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You may not know their names, but you know who they are. The man who just sort of appeared and happened to have with him the exact information you were looking for, the woman who singled you out in the visitor center and built a plan that turned your road-trip stop into a forever memory. The calm ones who you could tell had been everywhere, seen everything, hiked every single mile in the park. You learn to read the code of their descriptions, you understand that maybe so much regular exposure to intensely beautiful landscapes has a certain leveling-out effect. They’ll see your enthusiasm and read right through your posturing and know, just as a cop sizes you up, where in their park you belong. They’ll look at your itinerary and raise their eyebrows and look back up at you and say, “Have fun,” and it feels more like a benediction than small talk. They’re patient with questions and generous with answers. They don’t want you to have just a good time, but an unforgettable one. You’ll find them all over the park service. You know who they are, even if you never caught their names. We’ve caught a few of them for you.
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Laura Lynn DelRoss
THE EYE OPENER
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, CA/NV
“Laura taught me that if you truly want to do something, just do it and don’t look back.” – Bobby Kerr, reader
Death Valley has beauty in all directions, but Laura Lynn DelRoss’s favorite place to look is up. When visitors stargaze in Death Valley, they always have the same reaction, she says: “Oh no, there’s a big cloud in the sky. We can’t see the stars.” When DelRoss, an interpretive ranger, tells them that “cloud” is the Milky Way, the ensuing silence might be her favorite sound in the park. “I’ve fallen in love with the ability to inspire people with their natural surroundings,” she says.
FAVE SPOT Mosaic Canyon
Look closely at the polished, serpentine stone curves near the entrance of this desert slot canyon: The rock contains intricate patterns of multicolored mineral fragments that juxtapose 450-million-year-old and 50-million-year-old rock. DelRoss calls the resulting Mosaic Breccia “lovely chaos.” The 4-mile (round-trip) hike to a dry waterfall and back also serves up rosy-brown stone walls, winding narrows, and fun, easy canyoneering moves. Trailhead Mosaic Canyon (.3 mile west of Stovepipe Wells) Info nps.gov/deva
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YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA
“He’s someone who is one of us—a true end-user, who just happens to be one of the country’s foremost rangers.” – Nancy Bouchard, contributor
Gauthier has been Chief of Staff at Yosemite since 2010, but for more than 20 years, he worked in Rainier, advancing from scrubbing toilets to managing SAR operations. Just about anyone who’s swung an ice axe into the mountain’s glaciers knows Mike Gauthier’s name. He built his reputa- tion as a steady hand, the calm in the storm of climbs gone wrong, and the lives he’s saved bear testament.
FAVE SPOT Eagle Peak, Mt. Rainier NP, WA
Gauthier hikes a lot in Yosemite, but still hasn’t found any- thing to unseat Eagle Peak. Scramble a spiky saddle with views of the Tatoosh Range and a string of Cascade volcanoes (including Rainier itself) on this 7.2-mile round-trip. Switchback through old-growth forest, then ascend a rocky slope to the 5,700-foot saddle. The vistas are glorious from here, but the fearless can cross the exposed .3 mile to the 5,958-foot summit. “In the winter I’d carry my snowboard up,” Gauthier says. “It kept me in shape, and gave me a place to think.” Trailhead Longmire Info nps.gov/mora
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CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK, CA
“My kid can’t wait to go back out there all the time to see ‘Merrill Bear.’” – Hillary Young, reader
Want to know where the fish are? Curious what kind of flower that is? Strike up a conversation with a ranger like McCauley and you’ll probably get more than you asked for. “Everyone’s on vacation doing backcountry trips and they’re really making lasting memories,” says McCauley, a protection (law enforcement) ranger. “So when you’re able to teach them about the wildlife we have here and you’re really friendly and they say, ‘Would you like to set up your tent next to mine and have dinner and have a chat?’— you’re kind of a lasting memory for their visit to the park.”
FAVE SPOT Scorpion Anchorage
If emerald-green water, frolicking seals, and yawning sea caves sound like a day well spent, jump in a kayak and paddle the shore between Scorpion Rock and Cavern Point (about a 2-mile trip). “The best time to go is early in the morning when the winds are calm,” McCauley says. “You can also snorkel through a glorious kelp forest. They call it the Galapagos of North America.” Camping Scorpion Ranch Campground ($15/night) Info nps.gov/chis
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ARCHES NATIONAL PARK, UT
“The first time I ever had an in-depth interaction with an NPS ranger was with Glenn, and he lived up to everything I thought a ranger would be.” –Jerami Martin, reader
There are speakers and presenters who breeze through their material by rote. Then there are storytellers, the type who read their audiences and calibrate their material on the fly. By the time they finish, they don’t need applause. They already know: You were listening. Glenn Reynolds, an interpretive ranger, weaves tales of ancient people together with the landscape to deepen the Arches experience. “My motivation is for the moment of silence that can form from reflection or introspection about how what I’ve said relates to who they are,” Reynolds says.
FAVE SPOT Tower Arch
Get the geologic drama without the crowds on the 3.4-mile out-and-back to this distinctive arch on the park’s remote northwest side. Hoof it up a mesa with views over the knobby Klondike Bluffs, then descend through the pinksand desert to the 92-foot-long arch crowned with a thick stone spire. Trailhead Tower Arch Info nps.gov/arch
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THE ROLE MODEL
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK, UT
“He is quiet and creative. He will take the time to have a genuine conversation about the park with you.” – Victoria Allen, reader
Growing up as a city kid in St. Louis, Michael Matthes didn’t visit his first national park until he was 23. A day trip to Arches turned into two, then three. And today, 13 years later, he works as an interpretive ranger in the park that captured his imagination. His goal: get visitors to look past their screens and connect to the park. There’s no end to that kind of work and no rule book, but there are highlights. “The visitor was probably 7 or 8 years old,” he says. “At the end of the activity book, I like to ask my junior rangers one question: What can you do to help the park? He looked up at me and said, ‘I can be just like you.’”
FAVE SPOT Park Avenue
The desert-majesty-to-effort ratio doesn’t get any better than this quiet 2-mile out-and-back through a canyon lined with Arches’ most iconic rock sculptures. “My season always begins with the song of the canyon wren while hiking Park Avenue,” Matthes says. Trailhead Park Avenue or Courthouse Towers Viewpoint Info nps.gov/arch
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EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, FL
“She helped foster a new love and appreciation toward wilderness that will be with me for the rest of my life.” – Sandeep Varry, reader
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, Diaz, a supervisory ranger of interpretation, wanted to introduce new people to the Everglades. With a little luck, she’d turn them into champions for the park. Thus was born the Everglades Wilderness Writing Expedition, which introduced 10 young writers to the backcountry, served them weekend hikes, and culminated in a four-day trip. “One of the most important things about my job and the job of any park ranger across the country is to grow stewards,” Diaz says. “Our job is to give people the information that they need to fall in love with a place and eventually become the voice of our parks and our natural areas.”
FAVE SPOT Snake Bight
This 3.2-miler to a tucked-away bay is ground zero for birders: During high tide in winter, hundreds of flamingos, roseate spoonbills, and pelicans gather near the boardwalk at trail’s end. “If you time it just right, you can witness thousands of birds,” she says. “It’s just incredible.” Trailhead Snake Bight Info nps.gov/ever
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WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK, SD
“Celeste was full of enthusiasm and patience as she guided us through the world’s most complex cave system.” – Aidan & Madison
There is no show of exuberance that can trump actual passion for our national parks. With rangers like Celeste Drago around, visitors will never have to wonder if their guide’s heart is really in it. Nothing dampens her spirit for the place. “Passion, and the chance to engage with someone who’s just as curious as I am, that’s what makes me so excited to come to work every day,” she says, “if you can even call it work.”
FAVE SPOT Rankin Ridge
Leave the cave-going crowds and climb into solitude on Rankin Ridge, the park’s 4,803-foot high point. A quick 1-mile loop delivers you to views of the great bison herds that roam the grass-flecked high plains. Drago recommends setting up camp anywhere .3 mile from a road or trail to enjoy supreme prairie stargazing. Trailhead Rankin Ridge Info nps.gov/wica
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THE BACKCOUNTRY GURU
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, WA
“The man is an encyclopedia of backcountry knowledge.” – Michael Lanza, contributor
Bryan Bell’s first hikes were through rainforest. When he was young he used to hike to Lake Quinault, just north of where he grew up in Aberdeen, Washington, and to this day, the trek remains his favorite. Over time, Bell built a mental map of the park’s expansive backcountry—from beach to rainforest to mountaintop—and applied his knowledge to search-and-rescue ops for years. Now he uses it to match backpackers to the right places and itineraries, what he calls “preventative search and rescue.” And that, he says, is a team effort: “No one person is a super ranger.”
FAVE SPOT Lake Quinault, Enchanted Valley
Enchanted Valley is right: In this idyllic valley 13 miles up the East Fork Quinault River Trail, waterfalls careen down the sides of sheer peaks to a verdant haven frequented by black bears. On the way, you’ll hike under an electric-green canopy of enormous evergreens near a rushing cobalt river. Trailhead East Fork Quinault River Permit $5 per person per night Info nps.gov/olym
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THE LIVING HISTORY
MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK, KY
“Quite simply, he is the park’s history.” – Glen Everhart, reader
Jerry Bransford’s great-great-grandfather, Materson Bransford, was an explorer and tour guide of the Mammoth Cave as a slave before the Civil War. When the war ended, the Bransford men continued that tradition until private guides were banned when the NPS took over in 1941. Eleven years ago, the NPS asked Bransford to bring the family name back to the cave. His ancestors names are etched everywhere from the walls of the cave to the park’s gravestones. He says he will never get used to the feeling he gets when he passes one of those names.
FAVE SPOT Sal Hollow Loop
This 11.7-mile loop over a rolling karst landscape smothered in beech, maple, and hickory trees proves the park’s topside features are just as attractive as the caves. For a quiet overnight, trace the Sal Hollow Trail 7.1 miles to the Sal Hollow backcountry site. Next day, take the .3-mile spur to Miles-Davis Cemetery, a settler’s graveyard dating back to the mid-1800s. Return via the Buffalo Creek Trail. Trailhead Maple Springs Permit Free; pick one up at the visitor center Info nps.gov/maca
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THE ANIMAL LOVER
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WY
“She loves her job and it shows in the way she treats both the guests and the animals. class act.” – Judy Crockett, reader
Rebecca Ouvry didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. But when she saw a job opening at Yellowstone in 2006, she pawned a camera, bought a one-way bus ticket, and entered the park for the first time. Now a resource education specialist, she runs wildlife interpretation programs that help visitors connect with nature. Her favorite animal behavior? Bison swimming. “Nothing is cooler than watch- ing such a big animal swim a river,” she says. “And when they get to the other side, they shake off like a big dog.”
FAVE SPOT Mt. Washburn from Dunraven Pass
Views from the top of 10,243-foot Mt. Washburn extend up to 50 miles in all directions, giving you an eagle-
eye view of Hayden Valley, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Absaroka Range, and the distant Tetons. But don’t let that distract from the up-close attractions on this 6.2-mile round-trip: abundant wildflowers in July and frequent sightings of bighorn sheep and grizzlies. Trailhead Dunraven Pass Info nps.gov/yell
THE FIRST 100 YEARS
The history of rangering is full of acts of valor, intelligence, and barrier-breaking. Here are three of the greats:
1880: Harry Yount
This Civil War veteran and old-school mountain man is hired on as gamekeeper of Yellowstone to enforce the park’s ban on hunting. He’s a ranger before there’s an NPS and is widely considered the first of his type. He works just a year before moving on, but on his way out, he suggests an area as vast as Yellowstone be protected by a cadre of men, not just one.
1920: Ansel Hall
This Yosemite naturalist establishes interpretation as a ranger duty. The idea spreads.
1929: Charles Browne
Responding to a report of distressed climbers on Mt. Rainier, Browne mountaineers through the night to reach the stranded party, rescue four climbers, and retrieve the bodies of two others. He earns the Department of the Interior’s first valor award and helps establish rangers’ reputations as all-conditions guardian angels.
The Next 100 Years
It’s going to get harder for bad actors in the parks; their records will follow them. As tech comes to law enforcement in the national parks, rangers will deploy new tools to stay at the cutting edge of resource protection. That includes figuring out how to handle the new forms of recreation that crop up as tech infuses life. “Every time we think the regulations are keeping up with the times, we are sorely mistaken,” says Michael Nash, chief ranger at Grand Teton National Park. Rangers now spend more time than ever on training webinars and entering records into electronic databases. The upside: Technology will continue to extend the long arm of the ranger.
All year we’re counting down the things that make the NPS special. See our progress so far at backpacker.com/nps100.