By Ethan Maurice | July 26th, 2018
The phrase, “To see the sights!” is one of the most common Airbnb booking messages I receive as manager of a lodge a mile outside the northeast gate of Yellowstone National Park.
It’s a limiting, yet apt phrase, as many who visit our national parks get caught up in “seeing” a national park—reducing one of life's most immersive, transcendent experiences to simple observation.
The point is not to merely observe Yosemite's monolithic walls, the striated eons of the Petrified Forest, or Yellowstone's swirling of geologic, plant, and animal life, but to feel connected to Earth’s eternal procession. To recognize we are a part, not apart from, these fantastical displays of nature, evokes profound awe and mysticism within us that has been all but extinguished from our day-to-day lives.
I have found bottomless contentment in that wonder:
Teary-eyed, savoring each light step through Le Conte Canyon backpacking the John Muir Trail; lying under the brilliant Milky Way on Halape Beach in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, miles away from lights and every other convenience that obscures our connection to Earth; in such dry desolation in Canyonlands National Park that I felt not unlike Captain Jack Sparrow wandering the salt flats of his mind.
Simply put, many of the best experiences of my life have occurred in wilderness, many in national parks. And after witnessing so many overlook these awesome experiences in the hollow endeavor to “see” as much as possible, a few pointers on how to more fully engage with wilderness, and national parks, seem of great use.
Here are nine tips for losing yourself in a national park, from someone who wrings more from wilderness than most things in this world:
1. Leave your car behind.
John Muir once complained that it was impossible to see anything worthwhile from a stagecoach traveling forty miles a day. If John Muir cannot see anything worthwhile traveling forty miles a day, we cannot see anything worthwhile traveling forty miles an hour. The first step to experiencing the outdoors, is to get out of doors. That means leaving our cars behind and engaging all our senses.
2. Quality not Quantity.
At the end of our summer season in Yellowstone country, I help close rental cabins. In each, we leave a notebook for our guests to write about their stay. I leafed through a bunch last fall to discover that most entries included painstaking counts of animal sightings: “1000+ Bison, 6 Black Bears, 2 Grizzly Bears, 5 Mountain Goats, 17 Antelope, 7 Elk, 1 Bald Eagle, 4 Wolves, and 2 Moose.” Nothing is inherently wrong with counting animals, but this was more than counting. These were attempts to quantify experience—to measuring “success” in Yellowstone through numbers.
In wilderness, as in life, our intentions should have less to do with quantity and more with quality. It is not seeing four sunsets that matters. It's the sunset that tugged on something deeper within and for a breathless moment you could see how lucky you are to be alive and thought you could never get so lost in life's trivialities again.
3. Early, or late.
Most national park visitors drive in mid-morning and out early evening. This pattern allows us to sleep-in and conforms well to meal schedules, but it also means we're in the park for the most boring part of the day. It's a time when animals tend to bed down; a time with minimal play between shadow and light. The magic lies near dusk, dawn, and even in darkness.
To all things good, interruption is not. In venturing into wilderness, escape from notifications is necessary to fully give ourselves to the experience. Like texting during a movie, phones remove us from the experience and diminish our odds of transcending the usual. My phone gets turned off and buried in my backpack.
For picture taking purposes, Airplane Mode is a workable alternative.
5. Experience first.
No humans ever before have been so distracted by trying to capture their experiences. A couple years ago, after observing hundreds of people visit Arizona’s iconic Horseshoe Bend with what seemed the sole intention of taking a profile picture, I devised a simple solution to both experience what's around us and photograph it all too:
Experience it first, capture it after.
At Horseshoe Bend, that might mean walking around for twenty minutes, gazing out, feeling fear's grip in exponential relation to your proximity to the edge, howling into the abyss to listen for the echo—all those near-edge experiences.
Then, once you're ready to move on, capture it. If this means missing a moment on camera, it's a fair trade, for missing life through our own eyes is a much greater loss.
6. Get uncomfortable.
The more we work for something, the more we appreciate it. For all the apparent unpleasantness, long hikes and sweat and the obstacles between us and somewhere special in a national park pull us deeper into the experience and grant us greater appreciation upon arrival.
7. Stop doing for a while.
We must also distinguish between to-see-the-sites observation, and relax-in-a-folding-chair-among-the-breeze-overlooking-a-thousand-bison-in-Yellowstone's-Lamar-Valley observation. The former is an ambitious, blinding endeavor while the latter is an open, sensory experience. In nature, participation isn't always about doing, but more about connection with our surroundings. National parks shouldn't feel like thirty seconds in one of those glass boxes with cash blowing around. Pine trees still among the cool morning mist are participating as fully as bighorn sheep butting heads on the rocks above.
8. Ask the people who work there.
People that work in a national park know that park and are often happy to point us in the right direction. Tell the gate attendant or a ranger at the visitors center your situation, what you want to experience, and ask what they recommend. Rarely do they disappoint.
9. Wonder is what we seek.
The secret that took me a long time in nature to grasp, the reason to visit a national park or venture into the wild anywhere: to experience wonder.
I'll leave it to Edward Abbey—life-long lover and champion of wilderness—to explain:
“A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us—like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness—that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous, and our journey here on Earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures."