The Rocky Mountain National Park was a popular destination the day after Christmas. With a new 500mm camera lens fresh off Santa’s sleigh, I was eager to track down a herd of elk and put my new telephoto treasure to task. I wasn’t the only one eager to be outdoors after the hustle and bustle of the holiday. The line to enter the park was as long as I’ve ever seen it in summer.
Parks have always been at the core of my love for the outdoors. Growing up, my family spent many weekends camping in state parks. The freedom afforded by my parents to roam the wilds of these treasured public properties developed my deep affection for wide-open spaces. Trudging down a trail to a secluded place where my brother and I would swing on vines over Potato Creek only to let go and fall in the shallow water is one of my fondest early memories of outdoor adventure.
Now, nearly 30 years later, I’ve been blessed to experience a number of the most celebrated outdoor destinations America has to offer. I’ve paddled the rivers of the Ozarks, stalked the plains of the Dakotas, explored the Louisiana Marsh, fly fished Montana and camped my way around the Great Lakes. But many of the most spectacular places I’ve visited are National Parks. Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountain, Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt, Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Cave, Everglades and the Grand Canyon are just some of the National Parks I’ve had the fortune of exploring. Each one is awe-inspiring in it’s own way.
On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant made Yellowstone our first national park. President Woodrow Wilson officially created the National Park Service on August 25, 1916. Today, the system consists of national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House. There are 413 areas covering more than 84 million acres. Every state is represented in the system. The largest property is Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve at 13.2 million acres. Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania is the smallest at 0.02 acres. In 2015, the National Park System welcomed 307,247,252 visitors.
The Rocky Mountain National Park is located about an hour northwest of Denver, Colorado just outside of the small town of Estes Park. As you descend into Estes Park on Highway 36, if coming from Denver, it’s hard to believe you just left a sprawling metropolis an hour ago. The scenery is breathtaking. Long’s Peak, one of Colorado’s most celebrated 14,000-foot mountains looms over the region. Many other beautiful peaks are visible in every direction, and this time of year they are snow covered and wind swept.
When I pulled up to the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance on December 26, I was surprised to find a line of vehicles more than a quarter-mile long waiting to enter the park. It was exciting to see so many people venturing out-of-doors on a day when the temperature was below freezing and the winds were brisk. It was also telling of how important our national parks are to so many Americans. I saw license plates from all over the country. I expect this scene was representative of national parks across the country. To think more than a half-million Americans likely visited a national park the day after Christmas, with families and friends gathered together, brings me joy.
There are so many reasons to be proud of being an American. For me, our country’s commitment to ensuring citizens have opportunities to commune with nature in our national parks and on our public lands is right at the top.