Black to Nature
Two Baltimore women are on a mission to visit every national park
Diamon Clark and Kristen Walker are living every nature lover's dream: The Baltimore natives are on a mission to visit all of the United States' 63 national parks, a part of Our Parks Too!, a venture they created together. The project is not just about hiking or checking destinations off a sightseer's bucket list. Using social media to highlight their experiences of "Black joy" in the outdoors, the duo is hoping to show that national parks, and outdoor spaces writ large, are for everyone.
"I think a lot of Black and brown people feel like they don't belong in a national park," Walker says. "If we can highlight how we were involved in the development of the parks or the land where the parks are before they became parks, I'm hoping that will connect with people to be like, 'Oh, these are our parks. This is our land. We do have a place in these areas.'"
The fact that many Americans feel like they don't belong in the parks is reflected in official visitation rates. On average, more than 300 million people visit the national parks each year. Yet National Park Service surveys spanning three decades reveal that only 5 percent of visitors are Latino or Asian American. For Black Americans, the numbers are even more discouraging: Just 2 percent of national park visitors are African American. While geography, culture, and cost all influence whether people of color visit the parks, the history of lynchings and racial violence in remote, wild areas also plays a role.
"When I go out hiking or camping, my mom is like, 'Make sure you look in your rearview mirror. Make sure nobody's following you,'" Walker says. "I think it's our generation, or a midway generation between our parents and us, that's starting to get out of that fear."
Just 2 percent of national park visitors are African American.
Both Clark, who started a local environmental group called Black by Nature, and Walker, who is a biologist, began exploring the outdoors at a young age. Walker's first foray into the woods was at sleepaway camp along the Chesapeake Bay. As a kid, Clark frequently spent time crawling through the mint patches and oniongrass in her backyard, pulling out worms and turning over rocks with her pet guinea pig, Princess Ballah. These experiences cemented their love of nature.
The two met at a hiking and yoga event in October 2022 hosted by Soul Trak Outdoors, a DC-based nonprofit that connects people of color to nature. At the time, Walker had been cultivating the idea for Our Parks Too! for about a year, but she needed a partner to fill in knowledge gaps. Clark had just finished a mini version of a national parks tour out West, visiting Arches, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree as a way to beat back Covid-induced cabin fever. This experience, combined with Clark's roles as a master naturalist and the founder of Black by Nature, made her the perfect co-conspirator.
"For the very first park that I went to, which was Arches, I distinctly remember [the ranger] telling me, 'You're going to go up this road; you're going to turn at the cliff; and the whole world is going to change,'" Clark says. "And he was not lying to me. It's truly a whole different world within the park. And with my beginner eyes, that was just the most incredible thing."
Our Parks Too! has led trips to West Virginia's New River Gorge, Ohio's Cuyahoga Valley, South Carolina's Congaree, and Virginia's Shenandoah, where Walker and Clark made a pit stop to learn about the national park's history. They always make a point of visiting a park's welcome center to speak with park rangers and learn about the area. Shenandoah was particularly poignant for its legacy of racial segregation, but the two were pleased that Black history was even included, an anomaly among the welcome centers they had visited. After watching a brief documentary, they stamped their National Parks Passports and hit the Dark Hollow Falls Trail, with Clark using her naturalist skills to identify plants along the way. She pointed out the red oaks as they climbed up a ravine.
To help turn their passion and vision into a working social change organization, Clark and Walker needed funding and operational support to set up a web page, edit videos, and elevate their message online. Enter the Sierra Club's national Outdoors for All campaign. After receiving a cold email from Walker, Jackie Ostfeld, the campaign's director, was sold and put Our Parks Too! on the radar of the organization's staff.
"Our Parks Too! is still new, but it has so much potential," says Natasha Blakely, the deputy press secretary for Outdoors for All. "That's why the Sierra Club chose to invest in it. I just know Kristen and Diamon are going to have a great impact, and I'm excited to be part of the process and watch it happen in real time."
Walker and Clark took a pause on their trips last summer, since Clark was expecting her first child in July. But this fall, the pair will be back on the trails again (likely with a third, tiny co-leader in tow). Up next: Great Smoky Mountains and Assateague Island, a barrier island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia.
"Our plan is to turn Our Parks Too! into a 501(c)(3) and to start hosting events and trips," Walker says. "Right now, it's just me and Diamon, figuring out how to get to these parks, figuring out how to bring our loved ones along with us to experience these things, [and to] spread the word about how beautiful these parks are."