Tag Archives: National Park

On a mission in the Southwest

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Whether you’re planning an actual road trip or just daydreaming at your desk, the National Park Service has dozens of fun travel itineraries to peruse.

Just released is the “Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest” tour taking in locales in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. It incorporates stops along some National Historic Trails, some within the National Park System, and other spots listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

From the early 17th century, and 200 years on, religious missions were established over a vast area of the Southwest U.S. (and northern Mexico). Roman Catholic missionaries didn’t just build churches but communities that aimed to convert American Indians to Spanish faith and customs. What resulted was a blending of beliefs and styles that led to new cultural practices.

Remarkable architecture is another legacy of Spanish colonial influence and is a big part of the lure of these preserved places. Some stellar examples, among the NPS sites included in the itinerary, are within the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, including Gran Quivira (San Buenaventura de las Humanas and San Isidro).

Gran Quivira was a vast complex of pueblos and kivas covering more than 600 acres even before the Spanish moved in. From 1583 onward it transitioned into a hybrid community with public areas, private housing and both churches and kivas. (Established in 1909, Gran Quivira also happens to be one of the oldest monuments in the National Park System.)

Some blend of the richness of history, the clarity of light, and the fleeting presence of spirits at these bygone missions make them magnetic to the explorer’s heart. Time to hit the road!

Photo © Heather Hansen

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A national park childhood

Like many people some of my most vivid childhood memories involve the outdoors—catching frogs and fireflies, playing marathon games of Kick the Can and building sand fortresses along the beach. I was lucky enough to be a ‘national park kid’ and raised to make observations and ask questions about my surroundings: What creatures make their home in that sand and in those waters? What effects do storms have on those resources? What do humans do that causes beach erosion?

When I was seven years old my family spent a summer near Cape Cod National Seashore where I became a Junior Ranger (after taking an oath to “explore, learn and protect” parks). Being a young park ambassador in this wonderland felt as exciting as finding a secret door in the back of a wardrobe leading to a magical land. NPS rangers captivated us with tales of pilgrims and shipwrecks and took us to see box turtles hatchlings take their first tentative steps across warm sand. We tromped through tidal flats and over dunes, learned about lighthouses and cranberry bogs, piping plovers and pitch pine forests. At the end of each day we kids would barely wriggle all the way into our sleeping bags before dropping off to sleep.

That’s more than 30 years ago but if I try hard to remember, my lips still taste the saltiness of those ocean breezes and my toes feel the warm gritty feel of sand still. They are experiences and memories I wish for every child. It’s no mystery how I came to write about science and natural resources, and what fuels my love of daily discoveries be they about nature, culture or history.

Since the first days of the National Park Service—which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2016, treating parks as living classrooms has been a core value. Today, with more than 80 percent of American families living in urban areas, many lacking easy access to safe outdoor spaces, strategies aimed at getting kids (and adults alike) to discover what national parks have to offer are even more important than they were a century ago.

To that end the White House recently announced the “Every Kid in a Park” initiative which offers all fourth grade students and their families free admission to national parks for a full year (starting with the 2015-2016 school year). That’s 407 areas covering more than 84 million acres in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands including national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House. All for free. That’s quite a bargain.

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© Heather Hansen, text and photo (of the author and her sister on Cape Cod National Seashore).





Natchez Trace Parkway, AL, MS & TN

This is generally in the top 10 national park units visited annually but (I must confess) I knew little of it before going there last year. I was one of over 5.8 million people who explored the park in 2014 when it was the eighth most popular national park unit. So what’s the draw?

Turns out this is a frigging fascinating park. It’s actually a 444-mile parkway, a kind of series of parks, which forms a near continuous greenway from the southern Appalachians to the Mississippi River bluffs. It provides habitat for thousands of animal and plant species, crosses eight major watersheds and four ecosystems.

The road runs alongside the natural corridor that was used for thousands of years by people on foot, horseback and wagons. There are spots where you can get out of your car and walk the Old Trace, sunken over time like a sun half-set, beneath the footsteps of countless travelers.

There are 10,000 years of history and likely just as many stories that could be told about life on the Trace. Once the traditional stomping-grounds of the Natchez, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations, the popularity of the route rose in the 1820s when having sold their crops and other wares at New Orleans or Natchez, people (the so-called “Kaintucks”) would walk home to the Ohio River Valley along the Trace. Over time generals, future presidents and at least one famous explorer (who died under suspicious circumstances along it) plied this path.

When to go?

I traveled the Trace from north to south in early June and it felt mostly deserted. While I landed on it in Nashville in a rush it didn’t take long for that feeling to subside. It’s as if each gentle curve snatches away some of time’s momentum. It was warm and humid, for sure, but there’s much shady shelter to be had.

In spring the Trace is in bloom and, in fall, in colorful submission to cooling temps. Winter weather can close parts of the Trace so travel then would have to be more strategic.

The NPS provides info on food, gas and lodging. Details about biking the Trace are also available. There are many, many places to pause and learn along the way and ranger-led activities are plenty.

What not to miss? The Meriwether Lewis Monument and visitor kiosk near Grinder’s Stand in Tennessee at Milepost 385.9. The luminescent cypress swamps. And some of the seven mound groups—the prominent cultural remains of the first residents of Mississippi.

© Heather Hansen, text and photograph

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North Cascades NP, Washington

With over 300 glaciers cloaking jagged peaks and fewer than 25,000 visitors each year, this is one park I can’t wait to return to. Attention waterfall junkies: the cataracts in North Cascades are among the most impressive I’ve seen in the world.

This is a mostly roadless park which, along with adjacent federal land, forms the core of the largest continuous wilderness area in the lower 48. The wild here is beckoning, beguiling.

Learn more about North Cascades.

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Cascade pass” by Daniel Hershman – Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 


Lassen Volcanic NP, California

Since first I rolled into this park—necked craned and mouth agape in an attempt to take in the complexity of its terrain—I’ve insisted it was misnamed. It is no doubt a geologic wonder with cinder codes, fumaroles and hot springs (to rival Yellowstone, arguably) it is also a riot of conifer and fir forests, wildflower-crammed meadows and alpine lakes. This is one of the most spectacular, lesser known spots in the national park system.

Learn more about Lassen Volcanic.

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Image by user ewoerlen under Creative Common License.

‘Every Kid In a Park’ goes live

In effort to get more little people out-of-doors, the White House has launched the Every Kid In a Park Initiative. With more than 80 percent of American families now living in cities, access to safe outdoor spaces and increased screen time (53 hours per week, on average) are creating a growing divide between kids and the great outdoors, according to the White House press release.

As part of the effort, 4th grade students and their families will have free access to all national parks (and other federal lands) starting with the 2015-2016 school year. Activities and programs to engage kids will get a boost, including bringing one million fourth-graders to national parks from low-income areas.

Read more about the initiative.

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Photo courtesy of the NPS.

The new, new parks

The White House announced this week the president’s designation of three new national monuments. Among them are an area significant for its role in labor history; a nearly forgotten internment camp; and a critical watershed in Colorado where the biodiversity includes golden eagles and bighorn sheep.

They are:

Pullman National Monument (Illinois)—This model factory town on Chicago’s South Side (complete with areas for whole families to work, live, shop, play and worship) rose in the 1880s as the Pullman Palace Car Company employed thousands in the building and running of its luxury railroad cars.

In addition to vastly improving the living and working conditions which were generally horrific in that era, Pullman hired former slaves as the first maids, porters and waiters. While inequality was still problematic the first African American middle class rose during this time and contributed significantly to the civil rights movement which followed.

The site again made history following the depression of 1893, with the Pullman strike of 1894, when workers protested the fact that their cost of living did not drop along with their wages. Federal troops put a violent end to the strike which led ultimately to the legislation creating Labor Day.

There’s much more to the Pullman story which visitors will be able to see unfold, in person, at the new monument. It’s an important site that touches on several fascinating periods in American history.

Honouliuli National Monument (Hawaii)—As the largest confinement camp used during World War II for Japanese American citizens, resident immigrants and prisoners of war, it’s hard to believe this site in not already in the national park system. This camp in a steep canyon near Pearl Harbor on Oahu has a lot of stories to tell, of fear and loss and acts that should never be repeated.

Browns Canyon National Monument (Colorado)—For more than a decade conservationists have been agitating for federal protection for this 22,000-acre area in central Colorado. It is a craggy, rambling stretch of the upper Arkansas River Valley which also happens to be one of the most popular whitewater runs in the country.

With the exception of Browns Canyon, which will be jointly managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, the new parks will be run by the NPS.

© Heather Hansen

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Worst national parks? Get real

Once you’re within South Carolina’s only national park it’s hard to believe the state capital, Columbia, is less than 20 miles away. Walking or paddling within Congaree National Park feels like winding back the hands of ecological time. The park surrounds the largest intact stretch of old growth bottomland hardwoods remaining in the southeastern U.S.

While trolling the park’s paths, the smell of loamy soil and primeval green glow are constant companions. With sunlight passing through a thick canopy of branches this place has the very real feel of a shelter, a haven. While logging operations were buzzing and chewing their way through the area in the 1960s a group of locals protested the harvesting of this biologically diverse patch of river floodplain. They understood the significance of the unique ecosystem with its creeping sloughs and creeks, tree-studded wetlands and oxbow lakes, which still provide critical habitat for countless species.

Congaree is many things but what it’s not–as a recent Yahoo blog post suggests–one of the nation’s “worst” national parks. Four other parks were relegated to that category: the beautiful Badlands, the improbable abundance of Death Valley, the restless rolling prairie of Wind Cave and (perhaps most ridiculous) the unspoiled expanses of Gates of the Arctic.

However tongue-in-cheek, the suggestion that any of these are unimportant wild spaces is a disservice to the entire national park system. Sure we all have favorite parks and maybe even some we don’t care to visit but individual whims don’t make them more or less valuable. (Imagine what the national park system would look like after nearly 150 years if it did.) We also may tire of ‘top 10’ lists yet misrepresenting the essence of these quirky, fascinating places is no more interesting or innovative.

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© Heather Hansen


Out of One, Many

I came across this EarthCam the other day which gives a live feed from the top of the Washington Monument. It’s fun to look at on any ole day but right now gives a particularly captivating look at a current art installation on the National Mall. In the camera view, the work of artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada is on the left side of the Reflecting Pool. The dirt and sand portrait, called “Out of Many, One,” echoes the Latin phrase seen on the seal of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum.” The portrait was envisioned “to create a dialogue around the ideas of individuality, community, and place,” says Rodríguez-Gerada. It is of no one in particular and, at the same time, of every one.

It’s fitting the portrait was installed in the nation’s capital and at a national park. Its themes are alive and well throughout the monuments and memorials of the Capital Parks region of Washington, D.C. and at many more national park units which celebrate diversity. From the well-known Statue of Liberty National Monument (including Ellis Island) and Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial to the lesser-known African Burial Ground National Monument and César E. Chávez National Monument, dozens of national park units remind us of all the colors, cultures and credos which unite us in differentness. Frederick Douglass (whose life and work are interpreted at a phenomenal historic site) said, “We differ as the waves, but are one as the sea.”

See how the portrait looks from space, watch a video on how it was created, and read more from the artist at the Smithsonian National Portrait Galley site.

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© Heather Hansen

A once-in-a-century appearance

The rare, stunning Sierra Nevada red fox was spotted in Yosemite recently. The last time the elusive creature was seen there was during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.

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Learn more about Yosemite, a national park celebrating its 125th birthday this year.

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Photo courtesy NPS.


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