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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We’ll see you soon!