The sight of an intricately crafted rock wall or a breathtakingly twisting trail built by the 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) never fails to bring a thrill to my heart.
Anyone familiar with United States national parks has probably come across the signs describing the work of the band of intrepid young men of the Great Depression who assembled in camps across the country, planting trees and building roads and trails as they went.
While I always marvel at the grit that was required for those young men to do their back-breaking work in some of the country’s most rugged terrain, I have a deeper connection as well.
Such encounters instantly take me back to my childhood and the many stories I heard from my father about his time in the organization he fondly referred to as “the Cs.” My sisters and I became familiar with stories of the tough times of the 1930s, when my father’s family was struggling to survive the Dust Bowl on the Great Plains of North Dakota.
My dad, a teenager at the time, was among the young men to answer the call of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s CCC, created to help unemployed young men during the Depression. After training at a camp in Minnesota, my father went on to plant trees and dig ditches across Idaho and Montana.
From a letter found in my dad’s belongings after his death in 1998, my sisters and I became aware of how much the $25 a month that his parents received (in addition to the $5 per month that he got to keep) meant to the family’s well-being. In that decades-old letter, my grandmother told her young son, “I don’t know what we would do without you.”
It always came across loud and clear that my dad never resented the time he had spent in the work camps, but rather saw them as an adventure and a chance to see the country. Along with the stories of hard labor, I remember the jokes about the mountains of potatoes he had to peel in the CCC kitchens, and I also recall a childhood trip through Idaho when he reminisced happily about his time there.
Later, my dad would go on, like so many in his generation, to serve in the Army in World War II, spending much of the early 1940s in combat in the South Pacific. When I was growing up, he would switch between stories of “the Cs” and “overseas” with ease.
He always shielded us from what must have been brutal, heartbreaking years, and the stories were mostly about the locales and his non-warfare experiences. I know those stories helped to fuel my love of travel and adventure. The CCC projects I run across in the national parks remind me of that.
I had that familiar feeling of connection recently when, on a visit to the Chiricahua National Monument in southern Arizona, I came across a sign in a beautiful shady area along Bonita Creek. It told the story of the CCC camp that once stood at the site, and of “Chiricahua’s Tree Army” that worked for years to build the monument’s roads and trails.
Of course, my dad never got near that Arizona CCC camp, but I still felt a strong connection to those boys.
The Chiricahua National Monument is just one of numerous federal parks and monuments where you can still enjoy the fruit of the CCC’s labors.
Here are 10 of the best, compiled from my personal visits and research on the National Park Service’s websites.
1. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
My favorite CCC legacy is the one closest to where I live: Grand Canyon National Park.
The park’s website notes, “The CCC helped Grand Canyon and other national parks construct streets and roads, trails, picnic shelters, campgrounds, and telephone lines.” When I walk along the trails in the canyon, I can’t help but think that without those crews of energetic young men, it could have been decades before those amenities were built, if ever.
I especially love the words from a former CCC enrollee inscribed on a sign along the Rim Trail at the South Rim, because they beautifully echo my dad’s sentiments: “Maybe those mountains are hard to climb. Those trees so hard to cut. But the air is pure, the water fine. And we’re climbing right out of the rut… For besides helping ourselves, you see, we are helping Mother and Dad.”
Among the specific CCC projects at the Grand Canyon are the trails to the lovely Ribbon Falls at the bottom of the canyon, the rest houses along the Bright Angel Trail, and the Bright Angel Campground near Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon (at the former site of a CCC camp).
The easiest CCC project to enjoy at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is the rock wall that runs along the Rim Trail between the El Tovar Hotel and the Bright Angel Lodge. A nearby plaque also tells the story of the crews’ phenomenal feat of installing telephone lines in the canyon.
2. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Although Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota was not officially established until 1947, the State Historical Society of North Dakota sponsored three CCC companies in the region’s Badlands from 1934 to 1941.
“With little more than strong backs, shovels, and picks, the CCC built roads, trails, culverts, and structures,” says the park’s website. The crews used native materials, such as local sandstone, which they quarried themselves.
Specific CCC projects that remain today are the North Unit’s River Bend Overlook Shelter — my favorite spot in the park — and picnic shelters in the Juniper Campground.
Pro Tip: The River Bend Overlook Shelter, with the Little Missouri River in the background, is among the most photographed spots in the park. It is easy to access via the 14-mile Scenic Drive in the park’s North Unit.
3. Zion National Park, Utah
Anyone who has marveled at the precarious trails and roads that snake through the rugged terrain at Utah’s Zion National Park has the CCC partially to thank for the infrastructure.
The park’s website says that during the CCC’s nine years at Zion, “they built and improved many of Zion Canyon’s trails, created parking areas, fought fires, helped build campgrounds, built park buildings, and reduced flooding of the Virgin River.”
Without the CCC’s contributions to the park, “many visitors would not get to see the extensive beauty that Zion offers,” the website adds.
Although the park’s famous Angels Landing Trail was built before the establishment of the CCC, other nearby trails, such as the Canyon Overlook Trail, were projects of the CCC crews.
4. Big Bend National Park, Texas
It was the work done by the CCC that helped to propel Texas’s Big Bend National Park to national park status in 1944, according to the park’s website.
Noting that the Texas Canyons State Park was established in 1933, the website reports that CCC crews arrived in 1934 and would go on to build crucial park components such as the road into the Chisos Mountains Basin, the Lost Mine Trail, and four stone and adobe cottages still in use today.
“In June 1944, partially as a result of the CCC development, Big Bend became a national park,” says the website.
5. Haleakala National Park, Maui, Hawaii
Decades before Maui’s Haleakala National Park was reestablished as a separate national park in 1961, crews of CCC workers were on hand to build some of the park’s most iconic features through the volcanic terrain.
The park’s website notes that along with working to remove invasive plants and feral animals such as pigs and goats, CCC crews constructed the White Hill, Sliding Sands, and Halemauu Trails, and built some of the structures that are still used by park employees today.
Pro Tip: The Sliding Sands Trail is considered a difficult all-day hike, but visitors can get a taste of it by heading to the first overlook, about a half-mile in.
6. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Between 1933 and 1942, a dozen CCC camps operated in nine different locations in the area that was to become Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
The CCC is credited with building much of the infrastructure of the future park, which was officially established in 1935.
“Their achievements included the installation, construction, and landscaping of areas all along Skyline Drive, overlooks, picnic grounds, and developed areas,” says the park’s website. The CCC is also said to have worked on the section of the Appalachian Trail that traverses Shenandoah National Park.
7. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Soon after entering Petrified Forest National Park’s north entry point, drivers will come upon the rustic Painted Desert Inn. A National Historic Landmark that once operated as the Stone Tree House, the inn was renovated and preserved by CCC crews in the 1930s.
Today, the piece of history serves as a museum that showcases information about Route 66, the CCC, and the Painted Desert.
“When you visit Petrified Forest National Park and drive the roads, hike a trail, or explore the Painted Desert Inn, take a few moments to reflect on the CCC, the men who labored on these projects, and the investment America made during its most desperate economic period,” says the park’s website.
8. Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
The ponderosa pine log building that has served as the main visitor contact point for decades at the base of Wyoming’s striking Devils Tower National Monument was a major project of the CCC crews stationed nearby from 1935 to the early 1940s.
The CCC crews also made improvements to the park road and trails, according to the park’s website.
9. Glacier National Park, Montana
CCC crews that were stationed in as many as 14 locations throughout Glacier National Park in Montana were said to be the “mainstay of the park labor organization” in the 1930s. During their time at Glacier, CCC crews installed telephone lines over Logan Pass, prepared 150 acres of campground sites, and built trails, roads, and water and sewer systems.
“These and thousands of other jobs were accomplished by these boys in the years they were in the park — many of them jobs that could not have been accomplished otherwise because of the high costs involved,” says the park’s website.
10. Acadia National Park, Maine
The park’s superintendent at the time reportedly saw the CCC as a huge opportunity and petitioned President Roosevelt for a camp at Acadia. His request became a reality, and the crews would go on to complete hundreds of projects, including the Ocean Path, the Perpendicular Trail, and the park’s Blackwoods and Seawall Campgrounds.
“The work was hard but fulfilling, and through their efforts, the CCC opened, protected, and beautified Acadia National Park,” says the website.