"To conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife . . . and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired . . . for future generations."
When President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service on Aug. 25, 1916, the fledgling agency was charged with protecting the natural beauty of Yosemite, Yellowstone and 34 other "crown jewels" of the West. As the National Park Service celebrates its 75th anniversary, its domain has grown far beyond the imagining of its founders: 357 parks, monuments, seashores, rivers and preserves stretched over more than 80 million acres, the world's greatest system of parks.
Today, the park service not only protects scenery and wildlife, but must defend treasures such as the Grand Canyon against smog and other modern-day encroachments, manage newer units -- such as San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area -- that are more urban playgrounds than wilderness sanctuaries, and shepherd the ever-growing ranks of visitors whose sheer numbers threaten the health of such as parks Yosemite and the Great Smokies. Last year, the parks tallied a record 251 million visits, and park service officials expect even more company this year as events in the Persian Gulf war and a lingering recession have prompted vacationers to stay closer to home.
If you are one of the thousands who are heading for a national park this year, we have a few suggestions from the ultimate guides, eminent writers and photographers who have devoted much of their lives to chronicling the splendors of the American landscape. Their choices surprised us; some spoke of truly hidden or rare places, such as New Mexico's El Morro National Monument or Alaska's Koyukuk Wild River; others, including Wallace Stegner and David Muench, found private paradises amid big parks such as Oregon's Crater Lake and Maine's Acadia. Their joy in a place was palpable, whether their visit was the first or the 50th. These poets of the land speak for all of us whose love for the national parks, and the heritage they embody, grows more passionate with each passing year.
In 1872, Yellowstone was named the nation's first park; for decades thereafter, parks were chosen as outstanding examples the natural splendors of the American West. Wallace Stegner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel "Angle of Repose" and of many volumes of Western history, considers Crater Lake National Park in southwest Oregon, established in 1915, a classic of the genre.
"People miss out on Crater Lake," Mr. Stegner says. "They forget about it." Not only is Crater Lake off the interstate, but its shores are shrouded in the deep snows of the Cascade Range for eight months of the year, accessible only on skis or snowshoes. He says, "My granddaughter just came back from skiing there and was lyrical about it."
His granddaughter's lyricism is well-founded; the 1,900-foot-deep lake, remains of a violent eruption that leveled Mount Mazama almost 7,000 years ago, glows an eerie blue. Even in midsummer the Rim Road, which offers stunning views of the lake, feels uncrowded, and Mr. Stegner praises the trails that wind through the park's cathedral-like forests. "There's a kind of mystery about that park. It's very quiet and moody -- profound. The lake is very blue, and that thing is deep; you have the sense of it going clear through to China."
Acadia National Park is the only national park on the rocky New England coast, and on summer days the roads on Mount Desert Island are packed with vacationers. It's not the sort of place where you'd expect to find New Yorker writer John McPhee, who traveled most recently among the pirates of Guayaquil for his book "Waiting for a Ship." But in the more secluded corners of Acadia, he finds a placid retreat from his New Jersey home. "It's the most beautiful coast you ever saw," Mr. McPhee says. "It's got fiords in it, deep penetrating bays, and the spruce go right to the water."
To escape the crowds, he heads off to the carriage trails through the woods, built by wealthy industrialists who vacationed on the island at the turn of the century. "It's a favorite place of mine to run, to ski, to hike." Mr. McPhee, whose many books on geology include "Rising From the Plains," loves the rough face of the Schoodic Peninsula, where rocks still bear the scars of glaciers that carved the land centuries ago. "It's a hell of a scene."
Many park units were created not to protect natural history, but to preserve the marks of human history on the landscape. Stewart Udall, historian and secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, treasures El Morro National Monument, a sandstone cliff in a remote area of central New Mexico that stands on the route of the first Spanish explorers.
"There's a huge butte, a 'castle,' " says Mr. Udall, author of "To the Inland Empire." "El Morro means 'castle' in Spanish. On the wall is an artifact, the oldest European signature artifact in the U.S. Juan de Onate wrote it in 1605."
Onate's inscription was to the point: "Passed by here the Governor Don Juan de Onate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South on the 16th of April 1605." Travelers who followed left their own marks, first in Spanish, then English, through the late 1800s; the rock bears more than 1,000 testimonials. Mr. Udall has called the rock "a unique register of Western history." He adds, "It's a magic place."
Remembrance of battles past
Alarmed by a nearly successful effort last year to turn part of the Manassas (Va.) Civil War battlefield into a shopping mall, the National Park Service is escalating efforts to protect the many historically significant battlefield sites that remain in private hands. But Shelby Foote, the Tennessee historian and author of "The Civil War: a Narrative," who became a familiar face to 38.9 million people in the epic Public Broadcasting Service series on the war, says he's lucky.
Shiloh National Military Park in southern Tennessee, close to his heart and home, is the best preserved of all Civil War sites. The gentle green fields stand as they did just before the two April days in 1862, when there were 25,000 casualties in one of the war's bloodiest battles. "Shiloh really has not changed," Mr. Foote says. "When I go there, I feel like I own it. It's one of the things you get out of writing, if you think you're writing well; you do feel a sense of proprietorship. But the truth is, it's a part of every American citizen.
"I like to go to the peach orchard where Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston was shot. I like to go to the stump where he died. I like to go where Sherman couldn't sleep because of the rain. It's still all there."
Michael Frome has spent the better part of his life chronicling the national parks; the 25th edition of his "The National Park Guide" just came off the press. "I never met a national park I didn't like," Mr. Frome says.
He met Big Cypress National Preserve, directly north of Everglades National Park, just last spring. Big Cypress was established in 1974 to help protect the Everglades' threatened water supply, but Mr. Frome says it is a worthy addition to the system in its own right, harboring Indian ruins and endangered species such as the Florida panther and the manatee.
Big Cypress also gives Mr. Frome something the swampy Everglades can't: trails. "In Big Cypress I can walk on the ground. I see endangered species of plants. I can see pelicans and I can see spoonbills. I don't see the panthers, but I know they're in there and that I'm sharing the space with them, sharing remains of the original Florida. I also feel like I'm in a glorious green mansion filled with tropical grasses, trees and plants.
"Fifty years ago this was all one inaccessible land of mystery from Lake Okeechobee south to Florida Bay. Now, because of the extensive development and population growth, the National Park Service protects these vestiges of the original America."
The wild lands
If the Everglades and other parks are threatened by development nearby, others remain triumphantly wild.
Landscape photographer David Muench, whose many books include "Nature's America" and "Eternal Desert," has been tramping the back country with his cameras for two decades. Still, he gets excited when he steers his four-wheel-drive truck toward Big Bend National Park, where the Chihuahuan Desert, the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande converge in an extravagant desert wilderness 300 miles southeast of El Paso, Texas.
"Every day something changes," says Mr. Muench, who visited Big Bend most recently in March. "There were things blooming, but it was totally dry: yuccas at 3,000 feet, and the cactus were beginning to bloom. The bluebonnets were in full bloom in some of the gullies.
"The plant life is a mix -- there are aspen on the peaks in the Chisos, and even some pines up in the canyons on the South Rim. You have all different levels of the desert community, plus the river -- it defines what Big Bend is. It's photographer's heaven."
Few people think of California as a wilderness state, but &L; photographer, writer and mountaineer Galen Rowell, whose works include "Yosemite" and "My Tibet," declares that some of the world's grandest wild lands lie along California's John Muir Trail, 211 miles long and unbroken by a single road.
"The most spectacular area on the trail, though, is King's Canyon and Sequoia national parks, stretching along the crest of the High Sierra," Mr. Rowell says. "The trail ends on top of Mount Whitney -- the highest peak in the Lower 48."
Mr. Rowell has climbed in the great mountain ranges of the world, from the Alps to the Himalayas. But, he says, "from Mount Whitney you can see more diversity. In the distance is Death Valley National Park. Straight down is Owens Valley, the deepest valley in the U.S. On the other side of the valley are the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains, the world's oldest living things. Look west and you'll see snow on the mountains well into the summer."
Although California has become the most populous state in the nation, Mr. Rowell has discovered that the hand of man has even less influence on King's Canyon and Sequoia than it did in the past. He can prove it, too. His mother hiked the entire Muir Trail in the 1920s and his aunt's photo of a King's Canyon meadow, taken back then, shows the grass less lush than when Mr. Rowell photographed it a few years ago. He says, with great satisfaction, "Some mountain meadows are in better shape than they were in John Muir's day."
If you go . . .
Many units of the national park system charge an entrance fee; a $25 Golden Eagle passport, available at any park, allows free entrance to a carload of people to all park units for a year.
Further information on facilities at all park units is available from the National Park Service's Office of Public Inquiry. Call (202) 208-4747 or write the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, P.O. Box 37127, Washington, D.C. 20013-7217. Or contact these parks directly:
Acadia National Park: P.O. Box 177, Bar Harbor, Maine 04609; telephone (207) 288-3338. Museum, self-guided trails, camping, horseback riding, boating, bicycle, snowmobile and ski trails, lodge and restaurant.
Big Bend National Park: Big Bend National Park, Texas 79834; telephone (915) 477-2374. Picnic areas, campgrounds, horseback riding, boating, lodge, restaurant.
Big Cypress National Preserve: Star Route, Box 110, Ochopee, Fla. 33943; telephone (813) 695-2000. Restaurant, picnic area, campground.
Crater Lake National Park: P.O. Box 7, Crater Lake, Ore. 97604; telephone (503) 594-2211. Museum, guided and self-guided tours, picnic areas, campground, restaurant, ski trails.
El Morro National Monument: Route 2, Box 43, Ramah, N.M. 87321; telephone (505) 783-4226. Museum, guided and self-guided tours, picnic area and campground.
Shiloh National Military Park: P.O. Box 61, Shiloh, Tenn. 38376; telephone (901 689-5275. Museum, guided and self-guided tours, picnic area, bicycle trail.
The 1991 edition of "National Park Guide," by Michael Frome, costs $14.95 (paperback) and is published by Prentice Hall Press.