Founded in 1916, the National Park System was famously referred to by Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner as “the best idea we ever had.” What he meant was that the parks’ significance was more than aesthetic—it was democratic. The 419 wilderness preserves, natural monuments and other sites that comprise the NPS belong to every citizen. These lands—where you can witness the geysers of Yellowstone, the perfect night skies of Nevada’s Great Basin or the colors at the bottom of the Grand Canyon—are national treasures that help define America. At a time when the very concept of public land is being questioned, we visit four acclaimed national parks and get to know some of the rangers who take care of not only the land, but also the people who’ve come to see it.
Channel Islands National Park
Always pack lots of layers and food. This is the advice that Laura Shaskey, a wildlife biologist at Channel Islands National Park, has for visitors to the wind-swept and mountainous archipelago just 11 miles off California’s southern coast. That, and don’t accidentally miss the last boat to the mainland. There’s no concessions or publicly available electricity at this hidden-in-plain-sight gem of a national park, and the weather is fickle. “It can be sweltering, and a few days later be extremely windy and cold,” she says. “And when conditions get really windy—people have gotten stuck.”
The remoteness was part of the appeal of the Channel Islands for Shaskey, who’d spent a decade monitoring migratory birds across the state for groups such as The Nature Conservancy. But a chance to work at California’s version of the Galápagos is a dream come true for any wildlife worker. Common dolphins and blue whales swim along the shorelines of one of the world’s last true wild places. The islands also host nesting grounds for 99 percent of the region’s seabirds and plenty of terrestrial creatures, including tourist favorite the island fox, which, isolated for thousands of years, has evolved into several subspecies that can only be found on the Channel Islands.
The fox, at about four to five pounds, is one-third smaller than its mainland cousin, and was so endangered in the 1990s due to predation by non-native golden eagles that researchers had to step in. They launched a captive breeding program, removed the invasive golden eagle population, replaced them with native bald eagles, which don’t prey on foxes, and eventually released the bolstered fox population back into the wild. By the time Shaskey came to the island in early 2017, the tiny canines had made a miraculous recovery—one of the most astounding rebounds of any mammal in modern history—and were taken off the endangered species list. Shaskey’s job today involves trapping the foxes, checking them for parasites and disease, and tagging them with radio collars to make sure their population stays steady across three of the rugged islands.
There’s no entrance fee to the park, and taking a boat to one of the four islands costs from $30 to $74 each way. (Not all of the islands are open during every season, and trips are weather-dependent in general.) Visitors should eat a light breakfast and be prepared for a choppy voyage—there can be gale-force winds in the channel any time of year. Island-hopping isn’t feasible for anyone but private boaters, so it’s important to plan an itinerary before departing from the visitors center in Ventura. Santa Cruz, the largest island, and Anacapa are an easy entrée for day-trippers or less experienced campers. Both offer world-class snorkeling and kayaking, as the Santa Barbara Channel has some of the richest kelp forests in the world, supporting as many as 1,000 different plant and animal species. You can also paddle along the shoreline and pop into a sea cave to gawk at the garibaldi, which look like kitten-sized goldfish.
But Shaskey says that fortune favors the bold. Though more difficult to get to, far-flung San Miguel Island offers some unique pleasures. The foxes there are a bit shyer, but intrepid explorers who brave the journey will certainly see wildlife—there are 30,000 animals thriving amid 9,325 acres. The National Park Service recommends spending at least two nights on San Miguel, though one certainly would not get bored on a longer stay. On the crest, explore the ancient caliche forest—a one-of-a-kind graveyard of trees that dried into chalky husks at the end of the last ice age. Hike 15 miles round-trip to see one of the largest sea lion rookeries in the world, and relax in privacy at the crescent-shaped beach at Cuyler Harbor.
“It really has that remote feel and absolutely beautiful vistas, at least when it’s not foggy or windy,” Shaskey says of San Miguel. “On a clear day, it’s spectacular. I’ve had some amazing sunsets there where you can see all the way across the channel to the mainland—just absolutely panoramic.”
To support enrichment and conservation efforts in Channel Islands National Park, visit ciparkfoundation.org.
Yosemite National Park
Shelton Johnson is a natural storyteller. One of his favorite tales starts when he’s a 5-year-old, on top of an alpine peak in the Bavarian Forest. Prior to that trip with his parents, he’d thought clouds belonged above one’s head. Seeing them down below, in a canyon where their shadows played puppet shows on the ground, was disorienting and exciting. The sudden knowledge of nature’s possibilities set him apart from his classmates when he moved from Germany to inner-city Detroit, where access to the outdoors was practically nonexistent.
Fast-forward to when Johnson was in a graduate poetry program at the University of Michigan and looking for a muse. His roommate happened to have an application to work as a dishwasher in Yellowstone National Park. Johnson took the job and ventured west. “I realized that, when I got off that bus, I had come home,” he says. “And that’s a very powerful statement for a Black man when he’s just gotten off a bus in Montana.”
Johnson’s stint as a dishwasher didn’t last long. Starting in 1987, he worked as a ranger at parks such as Grand Teton and Great Basin. Eventually he made his way to Yosemite National Park, where he’s worked in the interpretation division since 1993. His job involves conducting research into the park’s archives, giving tours and performing a one-man play as sergeant Elizy Bowman, a Black buffalo soldier who helped keep poachers out of the park at the turn of the 20th century. Records of Bowman’s patrols exist, though Johnson has taken some liberties in imagining the proto-park ranger’s interiority. His goal in all of this is to help other Black people have transcendent experiences among the glacier-carved peaks, even if they may have missed out on such formative experiences as kids. “It’s never too late to be awestruck,” says Johnson.
The 62-year-old is still finding new ways to see Yosemite himself. Though Johnson commutes about two hours to work every day, he makes sure to get off at the quaint Yosemite Valley Chapel and walk the rest of the way. That 30-minute trek through giant sequoias helps him get in the headspace of visitors who might soon be seeing the Half Dome rock formation for the first time. Johnson says those sites are famous for a reason. “You’re not going to see anything in the backcountry that’s going to surpass what you can see in Yosemite Valley,” he tells people. “You go off on a trail for 15 or 20 minutes and you don’t hear the highway anymore. It’s just you, the clouds and the sky and Yosemite. And that’s a very powerful thing.”
For hiking, Johnson’s can’t-miss spot is the flat, easy Cook’s Meadow Loop, which has a great view of the 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls. Catch him there either eating a ham sandwich with horseradish sauce from local favorite Degnan’s Kitchen, or with a camera. While Yosemite’s many attractions often have superlatives like “biggest” and “tallest” attached to them, photography has helped Johnson appreciate the park on a more granular level. When faced with the granite monolith (and rock-climbing paradise) El Capitan, the hobby makes him notice the wildflowers at his feet, too. Though he’s only been taking photos for about five years, he says working in Yosemite offers a master class on the wonders of natural light. Take, for instance, how Sentinel Rock turns crimson when the sun hits it just so.
For now, Johnson is more famous for his work in front of the camera. He brought Yosemite into millions of Americans’ living rooms through appearances on Ken Burns’ 2009 PBS series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, and Oprah, and thinks the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests present an opportunity for him to further proselytize on nature’s restorative quality. Though he’s a true Renaissance man—a poet, photographer, playwright, actor, historian—his main goal is to bring more Black people to Yosemite. “Nothing is more restful than being out under the stars in a primordial forest,” he says. “It’s an inheritance that African Americans have yet to fully claim. It’s the last act of the civil rights movement.”
To support enrichment and conservation efforts in Yosemite National Park, visit yosemite.org.
Everglades National Park
What am I getting into? This water is cold. Am I stepping on an alligator? A snake? So goes the inner monologue of guests for the first ten minutes of the so-called slough slog at Everglades National Park. But as they trudge through the damp saw grass and enter the shaded realm of a cypress dome, their focus turns from potential creepy-crawlies to the egrets and herons stalking prey there. The silence within the dome can feel otherworldly. “You wonder where the city sounds went,” says Yvette Cano, the park’s education director. “It’s an incredible, shocking sense of peace.”
The ranger, whose family immigrated from Cuba and who grew up nearby in Miami’s western suburbs, got her first opportunity to go on the slough slog as part of the park’s three-day school sleepover program when she was in the sixth grade, but her mother almost forbade it. “Sleepovers don’t happen in a Cuban household,” Cano explains. “You can go sleep at your grandparents’ house, and that’s about it.” Fortunately, a teacher convinced Mom that the field trip was safe, so Cano traded in life among suburban strip malls for three days in the subtropical wilderness. By 21, she was teaching elementary school and ended up chaperoning a trip to the park—it brought back so many memories that she got goosebumps.
After taking courses in botany at a nearby university outpost, Cano transitioned into becoming the ranger who leads both kids and teachers on the slog, where they learn about one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. Dubbed the “River of Grass” by conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the Everglades is essentially a broad shallow river that floods each summer, seeping south through grasslands and cypress swamps before flowing through a labyrinth of mangroves into the Gulf of Mexico. Cano, who is celebrating her 10th year at the park, now leads a staff of educators and is helping to usher in more diversity at the park, which, despite being about an hour south of Miami, only had a handful of Latino employees when she started.
Everglades National Park is a whopping 1.5 million acres—the size of Delaware, and the third-biggest park in the contiguous United States. Despite its size, there’s no food available in the park until next year, when the beautiful mid-century Flamingo Lodge is renovated, so Cano recommends stopping in the city of Homestead. Here you can grab a deli sub from Florida favorite supermarket chain Publix, or some gas station tacos al pastor from Taqueria Morelia. Also, don’t miss the resplendent array of tropical fruits at legendary farm stand Robert Is Here, which also makes fantastic milkshakes from mango and other fruits.
Cano recommends that first-timers pack a change of clothes and head for the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, which offers slough slogs year-round. Although a similar tour is also available at the Shark Valley Visitor Center on the park’s north side, she says this one has shallower water to contend with and bigger cypress domes to admire.
Those who don’t want to get wet at all can opt for the nearby Anhinga Trail instead. The elevated boardwalk offers near-guaranteed views of alligators, as well as owls, turtles, freshwater fish, songbirds and butterflies. If you’re extremely lucky you might even spot a black bear.
The most secluded backcountry camping in the park is on the Gulf Coast side. You can kayak to on-the-water camping platforms called chickees (make sure you reserve in advance) or hop on a guided boat tour for dolphin and manatee spotting in the mangrove stands known as the Ten Thousand Islands.
From the west coast you can hop back in your car and head for the Shark Valley Visitor Center, where you can rent a bike and pedal around the 15-mile trail, dodging obstacles that could either be mossy logs or more gators. For a more relaxing finale, opt for a two-hour tram past the area’s hardwood forests instead.
The Everglades is low and flat, so almost anywhere in the park provides an extraordinary view of both sunrises and sunsets. Cano suggests climbing to the top of Shark Valley’s 65-foot tower for an extra boost. “We have the most incredible skies here in South Florida,” she swoons. “They’re unlike anything you’ve ever seen. People who have been all over the world are in awe of the vastness, and the purples and pinks. And if you catch a sunset on a raincloud, it’ll blow your mind.”
To support education and conservation efforts in Everglades National Park, visit southfloridaparks.org.
Chief Ranger of the Division of Visitor and Resource Protection
Grand Canyon National Park
Matthew Vandzura looks like he’s right out of central casting. His thick mustache evokes President Teddy Roosevelt, a pioneer in American land conservation, but also brings to mind Ron Swanson, the ornery civil servant from the hit TV show Parks and Recreation. The wilderness Vandzura presides over, however, is more than 1.2 million acres and 6,000 feet deep—vastly larger than the flat fictional town of Pawnee.
Now a chief ranger of Grand Canyon National Park, the 53-year-old is fulfilling a dream that began when his family took him on a “Griswold-style family vacation” as a teenager, hitting 30 parks in 30 days. On that trip he watched the sunrise over the canyon’s South Rim in Arizona, then drove five hours to cross the enormous chasm and watch it rise again the next day on the North Rim. Those vistas inspired the young Vandzura to become a backcountry ranger. He set his sights on Yellowstone, working there seasonally after getting a wildlife management degree as a first-generation college student at Penn State. “My parents were so proud that I spent four years at a university to carry a chain saw on my shoulder,” he deadpans.
After bouncing around a number of parks and recreation areas, fate eventually brought him back to the Southwest in 2011, as chief ranger at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on the Mexican border, and then to the Grand Canyon as a chief ranger.
These days he’s at the helm of at least 300 search-and-rescue missions a year. As if channeling Swanson, Vandzura would give himself a C+ in small talk and says he’s not really a big fan of crowds when he’s off the clock. If you’re like him, he suggests slipping into the park from the east side and grabbing a sweet treat at Desert View Trading Post & Ice Cream. Try to make it up the 85 steps of the pueblo-inspired Desert View Watchtower before the ice cream melts to enjoy the highest point of elevation on that side of the park: 7,360 feet. The vista offers a diorama of 1.7 billion years of geological history.
Vandzura points first-time visitors to the South Rim’s Bright Angel Trail, which runs from the top of the rim all the way down to the river, covering about 8.5 miles each way. Though the park service doesn’t recommend hiking the whole trail in one go, there are several easy turning points for day hikers, and those with time to spare can stay at the Indian Garden Campground and continue down the canyon to the Colorado River the following morning. The total descent is about 4,500 feet; expect the smell of pinyon pines and juniper to grow stronger the farther you get down the gorgeous rose-and-rust-colored gorge.
And while the South Rim gets about 90 percent of the park’s visitors, don’t let the crowds there dissuade you; wildlife still abounds, even in unusual places. Vandzura, a veteran bird-watcher, notes that white-faced ibises, chickadees, nuthatches and hummingbirds are attracted to the area’s water. “The best spots on the South Rim are the settling ponds that are associated with wastewater treatment plants,” he says.
For a less crowded experience, Vandzura recommends the North Rim, which is about 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim and dotted with giant grassy meadows—a feature more commonly associated with Vandzura’s first love, Yellowstone. “The Grand Canyon Lodge is made of logs and has little railings, and you can sit out there and drink a pretty decent gin and tonic from the Roughrider Saloon,” he says, explaining that some of the cabins, unlike on the other side, are right on the rim. “You can wake up and have that first cup of coffee on your porch, which includes a sunrise over the Grand Canyon.”
Though these days he spends more time in his office than in the backcountry, often focused on risk management—“I’m here to keep people safe,” he says—he doesn’t take living and working inside one of the world’s wonders for granted. “Especially after morning meetings or dealing with some of the administrative aspects of my job, the canyon does help me rejuvenate and find calm. Sometimes you can forget, but it’s just so gigantic and impressive.”
To support enrichment and conservation efforts in Grand Canyon National Park, visit grandcanyon.org