Finding Your Passion in the National Parks

Crows always seemed up to something at the 2014 BioBlitz in Golden Gate National Recreation Area. (Illustration by Andrew Howley)

I recently heard someone ask, “Why is it National Park Week now? Everyone goes to the national parks in summer.”

I think that’s exactly why it’s National Park Week now. Most park visitors do go during a few weeks in the summer, with visions of family road tripping and taking the year’s best photos, but these places exist every day and anything you can do, you can do out there.

For as big and wild as the parks are, we have a tendency to put them into a very tiny box. It’s good to let them out.

Not Just for Bears and Pic-a-nic Baskets

Once, laden with tent and food and gear on a multiday backcountry camping trip in Grand Tetons National Park, at the top of a mountain my brother and I were met by a middle-aged guy in tiny yellow shorts carrying nothing but two little water bottles on a belt. We were having a major life experience. He was just out for a morning run. (A 20-mile morning run over a mountain, but still.)

A practically blue western gray squirrel scurried through the woods during the 2014 BioBlitz in Golden Gate National Recreation Area. (Illustration by Andrew Howley)My own share of park running has mostly been at the urban parks of the National Mall here in Washington, D.C. Earlier this month while cruising beneath the cherry blossoms, I saw a man sitting on the grass under the trees, looking out over the Tidal Basin with what I thought was a sketch pad. As I got closer I saw he was actually filling out legal documents. Not the first activity one tends to imagine when thinking of our national parks.

More grandly, once each year National Geographic teams up with the National Park Service for BioBlitz, a 24-hour species inventory project and festival celebrating biodiversity and encouraging exploration of a park near an urban center. At each event, people of countless interests and backgrounds find in the great outdoors exactly what they were looking for, no matter how different those things may be.

A Different Way to Capture the Sights
Big brown garden snails were a noticeable sight in Samuel Taylor State Park during BioBlitz 2014 (Illustration by Andrew Howley)

National Geographic played a part in the creation of the National Park system in the U.S. nearly 100 years ago, so this partnership is nothing new. What is new is the amount of technology used to tell the stories, analyze the data, and record the sights seen by scientists and schoolkids alike at a BioBlitz.

Since I work with the digital side of things every day though, all that digital tech and photography makes me long for the early days of NG and the NPS, and science in general, when naturalists wandered the woods and made sketches of their findings with pencil and paper in the field.

So in addition to shooting photos on my smartphone and posting blogs when the cell reception is good in my tent, I like to record my national parks experiences with sketches and paintings. I find that I can take a photo in an instant, with only one or two details in mind to capture, but that by stopping and sketching (even when working from one of those photos at a later time) I slow down and take in information I did not notice at first, and in so doing I come to know the place or the creature or the atmosphere better, and I remember it all in more detail in mind and heart.

Surrounding Yourself With Life

That is what I find most invigorating in the great outdoors: the seemingly infinite levels of detail, and all of them teeming with life. It’s the unavoidable awareness that everything around us is alive.

In daily life in cities and suburbs, so much of what we are surrounded by is simply material, void of life within it or on top of it. In the national parks, everything is adorned with life. It is beautiful to take in. It is challenging to navigate. It is educational to observe. It can be daunting, inspiring, dangerous, or comforting. It is alive, and it awakens life within us.

A black-tailed deer greeted me one morning near Point Reyes, California at the 2014 BioBlitz in Golden Gate National Recreation Area. (Illustration by Andrew Howley)“There is delight in the hardy life of the open,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote. That quote and others from the conservationist and president decorate 21-foot monoliths near a statue and walking paths on the rewilding island in Washington, D.C. dedicated as his memorial. The quotes touch several topics including nature, youth, government, and liberty. For TR they were very much all connected.

For us today, it is easy to think that nature, conservation, science, art, government, and exploration fit into boxes as tidy and separate from each other as the one we may put the National Parks themselves into.

National Park Week is a reminder to look at those boxes and realize they are all too small, spilling over with the abundance and greatness of the natural world all around us.

Click Image to Enlarge: An old Spanish map provides a backdrop for a selection of animals spotted during the 2014 BioBlitz in Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California. Clockwise from top left: American crow, turkey vulture, coyote tracks, western scrub jay, western gray squirrel, Wilson’s warbler, silver-sided sector spider, barn swallow, brown garden snail, chaparral whipsnake, black-tailed jackrabbit, California gull, bumblebee, black-tailed deer, California quail, darkling beetle, and banana slug. (Illustration by Andrew Howley)

Learn More

National Park Week

National Park Service

National Geographic Guides to the National Parks

BioBlitz 2014 Blog Posts

“Walking” by Henry David Thoreau


Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.