The national parks of the U.S. are unquestionably some of the greatest resources available to anyone interested in exploring the countless types of wilderness and other natural attractions to be found throughout this country. These parks can be found in every state in the union, and encompass climate zones and natural habitats as varied as the states themselves. Fortunately, these parks are relatively open for visiting — whether camping overnight or simply enjoying a day hike.
Just the names of the parks alone evoke images of wide open spaces, snow-covered mountains, scorching deserts, and towering trees: Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Badlands, Crater Lake, Death Valley, Everglades, Glacier, Grand Teton, Haleakala, Joshua Tree, Mount Rainier, and Yosemite. All of these are managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Park Service. That organization also oversees historical sites, such as Gettysburg, Valley Forge, Andersonville, and Fredericksburg. (In this article, I will use the term "park" to refer to natural parks, memorials, and historical sites.)
Many Americans don't realize that the National Park Service (NPS) is responsible for a wide range of resources, such as memorials devoted to past U.S. leaders (e.g., Lincoln Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial), historical sites that could send a shiver down your spine (e.g., Alcatraz Island, and the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site), and a few places of questionable purpose (e.g., the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum National Historic Site).
But the majority of travelers are most interested in exploring the outdoors, photographing wild animals, and camping under the stars — in other words, getting away from their own tenements. For these people, the national parks in their own states can be the best places to begin. All U.S. states have one or more such treasures. In fact, some of the parks aren't even located in the 50 states, such as the Virgin Islands National Park, in St. John, V.I.
The Best Source
While some Americans have their favorite parks, to which they return year after year, other people like to explore a new park every time, and the remaining people just want to get started, having never visited a national park before. Regardless of which group you belong to, the quickest way to learn more about any of them is to use the Internet. The first and best website is, naturally, that of the National Park Service. It is grouped into four major sections: Parks and Recreation, Cultural Resources, Nature and Science, and the Interpretive Development Program.
The Parks and Recreation section allows the site visitor to list all of the parks; it appears that there are 449 in total. They can be viewed alphabetically, which is most useful if you already know the name of the place you are interested in. The geographic search facility allows you to find a park by state or U.S. territory, or within a given distance from a ZIP code, or by clicking on a map that shows the 50 states plus our four territories. If you would like to hone your search based upon what the parks have to offer, then you should use the third search method, which allows you to specify topics (from American Presidents to wildflowers), activities (auto touring to wildlife viewing), park type (battlefields to trails), cultural heritage (such as African-American), and states.
The section devoted to Cultural Resources has "Links to the Past" in the form of online articles and other features, all devoted to preserving and making available historical information related to all of the national parks. The topics are wide-ranging, and include profiles of famous Americans, archaeological information, pictures of historic buildings, online books, and even itineraries designed to help a traveler explore historic American places in the National Register, ranging from "Aboard the Underground Railroad" to "We Shall Overcome" — 29 in all. The Cultural Resources section also offers tools for learning, intended to be used by students learning more about historic buildings, landscapes, mapping, and other subjects. Teachers can make use of lesson plans, virtual tours, and other tools.
Like the two previously discussed sections, the Nature and Science area of the NPS site has a wealth of information — in this case geared to adults interested in the ecosystems, conservation efforts, regulations, and other environmental and scientific matters relevant to the national parks. For travelers hoping to formulate tough questions ahead of time to stump the park rangers, this is the place to start. The fourth section of their site, Interpretive Development Program, contains additional materials that would be valuable for an instructor teaching science, natural history, or similar subjects.
The NPS home page also has links to current news, an online bookshop, press and contact information, and job listings, for those who decide that they've had enough of working in a carpeted box. As of this writing, the home page also features links to two Flash videos: "From Sea to Shining Sea" and "The Soul of America". The former presentation, the only one worth watching, is a pleasing montage of gorgeous photographs from various parks, set to appropriate music.
Once you have decided upon one or more parks to visit, then you can read about their ongoing activities and recent news, view maps, and contact the staff. This is recommended, given that many of the campgrounds at the national parks — especially the most well-known ones — can fill up early; thus, obtaining reservations ahead of time could mean the difference between camping in a park… or a parking lot.
Last but not least, before you pack up the camper and hit the road, be sure to check out the detailed maps available on the Harpers Ferry Center site. They are neatly labeled, and available in Adobe Acrobat PDF and Adobe Illustrator formats.
While the NPS site is undoubtedly the first place to visit for online information about our national parks, it's not the only useful one. The National Parks Conservation Association has a handy page that lists the national parks alphabetically, by category, and by state — similar to the NPS's search facility, but with the advantage that results are all presented on a single page, for fast reading, and not split up into groups of 25 per page. They also sponsor another search page that would be of interest to climbers and hikers, since it allows one to narrow a search by terrain type.
If you do fall in love with a particular park (or a particular park ranger), and you want to learn more about what it would be like to work for the National Park Service, swing on over to JobMonkey.com's NPS page. It has interesting material on the NPS's history, job outlook, job descriptions, work conditions, application procedures, etc.
Whether or not you decide to keep your current lifestyle after visiting one of these national treasures, you likely will have appreciated the break, and you might agree with author Wallace Stegner, who stated that, "National parks are the best idea we ever had."