In 1872, when Congress set aside Yellowstone as the world's first national park, it did so with surprisingly little debate. The idea seemed to be simply that such a marvelous place should not be allowed to fall into private hands.
From that meager beginning, the number of national parks has grown to include many of the continent's special places: Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, Denali (Mt. McKinley)--50 parks in all.
I don't remember when I visited my first national park. I remember vividly, however, the first time I ventured into the national park backcountry. I was in college, on my last family vacation with my parents. We were in the Tetons in Wyoming, where we had reservations for a float trip on the Snake River. At the last minute I decided not to go, opting instead for a 10-mile round-trip hike to a place with the appealing name of Lake Solitude.
En route, I had what I now think of as a conversion experience. The trail began in deep woods but soon climbed above treeline to a fairyland of rushing water, towering cliffs and midsummer snow. I was awed by the snow, which stretched for miles--dazzlingly white, numbingly cold on my sneaker-clad feet. But most of all I was overwhelmed by the fact that, of the thousands of people who visited the Tetons that day, I was one of only a handful who found Lake Solitude.
In the 17 years since then, I've hiked in more than 30 national parks and visited perhaps 200 other state parks and protected areas. I've scrambled through canyons that may not see a dozen visitors a year, watched the Northern Lights and the fuzzy streaks of meteors from the flanks of a desert mountain, and backpacked by full moon to the base of snow-clad volcanoes (you don't need a flashlight).
The problem now, of course, is that there are so many more of us seeking our own national park fairylands.
On a peak summer day in Yosemite, 20,000 visitors flood the park. At Yellowstone in summer, unreserved campgrounds often fill by 10 a.m. In the Grand Canyon, choice backpacking campsites may be booked a year in advance, and in peak season the South Rim has the ambience of a small city.
One way to experience America primeval without ending up in a traffic jam just like the ones back home is to look beyond the big names, to what might someday become an entire new generation of national parks, places with names virtually unknown today: Hells Canyon, Anasazi, Niobrara or Steens Mountain.
Below is a list of 11 candidates for national park status, all of which can be visited today. They aren't necessarily the most likely public spots to be elevated to national parks, but they are a few of my favorites.
Some have well-developed tourist facilities, others are so remote or primitive that they currently appeal only to the most adventurous. All, however, offer the chance to visit areas that future generations may take as much for granted as Zion or Kings Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains, Sequoia or Redwood.
Hells Canyon, Oregon and Idaho
Hells Canyon is the deepest water-carved gorge in the world. It cleaves the Oregon-Idaho border between Homestead, Ore., and Lewiston, Ida., lying about 90% in Oregon. In scale and splendor it rivals the Grand Canyon, at its deepest plunging more than 8,000 feet in the course of only three miles. Between these elevations is a wonderland of wrinkled hillsides, abundant wildlife and vegetation that varies from cacti to old-growth ponderosa pine seemingly at the turn of a corner.
The area ranges from glacier-sculpted mountains that have been labeled "the Switzerland of America" to barren canyonlands.
This diversity, combined with its immensity (the proposed park would be half the size of Yellowstone, about a million acres), makes it a unique wildlife habitat. There have been several recent grizzly bear sightings, and it is the only place in Oregon to shelter moose. And it was here that Chief Joseph and a band of Nez Perce Indians began a tragic, 1,500-mile flight toward Canada that ended with many of them dead, defeated by the U.S. cavalry only a few miles from the safety of the border.
There's a wide range of tourist attractions. A 79-mile stretch of the Snake River flows through the canyon, offering river rafters and jet boaters some of the finest white water in North America. In the uplands, elk and deer hunting are popular autumn activities (that would continue under the park proposal). Although the roads to the canyon rim are unpaved gravel, they can be driven in a passenger car, and there are several vantage points from which to view the gorge.
Only two public roads descend all the way into the canyon: one in Oregon, the other in Idaho. The Idaho road is steep but has recently been upgraded for passenger cars and RVs. The Oregon road is best suited for four-wheel-drive vehicles, but provides access to the trail followed by the Nez Perce, five miles of which has been designated a national historic trail.