Skagit River

Skagit River in North Cascades National Park

Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016, kicks off the Centennial Celebration of the U.S. National Parks Service. Yes — 100 years!

Of all the inventions and ideas emanating from our country, conserving and protecting certain lands for the benefit and enjoyment of the public may be the best one ever. As a grateful beneficiary, I believe the celebration is well deserved.

Imagine yourself gazing at a river winding through a gorge below, watching an eagle soaring above the trees, following a trail through a tunnel of lush vegetation, listening to crickets on a quiet evening or hearing the thunderous roar of a waterfall while basking in sunshine on a huge rock formation. These wondrous pleasures are being preserved for you. They’re nourishment for your soul and, thanks to the visionary leaders of a century ago, they’re available today without the blight of neon signs and the cacophony of urban noise pollution and traffic.

old faithful

Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park.

The concept began on March 1, 1872, when the U.S. Congress established Yellowstone National Park as the first public land dedicated to a truly altruistic purpose. It was also the very first national park in the world.

By 1916, there were 35 national parks and on August 25, 1916, the National Parks Service was born. Today, there are 59 national parks included in more than 400 designated sites managed by the NPS. All 50 states have set aside land for similarly-designated parks, and other countries are doing the same.

national park sign

The entrance to North Cascades National Park.

The centennial celebration is a big deal. Admission to all national parks is free from Aug 25 to 28. The U.S. Mint is striking a set of commemorative coins in half-dollar, dollar and five dollar denominations. A new documentary film, “National Parks Adventure,” narrated by Robert Redford is being featured in IMAX or 3D.

Tour bus

The vintage red tour bus at Glacier National Park.

Some of my most memorable visits were: Seeing Old Faithful spouting right on time at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming; Peering over the edge of the Grand Canyon in Arizona; Waiting for a small herd of buffalo to cross the road in Custer State Park in South Dakota; Admiring the lighthouses at Acadia National Park in Maine; Riding to the top of the Continental Divide in a red 1930s vintage tour bus on the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in Montana; Meandering through the serene Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; Driving more than 100 miles, through three climate zones, in  in Texas; Hiking among the iconic rock formations of Arches National Park in Utah; And of course, I have enjoyed all nine national parks in California — the most of any state.

There was a great pleasure in these firsthand experiences with nature, but I felt a certain sadness too. Apparently Americans take these venerable sites for granted. It’s kind of embarrassing to visit a national park surrounded only by the enthusiastic appreciation of unrecognizable foreign languages.

Here’s my heartfelt recommendation. Tune out any distractions and turn onto a road marked by one of those big brown signs with white letters directing you to a national park, monument, memorial, scenic trail or historic site. Take a deep breath of crisp smog-free air, close your eyes and listen to leaves fluttering or a bird chirping in the trees and ponder a river gurgling over a fallen log while gently polishing some river stones. Hike on a trail, have a picnic, watch the wildlife, smell the flowers.

forest trail

A forest trail in North Cascades National Park.

Oh, and when you stop in the Visitor Centers, don’t forget to stamp your National Park Passport to record your own lasting memory as you celebrate the National Park Service Centennial.

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