A road trip of more than 2,500 miles led me to four intriguing units of the National Park System that, while not at the top of everyone’s go-to list, revealed both rich and troubling chapters of American history that likely would have faded into irrelevance without the parks that interpret their stories.
The idea of such a trek began to germinate when a family wedding was scheduled for late June in Iowa, two states removed from my home in Utah. Flying would be quicker, but driving would give me the opportunity to visit four parks that had so far eluded me; not because they lacked appeal, but because they lacked proximity. Having chosen my lot, I didn’t let the rapid growth in gasoline prices scare me off my drive.
From Scotts Bluff National Monument in western Nebraska to Homestead National Historical Park in eastern Nebraska, and then on to Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in eastern Kansas to Fort Larned National Historic Site in western Kansas, my long, looping journey largely traced a theme of individualism and determination, though the stop at Tallgrass Prairie put the focus keenly on preservation of the natural past. These are parks that don’t overwhelm you with visual fireworks, instead requiring more focused attention on the history steeped in these places.
Only on the open road can you attempt to digest the American landscape. The prairie states reflect the country’s agricultural might, with corn and grain fields stretching the horizon, 1,000-pound rolled hay bales waiting to be stacked onto tractor trailers for hauling to cattle operations, and grain elevators with semitrucks taking their fill. Wind turbines sprout from the prairie in some areas. At Colby, Kansas, they stretch towards the distant horizon. And the winds do blow across the prairie. It was most evident in western Kansas, where the trees are bent over, usually to the east, from the constant breezes sweeping out of the Rocky Mountains.
U.S. flags whip in the breeze above many homes and businesses, a testament to the locals’ patriotism, although the billboards hawking AR-15s might catch the breath of some travelers.
The National Park System units here require no small measure of resolve to reach, and not just because of the many rolling miles of highway that separate them. Tourism to the park system seems to be guided by the bright and shiny destinations or, rather, the steamy and gurgling, the craggy, snow-capped peaks, the deeply plunging canyons, and the surf-pounded coastlines. But with more than 85 million acres of park lands, there are many other lures to which we should respond.
Among the poignant stories I found out on the road with a little scratching of the surface was one revolving around an amazing man whose life stretched from the opening of the Western frontier to air travel; another about an enslaved people who found, after they were freed by the Civil War, opportunity to tame a set amount of acreage so they could own it free-and-clear; and of a post-Civil War white cavalry officer in charge of a unit of Buffalo Soldiers who fought racism and discrimination. These are not simple, one-off stories, but rather individual chapters in thick books of the country’s history. Chapters that encourage deeper digging.
At Tallgrass Prairie, the main story is about survival of a tiny fraction of prairie landscape that once covered an estimated 240 million acres of the United States. But there also are threads about the recovery of America’s national mammal, and of the husband and wife who transformed the landscape into a thriving ranching operation nearly 150 years ago.
There are more than 400 units of the National Park System, and yet last year just about half of the 297.1 million visitors to the system went to just 25 parks. They largely were attracted by the eye-candy parks:
- Blue Ridge Parkway: 15.9 million
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 14.1 million
- Golden Gate National Recreation Area: 13.7 million
- Gateway National Recreation Area: 9.1 million
- Lake Mead National Recreation Area: 7.6 million
- George Washington Memorial Parkway: 6.8 million
- Natchez Trace Parkway: 6.4 million
- Lincoln Memorial: 5.8 million
- Gulf Islands National Seashore: 5.5 million
- Zion National Park: 5 million
- Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park: 5 million
- Yellowstone National Park: 4.9 million
- Grand Canyon National Park: 4.5 million
- Rocky Mountain National Park: 4.4 million
- Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area: 4.3 million
- Acadia National Park: 4 million
- Cape Cod National Seashore: 4 million
- Grand Teton National Park: 3.9 million
- World War II Memorial: 3.7 million
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial: 3.6 million
- Yosemite National Park: 3.3 million
- Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area: 3.3 million
- Cape Hatteras National Seashore: 3.2 million
- Indiana Dunes National Park: 3.2 million
- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: 3.1 million
The four units I visited combined saw fewer than 315,000 visitors last year. In the case of Fort Larned, just 29,442 came across the wooden footbridge that spans the Arkansas (or is it Ar-Kansas?) River and leads to the fort despite the fact that it’s a well-preserved and interpreted Civil War-era outpost that conveys not only the hardships the soldiers endured but was the setting for some of the racism endured by Company A of the U.S. Army’s 10th Cavalry, the original Buffalo Soldiers.
None of these four parks is the “final destination” of a vacation in the National Park System. But they are more than worthy destinations that interpret, and preserve, stories important in the cultural growth of the United States. In the coming weeks, I’ll share with you the stories I came upon. I hope they will tempt you to divert from time to time away from the heavily visited parks and go in search of historical grit and natural wonders to be found in the park system.