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

Across the Western United States, you’ll find them in all shapes and sizes, and often close to home, in part because President Lincoln thought everyone should have access to nature

By Peter Kujawinski

  • July 29, 2019
The sun sets at Bannack State Park in Montana.

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?

That October night, I was camping in Iowa’s Waubonsie State Park, just one park among the many thousands now scattered across the United States. It was near the tail end of a yearlong mission to visit as many state parks as possible. (Final tally: 53.) This article, the second on state parks, focuses on those I visited in the western part of the country.Part 1: Parks in the Eastern U.S.

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.

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Second in a series in the NY Times. First one:Wherever You Are, There’s a State Park NearbyJune 5, 2019

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