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Historic Roads in the National Park System






Early Roads

The Development of Park Roads

Teamwork/Cooperative Efforts

Evolution of Parkways

World War II and Beyond

Understanding and Managing Historic Park Roads


Historic Roads in the National Park System
National Park Service Arrowhead


I knew parks were different when I was a child on those long road trips. My father was a career military officer, and for most of my youth we were stationed on the east coast. On weekends and those not-frequent-enough vacations he and my mother loaded all five of us rowdy children into the air force blue Chevy station wagon and whisked us off to Manassas, Shenandoah, Blue Ridge, Great Smoky Mountains, Harpers Ferry, Antietam, and many other national park areas. Even then I could perceive something special about national parks. The scenery changed even though it was just a couple of miles down the road from the outside world. The air was cleaner, the mountains were wilder, and the water was crystal clear. The views were like no other place on earth. I was on top of the world. I pretended I was an early settler forging my way through the Smokies; I saw the Virginia piedmont through the eyes of Thomas Jefferson; I imagined I was a young rebel soldier looking down from my crow's nest in the mountains watching troop movements in the Shenandoah Valley below. We took photographs that documented our travels — with all of us kids sitting on a stone retaining wall at an overlook in Shenandoah, or lined up along a split-rail fence in the Blue Ridge, or looking down on the Potomac River from the hills above Harpers Ferry. Looking at these photographs years later I was not always able to pick out the exact locations where the pictures were taken, but I invariably knew the parks.

The scenic qualities of those areas I visited are indelible in my memory, as they are in the memories of millions of other people who have come to the national parks seeking solitude, recreation, and a sense of America. Much of the quality of the entire park experience is due to the thought that went into designing for and with the landscape. The park road is an integral part of that experience.

Park design includes numerous subtle and sometimes subconscious cues to the visitor. These features contribute to the sense of place of a national park. The park sign with the brown arrowhead and the rustic entrance station of log and stone begin the process. The comfort stations and the visitor centers often continue along with the same architectural theme. But the thread holding it all together is the road. This is the main artery of the park. It brings the lifeblood of visitors (for without them we would have no parks); it provides the access; it controls the access. When executed properly, the road reinforces the design theme and serves as a constant reminder to us that we are in a national park. The road carries us to some of the park's prime resources, and through a variety of scenery that gives us a feeling for the territory that the park encompasses. The gentle, rounded slopes along its edges and the way the road lies so delicately on the land enhance the subtleties of the natural landscape. The road also carries us to the trailhead, the campground, the restaurant, or our bed for the-night. And finally the road leads us out of the park, and out of that special place that is part of our American heritage and a prime contributor to our national sense of self.

Park roads are more than examples of the subtle art of landscape architecture or accomplished feats of engineering. Through them we can extrapolate information about ourselves — what we have valued in our national parks, and what some of our priorities have been as a nation. Through them we can see national park history, and how our views of resource management and our perceptions of exactly what constitutes a resource have evolved. Humble park roads, then, are more than just methods of access into national parks. The ways in which we built them, the features they possess, and the ways we choose to alter them are indicative of the values of our society.

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Last Modified: Mon, Aug 23 2004 10:00:00 pm PDT

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