Despite its forbidding name, Death Valley isn’t a desolate wasteland. The otherworldly landscape intrigues with charms that are both subtle and severe—immense, colorful volcanic craters; layered, water-carved canyons; silky sand dunes; and a radiating heat that seems three-dimensional. Even when the park fills with visitors pursuing spring wildflowers, the vast emptiness swallows sound and light, and opens a path to restful silence, joyous starry skies, and unending wonder about the planet’s origins.
After the deaths of an infant son and then her husband, South Pasadena socialite Minerva Hoyt (1866-1945) found peace and consolation in the beauty of the desert. But the avid gardener turned activist in the 1920s as the rage for exotic landscaping, accelerated by affordable autos and paved roads, took a toll on the land. Named to a state commission, “The Apostle of the Cacti” prepared a report, recommending parks be created in Death Valley, the Anza-Borrego Desert, and the Joshua tree forests.
Variously ranched or used as Navy bombing ranges, five spits of land that never were part of mainland California are windows to its distant past. The vestiges of civilization have been dismantled during the past few decades, and native plants and animals have rebounded. More than 140 species can be found only here.
The nation’s newest national park—christened last year—is an inspiring testimony to the awesome power of plate tectonics combined with erosion: sheer rock spires rising out of the scrubby Gabilan Mountains. Its beauty was apparent to Schuyler Hain (1861-1930), a homesteader from Michigan, who led valley and cave tours, and acted as caretaker, until Pinnacles was deemed a national monument more than a century ago.
Certain that ancient trees had a highter purpose than becoming fence posts and shingles, George W. Stewart, the 21-year-old city editor of the Visalia Delta, penned an 1878 editorial calling for a state ban on cutting giant sequoias. For the next dozen years, the newspaperman battled mining, livestock, and timber interests, and spurred state and federal officials to secure the park’s first 76 square miles.
Strong-willed, heartily disliked, and highly effective Interior Secretary Harold Ickes (1874-1952) took an interest in wilderness preservation that went beyond most: parks without roads. Wheeling and dealing—which inluded selling FDR on the idea with commissioned Ansel Adams photographs—Ickes got his wish in Kings Canyon.
Yosemite forever changed Muir. Soaring granite monoliths, icy streams that tumble like feathers over cliffs, stately groves of sequoias, and wildlife around every bend. Muir championed Yosemite not just for its natural beauty, but its ecological significance, too—a template for dozens of national parks that followed.
A place of beauty, yet volatile and violent. Among the clear lakes, grazing mule deer, and fields of wildflowers sleep all four types of volcanoes—cinder cones; shields, which spew lava in all directions; composite, which emit lava, ash, cinders, and blocks; and plug domes, whose lava piles up inside the crater. More than 20 years before Lassen Peak last blew its plug, Muir wrote: “Miles of its flanks are reeking and bubbling with hot springs, many of them so boisterous and sulphurous they seem ever ready to become spouting geysers ...”
Thanks to the minimal signage in this national/state park, it’s easy to imagine that you’ve just stumbled upon a forgotten corner of a lost world.
Not that you asked, but some of the smartest people in America have chosen their favorites from among the nation's 58 national parks.