We were in our mid-20s the first time my husband and I pitched our tent at Mammoth Cave National Park. We fell in love with the Kentucky hills, enormous underground caverns, and stunning cave formations. Returning to Mammoth Cave National Park someday with our yet-to-be-born children became one of many travel dreams for us.
We fulfilled that dream the spring break before we moved from Indiana to Texas, well aware that we needed to make the trip while we were still close enough to easily drive there. We read park signs, hiked along short paths, and took the kids on two separate tours. Then we watched with pride as our five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son took their very first Junior Ranger pledge. Yes, we helped them with the books and no, they didn’t fully understand everything that went into the process, but it started them down a path of excited discovery, passionate empathy, and genuine concern for the world around them.
It wasn’t their first visit to national parks, but it was the first visit to make a real impression. When our daughter was a baby we took a mini-vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains and three years later we returned with our daughter and one-year-old son for a family reunion. At the time they were too young to complete Junior Ranger books, but we purchased their very own National Parks Passport books, stamped the books to commemorate their visit to the national park, and safely stored them for future use. They came out once again when we made the family journey to do some caving in the Bluegrass State.
In the years since that first Junior Ranger pledge, visiting our nation’s national parks and related sites has become a priority for our family. Sometimes a quick stop just ends in a visit and a stamp in a passport. At other times, when we have enough time to explore and the kids are in the mood, we add Junior Ranger badges to the experience. We’ve planned entire vacations around visits to national parks and monuments. We’ve occasionally made side trips (much to my husband’s chagrin) for a quick visit and stamp to prove that we have made a brief stop. When we talk about where we want to vacation next, our kids tell us Niagara, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone (although a return trip to Disney also tops their list).
I am fully admitting my bias: We are a family of national parks enthusiasts and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
In 1983, writer Wallace Stegner said “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
And that is usually true. While places like Mount Rushmore continue to try to find a balance between the history of using land taken from indigenous peoples and respecting the local history and sacred nature of the Black Hills, places like Cane River Creole (where we took our kids on spring break a few years ago) work to educate visitors about the life of slaves and the many years of sharecropping on the local plantations after the Civil War.
The National Park Service (NPS) is more than just 61 national parks highlighting the most beautiful parts of the United States; the National Park Service includes around 400 different sites and manages 84-million acres, or 3.4 percent of U.S. land. There are monuments, historic sites, and battlefields. Visiting the sites within the NPS shows us the very best, and sometimes the worst, parts of our nation’s history. A couple summers ago, on a trip home to Houston from Indianapolis, I took our kids on a midwest tour. Because I had always wanted to visit Hannibal, Missouri (years of teaching Huck Finn convinced me this was a must see), we had to take a slight detour on our way back to Texas. We stopped in Springfield, Illinois and visited Abraham Lincoln’s home, reading about his life before he became president and learning from costumed actors about the lives of former slaves during the Civil War. The next day we drove past the Gateway Arch (having stopped there when we moved to Houston and waiting for the renovations to finally be done before making another stop) and made it to Little Rock, Arkansas in time to spend 30 minutes in the visitor center at Little Rock Central High, where the Little Rock Nine broke barriers by integrating the high school, facing significant challenges along the way. We sat at the top of the steps leading into the high school and pointed down to the sidewalk below, telling my children what it was like for the nine brave young men and women who entered the high school for the first time, facing crowds of angry white people who stood on the sidewalk that lines the campus grounds.
Our kids have learned that our nation is beautiful and that beauty takes many forms. They have learned that our history is complicated and the importance of learning the good and the bad so we can do better. They have learned about the environment and the impact of humans, leading to better ecological practices at home and on the road.
They have learned that to love your country you must acknowledge all of it, standing in awe when struck by the splendor of creation or a memorial to the fallen, but also choking back the tears when learning about times American citizens have stood on the wrong side of history.
And the National Park Service needs the help of every day citizens. According to the NPS website, “More than $11 billion of repairs or maintenance on roads, buildings, utility systems, and other structures and facilities across the National Park System has been postponed for more than a year due to budget constraints. Collectively they are known as ‘deferred maintenance.’” The government shutdown that started at the end of 2018 not only cost the already strapped system $14 million in entrance fees, but they experienced a significant amount of irreparable damage when they were left open for longer than a month without NPS employees monitoring visitor behavior. While we saw many people acting responsibly at Big Bend when we decided to continue our Christmas Break vacation there, that was not the case at all parks. And eventually even Big Bend, which is not one of the most popular parks in the country, started to experience difficulties with trash and damage to sites. One of the many controversies over President Trump’s 2019 July 4 celebration was the diversion of $2.5 million dollars of National Park funds for the sole purpose of the event, which was being held on public lands.
How does taking our kids to the parks make a difference? It teaches them the importance of the park system. It takes them out of the little corner where we live and shows them the ecological, historical, and cultural diversity of our country. It takes them beyond conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican, religious and non-religious, and shows them all the things we share in common: common history, common landscape, common problems. We’ve made Junior Ranger badges a priority because it shows them that learning happens out of the classroom as well, and they have learned so much about their country, from the ancient burial practices at Effigy Mounds National Monument to the cave formations at Carlsbad Caverns. And if there is one government organization that I don’t mind giving money to, it’s the National Park Service. When the NPS announced fee increases at multiple parks, there was significant backlash, mostly because it might make it more difficult for some people to visit the parks, this despite the fact that families with fourth graders can attend all parks for free for a single year (with their certificate in hand). On our summer national parks tour this year we forgot to bring our certificate, but we didn’t mind paying the $70 yearly pass fee because, unlike our tax dollars, we knew what that money was going to.
Taking our kids to our national parks teaches them the importance of respecting nature, preserving our ecosystem, and learning from our history. In short, it teaches them how to be better citizens and how to demonstrate their love for their country. If more adults did that, maybe our country wouldn’t be such a mess right now.
But we can at least start teaching that to our children.