Summertime: What National Parks Are On Your "Must Visit" List?
One-hundred-and-forty-five years had passed since Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was mortally wounded by "friendly fire" in the woods at Chancellorsville, and yet it might have been yesterday.
Standing in those woods just a few weeks ago, it wasn't difficult to envision what transpired on that May 2 night back in 1863. Thick forest still hangs over the waning vestige of the Old Mountain Road where the general was riding, beyond the front lines, when members of the 18th North Carolina mistook him and his aides for a Union incursion and fired a volley that cut him down.
Nearby are two stone monuments that mark where the general was initially tended to by Captain Richard Wilbourn and General A.P. Hill. The first, a simple quartz boulder, was placed sometime between 1876 and 1883 by former Confederate soldiers -- including two members of his staff -- to honor their fallen leader. A larger, granite monument was placed a short walk away in 1888 by the Stonewall Jackson Monument Association.
These sites today are part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, a sprawling park in northern Virginia that also contains the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, a small white-washed frame building where the general died from pneumonia on May 10, 1863; the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where more than 15,000 Union soldiers are buried; the Innis House, which stands along the old Sunken Road that Rebel troops used as a shield while firing upon advancing Union troops; the house still bears bullet holes from the siege, and; a handful of other Civil War sites richly steeped in history.
A week earlier I found myself in New Bedford, Massachusetts, at the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, staring at the pew in the Seaman's Bethel where novelist Herman Melville in December of 1840 attended services in the Whaleman's Chapel before heading to sea just after the new year on a whaler. That experience, and those he collected during 18 months at sea, were the genesis for Moby Dick.
Between New Bedford and Fredericksburg I managed a few days at Cape Cod National Seashore, where, ahead of the summer crowds, I enjoyed warm temperatures, clear skies, scant humidity, and a game of Frisbee at Newcomb Hollow Beach as the surf rolled ashore. A few hundred yards south the remains of a 19th-century schooner still were visible, months after a winter storm spit them up from the Atlantic.
There also was time for fried scallops, raw oysters, steamed clams and a beer or two at the ocean-front Beachcomber Restaurant just down the road at Cahoon Hollow Beach, also part of the national seashore.
A short drive north took me to Provincetown and Race Point Beach, where the Old Harbor Lifesaving Station stands, a silent memorial to the gritty men and women who played an invaluable role in rescuing crew and passengers from ships that wrecked along the coast.
One week, three units of the National Park System, three very different experiences. Is this a great system or what? There's a richness of place, natural history, and cultural history in the park system that can't easily be found anywhere else. And it's ours to savor.
So where in the system might you be heading to this summer?
Later this year I've got five days of paddling penciled in at Yellowstone National Park. While most Yellowstone visitors are drawn to the geothermal wonders and landscapes dotted with wildlife, Lewis, Shoshone and Yellowstone lakes offer incredible paddling opportunities. These watery realms lead you away from summer crowds and into wonderfully pristine wilderness. Choose Shoshone Lake as your destination and you can enjoy the Shoshone Geyser Basin.
Other parks that offer great paddling include Acadia National Park (sea kayaking, canoeing); Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (sea kayaking), Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout national seashores (sea kayaking), Glacier National Park (canoeing and kayaking), Amistad National Recreation Area (canoeing and kayaking), Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, and the Gauley River National Recreation Area (rafting, river kayaking).
And, of course, can't forget Voyageurs National Park or Isle Royale National Park.
There are so many parks that offer incredible backpacking that it'd be hard to say this list would do the myriad possibilities justice, but here's a shotgun look: North Cascades National Park with its rugged wilderness; Kings Canyon National Park, where you can follow the Pacific Crest Trail; Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with its section of the Appalachian Trail; Grand Teton National Park, with the Teton Crest Trail that is so colorful when the wildlflowers are in bloom; Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, where you can retrace the thousands of steps taken by prospectors up the Chilkoot Trail; Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, where you can come to understand why Dick Proenneke found this place so magical; Mount Rainier National Park, where you can circumnavigate the park's namesake volcano on the Wonderland Trail, and; Zion National Park, where the Zion Narrows Trail is just 16 miles long but entails hiking at times through water that could require you to hold your pack overhead.
Is there anything quite as relaxing as a stroll down a beach, listening to the rolling surf and seabirds and keeping an eye out for interesting creatures or items that have been washed ashore? Olympic National Park offers more beach wilderness -- 73 wonderful miles -- than any other national park or seashore in the Lower 48. You can go for an afternoon stroll at Rialto Beach with its sea stacks, or head for the Ozette Loop that leads you on an overnight excursion.
The Cape Cod, Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout and Gulf Islands national seashores offer more beachfront to explore.
The richness of American history is well-preserved across the National Park System. A sampler might include Independence Hall National Historical Park, where the Founding Fathers' vision of a new country coalesced; San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which tracks the history of Franciscan and Spanish missionaries; Fort Laramie National Historic Site, which started out in 1834 as a trading post for fur trappers before becoming a military outpost and stop along the Oregon Trail; Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, which preserves and interprets the stories and places of our nation's home front response to World War II, or; Mesa Verde National Park, which is impressive and curious cliff dwellings.
And that's just a small sampler of what the National Park System offers. So where might you be headed this year?