The route from Arizona to Montana was mapped out, the car packed with a week's worth of clothes and gear, and the cooler filled with snacks and water bottles.

As we buckled up for the first leg of our trip, I felt the kind of excitement I had known in college, a footloose freedom that promised abandonment from the demands of work, schedules and answering machines. And for the next week, I loved the idea that we would have no real "forwarding address" other than the national parks we planned to visit.

Our first stop was Zion National Park, a true gem in the national park system and one of Utah's most beloved tourist destinations. The park is in the far southwestern corner of Utah, where the Colorado Plateau meets the mountains and valleys of the Great Basin.

Pictures, at least mine, don't really capture the scope and breathtaking beauty of the sculptured cliffs and striated landscapes that we saw as we hiked to Angels Landing, where the last half-mile required holding on to chains drilled into the face of the mountain.

The best part of the park however, is its accessibility to all who want to see it. Regardless of age, fitness or ability, free shuttle buses run all day, offering tourists the opportunity to view its colorful canyons, emerald pools and desert wildlife.

We left Zion and drove past Bryce Canyon, promising to visit it on our return when we hoped the temperature might be a bit lower than the 100-plus degrees we encountered. A two-day drive northeast led us to Jackson, Wyo., the gateway to Grand Teton National Park.

Rising abruptly from the valley floor, the park is a testimony to the power and complexity of nature.

From the alpine meadows to the gushing waterfalls and glacier lakes that reflect the snow-capped peaks towering over them, the Tetons overwhelm you with their rustic beauty.

And it was here that I came to appreciate not only the park's majesty but the wisdom, insight and dedication of the men and women who created, more than 100 years ago, the national park system that promotes and protects the most cherished parts of our country and the values they represent.

The National Park Service (NPS) grew out of the inspiration and dedication of leaders, artists, naturalists and philanthropists like Teddy Roosevelt, Charlie Russell, Ansel Adams, John Muir and John D. Rockefeller.

In 1916, Congress created the federal agency that manages all of our national parks and monuments and is responsible for the administration, protection and use of the 394 designated sites which are included within it, of which 58 are national parks.

The mission of the NPS is to promote and regulate the use of these lands, conserve the scenery and wildlife, provide for their current enjoyment and leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. But the tension between maintaining and protecting these lands and using and enjoying them is an ongoing one that requires continuing vigilance, financial resources and commitment.

The National Park Service is a testimony to our commitment, as Americans, to protect and preserve hundreds of thousands of acres of national beauty and historic and cultural sites.

We should be incredibly proud of what we have created and motivated to visit the many wonderful parks and monuments that exist throughout the country.

But the balance between protecting and safeguarding these lands and using and regulating them for our enjoyment is one that requires our continuing dedication and support so that our children and grandchildren will be able to sing the praises of "America the Beautiful" for generations to come.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a Tucson writer, educator and attorney. Email her at alederman@cox.net