The summer that I worked in Montana’s Glacier National Park was one of the best experiences of my life. For three months, I lived within the park’s Many Glacier Valley, waiting tables at its hotel restaurant and hiking among its towering peaks and turquoise waters any chance I could get. I wandered alongside fields brimming with bear grass and through cedar-hemlock forests, keeping an eye out for moose, big-horn sheep and grizzlies around every corner.

While I’d always appreciated America’s national parks, this was the year that I fell in love with them. 

Scenic view of Glacier National Park

© Felipe Molina

National parks stem from a desire to protect and preserve our natural and cultural heritage, from mountain landscapes that are home to extraordinary wildlife to Native cliff dwellings and underground caves. In the U.S. alone, there are 63 national parks, not to mention hundreds of other protected areas such as preserves, national seashores, battlefields, and historic sites.

In fact, the U.S. National Park System oversees 425 official units across all 50 states, as well as in Washington D.C. and the U.S. territories of Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. That’s not to mention the thousands of lands classified as national parks around the globe: places such as Madagascar’s  Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, Australia’s Flinders Chase National Park and Paklenica National Park in Croatia. 

What Is a National Park (and Why Are They Important)? 

“There’s no universal definition,” says Jim Sano, World Wildlife Fund’s Vice President for Travel, Tourism and Conservation, and a former ranger at Yosemite National Park in California. Generally speaking, national parks serve as anchors for larger ecosystems (including wildlife corridors), protect ecological biodiversity, preserve landscapes, and provide economic support for natural and cultural resources through things like tourism.

National Parks also offer quiet places of reflection, promote health and well-being, and help educate the public on the importance of conservation. All this, while also showcasing some of the most unique environments on the planet!

Waterfall view in Yosemite

© Kat Breish

Across the U.S., the term “national park” refers to federally protected lands designated by Congress and managed by the National Park Service. They are set aside both for preservation as well as public recreation. However, in other countries, the term ‘national park’ may be more akin to our national preserves. This means that many of these designated lands also allow commercial activities like hunting (the U.S. does have some ‘park & preserve’ designations that permit such activities) or extracting oil. 

There are approximately 6,555 national parks worldwide and more than 202,000 legally designated protected areas—including Canada’s Banff National Park and Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest, as well as Chile’s Patagonia National Parks Network: 10 million acres of millenary forests, extraordinary flora and fauna and pristine waters that are all connected. 

The Origins of National Parks 

“Yosemite is a good place to start, because that’s the genesis of protected areas,” Sano says. 

On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, establishing both California’s Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Grove of sequoia trees as protected wilderness.

“It was the first time in all of history where a tract of wild land was set aside for protection and public use,” Sano says, “and an incredible moment in history in terms of the creation of national parks.” 

> Read: A Guide to Outsmarting Crowds at Yosemite National Park

Then, in 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone, which lies mostly within the state of Wyoming, as America’s first national park. (Yosemite became a national park 18 years later in 1890.) This guaranteed that the land wouldn’t be subdivided or exploited for its natural resources and wildlife. 

View of Yellowstone NP

© Jim Beissel

Still, it wasn’t until 1916 that the U.S. National Park Service came into being. Its purpose: to consolidate management of America’s federal parklands under one agency and to protect wilderness areas while simultaneously providing public access for current and future generations to enjoy. 

Other early protected lands around the globe include Mongolia’s Bogd Khan Uul Biosphere Reserve (the first in the world to be officially protected), set aside in 1783, and Australia’s Royal National Park, established in 1879. 

How to Protect Our National Parks for Future Generations

National parks face a distinct challenge when it comes to preserving their lands. It’s often referred to as the ‘great parks paradox.’ That is, protecting the parks for future generations while promoting them for visitors to enjoy. In 2019, WWF lead scientist Robin Naidoo shared the results of a study that looked at 600 protected areas and 34 developing countries around the globe.

The study showed that households near protected areas with tourism had up to 17% more wealth and a 16% lower likelihood of poverty than similar households located further afield.

Namibia: The Greatest Wildlife Recovery Story Ever Told, a short film co-produced by WWF shows the intersection and connection between protected areas, tourism, and communities. 

6 Sustainable Travel Tips

Tourism is an essential element in supporting our parks’ upkeep as well as the local communities that surround them, but it’s a delicate balancing act, especially in parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, where you get millions of visitors a year.

To help lessen the impact, Sano recommends spreading the love. For instance, in the U.S., “Consider visiting some lesser-known types of protected areas, such as those overseen by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” he says.

Wherever you roam, make it a point to travel off-season. Not only will this lessen your environmental impact, but you’ll also deal with fewer crowds: a win-win!

Once at a park, Sano suggests that you get out there and explore. “If you go half a mile off the road pretty much everywhere, you’ll lose most of the people.” (Of course, you should always obey park rules and never stray into off-limits areas!)

For those traveling within the United States, the NPS website provides visitation statistics that it updates annually, ranking park units from the highest to the lowest number of visitors. Consider using this list to discover some hidden gems!

Coming in at number 208 (out of 387 units) for 2022, Great Basin National Park is a favorite of Sano’s. Not only is it home to Nevada’s highest peak, but it’s also replete with bristlecone pines—some of the oldest trees on the planet. Last year, Great Basin had just 142,115 recreational visits, while Yosemite had more than 3.6 million.


© Tailyr Irvine / WWF-US

Of course, always follow Leave No Trace principles, which include everything from disposing of your waste to respecting wildlife (seriously, don’t approach them!),

Support the establishment of buffer zones around parklands. “Elk and other wildlife don’t know boundaries,” explains Sano. The more ‘strategic spaces’ we can preserve, the better chances our world’s ecosystems have at survival. 

Discover America’s National Parks with Nat Hab and WWF!