WRITTEN BY: Bella Coyne
Raise your hand if you’ve ever gifted your dad a book about the national parks for Christmas! Okay, now raise your hand if he planned out a fabulously rigorous road trip! Finally, raise your hand if your mom had to bring him back down to reality and he, sadly, had to narrow the itinerary. That may be an incredibly (true) specific example, but road trips—no matter how extensive—are always going to be a part of the American Family Experience. So cue the folk music and sack lunches, because today we’re going to talk about the great national parks of America.
Why is it that we are so drawn to the idea of a “national park”? Is it because of the beauty? The untouched wilderness? Or is it due to a deeper longing to connect back to our roots—literally?
For most of my life, I’ve lived less than an hour from the Great Smoky Mountains, which is the most-visited national park and the only completely free one! (It welcomes anywhere from 9 to 10 MILLION visitors each year!) It was always a Sunday ritual: after church, my family would pick up a box of Publix chicken and drive up to the mountains to our favorite secluded spot off of Cades Cove. We would open the back of our minivan, gaze out over the mountains, and enjoy what my family calls “unplugged time”. No phones, no music, just our own conversation and the natural majesty of the Smokies (which, if you haven’t been, genuinely are smoky). I can’t pretend it isn’t crowded—as a matter of fact, the crowds can be a major drawback to visitors. But, if you know where to go, you can experience both the beauty AND the silence.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: use the Greenbrier entrance. Located on the opposite side of Gatlinburg, only the locals know of it. You have to drive through a tiny town, which houses a delicious coffee shop, a surprisingly gourmet restaurant, and lots of art shops and backwoods cabins. All the majesty, but almost none of the crazy crowds. Plus, hiking along the sparkling mountain streams makes you feel like you’re an elf in a Tolkein book.
Now that I’m older, I look back on that time with such an acute sense of nostalgia that I can’t help but wonder if the scenery or the wildlife really mattered after all. Living in America, one of the great blessings/curses we face is our unlimited access to the latest technology. It’s always convenient to have free Wifi wherever we go, but I think if we’re honest, sometimes the urge to be “plugged in” can be all-consuming. Thus, when we visit a national park, the lack of technology and the abundance of raw nature is extra potent. For most, untouched wilderness and a rare disconnect from our online lives is a blessing. But for some, those details can be…not so wonderful. It is my great pleasure to present to you a REAL Yelp review for one of the Seven Wonders of The World, the Grand Canyon!
“Went to the Grand Canyon this past week and let me tell YOU it's a big ole waste o time! There was dirt EVERYWHERE and the hiking trail was too long! Also where are the vending machines?? And nowhere to charge my phone! It's way too deep to even see the bottom! The only thing that saved this trip where the crab enchiladas we ate down the road…”
One of my favorite things about the Great Smokies is the wildlife. You can’t always see a mama bear and cubs, or a herd of elk; but then again, you can’t have nature on demand. Nor can you see 30-pound squirrels or ferocious grizzly bears, but this reviewer was sadly misinformed.
“I was very upset after finding out that the squirrels were not going to live up to my expectations. I had heard rumors of legendary squirrels that weighed 25-30 pounds. The squirrels at Great Smoky Mountains National Park were no more than 3 pounds. If the federal government (Department of the Interior) is going to spend all of the tax-dollars on maintaining our national parks, they could at least get some decent animals….I thought they had grizzly bears at this park. With increasing power and influence of the federal government, they continue to lie to us with false propaganda….I was very disappointed to only find those wimpy dumb black bears.”
I happen to think the bears aren’t very “wimpy” at all, but perhaps he’s bitter because he hasn’t seen baby cubs frolicking in the field in the early spring. (It’s the most precious thing ever.)
Last summer, I was lucky enough to get to travel to Montana and Wyoming and visit Yellowstone, as well as the Grand Teton National Park. Never have I seen such breathtaking nature! One of the craziest phenomena was the sheer size of the Tetons. They’re so huge, you can see them from miles away. Actually, I believe I got my first glimpse of them from two hours away, in Idaho. Even in the summer, their peaks glittered with snow, which stood out in stark contrast to the cloudless, overwhelmingly open sky. The wildlife was in abundance, and the park rangers did an amazing job of keeping tourists at a respectful distance from the animals while still allowing us to see them. Our first day at the Grand Tetons, a herd of bison ran across the road, blocking traffic and literally plowing through the fence on the other side! And as it turns out, another park reviewer had a similar experience.
“A bison shot us a mischievous glance as his herd took their sweet time crossing the Antelope Flat Road right in front of our car. Oh yeah, he totally did. You just don't mistake a look like that, nor will you forget.”
And Yellowstone! Pictures can’t possibly capture its beauty. Thousands of wildflowers, fields cut through with glistening (but icy) streams, fairy-tale-like hot springs—it’s something you have to experience to truly believe. But unfortunately, unlike the Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, stepping off the path and into the hot springs can almost certainly be fatal. In Arkansas, the pools were once believed to have medicinal qualities (at a time, they were once thought to be the Fountain of Youth!) But in Yellowstone, it is strictly forbidden to move off of the boardwalk that serves as a trail around the springs.
Luckily for us, America offers a national park for every kind of nature lover! Deserts, mountains, glaciers—the United States offers it all. (But if you’re looking for Wifi, crab enchiladas, or fat squirrels, I’d do some research first.) Thanks to President Ulysses S. Grant for officially making Yellowstone the first national park on March 1, 1872, a little over 4 million people are able to visit it each year! And next time you or your family plans a trip to a national park, I invite you to ask “why?” Is it the appeal of nature? The excitement of life on the road? The desire to be unplugged?
Hey! Did you know that Reconnecting Roots has plenty of content about both national parks AND the effects of technology? You can catch Season 2 on PBS (check your local provider!), or stream for free, anytime, anywhere, at pbs.org/show/reconnecting-roots! Or check out our podcast, extra content videos, and more, at our website!
P.S. Are you a nerd like me? Take a look at these websites and learn more about the history of the mentioned national parks!