Books & Culture

Visiting the National Parks is No Longer Affordable and It’s a Tragedy

My parents would have never been able to afford to give me the childhood I had. Every summer, for a week or two, a change would come over the Greenwood household. My mother would get on the phone for hours to negotiate with motel owners. She always wanted to speak to the manager. My father would sit over the kitchen table studying maps, following the highlighted arteries of the interstates away from the blue and red thickets clustered like a heart scan around the cities, toward the places where the roads went from red to blue to thin black lines. There elevations rose. There the map sometimes turned green or brown. White space prevailed. For a couple of weeks every summer, my mom and dad loaded me and my two brothers in whatever beat up van we had at the time, filled the car with blankets, coolers, lawn chairs, flashlights, bags of discount potato chips, a couple of bibles, and drove north. We started in Miami, Florida, always in the dark. By dawn, we’d be in Georgia. We didn’t stop in Georgia.

We visited the Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia National Park, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, Rocky Mountain, and others. It was the late eighties and the early nineties. Back then, renting a motel or hotel in a small town close to a national park was affordable for a lower middle class family like mine. Yes, we had some weird nights, some ear infections from the dirty pools, some sinus trouble from moldy rooms, and the occasional bout of food poisoning, and one bad case of “Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever” that almost killed my baby brother, but for the most part, we had a great time. We didn’t have cable at home. But in the motels, I discovered Nickelodeon and Beavis and Butt Head.

I remember we were able to stay in places like Jackson, Wyoming. Today, a summer hotel or motel room in a town like Jackson will easily set you back more than $500, and more than $600 if you plan to visit on the 4th of July weekend. When I say that my family once spent a night in Jackson, I speak of a time when Jackson could well have been any other remote small town on a map. After hundreds of miles of driving across country, it didn’t feel any different from a town in Kansas or Ohio. Except it’s right outside Grand Teton National Park. And in recent years, the national parks have become popular vacation destinations. Jackson, Wyoming might as well be Lake Tahoe.

Visiting the national parks has gone from being something middle class people did for vacation, to a premium vacation experience increasingly only available to the upper middle class and wealthy. The national parks have become America’s wilderness resorts and it’s not a good thing at all. It’s not a good thing when wild bears and buffalo are photographed like animals at a zoo (and sometimes approached in the same way). It’s not a good thing when Yosemite has so much traffic that rangers have to think about air quality concerns.

Something has shifted in the American psyche. Nature has become a place for edification and personal growth, another wellness box to check off. As a result, you’ll pay resort prices at many of the hotels near national parks. Why go on a spa retreat when you can stare into the bubbling hot springs of Yellowstone, after all?

We talk about the cost of raising children, but we seldom talk about the cost of giving children a good childhood. Growing up, my family lived in apartment buildings in Miami split for section 8 housing. My parents could barely afford the things we needed, but with easy credit, we somehow made it work. I had new clothes every school year to accommodate my growing body (never the brand name, but still in fashion thanks to J.C. Penney), new shoes when I outgrew old ones; school supplies; and our yearly “vacation” to the national parks. When I told my friends I visited exotic places like Colorado, California, and Tennessee, they asked me if my parents were rich. We weren’t rich. We were among the poorest kids in our school. My parents knew what they valued, and they valued taking us to experience nature. It mattered as much as the shoes, pants, and school supplies they put on their maxed-out credit cards.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, the great non-fiction essayist, writes about staying in the Royal Hawaiian hotel the year the “news of My Lai broke” for $27 dollars a night, at the press rate. That was 1968. In today’s dollars, that night at the Royal Hawaiian would have set Didion back around $200. It doesn’t cost $200 to stay at the Royal Hawaiian. Today, a quick Kayak search reveals that a night at the Royal Hawaiian costs $859 a night should you plan to stay there mid-July. My parents would never have been able to afford the Royal Hawaiian, not in 1968, not in 1990, and certainly not now. I couldn’t afford it either.

I realize that my story could be called the new feminist American dream. By this, I mean, that growing up, my family was always straddling the poverty line (some years I got reduced lunch in school, and some years, free lunch). We were Latino. My mother came to the U.S. from Cuba when she was 8, refugees of the Castro regime. My grandmother on my dad’s side moved from Puerto Rico to New York as a child, and she told me stories of wanting to eat spaghetti so she’d fit in with the Italians. I was the first woman in my family to attend and graduate university, and the first to get a masters. I became a writer. I became a successful one. I moved to Hawai’i.

By a turn of events that feel miraculous to me, I happen to live near the Royal Hawaiian today. I sometimes go there and sit outside the gates watching the kumu hula lead their dancers in mele. I cry sometimes as they chant. I cry because they remind me that poetry still exists in living and breathing form in this world. I cry because it reminds me that poetry matters. I cry because seeing art performed so closely to the natural beauty that is Waikiki is moving. The miracle that got me here has everything to do with the fact that my parents took me to national parks when I was a kid. Going to the national parks taught me that I could do difficult things, that I could dream as big as mountains, and sometimes summit them, too. It taught me about beauty, and a world I didn’t experience in my everyday urban life in Sweetwater Miami.

In The Center Cannot Hold, a documentary about Joan Didion, the writer speaks about looking for a house on the California coast for $300, $300 being the most she and her husband, both of them writers, could afford. Today, $300 would set you back a couple thousand dollars, but try renting a house in California on the coast for a couple thousand today. Even with my decent writers’ income, I know I couldn’t afford it.

Our summer road trips were never fancy, our destinations always the national parks. We’d hike remote trails, wade in rocky streams, climb cliffs, and eat lots of fudge.

Visiting a national park remains a relatively low-cost family vacation option (if you only consider gas and park entrance fees), but for many families, it is now out of reach. Entrance fees to the national parks have also risen, to around $30 to $35 per vehicle for some of the country’s most popular national parks, but the most expensive part of visiting national parks is still lodging, particularly lodging anywhere near some of the more popular parks. My family learned to camp around the mid-nineties, as prices of hotels increased, making regular vacations more difficult. But camping is not an option for some. Many who go camping regularly don’t realize that camping is a skill that must be learned, and doing it comfortably requires a significant investment of gear. Campgrounds, especially those inside the national parks, are often booked a year in advance.

Lodging anywhere near the national parks has become outright unaffordable.

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

What makes a quality childhood? I don’t believe a quality childhood comes about from a quantity of good experiences, but rather, from banality punctuated by a few extraordinary moments. Isn’t that life, itself? In the national parks, for very little money, my father and mother were able to give me and my brothers a few extraordinary experiences. I still remember a field of yellow flowers on the side of a mountain in the Rockies. I remember hiking all day for 13 miles, and seeing bears for the first time. I remember hiking all day and not making it, having to turn around because of hail. I remember how dizzy I’d feel sometimes, walking a trail with a long drop beside it, how something would shift in my stomach as I watched my feet. I remember grizzlies in a valley somewhere and black bears rummaging through a trash can. I remember what it felt like to be lost in the woods. I remember crossing a river on stones, the cool water on my feet. I remember squirrels and buffalo. I remember Old Faithful.

These are not “Oprah” moments, where one suddenly experiences an expansion of self, but as a child, these moments were the formation of self. They formed an invisible cord that has forever connected me to the natural world. My feet are always on solid ground, even when I have been most lost. My worst days never felt so bad, because if things got really terrible, I told myself, I could always run away and live in the woods. I knew that place. I knew what it meant.

I developed an empathy for non-human beings. I developed an eye for aesthetic beauty. I learned to find language to describe what I was seeing, and so I’d venture to say, I also became a writer in the national parks.

The national parks belong to all of us, but because of the higher cost of real estate near them (or because of predatory pricing) they actually only belong to the wealthiest among us. They should belong to all of us again. I wonder what would happen if, like section 8 housing, the national parks created section 8 lodging in the park (or nearby), only available to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it. This would make the parks accessible to children who otherwise could never visit. Many parks already have lodging in the parks. It might not take much more effort to expand these operations to include affordable housing for families who might otherwise not be able to experience these parks, or programs to teach families how to camp, provide gear, and ranger-led activities.

I worry for kids who don’t spend time in nature, even for a few weeks a year, kids who don’t know what it feels like to cross a river, stone by stone, or know, what it feels like, if only for a moment, to feel lost in the woods.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University. She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed. When you buy an independently reviewed book through my Bookshop links above, you not only support local bookstores, but also this blog, a labor of love.