The Importance of National Parks

The National Parks are as American as apple pie. Only joking, apple pie was invented in England in 1381. No, but seriously, the National Parks are an integral part of the American identity, on par even with military budgets. The National Park Service was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916. There are officially 417 national park sites in the United States, spanning more than 84 million acres in each state. There are even national parks in the American territories of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam. Not only are the parks a natural wonder to behold, but they are an economic engine, driving commerce and industry everywhere they are located. To take a big picture view of the situation, let’s consider the following: in 2016, there were a total of 331 million park visitors, and an estimated $18.4 billion spent in local regions by said people while visiting the National Parks across the entire country. Let me say that again; $18.4 billion. If this was a business, it would be BOOMING! However, it gets even better. This money supported a total of 318.1 thousand jobs, $12 billion in labor income, $19.9 billion in value added, and $34.9 billion in economic output in the national economy.

The first national park designated as such in the entire world was Yellowstone National Park, with the signing of the Yellowstone National Park Act. The man, the myth, the legend who autographed this document was none other than President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872. Yellowstone National Park had 4 million visitors in 2015, $493 million was spent, 7,735 jobs were created and the income derived from all of this was $224 million. If you have ever been to Yellowstone, you know it is absolutely incredible! Yellowstone has such sites as:

  • Old Faithful Geyser

  • Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

  • Hayden Valley

  • Mammoth Hot Springs

  • Yellowstone Lake

  • Norris Geyser Basin

  • Lamar Valley

  • Tower Fall

  • Lower Geyser Basin

  • West Thumb Geyser Basin

National Parks are truly an American Treasure and should be treated as such. Lindsay and I have made it a life mission to see all 59 National Parks! So far, we have visited:

  • Arches National Park

  • Zion National Park

  • Everglades National Park

  • Yosemite National Park

  • Grand Canyon National Park

  • Haleakala National Park

  • Yellowstone National Park

  • Grand Teton National Park

  • Redwood National Park

And more recently together, we have visited:

  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park

  • Mesa Verde National Park

  • Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

  • Petrified Forest National Park

Not a huge list, but we are getting there!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in our home state of New Mexico! Carlsbad, as the locals call it, was established as a national park on May 14, 1930 by President Herbert Hoover. The park is made of one of over 300 limestone caves created by a fossil reef from an inland sea between 250 to 280 million years ago. There are signs of American Indians inhabiting the area some twelve to fourteen thousand years ago. The park received 466,773 visitors last year. The caves themselves are breathtaking!

If you have ever seen the BBC Series, Planet Earth, and the Caves episode, then you have seen a part of Carlsbad. One of the most stunning caves in the world is featured in this episode. Behold Lechuguilla Cave:

To get into the caves themselves, you basically just walk down a steep ramp into the caves. Basically just a giant hole in the ground.

While we were at Carlsbad, we took a tour of one of the lower caves. We can now call ourselves official spelunkers! We got outfitted with helmets and headlamps for the journey!

It was stunning in the lower caves and quite eerie. At one point, the guide had everyone turn off their headlamps, and the blackness was absolute; the darkness was so thick, you could feel it pressing in on you.

Every once and awhile you would see pools of perfectly clear water. I was tempted to jump in more than once!

This is the giant Chili Pepper Rock! Can you guess why?!

We would highly recommend Carlsbad, it was an incredible experience. The shear mileage of the caves is mind boggling.

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park can be found in good old Colorado. The park was established on June 29, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The park consists of 52,485 acres, more than 4,300 sites and 600 cliff dwellings, and is the largest archaeological preserve in the U.S of A. From the year 7500 BC on, Mesa Verde has been sporadically inhabited by native peoples of the region. The park had 583,527 visitors in 2016.

This view is of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. The structure was built by Ancestral Puebloans from 1190 to 1260. What a stunning sight!

This picture reveals how Mesa Verde got its name! Mesa Verde is Spanish for Green View.

Not only were the ruins incredible, but the views of the surroundings were awesome!

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is also located in Colorado and was originally the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, designated on March 17, 1932 by President Herbert Hoover. The park includes 44,246 acres, with the preserve adding another 41,686 acres. This park contains the tallest and dunes in all of North America, rising up to 750 feet and covering over 19,000 acres! The sand dunes look otherworldly, almost like Mars or the moon. The park had 388,308 visitors in 2016.

You'd never expect to see North America's tallest sand dunes sandwiched between the Rocky Mountains and the high-mountain deserts. The landscape here is so diverse! This park highlights thirty square miles of tall, gray sand dunes, as well as grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes and tundra. And it's dog-friendly!

Our little Ewok Rosie loved the Sand Dunes!

But where do these sand dunes come from? The story of the dune's origins is constantly changing as geologists continue to unravel the many geologic mysteries of the dunes. In a nutshell, the Great Sand Dunes have been formed over thousands of years as sand deposits from mountain streams and lakes in the San Luis Valley floor are carried by forceful, northwesterly winds. The sands are caught by the low curve of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of the Rocky Mountain range and create the sand dunes in the valley below. An amazing geological feat in the southwest!

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park, found in Arizona, covers 230 square miles of land. It was created on December 8, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt as a national monument. Petrified Forest was later designated as a national park on December 9, 1962 under President John F. Kennedy. The Petrified Forest gets its name from its fossils, specifically trees from the Late Triassic Period, about 225 million years ago.

The park is designated into two main areas along the historic Route 66. The northern area is called the Painted Desert and was acquired into the national park at a later date. Every color imaginable from pink, red, yellow, green, blue to the stark contrast of white and gray, rolls in barren desert hills as far as the eye can see. We had a fantastic time backpacking here, exploring the open landscape, and sleeping under the clear, starry night.

The other side of the park hosts the famous petrified forest for which the park is named. Essentially, this area was once a thick forest, similar to the forests of Costa Rica, and the land was roughly at sea-level. Because of moving plate tectonics, one plate slid under another, and pushed this land mass up higher in elevation, now resting at about 5,400 feet above sea level.

As for the petrified wood, all of the petrified logs in the park are in the form of quartz, sparkling and glittering in the sunlight. These ancient fossils are the result of logs washed into an ancient river system and buried by massive amounts of sediments and debris, as well as volcanic ash, over 200 million years ago. The debris would have cut off any access to oxygen to drastically slow down the decay and decomposition process of the ancient trees. Over the many decades it took the trees to decompose, minerals from the debris and volcanic ash were absorbed by the porous wood, forming crystalline structures that replaced the organic materials as it broke down over centuries. Now these amazing quartz fossils tell the story of what the land would have been like millions of years ago!

Throughout the park, there are also numerous ancient Puebloan ruins and petroglyphs. We saw the ruins of a village center, with over 100 rooms, from the Native Puebloan people who inhabited this place until a series of droughts in the 1200's. The tour included many petroglyphs, telling the story of the ancient past, as well as a Solar Marker that allowed the people to mark astronomically different events during the year, such as the solstices and equinoxes, to plan the planting and harvesting of foods. It is amazing how people lived in the past!

The National Parks are part of our American Heritage, and it is important that we maintain them for future generations to enjoy, for future jobs, for future economic growth and to inspire a sense of wanderlust and awe for future Americans.

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