By Bill Andruss

Years ago, there was a suggestion that people might feel better about paying their income tax if they were able to designate which department of government their money could go to. That idea lasted only a minute because someone said it wouldn’t work for the simple fact that everyone in the country would want their money to go to the national parks. When we hike a trail, visit a historic structure, walk a battlefield or enter a national park, we experience something that we cannot get from seeing a photo or reading a book or watching a movie.

We walk inside the McLean House at Appomattox Court House and imagine the civility that Grant showed Lee, and for a brief instant we share the same space where the country was reunited. We transport ourselves back to that other time because we want to. We want to know what it must have been like for Lee when Grant allowed his army to keep their horses. To be among the few to actually witness what has become known as “The Gentlemen’s Agreement” would have indeed been unique. Nevertheless, we try to feel it all these years after it happened. Knowing that we are standing where they stood brings us ever so much closer to such a significant event.

We stand under the Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the United States signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, and again we take ourselves back to 1903 when Teddy laid the cornerstone for the arch that would later bear his name. Standing there, we try to visualize the undeveloped surroundings at the time in Gardiner, Montana, and we gaze up at the inscription that reads: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”

Because the past is available to us, we see it as a privilege to extract what we can of it to make our present day lives have a greater meaning. Offering us both instruction and inspiration, the national parks provide us with beauty, peace and a splendor you can only get from being there.

The parks were an idea whose creation owes much to men like Ferdinand Hayden, William Henry Jackson and Thomas Moran. Ferdinand was a geologist known for his surveying expeditions of the Rocky Mountains. Jackson was a photographer and well known for his large style images of the American West. And Moran, part of the art movement known as The Hudson River School, was a painter distinguished for his American landscapes. Collectively, these pioneers with their vision were instrumental in capturing the nation’s attention with the notion of setting aside land, and thus the idea for national parks. Around the same time, John Muir, naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, did much to champion the protection of what would become national parks at Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Sequoia and Petrified Forest.

Today, the National Park Service is comprised of 419 units, with 62 of them designated as national parks. While I have been fortunate to see greater than 200 of the sites, it is the national parks themselves that provide an outdoor forum unlike anything else.

I worked against the rise, sweating heavily, all the while admiring the view below and thinking how many millions of years it had taken to create such a palette of colors and shapes, humbling to the eye. At the top, I paused for a drink and let the feeling of exhilaration and exhaustion sweep over me, as I turned around to congratulate my wife, Becky. I said, “let’s take a photo at the Kolb Studio to remember this day.” Carrying only backpacks with a jacket and four large bottles of water, we had just completed a day that began nine hours earlier. Starting at dawn, we descended the South Kaibab Trail and watched the sun perform its magic on our way to Phantom Ranch alongside the Colorado River. After two sandwiches, two apples and a shared banana, the Bright Angel Trail beckoned. We were determined to see the studio where, in 1902, Emory and Ellsworth Kolb opened a business photographing people at the top of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Of the five million people that visit annually, fewer than one percent venture a significant distance below the south rim, and that’s where the magic and beauty lie.

Spanning twenty-five years, Becky and I have traversed the country in a desire to explore the very best that America’s national parks have to offer. Each time, these pristine environments provide countless opportunities for breathtaking photography and a new appreciation for their wonders, where solitude is never far. Zion National Park, in Utah’s high plateau country, is where we had the first taste of what would turn into a goal to see every national park.

Diversity can be measured in size, whereby one park is worthy of a week and another one merits just a single day. Such was the case of one trip wherein we visited the Great Smoky Mountains, the nation’s most popular national park and Congaree, the least visited. It can also be measured in topography. While many national parks encompass hundreds of thousands of acres, consider Hot Springs National Park, where the very heart of it is Central Avenue in the middle of town. A century ago, elegant buildings lined a portion of “Bathhouse Row” where people “took the waters,” the mineral-rich waters.

Diversity is once again laid out in the context between landscapes. At one end of the spectrum lie the rough, black lava trails with cinder cones and enormous pits that must be crossed in order to witness Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s spectacular evening display where lava lights up the sky before it falls into the ocean. Contrast that with a casual stroll through the peaceful network of carriage paths enhanced by seventeen hand-built granite bridges that were laid out a century ago by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in Acadia National Park. Animals, too, add a diversification of their own. I won’t forget moving out of the way of a bison who browsed on the Jones Creek Trail in Teddy Roosevelt National Park, nor being just feet from a moose in Alaska.

The century-old lodges within many parks welcome with a particular rustic elegance and comfort after a long day on the trail. Part of our overall park experiences are packaged around nights at signature structures like Old Faithful Inn, El Tovar, Paradise Inn, The Ahwahnee Hotel, Crater Lake Lodge and others. Their architectural significance, welcoming, massive lobbies and roaring fireplaces have earned many of them the distinction of a place on the list of National Historic Landmarks.

The past gives us confidence that as previous generations enjoyed and sought refuge in the best part of our natural heritage, so then will our successors. Whether historical, educational or physical, we luxuriate in the serenity and uniqueness that these national treasures provide. Who wouldn’t?