In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic made clear just how important large open spaces were for physical and mental well-being: More than half of all Americans participated in outdoor recreation. Kristen Walker and Diamon Clark were two of those millions of participants, joining Washington, D.C.–based bike rides and hikes to stay tethered to community. On one of those hikes—organized by nonprofit Soul Trak Outdoors, which works to connect people of color to outdoor spaces—the two met and “immediately hit it off,” Clark says.
Both Clark and Walker grew up exploring the outdoors, and they work in adjacent fields: Clark has a degree in environmental studies and has been working as an environmental educator for a decade; Walker is an animal scientist who is pursuing a PhD in bioenvironmental science. Both of them were disappointed by statistics showing that 23 percent of visitors to the country’s 63 national parks were people of color, though they make up roughly 40 percent of the population. (In 2018, 6 percent of the visitors to the national park system identified as Black.) Says Walker, “I wanted to play a role in changing the narrative of who belongs in these spaces.”
Within a few days of their initial meeting, Walker shared with Clark an idea that had been brewing: What about starting a campaign? One primarily geared toward African Americans to foster a sense of ownership of national parks and to combat the idea that outdoor spaces are only accessible to white Americans with monetary privilege? Clark was on board, and Our Parks Too! was officially born. In December 2022, they obtained funding from the Sierra Club, which enabled them to begin their travels.
Through their website, Instagram, and the Sierra Club YouTube channel, Clark and Walker document their trips to national parks, which have included New River Gorge, Shenandoah, Congaree, Mammoth Cave, Hot Springs, and Cuyahoga National Parks. There are also more than 400 national park units in the system, including seashores, forests, and sites, and the duo has been visiting them, too.
Walker and Clark view their digital documentation of their travels as a modern-day outdoors Green Book, an annual guidebook published in the 1960s for African American road travelers. As they see it, their work provides increased visibility and inspiration for people of color to venture into national parks. In addition to documenting their trips and sharing some of the early history of the parks, they curate itineraries for people who want to visit national parks but aren’t sure where to start, and provide information on access, lodging, and cost, plus tips. They prioritize visiting Indigenous-owned businesses in proximity to national parks to support those who have a long history on the ancestral lands, as well as identifying Black-owned establishments. “Sometimes we’re able to find a Black-owned gas station or convenience store, as we did in Congaree National Park,” Walker says. “Other times we’re able to find Black-owned restaurants in the area, and we make sure to stop at those, leave a review, and add those establishments to our blog posts.”
No matter how parks differ, Clark and Walker always recommend dropping by the visitor center to learn about the history of the park—particularly to learn how each was shaped by people of color. Some parks, like Shenandoah National Park, have an extensive information center detailing how African Americans had their own recreational facilities, such as Lewis Campground, within the park; Walker also cites New River Gorge National Park, which “had an African American History driving tour with an accompanying CD that we were able to follow along with for a full audio and visual historic experience.”
Another resource? Park rangers. “They are very helpful in recommending which trails to try based on current conditions, popularity, views, and difficulty,” Clark says. She also advises downloading the free NPS App and purchasing the America the Beautiful pass to save on the fees for visiting multiple parks in a year.
More change is on the way for Our Parks Too!, which hopes to reach even more followers in 2024 by offering group trips, beginning with excursions to local park units in Maryland. Already, though, Walker might have experienced her proudest moment in the summer of 2023. “I was happy to be able to take my family to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park to celebrate Public Lands Day,” she says. “It was my grandmother’s first time at a national park!”