Choice spots, well- and little-known, are described by seven experts


June 16, 1991|By Nancy Shute | Nancy Shute,Universal Press SyndicateUniversal Press Syndicate

"To conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife . . . and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired . . . for future generations."

When President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service on Aug. 25, 1916, the fledgling agency was charged with protecting the natural beauty of Yosemite, Yellowstone and 34 other "crown jewels" of the West. As the National Park Service celebrates its 75th anniversary, its domain has grown far beyond the imagining of its founders: 357 parks, monuments, seashores, rivers and preserves stretched over more than 80 million acres, the world's greatest system of parks.

Today, the park service not only protects scenery and wildlife, but must defend treasures such as the Grand Canyon against smog and other modern-day encroachments, manage newer units -- such as San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area -- that are more urban playgrounds than wilderness sanctuaries, and shepherd the ever-growing ranks of visitors whose sheer numbers threaten the health of such as parks Yosemite and the Great Smokies. Last year, the parks tallied a record 251 million visits, and park service officials expect even more company this year as events in the Persian Gulf war and a lingering recession have prompted vacationers to stay closer to home.

If you are one of the thousands who are heading for a national park this year, we have a few suggestions from the ultimate guides, eminent writers and photographers who have devoted much of their lives to chronicling the splendors of the American landscape. Their choices surprised us; some spoke of truly hidden or rare places, such as New Mexico's El Morro National Monument or Alaska's Koyukuk Wild River; others, including Wallace Stegner and David Muench, found private paradises amid big parks such as Oregon's Crater Lake and Maine's Acadia. Their joy in a place was palpable, whether their visit was the first or the 50th. These poets of the land speak for all of us whose love for the national parks, and the heritage they embody, grows more passionate with each passing year.

National wonders

In 1872, Yellowstone was named the nation's first park; for decades thereafter, parks were chosen as outstanding examples the natural splendors of the American West. Wallace Stegner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel "Angle of Repose" and of many volumes of Western history, considers Crater Lake National Park in southwest Oregon, established in 1915, a classic of the genre.

"People miss out on Crater Lake," Mr. Stegner says. "They forget about it." Not only is Crater Lake off the interstate, but its shores are shrouded in the deep snows of the Cascade Range for eight months of the year, accessible only on skis or snowshoes. He says, "My granddaughter just came back from skiing there and was lyrical about it."

His granddaughter's lyricism is well-founded; the 1,900-foot-deep lake, remains of a violent eruption that leveled Mount Mazama almost 7,000 years ago, glows an eerie blue. Even in midsummer the Rim Road, which offers stunning views of the lake, feels uncrowded, and Mr. Stegner praises the trails that wind through the park's cathedral-like forests. "There's a kind of mystery about that park. It's very quiet and moody -- profound. The lake is very blue, and that thing is deep; you have the sense of it going clear through to China."

Acadia National Park is the only national park on the rocky New England coast, and on summer days the roads on Mount Desert Island are packed with vacationers. It's not the sort of place where you'd expect to find New Yorker writer John McPhee, who traveled most recently among the pirates of Guayaquil for his book "Waiting for a Ship." But in the more secluded corners of Acadia, he finds a placid retreat from his New Jersey home. "It's the most beautiful coast you ever saw," Mr. McPhee says. "It's got fiords in it, deep penetrating bays, and the spruce go right to the water."

To escape the crowds, he heads off to the carriage trails through the woods, built by wealthy industrialists who vacationed on the island at the turn of the century. "It's a favorite place of mine to run, to ski, to hike." Mr. McPhee, whose many books on geology include "Rising From the Plains," loves the rough face of the Schoodic Peninsula, where rocks still bear the scars of glaciers that carved the land centuries ago. "It's a hell of a scene."

Ancestral traces

Many park units were created not to protect natural history, but to preserve the marks of human history on the landscape. Stewart Udall, historian and secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, treasures El Morro National Monument, a sandstone cliff in a remote area of central New Mexico that stands on the route of the first Spanish explorers.

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