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What I've Learned From the National Parks

Five easy lessons for getting the most out of your time on the trail

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The National Park Service turns 100 on August 25. We’ve been celebrating the Centennial all year, culminating with a special issue devoted to the people and places that make America’s national park system more than the sum of its parts. The more of it you see, the more you understand that pretty views are just the start. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the years.

Look Close

I used to get obsessed with seeing as much of a park as I could in whatever time I had. Who knew when I’d be back? But then I went to Redwood National Park and took all day to hike about 2 miles. I wasn’t lost or injured. I simply got absorbed in the micro-ecosystem at the base of the big trees. Down in the fern forests, slugs and bugs and decomposing stumps made it feel like I was exploring a woody reef. There are still times I want to tick off miles, but now I recognize when it’s time to slow down.

Embrace the Night

On a November trek in Great Smoky, some friends and I ended up hiking back to the trailhead well after dark. As the early-winter dusk turned quickly to black night, I sensed a game of headlamp chicken. Who would turn on his light first? No one. We were more competitive than smart. Sure, there were a few stumbles, and if someone had broken an ankle I’d probably have a different lesson to share. But what I learned is that limiting one sense heightens others, and the parks come alive in a whole new way at night. You just have to be there to experience it.

Let the Wildlife Find You

On a five-day trip in Denali, I expected to see animals every hour, but of course that was unrealistic.
I stopped scouring the landscape one morning to attend to that most mundane of backcountry routines. Just after settling in over my cathole, I glanced behind me. I was not alone. A wolf stared at me from 2 yards away. Its big block head swung low as it circled me. Now, when I go in search of life-list wildlife, I make sure to stay put at least some of the time.

Go Way Out of Season

During a December downpour, my wife and I embarked on an ill-fated trek in Sequoia. The battering rain slowed our pace to a crawl. Storm-swollen streams made progress sketchy and then impossible. But we camped in a secluded grove, where we felt like we were the only backpackers in the entire park—and we might have been. Seasonal loopholes don’t have to be uncomfortable. Try Little Yosemite Valley just after the snow melts and before the Half Dome cables are up.

Make Your Own Discoveries

Paddling the Green River through Stillwater Canyon in Canyonlands is one of my favorite trips in the national parks. I’ve done if four times and thought I’d explored all its highlights. But on my last trip, I found a slot canyon that’s not mentioned in guides or marked on maps. It’s not far from the river, but you have to hike across untracked desert and swim a head-deep pool to gain access to the sinuous slot. Now on every trip, I wonder: What else is there to discover?

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