What's more inviting than a planked walkway stretching out across a vast marshland or winding through a dense thicket of trees?
It's easy to take park amenities like boardwalks for granted, but trail-blazing, accessible infrastructure and ongoing maintenance don't just happen on their own. Creating a park that strikes a balance between user friendliness and a commitment to conservation means setting intentional policy and budgetary priorities that grow and age with the park.
Boardwalks in park lands are vital for several reasons. First and foremost, they provide safe, easy access to points of interests that would be otherwise inaccessible — such as swamps, marshes, geothermal areas and other wetlands.
This is especially important for people with disabilities or parents pushing strollers. After all, national parks belong to everyone — not just abled-boded folks who can traverse challenging terrain. Unfortunately, many trails, beaches and campgrounds throughout the park system are severely lacking in accessible infrastructure — a fact that the National Park Service (NPS) acknowledges as a missed opportunity to "reach the widest possible audience and share a spectrum of experiences."
These missed opportunities are largely due to a disparity in governmental priorities. National parks are more popular and highly attended than ever before, but their federal funding continues to spiral into inadequacy.
In a recent Flathead Beacon article, Montana-based reporter Tristan Scott examines the precarious future of NPS funding, even as the country celebrates the centennial of what is widely touted as "America's best idea."
"Park managers are preparing for another year of record-breaking crowds while relying on a funding structure that is significantly below what it was a decade ago when adjusted for inflation," Scott explains in the article. "Meanwhile, crumbling infrastructure and maintenance needs, coupled with daily operational costs, are stressing a base budget that is outmoded to meet the public’s needs."
Despite funding and staffing limitations, the National Park Service has been working to create new opportunities for accessibility within park lands and improve existing examples. In 2012, the NPS put together a task force to develop a strategic park accessibility plan to be carried out between 2015 and 2020.
"National parks that seek continued public relevance and success into the 21st century must swiftly improve institutional capacity to prioritize accessibility and expand access to parks," the task force concludes in the group's report (PDF). "At a very fundamental level for parks, this means all people are entitled to the same rights and services."
Accessibility and inclusivity aside, boardwalk trails are also vital tools for enforcing conservation measures in a variety of environments — from tropical sloughs and murky swamps to geothermal areas and fragile geological formations. By confining foot traffic to a very clear, set path, visitors are less likely to go off-trail and potentially cause stress or damage to fragile ecosystems.
They also don't look half bad! Here's just a few boardwalk trails you can find in the U.S. park system:
Death Valley National Park
The 0.8-mile Salt Creek Interpretive Trail is an easy boardwalk loop trail that winds alongside one of Death Valley's few bodies of water, Salt Creek. Surrounded by scrubby pickleweed and saltgrass, this seasonal, trickling stream of water is home to a rare, endemic species known as the Salt Creek pupfish.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone's Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk trail allows you a close-up glimpse of the park's massive geothermal wonders. However, if you're hoping to see the brilliant colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring, your best bet is to take the Fairy Falls trail.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
This national park is famous for its hot springs and fumaroles, with the centerpiece attraction being a geothermal area known as Bumpass Hell (pictured). The boardwalks in Bumpass Hell are not just for accessibility — they're a safety measure. The area got its name from a 19th century miner named K.V. Bumpass, who accidentally stepped on the thin crust above a boiling mudpot and injured his leg so badly that it had to be amputated. (So, yeah, when park rangers say "stay on the trail," they mean it!)
Congaree National Park
This little-known park in South Carolina is home to one of the region's largest and last remaining old-growth floodplain forests. Because the land is frequently flooded, elevated boardwalks make up the vast majority of hiking trails within the park.
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
So as to not disturb the integrity of the park's surreal slopes, boardwalks have been installed that bring visitors to the Oregon park right up alongside these impressive painted hills. For the best viewing experience, visit in the late afternoon when the sun illuminates the colors of the painted hills.
Capitol Reef National Park
In addition to its towering sandstone cliffs and arches, Capitol Reef National Park in central Utah is also famous for its ancient petroglyphs carved into the rock hundreds or even thousands of years ago by Native Americans. The best way to view these ancient works of art is to take the short Petroglyphs boardwalk trail, which is located just off Utah Highway 24.
Yosemite National Park
There's so much to do at Yosemite National Park, but one hiking trail that shouldn't be overlooked is the Cook's Meadow Loop. This 2.25-mile boardwalk path is one of the most popular and accessible trails in the park, and with views of Yosemite Falls in the distance, it's easy to see why.
White Sands National Monument
This surreal landscape in southern New Mexico lays claim to the title of the world's largest gypsum dune field. One of the best ways to see this unique, fragile ecosystem is to take the Interdune Boardwalk trail. As the National Park Service explains, "interdune areas are where all plant life in the dune field starts. This is the best place to get a close look at many of the wildflowers that grow here while protecting the park's resources."
Everglades National Park
Nicknamed the "River of Grass," the Everglades is the third-largest national park and boasts a long roster of walkable and paddle-able trails. One of the Everglades' most popular boardwalk paths is the Anhinga Trail (pictured). Suspended over a freshwater sawgrass marsh known as Taylor Slough, this trail is brimming with alligators, turtles, herons, egrets and many other wetland birds.