaces; monuments, natural and historical areas were quickly identified and designated as targets for preservation. Trouble was, multiple federal agencies provided oversight to these newly-marked parks and monuments. The War Department, Forest Service (part of the Department of Agriculture), and Department of the Interior all had their own singular ideas, and no one agency had control.
To mitigate what was obviously becoming murky with respect to regulations and future protection efforts, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service in August of 1916. An official bureau within the Department of the Interior, the new NPS now had oversight of 35 national parks and monuments, with the vision of future protection for areas to come. By 1933, a total of 56 national monuments and military sites had transferred over to the National Park Service, making the agency a true system through which future generations could be assured of scenic land and historic landmark preservation.
National Parks as Destinations
But how and when did Americans catch on to the concept that national parks were a unique opportunity for family vacations? For that, one has to look at the state of global affairs. Kathy Kupper with the National Park Service’s Office of Communications, says “it was actually World War I that began the trend of vacationing within parks.”
“The start of World War I got families moving,” she said. “Europe was dangerous, so the concept of vacationing around the United States became more attractive.”
Advertising campaigns like those of railroad companies asking residents to See America First caused a large increase in national park numbers, with visits nearly doubling between 1918 and 1919. After the war ended, trips to parks and monuments continued as U.S. residents discovered more opportunities to explore sights within the scope of their own financial and geographical access. The Great Depression years took a toll on Americans to be sure, but then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inspiration to create the Civilian Conservation Corps actually helped the country’s national park system as legions of young men built ranger cabins, cleared brush, replanted forests, and improved greatly-overused campgrounds in popular parks like Yellowstone.
By the time World War II ended and the Baby Boom began in 1945, America’s economic state was greatly improved, and so were her national parks. Aided by an expanding interstate highway system that practically begged families to load up kids and hit the road in search of vacation spots, national parks welcomed this influx of visitors with open arms. Car manufacturers jumped on board with slogans like See the USA in your Chevrolet, and station wagons full of children, tents, dogs, and parents began a quest to explore America’s national parks from East to West as the traditional concept of summer vacation began to form.
Becoming a Family-Friendly National Park System
I remember as a child in the 1970’s being enamored with rangers who led nature walks and campfire chats in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks before pinning badges to my jacket as a symbol of dedication to parks and conservation. Kupper says the Junior Ranger Program rewarded 670,000 children with badges in 2014, taking seriously a commitment to stewardship not just within the adult generation, but the younger one, too.
“It’s critical to get kids interested and involved in parks,” Kupper said.
And, as any parent knows, the best way to engage young people is to put them at the forefront of activities. Today’s National Park Service has Junior Ranger programs for multiple age ranges, a Buddy Bison ambassador program with the National Park Trust, and myriad other hands-on activities at each park, historical landmark, and monument. Wherever parents go, they can be assured kids will have a project to complete, and that, Kupper says, is a win-win for everybody.
What Parents Think of National Parks
Outdoor blogger and mother Annie Yearout is adamant about her family’s connection to parks. This avid adventurer grew up in the forests of Colorado and Vermont and knew when she and her husband moved to California’s Bay Area that access to nature was a priority.
“We purposefully chose a community that borders the Golden Gate National Recreation Area,” Yearout says. “It’s a quick drive from home and a place where I can hike when the kids are in school, or on weekends and after school with the whole family and our friends.”
Yearout also finds Yosemite National Park to be a retreat for her family, visiting the area for the past 15 years and counting it among her greatest resources for national park history and stewardship as her kids get older.
“I want to give back to our parks as a family,” she reflects. “Spreading the word about responsible use, and perhaps opening the eyes of more people about the National Park Service. Not just for visiting parks now, but supporting them so our kids, kids can also enjoy the tremendous beauty we see today.”
Last year Yearout was able to visit Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon, areas, she says were two extraordinary, golden, orange parks among many other options. On her national park bucket list sit Yellowstone, Glacier, and Olympic National Parks for 2016.
“Honestly,” she said. “All the national parks feel like family members we need to go visit.”
Like family members, national parks shape who we become, and leave legacies rooted in traditions, values, and lots of discussion. The National Park Service puts its trust in families visiting parks today, be they rocky beaches of Maine or volcanoes of Hawaii. They hope the children who look, listen, feel, and share their experiences will be the same adults who put their own vivid memories to work in the future. A gift for generations.
Erin Kirkland is managing editor of Outdoor Families Magazine, publisher of AKontheGO.com, and author of Alaska on the Go: exploring the 49th state with children. She and her family live in Anchorage, Alaska.