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Celebrities help National Park Service mark its 101st birthday

How do you top a centennial? The National Park Service marks its 101st birthday Friday amid a “Parks 101” campaign enlisting celebrities as ambassadors for the park system’s hidden gems.

Parks 101 ambassadors have included cast members from the cable show “Queen Sugar” touring Chalmette Battlefield in Louisiana, and Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and other spots in Washington, D.C. Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Keri Hilson visits the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in Georgia later this month.

The campaign kicked off in April with Jordan Fisher, who’s in the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” touring Alexander Hamilton’s New York City home.

“Being a National Park Service ambassador is an honor,” said Fisher, who’s also known for TV roles in “Grease: Live,” “Liv and Maddie” and “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” He raved about his visit to Hamilton Grange: “It’s beautiful. You can literally walk the halls of what Alexander Hamilton built … as a sanctuary for his family.”

Highlighting local treasures

The National Park Service hosted a record 331 million recreation visits in 2016. But half of those were in just 26 of the system’s superstar destinations like the Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, Yosemite and Yellowstone.

This year’s effort highlights lesser known treasures that even locals might not know about. Fisher recently filmed a 360 video for Parks 101 at California’s Channel Islands National Park. Though Fisher calls Los Angeles home, he hadn’t heard about the islands before.

“My eyes were opened to an incredible experience,” Fisher said in a phone interview. “You can see for miles. We hiked. There’s tons to do. You can kayak around the island, go into coves and caves or have a diving experience.” Fisher even saw whales and dolphins on the boat from Santa Barbara to the islands.

Something for everyone

Parks 101 activities and digital content will offer introductions to topics like kayaking 101, battlefields 101 and shipwrecks 101. But the campaign also seeks to show the breadth of programming offered at national parks — everything from art to yoga.

Do you hate bugs and mud? That’s OK, too, because another message of Parks 101 is that visiting national parks doesn’t need to involve hiking, camping or road trips. In fact many of the 417 national park sites have nothing to do with the great outdoors, for example, a house dedicated to the history of America’s first ladies in Canton, Ohio, and a nuclear missile site in South Dakota.

And nature isn’t the only way to find peace and quiet in the park system: “You can enjoy solitude walking through a historic home,” said Alanna Sobel, spokeswoman for the National Park Foundation, which raises money to fund critical projects like the restoration of trails and historic structures.

Parks 101 also emphasizes how easy it is to reach many park sites. Hamilton Grange is just 20 minutes from midtown Manhattan by subway, Fisher said. The home of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish engineer who helped win the American Revolution, is walking distance from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. The Pullman National Monument, which tells the story of a town built for Pullman railroad car company workers, is about 15 miles from downtown Chicago.

Visitor numbers

Visitation is already trending upward at lesser-known park sites. While attendance overall in the national park system was up 7 percent in 2016 over 2015, it was up 10 percent at destinations that traditionally see fewer visitors, according to NPS spokeswoman Beth Stern.

And the centennial was just one reason for last year’s record visitation. Relatively good weather, low gas prices and robust international tourism helped, too. Park numbers for 2017 will likely get a bump from eclipse watchers.

The centennial also spurred donations, more than doubling National Park Foundation contributions from $73.5 million in 2015 to over $150 million in 2016.

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