Celebrating our national parks

The 411 units of the National Park Service are as varied as the United States itself and an incredible legacy for Americans. The Los Angeles Times Travel section begins a yearlong look at some of those units, why they matter, how the park service is working to tell this country’s story — and why that matters.

See our readers' park memories and share your own with #MyParkMemory on Instagram, Twitter and Flickr

Explore: Intro | Golden Gate | Caverns | Wildlife | Manhattan Project

As the National Park Service turns 100, a look back, and forward

Like many great love affairs, mine began in childhood. The details are sketchy, drawn from memory and from photographs in a family album, old Super 8s. Our two-toned station wagon is loaded up in the driveway of the Altadena home, room for five, our gear and a black Labrador named Sheba.

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10 adventures to pursue in San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area

The busiest unit in our national park system isn't a park at all. In fact, plenty of visitors never notice that they're in it — not when they're half-lost in the redwoods of Marin County's Muir Woods, not when they're deep into a conversation about robots at San Francisco's Ft. Mason, not when they're roaming the vast beach flats of Ft. Funston, near the San Mateo County line.

So be advised: The Golden Gate National Recreation Area is an 80,000-acre non-contiguous realm that flanks the Golden Gate Bridge and includes Alcatraz Island and chunks of three counties. To cover all its territory would take months. But if you treat the GGNRA as a travel decathlon — as I did in a pair of recent visits — you can complete 10 feats of tourism.

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Descending into the darkness, we shed light on ourselves

Since the dawn of time, humans have been bound to the cave. It's been our home, our tomb, our place of revelation.

The prophet Muhammad met the angel Gabriel in a cave; Zeus nursed in a cave; and Chaac, the Maya rain god, dispatched clouds from his subterranean lair.

The National Park Service has long recognized this primordial connection and oversees more than 4,700 caves, many open for exploration. Four of the seven longest caves on Earth — Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, Jewel Cave and Wind Cave in South Dakota, and Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico — are managed by the park service. Each of the caves stretches more than 135 miles; Mammoth exceeds 400 miles.

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Olympic and Everglades national parks differ in most ways except one: Their survival affects ours

To go where the wild things are, hit our national parks. Olympic in Washington and the Everglades in Florida tell contrasting tales of a treasure-trove of creatures but speak as one voice about why their survival matters.

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Manhattan Project National Historical Park tells how and why the U.S. built and used atomic bombs

On our last family road trip to the Pacific Northwest, my wife and I drove a big loop with our daughter, then 6. We hit Seattle and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. On the way south toward Portland, we stopped at Walla Walla in southeastern Washington. Nice people, pleasant wineries.

At no point did I think, "Wait! We're only two hours from the cradle of the atomic bomb!"

But now that I've spent a few days nosing around the Hanford Site of the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park — and now that my daughter is nearly 12 — I think differently.

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Enjoy the National Park Service? Here's who to thank

The National Park Service: Some facts and figures

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Additional Credits: Digital design and production: Sean Greene and Denise Florez.

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