There was a disconcerting column in the Utne Reader the other day, one that dubbed those who tried to visit all 58 national parks "elitist." "Determined," is one adjective that comes immediately to mind when talk turns to visiting all 58, but "elitist"?
Under the title, Don't Be a National Park Bagger, writer Keith Goetzman claims that those who set out to visit all 58 of the "national parks" do so so fleetingly that they can't possibly come to truly, and intimately, appreciate the 58. Plus, he points out, you'd leave a huge carbon footprint with all the driving and flying necessary to accomplish the task.
"Face it", writes Mr. Goetzman, "only the wealthiest and luckiest among us has the vacation time, the money, and the means to have a chance at ticking off all 58 parks, and even announcing your achievement to the world can come perilously close to bragging about what an amazingly fortunate life you lead—not the sort of message parks advocates should be sending."
Hopefully the folks who are members of the National Park Travelers Club don't catch wind of his column. This group celebrates travelers who look at visiting as many of the 391 units of the National Park System not as something that's elitist but rather something that's both a challenge and a great way to celebrate and appreciate the national parks movement in the United States.
And really, how elitist is it? Where I live in Utah, seven national parks are within a half-day's drive. Stretch that to a full day on the road and I can add another six. With some rather typical vacation planning, anyone in the country could knock off anywhere between three and five national parks during a two-week vacation, or a series of four-day weekends scattered throughout the year. Would it really be that "elitist," if you were so determined, to visit the 58 national parks over a period of a decade or so? True, for those on the East Coast getting to Alaska could be an expensive endeavor, just as it would be for those in Alaska determined to visit Everglades or Virgin Islands national parks. But over the course of your adult lifetime, it wouldn't necessarily be impossible if you were determined to visit the parks.
Concerned about your carbon footprint? There are mass transit options that can be combined with park shuttle systems, as well as other ways to offset your carbon footprint.
The other point Mr. Goetzman raises is whether those who set out to tour the 58 could come away with more than a superficial, fawning glance.
...the “collect ’em all” mentality goes against a better, nobler impulse, which is to get to know the land intimately. Better that we should acquaint ourselves with one, two, or a few parks very well than attempt to superficially survey them all in baseball-card-collector fashion. Several years ago, I worked for the summer in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, driving a tourist shuttle van between the tiny gateway community of McCarthy and the mining relic town of Kennicott. Among my passengers I met a few park baggers, most memorably a man and his teenage son. They “explored” the park in an afternoon, which meant strolling among Kennicott’s dilapidated buildings, looking up at the stupendous glaciers around them, and then riding my van back down to resume their journey. Never mind that Wrangell-St. Elias is the nation’s largest park at 13 million acres, and that even someone who’s there for months, as I was, can barely claim to have scratched the surface of its vast wonder. The man told me that they were off next to the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, which they would fly over in a bush plane—not even setting foot on the tundra. They added both parks to their all-important list, yet they didn’t have a true wilderness experience in either place.
Indeed, if all you seek to attain is a National Park Passport stamp, then yes, "park bagging" is over-rated and denies those involved in such an endeavor a tremendous opportunity to see fantastic landscapes and get at least an introduction to different ways of life and cultures. But let's be fair to those who visit Wrangell-St. Elias. The park, spanning more than 13 million acres, has two gravel roads that make forays of a combined 101 miles into the park's 20,580 square miles. Even if you knew how to live off the land and had the available time, it likely would take more than a lifetime to "know the land intimately."
Many people do fall in love with a small handful of parks, and visit them time and time and time again, which can be a wonderfully rewarding experience. But let's not be so self-righteous as to ridicule those who want to see as many of these magnificent landscapes and soak up the rewards they offer.