It Started with a Piano. Alternative Top-Ten, National Parks Edition

Rock stars were dying.  Russians were hacking.  Election season never seemed to end.  Big wigs were fracking.  Last year was difficult for some people.

With everything going on, it was easy to overlook one of the more positive events of 2016, which was the honoring of the American National Park Service celebrating its 100th year.

Throughout its existence, the NPS has preserved and protected the beauty, history, heritage, sense of refuge and undeniable wonder of our natural landscape, consisting of 59 national parks and over 100 national monuments spread across the United States.

Since I’ve returned from my most recent trip across the country, visiting and camping in the parks and monuments, I’ve been going through photos, thinking about how none of them could ever in a million years do the real thing any justice.

I’m happy these photos exist just like I’m happy books exist.  Any attempt by me or anyone, using any medium at their disposal, to capture the feeling of actually being there is understandable even though these attempts always fall short.

Ren Michael at General Sherman Tree; Sequoia National Park, California

Anything I write, just like any photo I take or any song I sing, is at the very least a celebration of something I truly love or an expression of something I feel.  At the very most, it might serve to encourage others to experience that which has increasingly emboldened and inspired so many others, as well as myself, with every encounter.

Still, no matter the intention or outcome, nothing anybody does can truly encapsulate the feeling of being there, staring out and absorbing all the splendors of the natural world and the grand majesty of the American Land.  Such an experience might easily redefine for the spectator what it means to be an American, if not what it means to be a human.  A guest on this planet.  A speck in the infinite expanse of time.


My introduction to the national parks began two years ago.  May of 2015.  It started with a piano.

Clyde on Highway 99; Central Valley, California

I knew a guy, a blues guitar player who I’ve talked about before.  He’s a friend of mine.  He goes by the name of Clyde, along with a few other names.  Anyway around this time we were talking about forming a band.  We’d decided it was imperative that we retrieve Clyde’s old piano for this band. It was currently in safekeeping, stored away in his old childhood home up north in Fresno.  He asked if I’d go with him.  It was all for the music, he said.

It was all for the music.  It wasn’t the first time I’d said that to myself, and it wouldn’t be the last.  Anyways, it’s often very true.  Many beautiful things do lead to music.  But music, in turn, often leads to beautiful things.  That was the case for us in those early days of May 2015.   

A few years before that, on the night I’d met him, Clyde told me about how he was born in a place called Kings Canyon.  Even then, it sounded mythical to me.  Like a hall of heroes.  Treacherous and wonderful.  A place deep within the mysterious wild, high up in the mountains that lie farther north in the greater wilderness of central California.

Snapshot of Generals Highway (Sequoia and Kings Canyon)

We put on a show in North Hollywood, and then we left early the following morning.  We picked up the piano, stayed the night in Fresno and then stopped in Reedley and some other small towns to visit with old friends, all-too-slowly inching a little farther east, toward the shadowy landmass I could barely see in the distance.  A series of hills stood between us, but I knew that what lie beyond those hills, staring at us from its shadowy heights were the mountains of Central California, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the entryway into Kings Canyon.

The mountains.  I’m not sure why I was so anxious to see them at the time.  It was all new and unfamiliar to me, sure, but there was something more.   Looking back, I don’t remember ever thinking anything in particular about them at all.  I had no real plan to do or see anything specific once we arrived.  All I knew was that I wanted to be there.

The Road to Kings Canyon, Kings Canyon National Park

It was instinct.  I’d felt it only one other time in my life, when I decided to make the drive into Big Sur three years before.  I knew very little about it, if anything at all; but it was something that sounded ominous and cool, inspiring an unquestionable ambition to experience.  Instinct, I was only beginning to learn, was an invaluable tool as an artist and as a man.

That afternoon, I could feel the day getting away from us.  It was already after three o’ clock.  It would take another hour or so to get into the park.  I knew we wouldn’t spend a lot of time there, since we had to get back to Los Angeles that night.  As recently as a few weeks prior, I might have taken the more practical approach.  “Let’s just get back home,” I might have said.  “We don’t want to be driving too late in the night.  We’ll go some other time, when we have more time.”

But that was before.  Now I was at the wheel and Clyde was in the passenger seat.  Slowly we ascended the mountain, as he pointed out the places he’d grown up.  He spotted his old school, the old dirt road where his friends used to live, all his favorite spots to hang out as a child, and the street corner where he’d wait for the bus.  As we drove farther up, I noticed he was getting antsy.

“What’s up?”

“You’re driving kind of slow, aren’t you?”

“Am I?”

“It’s ok, you’re a tourist, all tourists drive slow.  It’s because you’re too busy looking at everything.”

“Well that’s probably true.”

“Well it only gets thicker as we go up.”


“Let’s just say there’s going to be a lot more to look at as we get higher.”

“Yea, probably.”

“Yea…maybe I better drive.”


Since this first visit, I’ve returned to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park two more times.  Neither visit was quite long enough.  It never seems long enough.  It mystifies me still, thinking about how it was only two years ago.  Much has happened since then.  Revelations and new insights, a whole wealth of wonders and achievements and changes that altogether make this first ascent into the mountains seem like a lifetime ago.


To begin, let me just say that I still drive slow; and in many ways, I’ve never come down from the mountain.  It’s the ongoing story of Yours Truly and the national parks.  My experiences over the past two years alone will no doubt show up many times over the course of my life and career, making appearances in my songs, or in any other work of mine whenever necessary.

Clyde in Kings Canyon; Kings Canyon National Park

I’ve written about my second trip into Sequoia National Park, and my first encounter with the General Sherman Tree, in a previous entry, the link to which can be found here.  But for now, I’ll further begin this whole story with something that many, including myself, always seem to dig: The good ol’ Top 10.

This list isn’t just about the size and scope of these places or the mere potential for sightseeing.  It’s about experience.  Specifically my own which is, yes, entirely subjective.  It’s a simple and straight-forward introduction to my own time, thus far, in the national parks.

One thing to note, I have not been to all them.  In fact, I haven’t even been to half of them.  I haven’t been to Yellowstone, the first national park, and I haven’t been to Acadia, Grand Teton, Glacier, Olympic or anywhere in Hawaii or Alaska.  I mention these places because they often rank among the most celebrated in any discussion about the parks in general.

You might wonder then, why I am even writing this.  My goal is to have it serve as a principal introduction, a straightforward sort of doorway into my collective experience thus far with these places, which have together and through the ages been celebrated by millions as America’s Best Idea.

The Road to Park Avenue; Arches National Park, Utah

The national parks and monuments are an American institution that I believe must be cherished and protected, not only because of the obvious beauty they honor and preserve, but because I truly believe they are something integral to our own American self-identity and key to our survival both scientifically and symbolically.

As ever, they remain under threat by forces motivated by greed, special interests that view them as well-springs from which to exploit and monetize resources that are cheap, often hazardous, and archaic given the clear potential in alternative resources far more energy-efficient and less damaging to the environment.

This threat, which has grown particularly strong in recent months, is perhaps the greatest reason I feel the need to share my own experience and lend my voice to the chorus of those few who have, over generations, sung the praises of our national parks and monuments.  If I can help make that chorus ring any more clearly—and loudly—to people across America, then I will gladly join the cause.  I hope they hear it throughout the world.


10. Arches

I got in late at night and so I could only see the darkness around me upon my arrival, but the next morning I woke up and found myself in a desert wonderland.

Opposite the neighboring Canyonlands National Park to the west, Arches flanks the eastern side of Moab, a small but lively desert city and a prime base of operations for travelers looking to experience the greater outdoor adventures at one’s full disposal in this south-southeastern corner of Utah.

At the entrance is Park Avenue, so named after the rising rock formations that might give one the impression they are strolling down a walkway similar to New York City’s famous landmark.  Only the hustle-and-bustle of the concrete jungle has been replaced by an undeniable feeling of peace and tranquility within the whispering silence of sandstone a few million years old.

Ren Michael in Park Avenue; Arches National Park, Utah

Delicate Arch, the most iconic sight in all of the park, ranks alongside some of the most well-known landmarks in the United States.  Chances are you’ve seen it on your computer as a default desktop wallpaper, or maybe even on posters with some inspiring quote about exploration or achievement.  Either way, a sense of achievement is no doubt something you’ll feel standing before this astounding desert archway.

The hike to reach it is just over a mile.  At the start it seems very simple, but don’t be deceived.  It might not take you long to get there, maybe just a half-hour without taking any big breaks, but in that half-hour you’ll be working.  On this hike there’s no leveling out, not even for a little bit, so you’re constantly going uphill.  It might be a short hike, but rest assured, it is a hike the whole way, so bring water and prepare to get a lot of sun, especially if you’re going in the summer.

Once you’ve reached the top of the slope, you’ll clear a wall of sandstone to your right before you climb another few steps.  Then you see it.  A strange whirlpool of rock and sand separate you from the monolithic arch, standing alone at the other side before a quiet, calm desert sky.  It looks like a portal to another dimension.  A desert temple long-forgotten but every bit as sacred now as it was at the creation.

Walk toward the archway.  Stand before it.  Enter it.  You may not come out the same.

Ren Michael and Delicate Arch; Arches National Park, Utah


9. Rocky Mountain

If renewal and reawakening have together formed an ongoing theme for me and my experiences in these places, the Rocky Mountains are no exception.  During the trip in 2015 from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale, the Rockies were the greatest height I reached both in a literal sense (12,183 feet above sea level) and in whatever existential, spiritual sort of journey I found myself in at the time.

Trail Ridge Road; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

I was coming in from Moab, running on little to no sleep and getting fairly delirious as I drove into the greater Denver area.  By the time I arrived into the west end of the park, I was ready to set up camp and take a long and comfortable sleep.  The next morning, I woke up and breathed in the fresh mountain air, rejuvenating my senses after a long week of camping in the heat and dryness of the southwestern desert.

Rocky Mountain might be one of the most popular ski destinations in America, but it is every bit as breathtaking in late summer without the snowfall and crowds of winter vacationers.  One thing that I felt for certain was the vastness of alpine wilderness and greenery, revealed especially abundant from the vantage points offered along the Trail Ridge Road, built atop some of the highest peaks of the mountain range and taking travelers right through what’s known as the Alpine Tundra.  Up here the air is thin (containing 35% less oxygen than at sea level) and possibly very windy.  Hold onto your hat.

Ren Michael in the Alpine Tundra; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

In short, Rocky Mountain offers some of the best and most plentiful opportunities for alpine hiking and camping you’ll find in the country.  Its shimmering lakes, rivers and waterfalls add to the tremendous diversity of forest and mountain wilderness and to its spectacular scenery.  It’s paradise in the mountains.  A valley of kings nearly three miles high.

Bear Lake; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

I left the park with my spirit cleansed and my head clear.  To this day, I’ve yet to leave any place feeling more physically and spiritually rejuvenated.


8. Grand Canyon

I remember watching the sun’s rays beam down into the canyon depths, shining its light upon the sandstone cliffs and revealing the faintest trace of the Colorado River, all while a mass of darkening clouds and thunder rolled in from the east before dissipating in the light of the sun and evaporating in a mist that fell softly upon my forehead like a kiss from the heavens at sundown.

Andrea Pavlov in Desert View; Grand Canyon National Park (South Rim), Arizona

A whole world revealed itself to me like an epic drama of rain and thunder and darkness and light.  I wonder just how well, if at all, some other place in America might have served as a better landscape for such an extraordinary moment.  I wonder if that other place could have even come close.

When I first saw it, I was much younger.  I spent maybe a half-hour just looking at it.  The prevailing thought then, having never really seen a mountain much less a grand canyon, was that it simply didn’t look real.  I used to say things like that about anything I thought even slightly memorable or noteworthy.  After my first visit, I would never again used that expression so freely.

Ren Michael on the South Kaibab Trail; Grand Canyon National Park (South Rim), Arizona

The Grand Canyon can forever alter your vocabulary, forcing you to fully contemplate the meaning behind descriptive words, particularly those that denote size.  People have often said that no place in America is truly so grand.  I think it redefines the adjective, and it sets the standard for anything on this planet said be big or enormous, or massive or incredible.

Simply looking at it from any viewpoint along the rim is an experience in its own right.  But once you finally begin to get over it—something that took me two separate visits—hiking down into the canyon is a whole new adventure that offers changing and more immersive views as you hike deeper.  Just remember, whether you’re going a mile down, three miles down, or all the way down to the river, ultimately you have to come back up.


7. Crater Lake

The simplicity of this particular experience, the fact that I was doing nothing more than staring at a lake and yet still found myself so awestruck and deeply moved by it, is something that puts Crater Lake at lucky number seven.

On paper, during the first day, there was nothing that should have been too memorable about this visit.  It was very cold, most of the park was closed, and it snowed all the time we were there, obscuring our view of pretty much anything near the lake including…the lake itself.

Crater Lake; Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

So why is it on this list?

For one thing, this experience was a clear example of not letting circumstance dictate experience, in seeing through whatever one might deem inconvenient at the time and remembering that I was still in an incredible place, a place unlike any other in the world.  Such is the truth inherent in all these places.

If something about where I was didn’t meet my expectations, then I should have never set any expectation beyond the idea that I would simply experience something new.  If I allowed myself, I just might see something truly beautiful, something that I’d remember for the rest of my life.   Luckily I allowed myself to do that.  I let myself me prepared for anything.

For me, it was seeing the lake, just barely in view, peering at me mysteriously through the dense snowfall.  I could hardly see it, but I knew it was there, its dark circular outline stood as an ominous presence in that overwhelmingly white canvass before me.  I stayed the night in a campground just outside the grounds of the park and went back the next morning, when the sun was out and the sky was very clear and beautiful, and I saw the glistening lake in all its splendor.  While that in itself was an additional lesson in patience, waiting for the storm to blow over and not turning around and leaving when the weather looked bad, the greater point is that my seeing the lake was just as great an experience as not seeing it at all, or barely seeing it when all the snow was falling.  It was all a matter of perspective and what I was allowing myself to see.

Crater Lake; Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

It’s the kind of thing that illustrates the difference between looking at something and seeing something.  The difference between sightseeing and experiencing.

Anyway aside from all that, Crater Lake is a stunning sight.  At 1,932 feet, it’s the deepest lake in the United States and the ninth deepest in the world.  Formed from a volcano that collapsed onto itself millions of years ago, all of its water comes from rain and snowfall.  It’s therefore one of the clearest—and bluest—natural displays of water found anywhere in the world.  Personally, I’ve never seen water that blue; and with the fallen snow and the patches of green still showing in the pine all around us, it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.


6. Death Valley

This place can be intimidating, and I don’t just say that because I got there in the dead of the night when I could hardly see anything.  I know, I have a tendency to do that.  Maybe there’s something about darkness that both scares me and thrills me.  Darkness. Vastness. Put them both together—along with loosing phone reception and not being entirely sure where you’re going, no matter what the maps might say because you still have never been to this place in your life—and things can get a little freaky.

Golden Canyon; Death Valley National Park, California

But uncertainty is part of the adventure.  Not having phone service, for example, especially in today’s world, can be scary when you’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re constantly thinking about everything that can go wrong.  The trick is to not think about those things, because chances are things won’t go wrong, and if they do, you’ll be alright because you’re prepared.  That being said, make sure you’re prepared.  Make sure you have a flashlight, for example, something I learned after driving through Big Sur a few years ago.

Death Valley is the kind of place where it might be easy to think about all those things that can go wrong.  At least in the other parks, when you’re in the middle of nowhere, the truth of it doesn’t scream at you in the face.  Let’s just say that at times, Death Valley looks damn near biblical.  Jesus could have easily spent his forty days in this desert.  A friend of mine once said he thought he saw Moses in the distance, marching along the desert floor with the Israelites.

Ren Michael in Golden Canyon; Death Valley National Park, California

That being said, Death Valley is really beautiful!  Again this is the sort of thing that comes down to perspective.

It might be better to come here alone.   You have to be quiet.  You have to let it all come to you.  Think about how old the place is, and how much its changed over the years.  More importantly think about how it hasn’t changed.  How in the ongoing chaos of the world, this desert remains, almost making the our own day-to-day concerns seem trivial in light of how fleeting they are.  Death Valley existed long before we arrived, and will more than likely exist long after we’re gone.

In Death Valley, I found life.  Ongoing and unchanging.


5. Smoky Mountain

For those of us on the east coast, the number of national parks might seem a bit scarce compared to all that lies farther west.  Maybe a lot of that has to do with history, old Europeans and future commercial interests clearing out vast wilderness and building on land that might have one day been protected; long before Americans began to expand west, when conservation efforts and a collective environmental awareness were growing at about the same time.

This next place on the list, therefore, has become a true sanctuary, having survived over generations and grown particularly valuable in the eyes of anyone who honors the beauty of our natural landscape.  For those east coasters seeking the adventure of Grand Canyon or the tranquility of Crater Lake, or both, it is especially cherished; and for many Americans, it just might be the most iconic mountain range in all of our history and lore.

Covering 522,427 acres of land, Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the United States.

With its own biological diversity, endless visions of greenery and waves of mountains stretching on into infinity, the Smokies reminded me of a lot of the Rocky Mountains.  Only here I discovered a greater sense of intimacy and even a bit of southern charm that set it apart from the mountains of the west.  My guess is that since there are more towns and cities in the general area, no more than one-to-two hours drive, that famous southern hospitality tends to rubs off a little more on this park and give it a distinct personality of its own.

Ren Michael on the Appalachian Trail; Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

Unlike any other park on this list and a majority of the parks in America, the Smokies seem as though they are a solidly popular local destination, like something Tennesseans and Carolinians might easily decide to go and visit for a weekend or on a day-off, and less like a Yosemite or Yellowstone, which draws people in from across the country and all around the globe.

The local flair adds to that sense of intimacy.  It felt like less a tourist destination and more like my backyard.  Less like a forest.  More like the woods.  The waterfalls are smaller, the rivers seem more quiet, and altogether everything is every bit as beautiful as all the grand wonders of the American west put together.


4. Yosemite

If I were to keep this list as objective as possible, I would have to put Yosemite National Park at Number One.  The place so symbolic to California and to the American outdoors, as John Muir said, “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.”

Ren Michael at Glacier Point; Yosemite National Park, California

If weather is permitting, and usually it is outside of winter, drive up to Glacier Point or better yet, climb it.  Once you’re at the top, take a look out over the valley, at Half Dome standing mightily over the whole scene like a king in his own vast kingdom.

This was my introduction to Yosemite National Park, and in that moment I knew I would forever be drawn to the National Parks.  I thought of Muir and his mission to protect the valley, and later the national parks, while sharing his experiences and reflections on their beauty with the rest of America.  I knew then I wanted to be a part of that endeavor, which has grown into a tradition through the past century-and-a-half; since he first entered the valley calling himself an “Unknown Nobody” searching for anyplace that was wild.  I could relate.

If you want to hike up Half Dome, you will need a permit.  Yosemite Falls and the hike up to Glacier Point are also two very iconic hikes within the park.

Down in the valley, at least during the busy summer season, Yosemite can feel a bit like Disneyland.  The Mist Trail, which is definitely one of the most spectacular trails in the park, is about a mile west.  Though it’s outside the valley, it too can get fairly crowded.  To avoid the crowds, detour along the John Muir Trail at the base of Vernal Falls.  This will provide a far more quiet and enjoyable experience, with superior views of the river and the falls leading to Nevada Fall, at which point you rendezvous with the Mist Trail leading you back down to the trailhead.

John Muir Trail; Yosemite National Park, California

Of course, this portion of the John Muir Trail is but a small fraction of its entirety, beginning in Yosemite Valley and traveling south through 211 miles of the Sierra Nevada, ending at the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Sierras; just outside another national park, not quite as famous as its big brother to the north, but every bit as wondrous, ancient and sacred.


3. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

I’d never been so positively humbled in my life, let alone by the mere presence of trees, as I was in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.  Of course, these are no ordinary trees and it’s not just their size that makes them so extraordinary, but their age of more than 3,000 years, having been young saplings before the time of Christ.  These are also some of the largest trees in the world, most notably the famous General Sherman Tree, which is, by volume, the largest in the world.

General Sherman Tree; Sequoia National Park, California

This is where it all began for me.  When I first became aware of the national parks and experienced a connection to them—to all of nature—unlike any I’d ever felt before.  Looking up at the giant Sequoias can do that to you.  My introduction to the park was through Kings Canyon, seeing the General Grant Tree, walking through Grant Grove and those surrounding it, and looking out over the marvelous canyon itself.

If you’re staying in the park, the Lodgepole Campground is the most centrally located.  It’s just two miles from the Giant Forest, a majestic Sequoia grove of that is home to General Sherman.  Lodgepole is also the busiest campground but it never feels overly crowded.  Still, going north up General’s Highway to Dorst Creek is a nice alternative, if you’re looking for something more quiet.  Even farther north is Grant Grove Campground, which is another more popular campground and the Kings Canyon counterpart to Lodgepole.

Returning south down General’s Highway will lead you to Moro Rock, the trail to which can be accessed from the Giant Forest Museum, or from a parking lot just outside the rock, making the hike only a half-mile versus nearly two miles one-way. I would suggest the longer route if you’ve got time.  The hike itself is pretty smooth until the last half-mile, that steep and winding trek up the rock.  Once you’ve reached the peak, you’ve got a pretty spectacular view of the mountains, and the grand entryway into the greater Sierra Nevada.

Ren Michael at Moro Rock; Sequoia National Park, California


2. Zion

I had no idea of what to expect and I’d never seen any pictures.  It was just a vague understanding, some distant and shadowy vision of what stood waiting for me once I arrived.  And then of course, adding to the allure was the name.  Zion.  Just the word alone carried with it an air of mystery.  Something initially unassuming, yet supernatural and inherently powerful.

Ren Michael lookin’ sassy at the Grotto; Zion National Park, Utah

As I write this now, I still fail to articulate what it is exactly, what it is that makes Zion so remarkable.  I’ve seen bigger mountains, more colorful and vibrant scenery and wildlife.   The canyon itself seems far less impressive certainly than the Grand Canyon.

Still, my first impression was that, while indeed smaller than the Grand Canyon, it was also greener and more dynamic.  The most well-known part of Zion Canyon is the Narrows, which is a ten-mile hike round trip if you’re planning on heading as far as Big Spring.  Whether you hike ten miles or two miles, you will be hiking in the river, which can be fairly challenging.  At times, you’ll be waist deep in the water, so bring trekking poles and the right kind of footwear, shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting wet.  Hopefully, you’ll find your footing in no time and eventually get into something of a rhythm; and so once you’re there, hiking in the gorge, try not to spend too much time still looking down at your feet.   Look up.  Look around.  The Narrows gets its name because it’s the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, with walls 1,000 feet tall and a river sometimes a mere 20 to 30 feet wide.

Zion – Mount Carmel Highway; Zion National Park, Utah

Other more famous hikes are the Angels Landing, which provides commanding views of the entire canyon.  But of course, both this and the Narrows are more for the thrill-seekers.  The emerald pools trails might be a better option for those looking for something a little less strenuous, but beautiful nonetheless.  All these places lie within the actual canyon within Zion National Park, and are thus accessible only via transit, a very reliable bus system that takes you from the entrance of the canyon all the way to the Narrows.

If you want to stay in your car and explore more of the wilderness in the outer reaches of the park, keep driving form the main entrance and continue via Canyon Ridge Road for some stellar views that are far less crowded and equally extraordinary compared to anything you’ll see back in the canyon.

To anyone coming in after a long drive through the southwest, if ever so great an oasis existed in all the American desert, it’s Zion.  The Promised Land.  A kingdom of Heaven living and breathing on the earth for all those who seek it.  To all the pilgrims of America, young and old, Zion can feel a lot like home.

Ren Michael at Canyon Overlook; Zion National Park, Utah


1. The Everglades

Surprised?  Yea me too.

Of course, I am from South Florida.  Born and raised. I grew up with the Everglades.  I didn’t truly appreciate it then, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to recognize it as home.  Since it’s five minutes from the house in which I grew up, The Everglades is quite literally my own backyard.

Ren Michael at Long Pine Key; Everglades National Park, Florida

Still, it’s a swamp.  It’s almost always hot and looks the same pretty much all year.  But hey, don’t let that fool you.  In the right time of year, with the right clothes, or with enough mosquito repellant, you can find a whole array of secluded trails to hike, or lush creeks and canals to take a canoe and explore a lush subtropical wilderness—the largest in the United States—full of plants and wildlife unseen anywhere else in the world.

But that’s not the only reason it takes the number one spot.  Among the most remarkable aspects of the Everglades is in what it represents and its own history as a national park.

There are no mountains.  No rivers. No waterfalls.  There aren’t even any hills.  The highest point of elevation is about 6-8 feet.  But it’s not necessarily about scenery.  It was never founded with the intent, far more typical at the time, of being a place full of wondrous views where vacationers might come to leisurely spend a weekend getaway.

Ren Michael and Andrea Pavlov at the Shark Valley Watchtower; Everglades National Park, Florida

In this distinction lies the intrinsic meaning of the park itself, which further highlights the dual significance behind most of our national parks and monuments.

As home to some of the most rare plant-life and endangered species on the planet, like the American crocodile, the manatee, and the Florida panther; the Everglades is the first national park founded for the sole purpose of preserving an ecosystem.

Shark Valley; Everglades National Park, Florida

And yet it’s not just for the survival of the life that exists within it, but also to better ensure our own survival, the survival of we who depend on the health of our environment and the stability of our ecosystems everyday—usually far more than we realize.  Sometimes these ecosystems are glorious and mountainous.  Other times, they’re more discreet.  Sometimes, it’s a swamp.  In this way, the significance of the Everglades is a lesson for us all, a truth we can all recognize and cherish throughout our time here on this beautiful and fragile planet we call home.

American Alligator in Shark Valley; Everglades National Park, Florida








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