Sometimes, the most beautiful natural sites are right at home. The U.S. National Park System contains everything an eco-traveler could possibly want in terms of natural wonders, cultural preservation, and wildlife.
— By Pamela Grant
What country can you visit and find dunes, volcanoes, marshland, mountains, waterfalls, lakes, rugged coastline, geysers, springs, caves, and forest? It is the United States, where an astonishing 84 million acres are established on the continent and in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa. Traveling the world to visit its wonders is a tremendous experience, but so is visiting the 62 U.S. national parks filled with just about every kind of natural formation imaginable or the historical parks delivering a real world view of history.
That is just the start too, because there are actually more than 400 parks under the protection of the National Park Service. The other parks are places like battlefields, memorials, national monuments, preserves, scenic trails, seashores, rivers and riverways.
There is so much to see that eco-travelers can choose their focus – flora and fauna, formations, wildlife, cultural preservations, diversity, American history – and find multiple spots to visit.
Alligators to Bison to Prairie Dogs
Some of the national parks are immensely popular, with the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee topping the list with more than 12.5 million visitors in 2019. The Grand Canyon in Arizona is second with almost 6 million visitors. But there are other parks that experience significantly fewer visitors, and these parks are particularly appealing to eco-travelers.
The Everglades in Florida is a 1.5 million-acre wetlands park that hosts 1.1 million visitors each year. The park is a unique sub-tropical wonderland of sawgrass marches, coastal mangroves and pine flatwoods. It is so unique that it has been declared a World Heritage Site. Proving you do not have to look at international sites to find an international experience, the Florida Everglades is also a declared International Biosphere Reserve and Wetland of International Importance. Here you can walk boardwalks into swamps, see alligators lazing in the Big Cypress National Preserve, spot a Florida black bear, and ride an airboat through the sawgrass – a truly unforgettable experience as alligators quickly swim out of the way.
"I do not believe that any man can adequately appreciate the world of today unless he has some knowledge of ... [and] some feeling for ... the history of the world of the past," said Theodore Roosevelt.
That is what you experience when visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. There are plenty of historical sites concerning Roosevelt, like the Elkhorn Ranch Site where he lived and the Long X Trail used to move cattle into the Northern Great Plains. It holds much more though. The exposed layers of the Badlands are the result of ancient ecosystems of river deltas and swamps, the Little Missouri River, glaciers, and other environmental forces. There are flood plains, forests, prairies and grasslands, and rivers and streams. This is the place to go to see large herds of free-roaming bison, wild horses, pronghorn, prairie dogs, and a variety of snakes and lizards.
Next door to North Dakota is South Dakota, home of Wind Cave National Park. Many people have never heard of this park which saw 615,350 visitors in 2019. This is a park unlike any other. The park is located on a remnant island of intact prairie on a complex maze-like cave system that you can tour with a guide. If you prefer to stay above ground, there are 30 miles of hiking trails with a view of pristine Black Hills scenery. There are opportunities to witness bugling elk in September and October; plenty of areas for viewing wildlife like bison, pronghorns, and prairie dogs; and taking guided bird walks.
A Focus on History Through the Lens of the Parks
Some eco-travelers like to focus on the historical, and the U.S. National Park System does not disappoint.
There are 76 national historical sites, 57 national historical parks, and numerous battlefields. You can go way back in history and see petroglyphs at the Arches National Park or learn about the events leading to the American Revolution at the Boston National Historical Park by walking the Freedom Trail.
You probably are familiar with the Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania and the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Kentucky because of their popularity. What many people may not realize is that visiting the historical parks can be combined with learning the rich history of the diverse people who settled and built the United States and now preserve the colorful cultures that gives the country its uniqueness.
The Glory of Diversity
The Cane River National Heritage Area in Louisiana offers a glimpse into 300 years of history through preserved forts, churches, plantations and cemeteries. The area is home to the one-of-a-kind Creole culture that continues to thrive through descendants of the merging cultures of Native American, Spanish, French and African. The Cane River once served as a major thoroughfare for the Natchitoches Band of Caddo Indian and then became important to European settlers who built plantations and conducted trade.
At the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in the District of Columbia, you can find inspiration by visiting Cedar Hill estate, touring his home, and learning the remarkable story of an escaped slave who became a leader in the abolitionist movement.
At the Nicodemus National Historic Site, continue the story of formerly enslaved African-Americans who were instrumental in the westward expansion as they looked for a place to live in freedom and peace after the end of the Civil War.
Women are honored at the parks, too, for their role in American history, including civil rights. For example, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in New York shares the story of the struggles of women to gain civil rights and their global fight for human rights and equality.
Native Americans are celebrated at parks like the Nez Perce National Historical Site in Idaho, where the history and culture of the Nimiipuu people is shared. The museum collections tell some of the story, but even better is the fact this Indian nation thrives today. You do not have to imagine anything – you can witness their culture in action. There are 38 sites spread over hundreds of miles in three states that tell the Nez Perce story, and events are held throughout the year.
Become a Witness
The best way to appreciate the environmental and people diversity of the United States is to witness it.
The best way to witness it is to visit the wonderfully diverse national parks found coast to coast.