America’s Best Idea Comes from the West | By Matt Harding
Today, there are 63 national parks across the United States. Forty-six of them are in the West. This should be no surprise to anyone who knows and loves this region. That’s more than 70% of national parks (and an even higher percentage of the land, attributed mainly to the vast expanses of protected parks in Alaska).
“America’s Best Idea,” as the Ken Burns-Dayton Duncan series puts it, national parks were a distinctly American idea – inspired by the incredible beauty of the West.
The first national parks were Yellowstone (1872), Sequoia (1890), Yosemite (1890), Mount Rainier (1899), Crater Lake (1902), Wind Cave (1903), Mesa Verde (1906), Glacier (1910), Rocky Mountain (1915), Hawaiʻi Volcanoes (1916), Lassen Volcanic (1916), Denali (1917) and Grand Canyon (1919).
That’s the first 13 national parks – all located in the West. To be fair, Maine’s Acadia National Park was designated on the same day as Grand Canyon.
But the point remains the same, our “best idea” is very much a West idea. This region undoubtedly has the most awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping landscapes in the U.S. It’s because of these scenes that this land was chosen to be protected for generations to come.
My own first experience with national parks was in South Dakota at Badlands. I was 15 and to that point hadn’t been West of Lake Michigan. After driving 1,100 miles through the flatlands of the upper Midwest, it was a jarring change.
At Badlands, you feel like you’re on another planet. I’ve come to find out it feels that way at a lot of national parks in the West. White Sands and Bryce Canyon especially felt that way to me.
I’m still working my way through all of the national parks of the West, having most recently checked Big Bend off my first-time visit list (see the story on page 30).
Since their inception, national parks were a way for people to escape. In the first lines of his 1901 book Our National Parks, John Muir writes: “The tendency nowadays to wander in wildernesses is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
He writes lovingly of Yellowstone and Yosemite, and the few other national parks and protected lands of the very early 20th century.
Today, many more than “thousands” have flocked to our national parks. Like much in society these last couple of years, this yearning for the outdoors accelerated during the Covid pandemic but has been in the making for some time.
The need to connect with the earth runs deep within us and the park system is a spectacular place to do just that. However, as any national park-goer can attest, at some popular locations, this requires a bit of work.
My beloved Grand Canyon, which I’ve visited annually since 2016, is a glaring example of this. At roughly 6 million visitors per year, it’s one of the most-visited national parks. Sadly, the South Rim in summertime is claustrophobic with tourists (who’ve, by the way, managed to turn the squirrels into aggressive, scrap-seeking nightmares).
Those seeking a connection with the land, and not a connection with throngs of people, should instead head to the North Rim, which only sees about 10% of the total visitors at Grand Canyon.
Those looking for even more solitude should consider heading a few miles into the canyon for a hike – even summertime South Rim trails can be moderately occupied.
There are only about 40,000 people annually who camp in the backcountry at Grand Canyon (just 0.007% of visitors). In my own backpacking trip in 2013, I went a 50-hour stretch along the Tonto Trail around Grapevine Creek and Horseshoe Mesa without seeing a single other human.
Wilderness, indeed, is a necessity.
Matt Harding is the publisher and editor of American West.