Why should we visit national parks?

Theresa Goodrich recounted a memorable encounter with a group of locals while camping in Badlands National Park several years ago.

"Bison just walked right through the field where our tent was pitched," she said, describing the behemoths' use of a picnic table as a scratching post. "A bunch of us were up early and standing on one side of our vehicles because on the other side the bison were having their breakfast."

Such out-of-the-ordinary experiences await those who venture into America's stunning and stunningly abundant protected lands, Goodrich asserted. The award-winning travel author will present Adventures in our National Parks from 7 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 12, at the Hinsdale Public Library (see Page 24 for details).

"(The parks) are set aside for everyone to enjoy, and they really showcase the breadth and the depth of the diversity in the country, geologically speaking," she said.

Few may be aware that Hot Springs, Ark., is the proverbial headwaters of the national park system. The Hot Springs Reservation (later made a national park) was created in 1832 during U.S. President Andrew Jackson's administration to protect springs flowing from the southwestern slope of Hot Springs Mountain.

"The area had gotten to be increasingly popular, and the residents wanted to protect it from over-development," Goodrich said.

Four decades later in 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the act protecting Yellowstone, the first official national park, not only domestically, but in the world.

"It was an area where people would explore and then come back and tell stories about water shooting into the air like from a dragon, and listeners thought they were crazed lunatics," said Goodrich in describing Old Faithful and other geysers. "Even in a every-man-for-himself era, they still set aside this huge area of land for everybody to enjoy."

She drew a contrast between the high-energy water explosions of Yellowstone to the captivating serenity of Joshua Tree National Park in California.

"It's completely quiet. I could hear a single bird's wing flapping," she said of Joshua Tree. "We cooked dinner at night without using a lantern because the moon and the stars were so bright."

The more popular parks today have timed or ticketed entry to manage attendance, and Goodrich recommended camping or staying in on-site accommodations.

"If you're camping then you can get to all of the popular areas of the park before the general public arrives," she advised, adding that special evening ranger programs are offered near campgrounds at some parks.

The top tip? Plan ahead.

Reservations for national park visits should be made a year in advance, she said.

Don't be surprised by miles-long traffic jams at the hot spots, and don't be afraid to call an audible when necessary.

"If you pull up to the parking lot and see a bunch of tourist buses, see if there's an alternate part of the park or try again later," Goodrich said. "These are our country's parks and they're open to the world, and I think that's absolutely wonderful."

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean