Can the Selfie Generation Unplug and Get Into Parks?

A father and son raft down the Grand Canyon and hike in Joshua Tree, revealing the rewards that millennials can find in our most treasured places.

This story appears in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

At Lees Ferry, Arizona, the launch point for a raft trip down the basement of the continent, not a disheartening word is heard from those about to start a four-day ride through the Grand Canyon. We’ll see fossil remains from a time when the rock above us was an ocean floor, we’re told.

We’ll bounce through rapids shaped by the gravitational tug of the Colorado River at its most muscular. We’ll catch glimpses of bighorn sheep climbing canyon walls and stick our heads under little waterfalls squeezed out of those same walls, rising a mile above the river. At night we’ll sleep on beaches of sugar sand and stare through a sliver of sky at the immensity of the universe. No, sir, not a disheartening word.

“Damn! No service.”

“What’s that?”

“I can’t get the score.”

That’s a good thing, I tell my son, Casey. Yes? Well, no. He’s a millennial, mid-20s. I’m a baby boomer, approaching an unmentionable age. My generation loves the national parks to death. His generation, slightly larger than mine, will have to save them. We had gorged on social media the night before, a last digital meal. Tweets, texts, emails, websites, Facebook, and Snapchat. We used Yelp to find the best hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in all of northern Arizona and our smartphone GPS to guide us back to our hotel in Flagstaff. Now for the diet: a fast from our devices, our overconnectedness. What could be a better antidote to our eight-second attention span than a landscape that is nearly two billion years old?

Our 37-foot craft is, technically, a pontoon boat, though it looks and handles like an oversize raft. It’s powered by a single small engine and is very retro looking, customized after years of banging down the river. There are 16 paying clients and three guides. We shove off just before noon, the June temperature in the mid-90s under cobalt blue skies. Woo-hooooo! We are the lucky few. Most of the five million or so people who visit Grand Canyon National Park every year never get beyond the rim, stopping for a quick selfie.

For my family, growing up in the West, love of the outdoors was a religion and the national parks its cathedrals. We toured these shrines of original America in a station wagon without air-conditioning and slept in a leaky canvas tent. My folks never had a lot of money, but we were rich, my mother said: All of this glorious public land was ours, a birthright of citizenship. My wife and I raised our two kids to love the parks as well. Yellowstone and Yosemite, Mount Rainier and Glacier—check, check, check, and check. But in Casey, I sensed a bit of meh. And in that, he is not alone.

“Young people,” Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, told me, “are more separated from the natural world than perhaps any generation before them.” That’s quite an accusation. Jarvis has been saying this for a couple of years, in different forums in the run-up to this year’s Park Service centennial. “There are times when it seems as if the national parks have never been more passé than in the age of the iPhone,” he warned in one speech. “The national parks risk obsolescence in the eyes of an increasingly diverse and distracted demographic.”

Obsolescence? How could that be? Last year national park sites clocked 307 million visits—an all-time record. Fifty-seven locations set high-water marks for attendance. Oh, but don’t be deceived by the numbers, Jarvis advised during an interview in his office, a few blocks from the White House. Take a closer look at who’s going through the gates: people like the silver-haired Jarvis and, well … me. It’s a risky thing, this generalizing about generations. Did our kids fall out of love with America’s Best Idea? Or maybe they never fell in love to begin with. Anecdotally, I have noticed a passion deficit among Casey and his friends. And technology, as a companion, is a must. A large majority of millennials—71 percent—said they would be “very uncomfortable” on a one-week vacation without connectivity, according to a survey by Destination Analysts. For boomers, the figure was 33 percent. Looking for answers, we put together a father-son trip, a generational journey to the heart of one of the world’s most powerful places. My hope was that I wouldn’t have to proselytize, that the land itself would work its magic. His hope was that he would “remain entertained after the thrill of my first Instagram photo has been captured,” he said, half in jest. I rolled my eyes.

In this anniversay year of the National Park Service, we have heard a lot about budgets and maintenance backlogs, about overcrowding and climate change. But the greatest concern of the keepers of our special places is the next generation. The parks have a diversity problem—age and color. At a time when nearly one in four Americans is under the age of 18 and half the babies born are racial or ethnic minorities, they say most park visitors are older and white.

“If we were a business, we’d be out of business in the long term,” Jarvis said. He pointed to a framed picture hanging in his office, one of the iconic views of Grand Teton National Park, bathed in glorious evening light. I’d seen the photo before, had hiked among those very peaks, and still it made me marvel. But when a similar lovely picture was shown to inner-city kids, growing up without a tradition of national park visits, Jarvis had an epiphany.

“It looked scary to them. Empty. Forbidding. Not welcoming. They said, ‘Where are all the people?’ We had the same experience when we brought a group of students from Los Angeles to Death Valley. They wouldn’t get out of the van. The quiet, the pure darkness, unnerved them and threatened them.”

The parks belong to all the people—but only some appear to be using them. When he headed the Pacific West Region, Jarvis used to take the Bay Area train system to work. On his commute he was immersed in the demographic milieu of the New America. On other days he would drive four hours to Yosemite, where nearly everyone looked like him.

“The national parks are our holy places,” he said. “But they’ve got to be more than an assembly of antique buildings and natural curiosities appealing to a certain kind of person.” His boss, Sally Jewell, the secretary of the interior, noticed a similar thing when she was president and chief executive officer of REI, the outdoor-gear retailer.

“At REI we spent a lot of time looking at trends that will affect our business over the next 25 years,” she told me. “We learned some very powerful stuff. For blacks and Latinos there were cultural barriers to enjoying the outdoors. And for the young, in many cases, it was about technology.” Other studies have found similar results. The agency’s last major comprehensive survey of demographics, released five years ago, did not have figures for age but did find that park visitors were “disproportionately white.”

To fix this, Jarvis started a campaign that presents a different face of the parks. The cover of a centennial brochure shows an African-American teenager watching five young people leap off a dock into a lake. They’re having fun. There’s nothing scary or lonely about the landscape. These are parks with people. Promotions now feature lots of different kinds of visitors, younger, as well as brown and black and white. An initiative called Every Kid in a Park, launched by President Barack Obama, offered all fourth graders and their families free admission to national parks for the past school year and summer break.

In a speech outlining “a course correction” for the parks, Jewell promised to extend the program for 12 years, saying, “We’ll have a whole generation of students whose love for public lands was sparked in fourth grade.” The agency learned from an earlier crisis, in the 1950s, that institutional inertia can mean slow death. The parks then were crumbling, with pothole-pocked roads and outdated visitors centers. “Let’s Close the National Parks” was the title of a call-to-arms piece in Harper’s Magazine. What followed was an investment of people and dollars, helped along by a jingle from the auto industry, urging people to “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet.”

The new crusade is just a start, but it’s a big one: part of the largest ever marketing campaign in Park Service history. Yes, marketing, the stuff they do for deodorant. John Muir, the Scottish-born naturalist and a founding voice of the national parks movement, might get tangled in his beard to hear such talk. But the early returns are promising. More young people and more people of color are visiting their country’s historic sites, scenic wonders, and sacred temples, Jewell said. At least two million people have downloaded Every Kid in a Park special passes.

The technology question is trickier. Young people devote more than seven hours a day to electronic media, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study—more than 50 hours a week in front of a screen. For children 11 to 14 years old, it’s nearly 12 hours a day.

“We’re not going to wire up the backcountry,” Jewell said. “But the question was, How do we embrace technology instead of vilifying it?”

Rather than rage against the times, the Park Service has joined the digital age—sort of. With much fanfare, the agency rolled out a campaign to find a larger and younger audience for its, um, product, using a constantly updated website, extensive social media outreach, and temporary kiosks in a few cities, such as New York, where users can take a brief virtual tour of every national park. In other words, they decided to use screens to try to get young people off their screens.

“We’re doing everything we can to have the face of the national parks reflect the face of the United States,” Jewell said. She mentioned that when Bella Thorne, the 19-year-old actress and singer, tweeted #findyourpark to her six million Twitter followers, it “meant a lot more than when I did it.” But can you market your way back to relevance? Do we really need focus groups to find out how the next generation feels about our parks? And all this poking, prodding, and studying of millennials and minorities seems a bit odd, as if a cluster of green-uniformed Very Concerned Experts were trying to fathom an unknowable species.

The Colorado River was a churn of chocolate brown from silt and the hurried runoff of flash storms. During our trip it flowed at about 14,000 cubic feet per second—that is, roughly 527 tons of water, enough to smash a canoe caught sideways. It was cold, this muddied stream in the arid West, because it came from the depths of a reservoir, behind the Glen Canyon Dam.

On our first day on the river, entering a patch of rough water, we were anxious, clenching the side. But soon we couldn’t wait for the next roll through the rapids. When a wave curled over our boat and soaked us to the bone, it was a numbing, pleasant sensation. Everyone hooted with joy. In the calmer stretches, the canyon was quiet, save for the sound of flycatchers and other birds gliding just above the surface. The cliffs rose around every bend, the colors bright shades of antiquity. We took breaks along the shore, exploring a tuft of wildflowers here, an enormous natural amphitheater there.

In the evening we feasted on prime rib and portobello mushrooms, cooked over a gas grill. We spread ground covers and light sleeping bags over the soft sand and watched the remains of a day slip away. It was sublime. But still, Casey and I experienced a bit of Internet withdrawal. The NBA finals—the championship!—remained unknown to us in our digital desert. The U.S. presidential campaign was in turmoil, and of course I wondered, What had Donald Trump said now? Had the stock market crashed or soared? I could only imagine who might be seething because I’d failed to respond to an email or text. It wasn’t just us. The youngest member of our trip, an eighth grader from Austin, Texas, had brought along a cell phone, two spare ones, and a portable charger powered by the sun. He had plenty of power but no connection. When he couldn’t get a single bar, he looked as though he were starting to twitch.

We should just … let … it … go, I suggested. Try to be mindful. Stare at the stars. Drift. “I get it,” said Casey, “this thing about being disconnected. But what if you had pockets of opportunity to dip back in? Everyone I know likes to share—publicly—what we’re doing. We are social travelers. If you can’t share it now, is it really happening? Just a thought.”

He complained about sand in his bag, bugs, and no hot shower. We were both mildly worried about scorpions. They sting and sometimes take up residence in the folds of sleeping bags. Still, I pressed on with proselytizing, something I’d tried to avoid: This is heaven. He conceded the point about the setting, the company, the food, the adventure. But he’d never understood the idea of camping.

“It seems like well-off white people trying to experience homelessness in a safe, natural setting,” he said. In this sentiment, again, he was somewhat typical of his generation. The number of people who camp overnight in park backcountry is down significantly from 35 years ago—which the service attributes to millennials being less enamored of roughing it than earlier generations. I tried to make the case for sleeping on the ground. We had the best of all worlds: wilderness and relative comfort. It wasn’t so long ago that the Grand Canyon was a blank spot on the map—marked “unexplored” on an 1855 plat of the southwestern territories. Fourteen years later, John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran and far-seeing geologist, led a 10-man expedition to solve one of the last great geographic mysteries of the United States. “We have an unknown distance yet to run; an unknown river yet to explore,” he wrote on August 13, 1869, as he prepared to plunge into the gnarliest part of the canyon. “What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.” By the early 1940s, only about 250 people had gone through the canyon in boats.

“Don’t get me wrong, Dad—I feel lucky,” Casey said. “I realize this is something very few people get to experience. It’s like I’m getting a private tour of someone’s really nice house.”

The next day we rose with a half-moon still visible in the dawning sky. We ate a breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, and fruit, broke camp, and got on the river just as the first rays of sunlight were touching the upper canyon walls. My hope was that both of us could slow down, if not to geologic time, then to river time, to channel our inner Huck Finn.

By mid-morning we’d gone through a half dozen rocking rapids in the stretch of the river known as Marble Canyon. This was where Floyd Dominy, the most consequential head of the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages federal water projects in the West, wanted to build another dam on the Colorado, to go along with the Glen Canyon colossus he’d constructed upriver. His plan to mess with the magnificence of a free-flowing river inside one of the most treasured parks inspired a campaign comparing the scheme to flooding the Sistine Chapel. Park lovers prevailed. It’s precisely that kind of conservation constituency in a newer generation that will be needed to protect wild places through the next hundred years.

The threat this time is a plan to construct a billion-dollar development on the canyon’s eastern end, a knot of hotels, stores, and restaurants built around a tramway to the bottom. Our guides were describing this project just as we pulled ashore at the junction of the Colorado and the Little Colorado—known as the Confluence, a sacred place in tribal creation stories—where the proposed gondola would dump thousands of visitors a day. The smaller river was much warmer and a brilliant aquamarine color. We hiked up this side canyon and floated down on our backs. Then we did it again and again and again, until we were worn out with giddiness.

In the evening we set up camp on a beach with more open views than the night before. The kid from Texas with the three cell phones still couldn’t get a signal. We had the usual lively camping conversations, aided by a bit of whiskey passed around among the adults. Someone made an assertion that sounded like bunk. “Too bad we can’t Google it,” Casey said. We were in one of the places left on Earth where all the world’s recorded knowledge could not be summoned to a device in the palms of our hands; it was only a minor annoyance. Casey shrugged, staring at the moonlight on the tiers of rock.

“It’s pretty sweet, this place. Like the Manhattan of nature.”

“The what?” I asked.

“Canyons that go on forever, changing in color and rock type, the same way architecture changes in different neighborhoods of New York.”

On the third day, as we passed other boats, the guides talked to each other in hushed tones. They let us in on the news: Someone was missing from another group, a guide, as it turned out, who’d last been seen hiking along the shore. For all the fun and luxe services, the canyon was still a wild place, unpredictable in its way. We experienced this ourselves later that day when our boat slowed, as if snagged, just as we entered one of the bigger rapids. The guide worked the engine and steered one way and the other. Then our craft swung, dangerously, to the side, and just as quickly swung back. Casey and I caught the expression on her face; that was not a planned move. One of the world’s most regulated rivers could still throw a punch.

Powell’s expedition had been fraught with peril. Only six of the 10 men who started the journey came ashore at the end. Two of the wooden boats were gone. The survivors were sunbaked, nearly starving, and psychologically rattled. “I never want to see it again,” wrote Jack Sumner, a guide and outfitter on the expedition.

On our final day we were planning to hike out—9.5 miles and 4,380 vertical feet—up Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim. To beat the heat, we started in darkness, a few hours past midnight. We switched on headlamps and jostled gear in small backpacks. A light rain fell. This was a relief. We crossed a suspension bridge over the Colorado and then followed the well-maintained trail, corkscrewing our way up. The rock floor is around 1.8 billion years old. At the rim, the Kaibab formation is 270 million years old. With each mile, we advanced another 160 million years or so.

As the rain picked up, the walls came alive with waterfalls. What had been parched and chalky now seemed lush and Edenic, like a rain forest, with a similar soundtrack. We moved at a good clip, passing mule packs on the way down and knucklehead tourists in flip-flops and plastic garbage bags for rain gear. When we stopped, every two miles or so, we took in the sensory overload, all this water pouring through a painted chasm. By midday, we’d reached the South Rim, a hive of visitors and languages, hotels and restaurants, stores and rental cabins. I checked with a ranger who said that the missing guide had not been found. It was a chilling note on an otherwise triumphant return to the clank of civilization.

We spent a half hour or so on our phones, catching up, all information back in our hands. The presidential campaign was still chaotic. The NBA finals had a game yet to play. The stock market had moved sideways. Half the unchecked emails, at least, were ones you didn’t want to respond to anyway. We put our screens aside, slow-sipped our beers. As it turned out, we hadn’t really missed anything. But we had gained something.

In early fall I went to North Cascades National Park—the American Alps, chock-full of glaciers containing the frozen memories of wet winters past. A bundle of high peaks in Washington State, the park is one of the most remote places in the contiguous 48 states and also one of the least visited parks. But here, deep in the forested embrace of the upper Skagit River Valley, you can find the next two generations of Americans getting to know a national park. I heard hooting like owls and howling like wolves, coming from a circle of fifth graders and their wilderness instructors. The kids were from Birchwood Elementary in Bellingham, Washington, a school where almost half the students are nonwhite and most had never been in a national park. They were there for Mountain School, three days in outdoor immersion run by the North Cascades Institute. Their guides—staff naturalists, park rangers, graduate students—were all millennials. Without exception, the instructors thought the concern about their generation’s attachment to the land was valid, but overstated.

“It’s not like all of a sudden people are going to stop loving nature,” said Emma Ewert, who had gone to Mountain School and returned as an instructor. “But you do need the exposure, the fun of playing in the woods.” For that, perhaps, we should look to today’s parents, those afraid to let their children wander a little bit on their own.

The institute’s co-founder and executive director, Saul Weisberg, is a self-described Jewish kid from New York by way of Cleveland. He’s 62 now, wiry, with a bounce to his step. He learned to love the parks from his family, camping in a tent not unlike the one my folks used. He became a seasonal ranger at North Cascades and noticed a troubling pattern among visitors. “I don’t think I ever saw a person of color in the backcountry,” he said. He started Mountain School in 1990, partnering with the Park Service. About 3,000 students a year go through the program.

Though these kids lived only two hours or so away, this park was a strange new world for them. Many said it was the first time they’d been off the electronic leash of a family smartphone. “They have a very short attention span,” Ewert said.

Most of the instructors I met, as with top brass at the Park Service, said a big problem with children was nature deficit disorder, a term coined by writer Richard Louv in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods. He argued that certain behavioral problems may be a consequence of how little time young people spend outdoors. By contrast, kids who are not divorced from nature are less likely to get sick or stressed and are more adaptable, Louv claimed. Technology gets the blame.

When I talked with Louv, he expressed optimism that things were turning around. He cited the record parks visitation last year and the popularity of Every Kid in a Park. His latest initiative is to get more young people to experience nature in the city. It’s the best way to start a lifelong love affair, he said. “More connection and care for nature near home will create more respect, care, and political support for national parks.”

At Mountain School, the instructors note changes in behavior over the few days the kids spend in the forest. They start to identify types of trees and small animals, and notice distinctions in sounds and smells. “Parents say, ‘What did you do to my child?’ ” said Carolyn Hinshaw, a teacher at Birchwood.

The parks director, Jarvis, is a big fan of Mountain School and similar programs, like Nature Bridge, which brings 30,000 students every year to a half dozen national parks. But he cautions that one visit does not a park lover make. “Something clicks, a light goes on, just by having some exposure,” he said. “I think it takes three touches for someone to change. A great first impression, but no follow-through, is not enough.” What’s needed, he said, is a broad cultural shift—a return, of sorts, to a time when outdoor exposure was a basic nutrient of American life.

While I was in the North Cascades, Casey went to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The colors of the hardwood forest in fall impressed him. “Lots of blood orange, yellows, and reds—it had a fantasy-utopian feel to it,” he said. He and his girlfriend toured along Skyline Drive, pulling over for pictures with a selfie stick, laughing at themselves in the pose of a demographic cliché.

“The selfie sticks were everywhere,” he said.

They hiked Marys Rock. The summit was thick with people their age, the twentysomethings nearly as common as the white-tailed deer. The people Casey spoke with said they hadn’t come to Shenandoah as a solo destination—as my parents might have. It was something to do along with something else, like touring a winery.

Does it matter how the parks fit into their lives? Not really. At least the parks have a place in their lives. Affection for landscapes and people can take many forms. On Marys Rock on that Sunday afternoon, the Park Service had nothing to worry about regarding the next generation.

A few months later Casey and I went to Joshua Tree National Park, where the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts meet in Southern California. From Los Angeles, we drove four hours through the ceaseless sprawl and choking traffic. Finally, after chugging up more than 2,000 feet, we arrived in the darkness of a winter eve. The moon was nearly full, giving off enough light to see the eerie outlines of the signature trees. We hiked without destination or path, using the jagged-toothed horizon as a guide. We were lost, but it was hard to get really lost, it seemed, in the Flintstones wonderland of Joshua Tree, which the rangers promote with the slogan “Half the park is after dark.”

This desert sanctuary is popular with Casey’s generation, with its lost-world, sci-fi vibe. Artsy types are drawn to it. It’s known, also, as a place to trip, and not in the way those who saw the U.S.A. in their Chevrolet did. We got up early and wandered some more, bouldering on the clean rock, going wherever our curiosity took us. The Joshua trees looked whimsical, as if drawn by Dr. Seuss.

We hiked to the top of Ryan Mountain, where a summit sign indicated we’d topped out at 5,457 feet above sea level. The wind was knock-you-down strong, and the views were to forever, in all directions. There was fresh snow on the peaks to the west. It was a wonder to both of us on Ryan’s bald top that an island of soul-lifting wild land could still be found in the clutter of California. I thought of John Muir’s argument for national parks—a curative for a frenzied era, he’d called them, places to escape “the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury.” At the time, the first years of the 20th century, the nation was a mere 76 million people, coping with an immigrant surge and the rough pivot to the industrial age. What would Muir, who spent much of his life making the case that national parks were vital to a growing democracy, think of the stupefying effects of overindustry in our noisy nation of nearly 325 million people?

Casey told me it had started to grow on him—the idea that his generation had a duty to ensure that people could stand atop Ryan Mountain a hundred years from now and take in the same things. Joshua Tree, a landscape at least a hundred million years old, forces you to think in long arcs, well beyond the quick-flash processing of our age, he said. “And there’s definitely a therapeutic effect—just being here.”

Whether this park would continue to be a living thing, with its nearly 750 plant species, was perhaps out of our control. In part, it would depend on whether all those kids the Park Service is trying to engage find a little bit of religion in their visits. At dusk, just before we started back down, I caught a glimpse of Casey with his phone out. He quickly stuffed it in his pocket, and smiled back at me.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Three bars,” he said. “But who cares.”

Read This Next

How to visit the new Grand Canyon National Monument
Nature really is good medicine. Science can explain why.
10 national parks to avoid the summer crowds

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet