In the heart of the Great Plains, the rolling prairies and banks of the Platte River in Nebraska today serve as part of the nation’s breadbasket, a state just as well known for its agriculture as its unique bluffs, mountains and natural features. At one point, it was home to numerous tribes including the Apache, Omaha, Missouria, Ponca, Pawnee, Otoe, and various branches of the Lakota Sioux before it became a French then Spanish then American territory. Known for its wide open spaces and sparse population, about 89 percent of cities in Nebraska have a population of less than 3,000.
As a result, many towns across the state may seem like ghost towns despite the fact they have thriving communities by Great Plains standards. However, there are towns that have disappeared back into the prairies and rolling hills. Forts along the frontier aided white settlers in westward expansion while native peoples attempted to regain their land. Early black homesteaders managed to eke out a community of their own on the prairies. French, German, and Bohemian settlers made their mark on early communities while industries like potash, silica mining, and the railroads created others. Mormons and Catholics searched for religious freedom west of the Missouri. All of these stories can be told through the ghost towns of Nebraska.
Much of what made Montana what it is today can be found in its forgotten places, in the abandoned communities that thrived and then died in this rough and tumble state. Old mining towns and stagecoach stops harken back to the days when going west was synonymous with getting rich - and occasionally dying trying. Cowboys, calamities and sinners converged on outposts each in the running for the title of the west’s wickedest city. Soldiers worked to both keep the peace at home and abroad at towns that became their camps. Bootleg booze and fresh water made communities that came out of and disappeared back into nothingness.
The ninth of California’s national parks, Pinnacles is the 59th national park in the country though it is hardly the federally protected land. The area was created as Pinnacles National Monument in 1908 under the purview of President Theodore Roosevelt, the president responsible for the national park’s system as it exists today. However, it wouldn’t be for another 105 years until President Barack Obama signed into law the creation of the national monument as a park. Today, Pinnacles is just a three and a half hour drive from Yosemite, the land that began the national park movement and the nation’s second 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.
Dedicated to all things travel, places I have been and places I want to go.