The parks less traveled

 

I’ll never forget the misty June morning I caught a glimpse of a gray wolf, loping like a ghost dog through the green of Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. Or the March afternoon I squeezed through the claustrophobic Joint Trail in Canyonlands, emerging sweaty and exhilarated into a surreal landscape of red and white sandstone hoodoos. The West’s national parks naturally evoke indescribable feelings of awe. But there is more than beauty involved; many of these places are designed to preserve American history, and to provoke moments of reflection — even if those reflections are sometimes uncomfortable. Years ago, for example, I hiked to the Shrine of the Stone Lions at Bandelier National Monument, only to find that park staff had removed the offerings of turquoise, eagle feathers and antlers left by Native people, who hold the place sacred. Why? Because non-Native tourists had started adding their own offerings — including beef jerky and .38 caliber bullets.

Last year, a record 307 million people sought out the more than 400 units of the national park system, ranging from the world-renowned “Y” parks, Yellowstone and Yosemite, to their more obscure but perhaps equally intriguing alphabetical cousins, Yucca House National Monument and Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. This  year — the parks’ centennial — is likely to see even more visitors.

And so this HCN special Travel Issue is devoted to the parks. But we’re not going to recommend hikes and lodges and road trips, or make suggestions about what you should pack. (Although you should know that, during National Park Week, April 16 through 24, you can visit any U.S. park for free.) You can find that kind of information in many other places.

Senior editor, Jodi Peterson.

Instead, we want to introduce you to some lesser-known Western gems. Contributing editor Sarah Gilman takes us to the Oregon Trail and considers the complexities involved in preserving this key Westward route — and the vexed question of how the story should be told, and who should tell it. On the U.S.-Mexico border, correspondent Sarah Tory explores another historic trail, the Anza, with its uncomfortable parallels between modern and historic immigration. Out in Nevada’s remote Great Basin National Park, Leath Tonino playfully blindfolds himself to discover how the landscape might stimulate other senses. And in New Mexico, contributing editor Cally Carswell visits Valles Caldera, which failed under semi-private management but is now reinventing itself as one of the park system’s newest units. Our writers also visit what we call “dark parks,” places that memorialize some of the West’s most painful historical chapters. We’ll also meet a few of the men and women (and even sled dogs) who keep things running behind the scenes.

We hope you enjoy the journey, and that it inspires you to seek out the hidden riches of this truly unique invention: our national parks.