Friday, August 26, 2016

6 National Parks in the middle of Big Cities

Kids can earn a Junior Ranger badge during a trip to the big city.

This week, America is wishing Happy 100th Birthday to the US National Park Service. A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the agency “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations".

When most people think of National Parks, the panoramic landscape of the Grand Canyon, the towering waterfalls of Yosemite or the iconic Old Faithful geyser nestled in Yellowstone come to mind. But the National Park Service is not tasked solely with preserving the natural wonders of America. They also take care of its historical sites, many of which are located in big cities. Would you believe that more than a third of all national park sites are located in metro areas? Forty of the nation's fifty most populated urban areas have national parks in them. 36% of all National Parks visits occur at urban sites. According the Urban Agenda, it's part of the service's goal to reach Americans where they live and be relevant to their everyday lives, not just be part of a postcard perfect vacation in the Great Outdoors.

In honor of their mission to satisfy both the country mice and the city mice, here are a few of my favorite urban sites managed by the National Parks Service

The Statue of Liberty National Monument, New York City

The Statue of Liberty

Without a doubt, the Statue of Liberty is one of the most identifiable American landmarks. This site includes both Ellis Island which served as a processing center for immigrants and Liberty Island upon which Lady Liberty sits. The National Parks Service started managing the Statue of Liberty in 1933. Initially, it was part of the United States Lighthouse Board until they realized the torch was useless as a lighthouse. Then, Teddy Roosevelt made it part of the War Department — yes, the War Department —  so that military police could be stationed on the island. (Frankly, I think there was some secret robotic Statue of Liberty attack plan in the works. You know... in case if Godzilla struck the Big Apple.) The Army left after the island was turned over to the parks service, and the agency then transformed it into a public park for the enjoyment and benefit of all. Nine other National Park Service sites and recreation areas a located in New York City. 

Washington, D.C.

Washington Monument as seen from the Lincoln Memorial

Serving as the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. and the surrounding metro area is home to a whopping thirty-nine National Park Service sites.  These include memorials, the National Mall, Revolutionary War-era buildings and parkland. Note that the Smithsonian Museums are part of a separate organization 

Being sworn in as a Junior Ranger at the White House Visitor Center

The only thing that could have made my visit to Washington better would have been actually getting to go into the White House. I've been to D.C. twice and have yet to score tickets to the First Family's home. Luckily, there's a White House Visitor Center across the street with lots of interesting displays like "Who Ordered That?" where you have to figure out which president ate which food. Ronald Reagan favored jelly beans. James Garfield (1881) enjoyed Squirrel Soup. If I had the ability to time travel, guess which president I'd rather dine with? Hint: NOT the one where I'd have to watch out for bushy tails in my bowl.

Boston National Historical Park, Massachusetts

Faneuil Hall was the site of many meetings calling for America's freedom from Great Britain

Boston National Historical Park winds its way through a collection of eight sites critical to Boston's role in the American Revolution. Most of them are part of the Freedom Trail. The part of the trail near Paul Revere's house overlaps with what I've nicknamed "The Cannoli Trail." Visitor Centers are located in Faneuil Hall and Charleston Navy Yard. Rangers conduct guided tours, although these are different than the more popular tours by the period costume clad Freedom Tour Foundation guides.

On my fourth visit to the Freedom Trail, I finally paid attention and realized that Faneuil Hall is more than a marketplace next to the restaurants housed inside Quincy Market. It turns out there's a big meeting room upstairs on the second floor! The building is called "The Cradle of Liberty" because it's the location of many of the public meetings, speeches and debates that led to the call for independence from Great Britain. Even adults can learn something from Junior Ranger booklets. In a nod to the 21st century, the National Parks Service has released a free mobile app with a self-guided tour of both the Freedom Trail and the Boston African American National Historical Site.

Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Singers serenading the crowd outside Independence Hall

My teen is taking US History this year and commented that he's already been to many of the places they're studying. He was a mere toddler when we visited Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. Like Boston, this park is also a collection of historical sites spread across the city center. The two most popular places are the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and signed.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco, California

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from the park (I think)

This park is home to 19 separate ecosystems and over a thousand plant and animal species. Plus, there's the awesome view of the bridge! This recreational area is one of the best examples of the National Park Service's Urban Agenda. Golden Gate is relevant to everyday life. It really seems like a place that locals use on a regular basis, not only when they take visitors sightseeing. In my imaginary life where I live in an affordable house in the City by the Bay, I would visit Golden Gate National Recreation Area during my imaginary abundant free time to go bicycle riding, hiking and horseback riding. In this daydream, my children are also perfectly behaved and in complete agreement with 100% of what I suggest.

Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, California

Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument

Walking along the rugged coastline and watching the surf, it would be easy to think that Cabrillo National Monument is in a remote spot far from civilization. But look up, and you'll see the San Diego skyline across the bay. This park preserves the place where, in 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to step foot on the West Coast of what is now the USA. 

We timed our arrival for low tide so we could explore the tidepools. There's an incredible amount of tiny plants and animals living in the shallow pools of water left when the tide retreats, It kept the kids enthralled until the incoming tide drove us back to dry land. The Old Point Loma Lighthouse operated from 1885 to 1891. Back then, it also served as a bustling family home with horses and other farmyard animals. Visitors today can enter the refurbished lighthouse which was restored to its 1880s appearance.

Happy 100th Birthday to the US National Park Service!

Have you visited any of the National Park Service urban sites? 

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  1. Beautiful! I've seen these National Parks and I think they are our pride as a nation. I particularly like the Golden Gate Park. It's always beautiful there every time we go.

  2. How fun. I was expecting something quite different

  3. Lyn - A Hole in my ShoeAugust 26, 2016 at 7:55 PM

    It's interesting to read the stats on the National Parks and great to know that many are in the city and metro areas. I enjoyed reading some of the background of some National Parks I have heard of. The White House Visitor Centre sounds like fun... squirrel soup?? That sounds as strange to me as Vegemite does to some!

  4. I've always thought of the National Parks as a place with lots of greenery, trees, etc. - interesting that these sites are also National Parks! I enjoyed the Statue of Liberty very much, although one visit is enough, I think. Ellis Island was very interesting as well.

  5. One of my favorite city based National Parks is also in San Francisco, Presidio National Park! Well worth a visit if you're in the city. #wkendtravelinspiration

  6. You know we love the National Parks. So glad you highlighted these urban parks to visit and our favorite hometown park at Cabrillo. It's a bit disappointing when some visitors bypass them. We've visited all but the Philadelphia one. I haven't been since high school so hope to take the kids soon. Love the Junior Rangers! My kids have complained a few times recently of doing worksheets which makes me sad. I guess I'll have to do them :)

  7. I love this. Most of the National Park Sites we've been to are the historic ones. It's funny but it never occurred to me that the Statue of Liberty is a national park, though it makes sense. I always think of it as belonging to New York.

  8. contented travellerAugust 28, 2016 at 4:09 PM

    Urban parks are great, and interesting to know that they are actually National Parks. Makes sense when you read the history of these places.

  9. All great monuments/parks - I have been to 4/6 of these! Excited to see a couple new national parks & monuments on our next trip to the U.S. starting later this week:)

  10. So many parks to explore, what I like is that so many have some great historic stories as well - not just pretty scenery.

  11. Have a great trip. I can't wait to see what you write about afterwards.

  12. I'm really glad that they've made it a priority to preserve historical sites instead of letting them fall into ruin.

  13. I was surprised when I discovered that they were part of the National Park Service. I thought the local city took care of them.

  14. You are so fortunate to live near Cabrillo. We really enjoyed the tidepools. And really, it's only my youngest who still do the Junior Ranger books. The older ones were catching Pokemon.

  15. Oooh, I'll have to check out Presidio some day.

  16. We didn't have time for Ellis Island, so maybe I'll hit it the next time in NYC.

  17. The president had been shot, and they thought squirrel soup might restore his strength. (It didn't.)

  18. City based National Parks are a new concept for me. The Washington monument is glowing impressively.


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