The roads that made Americans fall in love with their national parks

More than 5,500 miles of paved roads wind through the national park system. You probably haven’t given much thought to any of them, but Timothy Davis has. A Park Service historian, Davis has written “National Park Roads,” a fascinating and lavishly illustrated book about those paved ways.

They may well be the most important development in the history of the National Park Service, which turns 100 this year. Consider that in the early 20th century, the parks were remote and hard to reach. The automobile changed that, so much so that the National Park road trip became an important part of American childhood. The Park Service recorded 326,506 visitors in 1916, the year of its founding, and more than 292 million visitors in 2014.

The roads, of course, have always had their opponents. Edward Abbey, a park ranger and environmental advocate, hated them. “Let the people walk,” he exclaimed in his book “Desert Solitaire.” Critics complained about the hoards — their trash, their noise, their efforts to turn the wilderness into Disney World.

Davis takes a more accommodating view. “By allowing people to enjoy parks with reasonable ease,” he writes, “the combination of improved roads and widespread automobile ownership transformed the national park experience from an esoteric pleasure into a prominent component of the American experience, creating a powerful constituency for their protection.”

 

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