Pilgrimage to the National Parks: Awe, Wonder, and What’s Missing

We made our annual pilgrimage this year—not to a temple or a religious site (much as I would like to visit the Holy Land!). We made our annual trip northward to visit more of America’s National Parks on our way to see family in Washington and Idaho. This year, five nights in Yellowstone and four nights at Mount Rainier were on the itinerary. In recent years we have visited the Channel Islands, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Tetons, Glacier, Crater Lake, Lassen Volcanic…

But these aren’t just trips, excursions. They really are pilgrimages.

We are visiting America’s holy sites, its sacred places. For that is what these are, lands set apart. While they are not meant to worship any particular deity, they play a subtle religious (perhaps secularly religious) role, we might say. For these are lands that fuel the imagination, give breadth and “room for the imagination” as Anne of Green Gables might say, that smite us with awe and wonder.

As we visited Yellowstone, I was surprised to merely find it a pretty park, even a beautiful park, punctuated by geological wonders. I wasn’t quite sure what I was missing until we descended to the top of the lower Yellowstone falls, as it cascades down into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone—and then I knew.

I was gripped a railing, suspended half-way down the cliffs, with the river pouring over the ledge next to me, cascading down hundreds of feet into the canyon below. Awash in awe and wonder, I felt the force and the power of the water and the rocks, soaking in the range of colors for which the canyon is so famous, and delighting in the sparrows that raced inches over the water, following it as it dropped over the cliff, suddenly finding themselves hundreds of feet above the valley floor.

But this is not enough.

A culture needs more than a secular religion, more than holy places devoted to a mere sense of awe and wonder. This alone won’t do for long. I recognize this experience for what it is—a glimmer, an echo, of the delight and awe the people of God are to have as they enter the Holy of Holies, the presence of the living God, the maker of heaven and earth.

What are the National Parks? They are America’s best idea (watch Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary!), the grand icon of our democratic experiment. But they are more than that—they are an echo of far greater things, a far great reality. We are creatures designed for awe, designed to worship, designed by the Holy God to set apart places to worship our maker.

What about next year?

Maybe Bryce and Zion, or the Tetons again…. And surely we need to visit the Northern Cascades sometime soon, while Alaska’s parks stand aloof, taunting us from their distance.