By Ben Wilson
The first time I visited a National Park, I had no idea what to expect. When I walked into the tiny shack of a visitors center atop Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains NP, I didn't know that I was about to purchase something that would mean so much to me. I wanted some form of a souvenir to commemorate my visit. There were lots of interesting books, a variety of magnets, and a decent supply of apparel all adorned with the name of the park. Any of these items would have sufficed for what I thought I was looking for. That's when I noticed another visitor pressing a stamp into an ink pad and then triumphantly placing its mark in a small book. After a quick explanation from the man behind the counter, I walked out of there with the first stamp in my National Parks Passport.
At just about every NPS site, there is a unique stamp that can be placed in the book with the date of your visit. This simple opportunity to build a collection of the National Parks was intoxicating. It felt bigger than the card or bottle cap collections from my childhood. Now I am collecting adventures. Each one immortalized for me in a small blotch of ink. The visitors center has become one of my first stops at a new park just so I can get another stamp. In fact, the possibility of not getting a stamp due to not having enough time in Biscayne to travel to both the boat concessionaire and the visitors center almost made me not want to go at all. Luckily, one of the rangers there saw my posts on Twitter about my dilemma and offered to mail me the stamp on a piece of sticker paper. Now the uniqueness of that stamp has its own story to tell in my book. I even have a stamp from the NPS booth at an aviation convention. You never know when you might want to have your passport book with you.
The National Parks offer other opportunities for collection as well. I have been keeping all of the official park maps, and I especially enjoy the look I get from the rangers when I ask for a “unigrid”. After spending hours looking at the digital versions of these maps online planning my trip beforehand, it’s a very satisfying feeling when I finally get to hold and use the real thing upon arrival at the park. Another very popular collection opportunity is at the park entrance sign. I almost didn’t take a picture there during my first visit, but made a last second u-turn on my way out of the park. It has become a ritual ever since. These pictures are a great way to involve everyone in your group as you can almost always find another party to take your picture for you.
I have read online about some very impressive National Park collections. There are those who have made a business of visiting 59 National Parks in 59 weeks as well as those who have put their careers on hold in an attempt to “switchback” their way to every National Park in one year. These stories are inspiring, and my collection pales in comparison, but that doesn’t make my collection any less important to me. I am excited to watch my collection slowly grow over time as I gather more pieces of what our country has to offer in its great National Parks.