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Celebrity ambassadors put lesser-known national parks in limelight

By: Andrea Sachs The Washington Post
November 6, 2017
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This May 30, 2016 photo shows the Channel Islands National Park visitors center in Ventura, Calif. (AP Photo/John Antczak)

The National Park Service, which partied hard during its centennial last year, is back with a public service announcement: Life after 100 can still be a walk - or a hike - in the park.

For its 101st birthday, the NPS and National Park Foundation launched Parks 101, an ongoing online series that will introduce the masses to lesser-known destinations within the 417-site system. The overarching message: With visits up by 50 million between 2014 and 2016, people should stop bunching up in the majors and start spreading out to the minors.

"The places that are iconic are well worth visiting," said Will Shafroth, foundation president and chief executive, "but we wanted to spark interest in the places that hardly anyone knows about."

Shafroth said the series, with videos and social media posts by celebrity ambassadors, will focus on destinations that offer a diversity of experiences ("It won't be all battlefields") in remote and urban settings. With at least 300 spots fitting this criteria, Parks 101 is likely to extend beyond this year.

To bring the bit players into the spotlight, famous personalities from the sports, acting and dance worlds are heading off into the mild wild.

Jordan Fisher, who played Phillip Hamilton in Broadway's "Hamilton: An American Musical," visited Hamilton Grange National Memorial in New York City and the Channel Islands National Park, off the Southern California coast.

Olympic gold medal gymnast Dominique Dawes explored a trifecta of equality themed sites in Washington, D.C.: the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Other pairings include Brad Snyder, the Navy veteran and Paralympic swimmer, and Monocacy National Battlefield in Frederick, Md.;; country music star Dierks Bentley and Crater Lake National Park in Oregon (his 360 video is to run by early November); and Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Rutina Wesley, actresses in the TV drama "Queen Sugar," and the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park and Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.

In late September, Derek Hough, the Emmy-winning choreographer and TV dance personality, took a whirl through Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. We spoke with Hough about his recent adventure in the singing sands.

Question: You grew up in Utah. Have you been a parkgoer your whole life?

Answer: We have the Big 5, from Zion to the Arches. As a kid, I was a Boy Scout, and my dad was very into the outdoors, so we would take these big road trips every year for my birthday and go camping and see all the amazing parks. When someone asks me what my favorite thing about America is, one of my first answers is the national parks. My trips with my dad, listening to U2, Bruce Springsteen, singing and blasting the radio, instilled in me a sense of adventure and an appreciation for our planet and the natural beauty of Earth.

Q: How did you get involved with the 101 series?

A: I wanted to combine my love for adventure and love for the outdoors and do something good with it. They reached out to me after seeing videos I posted on social media and asked me to be part of the series to bring attention to these lesser-known national parks. It's all about finding a local park where you can jump in your car and be there in an hour or two and not have to plan a whole week or weekend trip. I'm all about motivating people to get outside and move and explore.

Q: Did you know anything about the Indiana Dunes before your visit?

A: I didn't know anything about the dunes before, but that's the beauty of this series. To see something like this an hour outside of Chicago is pretty incredible.

Q: What were you most surprised and delighted by?

A: The dunes themselves. I learned about how much they move - it's literally like moving a mountain. They (rangers) showed me a tree that is completely buried but used to be completely uncovered. It's mind-blowing to think about. Also, the little things like the sassafras plant that smelled like root beer and the leaves that smelled like Froot Loops. I love discovering things like that.

Q: What do you hope viewers learn from the series?

A: To explore more and be an adventurer. Life is a movie, and we're the directors of it. What makes a great film is the sense of adventure. When we're out there, we get very connected to our primal selves. America has so much to offer, such beautiful and incredible natural sites. I hope people see that we have so much to be grateful for and to take advantage of it.

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