The History of Carlsbad Caverns National Park

On October 25, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge designated, “a limestone cavern known as the Carlsbad Cave, of extraordinary proportions and of unusual beauty and variety of natural decoration,” as the National Park Service’s newest National Monument. Over the last century, millions of visitors have been enthralled by the vast cave chambers hidden beneath the Chihuahuan Desert in southeastern New Mexico. In 1930, Congress re-designated the park to its more recognizable name, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and in 1995 it was recognized as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (UNESCO). Having international protection is something worthy of celebration!

The “Carlsbad Caverns National Park Centennial 1923-2023” logo (Courtesy of NPS).

Speaking of celebrations, on October 25, 2023, the National Park Service will be formally commemorating the centennial anniversary of the park’s creation. With the support of Western National Parks Association, visitors to Carlsbad Caverns National Park that day will be rewarded with special interpretive programs, a public reception thanking our park partners, and cake. Would it be a true birthday celebration without any cake?

As the National Park Service prepares for the future of cave research and exploration, this anniversary offers us a chance to reflect upon the past. While the centennial story has been exciting to share, the human history of Carlsbad Cavern does not start with the National Park Service. There are a few people worthy of mention that have trailblazed this cavern path.

A question our visitors often ask is, “Who discovered the cavern?”

A large entrance into a cavern along a rocky cliff-face with a paved trail switch backing down into it (Courtesy E. Bangcoro, NPS).

The answer for Carlsbad Cavern is twofold: who found the cave versus who first explored it? We know from pictographs drawn in the mouth of the cave that early North Americans that lived in this area knew of the cave before 900 AD, as well as the Mescalero Apache after them. There are 17 Federally recognized tribes the park honors as original stewards of this landscape. The significant drop at the bottom of the cavern entrance slope may have prevented anyone from entering the deeper cave passages. The first known person to explore the cavern (though this was challenged by others later) was James “Jim” Larkin White.

Jim was born in 1882 and raised in Mason County, Texas, along with six other siblings. At age 10, after completing the third grade, Jim was dropped off by his father at the well-known XXX Ranch (called the Washington Ranch today), located at the edge of the Guadalupe Mountains to learn how to be a cowboy.

Six years later, in the summer of 1898, Jim caught sight of what he thought was smoke on the horizon from a brush fire or volcanic eruption on top of the mountains. Upon reaching a huge vertical mouth of a cave, the smoke turned out to be the exodus of “millions” of bats. After watching this vortex for hours, he surmised that any cave that could house so many bats must be incredibly big.

A large cavern chamber with many tall stalagmites ascending from the floor, and hundreds of small stalactites hanging from the rocky ceiling (Courtesy D. Leifheit, NPS).

Jim’s curiosity about the big cavern drove him to make a hand-made cable ladder out of fence wire and cut tree limbs. His lantern was primitive. It was a tin coffee pot that he poured oil into from the top and stuffed a wick down the long spout, the flame casting an ominous shadow in an unfamiliar setting. There is brief mention of a Mexican American “kid” accompanying some of Jim’s early cavern trips, whose identity has unfortunately been lost to history.

Jim had dropped into a very large linear passage, with only two directions to choose from. Toward the sunlit direction, the rugged, boulder-covered floor ascends to where the bats roost, the highest level of the cave. Towards the blackness, the passage descends toward the Big Room, 750 feet (228 meters) below the surface. Entering the dark zone, he had no idea that what he was about to see would draw people from all over the globe!

Jim entered the cave when the bats were in-season, typically between May and October. Several years later, Abijah Long sought Jim out, having heard about the huge guano deposit in “Bat Cave.” After Jim showed Abijah the guano, he wasted no time filing a claim to mine it, which he did on March 28, 1903. Abijah then offered Jim to be his foreman of operations.

Abijah then hired many men to build a road up to the cave and become miners. Due to the high operations and freight costs, Abijah sold the claim and equipment for $500 in 1906. Sometime after this, Jim and Abijah had a falling out, as neither one mentions the other in their respective books about the discovery and mining history of Carlsbad Cavern.

Jim stayed in the guano mining business at “Bat Cave” for 20 years, even though the ownership changed hands multiple times. In 1912 at age 30, the same year that New Mexico became a state, Jim married Fanny Jane Hill. They needed a place to live, and the Carlsbad Guano and Fertilizer Company, who owned the operations at that time, built them a 2-room shack close to the cave and paid Jim a salary of $175/month.

A screenshot of a page from the November 18, 1923 issue of the New York Times showing seven different cavern scenes with many different cave formations. These photographs were taken by Ray V. Davis (Courtesy of the New York Times).

Two young travelers dropped by one day to see the cavern but needed some flash powder to take pictures. Jim sent them into town to buy some from the local photographer. They returned with the photographer, whose name was Ray V. Davis. Ray’s first 24 photographs of the cavern were the turning point in the cavern’s future. Has a photograph ever influenced your travels?

After the townspeople of Carlsbad saw the Ray V. Davis pictures of the King’s Palace, some of which were later published in the New York Times in 1923, Jim was getting hounded to take them through the cavern. Excursions started with Jim lowering amateur cavers down the mining shaft with the guano bucket, two at a time. Some of the people on the early trips are ancestors of current residents of Carlsbad. On September 15, 1922, an editor of the Carlsbad Current Luther Perry, wrote, “Carlsbad has one of the wonders of the world at her very doorstep but does not realize it.”

In April 1923, the General Land Office in Washington D.C. sent a surveyor to the cave to determine if it was worthy of protection. Mineral Examiner Robert Holley completed a month-long survey of the cave. His report concluded that the cave was very worthy of National Monument status. Due to this report (with photos by Ray V. Davis) and letters from Major Richard F. Burges, a prominent El Paso attorney, President Coolidge declared the cave a National Monument on October 25, 1923.

A colorized historic portrait of an older man (Jim White) wearing a cowboy hat (Courtesy of NPS).

Afterwards, Jim White was issued a permit by Stephen Mather, Director of the National Park Service, to operate the cave at his own expense. Jim led government scientists through the cave, namely Dr. Willis T. Lee, a USGS geologist, who conducted a six-month National Geographic expedition to photograph, survey, and build trails in the cave. Accompanying the group was Dr. Vernon Bailey, a USDA biologist, who came to study the bats.

The National Park Service (NPS) took over operations in April 1926, and Jim was appointed Chief Ranger. He now led tours through the cave lit by electric lights, powered by a 25-horsepower gasoline generator operated by his wife, Fannie.

After the publication of Ray V. Davis photographs of Carlsbad Cavern and the articles in National Geographic Magazine by Willis T. Lee, the cavern became famous. People were suddenly alleging to be its discoverer. To be clear, Jim never claimed this role himself.

In 1924, there was a gathering of dignitaries for a grand tour of the cavern, 120 people in total. Afterwards, they gathered at the Washington Ranch for a barbeque. Lots of speeches followed the meal and someone in the crowd asked to hear from Jim White, at which Colonel Etienne de Pillesar Bujac, a Carlsbad lawyer, got up and introduced Jim as “the discoverer and first explorer of the Carlsbad Cavern.” That title stuck because of the reporters. The only person to challenge the first explorer title was Abijah Long, the first guano miner.

If it wasn’t for the bravery of others to explore deep into Carlsbad Cavern and discover its wonderous beauty, this cave may have never become a national park. Regardless on who history labels as the first discoverer of the cavern, the resource itself inspires each visitor to have a unique experience. You can retrace Jim’ White’s footsteps through the Natural Entrance, descend the steep Main Corridor, and loop around the Big Room. However, the modern extent of the national park extends far beyond anything the early explorers could have imagined. The park’s legal boundary protects 118 other caves, including the famous Lechuguilla Cave, and a biodiverse desert ecosystem in full bloom. Only time and curiosity may reveal what additional secrets still lay undiscovered in total darkness at your national park.  

By Anthony Mazzucco and Mark Joop

Park Rangers, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Want to learn more? Read on HERE or get inspired HERE.

National Public Lands Day first started in 1994 and is traditionally the single largest day for volunteer efforts, many of the events taking place on public lands like Big Thicket National Preserve. Over the past five years, Big Thicket has been quietly growing and diversifying its program schedule, including National Public Lands Day. We have also been busy preparing for the upcoming 50th anniversary.

One of the many native plants in a new pollinator garden (Courtesy of Scott Sharaga, NPS).

By the end of September, we finally are at that magical time of the year in southeast Texas, when the temperature has turned from oven-hot down to something a little less uncomfortable.  It may be just a few degrees cooler, but it’s enough to make us want to go outside to celebrate National Public Lands Day, which is September 23rd this year. That event is a great way for volunteers at Big Thicket to help staff get ready for fall recreation season.

National Public Lands Day at Big Thicket include multiple events, some ranger-led and some self-directed, all designed to help clean up and get ready for the beautiful fall weather. Trash clean-ups at launch areas on the various water ways are popular with visitors and give them a meaningful project to work on, with an almost immediate reward of a clean area. Big Thicket has also benefitted from volunteers who have helped start multiple native plant and pollinator gardens in different areas of the preserve. Last National Public Lands Day, volunteers alongside the preserve’s resource management crew worked on starting a new native plant and pollinator garden at the Field Research Station, a space that is used by conservation crews and researchers visiting Big Thicket. This year, volunteers will help re-vitalize the native plant garden in front of the visitor center. This project will not only benefit the surrounding ecosystem but will also serve as a beautiful feature of the preserve’s first 50th anniversary kickoff event, a solar eclipse party October 14th.

A child holds up a fish she caught (Courtesy of Scott Sharaga, NPS).

Big Thicket National Preserve covers 113,000 acres across seven counties between Woodville and Beaumont. The preserve is made up of 9 separate land units and 6 water corridors, which give locals and visitors lots of areas to visit, without having to pay for a visit. There are more than 40 miles of established hiking trails, many more miles of unmarked trails, and over 300 miles of waterways on Village Creek and the Neches River to paddle on and fish in.

The visitor center is a great place to start your visit and is located just 7 miles north of Kountze.  It is open seven days a week, from 9 AM – 5 PM.  There you can watch a short film about the history of the preserve and its people, learn about the unique biological diversity found within the preserve, and get the most up-to-date information from a park ranger or volunteer of conditions out on the trails with maps and brochures. Kids, and kids at heart, can take part in the Junior Ranger program and earn their very own ranger badge.

One of the many trails in Big Thicket National Preserve (Courtesy of Scott Sharaga, NPS).

Ranger-led programming at Big Thicket centers around the experiences that make Big Thicket special. This includes walks during the summer designed to be short but informative, to off the beaten hikes during the winter, that give visitors chances to explore part of the Thicket that are not well-known. A year-round stapple of the program schedule include ranger-led paddle programs. Big Thicket provides the canoes, paddles and lifejackets so visitors just need to bring their sense of adventure and of course, water! By giving visitors the chance to learn more about the preserve from the perspective of the waterways and taking away the barriers of owning a canoe or kayak, rangers hope to inspire a more stewardship-focused perspective for those who visit.

For those visitors who are looking to really go off the beaten path, back-country camping is a popular option during the cooler months.  The evenings are comfortably cool, the bugs have mostly disappeared, and a few of the trees, like the cypress, change colors with the season and are beautiful to view.  Multi-day paddle trips give visitors the chance to sleep on a sandbar while listening to the sound of the creek or river. All backcountry camping trips require a free permit, which can be issued at the visitor center.

A visitor enjoys kayaking during the sunset (Courtesy of Scott Sharaga, NPS).

One of the more unique parts of being a preserve, is that hunting is allowed in certain units. Big Thicket staff issue over 750 permits each year, free of cost, which allows for hunters to enjoy their sport, without paying thousands of dollars to hunt on a private lease.  Hunters who hunt at Big Thicket can legally harvest deer, hog, squirrel, rabbit, and waterfowl following calendar dates and regulations issued by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

In even more exciting news, our 50th birthday is starting soon!  Beginning with our 49th anniversary this October, Big Thicket will start a year of celebrations, culminating the at Big Thicket’s 50th Anniversary as a National Park site in October of 2024. Many of the preserve’s annual events, like Junior Ranger Day, Planting Days and National Public Lands Day will continue, with the addition of new events throughout the year. Western National Parks Association has been a strong partner as staff gets ready for the celebrations, including assisting with the design of the logo and a new Junior Ranger Book that will be available in 2024. It’s not every day a park site turns 50 and Big Thicket is looking forward to the celebration.

By: Megan Urban

Chief of Interpretation and Education, Big Thicket National Preserve

I am consistently inspired by the amazing work our team does to advance our mission to support each of our more than 70 parks throughout the West. I am able to dedicate myself more deeply to our work because I know I am on a team of passionate and authentic professionals who care about protecting the park experience and our precious resources now and for all time. Read the updates from our organization in the latest edition of my field notes, Buck Tracks.

JEDI and People Rocket

As we head into fall, we begin the next phase of our Justice Equity Diversity initiative. WNPA and Eastern National received a Strong Parks, Strong Communities grant from the National Park Foundation in 2022, positioning both organizations to strengthen internal community and develop tools to advance JEDI principles throughout our organization and the National Park Service (NPS). We have partnered with People Rocket, a “global, multidisciplinary team” that will work collaboratively to help us cultivate and grow our amazing community of passionate professionals.

Midyear Appeal Campaign: Listen, Amplify, Protect


During this year’s midyear appeal campaign, we stayed true to our JEDI principles and shared stories of how direct aid advanced inclusivity, diversity, stewardship, and a sense of belonging at our partner parks. Philanthropy is about more than collecting dollars—it is about instilling and rejuvenating lifelong relationships with parks.

From right to left, CMO Michael Matthews, Senior Marketing Manager Maria DelVecchio, Writer Julie Thompson at GCOT in Tucson, Arizona.

Arizona Governor’s Conference on Tourism


In July, three members of our team attended the Arizona Governor’s Conference on Tourism (GCOT), a collaborative and dynamic conference with cutting-edge presentations ranging from social media content production to multicultural marketing strategies. Our partner parks were featured in so many pictures, presentations, and stories—an important reminder that we support a vital part of Arizona’s tourism industry and our partner parks truly are world-class destinations.

Frank “Boss” Pinkley and the group at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, birthplace of WNPA (courtesy of NPS).

Anniversary of Cooperating Associations


As WNPA commemorates the 100th anniversary of cooperating associations, we remember the rich history of these invaluable organizations that have played a significant role in preserving and enriching the nation’s most treasured natural and cultural landscapes. For a century, cooperating associations have been a vital source of support for national parks, working collaboratively with parks to educate and inspire generations of visitors.

WNPA’s 85th Anniversary


On July 22, WNPA celebrated 85 years of service to national parks. On this special occasion, I pause to consider how much we’ve grown in our scope and mission since Dale King and Frank “Boss” Pinkley successfully gained permission from the Department of the Interior to form a group to support national monuments in the Southwest amid the devastating effects of the Great Depression.

New Trader Wallace James Jr. at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site (courtesy of Wallace James Jr.).

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site Welcomes New Trader 


Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site welcomes full-time Trader Wallace James Jr. Coming from Cornfields, Arizona, Wallace is Tsé Ńjíkiní—Cliff Dweller/Among the Rocks/Rebuilding a Rock House/Honey Combed, born for Naakaii Dine’é—Mexican Clan. Honágháahnii—One Walks Around You/Place of Walking/People Formed of Her Back are his maternal grandfathers and Tó Dích’íi’nii—Bitter Water are his paternal grandfathers. As we welcome Wallace, we can continue to support the Ganado and Diné communities through trading events and educational programs.

Nicodemus National Historic Site hosts their annual Homecoming and Emancipation Celebration (courtesy of NPS).

Emancipation Celebration at Nicodemus National Historic Site


In late July, Nicodemus National Historic Site celebrated the 145th Emancipation Celebration and Homecoming. As the oldest and only remaining African American settlement west of the Mississippi, Nicodemus represents perseverance, ingenuity, the triumph over struggle, and Black excellence. Every year in late July, descendants of Nicodemus return to the town to honor the lives of their ancestors and the ongoing community of families and businesses that survived the immense hardships of slavery and racism that continued after enslaved people were officially emancipated. I honor Nicodemus’s legacy of brilliance and am so proud that WNPA is in partnership with this remarkable site.

Juneteenth celebration in Topeka, Kansas (courtesy of NPS).

Juneteenth Celebration at Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park 


Image caption: This building is Monroe Elementary School which serves as the Brown v. Board of Education Visitor Center. It was one of four segregated schools for African American children in the city of Topeka, during the time of the Brown v. Board of Education court case. (Courtesy of Fatimah Purvis, NPS.)

Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park celebrated Juneteenth at a special parade hosted by The Topeka Family and Friends of the Juneteenth Celebration. This parade took place on the street of the Brown v. Board of Education schoolhouse. The site used direct aid from WNPA to participate in this monumental event that celebrates the official end of chattel slavery in the Unites States. As we continue our work to support parks, we remember that we are part of a bigger story.

We know what people find in our parks—healing, happiness, transformation, and so much more. And we stay committed to helping more and more people find themselves in a national park.

Be well,

Marie Buck

President and CEO

As WNPA commemorates the 100th anniversary of national park cooperating associations, we remember the rich history of these invaluable organizations that have played a significant role in preserving and enriching the nation’s most treasured natural and cultural landscapes. For a century, cooperating associations have been a vital source of support for national parks, working collaboratively with parks to educate and inspire generations of visitors. On August 4 of 2023, we pause to honor the enduring impact of these remarkable associations and the role they play in enhancing and preserving the park experience for everyone for all time.

The Yosemite Museum, the first museum inside a national park (courtesy of NPS).

The history of cooperating associations can be traced back to the history of national parks, beginning with the establishment of the world’s first national park—Yellowstone National Park—in 1872. Recognizing the need for preservation, visionaries like Ferdinand V. Hayden and Nathaniel P. Langford advocated for a unified effort to preserve these natural wonders that would be threatened by Westward expansion and the associated commercial enterprises. By 1916, the National Park Service took over management of the park, replacing the United States Army as the protecting body. Not even a decade passed before the first cooperating association was born.

In 1923, the Yosemite Museum Association was established as the first nonprofit partner organization in the National Park Service. This association, founded to manage the construction of the first park building to serve as a museum, offered the park key support, funding the protections necessary to preserve and interpret this stunning landscape beyond the limitations placed upon the government. This association, now named The Yosemite Conservancy, thrives today, proudly funding work throughout the park and helping visitors connect to Yosemite and its diverse landscapes and cultures.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (courtesy of NPS).

Fifteen years after the foundation of the first cooperating association, Southwestern Monuments Association formed on July 22, 1938. With only $234.50 contributed by thirty-five people, the group’s members set out to support a handful of national monuments throughout the Southwest by providing free or inexpensive interpretive publications to visitors. With the increased awareness and interest in parks sparked by SWMA’s publications, the group was able to provide more publications and more aid to the parks’ interpretive programs. During the years of the Great Depression, when NPS funding was severely limited, the cooperating association became integral to continued preservation, interpretation, and visitation. SWMA would eventually become Western National Parks Association. A decade after the establishment of SWMA, Eastern National Park and Monument Association (ENPMA) was born with a mission to support national parks and monuments in the eastern United States.

In the ensuing years, more associations sprang up around the country, each dedicated to serving the unique needs of their respective national parks. These organizations operated visitor centers, ran gift shops, and funded educational programs to enhance the visitor experience while generating revenue to support park projects.

Director’s Order #32 (courtesy of NPS)

Cooperating associations have remained vital partners in preserving and promoting national parks, including the Indigenous communities and tribes that are connected to these sacred lands. Their impact extends far beyond funding and educational outreach. They also engage in scientific research, conservation initiatives, wildlife protection programs, and advocates for equity and diversity, acting as a force multiplier for the parks’ limited resources. Because they support government agencies, Congress authorized the support of cooperating associations under a strict set of guidelines established by the National Park Service. This means that any products produced or sold by a cooperating association must uphold the high standards of the NPS and advance the parks’ interpretive themes. All items should enhance the visitors’ experiences and understanding of the historic, cultural, and natural resources protected in these treasured places. The volunteers and staff of these associations work tirelessly to instill a sense of stewardship in park visitors, fostering a deeper understanding of the delicate balance between human interaction, untold stories, and preserving nature’s wonders for future generations.

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau NHP Virtual Visit Junior Ranger Stamp (courtesy of NPS).

As technology and ideology progressed, several cooperating associations like Western National Parks Association have embraced the digital era to reach wider audiences and worked to support the efforts of the National Park Service in healing relationships between Indigenous communities, communities of color, and national parks. This involves initiatives to support justice, equity, diversity, inclusivity, and belonging both within organizations and building online platforms to connect with park enthusiasts worldwide, selling park-related merchandise, books, and educational materials. This became particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic when parks were closed to visitation. Cooperating associations supported virtual tours and interactive learning experiences, opening up new avenues for engagement and education and providing meaningful support for struggling parks as well as people who yearned for connection during the long months of isolation and building closures.

The history of cooperating associations is a testament to the power of collaboration and passion for conservation. From humble beginnings to a nationwide network of dedicated organizations, these associations have transformed the way visitors experience and protect national parks. As we celebrate this milestone anniversary, we reflect on monumental impact that cooperating associations have and reaffirm our commitment to preserving these majestic landscapes for generations to come

By: Julie Thompson

Update: Since this post’s publication, more of our partner parks have earned the designation of International Dark Sky Park. To date, more than 40 NPS units have earned the honor of being recognized as Dark Sky Parks, including many WNPA partner parks: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Capulin Volcano National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Chiricahua National Monument, Curecanti National Recreation Area, El Morro National Monument, Fort Union National Monument, Great Basin National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Lyndon B Johnson National Historical Park,  Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, Tonto National Monument, Tumacácori National Historical Park , Walnut Canyon National Monument, and Wupatki National Monument.

Nestled in central New Mexico, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument preserves and tells the story of vastly significant cultural and natural resources from the Pueblo people, the Spanish Franciscan mission system and government, and re-settlers in the region.  This includes everything thing from churches, pueblos, animals, plants, and even the dark night sky. Accredited through the International Dark Sky Association, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is situated below an almost pristine night sky.

The night sky over Salinas Pueblo Missions (Courtesy of Alex Arnold, NPS).

When visitors arrive at the one of the three sites of the park, they are transported back in time. The missions and pueblos were once bustling city centers that consisted of up to a couple thousand people. Today, few families live within a 10-mile radius of the park. With less people, less light is projected into the sky at night. The landscape today is similar to how the landscape and sky looked during the 13th century. In person, a primeval feeling takes over and seemingly takes us back in time instantly.

There are so many small actions that we all can do at home to contribute the preserving our dark skies. To help, replace old lights with highly efficient warm white LED bulbs, light areas only if needed, point and shield lights directly towards the ground, and consider motion sensor lights.

The Milky Way (Courtesy of Alex Arnold, NPS).

Although the park closes at 5:00 pm in summer hours and 4:00 pm in winter hours, the park hosts regular dark sky viewing events throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Although the park provides a dark sky photography workshop, a guided pueblo and mission program, special presentations, and more; the real star of the show is the night sky itself. Few places in the nation today can you see the Milky Way with your own eyes. At the park, you feel the stillness of the night, you hear the wispy winds and deep silence, and you are captivated by the unique experiences of being connected to the dark sky above you. As author Draya Mooney said, “Look at the stars. See their beauty. And in that beauty, see yourself”.

By: Alex Arnold

Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Service at Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

National parks tell important stories—stories of courage, of ingenuity, of ancestry. Some stories resonate loudly, repeated throughout history. Other stories seem more deeply embedded within these cultural landscapes. As the president and chief executive officer of Western National Parks Association (WNPA), I am honored to help preserve the stories of the more than 70 parks we support. Our partner parks are breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and they tell the stories of the West, as varied and abundant as the parks themselves. As we listen to these stories, we seek to amplify and protect the diverse voices who speak truths, preserve history, and honor the future of the national landscape. WNPA’s partner parks are there for you, inviting you to find your next adventure, to give yourself the gift of relaxation, recreation, and joy that comes with each national park experience. With each visit, you create your own park story, forever a part of this vast and beautiful network of history, culture, and natural wonders. WNPA supports parks that honor and preserve cultural sites and sacred lands, parks that protect areas of historic significance, parks that provide a place for families, friends, and loved ones to explore and connect while hiking, boating, fishing, camping, and so much more. In these public lands, stories of the past mingle with experiences of the present, giving hope for the future.

Your support of WNPA helps us connect people with parks and I’m excited to see you out there creating new park stories and connecting through educational programs, natural landscapes, quiet reflection, and more. Our critical work for national parks—including supporting scientific research—would not be possible without your generosity. Thank you.

Your donation of $150 or more will allow us to continue to help protect our parks’ futures with projects like these 2023 highlights.

Photo courtesy of NPS/Analycia Flores


Arizona’s Casa Grande Ruins National Monument led a pollinator garden project with a group of 30 students from Imagine Elementary School. Using native seeds, a ranger guided an in-classroom program, teaching third, fourth, and fifth graders about native plants and pollinators. The kids planted their seeds, learning to care for and grow their seedlings until they were ready for transplant. During a ranger-guided field trip, students transplanted their seedlings into the earth, feeling the power of this sacred landscape. The pollinator garden, nourished by the natural abundance of the desert, is now a part of the visitor experience. With your support, these kids are forever a part of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

Robert Torres (courtesy of NPS)


New Mexico’s El Malpais National Monument hosted a Native American storyteller series, strengthening understanding and connections to still-thriving Native cultures. Sharlyn Sanchez shared Acoma pottery designs, explaining the meaning behind these designs, and telling stories of the Acoma culture. As part of the same series, artist Robert Torres shared his San Carlos Apache and Yaqui cultures through the stories behind his intricate jewelry. Deepening awareness and strengthening the park’s ties with Native culture is a vital part of protecting the future. Together, we work to amplify voices and create platforms for growth, healing, and connection.

Hiking in Bear Gulch (courtesy of NPS/ Kurt Moses)

California’s Pinnacles National Park hosted the Chalon Indian Council as they presented an educational program for young visitors. Through your support of WNPA, the Council researched and prepared creative and educational cultural craft activities, which included handouts and giveaways, and travel and lodging for participants. Chalon tribal members and allies presented an informative and engaging session. Visitors were smudged by elders, and former Chairwoman Arianne Chow Garcia led a sacred prayer. Songs were offered in the Chalon language, with a translation for allies and visitors. This event embodies the spirit of collaboration, healing, and cultural learning. Partnerships between the National Park Service and Native tribes mean the protection of cultures and landscapes now and for the future.

Nicodemus decendants (courtesy of NPS)


Kansas’s Nicodemus National Historic Site provided trail brochures telling the story of the oldest and only remaining African American settlement west of the Mississippi. These brochures expand the knowledge of many people who want to learn more about the beauty and excellence of Black history. Visitors can immerse themselves “in the heart of the Nicodemus settlement and in the lives of those who settled here.” Nicodemus preserves the stories of the people who first established the settlement. With your support, we can continue to learn from and listen to the stories of so many who fought for their right to be free.

Photos courtesy of NPS


Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was able to recruit and hire interns for their Summer Conservation Internship Program. With support like yours, this program facilitates the growth of future stewards of the land. During this paid internship, young adults aid in research, contribute to meaningful park projects, enhance the visitor experience, and gain valuable work experiences that make them more competitive in careers in public lands. By the end of this program, interns earn educational awards and, depending on the length of their service, further qualifications that allow for students to be hired directly by NPS without competition.

We need you to join us now, because support of all kinds can lead to big results.

Your tax-deductible gift of $150 or more provides recreational opportunities, supports scientific research, connects communities, and cultivates the next generation of park enthusiasts. Please visit Together, we can ensure that we continue to listen to all perspectives, amplify stories, and help protect parks for everyone for all time.

There are many ways to connect with WNPA, visit our partner parks, shop at our online store, attend our events, share your impact in national parks with your friends, or visit us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Thank you for your support, and if your contribution crossed paths in the mail with this letter, please accept my deepest thanks.

Nicodemus National Historic Site and Nicodemus Historical Society will host the Smithsonian exhibit “Voices and Votes: Democracy in America” from July 1 to August 14, 2023. This exhibit “traces the bold experiment of a government run by the people and explores the influences that shaped the early days of American democracy, as well as the changes that have occurred over the past 250 years!”

Nicodemus’ Washington Street (courtesy of NPS).

One of the oldest and only remaining Black settlements west of the Mississippi River, Nicodemus preserves an important history and represents the spirit of ingenuity and brilliance embodied in African American culture. After the Civil War, enslaved African Americans were freed, but not free from the cruelty of systemic and personal racism. Working for a better future, many people traveled by covered wagons, train, and on foot to experience the freedom of the “Promised Land” of Kansas. A group of seven Kansans established the Nicodemus Town Company on April 18, 1877, and began the hard work of promoting and growing the settlement. Early settlers faced extreme hardship, lacking resources and farming equipment necessary to develop farmland. Through perseverance and the strength of community, Nicodemus eventually became a prosperous settlement, with a hotel, two stores, a church, and a school.

The Williams family. Neil Henry (back center) was the first person born in Nicodemus (courtesy of NPS).

After this period of growth, the people of Nicodemus faced more. Despite active campaigns from the town’s two newspapers and an important legal victory resulting in the town receiving its official title in 1886, the three rapidly developing railroad companies did not bring their tracks through Nicodemus. With this news, many businesses had no choice but to leave and follow the railroads. Despite this loss, Nicodemus continued to host social events and celebrations, including the annual Emancipation Celebration, a special event in Nicodemus to this day.

The upcoming collaboration between Nicodemus National Historic Site, Nicodemus National Historical Society, and the Smithsonian will highlight the lives and vital work of Nicodemus politicians. Visitors will learn about Edward P. McCabe who held the roles of Nicodemus Town Company secretary, Graham County clerk, and Kansas state auditor. As expressed by the Smithsonian: “After arriving in Nicodemus in 1878 from Chicago by train, McCabe and his partner Abraham Hall established a law office to provide land location assistance to the new settlers.” McCabe, like many others, worked to support and build a community and a legacy that has endured for 145 years.

Click here to learn more about the “Voices and Votes: Democracy in America.” To explore more about the history of Nicodemus and the upcoming Emancipation Celebration and Homecoming, visit Nicodemus National Historic Site and the Nicodemus National Historical Society. We join in celebrating and honoring the lives of the many Nicodemus settlers and their community of descendants.

By: Julie Thompson

In the 1800s, the American bison, also known as the American buffalo, were hunted to near extinction. As part of a campaign to remove Native American tribes from their landscape, the US Army targeted the bison, a sacred animal to many Native tribes and a main food source. Without bison, it became easier to force Indigenous peoples onto reservations so that European Americans and the government could more easily profit from the land and control Indigenous defensive strategy. The army hired professional hunters who slaughtered bison by the hundreds of thousands, leaving most of the animal behind to decay. The images of this mass hunting looms over us, even today.

Three bison wait in a holding pen (courtesy of NPS).

Yet, through the efforts of diverse conservation groups and Indigenous activists the bison are in resurgence, and efforts are underway to transfer these sacred animals to tribal stewardship, where they originally flourished. The InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), formed in 1992, began as a collective of 19 tribes with a shared goal to reestablish healthy buffalo herds on tribal lands, an act of both cultural and natural healing. Today, the ITBC comprises 83 tribes across 20 states, and continues to grow in numbers and impact. “We work as a unified and unifying voice for the tribes,” said Troy Heinert, executive director of the council. “This program offers Native peoples a chance to reconnect with an important part of [their] culture,” Heinert continued. For Indigenous peoples, restoring the bison is a part of a healing process, completing and connecting a circle that involves many partnerships. With renewed stewardship, tribal members can build their herds and feel the wholeness of being in the presence of this sacred animal. The near eradication of the bison to control Native people requires a trust responsibility to begin to repair the harms done to Native peoples. The ITBC supports tribes as they rebuild herds, grow local economies, reintroduce healthy bison meat to Native diets, and many other means to build sovereignty and regain a part of what was taken from them.

Destinations of Bison transferred to Native American Tribes from Grand Canyon National Park. (courtesy of NPS / C. Talley)

National parks such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon work with the ITBC to safely relocate bison from the parks, growing the Native herd in an effort to right past wrongs and prevent damage to the ecosystems that can happen when herds grow or graze, particularly in places that were not their principal natural habitat originally.

According to Miranda Terwilliger, wildlife biologist at Grand Canyon National Park, 182 bison have been safely transferred to tribal lands in cooperation with the ITBC. “The council determines which tribes get the bison,” she explained. Tribal autonomy is a key part of this relationship and the parks are here to support that, while taking care to manage the animals’ emotional stress levels and overall physical health. Arizona is on the edge of the bison’s historical range, according to Terwilliger. “You can tell the history of the continent through bison.” They are smart and sensitive animals whose movement patterns reflect an understanding of the dangers posed to them. While the herd on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim is a part of the original herd brought to the area by “Buffalo” Jones in the early 1900s, the animals also demonstrate unique genetic diversity, begging the question of how evolution has impacted their ability to survive climate change.

Bison gather inside and outside a corral (courtesy of NPS).

Through the collaboration of the National Park Service and other organizations, the ITBC successfully manages more than 20,000 bison that roam more than one million acres of tribal lands. Working with groups like the Native Farm Bill Coalition, the ITBC works to protect and bring legislative support for bison and Native agriculture, advocating for food sovereignty and regenerative farming. “All the money we raise goes directly to the tribes,” said Heinert. Support comes in all forms—letter-writing, social media amplification, outreach to local legislators.

By returning the bison to the peoples who hold them sacred, the land is also replenished, regaining much-needed biodiversity through the movement and grazing of the herd. With this replenishment comes the hope of future generations as they connect with the bison, who, in many tribes, represent strength, unity, and wholeness.

If you would like to learn more about the work of the InterTribal Buffalo Council and how you can support this important movement, follow the council on social media and check back in with WNPA for updates.

By: Julie Thompson

On Juneteenth We Celebrate Black Excellence with the Story of Lulu Craig, Hero of Nicodemus. Born in Missouri a mere three years after the end of the Civil War, Lulu Mae Sadler Craig would grow up to become a historian, educator, and advocate for Black industry and equality. Her parents, formerly enslaved, migrated with Lulu and her seven siblings from Missouri to Kansas. Like many African Americans seeking refuge from racism and violence, the Sadler family hoped for the promises of land and liberty that Kansas symbolized.

Nicodemus was established in 1877 (courtesy of NPS).

As a young man, Lulu’s father fought for his freedom alongside Union general William Tecumseh Sherman. The fight for freedom did not end with the war, however. Freed African Americans faced systemic and brutally violent racism, leading many to envision a life of Black liberty in the West.

Traveling by covered wagon, the family arrived in Nicodemus, Kansas in 1879. Now memorialized and preserved as Nicodemus National Historic Site, Nicodemus remains the oldest and only Black settlement West of the Mississippi. Lulu and her family survived in harsh conditions with scarce supplies and insufficient shelter. Still, they rose together to achieve prosperity. According to author and African American studies researcher Antoinette Broussard, Lulu was a storyteller by nature, describing the integral role Native peoples played in the survival of Nicodemus and the seemingly insurmountable challenges they faced while building a life there.

A metal silhouette of a farmer and horse (courtesy of NPS).

At the age of fifteen, Lulu attended one of Kansas’s first schools where she befriended George Washington Carver, famous Black agricultural scientist and inventor. After graduating from State Teachers College, Lulu returned to Nicodemus to teach first through eighth grade. Lulu remained in Nicodemus for nearly thirty more years after marrying Sanford Craig, even serving on the Nicodemus election board, a very rare feat for women in 1914.

As the railroads began to stretch across the nation, Nicodemus’s prosperity waned. The rails did not come close to the settlement and wealth diminished. In April of 1915, Lulu and Sanford, along with their children and her parents, left Nicodemus to pursue homesteading in Colorado. Once again, the family was met with dugout homes and supplies so scarce that survival seemed impossible. Yet, drawing from the strength of family and community, the Craigs and Sadlers produced sufficient crops to grow a community one hundred strong. Lulu established a literary society and a Sunday school, assuming the responsibility of the community’s education. “She taught school for the next twenty years,” Broussard relates. When the title of her land was issued on January 3, 1922, it was issued to Lulu.

Visitors pay homage to Nicodemus National Historical Site (courtesy of NPS).

Lulu would survive her husband and remain the matriarch of her family until her passing in 1972. She was 104 years old. To celebrate her 102nd birthday, five generations of Lulu’s family and many friends gathered in her farm home, still located south of Manzanola, Colorado. The documentary Happy Birthday, Mrs. Craig is an invaluable resource for those who want to learn more about this amazing woman and her astounding life built from faith, love, family, brilliance, and the belief that something better was out there, that all are deserving of happiness and freedom.

Lulu Craig wrote a detailed history of Nicodemus, which is preserved at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas. As we celebrate Juneteenth, we remember and honor the life of this extraordinary woman who, like so many other heroes, often goes unsung.

Broussard, Antoinette, “Lulu Sadler Craig,”
Kaplan, Richard, Happy Birthday Mrs. Craig, 1970.

By: Julie Thompson

On July 17, 1944, a catastrophic explosion killed more than three hundred people at Port Chicago Naval Magazine. The majority of the casualties were African American sailors. During World War II, the port served as a naval munitions base critical to the war effort. Due to systemic racism, African American servicemen were disproportionately assigned the dangerous task of loading ammunition. Lacking sufficient training and resources, Black sailors faced significant harm while under the supervision of white officers. When the explosion occurred, Black survivors were made to clean up and immediately reassigned to other duties, while white officers were given leave. In protest, a group of 50 African American sailors rose up to demand better, soon facing a court martial in the largest mass mutiny trial in the history of the nation.

African-American sailors loading ammunition onto a train (courtesy of NPS).

The Port Chicago 50, as the group would come to be known, refused to return to work until the systemic injustices they faced were addressed. Despite their compelling evidence, the group was found guilty and sentenced to eight to fifteen years of hard labor. All of the men were dishonorably discharged. Thurgood Marshall, then a civil rights activist and lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, observed that the Navy was on trial for its “vicious policy” toward African Americans. Marshall mounted an appeal, which, sadly, resulted in the reaffirmation of all 50 convictions.

In 1946, after the war ended, the Navy paroled 47 of the men. Two men served additional months in the prison’s hospital, recovering from injuries, and one man was not released because of reported bad conduct. Most of the men’s dishonorable discharges were converted to honorable discharges after fulfilling their post-war duties. The convictions were not overturned at this time, which meant all 50 men were held to be convicts in the eyes of the law and military.

Thurgood Marshall at Congress (courtesy of NPS).

In 1990, a campaign was launched to exonerate the Port Chicago 50. Many people urged the survivors to petition Congress for a pardon–a plea which most survivors refused. A pardon meant to admit guilt and request forgiveness. These men sought a complete overturn of conviction. Freddie Meeks, one of the few survivors alive during this time, pushed for a pardon and, bolstered by the support of 37 members of Congress, eventually won his individual fight. President Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks in 1999, a mere three years before Meeks’s death in 2003.

Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, established in 1994, is dedicated to the lives lost in the explosion. In the spirit of Juneteenth, a time to address systemic racism in the nation, we also honor the lives of those who survived and fought for freedom and equality at great personal cost. While efforts to fully and posthumously exonerate the Port Chicago 50 persist, the convictions have been, to date, upheld.

By: Julie Thompson

If you’re planning on hitting the trails this summer, we’ve got you and the whole family covered. Cherished time spent with family creates lifelong memories, especially during the fleeting years of childhood. Of course, finding the perfect time and place for a family hike can be a lot of work and stress! We might not be able to help you find the time, but this list of six of the best kid-friendly trails in the West might help you get started.

Junior Ranger (courtesy of NPS).
  1. Condor Gulch Overlook Trail at Pinnacles National Park, California

If you want the whole family to share in the majesty of this park’s fantastic pinnacles and diverse wildlife, consider this moderate 1.8-mile trail at Pinnacles National Park. The park’s geologic wonders were born of volcanic eruptions 23 million years ago, creating one of the nation’s most unique landscapes. During the summer, the park can get hot and the trail does not offer shady areas, so please bring extra sunscreen and protective apparel. And don’t forget the binoculars to get a better view of the amazing condors that inhabit the park. Toddlers might want to skip this one, but it’s the perfect length for kids and teenagers who don’t want to spend all day on the trail.

Distance: 1.8 miles roundtrip

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Elevation Gain: 550 feet

Seasonality: Open year-round. The park approaches temperatures of 100 or hotter. Check for updates.

A family enjoying the dunes (courtesy of NPS).
  1. Montville Nature Trail at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado

This quick, half-mile trek is beautiful enough for the whole family, but quick enough for that feisty two-year-old in your life. Explore nature and history as you walk along this shady forested trail, named for a late 1800s settlement. A perfect opportunity for a break from the heat of the dunes in the summer, the trail’s highest point offers views of Mt. Herard, the dunes, and the valley. There is evidence of human inhabitance at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve dating back to more than 11 thousand years ago and its cultural landscapes are held sacred to the Diné, Ute, Apache, and Tewa peoples. At the trailhead, pick up a booklet that provides numbered stops to learn about this historic community and the mountain pass above it. Or just let the kids enjoy the shade!

Distance: .5 miles

Difficulty Level: Easy

Elevation Gain: 200 feet

Seasonality: Open year-round. Check for updates.

A ranger and a child on the ferry towards Channel Islands (courtesy of NPS).
  1. Potato Harbor at Channel Islands National Park, California

While this is a relatively longer trek, this five-mile hike is easy enough to take some three-year-old children, and definitely provides enough scope for the imagination for the five-to-ten-year old crowd. Bring plenty of snacks and sunscreen as you and the family take in the beautiful ocean and bluff views, with plenty of island foxes—a species of fox found only on the Channel Islands—to keep you entertained. While this hike does not have beach access, there are plenty of ocean views to enjoy. Be aware that Channel Islands National Park requires reservations and a boat ride, so plan ahead for a not-to-miss summer experience.

Distance: 5 miles

Difficulty Level: Easy-to-moderate (because of the length)

Elevation Gain: 620 feet

Seasonality: Open year-round. Check for updates.

Sunny Saguaro helping a Ranger (courtesy of NPS).
  1. Mica View Trail at Saguaro National Park East, Arizona

If you are visiting Tucson, Arizona, don’t miss out on a trip to Saguaro National Park. This 1.4-mile paved road hike is both wheelchair and stroller accessible, providing beautiful views of the Sonoran Desert and the giant saguaro for the whole family. The Tohono O’odham hold the saguaro sacred, a towering and ancient family member. Standing in the presence of these ancient giants, hikers find new and renewed connections to the landscape. It is the desert, so come early and bring plenty of water and protective apparel—sunscreen is always a must! There are several Mica trails, so be sure you’re choosing the right one if you’re looking for the paved experience. Of course, all the trails are beautiful.

Distance: 1.4 miles

Elevation Gain: 49 feet

Difficulty Level: Easy

Seasonality: Open year-round. Check for updates.

A girl at Big Thicket National Preserve (courtesy of NPS).
  1. Kirby Nature Trail at Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas

This 2.4-mile loop trail is perfect for families who enjoy birding, walking, and exploring the woods. Park rangers recommend this trail for its biodiversity, so get ready for your little ones to turn into little scientists. There is also access to water and fishing via the Village Creek. This amazing network of trails and waterways is an absolute wonderland of natural discovery for brilliant young minds just learning about the world, and this hike is easy enough for even the littlest of explorers, though they might not be ready to do the whole loop. Because of the natural environment, there are usually plenty of mosquitoes to keep you company, so consider long sleeves and pants, and whatever you might use to keep these little insects away.

Distance: 2.4 miles

Elevation Gain: 52 feet

Difficulty Level: Easy

Seasonality: Open year-round. This hike might be best appreciated March through October. Check for updates.

A family fishing at Chickasaw National Recreation Area (courtesy of NPS).
  1. Buffalo and Antelope Springs Trail at Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Oklahoma

This 1.6-mile loop trail abounds with wildlife and water! Chickasaw National Recreation Area is truly a wildlife oasis, protecting bison, salamanders, antelope, and so much more. The water is a perfect reprieve from the summer heat for both the wildlife and park visitors alike. The informational trail markers along the trail will teach your entire family about the intricate and diverse ecosystems, which may include the occasional poison ivy plant. With beautiful and cooling creeks and springs, this is a popular trail for very good reasons. This trail can be extended or shortened to accommodate for all levels of hikers.

Distance: 1.6 miles

Elevation Gain: 183 feet

Difficulty Level: Easy to Moderate

Seasonality: Open year-round. Check for updates.

By: Julie Thompson

A group of fourth graders are working to bring an important piece of Utah history back to Utah. The famous golden spike that completed the first transcontinental railroad was driven into the ground on May 10, 1869. The 17.6-karat gold spike joined the Central Pacific Railroad from Sacramento and the Union Pacific Railroad from Omaha at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory. After the ceremony, the spike was removed and donated to the Stanford Museum, now the Cantor Arts Center in Palo Alto, where it is displayed even to this day.

A reenactor holds a replica Golden Spike (courtesy of NPS).

Golden Spike National Historical Park preserves the stories of this momentous event, considered one of the most important technological and social achievements in the nation’s history. The park, located in Utah, honors the lives of the diverse railroad workforce, many of whom experienced discrimination, bodily harm, and even death. The fourth-grade students, after learning about the history of the park, were surprised to learn that the spike itself was on display in the Stanford University museum instead of a Utah museum.

Chinese Camp (courtesy of NPS).

The golden spike, also known as the last spike, was driven into the pre-drilled hole by Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific Railroad. Stanford, along with his wife, Jane, would eventually cofound Stanford University. Leland Stanford was a powerful and wealthy man, gaining control of two major railroads and holding political offices. Unfortunately, he is also widely known to have espoused anti-Chinese beliefs, which leaves a troublesome legacy, especially considering how integral Chinese Americans were in the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

A Ranger and Jr. Ranger at the Golden Spike site (courtesy of NPS).

Today, a group of fourth-grade activists from Neil Armstrong Academy in Utah have started a letter-writing campaign to the Cantor Arts Center requesting the spike and several other artifacts be returned to Utah, where the spike originally joined the railroads together. Through their research, passion, and action, students hope to bring their history home. Learn more about this campaign by visiting The letter-writing deadline has been extended to Friday, May 26.

No matter which side of the issue we fall on, this group of kids have found great pride and gained strengthened identities as stewards of their own history and landscape.

By: Julie Thompson