Rich in Surprises and Secrets, There’s a State Park Waiting for You

On a cold and damp Iowa evening last October, I sat in a tent and thought about Abraham Lincoln. More precisely, I thought about Lincoln signing a minor piece of legislation deeding the Yosemite Valley to the state of California. It happened in 1864, while the Civil War raged.

It is important because of just a few words. California was given ownership of Yosemite on the condition that the land “be held for public use, resort, and recreation.” This was the official approval of a remarkable and radical idea: Everyone should have access to nature. It led to our ecosystem of national and state parks, wilderness areas and nature preserves — all generally committed to providing this access.

And it came at a time when President Lincoln presumably had a lot on his mind. Did he realize his signature would transform America’s relationship with nature?

Waubonsie is a small state park in the southwestern corner of Iowa, near Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. I didn’t know anything about it, except for reviews saying it was a good place for a picnic. I figured it’d be a few lonely trees surrounded by corn. What I found truly astounded me, and emphasized what I love most about state parks: You never know what you are going to find.

In this 1,990-acre state park, I found an ancient forest on a plateau, an island of mysterious trees in the middle of a vast agricultural region. A secret in plain sight. Waubonsie, as it turns out, is the result of glaciers melting and rushing down the nearby Missouri River. Silt from these glaciers has piled up in mounds large enough to become their own landforms, here called the Loess Hills. There are only two places in the world where this topography exists: the region where I was camping, and the Yellow River valley in China.

Driving into Waubonsie was like entering a hidden kingdom. Tall oak trees, their leaves gold and green in the fading sun, lined the main road. Trails circled along steep gorges thick with birds flitting in a temperate jungle environment. Mist curled along the tree line, and in the eerie stillness I felt the presence of something ancient. In a mad rush to investigate further, I bolted down a dinner of potato chips and cold coffee, pitched my tent, and spent the next two hours hiking through this fantasy of forested badlands. Every so often I came across hiking shelters built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps that looked like giant mushrooms.

Back in the tent, I found a shivering mosquito that hitched a ride from my previous night’s stop in Bentsen Rio Grande State Park in South Texas. Rain pattered against the thin blue fabric of the tent, steady and soothing like a heartbeat. I sat there, truly content, grateful for places like Waubonsie, where I could bound through secret forests and pay only $6 for the privilege of a night’s rest within its boundaries.

When I left the next morning, I drove down a state road and within minutes, I was back in the fields. I had to stop the car and look back at the forested gorges above me, just to make sure it wasn’t all a weird dream.

Not all state parks came out of nowhere like Waubonsie, but they are all rich with surprises, secrets and authenticity. Generally, they were off the beaten track, which made them all the more interesting. This was certainly the case in the first half of 2018, when I visited Eastern state parks.

Another part of their intrigue is that state parks come in all shapes and sizes. They don’t have that much in common, which makes a visit unpredictable. However, according to Linda Lanterman, president of the National Association of State Park Directors and director of Kansas State Parks, one common feature is their presence near our homes. “Not everyone is fortunate to go to a national park,” she said. “Not everyone can take a week off. That’s what makes the state park system so unique. It’s close to home and close to nature.” Ms. Lanterman said state parks generally are popular, and the number of visitors is rising. In 2002, total attendance at state parks was 758 million people. By 2017, that number had risen to 807 million.

When my friend Chris and I arrived this past September, Bannack was a very busy ghost town. State park rangers conferred with arriving pickup trucks and pointed out places to set up. They were preparing for a four-day living history event, during which historical re-enactors would occupy the abandoned, one-street town and pretend it was 1862. Schoolchildren from the area were bused in and the town was filled with tourists watching re-enactors performing at the blacksmith camp, saloon, boardinghouse, butcher shop, school and church.

Bannack’s buildings are maintained in a state of “arrested decay,” meaning they are prevented from deteriorating further, but are not improved in any way. It provided an unusual, still-life view of the town. Grass covered a low-slung rectangular jail. Insulation was cardboard packing boxes, a testament to the area’s cold isolation. The entire short history of Bannack lay in front of us, from the raw log cabins on the outskirts of town to the cracked linoleum floors of the last occupied houses. Bannack’s last inhabitant left in the 1970s.

Just outside town lies the campground, where we spent the night. It occupies a small area alongside a creek, nothing more than a few curlicues of fire rings and grass protected by towering cottonwood trees. We gathered next to the fire as evening drew to a close, listening to the wind through the trees, the gurgle of the creek, and our campground neighbors reading books to each other.

The Bannack campground was like so many I had been to during my year of visiting state parks. There was the crackle of wood in the fire, distant voices in the background, the sounds of nature and a palpable absence of stress. Chris and I huddled next to the flames and talked about everything and anything, what will never be, what just was. The creek rushed past, the stars shone, and I felt whole.

The next day we drove to Harriman State Park in Idaho. Before it was given to the state, it was a working cattle ranch and retreat owned by the Harriman and Guggenheim families. The centerpiece is a series of ranch buildings alongside Henrys Fork, a tributary of the Snake River. When we visited, it echoed with the cheers and yells of a high school cross-country meet. During the winter, trails are groomed for skate and classic cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and fat bikes.

The park is a mix of temperate rain forest and meadow along a stretch of Lynn Canal coastline, the deepest fjord in North America. After parking near the entrance early one morning, Chris and I hiked through muskeg and then into a field of fireweed rising to an immense vista: miles of coastline, a fierce wind, and mountains ringing the horizon.

We passed by affable hikers who spoke of “brownie” sightings; a weirdly cute way of referring to grizzly bears. Soon we were at our destination, a basic cabin called Blue Mussel within a stone’s throw of the seashore. It was well loved, judging by the painted signs, rocks and seashells in the vicinity. Even in mid-September, well into autumn this far north, reservations had been difficult to get.

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