Using National Parks To Inspire Physical Health

Nov 13, 2014


In recent years, as the National Park Service has faced deep funding cuts and a stagnant number of visitors, the country's demographic changes have made its problems more pronounced.

Most visitors to National Parks are white, and increasingly, they're also older.  For instance,  Virginia’s  Shenandoah National Park is one of the nation’s most visited and accessible parks, yet recent research out of the University of Idaho indicates that 92% of visitors in 2011 were white.  

In hopes of shifting the numbers, the Park Service is now supporting new programs and grassroots groups working to attract underrepresented categories of visitors: young people, African-Americans and Latinos.

As her sister navigates, Rhonda Butler maneuvers her car en route to Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park in West Virginia. We’re about an hour’s drive from the DC area where they live, And we’re lost. And late.

But after a pit stop, we finally make it to the park. 

Today the sisters will be hiking five miles with Girl Trek - a national organization that aims to inspire African American women to get outside and active. The hike will be a major accomplishment for Rhonda Butler.

“I was pretty much a couch potato.”

With three gym memberships she wasn’t using. Butler says she felt differently about Girl Trek the moment she saw women of all shapes and sizes at her first hike a few months ago.  

“It sparked an interest in me. And I was like I want to do that, so that’s when we joined them for the black history walking tour in Annapolis. We ended up not even realizing we walked three and a half miles.”

That was a few months ago and Butler’s been walking more frequently since then.

“I have a lot of weight to lose but I definitely feel stronger.”

At the trailhead, Vanessa Garrison, co-founder of Girl Trek, motivates the group of about 20 women.

“A part of what we believe in coming out here is that we are really, really unhealthy as a people.  And it’s unacceptable. When we are on the mountain and you’re struggling, think of Harriet Tubman did it, Frederick Douglas did it. . . if Harriet Tubman was unhealthy as we are now she wouldn’t have walked herself to freedom and that’s real . Let’s Go!”

Garrison explains, “Girl Trek started over three years ago with women literally reclaiming the streets of their neighborhoods. And walking in those neighborhoods whatever they look like.  A lot of these women are living in communities that are low resourced; the health disparities are huge.”

That mission evolved as Garrison started posting images on the group’s Facebook and social media feeds of her own trips to national parks.

“As we would do that people were like, wow, where is that? Is that another country? And I would be like, no, no that is just a couple hours drive.”

Established by white men in state and local governments starting in the 1850s, the Park Service has been trying to fix the lack of diversity through outreach and parks that better represent Latino, Black and Native American history.

“I think what has happened is that you get the same people who’ve been going for generations who bring their kids to go but you never actually expand your audience.”

Her group uses walking challenges that women train for, like a short of breath KaSaudra Oden.

“I did prepare by doing the 100 mile challenge but it wasn’t on elevated land so this is more difficult.”

There all types of challenges:

“You could earn the Underground Railroad badge and that’s because the average distance for an escaped slave was 90 miles.”

Butler fell short of her personal challenge this month to walk 100 miles, but today she’s not only finding time to work out; at 47 she’s hiking in a national park for the first time. 

“Actually being out here and seeing the people that are passing me I haven’t seen anybody like me except for us out here.”

That’s not keeping her from making it to the end.

“I can’t even put into words what I thought it would be and what it is.” 

For more information about GirlTrek,   click here to visit their website.