This article has been significantly updated. Please click to this article instead: “The National Park System: America’s Hidden Treasure.”
Happy 100th Birthday, NPS!
In 1916, when the National Park Service (NPS) was created (through the National Park Service Organic Act, during President Woodrow Wilson’s administration) to manage America’s parks and historic sites, there were only 14 national parks and a few national monuments, and they weren’t all managed by the same department or organization. Today in 2016, the total number of properties in the system comes to 408, including not only national parks, but also battlefields, historic sites, and monuments from all over the country. They collectively welcome almost 300 million visitors a year, a statistic that is both exciting and alarming, since in some places, rangers tell us we are “loving our parks to death” because of the negative impact of too many visitors.
But for now, let’s just celebrate the remarkable vision of those 1916 legislators and naturalists and learn about some of the special events going on all year in every NPS property. CLICK HERE to explore the NPS Centennial celebration website. Christiane Engel has created a delightful and interesting infographic called “100 Years at a Glance” for the Winter issue of National Parks magazine, the publication of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Until I started reading some of the articles in various magazines about the NPS Centennial, I didn’t realize what a broad and diverse organization it was. NPS Director Jon Jarvis says, “At our essence, the NPS tells story through place,” differentiating it from other types of museums that tell stories through objects. I knew about the parks that encompass wild spaces and examples of the American landscape (e.g., Yosemite, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains), and I was aware of many battlefields that have been preserved for historical reasons (e.g. Gettysburg, Manassas, Antietam), but NPS also preserves and tells the stories of ordinary places where extraordinary events occurred, such as Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and Little Rock High School.
My first national park: Shenandoah
My first memory of a national park was visiting Shenandoah National Park and its nearby Skyline Caverns. The Front Royal entrance to the park and the Skyline Drive was less than 30 minutes from my childhood home, and we occasionally took picnics and did some hiking. Smoky the Bear was a prominent icon on park signage, even back then, and I remember, as a child, both hoping and fearing we would run into him in the forest. By the time my own children were old enough to go, in the 1980s, we especially loved hikes that took us to a waterfall or stream. On one expedition, we encountered a buck with a large set of antlers, and he was not inclined to get out of our way. We heeded the warnings to defer to the wildlife and withdrew back up the trail until he decided to move on. We were always on the lookout for snakes, especially the notorious rattlesnake. Fortunately, its nickname “the gentleman snake” is well-deserved, because you almost always hear its distinctive rattle long before you’re close enough to get bitten. Sadly, it is rare to find a very clear vista from any of the many overlooks on the Skyline Drive. Haze and smog have become increasing problems here, and also in the Great Smoky Mountains down in Tennessee.
Our newest national parks
- Valles Caldera National Preserve, in New Mexico, added 250,000 acres of land and a 13-mile-wide caldera that formed from avolcanic eruption 1.2 million years ago that was 2,000 times bigger than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. John and I visited several years ago when our daughter moved to Santa Fe, and it is truly spectacular. While you’re in that region, you’ll want to also visit Los Alamos (home of the future Manhattan Project National Park) as well as Bandelier National Monument, which includes magnificent ruins—carved from the cliffs—of ancestral pueblo people who lived there from approximately 1150 CE to 1550 CE.
- Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park, in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, is considered the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. In 1790 the country’s first successful water-powered cotton-spinning factory operated on the Blackstone River, a watershed that drops more steeply and quickly than the Colorado River.
- Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, in Nevada, is a 22,605-acre desert oasis a few miles north of Las Vegas. It was once home to ice age-era mammals including extinct camels and giant sloths, and has been a target for archaeologists and paleontologists for over a century. It is still considerably under development for visitors. No cars are allowed, but hikers can come and look for fossils, and interpretive trails and fossil displays are planned for the future.
I want your national park stories and photos!
In the weeks ahead, Esther Miller will be our guest as she shares her experiences in a few of our best known and much beloved national parks. Look for those starting next month. I’d love to hear from you about the national parks you’ve visited, what you most remember (good or bad), what your favorite NPS properties are, and any tips you might have for those of us who’d like to follow in your footsteps. Send pictures and stories to me using this site’s Get In Touch page. I will assume I have your permission to use what you send here on my blog unless you tell me otherwise.
National Parks: our natural and historical legacy
How grateful I am that my children and grandchildren have these amazing places preserved for their enjoyment and education. They are ensured of many ways to connect with nature even if they live in a high-rise apartment in the middle of a city, and in many instances they are also provided with lively and appealing ways to see and understand the natural and cultural history of their great country .
Support our national parks
These organizations do a good job with financial support, education, and promotion of our nation’s national parks and properties. Many of them have property-specific support groups too.