President Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and others in Yosemite by an unknown photographer around 1903.(Photo: National Park Service)
2016 marks the centennial of the National Park Service, the mission of which is to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.”
And though we’re celebrating 100 years of the National Park System this year, from Maine to Hawaii, Florida to Alaska, and everywhere in between, not to mention American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, it may come as a surprise to learn that the first National Park was designated in 1871, 45 years before the National Park Service as we know it came into existence in 1916.
Before the National Park Service
According to The National Parks: Shaping the System, published by the National Park Service, the idea of land being preserved for everyone to enjoy was first expressed in 1832 (that’s just 56 years after the birth of United States of America in 1776) and is credited to artist George Catlin. During a trip to the Dakota region in 1832, Catlin, best known for his paintings of Native Americans, pondered the impact the western expansion would have upon these civilizations, the wildlife and the wilderness. He wrote that they might be preserved “by some great protecting policy of government…in a magnificent park…a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild(ness) and freshness of their nature’s beauty.”
Though Catlin’s idea was seemingly impractical at the time and “had no immediate effect,” just 32 years later the “national park idea came to partial fruition in 1864” when President Abraham Lincoln signed an act of Congress to transfer the federally-owned Yosemite Valley and nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the State of California on condition that they would “be held for public use, resort, and recreation…inalienable for all time.”
Yosemite was cited as a precedence when Senate Public Lands Committee Chairman Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas presented a park legislation bill in December 1871 to protect the Yellowstone region, keeping it in federal custody and unavailable for development. President Ulysses S. Grant signed Pomeroy’s bill into law on March 1, 1872 and Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park, was established.
Once Yellowstone was protected, the preservation ball really started rolling: In 1875, an act of Congress made most of Michigan’s Mackinac Island a national park before it was transferred back to the state in 1895 and maintained as a state park; Sequoia, General Grant (incorporated into Kings Canyon National Park in 1940) and Yosemite became national parks in 1890 (Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove incorporated into Yosemite National Park in 1906); Mount Rainier joined the national parks in 1899, and a slew of other national parks followed and were established through 1916: Crater Lake (Oregon, 1902), Wind Cave (South Dakota, 1903), Mesa Verde (Colorado, 1906), Glacier (Montana, 1910), Rocky Mountain (Colorado, 1915) and Hawaii (1916, split into Haleakalä and Hawaii in 1960, and redesignated Hawai’i Volcanoes in 1961).
The National Park Service is born
On August 25, 1916 President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill into law to create the National Park Service to oversee the already-established national parks and “such other national parks and reservations of like character as may be hereafter created by Congress.” The NPS was also directed “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.”
Today, more than 20,000 men and women employed with the National Park Service, alongside 221,000 volunteers, continue the charge and share “a passion for caring for the nation's special places and sharing their stories” - all 412 national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House.
In 2015, 307.2 million people visited the national parks, and it wouldn’t come as any surprise if that number is surpassed in 2016. The National Park Service’s Find Your Park initiative encourages everyone to find the park nearest them and share their own stories, this year and for years to come.
This weekend, in celebration of its 100th birthday, the National Park Service invites visitors to celebrateith free admission to all 412 national park sites August 25-28. And check out these fun birthday events scheduled throughout the country.
In honor of the National Park Service's 100th anniversay, USA TODAY has focused on twenty of the best-known national parks in a weekly series. See below for each park covered for guides, photo galleries, videos and more:
Acadia National Park | Arches National Park | Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park | Death Valley National Park | Everglades National Park | Glacier National Park | Grand Canyon National Park | Grand Teton National Park | Great Sand Dunes National Park | Great Smoky Mountains National Park | Isle Royale National Park | Joshua Tree National Park | Mesa Verde National Park | Mount Rainier National Park | Olympic National Park | Rocky Mountain National Park | Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks | Yellowstone National Park | Yosemite National Park | Zion National Park
CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSMarvel at Sequoia's massive sights | 2:13
You could strain your neck trying to see the top of General Sherman, the world's largest living single stem tree, at Sequoia National Park, but don't miss all the wonders down below. Video shot by Marilyn Chung, The Desert Sun. USA TODAY NETWORK
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSMesa Verde isn't just a national park, it was home | 2:22
Twenty-six Native American tribes have roots in Mesa Verde National Park. Their ancestors moved away hundreds of years ago, but their cliff homes have stood the test of time.
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSYosemite National Park offers more than meets the eye | 1:29
Yosemite National Park is known for Half Dome, El Capitan and Mirror Lake, but there is so much more to explore. Video shot by Marilyn Chung, The Desert Sun.
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSFind refuge in Zion National Park | 1:48
Visitors quickly see why Zion National Park gets its name from the Hebrew word for refuge. Video shot by Pat Shannahan, the Arizona Republic. USA TODAY NETWORK
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSSee why this is America's most visited national park | 1:09
Rushing streams and ethereal vistas draw millions of travelers to Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year. USA TODAY NETWORK
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSBehold, beware the raw beauty of Olympic National Park | 2:31
Olympic National Park offers gorgeous vistas in every direction, but visitors should beware when they explore the park's beautiful, rugged coast. USA TODAY
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSGet lost in Death Valley on purpose | 2:43
Death Valley National Park is as big the state of Connecticut. You can be the only person as far as the eye can see, and for many visitors, that's just what they're looking for. Video shot by Marilyn Chung, The Desert Sun. VPC
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSExplore the world's first national park | 2:13
Yellowstone National Park contains about half of the world's active geysers, but those are just the beginning of all the sights to see at the park. Video shot by Brian Kaufman, Detroit Free Press. VPC
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSSee why it's called Arches National Park | 1:53
Arches National Park is home to more than 2,000 naturally formed arches and windows, and that's not all. USA TODAY
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSMt. Rainier's countless wonders will leave you in awe | 2:18
It would take years to explore every glacier, lake, river and stream on Mt. Rainier, but you can dive into the park's bountiful beauty in just two minutes. VPC
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSThere's nothing like the sunrise here | 1:47
Cadillac Mountain sees the first sunrise in the U.S. in the fall and winter, but there's much more beauty to behold all year round at Acadia National Park.
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSSavor the wild side of Rocky Mountain National Park | 2:20
Just getting to the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park is its own adventure. Once you arrive, you may not want to leave. VPC
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSGreat Sand Dunes will make you feel small in best way | 2:56
With sand and stars as far as the eye can see, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve has a way of putting everything in perspective. USA TODAY
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSSee the 'shining mountains' of Glacier National Park | 1:54
Native Americans used to refer to this stretch of the Rockies as the "shining mountains." Glacier National Park still shines with functional glaciers. Video shot by Brian Kaufman, Detroit Free Press. USA TODAY
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSWhat's so grand about Grand Canyon | 2:28
Grand Canyon National Park is as awe-inspiring as you imagine. Video shot by Mark Henle, The Arizona Republic. USA TODAY NETWORK
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSJoshua Tree is a desert oasis | 1:58
Joshua Tree National Park is breathtaking by day or night. Video shot by Marilyn Chung, The Desert Sun.
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSYou can't prepare yourself for the beauty of Black Canyon | 2:55
It took 2 million years for the Gunnison River to carve out Colorado's Black Canyon. The view from the canyon rim will wow you, but even more beauty awaits at the bottom of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. USA TODAY
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSGrand Teton National Park is a hiker's paradise | 2:44
There are no foothills in the Teton Mountain range, so hikers can quickly reach beautiful views. Video shot by Brian Kaufman, Detroit Free Press. VPC
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSSee what brings so many people back to Isle Royale | 3:18
Many people haven't even heard of Isle Royale National Park, but those who have keep coming back. Video by Brian Kaufman, Detroit Free Press.
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSEverglades National Park whispers to visitors | 1:57
Everglades National Park covers 1.5 million acres. No singular landmark stands out. Instead, the whole park whispers with wonder.
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CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKSKen Burns imagines America without national parks | 2:46
Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns celebrates national treasures like the Everglades and Yellowstone National Park and offers a grim view of what their fates might have been without the parks system. VPC
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Marvel at Sequoia's massive sights
Mesa Verde isn't just a national park, it was home
Yosemite National Park offers more than meets the eye
Find refuge in Zion National Park
See why this is America's most visited national park
Behold, beware the raw beauty of Olympic National Park
Get lost in Death Valley on purpose
Explore the world's first national park
See why it's called Arches National Park
Mt. Rainier's countless wonders will leave you in awe
There's nothing like the sunrise here
Savor the wild side of Rocky Mountain National Park
Great Sand Dunes will make you feel small in best way
See the 'shining mountains' of Glacier National Park
What's so grand about Grand Canyon
Joshua Tree is a desert oasis
You can't prepare yourself for the beauty of Black Canyon
Grand Teton National Park is a hiker's paradise
See what brings so many people back to Isle Royale
Everglades National Park whispers to visitors
Ken Burns imagines America without national parks