Many years ago, a great lake sat between two massive mountain ranges, a lake that fed the river that now serves as much of America’s southern border. Today, that great lake has left behind a unique desert, a field of dunes that almost seem otherworldly. The appearance of these mounds of sand isn’t the only thing odd about this area. When the wind is right, the sand seems to sing out from the valley. However, those who come here in search of singing sands and high desert will find something more than massive mounds of sand and rising temperatures. Grasslands, wetlands, pine and aspen forests, alpine lakes and tundra biomes also rise from this landscape, a quiet reminder that this magical place is actually in south central Colorado. This place is Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The Great Sand Dunes have been inspiring people for ages. Native peoples considered it an important scared landmark, a place of food and medicine. Explorer Zebulon Pike described the moving sands as “exactly that of the sea in a storm.” Settlers came west in order to find gold and attempt to farm this isolated area. Bing Crosby even wrote a song about the singing sands. Established as a national monument in 1932, it would take more than 70 years for this icon of Colorado to attain national park status, making it the second youngest national park in the country.
Known as the Little Missouri Badlands, this area went from being the home of nomadic native tribes to a sportsman’s paradise before it was decided to preserve the area in memory of Roosevelt and his legacy as a conservationist. Known today for its feral horses and spectacular views of the Northern Lights, this park features some of the most unique scenery in the Great Plains with views that are breathtaking no matter the season. It is easy to see how anyone who spent time at Theodore Roosevelt National Park would come away with a desire to protect the natural beauty of America.
Badlands National Park has long been sacred to the Oglala Lakota and today, portions of the park are surrounded by the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The Lakota once roamed this area and the nearby Black Hills freely, and now work to ensure their ancestral lands are preserved for future generations. A national monument since the 1920s, it wasn’t until 1978 that the Badlands achieved national park status. By then, the land had seen the clashes between its native inhabitants and homesteaders, the last of the ghost dances, been used as a U.S. Air Force base, and a touchstone for the members of the American Indian Movement. Inhospitable as they may seem, the Badlands are iconic not only because of the natural wonders found here but also because of the cultural history and legacy they stand for.
The relative isolation and natural beauty of this area has led to many cultures making their homes here or at least creating their myths about how this area came to be. The forbidding nature of the area made it seem unconquerable to some and despite several attempts to settle it in the modern day, Capitol Reef remained largely untouched. Soon, it was determined the rugged beauty of this area was best preserved for future generations, a testament to the sheer power and force of nature. It would take nearly 50 years before the dream of preserving Capitol Reef was realized.
While it is arguably one of the most famous national parks, Arches didn’t obtain its status until the 1970s, making it one of the younger parks. Oddly enough, the superintendent who campaigned for the creation of Arches was able to successfully get a national park designation for nearby Canyonlands before he could obtain one for his own park. Those who see the natural arches, balanced rocks, petroglyphs and numerous other sites of Arches might wonder why it took so long to preserve this beautiful piece of land outside Moab. Of course, conservation can only do so much and natural forces beyond the control of man continue to shape this park in new and amazing ways.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is not only located on the Texas-New Mexico border but is also across that border from another national park some 62 miles away: Carlsbad Caverns. The Guadalupe Mountains are the same range Carlsbad Caverns are located under and one of the most iconic ranges in this area of the American southwest. Guadalupe Mountains also shares the border with New Mexico’s Brokeoff Mountains Wilderness Study Area. Local ranchers and those who would exploit the minerals and other natural resources beyond the park still oppose it, but conservationists, archaeologists and scientists have shown again and again the importance of this park.
Located not far from Moab, Utah, this park is divided major districts with names that sound like something out of fiction: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze and the Rivers. This area was also once home to the ancestral Puebloan peoples who created one of the first major civilizations in this region as well as in other national parks like Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest and the Chaco Canyon National Historic Park. It soon became a place of miners and Mormons, ranchers and researchers. Today, Canyonlands is one of the big five parks in Utah and, along with nearby Arches National Park, has made the small Mormon community of Moab a travel destination for visitors the world over.
Amid the remains of ancient forests and ancient peoples are more modern ruins - towns, cars and railroads abandoned by those who attempted to make their life out in this unforgiving but beautiful landscape. While the desert and fossils here date back hundreds of millions of years, this area only became a national park in the 1960s. It took several attempts by various presidents to turn this area into a national park. It took more than 65 years of campaigning for Petrified Forest to attain national park status and was the only national park created under the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The second of the three national parks in Arizona, every new discovery here proves that Petrified Forest National Park is a national treasure.
Nearly a week after American, British and Canadian troops began making their heroic D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed off on the creation of Big Bend National Park half a world a way. The American military and Big Bend always had a close relationship, from the end of the Mexican-American War when the military was used to buffalo soldiers survey this land to the cinnabar mines of the early 1900s that provided mercury and quicksilver needed for soldiers in World War II. Fort Stockton, a former military town, is still one of the closest cities to this remote park in west Texas. While it doesn’t have as many visitors as some of the more well-known parks out west, it is no longer one of the least visited national parks in the country, thanks in part to a historic 1960s visit by Lady Bird Johnson, a native Texan and America’s first lady at the time of her trip. Today, Big Bend National Park is still proving the adage that everything is bigger in Texas.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are administered jointly as Sequoia splits Kings Canyon from its visitor’s center, making Kings Canyon one of few non contiguous parks in the U.S. Despite being jointly administered, some might expect a sibling rivalry to emerge between these two parks. Though Sequoia has more visitors per year, Kings Canyon still beats its big sister in terms of acreage. While Sequoia is named after the trees themselves, Kings Canyon is also home to the largest remaining sequoia grove in the world as well as one tree dubbed “America’s Christmas tree.” It can be hard to separate the two parks from each other, but they each have unique stories that helped them become national parks.
Dedicated to all things travel, places I have been and places I want to go.