Category Archives: Park Thoughts

Hopewell Culture moving toward World Heritage status

Great news for an outstanding but often overlooked unit of the National Park Service– Hopewell Culture National Historical Park (NHP) in Ohio.

The Department of the Interior announced today that it has selected this group of ancient American Indian sites for nomination to the World Heritage List. That’s the list that recognizes cultural and natural sites of universal importance, like the Grand Canyon and the Galápagos.

I wrote this reflection about my time Hopewell a couple of years ago. It’s one of my “heart” places, as I’ve come to call them, those those inexplicably familiar spots where you’ve always been, even on your first visit:

Hopewell Culture National Historical Park is a place few people encounter by accident. A kind of worthy pilgrimage must be made to south-central Ohio where the Scioto River wends its unhurried way through a storied valley still thrumming with mysteries.

Roughly 2,000 years ago this area was a hub of American Indian activity. “Hopewell” is the name for the culture which spanned much of eastern North American but its heartland was here. There were small villages with homes of wattle and thatch where residents grew crops including squash and sunflower, hunted deer and fished, and lived amicably with shared goals. The realization of those lofty goals remains imprinted on the landscape.

What the national park protects are Hopewell’s ceremonial places—complex “monumental earthworks” constructed entirely by hand. These are huge geometric enclosures of embankments and earthen mounds, the remnants of structures used for celebrations and various rites of passage.  This ancient architecture includes some of the oldest human-made structures in North America.

The mind grasps for comprehension of the scale of planning, engineering and physical labor necessary to construct these sacred complexes. Millions of tons of earth were moved and remolded with precision using standard units of measure to build precise circles, squares, rectangles, even octagons, the size of football fields. Some of the sites were aligned for astronomical observations. The ingenuity, awareness and devotion expressed are nothing short of epic.

Hopewell Culture NHP has a pulse. The blood and sweat of past inhabitants seems to course through it to this day. While there I recalled Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, Altun Ha, places with soul. Standing among those mounds and considering the tenacity and collaboration required to build and maintain these centers, one generation after the next, was akin to craning my neck to marvel at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This small national park is one of those rare places where the past and present command equal time in the consciousness of the visitor.

Archaeologists who excavated them found the mounds packed with artifacts offering clues about the beliefs, ethics, rituals, talents and habits of those early Ohioans. The materials themselves are extraordinary—shark teeth from the Atlantic coast, marine shells from the Gulf of Mexico, copper from the north, quartz and mica from the Carolinas and, perhaps most astounding, obsidian from the Yellowstone basin. Once the exotic materials were tracked down the hands of the Hopewell took to crafting them into objects, often depicting deer, bear or bird, as captivating as any Rodin or Brancusi.

I spent a year on the road, driving roughly 20,000 miles from one national park to another, collecting stories for my book on the National Park Service. I was a national park kid (I became a junior ranger at age 7 at Cape Cod National Seashore). Hopewell Culture was the 167thnational park unit I’ve explored and, just like my time on Cape Cod decades ago, it offered some of that alchemy of childhood when revelations can come from any angle and journeys are limited only by imagination.

The gift of national parks

Now more than ever, our national parks need us! Some reasons to lend your voice to parks (call or email your representatives in Congress):

  • The size of some national monuments presently are slated to be drastically reduced;
  • Air quality regulations are being stripped, threatening park ecosystems and the quality of visitors’ experiences;
  • More wild lands than ever are being eyed for resource extraction.

From Denali to the Everglades, our national parks are the envy of the world. They are merely on loan from one generation to the next. What legacy do we want to leave our grandchildren?

Read more about our invaluable national parks. 

Image courtesy NPS/Diane Renkin.

National park rogues, not new, but necessary

A century ago Congress created the National Park Service (NPS) “to conserve the scenery and natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein…” Back then there were 35 national parks and monuments, now there are over 400. These include, of course, Yellowstone and Yosemite, the so-called “natural” parks where the NPS is sworn to safeguard biodiversity, wild rivers, and carbon sinks (a.k.a. forests). They are America’s environmental legacy.

The NPS also has under its wing other types of parks including Civil War battlefields, cliff dwellings, Japanese internment camps, presidential hideaways, Spanish missions, and towering monuments. These parks tell the story of America.

All together they are for gawking, for sure, at glaciers, bears and Half Dome but they are also for learning about, among other things, glaciation, immigration, civil rights, war and, yes, climate change. Parks are meant to instill a sense of both time and timelessness, and a respect for places and things which have existed long before we had bones, and will exist long after we are dust.

But these dear places are not static, secured beneath bubbles, untouchable. Like it or not, from redwoods to the Statue of Liberty, and from glaciers to the Everglades, parks are already being adversely affected by record heat, drought, wildfires and storms. Talking about climate change is not a political act. We can debate what to do about the facts, but not whether or not they are facts; it’s too late for that. And silencing any discussion of climate change will only harm national parks, the places where so many Americans (and others from around the world) now find common ground.

By defying a gag order the NPS (as someone representing Badlands National Park did this week) is not only an act of upholding 100 years of fierce protection of our best places but it is fulfilling its congressional mandate. Trying to mute the NPS insults the prophets and moguls and the rangers and rogues who have spent over a century protecting parks and telling America’s stories. Silencing scientists also puts at risk, for centuries to come, the bison and bears and the seashores and coral reefs, which are owned by all of us.

Heather Hansen is the author of Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears: 100 Years of the National Park Service.

Learn more about climate change and parks.

Buy the book! Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears: 100 Years of the National Park Service.

Cover image courtesy of Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services. 3/9/1943-9/15/1945.

Repeating history

December 7 is my birthday and, though I came into the world more than three decades after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the first thing most Americans say when they hear this fact is, “A day that will live in infamy.” My history nerdy-ness may be attributed in part to this association, as well as the fact I was a ‘national park kid’ soaking up events and people past around the country.

Most people think of national parks as Yosemite and Yellowstone but the 100-year-old National Park Service is also the steward of many key historical sites, including the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, where 1,177 soldiers and Marines lost their lives in 1941. The Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island, Independence Hall/Liberty Bell and Gettysburg are also all national park units. There are internment camps, Native American massacre sites, and a 17th-century African burial ground, as well. These are the places where decisions were made, ends arrived, dues were paid, and new beginnings were forged. The NPS is the keeper of these national memories, the interpreter of our infamies and victories.

The first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “There is no better route to civic understanding than visiting our national parks. They’re who we are and where we’ve been.” This present moment is a good one in which to claim what the NPS has to offer. Go stand in Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was actually signed and learn (all over again) about what kind of country the Founders envisioned. You’ll be reminded that Thomas Jefferson called for a “wall of separation between Church and State” and James Madison for “a free exercise of religion.” These were sacred principles (so to speak).

Roam the prairie at Sand Creek National Historic Site in Colorado; the edge of the desert at Manzanar National Historic Site in California; or the rolling hills of Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland and consider events that should not be repeated. Visit the haunts of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Chávez (all have national park units dedicated to them) and be inspired to speak out and push forward toward equality for all people. If we keep revisiting these moments and concepts, if we keep them top of mind, we may eventually learn from them.

Photo courtesy NPS, USS Arizona Memorial.

Buy the book! Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears: 100 Years of the National Park Service.

Happy Birthday, National Park Service!

Long may we roam!

My most recent park adventure… the incomparable Glacier NP!


Find Your Park.

Buy the book! Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears: 100 Years of the National Park Service.

Why parks matter in a fragmented world

By Heather HansenSan Francisco Chronicle, August 21, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I hiked along Mills Creek in Rocky Mountain National Park in the direction of a pair of hidden alpine lakes. I’m from nearby Boulder, Colo., have been exploring the park for 14 years in every season, and generally avoid the spots mobbed in summer by “flatlanders” in search of their “high.” But a late start landed Juan and I mid-morning at the always-popular Bear Lake, where several trails branch out like spokes on a wheel, offering hours to days of walking.

The large parking lot closest to the lake had been full since before 9 a.m. with vehicles whose license plates reflected the distances visitors had traveled — New Jersey, Oregon, Florida. “Is there anyone left in Texas?” I remarked after counting more than a dozen of those plates. Juan just shrugged, having technically come all the way from England to these mountains. Latecomers poured off shuttle buses and lined up at port-o-lets. Some downed drinks and snacks or applied sunscreen in defense of rays, harsh at the 9,475-foot elevation.

We steered deliberately around the hives of humans, heading north then west through a tight grove of aspens in the direction of Lake Helene, at 10,690 feet. As we climbed quickly above Bear Lake, the thrum of people was supplanted by the bustle of the woods. Chipmunks snuffled the ground near log burrows, woodpeckers hammered away at the trunks of beetle-killed pines, and deer grazed wildflower-specked meadows around lingering patches of snow.

About 3 miles along the trail, as it nears the hidden shores of Two Rivers Lake, we crossed Mills Creek, named for the guy who is largely responsible for this place becoming a national park. National Park Service forefather Horace Albright wrote of Enos Mills: He “was one of the meanest, most cantankerous, most fascinating men I ever knew. I’m pretty sure I never knew anyone who liked him — maybe admired him, maybe tolerated him. But no one liked him.”

The man with the drill-like stare was undaunted by the lack of fan club, focusing instead on the purpose of this rugged playground. Echoing his idol, famed naturalist John Muir, he said, “They need the temples of the gods, the forest primeval, and the pure flower-fringed brooks.” When leaders in park preservation told Mills the time was wrong for Rocky, he persisted like the mountain climber he was, eyeing the summit.

A little further along the trail, Juan and I ducked into a thicket along an easily missed spur trail. Lake Helene was utterly still, save for a mother duck and five ducklings braiding across the surface. Juan unlaced his boots and waded into the cool, shallow lake. A childlike smile reached his eyes and it warmed me. Lake Helene is at the tree line, where evergreens surrender to rock, ice, lichen and sky. That makes spectacular the views of the surrounding peaks — Notchtop Mountain (12,129 feet) and Flattop Mountain (12,324 feet) among them. For a little while we sat in silence holding hands, willing time to slow before his flight back to Britain the next day. We watched two skiers creep up the surface of a glacier in a cirque high over head then ski graceful curves across its belly.

“Within national parks is room — glorious room — room in which to find ourselves, in which to think and hope, to dream and plan, to rest and resolve,” Mills wrote a century ago. I can’t speak for the crowds, but I know what I needed that day. My mind had been noisy with the anxiety of separation; for every couple of weeks Juan and I spend together we endure another several weeks apart, with work and thousands of miles jammed between us.

So we walked, easing into a single, meditative pace. Like the tread on our boots, the miles wore down the angles of our arguments, the push-and-pull of living separate lives. The elements and indelible features forced perspective into the narrow folds of our minds. Pick up a rock here and realize that if these mountains speak of time, a handful is all we can hope to grasp. We were, as Mills offered, preparing again to live apart, but not just yet. When it seemed I was in a difficult spot, crossing a surging stream or descending a steep slope, Juan reached back to take my hand. Even if I didn’t need it, I took it.

This month the nation celebrates 100 years of its National Park Service. Parks now have a purpose and a value perhaps greater than in Mills’ day. They protect resources, tell stories, heal, inspire, offer pauses and foster epiphanies. Parks restore a sense of wholeness to a fragmented world and, when we need it most, they offer the space for two people to find their way back to each other.

Heather Hansen is the author of “Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears:100 Years of the National Park Service,” Mountaineers Books, 2015.) She drove 20,000 miles visiting hundreds of parks and collecting stories.


Great tool for national park travels

Maps! Sure, I use the digital kind but, given the option, I prefer the wrinkly, coffee-stained paper versions. (Especially in national parks where I love to examine them in a tent by headlamp after dark.)

But there are times, say, in a stiff wind or when wanting to email someone about plans, that a digital version comes in handy. That’s where comes in. It allows users to quickly find and download national park maps. The site now has nearly 1,200 free, high-res maps to choose from.

Even if you’re just daydreaming about a park trip, check ’em out!




Test your 4th of July smarts

July 1776 was the month in which members of the Continental Congress (CC) voted for independence from Great Britain. Ever since we’ve been celebrating our reverse Brexit.

Test your knowledge of some of the cool things I learned at Independence Hall National Historic Park about the Fourth of July:


What was the real significance of July 4th?

The Continental Congress voted for independence on July 2 but didn’t approve the Declaration of Independence until July 4.


How many people signed the Declaration?

There were 56 in all. The oldest was Benjamin Franklin, at 70, and the youngest was Edward Rutledge, 27.


How many put pen to paper on the 4th?

Only two. The first (and largest signature) was John Hancock’s.


How many people lived in the U.S. when the Declaration was signed?

2.5 million


Which three presidents died on the Fourth of July?

Three of the first five US presidents passed on July 4. They were John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe (Adams and Jefferson both died in 1826 on the 50th anniversary of the approval of the Declaration.


Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Bayard Taylor’s “National Ode,” Independence Hall, Philadelphia, during the American Centennial Festival, on the Fourth of July 1876.


Buy the book! Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears: 100 Years of the National Park Service.




Parks for war and peace

The NPS is the keeper of national memories. From the Minute Man National Historical Park which explores the opening battle of the Revolutionary War to Gettysburg, the Vietnam Memorial and Pearl Harbor, those memories are of war.

On this Memorial Day during the NPS centennial year, I’m recalling all of those powerful park units I’ve been to which explore the history of battles fought at home and aboard, and where visitors can contemplate the meaning of war, and the sacrifices of soldiers and the people they left behind.

I’m also reflecting on the stories I’ve been told about the healing power of parks. From the curators of objects left along the Wall at the Vietnam Memorial, to soldiers once deployed in the Middle East reuniting at Dinosaur National Monument, it’s clear that national parks are special spaces for remembering and for renewal.

Read more about this and more in Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears: 100 Years of the National Park Service.

Photo courtesy of the NPS. 

National parks, suffering again, need outrage and action

“I’ve seen the insides of a lot of national parks. I don’t just mean the good stuff: the herds of bison at Yellowstone making the ground tremble; the immense, lolling tongues of glaciers in Wrangell-St. Elias; the goose-bump-raising room imbued with the spirits of Franklin and Jefferson where our republic began…” READ MORE of Heather Hansen’s recent guest commentary in the Denver Post.


Learn more about the amazing history of the NPS and U.S. conservation: Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears: 100 Years of the National Park Service.

Photo of Yellowstone bison, courtesy Neal Herbert, NPS.

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