lasgreenvalleyWhen it comes to public parklands in the U.S., our valley is awfully green. The U.S. National Park Service manages more than 420 park units, including National Parks National Monuments, National Battlefields, National Historic Sites, and others. And that’s not even counting the public lands overseen by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Falling under none of these categories are National Heritage Areas (alternatively called National Heritage Corridors), which are sometimes overlooked even though there are nearly as many of them (49) as National Parks (59). These park units are created by Congress and enjoy some support from the Park Service, but are administered by state governments, non-profit organizations or other private corporations.

willimanticriverIf you live in the East, you’ll find that National Heritage Areas/Corridors are actually more numerous locally than National Parks, most of which are in the West. A recent trip to central Massachusetts (sponsored by the conveniently located Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center) included an excursion to Bigelow Hollow State Park in Union, Conn., which I discovered was part of the Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor.

It helped that our hiking guide, William B. Reid, is also the chief ranger of the Corridor, which encompasses 35 towns in south-central Massachusetts and eastern Connecticut. Reid illustrated the origin of the name by pulling out a nighttime satellite photo of the East Coast, all ablaze in artificial light from Boston to Washington save for a dark patch in central New England framed by the Shetucket and Quenebaug Rivers.

Included in the Last Green Valley are large tracts of unspoiled woodland like the Nipmuck State Forest, the Yale Meyer Forest, and the Natchaug State Forest. The variety of activities available to visitors rivals that of any National Park, including camping, hiking, boating, fishing, biking, hunting, scenic viewpoint, museums, and horseback riding and night-sky programs.IMG_3281

Yet despite the fact that one of the most well-known tourist attractions in New England — Old Sturbridge Village — is located smack in the middle all this natural beauty, the Corridor is relatively unknown.

We all pine for that big trip out to Yosemite, Bryce or the Grand Canyon, and if you have time, by all means plan one right now (Chimani can help!). But if your schedule and budget call for more of a “staycation” this year, don’t forget to check out the smaller Park Service units in your area, as well as the great parks run by your state and local supporters — like me, you may have a great park right in your backyard that you never even heard about!

(Photos © Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor/Facebook, and © Bob Curley)