Nation­al Parks owe their his­to­ry to some key peo­ple and key moments. But what about places? Parks are, after all, spe­cif­ic places on earth. The Nation­al Park Ser­vice was found­ed more than 100 years ago. So let’s look back at a few patch­es of ground that have had an out­sized impact on the Nation­al Parks movement.

yosemiteA Nonex­is­tent Camp­fire Some­where in North­west­ern Wyoming
As myth has it, the idea of a nation­al park was born around a camp­fire by the first east­ern Amer­i­cans to explore Yel­low­stone: David Fol­som, Hen­ry Wash­burn, and Fer­di­nand Hay­den in 1869–71.

As the sto­ry goes, dis­cus­sions around the camp­fire led to that the area should be kept pub­lic and not be sold off to pri­vate indi­vid­u­als as much of the West was being home­stead­ed in the late 1800s. Sup­pos­ed­ly this led to the cre­ation of Yel­low­stone as the first nation­al park.

The sto­ry is almost cer­tain­ly false. In fact, Yel­low­stone wasn’t real­ly the first “nation­al park”. Abra­ham Lin­coln, inspired by Car­leton Watkins’ pho­tographs, had signed a bill back in 1864 that declared the Yosemite Val­ley inviolate.

But in 1876 park advo­cates latched on to the appeal­ing sto­ry of rugged explor­ers kick­ing ideas around a camp­fire and made polit­i­cal hay from it. The North­ern Pacif­ic Rail­road, seek­ing tourist des­ti­na­tions for their route through the west, sup­port­ed the Park. Through a tall tale retold, the Nation­al Park idea gath­ered steam.

©istockphoto/traveler1116 Glac­i­er Point, Yosemite
In 1903, Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt toured Yosemite. He told his entourage, wait­ing for him at the Wawona Hotel, that he would join them “short­ly”. The Pres­i­dent didn’t show up for three days; he had ditched them to go off camp­ing with a fel­low named John Muir.

The two slept beneath the giant trees in the Mari­posa Grove, hiked up Sen­tinel Dome, and woke up cov­ered in snow at Glac­i­er Point. It was prob­a­bly the most impor­tant camp­ing trip in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. The com­pa­ny of Muir and the land­scape of Yosemite sent Roosevelt’s already-strong con­ser­va­tion instinct into hyperdrive.

Muir’s imme­di­ate goal was renewed fed­er­al pro­tec­tion of Yosemite. He got that and more. Roo­sevelt cre­at­ed 5 oth­er nation­al parks, 18 nation­al mon­u­ments, four game pre­serves, 150 nation­al forests, and over 230 mil­lion acres of pub­lic lands.

©istockphoto/tobiasjo Mile 32.8, Col­orado Riv­er, Arizona
Mile 32.8 of the Col­orado Riv­er in the Grand Canyon is fair­ly innocu­ous. The last big rapid is eight miles back, and the next siz­able drop, Unkar Rapid, is forty miles down­riv­er. Boaters look for­ward to stop­ping at Red­wall Cav­ern and fill­ing up with fresh water at Vasey’s Par­adise, but it’s hard to miss the four big square holes up high on the wall.

They’re the test holes for the Mar­ble Canyon Dam, which was pro­posed and even sur­veyed. In 1963, the Bureau of Recla­ma­tion, hav­ing just closed the flood­gates on the Glen Canyon Dam upstream, pro­posed a 300-foot dam in Mar­ble Canyon that would have backed a reser­voir all the way up to the foot of Glen Canyon Dam. A sec­ond pro­posed dam in Bridge Canyon on the west end would have turned the leg­endary Col­orado Riv­er into a series of reservoirs.

As crazy as this sounds now, the 1950s and 60s were the era of big fed­er­al dam build­ing and the Sun Belt was grow­ing and thirsty. The fight over the Grand Canyon was a seri­ous one. It turned a riv­er rat into a sea­soned con­ser­va­tion­ist (Mar­tin Lit­ton) and a small region­al group of out­door activists into a nation­al force to be reck­oned with (the Sier­ra Club). Col­orado still flows like a riv­er through the Grand Canyon.

florida evergladesA Swamp in South Florida
A swamp near Mia­mi does­n’t seem like the per­fect place for a nation­al park; but when Con­gress autho­rized the cre­ation of Ever­glades Nation­al Park 1934, it was ground­break­ing even though they didn’t appro­pri­ate any mon­ey for the Ever­glades for anoth­er five years.

Ever­glades Nation­al Park was game-chang­ing in two ways. First, it was the first nation­al park in the East, where most Amer­i­cans lived at the time. The Ever­glades broke a pat­tern of parks being estab­lished almost exclu­sive­ly in the high moun­tains of the West.

And sec­ond, it was the first park to be pre­served not for its scenic beau­ty, but to pro­tect frag­ile ecosys­tems at risk from water draw­downs and agri­cul­ture. In the midst of the Great Depres­sion, plac­ing the eco­log­i­cal con­cerns of a bug­gy humid swamp at the top of any list was a coura­geous move. The Ever­glades was the first vic­to­ry for the new sci­ence of ecol­o­gy that would gath­er steam in the com­ing decades.

©istockphoto/tondaThe Mouth of the Lit­tle Col­orado Riv­er, Grand Canyon Nation­al Park
The les­son of Hetch Hetchy and the Grand Canyon Dam pro­pos­al is that nation­al parks still need defend­ers after they’re estab­lished. One of those places is the unde­ni­ably mag­i­cal blue waters of the Lit­tle Col­orado Riv­er where it meets Col­orado, a sacred site to many Nava­jo and Hopi.

The pro­posed “Grand Canyon Escalade” devel­op­ment would build a 1.4‑mile motor­ized tram to shut­tle up to 10,000 vis­i­tors a day to the bot­tom of the Grand Canyon and would fea­ture a hotel, restau­rant, RV cen­ter, and amphithe­ater. Forty years after the defeat of the Grand Canyon dam pro­pos­als and the expan­sion of the park, the Grand Canyon is still under threat.

©istockphoto/OGphoto 146 Acres in Zip Code 20004
It may be one of the small­er Nation­al Parks, but it’s the most impor­tant. The Capi­tol Mall in Wash­ing­ton D.C. is where Yosemite, Glac­i­er, Denali, and Canyon­lands were cre­at­ed. Parks are estab­lished, fund­ed, defund­ed, pro­tect­ed or pri­va­tized by the action (or inac­tion) of Con­gress and the Pres­i­dent. Far away as it may seem from the depths of a slot canyon in Zion or atop a pin­na­cle in the Tetons, the Capi­tol Mall is a place park advo­cates can’t afford to overlook.


Ken Burns called the Nation­al Parks “America’s Best Idea.” They’re cer­tain­ly on the short list of Amer­i­can inno­va­tions. But the suc­cess sto­ry that’s been the Nation­al Park sys­tem owes it suc­cess to a series of small coin­ci­dences, acts of rebel­lion and things that seemed minor at the time. These ten moments have shaped the Nation­al Park sys­tem and will influ­ence our Parks in the next 100 years.

The Pho­tog­ra­ph­er and the President
In 1864, the Civ­il War was rag­ing. With the nation drown­ing in the blood of the bat­tles of Cold Har­bor, Spot­syl­va­nia and Wilder­ness, the beau­ty of a small moun­tain val­ley 3,000 miles away must have seemed insignif­i­cant to Abra­ham Lin­coln, who was expect­ed to lose the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 1864. But when an obscure, failed gold min­er-turned pho­tog­ra­ph­er showed up with a set of giant pho­tographs, the Pres­i­dent listened.

His name was Car­leton Watkins, and his 130 mam­moth plates were the first images east­ern­ers saw of Yosemite Val­ley. In the midst of a war, Lin­coln pro­posed mak­ing Yosemite invi­o­late. To build sup­port, Cal­i­for­nia Sen­a­tor John Con­ness (one of Yosemite’s high­est peaks now bears his name) walked the pho­tos around Con­gress per­son­al­ly. Twelve years before Yel­low­stone was declared an actu­al Nation­al Park, the con­cept was born.

“I So Declare It”
In 1903 Ted­dy Roo­sevelt asked an aide if there was any law that pre­vent­ed him from issu­ing an exec­u­tive order pro­tect­ing the birds of Pel­i­can Island from hunters. When the aide said he did­n’t think so, Roo­sevelt said sim­ply, “Very well. I so declare it.” The Nation­al Wildlife refuge sys­tem was born. Three years lat­er, a nation fret­ting about the “end of the fron­tier” passed the Antiq­ui­ties Act, which allowed the pres­i­dent to cre­ate nation­al mon­u­ments with the stroke of a pen.

TR need­ed no encour­age­ment. He imme­di­ate­ly declared Dev­ils’ Tow­er a nation­al mon­u­ment. Ever since, the Antiq­ui­ties Act has offered a con­ser­va­tion anti­dote to Con­gres­sion­al grid­lock. All but four sub­se­quent pres­i­dents have used it to pre­serve wild places. The her­itage of the Antiq­ui­ties Act includes Mount St. Helens, John Day Fos­sil Beds, New­ber­ry Crater, Paria-Ver­mil­lion Cliffs, Grand Stair­case-Escalante, Cas­cade-Siskiy­ou Nation­al Mon­u­ment and the San Juan Islands.

A Borax Baron Runs The Parks
By the ear­ly 1900s, the U.S. gov­ern­ment had acquired a chunk of nation­al parks, includ­ing icons like Yel­low­stone, Yosemite and Crater Lake, and a ran­dom smat­ter­ing of nation­al mon­u­ments and civ­il war bat­tle­fields. Most were man­aged by the army until the Nation­al Park Ser­vice was cre­at­ed in 1916. Woodrow Wilson’s choice to run the agency was a head-scratch­er: an inde­pen­dent­ly wealthy New York borax mag­nate named Stephen Math­er. But what a choice it was.

Math­er uni­fied the lands into a coher­ent agency, pro­fes­sion­al­ized the staff, aggres­sive­ly added new parks and made the Park Ser­vice once of the most respect­ed fed­er­al agen­cies. When Con­gress balked at the cost of adding the Mari­posa Grove of giant sequoias to Yosemite, Math­er bought it with his own cash on the spot. He wel­comed cars to the parks, a move that extend­ed their mass appeal beyond wealthy rail­road tourists and cre­at­ed a nation of sup­port­ers, but which also opened the parks to the risks of being “loved to death” decades lat­er. He led the Park Ser­vice until the stroke that led to his death 14 years later.


John D. Rock­e­feller Jr. Gets Impatient
One of Mather’s deputy Horace Albright’s first pri­or­i­ties was to add the area around Jack­son Hole and the Grand Tetons to Yel­low­stone. When the bill died in the Sen­ate after ranch­ers fought back, Albright enlist­ed John D. Rock­e­feller Jr., who vis­it­ed the area incog­ni­to, to the cause. Rock­e­feller qui­et­ly bought up land with the inten­tion of donat­ing it to the park. But the con­flict over the Tetons raged bit­ter­ly for two decades and Math­er died in 1930. Rock­e­feller lost patience and broke the stale­mate. He wrote a let­ter to FDR say­ing that if the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment wouldn’t accept his land gift, he’d sim­ply sell it on the open mar­ket to any­one. He was almost cer­tain­ly bluff­ing, but his threat forced FDR’s hand. Also in the midst of a war, FDR des­ig­nat­ed Jack­son Hole Nation­al Mon­u­ment in 1943, and Grand Teton Nation­al Park took on the form it holds today sev­en years later.

War­ren Hard­ing Climbs the Nose
In 1958, War­ren Harding—the climber, not the President—spent an unheard-of 45 days cling­ing to the ver­ti­cal wall of El Cap­i­tan. He and Mark Pow­ell endured three storms 2,500 feet above ground on the first ascent of El Cap­i­tan by what is now known as “The Nose” route. Hard­ing, one of the most noto­ri­ous, hard-drink­ing, rebel­lious char­ac­ters of the Yosemite climb­ing scene, used Himalayan ideas to basi­cal­ly invent big-wall climb­ing, with por­taledges that allowed climbers to live on the wall for extend­ed peri­ods of time. In the 15 hours he and Pow­ell spent on the final por­tion, Yosemite gran­ite and Camp 4 became house­hold names. On his first ascent of The Wall of Ear­ly Morn­ing Light 12 years lat­er, a news crew would be wait­ing at the top.

A New Jer­sey Wait­er goes to Utah
In 1956, a wait­er from New Jer­sey got a job as a sum­mer ranger in Arch­es Nation­al Mon­u­ment. His name was Edward Abbey. He spent sum­mers on the slick­rock and returned to wait­ing tables in Hobo­ken in the win­ter. His notes even­tu­al­ly became Desert Soli­taire, a lyri­cal reflec­tion on the Utah desert that lured two gen­er­a­tions of explor­ers to explore the slick­rock canyon coun­try of the South­west (this writer was one of them). His fierce cri­tique of “indus­tri­al tourism,” led the Park Ser­vice to w rel­e­gat­ed him to a fire look­out. If they want­ed to silence Abbey, it was the worst move pos­si­ble: it gave him plen­ty of time to write. The Mon­key Wrench Gang, his most famous work, was writ­ten at Numa Look­out in Glac­i­er Nation­al Park.


Between Dec. 4 and 6, 1966, 14 inch­es of rain fell on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. The water came down the slick­rock in tor­rents. A flash flood roared down Crys­tal Creek, dump­ing boul­ders into the Col­orado at mile 98, in the heart of the Upper Gran­ite Gorge. The debris fan con­strict­ed the riv­er to a quar­ter of its pre­vi­ous width, instant­ly cre­at­ing a new rapid. A mas­sive boul­der mid­stream cre­at­ed an enor­mous recir­cu­lat­ing hydraulic, now known as “the eater” and “the maw,” or just “the hole.” Crys­tal became the most feared rapid on the Col­orado overnight. Sim­ply nam­ing the sequence of rapids in the heart of the Grand Canyon—Horn Creek, Gran­ite, Her­mit and Crystal—will cause any boater to take a deep breath.

If some­one told you that a sin­gle bill could for­ev­er pre­serve nation­al parks, mon­u­ments and pre­serves equal to the entire state of Cal­i­for­nia, most peo­ple would say “it will nev­er hap­pen.” But it already has hap­pened. In 1980, Con­gress passed the Alas­ka Nation­al Inter­est Lands Con­ser­va­tion Act, the sin­gle bold­est stroke of con­ser­va­tion ever. It was bold­er still con­sid­er­ing the U.S. was only a few years removed from the OPEC oil embar­goes and Alaskan oil was in demand. ANILCA gave us house­hold names like Glac­i­er Bay, Kat­mai and Kenai Fjords, and an expand­ed Denali Park. We also got park­lands you might nev­er have heard of: Cape Kursen­stern, Ani­akchak, Kobuk Val­ley and Yukon-Charley. In oth­er words, with­out ANILCA, Alas­ka wouldn’t be Alaska.

Denali is Denali Again
On August 15, 2015, Barack Oba­ma ordered the Sec­re­tary of the Inte­ri­or to make a sub­tle but telling sym­bol­ic move: renam­ing the high­est peak in North Amer­i­ca Denali instead of Mt. McKin­ley. The park itself was re-named Denali as park of ANILCA in 1980. Human habi­ta­tion in the region goes back 11,000 years before Pres­i­dent McKin­ley took office. One of the less savory aspects of the Nation­al Parks’ lega­cy is dis­place­ment of native peo­ples. When parks were estab­lished, most were already inhab­it­ed by Native Amer­i­cans who lost their homes in the process. Obama’s ges­ture is a step toward acknowl­edg­ing this his­to­ry. And Denali (“High One” in Athabaskan) is also a more fit­ting name for the continent’s high­est peak.

The Dawn Wall Goes Free
At 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 14, 2015, Tom­my Cald­well and Kevin Jorge­son topped out at the top of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. They were the first to free-climb the entire 3,000-foot face, rat­ed 5.14+, an endeav­or close­ly fol­lowed by social media. The free-climb­ing of the route first aid-climbed by Hard­ing and Dean Cald­well (no rela­tion) in 1970 brought big walls back to the climb­ing fore­front after three decade of focus­ing on short sport climbs and rock gyms.

Those are some moments that drove the first hun­dred years of our Nation­al Parks. What will the next cen­tu­ry bring?

©istockphoto/Jeff Goulden

Amer­i­ca, they say, is a nation of immi­grants. On a human lev­el, it’s led to vibrant cul­tur­al exchange, eco­nom­ic growth, and a broad­er world­view. When it comes to nat­ur­al ecosys­tems, how­ev­er, the sto­ry is a bit dif­fer­ent. Inva­sive species—plants and ani­mals that are recent arrivals—can dis­rupt ecosys­tems and wreak hav­oc on native species.

How Do They Get Here?
Non-native species get to the Pacif­ic North­west in a vari­ety of ways. Some ride ocean cur­rents, some hitch­hike in ship­ping con­tain­ers, and some latch on to car tires. Oth­ers were brought here on pur­pose by well-inten­tioned but ulti­mate­ly fool­ish humans. Once estab­lished, these species have a hey­day, spread­ing fur­ther through the use of birds, car tires, hik­ers’ boots, and their own aggres­sive resilience to the pre­ex­ist­ing ecosystem.

What Makes Some­thing Invasive?
Not all non-native species are dis­rup­tive. The daf­fodils in my front yard orig­i­nat­ed in Spain and Por­tu­gal, not North Amer­i­ca. But they don’t spread aggres­sive­ly, choke out native species, or dis­rupt the ecosys­tem. The most want­ed species are aggres­sive turf-expanders who threat­en to upend what’s already in place.

©istockphoto/Jeff Goulden

Bull­frogs are a wel­come part of ecosys­tems in the Amer­i­can south­east, but in the north­west they’re a big, loud, hop­ping prob­lem. They grow fast, and are par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive at tak­ing over ponds with warm water, a fre­quent occur­rence in dis­turbed areas where trees are scant. They will vora­cious­ly devour any­thing: native frogs, birds, fish, and even baby ducks. The best solu­tion? Keep ponds shady to keep the water cool, and keep the pond veg­e­ta­tion com­plex to sup­port many native species. An even bet­ter solution—frog legs taste like chicken…seriously.


Himalayan Black­ber­ry
Himalayan black­ber­ry is so com­mon that many peo­ple think it’s native. At least it pro­duces deli­cious berries. It grows so fast on sun­ny, dis­turbed sites that it often forms a thorny wall. If it’s pulled or dug up, it can still grow back from small chunks of the plant left in the soil. Tack­le black­ber­ry with a plan for how to keep it from re-grow­ing (shade is your biggest ally) and cart off all the stems. And be sure to wear thick clothing.


Japan­ese Knotweed
Japan­ese knotweed first showed up in the North­west after the flood of 1996. It moves down rivers with flood­wa­ters, and is a vora­cious spread­er. Like black­ber­ry, it regrows from small bits of plant, and is phe­nom­e­nal­ly dif­fi­cult to remove. Pulling or cut­ting just seems to aggra­vate it, mak­ing it grow even faster. The best solu­tion is reserved for pro­fes­sion­als with the right train­ing: inject­ing a chem­i­cal direct­ly into the plant stem.


Zebra Mus­sels
If you’ve ever dri­ven across the Ore­gon bor­der and hap­pened upon a pull-off that says “boat clean­ing sta­tion,” you’ll notice that it’s all about try­ing to catch Zebra Mus­sels before they estab­lish them­selves. Their lar­va spread from their home in south­ern Rus­sia into the bal­last water of ships that even­tu­al­ly took them to The Great Lakes. In the lakes, they cre­at­ed a mas­sive mono­cul­ture that cov­ered docks, dams, water intakes, and blocked hydropow­er facil­i­ties. They are also a com­mon source of avian bot­u­lism, which can dec­i­mate bird pop­u­la­tions. The boat wash sta­tions are to make sure that boats don’t arrive with lar­va cling­ing to their hulls.


Scot’s Broom
You’ve no doubt seen the deep-green leaves and array of yel­low flow­ers on Scot’s Broom, which lines the sides of high­ways. Scot’s Broom thrives on sandy, dis­turbed soil, and very quick­ly estab­lish­es deep, woody roots. For this rea­son, it used to be plant­ed by road crews to hold soil after con­struc­tion, but then it went wild. Scot’s Broom adds mas­sive amounts of nitro­gen to the soil and since nitro­gen is a key fac­tor in plant growth, this mas­sive addi­tion changes plant com­mu­ni­ties for the worse. Scot’s Broom also pro­duces a ton of seeds, which can last in the soil for half a cen­tu­ry, mak­ing the removal of Scot’s Broom a gru­el­ing, long-term effort.


An aquat­ic rodent, the nutria is often mis­tak­en for its larg­er native cousin, the beaver, or its small­er one, the muskrat. The South Amer­i­can nutria was brought to the North­west for fur farm­ing between the 1920s and 1950s. Some escaped, and when farms failed, many were sim­ply released. Com­fort­able in urban areas, very quick to repro­duce, and aggres­sive, they’ve forced out the native muskrats and become a huge problem.


Euro­pean Starling
In Shakespeare’s Hen­ry IV, a char­ac­ter named Hot­spur utters the line “I’ll have a star­ling shall be taught to speak noth­ing but ‘Mor­timer.’” That’s unfor­tu­nate, both for Mor­timer (who­ev­er he was) and for North Amer­i­ca, because in 1890, a man named Eugene Schi­ef­fe­lin decid­ed it would be great to intro­duce all the birds men­tioned in Shake­speare to North Amer­i­ca. He released 60 star­lings in New York’s Cen­tral Park. What a mis­take it was. The street brawlers of the avian world, Euro­pean Star­ling’s are aggres­sive, nest-grab­bing expan­sion­ists that now num­ber 200 mil­lion and span the continent.

What Can You Do?
We can all play some role in keep­ing inva­sive crit­ters and plants at bay. While remov­ing them is often a job for pro­fes­sion­als, or at least some­one with some knowl­edge and a plan, there are still three things you can do:

Make Your Yard Wildlife-Friendly
Your yard can become a healthy refuge for native wildlife, and orga­ni­za­tions like Port­land Audubon Soci­ety can help you do it.

Pitch in
Orga­ni­za­tions that man­age native landscapes—from envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions to park districts—often rely on the hard work of many vol­un­teers to keep a han­dle on inva­sive species.

Be on the Lookout
When you’re out hik­ing, keep an eye out for these species, espe­cial­ly when it looks like they’re mov­ing into a new area. If you see a new infes­ta­tion, let the park or for­est man­ag­er know.

Moun­tains, moun­tains, moun­tains; both the Appalachi­an and Rock­ies have one thing in com­mon; the beau­ty and won­der­ment those high ele­va­tions can pro­vide. Also Black Bears. But there are many dif­fer­ence between these two his­toric ranges. Changes in cul­ture, geog­ra­phy, flo­ra, fau­na, moun­tain folk, and things to do. My rec­om­men­da­tion? Check them both out. But if you have to decide, here is some info on both of these majes­tic moun­tain ranges.

Appalachian MountainsAppalachi­an Mountains:
The Appalachi­an moun­tains were formed over 480 mil­lion years ago. That is at least quadru­ple the mil­lions of years that it took for the Rock­ies to form. So what phys­i­cal prop­er­ties the Appalachi­ans lose to the Rock­ies (high­est ele­va­tion in the Appalachi­ans: 6,684 feet), they gain in the wis­dom and age. The Appalachi­ans were actu­al­ly at one time pre­sumed to be as large as or big­ger than the Rock­ies, but time and ero­sion have whit­tled them down to where they stand now. Stretch­ing from cen­tral Alaba­ma into New­found­land, the Appalachi­ans have miles and miles of great white-water, arguably bet­ter climb­ing, and clas­sic hikes that what you can find in the Rock­ies. The cul­ture, espe­cial­ly in south­ern regions of the Appalachi­an con­sists of hard-work­ers, pos­si­ble beer drinkers, and a peo­ple con­nect­ed to the moun­tains like some peo­ple are con­nect­ed to their cell-phones. Enjoy the weath­er, which fluc­tu­ates as you trav­el South or North, but typ­i­cal­ly you can find warm tem­per­a­tures every year.

Rocky Mountains

Rocky Moun­tains
The Rocky Moun­tains take the cake on phys­i­cal fea­tures. Com­pared to the high­est peak of the Appalachi­ans of 6,684 feet (Mount Mitchel), the Rock­ies high­est peak is 14,440 feet (Mount Elbert). Along­side that, the Rock­ies stretch across the coun­try almost twice as long as the Appalachi­an Moun­tains (1,500 miles com­pared to 3,000 miles). This amaz­ing phys­i­cal pres­ence of course does not go unno­ticed, the Rocky Moun­tains are the Dis­ney-World of moun­tain get­aways. With year-round moun­tain bik­ing, sight see­ing, and gen­er­al adven­tur­ing; why would­n’t it be? The rock typ­i­cal­ly is either a lime­stone or dolemite, which caus­es climbers to search for their crags. Many towns sur­round­ing the Rock­ies are boom­ing, hip with a young and adven­tur­ous cul­ture and grow­ing cities. The new found­ed catch­phrase for the Rock­ies? Come for the win­ter, stay because of the summer.

So whichev­er one you choose, grab your hik­ing boots and get ready to hike more than ele­va­tion. Get ready to trav­el back in time, to push past your lim­its, and behold the beau­ty of either of these two moun­tain mec­cas. Safe travels!



In 1983 a record snow yield in the Rocky Moun­tains cre­at­ed the high­est vol­ume of melt­wa­ter ever to surge through the Col­orado Riv­er. The mas­sive buildup of hydraulic pres­sure threat­ened to over­come the 710-foot bar­ri­er of the Glen Canyon Dam and sent a dev­as­tat­ing cur­rent of destruc­tion at incred­i­bly high speeds through the mile-deep gorge that winds its way through the Ari­zona desert.  The Grand Canyon was inun­dat­ed with a cat­a­stroph­ic wall of the dead­liest white­wa­ter seen in a gen­er­a­tion. And as the Nation­al Park Ser­vice con­duct­ed the most exten­sive heli­copter res­cues of trapped and injured boaters in its his­to­ry, a trio of inspired fools launched them­selves down the rapids in an open wood­en dory called the Emer­ald Mile. By the seat of their pants the three-man crew braved a 277-mile jour­ney in the fastest decent of the Canyon ever recorded.

In his first book, for­mer Out­side mag­a­zine senior edi­tor and Grand Canyon riv­er guide Kevin Fedarko tells the amaz­ing sto­ry of Ken­ton Grua who lead the seem­ing­ly sui­ci­dal mis­sion to row a boat through these treach­er­ous­ly tur­bu­lent waters of the Col­orado Riv­er. Named for the leg­endary dory, The Emer­ald Mile is also an excit­ing tale that illus­trates the his­to­ry and explo­ration of one of the most mys­te­ri­ous but lit­tle-known nat­ur­al fea­tures in North America.

“The book was cer­tain­ly writ­ten to pro­vide more than just a tur­bo-charged adven­ture sto­ry,” Fedarko told The Clymb. “Indeed, the sto­ry of the speed run that’s at the heart of this book is hon­est­ly just a sub­ver­sive excuse to indulge in an extend­ed por­trait of and love let­ter to the dories, the riv­er, and the Canyon itself.”

We had a chance to talk with Kevin about his new book and what life is like for guides on the Colorado:

The Clymb: Your book The Emer­ald Mile details the sto­ry of the fastest descent of the Col­orado Riv­er through the Grand Canyon in an open dory in 1983. What inspired you to share this par­tic­u­lar tale of adventure?

Kevin Fedarko: I first heard about the sto­ry in 2003 when I start­ed work­ing as an appren­tice riv­er guide. This par­tic­u­lar sto­ry, both the speed run of the Emer­ald Mile and runoff of 1983 which made the speed run pos­si­ble, are part of the oral his­to­ry of the Grand Canyon. At night after din­ner has been pre­pared, what riv­er guides tend to do is sit around and tell sto­ries about their past trips. It’s pret­ty much impos­si­ble to get down the Canyon and not hear some­body tell a sto­ry of 1983 and the sto­ry of the Emer­ald Mile.

The rea­son why I was drawn to expand that into a ful­ly fledged book is that at a cer­tain point I came to the under­stand­ing that the sto­ry of the Emer­ald Mile, the sto­ry of the speed run, offered a com­mon thread upon which you could then hang the entire sto­ry of the  Canyon, the sto­ry of how it was dis­cov­ered, the peo­ple, the tra­di­tion of row­ing wood­en boats through the white­wa­ter, the very col­or­ful and inspir­ing sub­cul­ture of white­wa­ter guid­ing, which is a per­va­sive and secret world. And then of course there’s the sto­ry of the Glen Canyon Dam, which sits at the head of the Canyon, how it has effect­ed the envi­ron­ment and what hap­pens when two dif­fer­ent worlds that are fun­da­men­tal­ly opposed to one anoth­er, the world of engi­neer­ing and hydraulics and the world of white­wa­ter boat­ing, col­lid­ed at the crest of the largest flood that had descend­ed on the Canyon in a generation.

The Clymb: You are your­self a guide on the Col­orado Riv­er as well as a tal­ent­ed writer and jour­nal­ist. What moti­vates you to blend your appar­ent pas­sion for white­wa­ter pad­dling with a career writ­ing books?

Kevin Fedarko: I had no expe­ri­ence as a pad­dler. In fact it’s impos­si­ble to over­state the depth of my igno­rance about white­wa­ter in gen­er­al. It’s also impor­tant to note that I am not a licensed riv­er guide. I set out with the dream of work­ing my way through an appren­tice­ship that I had hoped at the time would cul­mi­nate in me being allowed to jump into the driver’s seat of a dory. But I proved to myself and to every­one else that I was so colos­sal­ly incom­pe­tent at oar­ing it became clear that the com­pa­ny I worked for had no inten­tion of ever let­ting get with­in spit­ting dis­tance of a dory. So I end­ed up spe­cial­iz­ing in the bag­gage boats, in par­tic­u­lar a boat called the Jack­ass, which is known as the “poo boat” that car­ried all the toi­lets and was also respon­si­ble for trans­port­ing all the raw sewage gen­er­at­ed through the course of a riv­er trip. And so I was the cap­tain of the Jackass!

The Clymb: Thanks for your can­dor, but from that posi­tion on the riv­er do you think you might have had a bet­ter per­spec­tive on how to tell this sto­ry as well as glean your appre­ci­a­tion for the work of being a pro­fes­sion­al riv­er guide that made this sto­ry possible?

Kevin Fedarko: Well I nev­er got to row a dory. But what I did get to do, by virtue of being at the helm of the Jack­ass, which was invari­ably the last boat in the run­ning order, was that I got to fol­low behind the dories. I spent hour and days and weeks and months of accu­mu­lat­ed time row­ing behind those gor­geous wood­en boats. I watched them and obsessed over them. I was seduced by them. I got to see them under every set of con­di­tions imag­in­able at all hours of the day and night from one end of the riv­er sea­son to the next. I also got to par­tic­i­pate in and be part of a dory riv­er crew. In some ways the fact that I was rel­e­gat­ed to the poo-boat, the bag­gage boat car­ry­ing toi­lets was in some ways total­ly appro­pri­ate because as a writer you’re nev­er real­ly part of the scene that forms and frames your sub­ject. My role in the back of the flotil­la, watch­ing and think­ing and mak­ing notes and observ­ing was I think a reflec­tion of the larg­er role I was play­ing as a writer.

The Clymb: You’ve ded­i­cat­ed much of your pro­fes­sion­al life to shar­ing sto­ries about adven­ture through one of the most excit­ing bod­ies of fast mov­ing water in the world. What do you do to train or pre­pare your­self to work and play in this very high ener­gy and (some­times) dan­ger­ous environment?

Kevin Fedarko: In the Grand Canyon, on the Col­orado you large­ly learn by doing. I start­ed out my first trip as a swamp rat. I was not at the oars. I was serv­ing as an assis­tant to a bag­gage boat­man. But by my sec­ond trip I had my own boat and I was respon­si­ble for rig­ging it and get­ting it down­stream intact and if pos­si­ble not flip­ping it upside down—every night de-rig­ging it and re-rig­ging it every morn­ing. There’s no instruc­tion man­u­al for the Grand Canyon. Your col­leagues become your friends and then your fam­i­ly metaphor­i­cal­ly. They teach you how not only to do your job but how to behave in the Canyon.

It’s a for­mi­da­ble thing to row a 400-pound wood­en dory with four pas­sen­gers safe­ly through the Canyon. It’s also a for­mi­da­ble thing to row a one-and-half-ton bag­gage boat filled with not just sim­ply the com­po­nents of an entire toi­let sys­tem but also a huge part of the gear and equip­ment, the infra­struc­ture that’s respon­si­ble for sup­port­ing 22 peo­ple for 21 days at the bot­tom of the Canyon. It’s not some­thing that you would ever want to flip upside down and if you do you bet­ter hope that you rigged it prop­er­ly. My boat by the way was the only boat that got heav­ier. That threw in it’s own set of com­pli­ca­tions as well.

The Clymb: When you ven­ture out into these chal­leng­ing white­wa­ter sit­u­a­tions what’s your most mis­sion-crit­i­cal piece of equip­ment? What is the must-have gear in your kit?

Kevin Fedarko: The absolute­ly essen­tial piece of gear that no guide would be with­out is a riv­er map. There are two, both pub­lished by dif­fer­ent authors but they pro­vide you with a blue­print of the bot­tom of the Canyon and the riv­er and the rapids you’ll encounter. What every­one does is fill their riv­er map like a flip chart. Much like a reporter’s note­book you fill it with notes, warn­ings, obser­va­tions, curs­es, admo­ni­tions, res­o­lu­tions not to ever, ever do that same mis­take you did at that par­tic­u­lar point again. You aug­ment the maps with a diary of your own expe­ri­ences and out of that comes a blue­print that resides inside your head, even­tu­al­ly to the point where the real­ly great guides rarely refer to their maps. They have every inch of the riv­er mem­o­rized along with every sin­gle run.

The Clymb: In writ­ing the book the Emer­ald Mile you made quite a few trips down the Col­orado Riv­er. What can you tell us about one of your most mem­o­rable moments?

Kevin Fedarko: It would have to be the night I dis­cov­ered that there are two rivers in the Canyon, not just one. There’s very lit­tle arti­fi­cial light on the either the north or south rim of the Grand Canyon , so when you are down at the bot­tom of a mile-deep gorge lying on the deck of your boat in your sleep­ing bag, drift­ing off to sleep and star­ing up, you’re star­ing up at a rib­bon of sky framed by the north and south rims of the Canyon whose con­tours per­fect­ly mir­ror the con­tours of the riv­er itself. That rib­bon of sky is pitch black but filled with stars. So there’s a riv­er of stars above the Col­orado Riv­er  that is a reflec­tion of the riv­er that carved the Canyon. When I first real­ized that it was a mag­i­cal moment.