The National Park Service Centennial

Happy Birthday, National Park Service! We're a little early, but with spring's ebullient arrival, there's plenty of time to have our cake and eat it, too. [Image:]

Happy birthday, National Park Service! We’re a little early, but with spring’s ebullient arrival and all those mountains to see and trails to hike, we’ll need plenty of time to have our cake and eat it, too. [Image:]

As avid parkgoers, you’ve probably heard that the National Parks Service is celebrating its 100th birthday on August 25 of this year. Since 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the National Park Service, it has grown to serve over 300 million visitors annually. The various parks, historical sites, battlefields, and monuments have welcomed, taught, and tested generations of outdoors enthusiasts, natural historians, and students of all ages. It has expanded to preserve more than 50 million acres of wilderness and parkland, as well as some of the most recognizable features of the American landscape. And since there’s really no time like the present to get out and soak in some of that centenarian wisdom, here are a couple of parks highlighted for their age and relevance in bookending the NPS’s hundred year history.

The Very First Park

A picture of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone taken by one of the surveyors, William Henry Jackson, in 1871, before the park was in color--I mean, before the park was designated. [Image:]

A picture of the Grand Canyon in Yellowstone taken by one of the surveyors, William Henry Jackson, in 1871 before the park was in color—err, before the park was designated. This image may well have served as evidence of Yellowstone’s immeasurable value as a publicly held and preserved resource. [Image:]

The oldest park run by the NPS is, of course, the unmistakable Yellowstone National Park. The area itself has been important to Native Americans for over 11,000 years, and the park as a federally managed entity predates the establishment of the NPS. In fact, Yellowstone was the first national park in the world when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the park into law with The Act of Dedication in 1872. The insistent lobbying of Ferdinand V. Hayden held that the park was an invaluable resource that should “be set aside for the pleasure and enjoyment of the people” rather than private development, due to the area’s vast richness and universal beauty.

Thankfully, the park today is still filled with all the grandeur and wonder that throws one’s sense of self into sharp relief. It feels good to feel so small, especially when confronted with the immensity of the earth’s many diverse facets.

A Great Divide

Grand Canyon National Park—which celebrated its own (97th!) birthday at the end of last month—is just about as iconic as it comes. At 277 river-miles long, one mile deep, and, in some places, 18 miles across, its colossal presence washes over the observer and vanishes beyond the horizon like a variegated adobe-hued, butte-waved ocean.

This space is objectively sacred, but never more sacred than to the American Indian tribes that have lineal claims to the area, such as the Paiute, Navajo, Havasupai, and Hualapai, to name a few. There are more than a dozen tribes whose forebears, the Ancestral Puebloan peoples, began settling in and around the Grand Canyon over 10,500 years ago. [Image:]

The Grand Canyon is, well, grand. But it’s also deeply sacred to the distinct American Indian tribes who make, or once made, their homes along the canyon: the Navajo, Havasupai, Paiute, Zuni, Hualapai, and Hopi, to name just a few. The Hopi are believed to be descended from the Ancestral Puebloan peoples, who began settling in and around the Four Corners area and the Grand Canyon thousands of years ago. [Image:]

Since 1882, the U.S. government has largely wielded its control over the canyon by claiming it as a public space. In the intervening time, the parkland has been designated a game preserve, a national monument, and finally in 1919, the 17th U.S. National Park. The park is tremendously popular and sees around five million visitors annually, though few reach the bottom of the steep ravine. The centennial celebrations may prove to be interesting fodder at Grand Canyon National Park, as discussions around the planning of the Grand Canyon Escalade continue to play out. As the NPS enters its second century, the decisions made here will be very telling of the future it sees for itself. For now, the canyon stands as it has for time immemorial, with admittedly more amenities, hiking trails, and whitewater enthusiasts.


Torch-bearer because it is a beautiful testament to where we've been, and a good litmus for where we may be headed. [Image:]

Torchbearer, because it is a beautiful testament to where we’ve been and a good litmus for where we may be headed. [Image:]

Although age is a curious barometer in the realm of timeless natural wonders, the “youngest” park managed by the NPS is Pinnacles National Park. Set aside by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 as Pinnacles National Monument, the park has grown over time and was renamed in 2013, though all the NPS locations are treated with equal status regardless of title.

The park’s craggy, cave-riddled landscape is the millennia-worn face of the extinct Neenach Volcano, which erupted over 23 million years ago. The volcano has been split in the intervening time by the San Andreas Fault, and its halves have moved 200 miles apart! The park is also the home of some hatched-in-captivity California condors and is a must-visit for rock climbers and hikers (outside of the summer months, of course).

The buzz about this 100th year isn’t about the NPS as much as it is about us as Americans, travelers, and lovers of the natural world. And the NPS, no doubt in recognition of that, is looking to hear your experiences and stories. Beyond the newest, oldest, most popular, or those with the most recognizable natural features, we celebrate the connection that each of us forms individually with our favorite parks, and with what the national and state parks strive to at once cultivate and preserve across the country.

If you’re planning (or would like to plan) a trip to a national or state park near you, you’ll find downloading your state’s Pocket Ranger® mobile app or the Pocket Ranger® National Parks Passport Guide is a great first step. With park overviews, maps, facilities, and activities at your fingertips, you’re sure to have terrific time!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *