WHILE WOULD-BE national park visitors are wondering if gas availability and prices will create roadblocks for long-distance travel this summer, the parks are having their problems, too.

"We are at a corner right now trying to determine where we're going and what needs to be done," says Ross Holland, assistant director for cultural resources, National Park Service. In explanation, he points to the ever-increasing pressure on the parks and their ecosystems, despite the energy crisis, and the diminishing of lands available for further park expansion or creation of new parks in the traditional pattern.

"There is an alternative, though," says Holland. "That is providing close-in, easily accessible, energy-saving recreational or vacation opportunities to serve America's growing urban population -- of all economic levels. This is the 'urban national park.'"

Prominent examples of national urban parks already serving America include National Capital Parks in the Washington, D.C., area; Gateway National Recreation Area in New York, embracing beaches, marshes, islands, a bird sanctuary and historic forts; and Gateway's "sister park," Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, a giant complex of beaches, redwood forests, lagoons and historical properties.

"One of the biggest current projects and the prototype for future national urban parks," says Holland, "is the Lowell National Historical Park."

Lowell, situated about 25 miles northwest of Boston, has a special place in American history. Considered the first planned industrial city in America, it has been called the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. Lowell's part in this revolution has been a story long worth telling. But the city, once the model for many other industrial cities, has for years experienced a steady economic decline. Only recently, largely under the impetus of the National Urban Parks program, has the story been coming alive in connection with plans to restore history-rich portions of Lowell as the "Williamsburg of the American Industrial Revolution."

Through a unique 10-year venture -- building on cooperation between the National Park Service, the City of Lowell and the State of Massachusetts, with about $30 million in federal funds in addition to other public and private support -- Lowell will again display, in refurbished 19th-century dress, the historic resources that helped spark America's industrial growth and might.

On a recent visit to Massachusetts, I spent a full day enjoying the specialized guided walking tours the Park Service already offers visitors for exploring this "Venice of America." The sobriquet (rather misleading if you expect to find the charm of Venice) reflects the six-mile, intricate power and transport canal system that laces the city of Lowell. For many years the system helped provide the water power for keeping the textile mills humming, as well as the transportation lanes to ship goods to Boston and later beyond, across the Atlantic.

Francis Cabot Lowell, founder of the city that bears his name, had envisioned "palatial factories and mills lining this canaled Venice." Now, with ambitious, far-reaching face-lifting and restoration projects under way, Lowell's severe red-brick structures may come closer to realizing the city founder's fond dream.

In 1811, Lowell was still East Chelmsford, an unsung Yankee farming community of 200. That was the year Francis Cabot Lowell, Boston merchant and shipbuilder, went to England to convalesce from illness. During his stay, he toured British textile factories, pretending a superficial interest while taking concentrated mental notes of all he saw. When he returned to America after two years, he had stored enough information to have the intricate textile machinery not only reproduced, but greatly improved over the British models. Ten years later an elaborate industrial complex had sprung up around the confluence of the Merrimack and Concord Rivers. In 1826, East Chelmsford was renamed Lowell in honor of the genius who had seen the area's potential for industry and inspired a dramatic economic boom.

Kirk Boott, who succeeded Lowell, ruled the town with an iron hand. Yankee farm women supplied most of the mill labor. They worked 12 hours a day for between $2.25-$4.25 a week, of which $1.25 was taken out for room and board in the company-run boardinghouses. The social and religious lives of the workers were strickly controlled. Boott provided the mills with a carefully landscaped environment in deference to his largely female labor force.

No longer, as in earlier times, were spinning, weaving and the other various components of the textile manufacturing drawn from different outlying cottage industries. Now everything was concentrated in one complex, a work pattern as yet unknown in England. Lowell at that time was considered by many observers a "model industrial community," lacking the widespread improverishment of the English labor force. Even Charles Dickens, who expressed disdain of much of what he saw of the American scene, was favorably impressed by a visit to Lowell.

Already in the 1830s, however, several "turn-outs" or strikes had taken place and other problems became evident, signaling economic trouble in years ahead -- trouble occasioned by changing technology, shifting markets and labor conflicts. Decline was gradual but steady until today only one of the original eight textile mills remains -- the Wannalancit. Its 250 machines are operated by 120 workers. The shuttle-looms fashion cloth much as they did in the 19th century, though synthetics have replaced cotton.

It wasn't until part of "Little Canada," one of Lowell's many ethnic communities, fell victim to the bulldozer during urban renewal efforts in the 1960s that civic pride rose in opposition to disregard for the city's rich history. In 1972 the "historical park concept" came into being.

Lowell National Historical Park began taking shape in 1978. During the first season last summer, 8,000 visitors joined the three-hour guided walking tours, and 3,000 took the canal barge rides, both free, that the Park-Service offers to help explain and interpret Lowell's "mill story" and the city's role in forging the American Industrial Revolution.

Two other attractions already restored and open under Park Service administration are the Francis Gatehouse (1796) and Merrimack Gatehouse (1848), where you can learn how the locks control the water level in the city's canals.

Several rooms in the Wannalancit Mill comprise the Lowell Textile Museum. Besides samples of materials produced by city mills through the years, the museum contains machinery, photographs, drawings and other graphic displays reminiscent of Lowell's development and decline as an industrial and cultural center in New England. Full-size exhibits depict a typical boardinghouse bedroom and tenement kitchen of the early 1900s.

Much more is still to come. A visitors center located in the original mill complex will offer audio-visual and other exhibits designed to put in historical perspective Lowell's park in development of the industrial revolution in this country. A restaurant and other facilities are expected to make the center a major gathering point for city visitors.

Plans call also for several downtown hotels -- none exist at present -- to expand opportunity for a complete "Lowell experience of city life." As various historic districts are restored, Lowell's streets may once again be peopled by citizens in typical 19th-century fashion, dressed as millworkers and as mill agents, strolling in their Sunday best.

It is anticipated that the state of Massachusetts will develop the canal system for public transportation and recreational boating. The Park Service's job will be to interpret and explain the role of the canals during the 19th century.

For its time -- 150 years ago -- Lowell was considered a very well-landscaped, modern, avant-garde factory town. But certainly it's not our dream -- it's not an example of a modern industrial park -- and, for the present, the unromantic visitor should come prepared to view contemporary Lowell, fairly, through the perspective of the city's history.

A greatly expanded summer 1980 program extending from May 15 (weather permitting) to Labor Day is in store, reports Lewis Albert, superintendent of Lowell National Historical Park. Special-interest guided tours highlighting social, economic, architectural and other aspects of 19th-century life in Lowell will supplement the three-hour guided walking tour, a self-guided walk and nature hikes along the historic canals. The long Fourth of July weekend will be occasion for a colorful regatta and a chance for the city's many ethnic groups to contribute to a special holiday celebration featuring ethnic foods and entertainment. National Park Service tours of Lowell are offered year-round (barge rides during summer only) but on a more limited basis outside the summer season.

"Lowellites are very enthusiastic about the program and the sudden recognition they are now getting," said Lewis Karabatsos of the Textile Museum. "They are quite awed by all those camera-toting tourists who now visit their city to learn about the mill story."

There is yet another spin-off of the program. "Lowell's future is based on its past," Armand Mercier, development director with the Lowell Historic Commission, observed. All this increased attention and activity, Mercier continued, has already spurred a number of private restoration and revitalization efforts. It may eventually spell a comeback for the long-troubled city, he believes.

The National Historical Park program in Lowell has not been without controversy or problems. "The National Park Service will spell change for Lowell, and some people worry that we may be glamorizing an exploitive industry," remarked Sarah Hubbell of NPS. "We try to show the good and the bad, to give a balanced picture. We had quite a bit of vandalism in the beginning," Hubbell added, pointing to badly charred beams at the Francis Gatehouse. "The Park Service provided special tours and barge rides for the neighborhood kids to get across the importance of these irreplaceable resources, and vandalism has since stopped."

Among other urban national parks in process of development -- often-times sparking a neighborhood revitalization program -- are Maggie Walker National Historic Site, in Richmond, Va., commemorating America's first black woman bank president, in the 1920s; Martin Luther King Historic Site, in Atlanta, a large urban section that includes Dr. King's birthplace; and Women's Rights Historic Districts in Seneca Falls, N.Y., commemorating the work of women's right leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer. Jean Lafitte National Historic Park, in New Orleans, recalls both the exploits of the famed pirate and the cultural contributions of Louisana's Cajuns.

Certanly these and similar urban national park projects are not intended to replace all travel to Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and other traditional park destinations. But national urban parks -- though often harsh historical reminders of this nation's struggle to grow and prosper -- are also unique since they highlight the rich mosaic of peoples and cultures from which America has been forged.

As more such sites are developed they can offer attractive alternative vacations, combining recreation and "living history" learning experiences that are often -- happily -- only a tank or two of gas away.