How memories are made in America's national parks

Yosemite National Park in California
Yosemite National Park in California
Mark Ralston | AFP/Getty Images

America's national parks are being celebrated this year -- the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service -- for their natural beauty, their historical importance, and their role in protecting national treasures of all kinds. But Dayton Duncan says parks are also preserving something much more personal: memories.

Duncan, who wrote and co-produced the 2009 Ken Burns documentary "The National Parks" (which is currently available for streaming again on, told MPR News host Kerri Miller about taking his children to see his childhood home in Iowa.

"The place where my house was is a parking lot. The creek where I used to roam around has apartment complexes over it," he said. "I still have great memories of that town, but I can't immediately access them. But in a national park, if you create a memory there, you're storing it in a very safe place. You can go back there 20, 30, 50 or 60 years later and it looks just like it did back then and that memory has been waiting for you all those years and comes back and fills your heart."

In a program devoted to memories of national parks, Kerri talked to Duncan and to travel writer Carol Cain, who blogs at, about the importance of parks in our personal and collective memory. She also collected some great memories from our listeners.

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For Cain, going to national parks -- or any outdoorsy activity -- wasn't part of her childhood experience. "I'm a first-generation American and my family came from a very rural environment [in Puerto Rico]", she said. "Living in an urban environment and having access to things right outside your doorstep and showers and flushing toilets, that was progress. So the idea that we would spend vacation time in the woods was something that made them say, 'why would I do that?'...They didn't view 'roughing it' as something that was really worth it."

But Cain has become an advocate for the parks, in part after her Wisconsin-born husband, encouraged her to give camping a try. As she wrote on her blog in 2013:

"I won't deny the fact that if you went to a national park today you won't find much diversity there. I can count maybe on one hand the many times I've seen a minority of any kind during my hikes and sometimes I don't see any at all. It's a fact that everyone is very aware of and is trying to change. But it's not for lack of welcoming support from the people who work there, nor is it from the overwhelming desire of that community to see more diversity among their members. It is our own inhibitions and generalizations that often deny us the opportunity to not only personally experience, but also share, the beauty that being in nature brings. I understand and don't want to underestimate the insecurities and doubts that might exist in our community of color when it comes to venturing out, as a person of color, into rural America, which is why I make it a point to do it myself and serve as an example of what you can expect."

Parks in our backyard

While many callers shared stories of spiritual hikes, or animal encounters in Yellowstone, Grand Teton or Glacier, many wanted to remind us of all the national park sites within an easy drive of the Twin Cities:

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area has a visitors center (soon to get a facelift) at the Science Museum of Minnesota and helps preserve 72 miles of the river from Ramsey, Minn. to Prescott, Wis.

Voyageurs National Park, headquartered at International Falls, preserves ancient rocks, pristine lakes and the beauty of Minnesota's north woods (hear its outgoing superintendent talking with MPR News host Tom Weber)

St. Croix National Scenic Riverway has its main visitor centers in St. Croix Falls, Wis. and preserves the river through its confluence with the Mississippi

Pipestone National Monument in Pipestone, Minn. is still an active pipestone quarry for Native Americans

Grand Portage National Monument preserves a significant fur trading outpost as well as Ojibwe heritage on Minnesota's North Shore

Isle Royale National Park sits isolated in Lake Superior is accessible by boat from Grand Portage or from points in Michigan

Listeners also were quick to remind us how excellent Minnesota's National Forests and State Parks are. You can listen to a conversation about Itasca State Park's 125th Anniversary.

Advice from an "honorary ranger"

Late in the conversation, Dayton Duncan, who has written extensively about America's national parks offered simple tips for creating memorable (and safe) moments in a national park:

Get on a trail: "You don't have to do a 20-mile hike," Duncan said. "Just take a quarter of a mile and you get that much farther away from everyone and suddenly you're more surrounded by the beauty and the majesty of why there is that park."

Take advantage of the rangers: "You should stop at the visitors center when you come into a park and get the information you need about what the trails are and the opportunities are. Talk to a ranger. "

Be ready to stay safe: "If you're really going to go out on the back trails, there a possibility you're going to come across a bear or some bison and you need to know what the protocols are," Duncan said. "Do a little of the checking ahead of time. Or when you get there go to the visitor center and look around and there will be people who can give you advice or handouts about things to be aware of or do and not do when you're in the park."