The US National Parks Service celebrates its centennial in 2016, and while stewarding some of the world’s most beautiful natural landscapes has been central to its mission, it is now keen to renew public interest in the values that inspired the formation of the service 100 years ago. We’ve decided to honour this milestone by taking a closer look at the organization credited with preserving America’s most outstanding natural landmarks.
Several individuals were instrumental in making sure the parks went from theory to reality. One John Muir, a famous naturalist, wrote to his wife, Louie, in 1888 that there needed to be a place where people could ‘go alone in silence, without baggage’ and where they could ‘get into the heart of the wilderness’.
Other important figures include Theodore Roosevelt, Marjory Douglas and businessman Stephen T. Mather, who performed all the politicking necessary to shift the national park idea from a vague cultural consensus into a political reality, and used his personal fortune to generously contribute to park budgets.
Though America’s majestic national parks are many and varied, two of the most popular are undoubtedly Grand Teton and Yellowstone. Grand Teton, conserved for posterity largely through the efforts of John D. Rockefeller Jr (who bought up much of land, only to turn it over to the US National Parks Service), features a mountain range that once lay at the heart of one of America’s greatest mountaineering controversies, when two different parties each claimed to be the first to scale its heights at the end of the 19th century. Today, most people go to experience its serene lakes, pristine alpine terrain, two hundred miles of trails and Snake River, the largest tributary of Columbia River.
Yellowstone is well known as the first national park to be established in the US. It contains the world’s greatest concentration of geysers, perhaps because the entire site rests on an active ‘supervolcano’ – of which there are only thirty in the world. With grizzly bears, wolves, herds of bison and a huge number of other animals, this isn’t just a geologist’s fantasy, it’s also one of the world’s few ecosystems still intact. The park’s popularity is reflected in the stats, too: 3.8 million visitors were clocked in the first nine months of 2015 alone.
Finally, though not officially designated a ‘national’ park, Custer is one of America’s largest state parks. Named after Lieutenant Colonel Custer, who notoriously met his end at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, its 71,000 acres contain 1,500 free-roaming bison, as well as elk, deer, mountain goats and mountain lions. Those who want to see real cowboys in action can watch bison stampeding at the end of September, when they’re herded in the annual round up. Then there’s the ‘begging burros’, the name that local donkeys have earned by constantly approaching cars for food as they drive through. For the active, there are trail rides, bike rides and horse riding, and on the lake you can go canoeing, hydro-biking or fly-fishing. But it’s the safari tours that sell out first, and it’s no surprise given the park’s impressive flora and fauna.
In total, there are 407 designated National Parks in America, and while each has its own story, all seek to engage compatriots with their community-based recreation and conservation programs. Which will you choose to visit in 2016?
For an unparalleled insight into the sights of the US National Parks Service, try our dedicated itinerary, the American Parks Trail.