An American Tradition: Visiting National Parks


National parks are tightly woven into the fabric of American culture. For over a century, generations of visitors have explored these stunning landscapes, marveled at amazing wildlife, walked in the footsteps of the people who shaped our history and formed a connection to the outdoors. Coming in wagons, by train or piled into the family station wagon, the experience of visiting a national park has evolved, but the wonder remains the same.

Take a trip back in time to see how each generation discovered our national treasures in their own way and how these traditions live on.

A group of men on horseback tread on a dusty trail lined with brush and trees in front of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
President Abraham Lincoln set aside the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley as federally-protected lands in 1864. Yosemite became a national park in 1890 and has amazed visitors - like John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt - ever since. Photo from National Park Service archives.

On March 1, 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming "as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" and placed it "under exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior."

An old black and white photo of early automobiles and people near several bubbling hot springs.
Overwhelmed by the erupting geysers and incredible wildlife of Yellowstone National Park, early visitors shared their stories and made the park a popular tourist destination. Photo of Upper Geyser Basin from National Park Service archives.

In the following years, additional national parks and monuments were created -- many of them carved from the federal lands of the West. Early park staff worked hard to guard parks from poachers and squatters and offer some level of service to visitors. With their beauty and importance recognized, Sequoia, Yosemite, Crater Lake, Glacier and Mesa Verde began drawing visitors in trickles.

An aerial view of ancient buildings carved into the side of a desert canyon and a cluster of tourists sitting among the ruins with bushes and trees further into the ravine.
For many visitors, Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado was the first time being exposed to Native American history. It was an opportunity to learn, connect and walk in the footsteps of the Ancestral Pueblo. These cultural connections remain a hallmark of visiting national parks today. Photo of Cliff Palace by George A. Grant, National Park Service archives, 1929.

There were many challenges for early national park visitors -- the chief among them being a complete lack of infrastructure. Few roads led to the parks and little to no food and shelter existed within them. Some of the first caretakers were African American soldiers, who built the first usable road into Giant Forest and the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney -- the tallest peak in the contiguous United States -- in Sequoia National Park in 1903. At other parks, military units and temporary wardens assisted visitors and protected wildlife. As stories and artwork of the magnificent parks were shared, more people visited each year.

A line of African American soldiers on horseback pose in a line on a dirt trail among weeds with tall trees soaring high behind them.
The 24th Mounted Infantry Unit served in Yosemite National Park. Despite their position as second-class citizens, the soldiers served their country and built roads and infrastructure to help introduce visitors to the wild frontier. Photo from National Park Service archives.

The first substantial wave of visitors to the western parks came by railroad. To house them in luxurious style, railroad companies built grand lodges and inns to match the amazing scenery. Bringing the outdoors inside, towering timbers and local stone turned these hotels into adventurers’ castles.

An historic photo of a hotel with a large group of horseback riders milling about outside is held next to the same hotel in the modern day with rocky snow-capped mountains towering overhead.
Built on the banks of Swiftcurrent Lake, Many Glacier Hotel was constructed as the “Gem of the West” to welcome weary travelers to Glacier National Park in Montana. Photo from National Park Service archives.

This rustic style became known as “parkitecture” and continues to inspire visitors and designers today. Examples include Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, El Tovar Hotel at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

The interior of an historic hotel is lavishly constructed with wooden rafters and rustic chandeliers and decorated with patterned rugs and comfortable armchairs.
Brimming with rugged luxury, Paradise Inn surrounds guests with the beauty of Mount Rainier National Park at every turn. Generations of guests have been awestruck by both the Inn’s setting and architecture. Photo from National Park Service archives.

Touring the national parks in this grand style was a privilege restricted to those who could afford the time and expense of lengthy vacations and costly accommodations. To ensure that the parks would become more accessible to everyone while preserving what made them special, a new organization was needed.

A bearded, rugged-looking man with a wide hat and warm coat looks off into the middle distance.
Yellowstone National Park’s first “gamekeeper,” Harry Yount was the first to assume traditional ranger duties -- protecting plants and wildlife, assisting visitors and establishing infrastructure. He made the recommendation for a comprehensive and coordinated patrol force, securing his place as the “father of the ranger service.” Photo from National Park Service archives.

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service, a new federal bureau in the Department of the Interior responsible for protecting the 35 national parks and monuments then managed by the Department and those yet to be established. This "Organic Act" states that "the Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

A woman in a riding skirt and ranger's hat sits on horseback among brush and in front of blurred trees and mountains.
Clare Marie Hodges was first woman ranger in the National Park Service. She was inspired by the great outdoors as a child and decided to teach in the Yosemite Valley as an adult. She approached the Yosemite National Park Superintendent for a ranger position during World War I and worked for a summer delivering receipts on horseback, opening the door for future female rangers. Photo from National Park Service archives.

The arrival of the automobile in the early 20th century presented park managers with new challenges and opportunities to get visitors into the parks. In the 1920s, motor touring and car camping blossomed into nationwide fads, actively encouraged by the National Park Service in order to build a broader constituency of park supporters. Parks overflowed with motorists who regaled each other with tales of their automotive adventures traveling the rough and rugged park roads. Driving by herds of bison and winding along mountain roads next to terrifying drop-offs were experiences they wouldn’t forget.

Three women with wide-brimmed hats and long coats sit smiling on an historic automobile adorned with stickers and covered in dust.
Having collected sticker souvenirs from an impressive array of national parks, Mary Crehore Bedell and her traveling companions pose with their automobile in Yellowstone National Park. They traversed the wild frontier and joined the motor revolution, experiencing the outdoors like never before in their Ford Model T. Photo from National Park Service archives, 1922.

In order to accommodate the influx of motorists and their demands for modern, high-quality roads, landscape architects from the National Park Service worked with highway engineers from the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads to develop a systematic approach to road design, construction, and management. This collaborative effort produced a 'Golden Age' of park road development that birthed some of the parks’ most iconic drives, including the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway in Zion National Park and Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. Today, the cars are different, but the mesmerizing views haven’t changed.

Massive crowds line the grassy hills and face inward toward a lone flagpole with a range of tall mountains and puffy clouds rising in the background.
Twenty years of back-breaking labor culminated in the dedication of the Going-to-the-Sun Road witnessed by more than 4,000 thrilled spectators on July 15, 1933. This marvel of engineering -- and many other park roads like it -- opened the door for everyday Americans to encounter public lands for the first time. Photo by George A. Grant, National Park Service archives.

Beyond the need for roads, campgrounds and restrooms, visitors wanted something else; to connect with the parks. To help people form a deeper understanding of wildlife, biology, geology and other natural systems, the National Park Service formed a professional corps of park rangers. Wearing their iconic flat hats, park rangers filled the roles of teachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics and tour guides.

Six youthful rangers in uniform stand on a cloudy, windy day in a lineup in front of sandy brick ruins.
Homer Hastings, Georgia Akers, Stanley Milford, Joyce Chubb, custodian Thomas C. Miller and Zelda Mae Abrams, pose in front of Aztec Ruins National Monument in Arizona. Earning a coveted position as a NPS ranger was, and still is today, a life-changing experience. Photo by George A. Grant, National Park Service archives, 1940.

In an effort to improve the parks for the National Park Service’s 50th anniversary in 1966, the agency began a massive building program called Mission 66. Not only were roads, bridges and trails added and improved, but new park facilities and visitor centers were built. Moving beyond the rustic, a new contemporary style emphasized clean lines and functionality. This efficiency was necessary as the number of visitors grew each year.

Two bear cubs beg for food outside a vintage automobile on a worn road bordering trees and rolling mountains.
Black bear cubs were amazed by post-war modernism as much as people were! In reality, visitors often put themselves at risk by interacting with bears. While that contributed to the wild appeal of national parks, we know today that it is important to keep your distance from all wildlife, and there are many more safe ways to enjoy your time in America’s backyard. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, National Park Service archives.

The social acceptance of modernism and its use in the parks was also a matter of urgency and economics. The National Park Service needed to serve huge numbers of people as quickly as possible, and despite increased funding, it had to do so on a limited budget. The materials that modern buildings were composed of -- inexpensive steel, concrete and glass -- allowed more facilities to be built for more parks. New exhibits also made national parks not only places to exercise the body, but also the mind. Hiking, camping and learning together became the foundation for many family memories.

A twisting road and busy construction site with vintage cars and cement foundation sits at the foot of jagged desert formations spotted with brush under a cloudy but bright sky.
With the Watchman of Zion National Park soaring high overhead, construction workers poured cement for a new visitor center and museum at the south entrance of Zion Canyon. The Mission 66 project served to bring resources and buildings into the modern era and to provide everyday visitors with upgraded facilities and an improved guest experience. Photo from National Park Service archives.

As more Americans began living and working in urban areas, escapes to the outdoors became more important. People wanted to explore a wide-open world and breath fresh, clean air. To fill that need, national parks took on the roles of outdoor classrooms and wildlife preserves.

A group of young students gather together for a photo next to a vintage yellow school bus in front of desert hills dotted with brown dusty rocks and green shrubbery beneath a deep blue sky.
As the love of public lands exploded, so did the number of field trips into the great outdoors. Teachers appreciated the dynamic learning environment and hands-on experience almost as much as their pupils, and students themselves were often inspired into by the vast and enigmatic horizon that nature offered. Photo by National Park Service.

Better science supported National Park Service policies for visitor impacts, wildlife, multiple uses and sustainability. The firefall at Yosemite National Park was ended, strict rules were put in place regarding human interaction with wildlife and safety measures were extended.

A young woman in a cardigan and skirt squats down toward a small curious fawn in a forest clearing littered with dirt and pine needles.
Before firm rules were implemented limiting human interference, visitors unknowingly yet consistently tampered with animals’ wellbeing by feeding, touching and interacting with them. While that was certainly a thrill for people at the time, new guidelines provide for a safer, more enjoyable, and more sustainable experience for both the wildlife and visitors today. Photo from National Park Service archives.

On August 25, 2016, the National Park Service turned 100 years old. Throughout the year, parks across the country hosted festive concerts, hikes, canoe trips, educational exhibits, historical demonstrations and so much more. The National Park Service recruited countless volunteers to help commemorate the Centennial and manage the nationwide celebration. Above all else, it encouraged everyone to explore public lands and to #FindYourPark and #EncuentraTuParque.

A group of young volunteers in matching NPS t-shirts pose around a large, creative Centennial sign.
Volunteers were crucial to the success of the NPS Centennial, and they played an instrumental role in preparing, organizing, setting up, cleaning up, and most importantly, making it an unforgettable occasion for visitors. The only reason this celebration of stewardship and public lands became a success was because of the people that came and made it one. Photo by National Park Service.

Public lands are more popular than ever, and crowds flock in the millions to see first-hand the breathtaking vistas, historic battlefields and colorful sunsets. Visitors walk in the footsteps of the men and women who cleared those trails and paved those paths to witness the same stunning spectacles. Adults return with their children to places that opened their eyes to the wonders of nature. With hard work and collaboration, maintenance and improvements are always being made to ensure that every experience is as timeless as the parks themselves.

A sparse but wide crowd of visitors circle the orange ridge on the rocky formations of Arches National Park near sunset, embracing the beauty of the endless desert landscape.
One of the most iconic features of Arches National Park in Utah, Delicate Arch draws spectators from all over to simply sit, relax and enjoy the sunset. Its outlandish geologic curvature and striking coral hues invite visitors to come together and make memories with family in the rays of the afternoon sun. Photo by Neal Herbert, National Park Service.

Today more than 20,000 National Park Service employees care for America's 400+ national parks and work with communities across the nation to help preserve local history and create close-to-home recreational opportunities.

A large group of young people pose with kneeling rangers and park staff next to a road sign on a wide gravel path lined with skinny, bare trees.
Rangers with the Boys and Girls Club of the Tennessee Valley at a trailhead in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Park Service staff work hard to connect with the community and to continue the legacy of integrity, respect and shared stewardship through the nation’s youth. Photo by Amy Bartlett, National Park Service.

We’ll see you soon!