It was already 5:45pm (Utah time) on Thursday, September 15 by the time we drove away from Zion National Park en route to the final National Park in our descent of the Grand Staircase.
Grand Canyon National Park was the first National Park I’d visited, twenty-four years earlier when I was thirteen years old. Back before that trip with my aunt and uncle and cousins, I’d read everything I could about the canyon in my Catholic grade school’s small library. I had become enchanted with photos of black Kaibab Squirrels with their tufted ears and white tails. But the squirrels are only found on the North Rim, and on that long-ago trip we’d visited the South Rim. This would be my chance to see a Kaibab Squirrel.
Aquarius Plateau and Sinking Ship (foreground) from Bryce Canyon National Park
On Friday, September 9, 2016 Sean and I began our trip down the Grand Staircase with an evening flight to Phoenix. More often than not, this was our modus operandi, to fly out after work, stay overnight near the airport, and begin the trip proper on the ground in the morning wherever we were. That Friday, I was more than ready to be gone. It had been a very long week at work, culminating in issues with a new vendor. (I’d ultimately be proven right in my assessment of their shoddy service.) But either way, it would be good to do some hiking in a place I’d wanted to visit since childhood.
Twilight at Bryce Canyon National Park
In 2016, the Centennial Year of the National Park Service (although National Parks had existed for decades prior), Sean and I embarked on a mini-journey to calibrate our Park trips so that by the end of the year, we’d both have visited the same National Parks. That meant that we had to travel to Yosemite, Shenandoah, Dry Tortugas, and Grand Canyon. Along the way, we picked up other Parks near those four so that by the end of the year, we’d visited eight National Parks and thirteen National Park units.
After Yosemite and Channel Islands in May and Shenandoah in June (and Muir Woods, Golden Gate, and Point Reyes in August), we planned to visit the Grand Canyon in September. We knew that we’d want to pick up at least one more Park on a visit to the Grand Canyon. Very early in our planning, we considered a relatively short trip to the South Rim and Petrified Forest National Park, which is near the top of Sean’s list of Parks to visit. But we decided that an extended long weekend was giving both those Parks short shrift.
In August 2016, Sean’s firm sent him to Los Angeles and San Francisco for a week. On Sunday afternoon, August 7, we were treated to spectacular aerial views of southern Utah and northern Arizona. In particular, we were able to see Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, and Grand Canyon National Park, all from the comfortable cruising altitude of American Airlines Flight 2220 from Chicago O’Hare to LAX.
Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Joshua Tree National Park
In his engrossing Wilderness in National Parks: Playground or Preserve, John C. Miles, professor of environmental studies at Western Washington University, traces the history of wilderness protection in the parks from their earliest days to the book’s present, 2008.
The history of the National Parks and other protected lands in the United States is the story of continually evolving ideas about how and why natural and historical areas should be protected for the common good. At its noblest, it is an acknowledgement that the people, collectively, own and administer the wildest, most beautiful and most historically important areas in the nation. The hows and whys of acquiring and administering these places is intrinsically tied to the concept of land held for the common good.
Almost 150 years ago, on June 30, 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill granting scenic Yosemite Valley to the state of California to be held in the public interest as a park (eventually the valley would return to federal control as part of Yosemite National Park). Eight years later, when Congress moved to protect the geothermal features around the headwaters of the Yellowstone River in a region that lay in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho territories, there was no state to give the park to, so by default it became a national park. The concept of the national park was born out of necessity.
The title of this blog is an adaptation of Theodore Roosevelt’s words upon seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time:
Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.
Roosevelt was talking about a great natural site before it would be protected. Already there were mining designs on sections of the canyon. Parts of it were no longer pristine wilderness, and they aren’t now, nor will be. Now, as then, there are parts of the park designated wilderness and others for heavy tourist use.
I have no illusion that the parks as my traveling companions and I will experience them are truly pristine (save for perhaps the remotest of the Alaska parks), but they are somewhere on a continuum between civilization and wilderness.
In the summer of 1992, a family trip took my aunt, uncle, two cousins and me to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We stayed in a canyon-view room in Thunderbird Lodge. Fanny packs strapped securely around our waists, we strolled the rim looking at the vistas. Drama was provided by an escaped convict who fled into the park causing the closure of a large section of the eastern part of the South Rim, as well as road blocks on the highways in and out of the park.
Thirteen years old, about to start high school in September, I was enthralled by everything.