One of the widespread changes that has stuck since Covid is the surge of interest in outdoor recreation, especially visits to U.S. national parks and public lands.
Whether it’s the adoption of a new vacation experience or fear of losing the chance to see iconic landscapes because of wildfires, flooding and climate change, people are hitting the parks in record numbers – 300 million visits in 2022.
Long lines and grid-locked roads don’t make for a fun outdoor experience
Some parks are scrambling to revamp old management systems to honor their mandates, protect wildlife and fragile lands and protect visitors – despite years of chronic under-funding by Congress and under-staffing.
All of which raises some interesting questions:
- What does the increasing popularity of national parks really mean? Unplugging and a deeper appreciation of Nature? Or more Instagram selfies and TikTok moments?
- Do these “outdoor” vacationers continue their new connection with the outdoors when they return home? Or only come back with a new T-shirt or baseball hat?
- Do they notice the aged facilities and under-staffed parks? Or do they complain about the long lines and dirty restrooms?
What are the most popular national parks?
My Western U.S. readers will argue, but two of the most visited parks of all types are within an hour of me in North Carolina and Virginia: The Blue Ridge Parkway (#1) and Great Smoky Mountains National Park (#3). The Golden Gate National Recreation Area is #2 with 15.6 million visits.
The Smokies routinely sits at the No. 1 spot of most-visited national parks – 12.9 million visits in 2022. The Blue Ridge is a parkway, 469 miles long and about a mile wide across North Carolina and Virginia, with 15.7 million visits. Both are in the more densely populated Eastern United States.
I fell in love with the Blue Ridge Mountains on my first visit to the Parkway. Being next to a national park or forest was my top criterion for relocating: I’m surrounded by Nantahala National Forest, Pisgah National Forest, Gorges State Park, Dupont Recreational State Forest and more — all within this county.
If you weren’t aware, public lands include: parks and preserves, wildlife refuges, conservation areas, monuments, wilderness areas, historic sites, memorials, battlefields, recreation areas, wild and scenic rivers, seashores and lakeshores and trails.
Expand your park-loving horizons to avoid loving them to death
Avid outdoor lovers were already avoiding national parks during peak seasons and visiting other public lands. That trend intensified during Covid.
I confess to letting the crowds keep me away from the Smokies, which I’ve lived near for 13 years. Because for as much as I’ve heard about the beauty of Cades Cove, the stories always include gridlock and fearless bears on the road in broad daylight.
A fellow outdoor painter who was quietly painting next to the back of her van on the road there had a bear walk within mere inches of her arm, and then try to climb into the open passenger window as she scrambled into the driver’s seat.
And I’ve seen first-hand the garbage dumped by hikers and backpackers in trailhead restrooms off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Get outdoors and unplug, definitely. Leave only footprints.
And if you want wild places to endure, consider joining advocacy groups working on these issues. You’ll find several in the Resources below.
3 Resources for You
Three of my favorites:
2 Questions for You
Reflections, questions and ideas to break the digital spell.
1st Q: When was your last visit to a national park or public land?
2nd Q: Are you familiar with your “nearby nature,” the city, county or regional parks or public lands near you where you can unplug?
Hit reply and let me know what you discovered this week. I’ll use some of your feedback in next week’s newsletter (first name only.)
From Rosemary: Does “People are a part of/one with nature” match your beliefs?
To me it goes without saying that we are part of nature. We are part of it just as trees are or fish or cats and birds.
Do you feel uncomfortable talking about your belief in a profound connection to the natural world, can’t find the right words or worry no one would take you seriously?
Not in the slightest bit uncomfortable. Looking back, I am amazed at why we are brought up to think that people are superior to other parts of nature. Most people associate “nature” with trees and woods and animal life (long live Ralph Waldo Emerson), but I really recognised that humans are part of nature by going out to sea.
Not only does it have magnificent power, but when you look a dolphin in the eye and realise that it is just as curious about you as you are about it, then you are reminded that you are looking at a being just as intelligent as we are.
And with similar family attributes – Daddy Dolphin whacked his playful baby dolphin out of the way. Baby ran off to mummy and then had to swim hard to keep up with her too. It puts you in your place when they get bored with looking at you and swim off to find more interesting subjects.
Being out at sea is the closest to spirit that I can be – even though I do love trees too. But there is nothing to beat the rise in my spirits when the bow of the boat rises over the swell of another wave.
1 Action for You
One small step to start the change.
Explore the top environmental, nature and wildlife advocacy groups with this search phrase [top nature based groups in the [your region]]. Pick one. Subscribe to their email list. Donate if you wish.
Hit reply, let me know how it goes and I’ll include feedback in next week’s newsletter.
“To save wildlife and wild places, the traction has to come not from the regurgitation of bad-news data but from the poets, prophets, preachers, professors, and presidents who have always dared to inspire.” – J. Drew Lanham