Every year from April 18–26, the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation join together to celebrate National Park Week. It’s a way to invite people to engage with the national parks, but also an opportunity to commemorate the rich history of the National Park Service. Let’s get to know a bit more about the history of the NPS.
The U.S. was unquestionably always a nation of explorers. Filled with rich resources and natural beauty, this land was perceived to be very special. For those who couldn’t go adventuring into it themselves, early travelers and writers like John Muir shared vivid accounts of the country’s natural wonders, helping create a deep nationwide appreciation of the wilderness and a sense of national pride that slowly morphed into political pressure. Americans had the foresight to demand that these lands be protected from destruction and development.
President Abraham Lincoln listened and established the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864 to caretake the Yosemite Valley. This was the very first time the U.S. government prioritized land preservation over commercial interests. It was a huge departure from an established tradition of transferring public lands to private ownership, and it paved the way for the eventual creation of the National Park Service. A mere eight years later, the U.S. Congress designated Yellowstone as our first national park in the historic Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, which President Ulysses S. Grant proudly signed into law on March 1, 1872.
Between 1908 and 1913, Congress was seriously considering damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley in order to make sure there would be a steady supply of drinking water for the rapidly expanding city of San Francisco. There was a problem, though: the valley was part of Yosemite National Park. Environmentalists lobbied emphatically, citing the Yosemite Grant Act and the Antiquities Act, but Congress eventually decided to allow the dam. Afterward, the very disappointed and angered Sierra Club and its allies demanded that the government establish even stronger protections for national parks by creating a unified federal management service. This resulted in the formation of the National Park Service. Today, the NPS oversees a whopping 419 parks and monuments, totaling over 84 million acres of land across the nation, and its success has inspired like-minded organizations in countries all around the planet.
It’s important to remember that the protection of these lands goes back much further in time than the creation of legislation. Many of the national parks are on significant cultural heritage sites for the communities of American Indians, Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians who lived on and protected their lands as stewards long before the NPS came along.
Here are a few national parks with notable histories:
Yellowstone National Park
As America’s first national park, of course this 2.2 million acres of wilderness spanning Wyoming, Montana and Idaho made the list. The early descriptions of Yellowstone by prospectors and explorers who passed through the region were so extreme that they were often laughed off as fantasy. Stories of vast parts of earth that erupted through geothermal activity—including hot springs, mud pots and geysers—finally forced an expedition into the territory to see if the claims checked out once and for all. One year after the official expedition, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill making Yellowstone the first national park on March 1,1872. Named for the yellow hue of its earthen canyons, the park includes the Yellowstone River and four mountain ranges, with an ecosystem that supports more than 60 mammal species from gray wolves to grizzly bears, lynx, bison and elk.
Dry Tortugas National Park
This park’s intriguing history started well before its initiation as a national park on January 4, 1935. The string of seven islands located in the Gulf of Mexico 70 miles west of Key West were discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513 and named for the abundant amount of sea turtles that made the surrounding waters their home. After the War of 1812, Dry Tortugas was used to help protect the southern border of the United States. Fort Jefferson began development here in 1846, and, although never completed, collaborated with the warships that patrolled the surrounding waters and that needed to resupply and seek refuge from storms. During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson was used as a base for soldiers and a place to house prisoners. One of the most infamously caged criminals was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who harbored John Wilkes Booth after he shot President Lincoln. Now, Dry Tortugas is a calm, remote tropical paradise for those who simply want to enjoy its sandy beaches and aquamarine waters, which are home to more than 30 species of coral, sharks, sea turtles, coral, lobsters, squid, octopus, tropical reef fishes and Goliath groupers.
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota made its place in the history books by being the first cave to be named a national park! In addition to its length (currently the sixth longest cave in the world), Wind Cave is known for its calcite formations known as “boxwork,” elaborate honeycomb-like structures formed by layers of calcite spears. About 95% of the world’s boxwork is found in Wind Cave. It was named for the winds that pass through its entrance—according to local legend, it’s like the mouth of the cave is actually breathing. The park also contains one of the world’s few remaining mixed-grass prairies, home to native species like bison, elk and prairie dogs.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde in Colorado is best known for its Pueblo cliff dwellings, which date as far back as A.D. 600. The impressive park contains over 5,000 archaeological sites denoting the region’s long human history. But its modern history is interesting as well. The Pueblo sites were discovered by a rancher named Richard Wetherill and were excavated and partially pillaged by a Swedish aristocrat named Gustaf Nordenskiold. The area’s official designation as a federal national park on June 29, 1906, was intensely opposed by an outspoken writer named Virginia McClurg, who insisted it should instead be a “woman’s park.”
Zion National Park
Zion in Utah also has a long human history dating back to nearly 6,000 B.C., when small, semi-nomadic family groups lived in the region. With deep canyons, sweeping plateaus, sandstone cliffs and striking river formations, Zion is better known today for its views. It makes for interesting history as a national par,k because it was initially established as Mukuntuweap National Monument by President William Taft in 1909. But, unfortunately, most at the time feared that honoring the land with a Native American name would deter visitors, which is why it was renamed Zion when it received national park status on November 19, 1919—a Mormon word reflective of the population residing there at the time.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park in Florida was the first national park created solely to protect an ecosystem at risk. This region is the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. and was established as a national park on May 30, 1934, thanks to the massive efforts of a former land developer turned conservationist, Ernest F. Coe. The park is now home to many federally threatened and endangered species, including the West Indian manatee and the Florida panther.
Acadia National Park
Acadia made history on February 26, 1919, by becoming the very first national park east of the Mississippi River, and it remain the only national park in the northeastern U.S. Surrounded by rocky Atlantic coastline and covered in gorgeous spruce-fir forest, Acadia receives more than 2.5 million visitors annually who come to hike, kayak, rock climb and check out the vibrant changing leaf colors in the autumn.
Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park was established in 1890, making it the second oldest national park. Although a handful of areas were named national parks after Yellowstone was established and before Sequoia, they were later decommissioned. Sequoia is notable because its designation as a national park was successful in ending logging operations that had been rampant in the area, threatening the giant sequoias, including the world’s largest tree, General Sherman (275 feet tall and 25 feet wide). Parts of the park burned due to lightning fires in 2021, but much of the park still thrives and is still completely protected from logging.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite makes this list not just because it is the third oldest national park, but because since it first opened its doors as a park, it was planned and viewed as a way to make the natural world more easily accessible to the general public, not just to a privileged few. Senator John Conness, John Muir and Captain Charles Young were fierce protectors of this land, which is famous for its granite cliffs and formations that include Half Dome and El Capitan. Its boundaries include a pristine wilderness along the Sierra Nevada with three giant sequoia groves that are home to many rare plants and animal species.
Hot Springs National Park
Arkansas’ Hot Springs National Park was given protected status as a Federal Reserve all the way back in 1832, 40 years before Yellowstone’s national park status. Some argue that technically it should have been the first national park, but it didn’t receive its official designation by the National Park Service until 1921. It’s notable for being not only the tiniest national park at just over 5,500 acres, but also the only national park in an urban area. (Okay, if we’re being technical, the smallest unit of the National Park System is actually the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, but Hot Springs is the smallest land-based one.) The park is based around the natural hot springs that flow out of the Ouachita Mountains.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico has perhaps some of the oldest geological history of any of the national parks, but most of it is hidden from plain sight. This national park is also home to one of the planet’s oldest and best-preserved fossilized reefs. Capitan Reef—located in the present-day arid, mountainous region surrounded by harsh Chihuahuan desert—is a record of a 250-million-year-old Permian-age ocean that was once filled with life. Also hidden below the surface is an extensive system of limestone caves filled with a variety of calcite deposits. So, while it wasn’t given national park status until May 14, 1930, its historical significance is not to be overlooked.