It’s easy to be a naysayer and a critic, especially when it comes to the Federal Government. Heaven knows, our elected and appointed officials give us lots of fodder. But after our recent road trip, I’ve been converted from a basher to a booster.
In just under three weeks, we visited five National Parks, at least a dozen National Forests (yes, there is a difference), six National Historic Sites, and four National Recreation Areas, as well as a National Monument and a National Memorial. Each was impressive in its own right, but the overall experience of nature’s grandeur protected and maintained by us and our government for posterity made me proud.
One of my favorite authors, the writer and historian Wallace Stegner called our country’s national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” I couldn’t agree more.
These national treasures have been beautifully curated by the National Park Service (NPS) since 1916. They are staffed by more than 20,000 knowledgeable and friendly experts including rangers, scientists, archeologists, anthropologists and many more professionals who all work hard to preserve our history, our heritage and our environment. In addition to the full-time, part-time and seasonal staff, about 145,000 people volunteer their time to the National Park Service each year.
Our National Parks are clean, accessible, well-documented and welcoming. Signs describe, explain and guide the hundreds of millions of people who visit the NPS — which hosted 285,579,941 visitors in 2009 alone. I was as almost as impressed with the visitors as with the NPS employees. With few exceptions, visitors seemed to treat these places with respect. Even the dreaded pit toilets (called vault toilets out west), were clean and graffiti-free.
My kids were 18, 18, 13 and 12 on this trip. While I saw many families with much younger children, I’m glad we waited. Though you can tailor your visit for any age group, interest level or physical ability, it takes a certain amount of stamina to get the most out of your trip. A good guidebook and advance planning helps, especially if you plan to visit at the height of the season, as we did. (My DH is available to consult for a small fee; he did all the advance work for our trip.)
We’re lucky to have such an extensive National Park system and every family should take the opportunity to get to know it. It’s educational and it’s fun — you can’t ask for much more than that in a family vacation. The NPS Website is excellent and a great way to plan your trip.
Even if you’re not ready to take the big western trek that we did, there are plenty of NPS areas in Illinois and nearby Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. If your summer vacation is already over for this year, most NPS areas offer year-round activities, and your kids can enjoy the NPS right now from home and become a WebRanger.