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Scenic byway Skyline Drive runs the length of Virginia's Shenandoah National Park. (Photograph by Tim Fitzharris, Minden Pictures/Corbis)

Why National Parks Matter

I participate in a program at Nat Geo headquarters in which “seasoned” staffers like me nurture junior staffers. But I’m always astonished by how much mentors learn from the people they’re supposed to advise.

Take my current mentee, Valerie Perry, a technical production specialist working for our Nat Geo Live events. Turns out this 30-year-old has a passion for America’s national parks and is on a personal quest to visit 100 parks before the National Park Service (NPS) centennial in 2016.

A daunting, not to mention expensive, endeavor, no?

On the contrary, Valerie reminds me, there are some 400 NPS sites (including 59 full-fledged national parks) spread across the United States—and only about a third of these charge admission.

I’ve made big trips to several of the marquee western parks, including Yellowstone, Zion, and Grand Canyon; each visit has expanded my mind and spirit (pill free, without negative aftereffects). But Valerie’s mission has motivated me to check out the parks in my backyard, and to get that natural high year-round.

Wolf Trap, just outside Washington, D.C., is the only national park site dedicated to the performing arts (I recently saw rock icon Pat Benatar, still hitting it with her best shot); the upcoming season lists the Broadway hit Million Dollar Quartet and Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.

And last fall a group of my high school friends took on two great trails (Whiteoak Canyon and Mary’s Rock) at Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains; we’re already planning our next hike.

National parks are like poems: arguably superfluous but in reality vital to humanity. Celebrate National Park Week (April 19 to 27) by visiting one near you.

Norie Quintos is National Geographic Travelers acting editor in chief. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @NorieCicerone.