63 National Parks?

Welcome back Science Enthusiasts! Today we’re going to talk about National Parks. This is our first step in our process of planning for an extended, all-season, road trip across the US. Point of interest, we’ll likely also extend this into Canada since Geo-Wife is Canadian and her immediate family lives near some of the most spectacular parks in the Canadian Rockies, but more on this in a future installment.

First things first, what am I talking about when I refer to 63 National Parks? Well, the National Park Service lists 423 National Park Sites. That’s a lot, but we can narrow that list down a bit because we’re interested in places with particularly interesting science. As a geologist, when I talk about science, I usually mean natural science and, in particular, geology. While geology is everywhere, some places are easier to see it than others. For example, the newest national park site is the home of the civil rights activists Medgar and Myrlie Evers, which is not a site particularly conducive to seeing the local geology despite its historical significance. So, how do we narrow down the list to things that are focused on nature, and therefore give us a good window into the natural sciences?

The National Parks Service has a wide range of different classification for their national park sites. The simplest one, in terms of highlighting an emphasis on nature, is to look for parks actually referred to as “National Parks” in their name. Turns out, there are 63, and they’re scattered across 30 states plus 2 more in US territories. This is a good place to start. We’ll talk about accessibility later, as I’m betting that you can guess that access might be a problem. In particular I’m thinking about the National Parks located in Hawaii, US Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands – difficult for us to drive to! However, let’s start with most of these 63 as our core road trip goals.

What other national park site designations are there? Well, there are National Battlefields, Battlefield Parks, Battlefield sites, and Military Parks. I’m not entirely clear of the distinction between these groupings, so I’m going to treat them as the same here. National Battlefields are important historic sites, and many of them are located in beautiful places, but the emphasis of these parks is on the historical context of the battle, or battles, fought there. Also, point of interest, battlefields in the revolutionary and civil war eras tended to be relatively flat, and so tend not to provide easy access to the underlying geology. As a result, although many of these sites provide information on the local wildlife, and a few even have interpretive centers focused on the local geology, I’m planning to skip most these. That’s 25 down from the remaining 360. Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye out if we happen to be passing through the area, so feel free to pester me if you think there’s some particularly interesting science that we can see in these battlefields – I’m just not going to make visiting them ‘core goals’ for this trip.

Another common set of designations are the National Historical Parks and Historic Sites, and the single International Historic Site. This list comprises the single largest grouping within the National Parks Sites with a whopping 137 locations. Once again, while these are important historic sites, and some of them do include information on the local wildlife, but the science isn’t really the point of these parks, so I’ll keep them off of our goals list. That brings us down to 198 remaining park sites.

The National Memorials are often built out of interesting geologic materials, but again, the science tends not to be the point of these locations, so let’s skip these 31 sites. Down to 167.

Unlike the National Memorials, a number of the National Monuments are smaller versions of the National Parks and focus on preserving particularly spectacular natural locations. A great example of this is Devil’s Tower which is the neck of a volcanic system in Wyoming, or Craters of the Moon which preserves a bunch of lava flows and lava tubes related to the Columbia River basalts in Idaho. These will be great for talking science and, in particular, planetary science as they highlight features of high interest on the Moon and Mars. Similarly, some of these monuments are also historical sites that are located in areas with spectacular local geology, for example Canyon de Chelly which preserves a number of cliff dwellings; lots of interesting geology to see there, along with the historical interest! I suppose I should also mention here that I have a hobby of interest in anthropology, so although the science here is focused on the natural sciences, I’ll happily see if I can get experts in the social sciences to talk to us from time to time. Contrasting this, a number of the monuments are smaller versions of the National Historical Parks, and focus on buildings with profound historical significance, like Booker T. Washington’s farm – really neat, and definitely historically significant, but not really within the natural science theme we’re going for here. All told, the list of 85 National Monuments is going to take some nuance to sort through, but a number of these should be added to our core list of 63 National Parks.

The next set of designations are National Preserves, Reserves, Recreation Areas, Rivers, Scenic Trails, and Seashores, and the surprisingly cumbersome ‘National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Riverways’ designation. All told, this is a list of 67 national park sites. Let’s break this list down. National Preserves and Reserves are very much like the National Parks, but have a more permissive range of uses for visitors and industries. In a lot of ways, many of these are like National Forests. Many of these sites deserve to be on our list, so we’ll look through them closely as we design this trip. The National recreation areas are often centered on man-made lakes (think Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam). Some of these sites are going to be places of high interest as well. The National Rivers (and similar) are beautiful and well worth a visit, whether they were designated as park sites due primarily to their beauty or due to their cultural and historical significance. Some of these certainly belong on our list too. National Seashores are near and dear to my heart, since I grew up visiting one of them in my home state of Massachusetts. The National Scenic Trails are also near and dear to my heart – the Appalachian Trail passes close by my undergraduate Alma Mater (dear old Lehigh University in Bethlehem Pennsylvania), but can you really visit a national trail without walking the entire thing? Certainly something to consider stopping by wherever possible, but not an easy one to include on our road trip as there are logistical issues to hiking for six months away from our car on a road trip. All told, I’m going to include a lot of this list among our ‘aspirational goals’ rather than our core goals, as I have to cut off the list somewhere. So, we’d like to visit as much of this list as we can, but visiting every single one just isn’t within the scope of this road trip.

The remaining 15 sites are a mixture of other sites, including the White House, the US Capitol Building, National Mall, a number of National Parkways, etc. Once again, while these are certainly worth visiting, they’re typically pretty far outside of our interest here, so we’ll skip them on this trip. That is, unless there are some representatives of the US federal government that would like to have us come by and advocate for support for the sciences. Hey, I’m not going to say no if President Biden or members of the US congress want to talk to me, but let’s not consider that a part of our goals here.

Okay, so let’s recap where this leaves us. We have 63 National Parks that we’re going to try to visit as our core road trip plan. There are 85 National Monuments, a number of which focus on natural monuments which we’d like to visit, but a number of which are primarily historic sites that we’re likely to skip. The natural monument based National Monuments will form our list of extended goals for this road trip – we’ll try to get to as many as possible, but if we have to skip a few we won’t worry too much about it. Natural Preserves, Reserves, Recreational Areas, Rivers, Scenic Trails, Seashores, and similar are a list of wonderful places to visit, but for the sake of my wife’s sanity we’re moving these down to ‘aspirational goals’ – that is, we’ll visit places on this list of 67 if they’re convenient or particularly compelling, but we’re not going to make them the focus of our wanderings. Similarly, although I haven’t mentioned them yet, there are a number of really neat state parks that we’d love to visit – once again, going on to our ‘aspirational’ list, so we’ll visit if we can, but we won’t design the trip around them. For the most part, we’re going to skip National Battlefields, Historic Sites, and assorted “other” kinds of national park sites.

So, that’s the beginning of our plan of where we want to go. Let’s talk access for a moment.

It is unfortunate, but true, that there are several remote islands included on this list. And, for reference, my definition of ‘remote’ here is “anywhere that I can’t drive to or easily take a short ferry ride to.” So, while I would LOVE to visit the National Parks in Hawaii, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands, I cannot include them among our core goals for this road trip, since I cannot drive to them. If I get a large enough following in what I’m doing here then I’ll reconsider including air or sea travel in our travel plans, but that’s for future me to deal with. So, sadly, that reduces our core plans down to 59. For similar reasons there are a number of National Monuments in the Aleutian Islands that I’d love to visit, but cannot reasonably drive to – so they’re off the list unless we get to a point where we’re flying or sailing to remote locations, not just driving. The next thing we’ll have to consider is how to take this road trip to the four corners of the lower 48 states without endangering our little family in the process, and deciding what we can do about a trip into Alaska for 8 of these parks given that my little Honda Civic really isn’t up to the task.

So, next time, let’s talk about the weather, and how to plan a road trip that goes everywhere in all seasons.

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