Memories of visiting the National Parks

National parks are beautiful outdoor spaces thoughtfully protected and conserved for enjoyment and admiration by everyone. They are remarkable national treasures, especially for those of us who live in urban enclaves and rarely get the opportunity to enjoy the raw beauty of nature. They allow us to become closer, more connected with nature and to share these experiences with friends and family.

This year the U.S. National Parks Service celebrates its centennial anniversary on August 25. As part of the celebration, the U.S. Embassy London is holding an online photo competition to select the most unique and beautiful photo of a U.S. or UK national park. The winner will receive two roundtrip airline tickets to the U.S. If you would like to enter, you can submit your photo via Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using #NationalParksContest.

As we prepare to celebrate the official 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service we decided to take look at how a few members of the U.S. Embassy community have experienced the parks. Here are some of the photos and stories we collected.

 Stephanie Sandoval

IMG_3176For Stephanie, visiting Mount Rushmore National Memorial as a young girl was a way to connect with United States. She recalls for the first time feeling a patriotic connection to the country she calls home as she stared up at the faces and wondered “who are these men, and how amazing that they had done something so important their faces were carved into a mountain!”

Stephanie was still quite young on that family vacation to South Dakota, but she remembers spending a lot of time hiking the trails, climbing boulders and mountains, and exploring the forests that surround the memorial. They found one spot while hiking in the forest that stood out in particular—Sylvan Lake. Situated within Black Hills National Forest, Stephanie remembers wading through the water and kicking up glimmering flakes of mica all around

“It seemed like this pool of crystal glittering in sunlight,” she said. “I just remember how it shined and it shimmered in the Black Hills.”

Growing up in Texas, mountains were not part of everyday scenery, so after the two-day drive to South Dakota with her two sisters and parents, seeing the mountains was extraordinary, she said.

“That was the first time I knew the mountains were a place that felt comfortable and at home for me,” she said. “The mountains, they called to me.”

Tim Gerhardson

688_calciteFor Tim Gerhardson, Yellowstone National Park wasn’t a summer vacation destination,
but a park he helped save. In the summer of 1988, massive forest fires burned almost half the park’s 2.2 million acres. The damage was extensive and the fire ruined miles of trails.

“The [non-profit] Student Conservation Association (SCA) offered the National Park Service its support and established the Greater Yellowstone Recovery Corps.” Tim volunteered. He said, “there were 64 crews that summer, and I served… in the remote backcountry of the Snake River District.”

648 volunteers from all over the country worked more than 100,000 hours combined to conserve Yellowstone that summer.

According to Tim, they camped deep in Wyoming’s grizzly country and he always carried and jingled his “bear bells” just in case of bears were lurking nearby in the forest. While he did run into a Grizzly bear and her cub once, he was far enough away to avoid any complications, thankfully.

The summer was full of challenges, but it was highly rewarding. Tim and his team, consisting of four other members, stayed in tents, and all their food had to be stored 20 feet off the ground to avoid any unfortunate run-ins with bears.

“The work was hard and living challenging, but it was always more about the idea of being part of something bigger—a nation-wide group of volunteers coming together to help America’s oldest national park in a time of need,” Tim said.

Kristina Schaferova

 kristina.jpg

Kristina, a Czech Republic native, visited Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky on her first trip to the United States in April 2015, and she remembers the park being unexpectedly large. Her group drove from Nashville, Tennessee to the park, which she said was a beautiful drive because the topography changed rather dramatically from flat plains in Tennessee, to hills as they got nearer the park.

“We arrived, and it was surprisingly big,” she said. “There were a lot of signs and shops for tourists and places to eat. There was a little ranger woman who took us down to a cave.”

This park ranger served as their guide during the tour and told them about the park’s history and the extensive 400-mile cave system. As they explored the caves, their guide told them to watch out for bats which might have diseases.  From that moment forward, Kristina remembers diligently watching for bats as they wound through the caves.

In fact, she remembers being briefly distressed later in the tour to have to take a break from watching for bats, because the ranger switched off the lights so everyone could experience true darkness.

“You think you know what’s dark,” she told me, “but that was dark.”

Kendall Quirk

10538545_10203358282912022_1120398778_n“I really loved the Smoky Mountains, like really really loved them,” said Kendall Quirk. Kendall has visited three national parks, but Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee remains her favorite.

Kendall explored the Smoky Mountains on summer vacation with her family a few years ago. During their visit they spent their time exploring the park’s trails and different sites as well as Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a small town in the park.

While she loved exploring the trails and visiting different waterfalls in the park she recalled the most memorable part of the visit was simply staying up all hours of the night reading.

“Every night I’d go sit in the sun room and read until all hours of the night,” Kendall recalled her favorite part of the house where they stayed was a room where she could look out over the scenery. “I could see the fog and the mountains and it was gorgeous; I really loved being surrounded by everything.”

Chrystal Denys

denys.jpgThe National Parks Service’s Passport Program allows visitors to collect stamps as they visit different national parks and monuments all over the country. Chrystal Denys began her hunt for stamps at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky in April 2015 when she noticed the Passport displayed in a park gift shop. Chrystal has also visited Shenandoah National Park and many of the National Monuments in the DC area.

Collecting passport stamps has become a family affair for the Denys family. Her two sons have the Jr. Ranger passport and will be looking for stamps on their upcoming family vacation which will cover three National parks this coming August, including Acadia National Park in Maine.

“We build our vacations and holidays around the parks, and we try fitting [a new park] into each one,” she said.

When Chrystal learned about the program last year during her trip to Mammoth Cave she began her search for stamps in anticipation for the National Parks Service centennial, which will be celebrated in August 2016.

She said they’ve enjoyed meeting the park rangers who have always been kind and hospitable.  Some of the most memorable include Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway where rangers even signed autographs for her two boys. The Jr. Ranger passport has an area where kids are encouraged to collect rangers’ autographs.

“The centennial [anniversary] is really to celebrate the National Parks Service and the rangers who have dedicated their lives to serving the parks,” Chrystal said.

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If reading about the National Parks has you inspired, check out our #NationalParksContest here.

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