When Conor Knighton set out on a year-long journey to visit every national park in America, he worried it might be the worst idea he’d ever had. It ended up being the most interesting year of his life.
Knighton will open this week’s Chautauqua Lecture Series theme, “The National Parks: How America’s ‘Best Idea’ is Meeting 21st-Century Challenges,” bringing his perspective from experiencing them all at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater.
“Parks are our literal common ground,” Knighton said. “We need them now more than ever,” for beauty, for play, and for the healing and strengthening power of nature.
He was inspired by the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, created by Congress in 1916. Once he had germ of the idea for visiting all the parks, he knew he was going to find a way to do it.
“Theoretically, you could hit them all in a year,” he mused in his book Leave Only Footprints, a reflection on his yearlong journey. Knighton put his belongings into storage and took to the road, hiking, boating and scuba diving to see what each park had to offer.
“You really appreciate how diverse the natural beauty in our country is,” Knighton said on “CBS This Morning” in 2017. The National Park Service mission is to educate, protect, but also to inspire, he said, “and boy do they inspire.”
Whether Knighton was “waking up early for a naked scrub in a historic bathhouse in Arkansas or staying up late to stargaze along America’s loneliest highway in Nevada,” he said, “I found fascinating tales in every corner of our country.”
Since he traveled the country in 2016, four new parks have been created, adding to the 59 he visited.
National parks are usually the last places in the country without cell phone service, he said.
That makes it easy to disconnect from the world, “especially when we’re so plugged in everywhere else,” he said on CBS. “Parks are these places where people can come together.”
After visiting all of the national parks, Knighton found he was “able to gain a unique perspective” on the country and its natural diversity, he said. “I could see the threads that tie these wildly different places together.”
Each park can seem worlds apart, Knighton said, but share commonalities nonetheless.
Reporting in the field for “CBS Sunday Morning,” Knighton is able to travel to other remote locations around the country, connecting with out-of-the-way communities and sharing their stories.
“While I’ve seen some spectacular scenery, what I remember most from my assignments are the people,” Knighton said. “I’m grateful to have the chance to share other peoples’ fascinating stories” with viewers.
Looking toward the next century of the park service, Knighton “is hopeful that Americans continue to recognize the value in protecting wild landscapes and significant historical sites for the benefit of all.”