#FindYourPark & Maybe Find 100 More
One of my most memorable moments this year was an evening spent in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Sitting at a campsite in nearly freezing temperatures, this Floridian was uncharacteristically comfortable because I was amongst nature. Resting on that picnic bench, I could hear elk bugling in the distance, a sound I had never had the pleasure of hearing. Later, coyotes added to the atmosphere, yipping away on isolated badlands. Hours passed as I was rustling in my sleeping bag trying to get warm, the elk still bugling, interrupted only by the hoots and calls of owls in nearby pines.
This is pure happiness for me, a unique perspective coming from someone who is considered a “millennial.” Many studies show that national parks are only loved by those from the baby boomer generation, and some say it is because other individuals my age are so connected to the rest of the world with smartphones and other Wi-Fi enabled devices that they actually fear the loss of that connection. I don’t disagree with this – my own brother won’t go on a family vacation for more than a long weekend because he doesn’t want to be separated from regular, day-to-day life for so long. But perhaps technology isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, it may be exactly what we need to draw underserved audiences into our boundaries. That same brother sent me a message recently with a photo of a map, saying we had to go to that spot. Further investigation unveiled that it was a lake, one of the clearest in the country. The desire is there, the action is what’s needed.
I love my smartphone as much as the next young adult and take photos with it nearly every day, especially when visiting national park sites. In fact, my personal Instagram feed is iPhone-only. After each trip, I carefully select my favorite photo and post it to various social media platforms. Without fail, friends and followers will respond with thoughts such as:
“I am so jealous of your life.”
“I’m living vicariously through you.”
“Please never stop posting national park photos.”
Or, “How do I become a park ranger?”
This last one is the most surprising to me. You don’t need to be a park ranger to visit national parks, and my position as a park ranger does not necessarily grant me the opportunity to visit more parks either.
Sure, I attend trainings and meetings at nearby sites, but this is on work time, not for pleasure. When I truly visit national parks, it’s on my own time. It’s for me. Everyone can visit a national park, and everyone should, no matter your background.
Some people grow up in families who take them camping, hiking, biking, etc., and encourage outdoor recreation. My family definitely fits that bill, but it wasn’t always national parks. We were drawn to many different areas, from state parks to our own backyard. Then, a family trip to Tennessee changed course and we ended up in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While sitting on a rock near Laurel Falls, I turned to my mom and said that was where I belonged, and that I wanted to work in a place like that. It sparked a fire in me that never burnt out. I have a passion for national parks that began on that rock, led to my current position as a National Park Service Ranger, and will continue throughout the rest of my life.
Not only do I want to visit these special places, but I want to see all of them (more than 400!). Slowly but surely, I’m making my way there. To help aid in reaching this milestone, I decided to set a personal goal: to visit 100 different National Park Service sites in 2016 in celebration of the centennial year. Some I had previously visited while others were brand new to me; I simply had to set foot in 100 different national park lands. This took me across the country, from Idaho to Florida, from the deserts of New Mexico to the nation’s largest city of New York. It was no easy feat, but it’s one of the best years I’ve ever had. Not only did I see amazing places, but I learned so many new things while slowly checking sites off my list. Passport books were stamped, souvenirs were purchased, Junior Ranger booklets were completed, miles were added to vehicles and frequent flyer accounts, phone service was completely lost, and memories that will certainly last a lifetime were formed. That’s not something you get from looking at a screen.
It’s important to mention I was rarely alone for these trips. Some travel companions were also park rangers, just like me, incredibly enthusiastic about their jobs and the places they’re entrusted to protect. Other young adults accompanied me on well over half of my trips, as did my parents, grandparents, and other family members. With this sentiment alone, it is clear that these parks are for everyone.
I definitely have one of the best jobs in the world, and one of the most unique. There will never be other Centennial Coordinators in the National Park Service, and we will never be 100 years old again. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity I was lucky enough to snag. But the thing that won’t change is these places will still be here, and I’ll still be visiting them. Wherever my career takes me, I’ll always travel to national parks. The sites are everywhere, in all fifty states and even some territories, and I implore you to visit them. No matter your age, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation; these parks were saved for you, preserved so that every citizen could appreciate them. Hopefully, my story will inspire you and others to get out, explore, and share your own stories.
So get out there, find your park, and maybe find 100 more.
Riley Hays grew up in the Sunshine State of Florida, near outstanding outdoor recreation opportunities that established her love for the outdoors. While earning her two bachelors degrees at Florida State University, she completed internships through the Student Conservation Association in Oklahoma and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska. Following graduation, Riley worked for the award-winning Delaware State Parks system for over two years until June 2016, when she was offered her dream job of Park Ranger for the National Park Service. She is currently a Park Ranger at Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota, having served as the Centennial Coordinator in 2016.