I’ve got to hand it to you, you’ve picked some very special national park sites — sites that have deep emotional connections with many park visitors and rangers alike.
I’m a retired NPS ranger, and even though most of these places aren’t the traditional big “Y” park experience, I have a deep respect for the qualities that make these places revered by so many of you. Let’s get to your picks.
1. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Keystone, South Dakota
I’ve wondered if Mount Rushmore was the inspiration for the film Field of Dreams. I’m sure it’s not, but follow along with me.
If building a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield seemed crazy, sculpting a mountain into a national treasure in the middle of the Black Hills of South Dakota must have seemed off-the-charts insane. But both the baseball field of the movie and the patriotic landmark were works of those people following their passions. And both were surprising successes.
2 million people a year visit Mount Rushmore. Although they come to see patriotism-inspiring 60-foot-tall busts of four presidents carved into granite, they’re also inspired by the natural treasures of the Black Hills.
That was the plan of the creators of the memorial — “if we build it, they’ll come” to South Dakota and see the Black Hills.
That was one of their good calls.
However, not all of their visions came to fruition. For example, behind Lincoln’s head is the Hall of Records. It was originally envisioned as a massive chamber hundreds of feet into the mountain to hold the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other important documents. They got 70 feet in when cooler heads prevailed, so to speak.
2. Pearl Harbor National Memorial
For many of us, the feelings over Pearl Harbor National Memorial have evolved over our lifetimes.
Early on, it was a place where the people we knew had their lives forever changed. Now, almost all of those people are gone.
Because of this, Pearl Harbor has become a place of not only honoring those that died in the attack, but for remembering those that persevered through the attack and the war. They went on to be known as “the greatest generation.”
The memorial over the sunken USS Arizona makes it all seem tangible, real, and recent. When you see drops of oil still coming to the surface from the ship below, you realize not only how little time has actually passed since the attack — and how far the world has come.
3. Blue Ridge Parkway
North Carolina And Virginia
Unlike many national parks, Blue Ridge Parkway is a designer park. I mean that the park wasn’t developed based on a specific landmark or feature (e.g. the Grand Canyon). The plan was to build a parkway — but the route wasn’t pre-determined.
Instead, landscape architects and engineers were given creative freedom and chose and designed a route that plays out like a symphony.
Or a musical, or a story. Pick your metaphor of something that’s crafted to change pace, change feeling, and change perspective.
The parkway is 469 miles of views, history, nature, Appalachia, and America.
It’s not a highway, designed for speed. It’s a parkway, designed for savoring the journey.
4. Statue Of Liberty National Monument
New York City, New York
As I said, you’ve picked some places that inspire serious emotional connections. One can think of the emotions that immigrants had seeing Lady Liberty for the first time as they reached a new land. Or today, the emotions that people have visiting the monument, or Ellis Island, tracing the steps that their families made to enter America.
If you haven’t visited recently, things may have changed. The Statue of Liberty Museum opened in 2019, so thanks to the pandemic, it’s been largely under-visited and under-promoted.
The museum tells stories of the creation of the statue — its planning, construction, and renovation — that give context and perspective to the visit. It makes the statue something not just to be seen, but to be understood and appreciated on many levels.
For many, the monument may seem like ancient history. But Ellis Island was only shut down in 1954 and renovated in the 1990s. The statue was restored in the 1980s for its 100th anniversary.
The park has done an excellent job in not only preserving the statue but preserving the stories.
5. Devils Tower National Monument
Devils Tower, Wyoming
Time moves on. Devils Tower remains.
The volcano that formed it has worn away, but Devils Tower remains.
On a much shorter time scale, the sideshow that came with the Steven Spielberg classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind has largely faded away, much to the delight of park staff, but the marvel that is Devils Tower remains.
Devils Tower has a tradition of gaining attention in media and culture in ways not envisioned by Theodore Roosevelt when he designated it as America’s first national monument in 1906.
The first event revolved around the first men who built a stake ladder to climb the tower in 1893. They hosted a 4th of July celebration that became a tradition — called the Old Settlers’ Picnic — that finally faded away in the 1960s.
Then there was George Hopkins, who successfully parachuted onto the tower in 1941, then got stranded on top of it when his plans to get off of it went awry. As you would imagine, it created a media circus George Hopkins was rescued after a few days. His story was famous for years but has faded away.
And of course the, now fading, Close Encounters phenomenon, where people came for the UFOs, and mashed potatoes were common in local restaurants (you have to see the film…).
Sideshows come, and sideshows go, but the inspirational, stoic monument that is Devils Tower remains.
6. Muir Woods National Monument
Mill Valley, California
Shortly after Theodore Roosevelt protected Devils Tower with national monument status, he protected Muir Woods.
Muir Woods is part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area — a small, quiet, unexpected part.
Most people don’t expect to be able to walk into a dense, lush, green, shady, quiet grove of redwood trees just minutes after crossing the Golden Gate bridge northbound, but that’s what makes Muir Woods such a beloved spot for so many.
While people may flock to Golden Gate’s beaches, especially during the summer, Muir Woods doesn’t get beach crowds. In winter, it can be downright quiet.
If you’re going to name a park after John Muir, it better be something that he would appreciate. Muir Woods is a case study in preservation — protecting an amazing resource incredibly close to the threats posed by urban development. He’d be thrilled.
7. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is one of 14 individual NPS units that make up the National Mall and Memorial Parks and is certainly one of the most moving, due to the relevance to its site.
The sculpture faces across the mall to the Lincoln Memorial — the very site where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Dr. King’s legacy was more than one, speech, however. You can visit the nearby bookstore and read more of his work, as well as books about Dr. King and his role in shaping the evolution of civil rights in America.
And if you’re inspired to learn more about Dr. King, perhaps you’ll consider a visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park in Georgia to see where he was born, his church, the King Center, and his final resting place.
8. Canyon De Chelly National Monument
If you’ve been to a national park site, you may have heard one of the rangers say something like “this is your park, it’s owned by all Americans.”
This is one that’s not.
This park is owned by the Navajo Nation and is managed cooperatively. A few Navajo families still live, raise livestock, and farm in the park. Travel in many areas is restricted, so read the signs and follow the rules.
Yes, you can go on a hike with a ranger, but here, for the most memorable experience, I recommend going on a canyon tour with a Navajo guide. It’s a truly authentic, welcoming experience you’ll remember forever.
9. Gulf Islands National Seashore
Florida And Mississippi
Most people won’t see all that this park has to offer, but that’s ok.
Most people will be making the trip for the beaches — and why not? Beautiful white sand, perfect warm water. What’s not to love?
To see the islands, you’re going to need a boat, so that rules out most people. And camping on an island? Unforgettable.
Most people won’t bother to visit the many historic forts and coastal defense facilities or learn about the Civil War battles.
One can love Gulf Islands National Seashore just by visiting for a day at the beach. But the park is more than just a pretty place, and the more you explore, the more you’ll find to love.
10. Dinosaur National Monument
Colorado And Utah
Dinosaur National Monument is a surprise for many visitors.
They expect to find fossils. Plenty of them. And they are not disappointed.
The rebuilt Quarry Exhibit Hall lets you get up close and personal with 1,500 actual dinosaur bones. So no surprises here.
The surprise comes with the rest of the park — a vast expanse of canyon country, and a river runs through it.
While the visitor center is easy to access, the rest of the park can be a bit of a challenge.
This challenge tends to keep away the throngs of people who visit other canyon parks and is probably the reason the park is so well-loved by its loyal devotees.
The park can be appreciated by rafting the Green River or by watching those on a rafting adventure from above (take a hike for a bit on the Harpers Corner Trail, look down).
Yes, fossils are plentiful, as are petroglyphs and wildlife. What you won’t find is congestion.
11. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
The story of the Klondike gold rush is the story of how far people were willing to go in pursuit of yellow metal — the stuff dreams are made of.
The gold wasn’t in the U.S. It was in the Canadian Yukon. Skagway was the port city gateway to the Yukon.
Prospective prospectors would start in San Francisco and head north. Their port of departure for Alaska was Seattle. The park has a small visitor center in Seattle for those not willing to make the trip farther.
Should you make it to Skagway, you’ll find a charming restored old town that recreates the hustle and bustle of the time.
From Skagway, prospectors crossed the Boundary Range, then it was on to Whitehorse, the only city in Yukon. Canada.
It’s an amazing international journey, and can’t be told at one site alone. Or in one country.
That’s why the park, along with Canada’s Chilkoot Trail National Historic site, and a few other Canadian sites, have combined to form the Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park.
If it seems like a lot of traveling just to take it all in, just imagine traveling it in the 1890s.
At least today, if you’re willing to make the journey, your reward (an unforgettable experience) is guaranteed.