My essay “The Religious and Spiritual Appeal of National Parks” appears in The Routledge Handbook of Religious and Spiritual Tourism edited by Daniel H. Olsen and Dallen J. Timothy. This is my second essay with Olsen and Timothy, who also edited Tourism, Religion and Spiritual Journeys also from Routledge back in 2006, which included my essay “Sacred Spaces and Tourist Places.” Although neither the first nor the last of my publications on the topic, these two essays are appropriate bookends to my thinking about religion and tourism, from the more general theorizing in the early days of the field to my more specific interests around American national parks.
In this latest essay I focus on three elements that have made American national parks attractive pilgrimage destinations for generations of tourist visitors:
- National parks have been places of healing, both individually and collectively.
- The appeal of national parks to a large extent has been a spiritual connection to nature.
- National parks serve as sacred sites of nationalist civil religion, with the National Park Service acting as custodian and official interpreter of these places of national significance.
The essay concludes by emphasizing that although the religious elements of national parks may not be apparent or obvious to most contemporary visitors, their experiences rely to some degree on traditions of religious travel and religio-aesthetic interpretations that historically have made national parks appealing destinations for recreational travelers.
My initial submission of the essay included an epigraph from filmmaker Ken Burns which was dropped in the editing process. It read, “The original impulse for the national parks … is spiritual.” I admit it is somewhat misleading to reduce the complex history of the parks to an “original impulse,” but the so-called “spiritual” element certainly added to the appeal that made grand scenic landscapes worthwhile destinations for nineteenth-century American cultural elites. As I demonstrate in this essay and elsewhere, “Travel to the parks promised nineteenth-century visitors sublime experiences bordering on the spiritual and religious.”
The desire for sublime experience in national parks suggests an expanded view of how we think of “religion” and “spirituality.” Besides opportunities for transformative experiences of a sublime, transcendent reality, the promise of finding relief from bodily infirmities and curing debilitating illnesses also motivated some of the earliest pilgrims to national parks. In addition, another kind of healing has gained prominence in recent decades, the collective recovery from historical traumas. “Numerous national park units remember historical atrocities against marginalized groups and provide opportunities for visitors to mourn for those who suffered, to atone for past injustices, and to engage in national healing.” This in turn contributes to the role of national parks in yet another kind of religious tradition, the nationalistic “civil religion” of the American nation. “In fact,” I argue, “all U.S. national parks contribute in some way or another to an American civil religion.”
In the final section of the essay, I caution against dividing visitors’ experiences of national parks into discrete categories of different religious and spiritual motives. “In actual practice,” the essay acknowledges, “tourists’ experiences are not always so easily separable into divisions of confessional faith traditions, aesthetic desires, and patriotic devotion. Often all of these categories play a simultaneous role in a particular individual’s encounter with the features of a national park.” This helps explain, at least to some small extent, the continued popularity of the nation’s parks: they remain religious in so many different ways to so many different people.