15 Ways to Give Experiences as Gifts

The holiday shopping season is underway, and some are finding that the perfect gift can be elusive. Some people seem to have everything, and the latest tech gadget could be obsolete by President’s Day. According to Professor Thomas Gilovich, of Cornell University, the gifts that elicit the most happiness aren’t material items at all, but experiences. Gilovich’s studies over the past several years have found that people derive more satisfaction from the anticipation of an experience than from a tangible gift. Kitchen appliances break, sweaters fade, and candles melt, but you can brag about these experiential gifts for an eternity.

1. Ziplining in the Mountains

Ziplining above the mountains

For thrill-seekers, ziplining is an exciting way to get stellar views of the country’s most breathtaking sights. The Blue Ridge Mountains are an iconic Appalachian locale, and at Navitat Canopy Adventures, in Barnardsville, North Carolina, you can see the Smokies while soaring more than 60 miles per hour. ($100)

2. Blacksmith Class 

In the “extreme DIY” category, smithing is something anyone can learn at Bridgetown Forge in Portland, Oregon. Artisans-in-training can take a knife-forging class in which they will forge a Japanese-style steel knife stamped with their own initials. ($460)

3. Dog Sledding

Man riding a dogsled
(Photo by Dave Dugdale)

How often do you get the opportunity to ride behind a team of Alaskan Huskies through the mountainous forests of Maine? Adventurous dog-lovers will never forget the Ultimate Dog Sledding Experience in Oxford, Maine.  ($200)

4. Cooking Class

Give the gift of kitchen competency with a cooking class. Specialized courses in different cuisines and skills are easy to find at the demonstration kitchen nearest to you. At the famous Stonewall Kitchen near Boston, every day of the week is a new lesson in braising, chopping, and pairing with accomplished chefs like Lukas Volger and Gesine Bullock-Prado. ($50)

5. Dinner and a Movie

Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinema has expanded into locations all around the country. The theater chain offers dinner, drinks, and a movie all in one place, and it prides itself on a moviegoing experience tailored to cinephiles and beer enthusiasts alike. ($12) 

6. National Park Membership

The outdoors-type in your life can access more than 2,000 national recreation sites with the America the Beautiful Pass. From Denali National Park to the Grand Canyon, a national park membership is the ultimate in experiential giving. ($80)

7. Traditional Afternoon Tea

Tea and sandwiches

The British tradition of afternoon tea with pastries and sandwiches can be a fun midday treat for Anglophile yankees. The Rittenhouse in Philadelphia gives the full experience of teas, scones, and canapés in its Mary Cassatt Tea Room. Try the caviar service for extra indulgence. ($60)

8. Paint and Sip

Boozy art classes have soared in popularity in recent years. Pinot’s Palette gives the opportunity to sip wine and create a masterpiece at locations all over the country. Each night at a paint and sip studio a teacher guides patrons in painting a different image. The trend has caught on with amateur artists who want to relax with a canvas and glass of Cabernet. ($39)

9. Baking Class 

Momofuku Milk Bar offers baking classes at its Williamsburg, Brooklyn location where you can make some recipes from the wildly popular cake chain. The hands-on tutorial can be helpful for anyone with a baking curse. The Milk Bar is famous for its tall, layered “naked cakes” and crack pie. ($95)

10. Horseback Riding 

The true Western riding experience can be had at Moab Horses in Moab, Utah. The ranch sits in Professor Valley, a common filming location for cowboy movies for its vistas and red rock formations. ($80)

11. Spa Treatment 

The stressed in your life would be supremely grateful for the chance to relax and rejuvenate at their favorite spa. The Spafinder card is a popular gift to ensure they can use their balance at the facility of their choice.

12. Cocktails

The art of the cocktail has undergone a transformation, and places like The Aviary in Chicago (and now New York) celebrate inventiveness and flavor in their concoctions. With their three-course cocktail progression, you’ll get smoking, boiling, infused libations served like a carefully-tailored dinner. ($65)

13. Trip to the Museum 

Outdoor museum
(Photo by Sawdust Media)

There are plenty of weird and wonderful museums in this country, but none quite like St. Louis’s City Museum. The institution is made up of installations of found objects from the city, and it calls itself “an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel.” ($12)

14. Subscription Boxes

While subscription boxes are technically material goods, they elicit the experience of anticipation by being the gifts that keep on giving. Foodydirect offers subscriptions for cheesecake-, smoked salmon-, and ice cream-of-the-month clubs in addition to a vast amount of shippable treats. Myriad other subscription boxes offer monthly packages of beauty products, wine, dog treats, and anything else you could imagine.

15. Sports Car Racing

Cloud 9

Cloud 9 Living has made experiential gift-giving its raison d’être. With an offering of tours, lessons, and thrill experiences in every major U.S. city, the company is on a mission to make helicopter flights and kayaking trips the new hot gift items. Cloud 9 is popular for their racecar and sports car experiences: patrons can race Lamborghinis, Porsches, and Indy Cars around a road course. ($388)

Overseeing the National Park Service Is No Picnic

In 1954, 3,600 employees administered and cared for the National Park Service’s 24 million acres of property for the benefit if their 46 million tourists. These were some pretty big numbers, and with those numbers came some pretty big headaches, from the difficulties of conservation and preservation efforts to the problem of poachers, smugglers, and vandals.

The person ultimately responsible for dealing with that sea of troubles, as well as for convincing Congress to find the budget for it, is the director of the NPS. It takes a special breed of person to step into such a multifarious role, for the director of the NPS is at once a conservationist, a proprietor, a historian, a businessperson, a custodian, and even the chief of a small force of traffic cops.

In 1954, that man was Conrad Wirth.

That year, Post writer Robert M. Yoder wrote the following profile of Director Wirth, “Twenty-four Million Acres of Trouble,” bringing to light the challenges he faced and the aplomb with which he juggled the many components of his position.

The troubles of the NPS have not waned in the past 60 years. If anything, they have grown as the park system itself has grown. Today, over 300 million guests visit the NPS’s more than 400 properties — so much more than just the 59 national parks — including battlefields, monuments and memorials, seashores, lakeshores, rivers, parkways, trails, and other historic sites. All told, today’s NPS bears responsibility for 84 million acres of land — an area larger than New Mexico — in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C.

The NPS’s duties at these sites are as varied as the properties themselves: 22,000 professionals and 221,000 volunteers protect wildlife, rescue hikers, maintain cabins, preserve historic buildings, manage traffic, prevent and repair vandalism, watch for forest fires, and so much more. Why? To protect the most beautiful parts of our country. To preserve our history and our legacy. To provide us all with access to hardy education and recreation. To ensure that future generations can learn and enjoy as we have.

And to make sure that the next time you visit an NPS site, it is a walk in the park.

Twenty-Four Million Acres of Trouble

By Robert M. Yoder

Originally published on July 3, 1954

Two men looking at plans in front of White House
Robert Redmond, head White House gardner in 1954, with NPS director Conrad Wirth (Photo by Fred Ross, © 1954 SEPS)

As Conrad L. Wirth hikes down a corridor of the Department of the Interior in Washington, or sits at lunch in the Cosmos Club, a passing friend sometimes sings out, “Hi-ya, Connie. How are things?” Wirth is manager of a 24,000,000-acre domain which can grow problems the way Indiana can grow corn, and there must be days when he is tempted to answer this question. Even a partial account could be a little striking.

“Why, about normal,” Wirth might say. “We’re having a little trouble with crocodiles, mountain climbers, wild burros, moonshiners, poachers and smugglers, of course. There’s some question what to do with maybe five or six thousand surplus elk, and it’s going to be a fight to preserve the land-loving goose. The high cost of caves is something of a headache, and I wish we could figure out how to keep the sea cows from hanging around the business district — that’s in Miami. There are seven kinds of beetles attacking seven kinds of timber, the prehistoric ruins need some work done, and we had a complaint from a man who says that in the forest primeval there is no place to plug in his electric razor. … How are things with you?”

A husky 200-pounder in his early 50s, Wirth looks well-built to withstand work and worry, and providence keeps him beautifully supplied with both. There are men who can go to the closet of a morning and select any of 100 suits, quiet, loud, blue, brown, gray, single-breasted or double, pinstripe, check, herringbone or plaid. Wirth has a collection of problems far more extensive, far more varied.

They are perquisites of his job, clearly one of the most remarkable in the world. Wirth is director of the National Park Service, boss of our 180 national parks, monuments, historic sites, and recreation areas.

This means administering $4,000,000,000 worth of the grandest and most peculiar real estate under our flag, including glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, deserts, giant sequoias 3,500 years old, great caves, and petrified forests. It is not true, as Jim Bridger reported, that there are petrified birds singing petrified songs, but the wildlife that Wirth is charged with preserving includes some minnows native, of all places, to the desert of Death Valley.

So a multitude of plain and exotic troubles is to be expected. This is a condition so natural, in fact, that without them, Wirth probably would suffer some form of the bends, like a diver brought up too suddenly from the deep. Trouble is the park director’s element, as water is the natural element of fish — he is running out of fish — or woods the natural element of skunks, which are driving picnickers away from tables and campers out of their tents.

Wirth’s paramount problem is money; he is in a financial hole of real grandeur. The parks are running down and getting harder use, by more millions, every year. “The people,” one park man says, “are wearing out the scenery.” To get what Wirth needs will require a small miracle of salesmanship; meanwhile, he needs money so badly that it is a wonder he didn’t accept the Crater Lake offer.

Crater Lake, in Oregon, is one of the great sights of the world. The lake is blue beyond description; and you look down on it from walls of rock falling 500 to 2,000 feet. One enterprising Westerner saw an opportunity here. Thousands come every year to stand on this rim, and the sight, the gentleman figured, must strike deep into the soul, arousing an impulse he planned to satisfy. “Here’s this beautiful lake, way down there,” he wrote. “You rent me a spot on the rim, and I’ll set up a concession where, for two bits or maybe 50 cents, people can drop rocks into it.”

There was another sound suggestion for making money, though it comes a little late. A farmer visited Yellowstone in time to see Old Faithful erupt, with that reliability which makes it one of the two or three most famous sights in the land.

“Ranger,” the farmer said, “you got something there. Why, people would come from all around, just to see that geyser, if you’d advertise it.”

Whatever your problem, Wirth’s got one to match. Does your dog nip the garbage man? Wirth’s got bears which nip tourists, sometimes bringing on lawsuits — one, which the government won, for $75,000. Got aphids on the roses? It will be consoling to consider Wirth’s pest problems: on a day no worse than usual they will include beetles, tent caterpillars, webworms, loopers, sawflies, and wood ticks. His oddest gardening worry is preserving a Hawaiian plant so excessively rare that there are only two known specimens. It’s an item called Hibiscadelphus giffardianus.

Does your house keep you poor? Wirth has this problem in a curious form. The real estate in his charge includes 62 sets of prehistoric ruins which must be kept in a kind of suspended ruination. That comes high: It costs $8000 a year to maintain the ruins in Mesa Verde, Colorado, and Wirth figures those at Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, need $65,000 worth of work to put them back in their old, terrible shape.

Wirth can expect trouble from every quarter; even so, there are surprises. Along with being the boss of 3,600 employees, with whom he gets along splendidly, Wirth is the boss of 300 statues, mostly in battlefields. One of the statues has given him a good deal of trouble. Lightning knocked both arms and the head off a thirteen-foot figure of Liberty, atop an 87-foot shaft at Yorktown, where Cornwallis surrendered. A well-known sculptor is executing a new figure, on commission, but now refuses to put it on the shaft, which he contends is an eyesore.

And while name writers are a nuisance year in and out, it was a surprise when one of them chose Half Dome, in Yosemite. That great peak, looking like half a loaf of bread, presents a face of rock 2,000 feet high. High as it is, one visitor swung down on 20 feet of rope to paint his name. He chose too big a canvas; he ran out of paint after finishing only one initial.

If repining over human vandalism gets him nowhere, Wirth can worry about vandalism by buffalo. The Yellowstone buffaloes long have been a joy but a care. Once they dwindled to 23. A small breeding stock was put inside fences and treated royally. The buffalo ranch worked fine; the buffaloes multiplied until there were hundreds.

But they got as tame as cattle, and just about as exciting to see. With free hay in winter, and no worries, they lost vigor, spirit, and tourist appeal. The duty of the Park Service is to preserve wildlife in the wild state. So it was necessary to wean the buffaloes from the easy life and turn them wild again. That was accomplished. But the buffaloes have a keen eye for luxury. About 1,000 head of the Yellowstone buffaloes come into the Firehole River region to spend their winters in steam-heated comfort beside the hot springs and geysers. It’s a good move; here they can get at the dried grass without rooting in snow.

But 1,000 buffaloes produce serious wear and tear. They have chipped away rock formations which took centuries to build. So a deal will have to be made whereby, in return for free hay, they stay away from the hot springs. The Park Service never attacked a preservation problem with such unmitigated success as in the case of the buffaloes. Where once the lordly buffalo was vanishing, there now are buffaloes all over the joint.

Preserving wildlife is tricky business. “Remove one thing,” said a great naturalist, “and you find it is hitched to everything else in the universe.” If the park rangers thin out the coyotes to protect the deer, the deer get so numerous they eat themselves and others out of browse. Then they go to town, where that is possible, and ransack garbage cans. Once they have tasted garbage, raw forage isn’t good enough.

The park director’s problems always include two or three creatures on the very brink of going extinct. Right now, the crisis cases are the black-footed ferret, the crocodile, and the nene. Only about 60 of the ferrets have been sighted in the last seven years, and a third of those were dead. An investigation is under way to find out what the ferrets need and how they can be coaxed to continue.

The nene is a long-legged, brown-necked little Hawaiian goose which may very well be the rarest creature on earth. Also called the “land-loving goose,” the nene is a waterfowl, but miserably maladjusted. It is not well equipped for swimming, nor is it much at flying. Instead, the nene prefers to walk, which it does with high steps, possibly because it walks much of the time on the rough lava slopes of the great volcano, Mauna Loa.

The nene was common enough at the start of the century, but now it is thought there may be no more than 50 left. Wirth thinks foreign birds imported to Hawaii may have brought ailments with which the nene can’t cope. Its worst visible enemy is the domestic pig, gone wild and tough. The pigs destroy the nests and young or keep the nenes too nervous to nest. Wild goats, meanwhile, devour the nenes’ favorite berries. There is hope of saving the poor slighted birds by giving them all possible protection in Hawaii National Park, but it will be a near thing. Rangers hunt down the pigs and goats, but have to stop shooting during the nenes’ nesting season so as not to disturb whatever nenes are left.

The crocodile certainly isn’t helpless and it may be a little hard to muster up a tear over the fact that this monster is scarce, but such is Wirth’s duty, as a wildlife preserver. The American crocodile never has been plentiful, even if you regard a very few crocodiles as plenty. Only one small section suits this salt-water nightmare, a strip about 100 miles long on the southeastern coast of Florida. Crocodile numbers have dwindled because anyone sighting a crocodile is likely to shoot it for its valuable hide, worth $4.50 a foot, and other crocodiles come to grief in fishermen’s drag seines.

Though the ugly creatures are classed as vanishing, naturalists think the crocodile can be saved. That’s because the Everglades National Park takes in Florida Bay, a favorite crocodile haunt, and park rangers war constantly on crocodile poachers. Along with being a sanctuary for crocodiles, and perhaps the only place in the world which is under water half the time and subject to terrific grass fires the rest, the Everglades park is also a home for put-upon manatees, so Wirth is the manatee’s foster mother as well as the comforter of the crocodile. Manatees are the weird sea cows which sailors of old mistook for mermaids, partly because it is the manatees’ sociable habit to swim flipper-in-flipper, partly because the manatee may sometimes be seen kissing, and partly because the sailors had been at sea a long, lonely time.

Killing the young for their tender flesh, said to resemble veal, has helped bring the sea cows to the verge of extermination, but these big hulks, averaging perhaps 500 pounds, are also extremely sensitive to cold air. They are air breathers, surfacing to breathe through the nose, and it is thought the cold air of the sudden Florida cold snaps gets them in the lungs.

The Everglades park is the only adequate sanctuary. Park Service officials would like to carry out a restoration program, but nobody knows just what to offer; less is known about the manatee than about almost any other form of wildlife. Wirth may have to create a duplicate of downtown Miami. The manatee seem happiest in the Miami River, in the heart of the city. On chilly days, they can keep warm next to outlets of big-city wastewater.

Short in the nene, ferret, crocodile, and manatee departments, Wirth is woefully long on elk, having far more than the parks can pasture. Last winter, in four huge corral-like traps costing $10,000 each, Yellowstone rangers live-trapped 219. The elk lift got rid of 125. The elk lift consists of hauling the elk out of the park, into open hunting country, by truck. The rest were given to various parks for stocking purposes. Still others wandered out on their own. But there were still far too many elk, so aerial elk shooing was tried. A plane and a helicopter were able to chase several herds over park boundaries. All told, the winter’s efforts may have reduced the elk population by 1,000. Good? Yes, but only a starter. It still leaves a remarkable excess — about 4,600 elk too many.

Wirth’s collection of peculiar problems includes international smugglers, dealing, of all things, in a harmless form of wax. These are rifle-toting bands, bad all out of proportion to their contraband, and given to shooting. The wax is made by cooking the candelilla plant, and is used in shoe polish, floor wax, phonograph records, and medicine. The wax runners smuggle it in from Mexico via the Big Bend National Park, in Texas, defying Mexican law, which says all such wax must be marketed through the government.

But things never are so bad as they might be for Wirth. He has one stanch ally — the grand old law of compensation. The improbable happens, but the probable desists. The wild parks are full of danger — great glaciers, cliffs, geysers throwing fountains of scalding water, steam jetting from hillsides, lakes at altitudes where the strongest swimmers tire quickly. Thousands of the park visitors never before saw country wilder than a vacant lot. Yet the fatality rate is spectacularly low. Men, women, and children survive remarkable adventures, and Wirth hears tale after tale of valiant rescue.

  1. Burdette Yeoman and his wife were hiking in Yosemite. Yeoman leaned over a waterfall to get a drink. He slipped and was washed away. Terrified, his wife leaped in after him. Yeoman was carried a wild 100 feet, mostly down, falling, sliding, bounced against boulders. Then he scrambled ashore. But his wife was carried twice as far, into great rocks, over several cascades.

She ended in a pool, with severe injuries of head and body. A medical student gave first aid, a Boy Scout went for the rangers, a doctor drove two hours and then hiked seven miles to reach the injured woman. She was carried out by night on a stretcher — and recovered nicely. In March of 1954, 17-year-old Dolores Van Parys, of Seattle, slipped on snow in Mt. Rainier National Park and fell 175 feet to a mound of ice. But she struck a glancing blow, slid down the ice into a snowbank, and came through it alive.

Last summer, swinging down on a rope in descending Grand Teton, Norma Hart, of Lynn, Massachusetts, fell 35 feet when the rope gave. She landed in a sitting position. The terrible jolt broke her back in two places. She was at 12,000 feet. She had to be brought down in a basket stretcher, belayed down sheer cliffs, carried across hazardous slopes and snowfields. The rescue involved 27 park rescue experts, three volunteer climbers, and one professional guide. In a classic of skill and exertion they worked 24 hours, but they saved her.

Each year, recently, has brought mountain climbers in record numbers. Many get in trouble, but are rescued.

Excellent planning accounts in part for the fine safety record. Though Kilauea volcano in Hawaii had been quiet 18 years, they were ready when it erupted one midnight in 1952. In five months, 450,000 visitors flocked to look down on the great lake of fire. Nobody got hurt except a man who chose this opportunity to commit suicide. The final report said, “30,000 cars parked, one fender scratched.”

Every year children get lost in the great wild parks, but almost always the story has the same ending: the child is found intact and unalarmed, by adults worn to a frantic frazzle. Rangers found a lost boy in Yosemite, a rover so young he knew his first name, but not his last.

“We’ll identify him through the family car,” the rangers said craftily … “Jimmy, does your dad’s car have two doors on the side or one? What color is it? Do you know what kind?” Jimmy knew — a two-door blue sedan. “Now all we have to do,” said the rangers, “is to drive around the various campsites until we spot the right car.” Two fruitless hours later, they told Jimmy, “Now don’t get excited, but we can’t seem to find your dad’s car.”

Jimmy wasn’t excited, and he wasn’t surprised either. “Of course you can’t,” he said. “We came in Uncle Joe’s car.”

Wirth’s job makes him a big-time resort proprietor, the boss of 23 hotels and lodges, 4,086 cabins, 1,511 tents. Unfortunately, what that comes to is “not nearly enough.” He has 15,000 miles of roads to maintain, he has general supervision of 200 concessions doing $30,000,000 worth of business a year. Indirectly, this puts Wirth in a variety of business enterprises ranging from renting pack horses to running mineral baths. He is also the boss of 114 museums, the chief of a small force of traffic cops on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and the custodian of 527 buildings of historical significance, most of which need something.

He is a man of consequence in 39 states and four possessions, and he is also chief yardbird for the White House. In a sense he is the President’s landlord, the White House being Reservation No. 1 in the capital’s park system, which is another of Wirth’s responsibilities. In a much clearer sense, he is the emergency gardener. When Queen Wilhelmina was about to visit Washington in 1952, Wirth had to raise 2,000 tulips at racing speed, so her majesty would see them blooming. He came through, and the tulips lasted long enough, but no longer; they had been forced far too fast.

No other government agency is in so many lines of business. “We don’t run any streetcars,” Wirth says cheerfully, meaning that the NPS does run everything else. In general, the customers are fairly well satisfied, though surveys produce criticism on unexpected points. Here is some of the adverse criticism: “Some of your deer have nasty dispositions.” … “Where did you hide the bears?” … “People ghastly compared to the scenery.” … “Get longer beds.” … “Have more snow.” … “How about installing bowling?” The complaint registered by two New Yorkers about Yosemite, surely one of the most beautiful spots on Earth, proves that Wirth can’t hope to please all of the people all of the time. “There’s no dancing tonight,” they said. “What are you supposed to do — look at the scenery?”

Wirth tackles his assorted duties with unfailing calm and a good deal of zest, though this isn’t the way he expected to spend his life. A landscape architect, he planned to devote himself to private practice, dealing in subdivisions and country clubs rather than geysers and battlefields. Parks were a little overly familiar: Wirth was born in one city park, raised in another, worked in parks every summer as a boy. That was enough for his older brother, Theodore Jr. He went to sea and became a rear admiral. Except for the admiral, however, it’s a park family. Conrad’s younger brother, Walter, is park superintendent at Salem, Oregon; Conrad’s older son, Ted, is in the NPS office in Omaha.

Wirth is the son of a highly successful park man, the late Theodore Wirth Sr. Theodore Wirth came here from Switzerland, after studying horticulture in France and England. For six years he was a gardener in Central Park, New York, and on private estates in Long Island, and then became park superintendent in Hartford, Connecticut. Conrad was born there, in the superintendent’s residence in Elizabeth Park.

When Conrad was nine, the family moved to Minneapolis, where his father developed a park system which won world-wide attention. A bold and imaginative builder, the elder Wirth also put forward an idea now generally accepted, but then brand-new. Parks, he held, are for recreation as well as beauty; this calls for tennis courts and baseball diamonds as well as rose gardens.

Conrad Wirth couldn’t have had a better teacher. But when he got out of Massachusetts University he went into private practice, first in San Francisco, then New Orleans. For four years he had nothing to do with parks. The Gulf country was booming, and Wirth and his partner, Harold Neale, worked on projects of considerable splendor. The biggest was the Pass Christian Island development, a 5,000-acre venture involving the creation of islands and canals and intended to rival Florida at its flossiest.

But the Florida boom collapsed, and all around the Gulf big plans went glimmering. Property was selling for ten cents on the dollar. Nobody needed landscape architects to plan multimillion-dollar dream cities. “I’d have been glad to plan a miniature golf course,” says Wirth.

Just when he needed it most, he was offered a post on the Planning Commission for Washington, D.C. There he got to know Park Service men, like their devotion to the parks, their unusual esprit de corps. When they had an opening in 1931, he took it gladly and was back in the family business, parks. His brother, the admiral, held out staunchly, but the land got him in the end. After World War II he was appointed superintendent of buildings and grounds at Annapolis, and later went into the real-estate business in California.

Wirth’s work for 20 years was long-range planning. Some of it is only now bearing fruit; one result is the new Cape Hatteras Seashore Recreational Area, a brand-new type of national playground. Nowhere in the system was there a great stretch of Atlantic seacoast still undeveloped. Wirth studied every mile of the coast and found nothing to compare with the picturesque islands making up North Carolina’s outer banks. To get what he wanted took 20 years, but in his work you have to have patience.

Adding to this park or that, Wirth handled massive land deals, in one case swapping 180,000 acres of grazing land for 10,000 acres of valuable timber owned by Montana, but inside Glacier National Park. He made himself an authority on “inholdings” and hopes before he retires to see many of these disappear. Inholdings are land privately owned, but inside the parks. Inside Mammoth Cave National Park, for instance, there are two privately owned caves. The Park Service hopes to buy them in time, but good caves run high these days; this pair will cost around $500,000. For a long time the government didn’t own the actual site where Cornwallis surrendered, in Yorktown battlefield, but Wirth bought that in 1948.

Wirth has had a hand in developing 561 city and state parks as well as the national ones. That came about in the days of the Depression, when, as Interior’s representative, he had charge of CCC camps which built or improved parks all over the land. He sighs, these shorthanded days, for the crew he had then — 95,000 young men, 17 to 23, who could do anything from stringing power lines to digging artificial lakes. For years to come, vacationists will have a better time because we had that siege of unemployment in the grim ’30s. Virginia had one state park in 1933, for example; by 1942 it had six, drawing just under 500,000 visitors a year. It is estimated that Wirth and his CCC boys put park work forward 50 years.

Wirth became director in December of 1951. He is one of the few top officials to survive the change of administration; Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay decided that Wirth was uniquely qualified for a highly difficult job and ought not to be disturbed. “It is men like this,” says Secretary McKay, “that give to government service the prestige it deserves.” To repay his work and worry, he can reflect on solid accomplishments. The Cape Hatteras seashore — “the finest beach preservation in the world” — is his special pride. Land buying will be finished this summer. Both millionaires and bums contributed to this newest of the parks. The wealthy patrons were Paul Mellon and Mrs. Ailsa Mellon Bruce, children of the late Andrew; they put up $618,000. This is a form of philanthropy Wirth is cultivating hard. A special booklet, titled The Fifth Essence, is put before ladies and gentlemen of wealth, inviting contributions to the National Park Trust Fund. The frugal Wirth got a donation to publish this appeal, and the book carries no publication date, so it can’t get dated.

The down-and-outers who helped with Hatteras were on the Outer Banks in “transient camps” in the ’30s; some had been bonus marchers in 1932. The sea was making inroads, and the campers tied down the shifting dunes with brush fences and tough grass. One of the campers came back to show his wife where he had worked as a jobless and penniless youth, and what the pleasant consequences have been. The ex-bum couldn’t tarry. A big wheel now, he was on his way to Florida for a winter vacation, driving his expensive new car.

This year also should see the creation of Cumberland Gap National Monument, a 21,000-acre park in Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and Harpers Ferry National Monument, in West Virginia and Maryland. Another major project is under way at Independence Hall, which will stand in a setting of dignity and charm at the end of a three-block mall. And the Statue of Liberty, a shabby disgrace five years ago, has been refurbished.

There is also a new deal for concession operators, expected to produce better service for tourists. The parks now take a percentage of the gross instead of the net, and Wirth tries to extract a promise of bigger and better facilities in return. Major improvement is under way in Grand Teton, including a whole new tourist village; it is the first large-scale development in any national park in 30 years.

But these are bright spots in a dark picture. Every year brings more visitors, coming earlier, staying later. This is precisely what the parks are for, and should be a sight to gladden the eye — the free citizens of America, taking their ease in great pleasuring grounds where the wilderness is preserved for posterity. The trouble is, the parks are in no shape to accommodate so much business.

“Some of the camping grounds are so crowded,” Wirth says, “that they amount to outdoor slums. Before the war, the biggest attendance was 21 million. Last year it hit 46 million. In 1941 we had $84,000,000 to run the park system; last year we had $34,000,000. What we’re trying to do just can’t be done; it’s like trying to put two gallons of water into a one-gallon bucket.”

Badly as he needs money for development, he needs maintenance money worse. Little could be done during the war. Budgets since then have been too small to allow any catching up. The backlog of needed work — roads, buildings, additional campsites — is now a towering $600,000,000. Wirth says he could usefully and sensibly spend $60,000,000 a year for the next ten years, and that this might save the parks. “Save,” he insists, is not too strong.

“Take Yellowstone,” he says. “Yellowstone will be destroyed if things keep on as they’re going; literally destroyed. Crowds are walking all over the formations, vandalism is more and more prevalent. We ought at least to keep what we’ve got, and we’re not doing it. All we can do is put patch on patch, and that’s bad business, whether it’s a national park or a private home.”

Cabins are a major dilemma. The parks need them, and concession operators would build them — but not until there are suitable sites. That means light, sewer, and water systems. Wirth hasn’t got the money. His chances of getting as much money as he needs don’t seem bright, but Wirth tackles the job cheerfully. His best bet, he sees clearly, is to persuade Congress and the nation that it would be money well and profitably spent.

“Twenty-three states,” he says, “say travel is one of their three biggest industries. The business can’t be measured accurately, but it’s estimated to run somewhere between 12 and 30 billion a year. It is believed the parks generate more than two billion dollars of this. If so, they are responsible for 580 million which gets back to the states and the federal government in taxes. It works out to 150 million in local taxes and 430 million in federal.

“As I say, this travel business is a by-product, not our principal purpose — which is to help people enjoy and understand the God-given wonders of our country. But it’s a by-product too valuable to lose. Some say we can’t afford to put the parks in shape and keep them that way. I say we can’t afford not to. They’re making the federal government 430 million a year in taxes, and the government is spending only 33 million on them. It’s bad business to let a plant be destroyed when it produces that kind of a return.”

Half the time in Washington, half in the field, Wirth commonly works seven days a week, and seven nights. It’s a job which would give many a man ulcers in three months, and often seems thankless. There are doubtless days when Wirth feels like the Indian who was flown to Yellowstone last summer to fight a forest fire. That’s hot work, and after several days of it, he paused, leaned on his shovel and shook his head. “ Gentlemen,” he said to his Indian companions, “let’s give this country back to the white man.”

But Wirth is lively and resilient, and there is much about the job he likes a great deal. It is work with big consequences; a lot rides on Wirth’s judgment. He likes the fact that it’s “not just for today.” Americans will enjoy that new seashore at Hatteras, for instance, for hundreds of years.

Moreover he knows the Park Service has many well-wishers. In Glacier, a cigar-smoking taxpayer took Wirth aside for a pep talk. “Don’t let people run cattle in the parks,” he said. “Don’t let anybody cut those trees. The parks are for the wildlife and the people. Anything I can do, let me know.” This red-hot conservationist was Groucho Marx.

Click images below to enlarge:


Vintage Advertising: Selling the National Parks

Long before there was a National Park Service, Americans were travelling to the parks on horseback and in stagecoaches. But at the turn of the century, the railroads began building spur lines to the parks and lodges for park guests. And they started advertising their park routes to Post readers. The ads ran well into the 1950s, when families preferred to reach the parks in the family car.

The old rail lines dropped passenger service long ago, but their routes to the parks are now served by Amtrak, which provides transportation to 237 of the National Park Service’s properties.


Union Pacific to Yellowstone
June 25, 1910

When it was established in 1872, Yellowstone Park was accessible only by horseback or carriage. Consequently, the park had only 1,000 visitors a year. By 1902, the Union Pacific Railroad had started passenger service to the park, carrying travelers from the Idaho Falls station to the park entrance in a stagecoach. Shortly before this ad appeared, however, it had opened passenger service on a line from St. Anthony, Idaho, to the park’s west entrance.



Great Northern to Glacier
April 29, 1916

The Great Northern Railway Company, created in 1889, grew across the Great Plains from St. Paul into North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. When the railway recognized the appeal of Glacier National Park, it built stations at the park’s west and east entrances, its rail line crossing the continental divide. It also built Glacier Park Lodge, which is shown in the background of this ad.



Milwaukee Road
June 21, 1924

The Milwaukee Road was proud of its electric locomotive service when it was introduced in 1919. They staged public demonstration to show that its Class EP-2 electric engine could out-pull steam locomotives. This electric engine pulled the Olympian, the company’s passenger train that ran from Chicago to Seattle, stopping at Rainier National Park.



Northern Pacific
July 12, 1930

The North Coast Limited operated between Chicago and Seattle from 1900 to 1971. When this ad appeared, the Limited was making its 2,331-mile run in 63 hours — incredibly fast for that time. The Northern Pacific had also just upgraded the passenger cars, adding barber and valet service, separate bath and showers for men and women, and even radios on board!



Santa Fe to Grand Canyon
October 25, 1947

The Santa Fe first built a spur line from Williams, Arizona, to the Grand Canyon in 1901. In 1905, it completed construction of the famous El Tovar Hotel, operated by the Fred Harvey Company. It was located right on the South Rim of the Canyon, just 300 feet from the railroad station.



Union Pacific to Bryce Canyon
April 10, 1948

The Utah Parks Company, run by the Union Pacific Railway, managed several inns and lodges in Cedar City, Utah. From there, rail passengers would be driven by bus to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and other sites.




White/Union Pacific Buses
June 20, 1931

Starting business as a sewing-machine manufacturer, the White Company began making vehicles in 1900 and continued until 1980. The company developed its buses specifically to provide passenger service through the national parks. They were unique for their canvas tops, which could be rolled back for sightseeing in good weather. Today, 43 White buses are still providing transportation at Glacier and Yellowstone, as well as Gettysburg National Battlefield.


March 29, 1931

Greyhound Lines began in 1914, when an out-of-work car salesman offered rides to miners who wanted to hit the saloons in Alice, Minnesota. Within four years, his company had grown into a profitable 18-bus company. By the year of this ad, the company had combined 100 different bus lines and was offering service over 40,000 miles. Travelers often chose to take the bus because it was cheaper than the train.



U.S. Royal Cords
July 21, 1928

It would have been an intrepid motorist who drove the family to the parks back in the 1910s­. The western roads were often unpaved and filled with debris. Blowouts were a frequent, time-consuming annoyance to passengers. By the late 1920s, though, tires had become smaller and wider. The new profile made riding more comfortable. And reinforcements by cord fiber in the rubber made them more durable.



Oregon Highways
April 23, 1938

By 1938, federal programs like the CCC and WPA had expanded and improved the country’s highway system. For Americans fortunate enough to afford the car and gas (10 cents a gallon), the national parks were never more accessible.



Coca-ColaJune 13, 1931
June 13, 1931

The Old Faithful Inn, shown in this Coke ad, was built in 1905 and was operated by the Northern Pacific Railroad. Today, the park takes measures to keep bears and tourists far apart. Visitors are strictly warned against feeding bears — or giving them soft drinks.

Damming the Parks

“If the people of the United States want their Grand Canyon to remain as it is, they had better keep an eye on it,” Bernard DeVoto warned in a 1950 Post article. “Most people who have seen the Grand Canyon consider it our supreme natural spectacle. What would it look like if the Colorado River at the bottom of the gorge, the river that carved the gorge, were to be made a dry streambed?”

Read those words today, and your first thought might go to climate change, remembering the California drought headlines or a photo of the bleached river basin you saw on your smartphone at breakfast. But in 1950, DeVoto was protesting the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Project.

The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian was among the first to bring national opposition to the project’s three major dam proposals — Bridge Canyon, Echo Park, and Glen Canyon. Echo Park was the most controversial as it would cover most of Dinosaur National Monument, and in the end, only Glen Canyon Dam was built, but its benefits are still debated to this day.

The following is an excerpt from DeVoto’s 1950 article.

Shall We Let Them Ruin Our National Parks?

By Bernard DeVoto
Originally published on July 22, 1950

Read "Shall We Let Them Ruin Our National Parks?" by Benard DeVoto
Click here to read the entire article “Shall We Let Them Ruin Our National Parks?” by Benard DeVoto from the pages of The Saturday Evening Post, July 22, 1950.

Do you want these wild splendors kept intact for your kids to see? Then watch out for the Army Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation — because right where the scenery is, that’s where they want to build dams.

No one has asked the American people whether they want their sovereign rights, and those of their descendants, in their own publicly reserved beauty spots wiped out. Thirty-two million of them visited the National Parks in 1949. More will visit them this year. The attendance will keep on increasing as long as they are worth visiting, but a good many of them will not be worth visiting if engineers are let loose on them.

Most people who have seen the Grand Canyon consider it our supreme natural spectacle. What would it look like if the Colorado River at the bottom of the gorge, the river that carved the gorge, were to be made a dry streambed?

After the Green River flows out of Wyoming to cross parts of Northwestern Colorado and Northeastern Utah, it roars and riots through a series of deep, narrow canyons, one of which is named Lodore. If a dam were to transform the tempestuous Green in Lodore Canyon into a lake 500 feet deep, would you drive 2,000 miles to sail a dinghy there?

These and other areas of unmatched beauty or sublimity, which were made National Parks or National Monuments so that they could be preserved untouched forever, are in danger of being ruined by engineering projects. Should we let them be ruined?

The National Park Service is a bureau of the Department of the Interior, where, in appropriations, it is overshadowed by the Bureau of Reclamation, which builds dams. Though the Park Service has other duties, its primary job is to administer the National Parks and Monuments. The act of Congress which created it directed it “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The legally enacted policy cannot be misconstrued: the parks and monuments are to be preserved as they are naturally, without defacement. It has been maintained so far, though not without hard effort. Because some of these areas contain valuable minerals, timber, water resources, and water power, there have been many attempts to get the law changed so that they could be exploited. These attempts, which would ruin the parks if they succeeded, have heretofore usually been made by private groups intent on getting hold of public resources for their own profit.

In the last few years, however, a curious development has brought the National Park System under attack by two public agencies. Each of them has about a third of a billion dollars of public funds to spend every year, and so can exert incomparably more pressure than any corporation that ever cast a covetous eye on the wilderness beauties which were set aside for posterity to enjoy. One of these agencies is the Bureau of Reclamation, the other the Corps of (Army) Engineers. Their campaign of attrition raises fundamental questions about our grandchildren’s heritage of wilderness scenery. It also involves serious issues in regard to the power of Federal agencies to subvert public policy. How the campaign works and what hinges on it can be clearly seen in the current effort of the Bureau of Reclamation to get authorization, which is now not legally possible, to make over Lodore Canyon in Colorado.

The canyon was named and first traversed by the adventurous one-armed geologist, John Wesley Powell, on his exploration of the Green and Colorado rivers. It was on June 8, 1869, that he took his boats into this deep and narrow gorge. Confined between sandstone walls that are alternately overhanging and set back in terraces, the Green here becomes an unimaginably violent chaos of rapids, falls, whirlpools, sucks, and chutes. This 20-mile stretch is one of the most hazardous — and most spectacular — parts of the so-far-untamed Green River.

Here Is One of Our Great Scenic Areas

Before entering Lodore Canyon, the Green flows tranquilly through a mountain meadow called Brown’s Park. At the lower end of the canyon it emerges into another beautiful, high-walled valley which Powell named Echo Park. Massive rock formations rise from the floor of Echo Park, and here the Yampa River flows into the Green from the east, having just emerged from a narrow, twisting canyon wholly unlike Lodore, but equally overpowering. The Green then flows westward through two more canyons. The setting of these four canyons is a landscape of brilliantly colored, fantastically eroded mesas, buttes, mountains, gulches, and high basins. A panorama of fantasy, overwhelming to the imagination, this high rock desert has certain resemblances to the Bryce Canyon and Zion Canyon country and to Cedar Breaks, all in Utah, and to the setbacks and vistas of the Grand Canyon, which is in Arizona. But as each of these tremendous spectacles is, it is unique, of its own individual character and quality. It is one of the great scenic areas of the United States.

In 1938, Lodore Canyon, Yampa Canyon, Echo Park, the two subsidiary canyons and their rock-desert setting — 327 square miles all told — were made a National Monument and transferred from the public domain to the National Park System. If the area had been called, say, Green River National Monument, its nature and importance would have been self-evident in the name. But a National Monument already existed at its western edge, a small tract of 80 acres which had been set aside to protect the greatest known deposit of Mesozoic fossils, especially dinosaurs. The new reservation was added to this and the whole received the name of the original small part, Dinosaur National Monument. As a result, during the effort to keep a magnificent scenic wilderness from being defaced, many people have supposed that only the quarry where dinosaur fossils are excavated is at stake, though, as a matter of fact, the quarry has never been endangered.

When the monument was established, most of Brown’s Park was left outside the boundaries. This exclusion was made because, years earlier, the Reclamation Service — now the Bureau of Reclamation — had declared Brown’s Park a possible site for a reclamation project — that is, for a reservoir from which water could be pumped to irrigate a small area in Eastern Utah. The Bureau of Reclamation has by now abandoned whatever intention it may have had of so using Brown’s Park. But it has undertaken to construct a hydroelectric-power development in Dinosaur National Monument. Both the laws which govern power projects and those which protect the National Park System forbid the construction of power dams in National Parks and National Monuments. There are, however, various ways of skinning a cat if you are good with a skinning knife. No one has ever said that the Bureau of Reclamation isn’t.

In 1943, the First Assistant Secretary of the Interior made a “reclamation withdrawal” covering most of Dinosaur National Monument — that is, he officially declared it an area which could be used for reclamation projects. The “withdrawal” was almost certainly unauthorizable and therefore of no force. Furthermore, it was so smothered in administrative routine that, though it would destroy the monument, the National Park Service did not learn of it when it was made. On the basis of this questionable and semicovert withdrawal for reclamation — for irrigation — the bureau then began to plan a power development, which is prohibited. It proposed to build two dams with attendant power plants, one at Echo Park, the other at Split Mountain, farther down Green River. The estimated cost of the project is $207 million.

The National Park Service first heard of the project as a daydream of the Bureau of Reclamation in connection with a vast plan for the transformation of the West called the Colorado River Project. The Green River is, of course, part of the Colorado River system. It was, so to speak, a theoretical, just possible expedient to be tentatively considered in case equivalent results could be secured nowhere else in the Colorado River basin — and to be considered then only after exhaustive study and only after consultation with the National Park Service.

In spite of this understanding, and without consulting the Park Service or obtaining clearance from the Secretary of the Interior, the bureau laid the Dinosaur Monument project before the bodies that administer the interstate agreement which apportions water from the Colorado River. In February of this year those bodies recommended the immediate construction of Echo Park Dam. This would require legislation from Congress to authorize construction that is now prohibited in the monument — and the heat was on. Especially, the heat was on the Secretary of the Interior, one of whose duties is to protect the public interests — your interests — in the National Park System. The Western bloc worked smoothly. When Secretary Chapman ordered a public hearing, four Western senators and five Western congressmen appeared to add their testimony to that of embattled mayors and chambers of commerce that the nation would be well served by the abandonment of the policy which has protected the National Parks.

They Say It’s Necessary for Irrigation

The hearing disclosed that not only heat had been generated but much fog, or smoke screen, as well. The Echo Park and Split Mountain project is solely a power development, but it received much support it otherwise might not have got because it has been represented in the West, where irrigation is a sacred word, as an irrigation project. Again, the people of Utah have come, or have been led, to believe that water which the state has been allotted from the Colorado can be got to a still theoretical and prodigiously expensive reclamation project in Central Utah only from the reservoirs which the Bureau of Reclamation has planned in Dinosaur Monument. Actually, the bureau’s own plans show that this water is to be taken from another project, farther up Green River and outside the monument. Utah and neighboring states have come, or have been led, to believe that these dams are indispensable for storage water allotted them from the Colorado. Actually, the bureau plans to provide most of this storage at another dam far to the south of the monument, and the rest of it — if any more is needed for the allocations — could be provided at other sites outside the monument.

Finally, Utah believes that the sites of these dams are the only ones where power for its still-theoretical project could be generated, whereas there are many feasible sites outside Dinosaur Monument. And at the public hearing, Gen. U.S. Grant III, himself an engineer, showed that the use of one of these other sites would reduce the cost of the project by a third. Nevertheless, the various appeals mentioned above have been blended to make a really formidable confusion.

No Western state would receive any benefit from the construction of these dams inside the monument that could not be insured by alternative construction outside it. What about the people of the United States as a whole, whose property the monument is? On behalf of sectional and even local interests, the general public will have to pay the nonrecoverable cost, always a large fraction of the total cost, of a $207 million project. In return it will suffer the permanent ruin of an area of great natural beauty.

For it will be permanently ruined. If you cut down a forest, Nature will probably grow another one in the course of a few centuries, but if you change a river, a mountain or a canyon, you can never change it back again. The downriver dam in Dinosaur Monument would defile the mountain-park country along and below it and substitute a placid reservoir for the turbulent river above it. The other one, Echo Park Dam, would back water so far that throughout the whole extent of Lodore Canyon the Green River, the tempestuous, pulse-stirring river of John Wesley Powell, would become a mere millpond. The same would happen to Yampa Canyon.

Throughout both canyons the deep artificial lakes would engulf magnificent scenery, would reduce by from a fifth to a third the height of the precipitous walls, and would fearfully degrade the great vistas. Echo Park and its magnificent rock formations would be submerged. Dinosaur National Monument as a scenic spectacle would cease to exist.

A specious argument which has been used in connection with this assault on Dinosaur Monument is also a steadily increasing danger to other parts of the National Park System. We long ago passed the point where reclaimed Western land could repay the cost of the projects that reclaimed it, as it was originally intended to do. If it costs several hundred dollars an acre to make land worth $50 an acre, the rest of the cost must be charged to something besides reclamation. If the project includes the production of electricity, the sale of power will take care of part of the remainder. If it includes flood protection — and, nowadays, try to find any dam on any babbling brook that is not supposed to — whatever fraction of the remainder can be allocated to flood control can be written off altogether, since the whole country benefits from reduction of flood losses. But honest cost accounting ends right there; no additional economic justification can be found. Hence the Bureau of Reclamation has begun to publicize a shimmering but carefully unanalyzed value which it calls “recreation.”

If the bureau can successfully allege that its projects create facilities for recreation, then it can charge to them as much of the uneconomic cost as it is able to get away with. Nobody doubts that the American people need facilities for recreation and will need more of them as our population increases. But what kind, where, at what cost, and who shall pay for them? Should we write off $10 million of the cost of an irrigation project because it will provide bass fishing for one North Dakota county? Should Philadelphia and Birmingham be taxed to provide sailboating for Las Vegas?

If it is able to force the Echo Park project through, the Bureau of Reclamation will build some fine highways along the reservoirs. Anyone who travels the 2,000 miles from New York City — or 1,200 from Galveston or 1,000 from Seattle — will no doubt enjoy driving along those roads. He can also do still-water fishing where, before the bureau took benevolent thought of him, he could do only white-water fishing, and he can go boating or sailing on the reservoirs that have obliterated the scenery.

But the New Yorker can go motoring along the Palisades, boating in Central Park, sailing at Larchmont and fishing at many places within an hour of George Washington Bridge. No one will ever drive 2,000 miles to row a boat; no one will ever seek recreation in a National Park except the kind for which the “pleasuring ground” was created — the unique experience of awe and wonder that an untouched wilderness spectacle provides. The only reason why anyone would ever go to Dinosaur National Monument is to see what the Bureau of Reclamation proposes to destroy.

But keeping informed about such attacks on the National Parks is extremely difficult. These plans may be vital for the future of the West, and the future of the West is vitally important to the United States. But the people have no adequate idea of how sound the plans may be, how far some of them may fail, how much money may be wasted. Engineers of unimpeachable professional standing have asserted that large parts of them are mistakenly conceived or even potentially disastrous. But the public has no chance to judge.

It is, in fact, almost impossible to bring effective criticism to bear on the projects of these two agencies. As far as the individual citizen is concerned, the data are kept secret. They are not publicized outside the West and only the favorable ones are publicized there. By the time a project is laid before Congress it has already been decided upon, the local interests have been organized and the Western senators and representatives — one of the most powerful blocs in Congress — have been lined up. Within the West there is severe infighting for the allocation of projects, but when it comes to getting projects to be allocated, there are neither state nor party lines: there is only a solid West. The Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Engineers have a vested institutional interest in the West, the interest not only of continuing to function but of expanding and growing more powerful. They have vast sums of money to spend. Their preliminary planners, field agents, and entire official hierarchy readily lay down the shovel and the hoe, and pick up the microphone at any hint that their plans may be interfered with or even inquired into. Both are able to summon to their support an organized political pressure that only nationwide public opinion could defeat.

That is the larger picture into which the assault on the National Parks fits. Unquestionably, the national interest requires the parks and monuments to be preserved unmarred, as they were intended to be.

No emergency serious enough to justify invading the National Park System arose during either World War. No emergency is in sight now. But with as much time for planning as might be required, with promising and perhaps better alternatives only cursorily investigated, the Bureau of Reclamation is able to threaten Dinosaur National Monument with destruction. And probably the bureau’s hand was not idle in a California agitation that has succeeded in introducing into Congress a bill to investigate all the possible power sites in Kings Canyon National Park. This park preserves the most magnificent mountain country in California outside Yosemite Park. Its boundaries were drawn so as to exclude areas which ought to have been included, but which were left out precisely because they were valuable power sites. The Engineers threaten Mammoth Cave with a dam which even Kentucky does not want. They threaten Glacier Park with a dam which they formally agreed not to build.

If any of these attempts should succeed, the law which protects the parks will be circumvented and there will be no protecting any of them from similar impairment thereafter. The parks do not belong to any bureau, any group of planners or engineers, any state or section. They belong to all of us. Do we want them? Will our grandchildren want them?

More on National Parks here.

National Park To-Do List

Many Americans think of our national parks as places to go and see the sights, but there are so many things you can do in there, as well. Here are just a few of the fun excursions you can enjoy in our national parks:


HUNT on a trail back through time at Dinosaur National Monument, you can search for fossils (no, you don’t get to keep them).

Woman cleaning dinosaur bone in fieldtional Monument (NPS photo)
Paleontological field work at Dinosaur National Monument (NPS photo)


SOAK at Hot Springs National Park.

Bathhouse and tulips
Hale Bathhouse on Bathhouse Row (NPS photo)


RIDE on horseback at Gettysburg National Military Park. See the battlefield the way the cavalry did.

Field with wooden fence and blooming dogwood trees
Dogwoods blooming in spring at Gettysburg (NPS photo)


GLIDE through a river of grass at Everglades National Park.

person kayaking on river
Kayaking in mangrove tunnels in Everglades National park, Florida, USA (mariakraynova/Shutterstock)


ROLL on a train to Grand Canyon National Park. Arrive in style like the earliest tourists did.

Railroad on track
The Grand Canyon Railway (NPS photo)


MUSH on a dogsled in Denali National Park.

Man on dog sled
Dogsledding in Denali National Park (NPS photo)

Saving America’s Living Monuments

When newspapers began printing reports in 1852 of the massive redwoods found along the West Coast, Americans took notice. Whether it was the fact that they were unique to the United States, their longevity, or their sheer size and strength, these giant sequoias stirred in us a sense of pride and patriotism. U.S. naturalists, for example, would have none of it when a British scientist wanted to name the giant redwood after the British general who defeated Napoleon. In fact, the redwood trees in California’s Mariposa Grove were among the first beneficiaries of federal protection when President Lincoln signed “The Yosemite and Big Tree Grant” in 1864, ceding land from Yosemite and Mariposa to the state of California.

But not all the nation’s redwood forests benefited from such protection. Although the Sequoia giganteum, the giant redwood, was of poor quality for lumber, the Sequoia sempervirens, the coastal redwood, was highly prized. The housing boom that accompanied the California Gold Rush turned acres of redwoods into homes. The rebuilding effort after a massive earthquake rocked San Francisco and left it burning for days also depleted the redwood forests, as did another housing boom after World War II.

Conservationists had their work cut out for them, but work they did. In the feature that follows — from the Post of February 7, 1953 — Horace Albright, the second director of the National Park Service, tells the story of a campaign that raised more than $5 million to save 60,000 acres of “the Big Trees” for the public.

Today, roughly 5 percent of California’s virgin redwood forests remain, thanks to the ongoing efforts of conservation groups like the Sempervirens Club, the Save the Redwoods League, and others.

How We Saved the Big Trees

By Horace M. Albright with Frank J. Taylor

February 7, 1953


The mighty redwoods would be practically extinct today — if it hadn’t been for a 30-year crusade of dickering, swapping, money raising, and political trading. Here, by the ex-boss of our National Parks, is the story behind that garnering of $5,000,000 and the saving of 60,000 acres of sequoias.  

One day last summer Bernard M. Baruch, who delights in philosophizing on park benches, found himself in a unique setting. On his 82nd birthday, the sage elder statesman sat on a log beneath the world’s tallest living thing, a 364-foot redwood known as The Founders’ Tree in California’s fragrant, cathedral-like Humboldt State Park, and cogitated.

“I have sat upon many park benches, but never before on one in such a setting as this,” mused Baruch. “In the shade of this majestic tree, a man may refresh his spirit, drawing upon the strength and beauty of this living column.”

Many people have drawn strength from these forest giants, some of them thousands of years old. One distinguished visitor, Sir George Campbell, a British representative at the birth of the United Nations in San Francisco, even urged his fellow delegates to “meet outdoors in the great redwood forests”

Most of the people who experience this spiritual lift take the Big Tree groves for granted. The Big Trees were always there; they always will be. It comes as a jolting shock to learn that, except for the dedicated 30-year battle of a small group of Big Tree enthusiasts, most of these magnificent groves would have been stumps by now. Also, to discover that there are still some Big Trees yet to be saved from the lumbermen’s saws.

Along with other zealots, I have been up to my eyebrows in the intriguing, and at times baffling, hobby of saving the Big Trees. Outside of national parks, we don’t want to save all the Big Trees, only the so-called “museum stands.” These are the occasional groves so outstanding in beauty, setting, size, and age that they should be preserved and protected for posterity. We think our grandchildren and their children ought to be able to enjoy these samples of the primitive beauty of the land as it was before the white man applied his ruthless civilizing process to the continent.

Now you would think it would be fairly easy to set aside a few groves of Big Trees out of the vast primeval forests that once blanketed much of our land. It wasn’t. It has turned out to be one of the most difficult projects ever attempted. In fact, nothing short of a crusade could have recovered a small part of the heritage we allowed to slip away through negligence and chicanery.

I was first caught up in this cause in 1915, when I was assistant to Stephen T. Mather, founder and first director of the National Park Service, and the most zealous tree saver of us all. Later, succeeding him as director, I was in a position to spearhead the drive for a while. Since I quit public service in 1933 to head the United States Potash Company, I have devoted time and energy to helping complete the job. Being in the mining business, which utilizes something left for us beneath the earth by time and nature, I feel it my duty to help restore some of our natural resources for future generations. I still keep in touch with national and state park affairs and serve on boards and committees of conservation organizations, including the Save-the-Redwoods League. Not a year passes without some tree-saving project having my attention, and I am in constant touch with Newton B. Drury, secretary of the Save-the-Redwoods League for 20 years, director of the National Park Service for 10 years, and now chief of the California state-park system.

It took a lot of dickering, swapping, money raising and political jockeying to recover the thousands of acres of forest land that have been restored to the people. The Founders’ Tree, under which Bernie Baruch sat, is named for three farsighted visionaries, Pres. Henry Fairfield Osborn, of the American Museum of Natural History; Dr. John C. Merriam, of the University of California, later head of the Carnegie Institution in Washington; and Pres. Madison Grant, of the New York Zoological Society. I came near being the fourth horseman in this founders’ group, when, in the summer of 1917, I met Osborn, Merriam, and Grant at the Bohemian Grove, a small but impressive stand of redwoods saved from destruction by the Bohemian Club of San Francisco. They asked me to join them in a scouting trip into the redwood lumbering belt, where they heard that the Big Trees were being wiped out like so many cornstalks. Unfortunately, I was unable to go.

When Osborn, Merriam, and Grant returned from the scenes of devastation, there was fire in their eyes. They lost no time in organizing the Save-the-Redwoods League, with the enthusiastic aid of Steve Mather, former Congressman William Kent, and leaders of California’s Sierra Club. Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, was the first president, and today his ashes rest in Lane Grove, a memorial to him amid the redwoods. Starting with $100 in the kitty, these men launched what is undoubtedly the greatest private conservation movement on record, one that has raised over $5,000,000, for the most part matched with state funds, to purchase some 60,000 acres of sequoias for the public. Although the league was interested mainly in saving redwoods, its example led to the recovery of many acres of other museum stands of virgin timber — sugar pine, yellow or ponderosa pine, Douglas and other firs, spruce, Eastern hardwoods, swamp cypress, even desert saguaros and Joshua trees — all over the country.

To most people, the Big Trees are the sequoias, popularly called redwoods. There are two kinds of sequoia — the gigantea and the sempervirens. Remotely related, the two types of redwood have quite different growing habits, which added to our problems in saving them.

The gigantea, or Big Tree, which is the bulkiest and oldest living thing, survives from pre-glacial days only in damp, sheltered glades from 3,000 to 8,000 feet high on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada range. They have massive trunks insulated with spongy, reddish, almost-fireproof bark, and some of them are nearly 40 feet in diameter. Shallow-rooted, they balance on the surface, probably bulking over 3,000 tons. They sprout only from seed, and mature only after a millennium of growth. There are estimates of about 17,000 gigantea, 10 feet or more in diameter, growing in 70 small groves, extant out of ancient forests that are believed to have once grown widely in every Northern Hemisphere continent. These, generally speaking, are not only quite inaccessible to loggers, but the trees make inferior lumber, because of the brittleness of the wood.

The sempervirens, or coastal redwoods, on the other hand, thrive in the foggy, low regions from the Oregon border to below Big Sur, and fully 60 miles south of Monterey. Too numerous to count, they make excellent lumber, which is highly prized and high-priced. They are easily accessible by road and by railroad, and have been lumbered for a century. Not so thick of girth as the gigantea, they are taller and more graceful. Their grayish-brown bark is also almost fireproof. They grow in a dense, nearly unbroken forest that blankets valleys and hillsides in a narrow belt along the Northern California coast.

In one respect, the coastal redwoods are miracle trees. Soon after a monster is felled, its stump sends out hundreds of shoots. Within half a century a dozen survivors grow into marketable timber trees 100 feet tall. Hence their name, “sequoia everliving.” This reproductive facility made it all the harder to acquire stands of coast redwoods for park purposes, because timber owners are reluctant to part with redwood lands, even those that are cut over. They regard a stand of second-growth redwoods more highly than money in the bank.

When the Save-the-Redwoods crusade was launched in 1917 to protect some of these giants from the ax, there were only four small groves in public ownership. The state of California had one small grove set aside in Big Basin, near Santa Cruz, for a public park; Santa Cruz and Sonoma counties each had a small grove; and the Federal Government owned Muir Woods National Monument in the sheltered canyon at the base of Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco.

The Muir Grove had been bought by Congressman William Kent, who presented it to President Theodore Roosevelt for a national monument to thwart the plans of a local water company, which planned to flood the canyon for a reservoir. Kent had introduced a bill in Congress to authorize the purchase by the Federal Government of a sizable coast-redwood grove for a national park. When this was pigeonholed, Kent and his friend Mather concluded the only way to get another Federal grove was to raise money privately and buy it. With the Save-the-Redwoods League, they plotted to that end by stationing a large open automobile in the redwood area for what they called their “$10,000 tour,” a courtesy trip for anyone of means who might be inspired by a ride through the Big Tree groves to reach for his checkbook and help purchase a few trees.

To point up their sales talk, Mather and Kent took the tour themselves, with amusing results. On the Eel River in Humboldt County, they undertook to inspire some money-raising on a local level. Carried away by his own eloquence, Mather pledged $15,000 for himself, and an equal amount for Kent. This took Kent completely by surprise, but, being a man of means as well as a good sport, he wrote out his check to match Mather’s. That fattened the bank account of the Save-the-Redwoods League.

Later, in 1921, when the league was urging the California legislature to appropriate $300,000 to match private donations for the purchase of park areas, I was on a committee with Kent, Drury, and Dr. William Frederic Bade, president of the Sierra Club, to journey to Sacramento to appear before a joint senate-assembly committee considering appropriations. The legislators quickly endorsed our project, but thrifty Gov. William D. Stephens was so lukewarm, we feared he would veto the bill. Kent had known Stephens intimately when both were congressmen from California, so we decided to call on him.

The governor explained that the state was poor and the schools needed money, and he just couldn’t see spending the $300,000 for some trees. Kent leaped to his feet, pounded on the table, and shouted, “Hell, Bill, shut the schools down! The kids would enjoy it and it would only take them a year or two to make the work up! If these trees all go, it will take two thousand years to make them up!”

The governor signed the bill. The state funds enabled the league, which grew rapidly to 4,000 members, to double its purchases. Each of the league members contributed yearly, and there were some fat donations, particularly after the founders had lured some of their well-to-do friends into taking “the tour.” The $5,000,000 ultimately raised by the league, matched by state money, has bought 60 separate stands of trees along the Redwood Highway.

Mather hit the jackpot in 1926, when he induced John D. Rockefeller Jr., with his wife and three of his sons, to take the tour. After the trip, Mr. Rockefeller pledged $2,000,000 to purchase the Bull Creek Grove, near Dyerville, generally regarded as the most stately and beautiful forest in the world. A shy man, he declined to have the family name attached to the grove, and it has taken a quarter of a century, during which he has contributed many millions for tree buying in Yosemite, the Grand Teton-Jackson Hole country, Great Smokies, Acadia National Park and other areas as well, to persuade him to let the California Park Commission officially rename the Bull Creek stand The Rockefeller Redwood Forest.

Today the screens of big trees saved by the league line much of the Redwood Highway, making it one of the world’s inspiring scenic drives. But for the zeal of the Save-the-Redwoods League, it might have been a pavement running through 200 miles of desolation. Fortunately, the larger redwood companies played ball with us and kept their logging crews away from the highway until the league could raise money to buy the groves selected for purchase.

Saving the Big Trees in the Sierra Nevada was a more complicated task for several reasons. Some of these groves were privately owned, some were in national parks, a few in national forests. Though the giant redwoods made poor lumber, they always grew among stands of pines, firs and cedars coveted by the lumbering interests, and it was almost impossible to cut these trees without damaging the sequoias. Anyway, a Big Tree forest without pines, firs, cedars, and native shrubs all growing naturally and in a primitive state would not be worth saving. So everything had to be acquired.

Few Americans understand the peculiar status of their public domain. They assume that if timber is in the national forests, it is safe, but forget that the United States Forest Service is an agency charged by law to sell timber and to see that it is cut scientifically and profitably — except for occasional “primitive areas” which have been set aside to save primeval forest for inspirational and recreational uses. The conservation agency charged with protecting natural wonders, sublime scenery, and public forests unchanged for posterity is the National Park Service. One of the ironies of the situation is that millions of acres were allowed to slip from public ownership back in the ’80s and ’90s for less than two dollars an acre; today it is with difficulty that we buy the same tracts of timber back for $1,000 an acre, or even more. Many Big Tree groves were fraudulently filed upon in the easy-go days when the Federal Government was eager to settle the West fast. The giant sequoias almost always grow in or near damp glades, where their roots can pump up millions of gallons of water in the course of a year. In the spring and early summer, these glades are swampy. So many Big Trees were finagled into private hands under the infamous Swamp and Overflow Act — since repealed — which encouraged private enterprisers to drain swamps and turn them into productive farmlands.

Many were the wiles and stratagems of the timber hunters, as William B. Greeley, former head of the United States Forest Service, points out in his book, Forests and Men: “Agents of the General Land Office finally checked some S. and O. claims in California, whose swampy character seemed to coincide most strangely, 40 by 40, with choice stands of redwood timber. The locator had attested to the marshy nature of the ground by a sworn statement that he had crossed it in a bateau. What further proof could any reasonable official ask? His affidavit neglected to include a minor detail that the bateau was mounted on axles and wheels, and drawn across the sections of dry land by a yoke of oxen.”

Luckily, the first lumbermen who attempted to turn the Sequoia gigantea into boards found that they had tackled more than they could handle. The Big Trees were simply too huge, as became evident in a ghastly way in the Converse Grove on the western edge of Kings Canyon National Park. Here, 40 years after the lumbering was attempted, lay giant trunks scattered over an alpine basin, shattered into many pieces as they crashed to earth. The lumbermen departed, leaving the logs on the ground, after felling once-majestic trees that were giants when the Christian Era began.

After that debacle, the giant sequoia groves were safe from destruction for a time, for the selfish reason that it did not pay to make lumber of them. As John Muir, the implacable mountaineer, naturalist, and founder of the Sierra Club, once remarked, “No doubt these trees would make lumber after passing through a sawmill, just as George Washington, after passing through the hands of a French cook, would have made food.” Nevertheless, Big Trees are being lumbered this year in the Dillon Grove on the edge of Sequoia National Park, one tree having yielded over 7,000 grape stakes. Spurred by high prices, lumbermen are splitting the huge trunks with enormous wedges, driven by bulldozers, then hauling them off to the sawmills.

The first museum stand of these Big Trees earmarked for posterity was the Mariposa Grove, now in Yosemite National Park. It was ceded by Congress in 1864 to the state of California, becoming the first state park in the United States. It was returned to the Federal Government in 1906. Two landmarks in this grove — the Wawona Tree, so huge that sightseeing busses drive through it, and the Grizzly Giant — are rated by botanists as among the oldest living things on earth.

Sequoia National Park was created in 1890, specifically to save several fine Big Tree stands, but the superlative grove of the area, the Giant Forest, was already in private hands, as a result of a filing under the Swamp and Overflow Act. Almost half a century passed before the people got it back. By that time the Giant Forest was cluttered with shacks, an eyesore in one of Nature’s noblest temples. In 1915, Steve Mather obtained an option to buy the grove for $50,000. By the time Congress got around to appropriating the money, the option had expired and the owners were demanding $20,000 more. Fearful that the price would go still higher, Mather took his troubles to Pres. Gilbert Grosvenor and the trustees of the National Geographic Society, with the result that the society made available the funds to complete the purchase of this magnificent property. The General Sherman Tree, probably the largest in the world, is in the Giant Forest.

Mather made other purchases out of his own funds and with the aid of gifts from friends. Several of these deals took place concurrently with the Teapot Dome and Elk Hills scandals, which got Mather’s superior, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, into much trouble because he had accepted financial assistance from oilman Edward L. Doheny. Mather used to boast that he “took money from Doheny.” When pressed to explain what he did with the money, Mather always replied, “I bought Big Trees.” Mather, Doheny, Sen. W. F. Chandlery of Fresno, and George Eastman, the camera magnate, put up the cash to purchase the forests along the roads in Sequoia National Park.

By the time the National Park Service was created in 1916, logging railroads had pushed into the Yosemite National Park area, threatening devastation along all three approaches — the Wawona, the Big Oak Flat and the Coulterville roads. Mather, when he took over as director of the National Park Service, could foresee the day when travelers to Yosemite’s grandeur would have to motor more miles through devastated mountainside. Unable to persuade Congress to buy back the timber the Government’s land agents had virtually given to lumbering interests, Mather utilized authority granted in a 1912 Act of Congress and undertook to swap trees along the much-used Wawona road.

The plan was to trade the lumber companies out of screens of sugar pines, yellow pines, cedars, red, white, and Douglas firs by offering them other timber lands inside the park, in areas not visible from the roads. Although the lumber companies agreed in theory to the program, it wasn’t so easy to work out in practice. The loggers demanded bonuses for changing their operations, for moving their railroads and camps, for selective cutting within the park, and for going to the remote areas.

The screens of trees we wanted varied from 200 feet to half a mile in width, depending on the terrain and the view. We couldn’t have the strips too narrow or the timber might be blown down in violent storms; we didn’t want them too wide or the timber would cost too much. It took four years to work out the swaps to save some 10,000 acres of carefully chosen stands of trees. We gave the lumber companies a lot more than they gave us, but we got the Big Trees we wanted, all the way along a new mountain highway, then projected and since completed. The south entrance to the park was saved.

That left the north entrance, via Big Oak Flat, still in danger of devastation. Much of the mountainside outside the park was already cut over, and the loggers had left a scenic mess, if I ever saw one. Unfortunately, we didn’t have comparable timber to exchange on this side of the park, so the swapping idea was out. While working on this pressing problem, Director Mather’s health failed, and then it was up to me to save the timber along these two roads. I had to do it fast or the fine forests would be beyond salvation. The only way to preserve them was to buy the timber back at around five dollars per 1,000 board feet for trees, mostly sugar pine, that we could have bought for two dollars per 1,000 ten years before. It would take a lot of money — over $3,000,000 — to do the job. Even so, in retrospect it was a bargain; fine sugar pine today is worth $45 to $50 per 1,000.

First I talked with Rep. Louis Cramton, of Michigan, and with other congressional leaders who controlled the purse strings, and asked them if they would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to match, dollar for dollar, any money I could raise from private sources. This looked like a bargain to them, so they told me to go ahead. While I was wondering where to turn for money, Nicholas Roosevelt, New York Times writer and wilderness enthusiast, visited Yosemite National Park. He wandered afoot among the huge pine and fir forests, took pictures of the areas being devastated by the loggers, and reported what he had seen so graphically in the Times that it aroused John D. Rockefeller Jr. to quick action. He offered to match, dollar for dollar, whatever the Federal Government put up to buy the trees.

We had the money, but we still didn’t have the trees, because there were two big lumber interests involved, and they were hard traders. One was Jim Tyson, an old-time timber operator and as tough a dealer as I have ever encountered. The other, Alexander Fleming, was a benefactor of California Institute of Technology, who took the attitude that the more dollars he could extract from the Rockefellers, the more it meant for his favorite charity. Luckily, when he had just about bogged down and the fate of the trees was dismal indeed, the San Francisco bankers who had financed the lumbermen and who knew they were losing money at the time on their logging operations cracked down and forced them to accept our offer of $3,300,000 for 15,560 acres of timber. Mr. Rockefeller put up half and Congress voted the other half. Thus we were able to restore to Yosemite National Park much of the valuable land and timber lost in the earlier days.

Farther north are the Calaveras Big Tree Groves, majestic stands of giant sequoias, intermingled with tall and stately sugar and yellow pines, firs, and cedars. Although the Calaveras Groves were not designated park areas, we had planned to get these fine trees in public ownership since 1924, when Mather and I first went in on horseback to see them. Discovered by A.T. Dowd, a miner, in 1852, the Calaveras Big Trees were famous long before Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove and Sequoia’s Giant Forest were known.

The first reports of the gold seekers as to the size of the Calaveras trees were regarded as tall tales. To prove the reports true, five loggers spent 22 days felling one of the giants, after which they smoothed off the stump to make a dance floor twenty-five feet across. The bark from a section of this giant, thirty feet in length, was skinned off the log and sent to London, where a room was built of it in an effort to convince skeptics. Thus the North Calaveras Grove became one of the wonders of the world for early-day travelers to visit. It was made a state park in 1932.

What the thousands of visitors to this grove didn’t know was that a few miles distant, in the Stanislaus River watershed, was another stand of sequoias even more magnificent. This is the South Calaveras Grove, owned by the Pickering Lumber Company, of Kansas City. The South Grove was in no critical danger in 1924, when we visited it via foresters’ trails, so we concentrated our efforts on saving trees about to be felled. Today it is a different story. As a result of the postwar building boom and the increased demand for lumber, the loggers are on the very edge of the South Calaveras Grove. In fact, it is in deadly peril, and saving it is our major objective right now.

In the North Calaveras Grove deal, the Save-the-Redwoods League put up $72,000 and the Calaveras Grove Association raised $32,000. The state matched this money out of a $6,000,000 fund set aside several years ago to acquire sites for state parks. The South Calaveras Grove deal is even more involved. The standing timber has skyrocketed in value, and this means we have to raise millions where we used to raise hundreds of thousands. More than $2,000,000 in cash may be required, half of it to come from private donations, half from the state’s fund. The United States Forest Service is helping out by ceding to the state of California a strip of sugar-pine-and-fir acreage for a parkway between the two groves of sequoias. The Forest Service will also swap other timber for sugar pines owned by the private lumber interests lying immediately north of the South Grove. The sugar pine has been called “our most handsome tree” and “The Queen of the Sierras.”

The spectacular success of the Save-the-Redwoods League inspired similar tree-saving drives in other states. In fact, the movement gained such momentum that in 1921, Mather organized in Des Moines the National Conference on State Parks and set up a small division of the National Park Service to aid state park drives. He kicked off one of the first of these personally around a campfire on Mt. Rainier, where the Washington State Park plan was born in 1921. The Save-the-Trees drive in that state concentrated on the approaches to Mt. Rainier National Park, and on the Olympic National Park, in which thrives a unique rain forest of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, Western red cedar, and hemlock, giants reaching 200 feet into the sky, with trunks 10 feet through. One Douglas fir in Olympic Park is over 17 feet through, and the largest Alaska cedar ever found, located in this park, is 20 feet in diameter. The annual rainfall of 140 inches a year accounts for the growth.

Usually these state drives gave birth to state parks, but occasionally to a national park. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains more than 500,000 acres, with upward of 200,000 acres covered with virgin forests consisting of 130 species of native trees, including many hardwoods. It was acquired with a $5,000,000 contribution from John D. Rockefeller Jr. in honor of his mother, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, matched by a similar sum from the states of North Carolina and Tennessee. This great park was officially dedicated in 1940.

Ten years later, Mr. Rockefeller saved an 1,100-acre tract of virgin Eastern forest on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. When our option on this tract, which also included the superb Linville Falls and Gorge, was about to expire without his offer to contribute one half the purchase price being matched, he wired me to acquire the property even if he had to meet the entire cost. He did and the sum was $95,000.

There are still notable stands of native trees in peril, and the danger is that with so much accomplished, the people will become complacent and say we have enough trees in public ownership. Idaho may have enough, Washington may have, and likewise Maine. But with our fast-increasing population, we need more public forests in more states. We don’t want to save all the redwoods, or all the sugar pines, or all the hardwoods. All we hope to do is to keep intact for as long as the trees live the finer groves in which public enjoyment outvalues manyfold the dollar earnings from harvesting timber.

National Parks at 100

The long lonely call hung in the night, with notes from a musical scale known only to canines. The next morning, a ranger would tell me it was a coyote, but at that moment — and even now, remembering — I’d swear it was a wolf: one call, not many, and lower-pitched than the coyotes I’d heard before. The difference between a cello and a chorus of pennywhistles.

I was more than 2,000 miles into a 3,000-mile walk along the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, hiking from Mexico to Canada through five states, 25 national forests, and Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks. After more than four months, the routines of wilderness living — sleep eat walk eat walk eat sleep — were as comfortable as my broken-in boots; so were the daily chores of route finding, fording rivers, stepping around rattlesnakes, and hanging food in trees where bears presumably couldn’t requisition it. But the wildness of northern Wyoming was a different order of magnitude, and something had shifted inside me. For the first time, I was acutely aware of just how thin the nylon barrier was that separated me from whatever lurked outside.

The next morning, the ranger talked wildlife. Moose injured more tourists than bears, he said, and buffalo were dangerous, too. Visitors got gored, or stomped on: 1,500-pound animals with unpredictable temperaments made lousy selfie-plus-a-wild-beast subjects. As for bears: According to the National Park Service, between 1980 and 2014, there were 45 human injuries caused by grizzly bears in the backcountry, an average of one per year — which means, according to some statistical modeling magic, that the odds of a visitor being injured by a bear in Yellowstone are 1 in 2.2 million.

But statistics are only reassuring in theory. Back in reality, the trail I’d wanted to take was closed because a grizzly mom and cubs had been sighted in the area. A parallel trail was still open. I wondered aloud if the bears knew which trail was for them and which trail was for us. The ranger laughed and sat back looking unworried, but then he carried a gun. I carried a can of bear mace, holstered in a pouch attached to the hipbelt of my backpack. I considered just how fast I could pull it out, pop the safety, aim, and spray. Even if I were the fastest draw in the West, as a defense against the contiguous 48’s most fearsome predator, my weapon felt as insubstantial as the tent I’d lain awake in the night before.

The trail I’d wanted to take was closed because a grizzly mom and cubs had been sighted in the area.

I headed up the Snake River, presumably away from the mother bear. The trail loosely paralleled the Continental Divide through the remote southern borderlands of Yellowstone National Park. A bush shifted in the breeze — or was that a bear? A cloud made a shadow on a boulder — or maybe it was a bear cub? Ahead, a plume of smoke drifted lazily upward. A forest fire? Campsite? But no: It was a backcountry geyser basin spouting sulfurous steam; a faint odor of rotten egg hung in the air. You could believe the border between Earth and hell had broken open here, that the cauldrons of the underworld spewed their stinking concoctions into the clear mountain air. With my mind on grizzly bears, I’d completely forgotten where I was. There were no signs, no boardwalks, no warnings, no guardrails: I saw my first Yellowstone geyser much the same way John Colter, usually credited with being the first European to explore Yellowstone, might have seen it: as a complete surprise.

We have only handed-down hearsay for the details: Colter had earlier been a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which passed north of Yellowstone in 1806 but missed it entirely. A few months later, as the expedition was drawing to its close, Colter was honorably discharged in order to guide a trapping party back west toward the Upper Missouri. He spent the next four years exploring the northern Rockies, including the region we now know as Yellowstone. Colter was among that self-selected subset of people who think that walking across half a continent and back was a fine way to pass a year or two. When he finally returned east in 1810, he brought stories of adventures and close brushes with death. Audiences thrilled to his tale of Blackfoot Indians who killed Colter’s traveling companion and then stripped him naked and told him to run, telling him if they caught him, he would die. But Colter’s descriptions of the landscape were so over-the-top that they were greeted with skepticism and the mocking name “Colter’s Hell”; audiences were more apt to believe tales of Indian attacks than stories of gushing geysers and foaming fumaroles.

Steam engine:
Yellowstone is home to half the world’s geysers. One of 500 in the park, Lone Star Geyser erupts every three hours. (Shutterstock)

Jim Bridger, who explored Yellowstone in the 1820s, fared no better where believability was concerned. In part, that was his own fault: His descriptions of waterfalls falling upward and “petrified trees with petrified birds singing petrified songs” were embellished — okay, slightly more than embellished. But there was truth at the core: What Bridger called a mountain of glass we now know as Obsidian Cliffs, and there is indeed a place where a fish can swim across the Continental Divide — I’ve seen it with my own eyes how the water of Two Ocean Creek runs down the Divide, slows at a saddle, then splits in half, although the only thing that crossed the divide when I was there was a little twig I had tossed in the water to see which ocean it would turn toward.

And so it went. The few people who made their way to remote northwestern Wyoming and returned with stories of geological oddities were roundly thought to be liars. Philadelphia’s Lippincott Magazine rejected one expedition’s story about Yellowstone, saying, “We don’t print fiction.”

And then, in the way of tectonic plates that rearrange themselves to create a new reality, the weight of evidence shifted. Finally, there were too many reports to ignore. Fact was, indeed, stranger than fiction: In a little-known corner of northwestern Wyoming, rivers boiled, mud pots bubbled, and geysers spouted, all in a mountain landscape rich with wildlife and forests.

Here’s the part I find remarkable: Those in the know — the explorers and surveyors and expedition members who were there first — the ones who could have claimed the land, built it up, maybe even ruined it, didn’t.

Instead, there was a consensus of sorts, so widespread that historians still argue whose idea it was, that Yellowstone should be protected for future generations. In 1872, it became the first national park. Not an amusement park. Not part of some commercial boondoggle. Simply a park, with essential services and infrastructure to handle visitors, and the goal of protecting the landscape, unspoiled and undeveloped, for the future. Over the next 44 years, another 34 national parks and monuments would be established and then gathered together into the National Park Service, established by an Act of Congress in 1916. Wallace Stegner called the national parks America’s “best idea,” one that inspired national park systems around the world. Today, 100 years later, America’s National Park Service manages more than 400 units ranging from caves to coral reefs to the St. Louis Gateway Arch to former Japanese internment camps to enormous country-sized swaths of Arctic wildlands — including examples of virtually every environment, ecosystem, and landform to be found in the country.

Into thin air: At 13,153 feet, Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevadas is the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail. (Shutterstock)

I can’t think of a single thing in my daily routine that is the same as it would have been when the National Park Service was founded 100 years ago: I heat my house with oil, I make coffee in an electric espresso machine, I bank by computer, and I read books on a tablet. But the national parks seem to be places where time stands still: the ranger uniforms, the appropriately rustic buildings, the wooden signs; everything covered with park-service brown-and-green. And the backcountry, where hiking trails act as a sort of time machine, leading us to a world stripped to simple essentials. In modern life, we forget what it means to travel the way most of humanity did for almost all of history, at two or three miles an hour. We forget what a mile actually means. Walking into the backcountry of our national parks, we remember.

Consider this: In the High Sierra of California, following the Pacific Crest Trail across Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia national parks, you can hike a full 200 miles — the entire straight-line distance between Washington, D.C., and New York City, and considerably more than the distance between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington — without seeing a single road, car, cell tower, fence, electric line, or human settlement.

It’s the oldest cliché in the book: largeness of landscape, smallness of human. But when you’re standing atop a high pass looking ahead to the prospect of walking some 500,000 steps, give or take, over mountains, feeling small isn’t so much a cliché as an acute realization of exactly how your all-too-human body measures up against an untamed landscape of high peaks and passes.

Going to Extremes

Facts and figures about our national parks

Oldest Youngest
Yellowstone: 1864 Manhattan Project: 2015
Largest Smallest
Wrangell-St. Elias: 13,005 square miles Hot Springs: 8.7 square miles
Highest point Lowest point
Denali: 20,320 feet Death Valley: 270 feet below sea level
Hottest annual temperature
Coldest annual temperature
(excluding Alaska)
Death Valley: 134 degrees at Furnace Creek Yellowstone: 33 degrees
Most annual visitors Fewest annual visitors
Great Smoky Mountains: 10 million Gates of the Arctic: 13,700


So: Forester Pass on the border of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, which, at 13,200 feet, is the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail. Standing there (really, gasping for breath), I felt a curious mixture of superhuman strength (I’d climbed up here from down there, hadn’t I?) and heart-racing terror (between me and the next piece of pavement, I’d have to climb another five snow- and ice-covered passes, each between 10,000 and 13,000 feet). Below the pass, the mountain dropped away like a chute in one of those extreme-ski videos where a good run means cheating death. In July and August, the trail clings to the steep pitched wall via a corkscrew series of hairpin switchbacks, but I’d arrived in mid-June, and a blanket of snow still covered any slopes gentle enough to hold snow; on the steeper slopes, the rock was bare. Avalanches were a possibility. And if I fell — forget about calling for help. In this zero-bar zone, I’d be better off with carrier pigeons. The nearest road was at least two days’ walk away. I looped the ice ax strap around my wrist and gripped the adze. In the rest of the world, computers connected people and businesses, jet planes carried travelers across oceans, and bank transactions occurred at the speed of light. Here, atop the pass, it may as well have been the year 1868, when John Muir first came to these mountains.

I hasten to add that it’s not necessary to take your life in your hands to experience the High Sierra, or any other backcountry in any other national park. I’ve crossed these parks in July and in August, when the snow is down and the crowds are up, when it’s easier to put one foot in front of the other, not to mention safer. Either way, I marvel at the fact that in a world as protected and regimented as ours, our national parks and our wilderness areas make it possible, within a few hours’ drive of a major metropolis, to walk into a world of ice and snow and high mountains, where civilization is so far away that for all practical purposes — rescue, resupply, a hot bath, a Wi-Fi connection — it might as well not exist.

Perfect form: Celebrated photographer Ansel Adams is best known for his iconic black-and-white images of the American West, including this one, Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, 1940. (Photograph by Ansel Adams/Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona © 2015 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust)

Nor do you have to sleep in a tent to get the full experience: an eyeful of more than you can possibly absorb. I remember my own first visit to Yosemite Valley, when I was young and jaded. I’d just gotten off another long hike in the high country, and I was taking a short detour by car into the Valley. I’d been overwhelmed in the high country; at every single step, you could trip and fall and your camera would shoot off a picture that could, today, make you an Instagram star. I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed on a busy road with cars and tourists and buildings. But then the road bent and the trees opened and I saw the view — that view — Ansel Adams’ view of El Capitan among the swirling black-and-white clouds, the view that each of Yosemite’s annual four million visitors gets to see smack as they enter the park. It stopped me in my tracks. I had to pull off the road for fear I’d wreck the car.

Which was pretty much the same reaction (minus the car) John Muir had when he arrived in Yosemite in 1868, four years after the federal government deeded Yosemite to the State of California for permanent protection. Muir had been peripatetic for a while; he’d explored the northern United States and Canada, then walked a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. He’d sailed to Cuba, hopped over to Panama, crossed the isthmus (there was no canal then), and caught a steamer to San Francisco, where he asked directions to “someplace wild.” That sent him 200 miles east on foot to the Sierra Nevada, where a rancher offered him a job as a sort of shepherd supervisor: He was to keep an eye on the guy who kept an eye on the sheep.

Muir fell in love with the land, and as lovers tend to, he spent those heady early days obsessing. He took notes on everything from the habits of marmots to the cycles of alpine flowers. He described glaciers and pine cones and the destructive grazing habits of the sheep (which he referred to as “hoofed locusts”). Arriving in Yosemite, he wrote, “Never before had I seen so glorious a landscape, so boundless an affluence of sublime mountain beauty.” Muir would travel widely for the rest of his life; he once wrote, “The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.” But he would always return to the Sierra. It inspired not only his writing, but his activism: founding the Sierra Club, helping to establish Yosemite as well as Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon National Parks, and lobbying for the formation of the National Park Service.

My response to the same view was more ordinary: I took pictures and I drove to the main viewpoints, every inch a tourist. I did climb to the top of Yosemite Falls, where too much curiosity about what lies just over the edge can send you falling to your death. It’s a hike well worth the huffing and puffing. The view can make you understand how a landscape can be so powerful that you’d change your life to save it for the next generation.

The next generation needs it.

Desolate beauty: Petrified Forest National Park, one of the many sites championed for preservation by John Muir.
Desolate beauty: Petrified Forest National Park, one of the many sites championed for preservation by John Muir. (Shutterstock)

Years ago, I used to lead small groups of Washington, D.C., city kids into the wilds of Shenandoah National Park. We’d sleep in an Appalachian Trail shelter not more than a couple of miles’ walk from Skyline Drive, and the kids would marvel, and sometimes cower, at the great wilderness they thought they’d entered.

At night, the wind would send tree branches rattling against the corrugated iron roof, and deer would snort outside. It’s a startling sound, if you’ve never heard it, somewhere between a bark and a cough — less like Bambi, more like something that could eat you for dinner. The Shenandoah backcountry isn’t true wilderness, what with the highway and the resort and the restaurant and the parking areas and even the lean-tos themselves, but that didn’t matter: The definition of wilderness is very much in the eyes (in this case the ears) of the beholder. A perhaps apocryphal quote from early American settlers came to mind: “Wilderness is a dark and dismal place where all manner of wild beasts dash about uncooked.” I knew what the kids felt like. In Yellowstone, with the howling wolf and the unseen grizzly, I’d felt that way myself. Being in the wilderness makes you reexamine your place on the food chain — an unsettling feeling, even if the only thing outside your tent is a white-tailed deer.

The kids were usually sleepless the first night. By the second night, they were ready to collapse. Hiking in the woods for two days straight can have that effect. The kids learned to work the camping stoves, and we hiked around looking for animal tracks. I was just a hiking guide, not a social worker or a psychologist, but it seemed to me that some of these kids had tough lives back home, and that the outdoors acted as a gentle tonic. “I like it here. I have to breathe harder, but it feels like I can breathe better,” one of them told me. Which nicely sums it up.

In 1916, when Congress was considering the bill that would ultimately establish the U.S. National Park Service, the Post repeatedly showed its support. That year, a quick succession of editorials from Post editor George Horace Lorimer laid out his arguments for passage of the bill in the issues for January 1, February 12, and March 18.

WPA Poster Project: Promoting Our Parks

March/April 2016 cover
The Saturday Evening Post March/April 2016 cover features the beautiful Yellowstone National Park design. It is believed to be the work of C. Don Powell, chief designer for the WPA-FAP poster program, which was suspended at the start of World War II.

Created in the mid-1930s in response to the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and its Federal Art Project (FAP) employed more than 5,000 artists who created 225,000 works of art for the American people. From 1938 to 1941, the National Park Service employed WPA-FAP artists to create silk-screen promotional posters for national parks. Only 14 designs were created before the project was suspended with the onset of World War II. Of the 14 parks posters produced, few survived — until Doug Leen, a former park ranger, happened upon one at Grand Teton National Park in the early 1970s. Fascinated with the artwork and the history behind it, Leen embarked on a mission to find, restore, and eventually reproduce the vintage NPS posters. (For more on Leen and his quest, visit rangerdoug.com.) Just over 40 of these rare, original national park posters have since resurfaced and are now in National Park archives, the Library of Congress, and with private collectors.

The Artists

Relatively little is known about the individual artists who created the national park designs; the posters do not bear any artist’s signatures. Yet a National Park Service informational display produced in 1939 contains several photographs of one artist in particular, later identified as C. (Chester) Don Powell.

Man looking at artwork
C. Don Powell

Born in 1896, Powell grew up in Kansas but studied art in Chicago where he also did commercial work for companies such as Wurlitzer. In 1927, Powell and his wife moved to San Francisco, where he set up a studio until the stock market crash of 1929. Out of work as an artist, he went to work for the WPA, first as a flagman on a road crew. But when his creative talents came to light, Powell was transferred to the National Park Service. Powell is believed to be the primary artist for the Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Zion serigraphs.

The poster project was closed down in 1941, with the onset of Word War II. When his assignment for NPS ended, Powell took a course in marine drafting and went to work as a modeler at Kaiser Shipyards in nearby Richmond, California. After World War II, Powell taught Adult Education courses in silk screening for Oakland City Schools and continued to pick up freelance jobs. His post-war work was mostly architectural — designing churches, schools, gymnasia, and houses — although he also did sign making, magazine and book illustration, set design, painting restoration, and commercial artwork. The last nine years of his life were spent as a draftsman with the 6th Army Engineers. He died virtually penniless in 1964 and is buried in Hayward, California.

The Art

WPA-FAP artists created 14 original designs between 1938 and 1941 for these 13 national parks — Fort Marion (now known as Castillo de San Marcos), Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Lassen, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, Wind Cave, Yellowstone (2 designs: Old Faithful and Yellowstone Falls), Yosemite, and Zion.

Click the gallery images below to expand.


Searching for Silence

In what might be the quietest place in the continental United States, I hear only the squeak of boots and water slapping against my hat. I can’t tell if it’s fresh rain or drips from the canopy overhead where old-growth branches lace together and turn the sky spruce-needle green.

Winter storms knocked down trees a hundred feet tall, eight feet in diameter at the base. Already lichen, shelf-fungus, and flowers the size of pinheads punctuate these fallen logs. A dozen kinds of fern twirl around scatters of bark, and soon entire new glades will be springing up. In my acoustically sensitive state, I wonder, what is the sound of leaves stretching very far to find open sunshine?

The Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park in the northwest corner of Washington state—if Washington is shaped like a mitten, the park’s at the tip of the thumb—is my first stop on a listening tour. I’m hoping that if I pay close enough attention, I’ll learn what the world sounds like when it’s only talking to itself.

I need that, because modern life bludgeons us with sound. Cheap car stereos have more amplification than the Beatles used at Shea Stadium. Thanks to the endless hiss of traffic, 6 a.m. lawnmowers, the clang of construction, that annoying cell phone jangle, we live inside noise. Even when we think we’re in a silent place, we’re not. Tests show that if you ask relaxed people in this country to hum, the note they’ll most likely produce is a B natural—the same as the electricity roaring through the wires everywhere surrounding us.

Olympic National Park
A silence-seeker savors the unparalleled quiet of the Olympic National Park. Photo courtesy Edward Readicker-Henderson.

And in the quietest place in the continental United States, no matter how determined I am not to make a sound, my heartbeat thrums in my ears, almost drowning out the birdsong. I shift my weight, inadvertently bump my walking stick; it falls, clattering against a tree trunk like a wind-up drumming monkey before it finally comes to rest in a patch of moss.

In 1995, Gordon Hempton, an Emmy-winning natural sounds recording artist who was recovering from a bout of temporary deafness and horrified by the noise around him, chose this tiny spot of land in the Hoh Rainforest—47º 51.959N, 123º 52.221W, to be exact—and declared it a sanctuary of quiet. The One Square Inch project was born.

Gordon’s idea is simple, lovely, hopeful: Just as waves ripple out from a dropped pebble in a pond, silence will radiate from a spot that’s kept beautifully still. “One Square Inch is exactly that, an inch I’m defending from noise,” he says at the trailhead, looking over the three of us—me and two young women, a soaking-wet trio of sound pilgrims. “And can one square inch of quiet manage a thousand square miles around it? So far, every indication is that it can.”

Along the three-mile hike in, we stop for slugs, for snails the color of beach sand, for snakes sure they’re doing a remarkable impression of tree roots. The Hoh River, cloudy with glacial silt, parallels us, turning gravity into music, the ever-downhill rush to the ocean.

Then, as we cross a low ridge, the entire soundscape changes. The river drops away, and this tiny valley, Mt. Tom Meadow, seems to hold quiet like a whispering secret. With a meter the size of a paperback book, Gordon checks noise levels. The forest—wind, trees, river, two or three unseen birds calling from the underbrush—comes in at 27 A-weighted decibels (dBA) about half as loud as normal conversation level. Or, to put it more simply, the ringing in my ears is the loudest thing I hear.

We cross under a tree shaped like an upside down wishbone, tramp through mud that grabs at my boots, and then into the deeper forest along an old elk trail. And there, without any fanfare but a tiny marker placed there by Gordon himself, is the Inch.

We scatter, each staking out a bit of territory, each listening eagerly, and just as eagerly hoping to hear very little. What does true silence sound like? At first, there is only the soft noises of the three other people, all boots and Gore-tex, all trying hard not to move, not to breathe loudly, but then the longer I sit, the more I hear. The river rumbles the bass line of the landscape’s music. Birds provide the treble. A woodpecker offers percussion while I watch a translucent spider, no bigger than a match-head, work a triangular fern leaf, and mosquitoes, one of nature’s only drone sounds, zero in on my exposed skin. My breathing stills, my heartbeat slows, and I feel as if I am unfolding, becoming a part of the quietest spot in the United States.

Then the noise comes. “A big fat airplane!” in the disappointed words of a fellow hiker. The plane more than doubled the ambient sound of the Inch, and we reacted to it as a threat: drawing in, tracking the source of the sound, hunching down for cover until the last traces of engine noise finally died away and the landscape’s quiet slowly reasserted itself.

I wonder what we lose when we lose the last bit of country where our sounds—motors and electricity and the unnatural twist of sound through plastic—don’t reach, and we have no respite at all. Surely that would be a failure of national imagination, a blight on that great American dream of room for everything.

Everything, it seems, but the perfect quiet of nature.

When I leave the Inch I think about what I’ve heard in the only place where I’ve ever been that the works of man weren’t always in some way a dominant sound: rain; the river muffled by distance; wind striking notes on trees with leaves, trees with needles, or the dead-end sound of it crashing against one of the giant Sitka spruce trunks. Although the line of sight in the forest is almost nothing—every view is blocked by old-growth—I hear at distances I’m simply not accustomed to, hearing too many things I can’t identify. I’m sure that was an owl a mile or so off, but I can’t begin to name the other half-dozen species of birds that chirped and hooted and harrumphed. We have somehow turned into strictly visual creatures, forgetting that animals define their home by knowing its every sound.

But maybe even worse than the airplane is the simple fact that the entire time I was at the Inch, trying to listen to the world, what I really heard were the noises inside my own head. “When you’re in a really quiet place,” Gordon had said, “it forces you to see who you are.” Apparently who I am is someone whose mind resembles nothing so much as a bunch of clowns at a pie fight, a scene of constant noise and bustle, thoughts spewing like whipped cream.

Olympic Mountain range
Purple lupine frame spectacular views of the Olympic Mountain range.

Maybe my next stop, Rialto Beach, will help. Olympic National Park includes not only the mountainous interior, but also nearly the entire Pacific coastline of the state of Washington, fronting more than 3,000 square miles of open sea. Rialto is, according to Gordon, “the most musical beach in the world,” and the ocean always soothes.

From the Hoh to Rialto is less than 50 miles, but in what seems to be a recurring pattern, I make half a dozen wrong turns and get very lost. Finally, on the western edge of the continent, I am there. In front of me, a line of driftwood, from small branches to entire tree trunks, shields waves from the inland world. The dominant note is a low-pitch hum, almost industrial and constant, like a factory very far off running impossibly large machines. Wave patterns overlay the hum: three small waves followed by a larger wave that comes nearly to where my feet are dug into the sand. Finally, a sound almost too fragile for me to pick up until I’ve sat and listened for more than an hour: the purr of water pulling back over rocks like a particularly delicate wind chime.

“There’s nothing you need to learn about listening,” Gordon had said. “We’re all animals. We all know how. We’re all good listeners when we’re at our most natural.” I think about times when I have been utterly entranced by sound: listening to a musician practice a Bach suite, cello echoing; the roo-roo bark my dog makes when she’s indignant; wind howling across Iceland. And my favorite sound of all, the nearly complete silence of the woman I love sleeping.

“To listen for something is one of the worst things a person can do,” Gordon had continued. “Just open up.” And it’s true; in all of those moments, every highlight of sound I can recall from my past, I wasn’t listening, I was simply there, and that was enough.

A gull flies overhead, low enough that the thump of its wings alone seems strong enough to keep it aloft. Never mind the aerodynamics, flight must have started with this sound, the sheer muscle of wind in feather.

And taking that as a sign of hope, I head to Hurricane Ridge, about 50 miles as the crow flies northeast of Rialto but three times that distance by car. Just past Port Angeles the road turns its back on the ocean and into a different season; from the sea to the ridge the car climbs over 5,000 feet, and the temperature drops 20 degrees.

When at last I get out of the car and walk onto the ridge, a landscape covered with alpine plants only inches tall, the sound is what I hope birds experience, wind unimpeded and on its own errands occasionally deigning to come to earth and lift a raven into the air.

I don’t listen for any of it. I hike to where I see nothing but the bruise blue of distant mountains and simply hear. At least for a little while. Longer than yesterday. Longer than the day before. And that’s a hopeful thing because what the world is telling me in these sounds is that any time I remember to pay attention it will be there, singing to itself and to anybody else who wants to listen.

SHHH! 5 More of America’s Loveliest Noise-Free Zones

Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rainforest, site of Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch project (onesquareinch.org), may be the quietest place in the Lower 48, but if you care to plunge into a silent spot or a place where only nature makes noise, here are five other wonderful places to visit:

1. Cape Cod is known as home to the rich and famous, but it still has some spots of nearly untouched wilderness. Marconi Beach (just below Wellfleet) is “amazingly quiet—you wouldn’t figure,” says Hempton. Show up just before sunrise.

2. Voyageurs National Park lies along Minnesota’s border with Canada. Hempton calls it “sonically inspiring, surprisingly quiet.” Voyageurs’ prime listening attraction is Lake Astrid. On a summer evening, sit back and enjoy that quintessential sound of the north: the loon’s warbling cry.

3. The Everglades are full of wildlife, but the landscape is threatened because of water depletion, and the soundscape is under attack by airline overflights. Hempton suggests spending a night at Big Cypress for a sonic environment of songbirds and the increasingly rare growl of frogs.

4. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island is technically the quietest spot in the United States; inside some of the volcanic cones, researchers have gotten sound readings at a fraction of that of human breath. However, the park is also one of the nation’s most popular for air tours. Bad weather is the key; low clouds keep the helicopters grounded, and a hike into one of the volcanoes will likely be near silent.

5. The Grand Canyon, like Hawaii Volcanoes, is under tremendous sonic threat from air tours, but the National Park Service maintains a no-fly zone over the rim-to-rim trail. For drivers, the North Rim is less frantic than the South; for hikers, stay overnight at Havasupai Falls on the canyon’s bottom then head into the box canyons nearby (some registering as low as 3 dBA). Mike Buchheit, director of the Grand Canyon Field Institute, says the best time for silence-seekers to come is in January or February when fresh snowfall muffles the soundscape. He adds, “The canyon wren is the sound of the backcountry here. It’s your ticket to heaven.”

America’s Best Hidden Parks

“America the Beautiful” is certainly an appropriate description. From the thundering power of the Niagara Falls, the panoramic splendor of the Grand Canyon, and the towering proportions of Mount McKinley, residents are surrounded by some of the most majestic places on Earth. But what about all the places in between? The Post has compiled a list of America’s lesser-known scenic beauty. We invite you to post your tales of visits to these locales and any other hidden treasures below.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park
According to the National Park Service, more than 104,000 people made a recreational visit to the park in 2008, compared to the more than 9 million people that visited the Smoky Mountains. Congaree, the largest old-growth floodplain forest in America, is a treasure trove of wildlife, including everything from river otters to marbled salamanders. The swampland is also noted for its hiking trails, fishing, kayaking, and its 2.4-mile elevated boardwalk.

Crater Lake, Oregon

Crater Lake
More than 7,000 years ago, Oregon’s Mount Mazama erupted in one of the most violent explosions known to man. The resulting implosion of the mountain created this 6-mile wide, ½-mile deep lake which features some of the clearest blue waters in the world and is the deepest in the United States. According to the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program, Crater Lake was one of very few eruptions since 10,000 B.C. with a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 7. To put it in perspective, Mount Vesuvius (known for the destruction of the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum) was a 4. The region’s long winter season, lasting from October to June, makes it one of the snowiest areas in the Northwest.

Isle Royale, Michigan

Isle Royale
Located 55 miles north of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and accessible only by boat or plane, Isle Royal creates an incredibly unique ecosystem where scientists and citizens alike flock to study some of the most untouched wildlife in the world. Many of the island chains’ inhabitants, including grey wolves, moose, and muskrats, are normally found over larger areas. Due to Isle Royale’s smaller habitat and limited amount of natural resources, it creates fierce competition among the wildlife, resulting in a survival of the fittest mind-set. Isle Royale exemplifies virgin, pristine wilderness and the ability of life to adapt and flourish against the odds, and that is what makes this park truly special.

Guadalupe Mountains, Texas

Guadalupe Mountains
Although the Guadalupe Mountains are located in a desert, one of the biggest attractions is a well-preserved, 250-million-year-old fossilized Coral Reef, a reminder of how much life and landscape can change. In modern time, the mountain elevation creates a biological event uncommon in the Southwest: seasonal leaf change. The cactus is king throughout most of the park, but the temperatures at higher elevations are cool enough for deciduous plants to thrive, resulting in a colorful autumn that seems like September in New England with a Texas twist.

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller, Vermont

Marsh Billings-Rockefeller
The natural splendor of this national historic park’s Vermont countryside is reminiscent of the land that made our founding fathers fall in love with America. Rolling hills and captivating forests form a backdrop against which the relationship of nature and man is explored. The park is named after four well-known conservationists: George Perkins Marsh, considered by many the father of the American Conservationist Movement; Frederick Billings; and Laurence and Mary Rockefeller. Visitors can tour the mansion and gardens, which were home to all three of the namesakes at different periods of time, as well as enjoy the picturesque woodlands and programs on forestry and other conservation efforts.

Conkles Hollow, Ohio

Ash Cave (Hocking Hills)
Located in Ohio’s Hocking Hills State Park, Conkles Hollow is a hiker’s dream. The cooler climate, a holdover from the last ice age, allowed trees such as the Canada yew, Eastern hemlock, and yellow birch to grow farther south than normally found, and Conkles Hollow’s natural coolness has allowed these northern trees to thrive, millennia after the glaciers receded. These trees blend with several native trees, resulting in over 150 different species putting on a colorful display every fall. Several trails lead through this scenic area, including a 3-mile rim trail overlooking the gorge from atop its 200- to 300-foot cliffs.

Great Basin, Nevada

Great Basin
The Great Basin National Park, which was visited by less than 70,000 people in 2008, is only a small piece of the large area known as The Great Basin, which covers virtually all of Nevada and a good portion of the surrounding states. It has an independent hydrology, meaning water here does not flow into larger systems like the Pacific or the Gulf of Mexico, but instead remains self-contained. This national park showcases the best facets of this region. The varying elevation (between 5,000 feet and 13,000 feet) allows a wide variety of life to flourish, and at night stargazers get a chance to see an astounding array, including spectacular views of the Milky Way, with the naked eye.

Redwood National Park, California

Redwood National Park
Visitors are astounded by the sheer magnitude of the Redwoods towering up to 325 feet overhead—the tallest trees on Earth. Home to salmon-filled streams, grassy meadows, the Pacific coast, and tide pools (rocky formations that hold water during low tide and sustain unique life forms), Redwood National Park has more to offer than the trees. An immense variety of animals, from the aptly named banana slug to the Pacific gray whale, live here. Fewer than 400,000 people visited this pristine forest last year, while neighboring Yosemite hosted more than 3.4 million.

Glacier Bay, Alaska

Glacier Bay, Alaska
The name “Glacier Bay” offers unique insight into these icy giants which shaped the natural landscape of North America. In 1794, Captain George Vancouver and his crew surveyed a glacier of immense proportions (4,000 feet thick, 20 miles wide, and 100 miles long). This icy, barren landscape supported little life. However, it retreated some 60 miles over the next 125 years, and a bona fide wildlife haven was left in its wake. Killer whales stalk seals in these icy waters, while their larger relatives, humpbacks and gray whales, come for prey of a much smaller variety—plankton and krill. Another predator, the extremely rare blue bear (or glacier bear) can be found on land in this hidden treasure, along with hundreds of other animals, scenic mountains, and new-growth forests.

Nantahala, North Carolina

The Cherokee, who are native to this national forest, call it Nantahala, meaning the “Land of the Noonday Sun.” High noon is the only time the sun is not blocked by the western North Carolina Appalachians. This forest boasts a wealth of attractions, including awesome waterfalls, 400-year-old trees, scenic gorges, and the 5,200-foot high Wayah Bald. The Nantahala River is known as one of the best places to go whitewater rafting in the United States and is a great spot for fishing. This place also boasts a captivating history. During one of the darkest times in American history, the Cherokee were forcibly removed from much of the southeastern United States in the “Trail of Tears.” However, a brave few used the Nantahala as cover, hiding among the trees and successfully avoiding Andrew Jackson’s forces. They live here to this day, preserving a way of life that was nearly destroyed and demonstrating the resilience of the human spirit.

Waimoku Falls, Hawaii

Waimoku Falls
The adventure of getting to this spectacular Hawaiian waterfall is almost as much fun as seeing it. First, visitors hop on to Maui’s famed Hana Highway, a 60-mile stretch of road known for hairpin turns and breathtaking views. Then, they venture onto Haleakala National Park’s Pipiwai Trail. Roughly 4 miles round trip, this hike showcases scenic waterways, stunning ocean views, and lush vegetation. The trail ends at majestic Waimoku Falls, a 400-foot waterfall that drops over a sheer lava wall into a pool of boulders. Waimoku Falls is one of Hawaii’s “Seven Sacred Pools,” many of which can be seen along the trail.

Black Canyon, Colorado

Black Canyon
Narrow walls and stunning, sheer vertical drops of well over 2,000 feet render Black Canyon a sight to behold—for anyone without a fear of heights! The Gunnison River, which runs at the bottom of the canyon, settled on its current course millions of years ago. Slowly but surely, the river has been cutting away ever since, sometimes as slowly as 1 inch every hundred years. The combination of water and time created an awesome natural wonder, as well as a rocky timeline of Earth’s history. From relatively young rock at the top to nearly 2-billion-year old Precambrian-age rock at the bottom, the canyon showcases geology from almost every era of life. Only 160,000 people visited the Black Canyon in 2008, compared to the 2.7 million visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park and over 4.4 million to the Grand Canyon, making it a hidden treasure indeed.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

Mammoth Cave
At roughly 367 miles long, Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world. To put its “Mammoth” size in perspective, consider that it is more than 200 miles longer than its runner-up, South Dakota’s Jewel Cave. Mammoth Cave offers beauty in addition to sheer size. Astonishing geological features have been created from thousands of years of water running over limestone. More than 80 forms of trees and 1,200 types of flowering plants reside harmoniously above ground and 300-million-year-old fossils have been discovered in the cave.

North Cascades, Washington

North Cascades
Washington’s Olympic Park, renowned as one of the best national parks in the country, features a fabulous array of different terrains, wildlife, and ecosystems and attracted more than 3 million visitors in 2008. However, visitors who prefer the road less traveled will rave about nearby North Cascades, an off-the-radar wilderness that rivals its interstate neighbor in astonishing natural scenery and ecological diversity. This National Park Service Complex, which also includes Lake Chelan and Ross Lake, is a true gem. The relatively small number of visitors—about 19,000 to North Cascades, 25,000 to Lake Chelan, and 253,000 to Ross Lake in 2008—is astonishing. Those that do come enjoy a serene, tranquil landscape with privacy harder to come by at other, more well-traveled parks.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt had no idea what was in store when he first came here on a hunting trip in 1883. He, like many at this time, had come to hunt the prized buffalo. After the deaths of both his mother and wife, mere hours apart, he returned here to start a new life as a cattle rancher. This rebuilding period changed Roosevelt. Enchanted by the wide-open spaces and captivating scenery inherent to the Badlands, he realized that America is a special place, full of beauty, and that it is important to preserve it. Without this chapter in his life, we might never have had the conservationist president, whose efforts created the National Park Service as we know it today. This park, which was initially part of the ranching business, is named in his honor. Today, visitors enjoy the same landscape; a wide variety of northern grassland plants and animals, including a healthier bison population; and a spectacular night sky, occasionally featuring the northern lights.

Glacier National Park, Montana

Glacier National Park, Montana
Driving along the “Going to the Sun” highway, visitors will be awestruck by the glacially carved mountain backdrop and 1 million-plus acres of untouched wilderness, teaming with a thousand types of wildflowers and wildlife ranging from bighorn sheep to the Canada lynx. Across the border, Canada’s Waterton-Lakes National Park preserves the uninterrupted natural landscape, and together they form the world’s first international park, appropriately titled Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

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All images courtesy National Park Service

Smoky and the Bears

With an estimated 8 to 10 million tourists each year, this summer the most visited park in the country is celebrating its diamond anniversary: 75 years. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 800 miles of hiking trails, 700 miles of fishable streams, countless gushing waterfalls, blooming wildflowers, and auto tours offering panoramic vistas of an endless majestic horizon allure nature lovers from around the globe. And yet, the main attraction is—and perhaps always has been—the Smokies’ most famous resident, the black bear.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few places remaining in the eastern United States where black bears live in the wild, a draw for visitors expecting to get an up-close look. With approximately 1,600 bears in the park (or two bears per square mile), the odds are pretty good for visitors expecting to see a bear in its natural habitat.

Before the park was even 20 years old, it had already welcomed over 20 million visitors according to an article in the June 5, 1954, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The article, “Our Most Popular National Park,” takes a look at the fixation tourists have with seeing a bear and several close encounters with the unpredictable creature.

“I’ve got my family. Come a long way—from Illinois. We want to see a bear,” pleads a visitor to the information desk.

In response to the public’s desperation to see bears, the Park Service advocated numerous safety campaigns to no avail.

“One couple decided to play it half safe—sit in their car and feed a bear through the window. The bear gulped a ham-on-rye, then reared up, put her paws on the door of the convertible and began thrusting her nose into the front seat. … The bear climbed in. The couple then jumped out the other door and stood by helplessly while their uninvited guest ripped the upholstery to shreds,” reports writer Don Wharton.

For a better understanding of the bear attraction and several other questionable tourist behaviors, see the full article below.


Our Most Popular National Park
Our Most Popular National Park