Nestled between the first day of summer and Independence Day is another important date for my family: my daughter Katie’s birthday.
When I’d asked how she wanted to celebrate turning 20 this year, Katie requested two things. First, brunch. And then an afternoon hike at Sugar Hollow, where the Moormans River tumbles down from Shenandoah National Park.
I could hardly be prouder of the thoughtful young woman my daughter has become, yet I felt a new surge of satisfaction at her choice. What better way to celebrate her milestone than a family excursion to one of Virginia’s natural treasures?
So after carb-loading with French toast, we loaded up the dogs and headed for the trailhead. We waded the refreshingly icy river, then hiked on uphill just beyond Blue Hole, a popular swimming spot. Along the way, we passed soaring rock formations and crumbling stone walls gradually being reclaimed by the forest.
Milestone birthdays, whether my kids’ or my own, tend to make me step back and take stock. And just the day before, during a long drive up to Maryland’s Nanjemoy Creek to help with a Conservancy-led kayak trip, I’d had plenty of time for reflection.
In my mental memory book, the most indelible images involve exploring America’s national parks and monuments with family and friends.
When I was a kid growing up on the flat farmland of coastal South Carolina, my first trip to the Great Smoky Mountains was a revelation.
My own children spent their early years in New Mexico. They climbed ladders to ancient Anasazi cliff dwellings at Bandelier, picnicked in the subterranean lunchroom at Carlsbad Caverns and dug their bare toes into the gypsum dunes at White Sands.
My best grad-school friend and I scrambled among the namesake formations of Utah’s Arches National Park. We camped on slickrock at Canyonlands, with views that suggested we’d landed on an uncharted planet, and dangled our feet off a thousand-foot cliff while watching the Green and Colorado rivers collide.
While traveling this scenic route in my mind, I happened to be driving through the Green Springs district, some of Virginia’s most beautiful and historic countryside. Shortly, I traversed some of America’s most hallowed ground, The Wilderness battlefield.
What a rich natural and national heritage we share, I thought. And despite our differences and challenges, how fortunate we are that so much of America has been preserved for our enjoyment and enlightenment.
Now, as I scan the map of national parks spread across my desk, I’m nearly overwhelmed by all the special places we’ve yet to explore. But summer is still young and the July 4th holiday is coming up. I’m looking forward to America’s birthday, and I can’t think of a better place to take the party than our next park.
Looking for parks to visit with your family this summer? Check out our guide to public lands The Nature Conservancy helped to protect. Then tell us in the comments below — what’s YOUR favorite national park?