From the founding of the first national park in 1872, the U.S. National Park System has existed to conserve history and protect the vast landscapes ad abundant diversity of life found throughout our nation for the benefit of all future generations of Americans.
A History of Our National Parks
1832: American artist George Catlin worries that the buffalo and the Native Americans who depended on them would someday be gone forever, and calls for a “nation’s park” to save both.
1864: California state leaders seek to protect the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove from the effects of rising commercial interests, resulting in President Abraham Lincoln signing an act of Congress ceding the region to the state to “be used and preserved for the benefit of mankind.”
1872: Following the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, Congress is convinced to withdraw regions within the territories of Montana and Wyoming from public auction, prompting President Ulysses S. Grant to sign a bill creating Yellowstone, the world’s first national park.
1890: President Benjamin Harrison signs bill creating Yosemite National Park.
1906: Concerned about protecting native ruins and artifacts on federal lands, President Theodore Roosevelt signs the Antiquities Act, providing the authority to restrict use of public lands.
1916: With no central organization, the national parks lack protection and funding. In response, President Woodrow Wilson creates the National Park Service as a branch of the Department of the Interior.
1919: Under federal protection since 1893, Arizona’s Grand Canyon is finally recognized as a national park under President Woodrow Wilson.
1933: President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 6166, which consolidates all national parks, monuments, cemeteries and memorials into the single National Park System.
1955: Ill-equipped to handle post World War II tourism, the National Park Service initiates Mission 66, a 10-year program intended to dramatically expand park service by constructing visitor centers, utilities and roads.
1972: Yellowstone celebrates its 100th birthday; national park attendance reaches 165 million.
1973: President Richard Nixon signs the Endangered Species Acts; at least one or more endangered species is found in more than half of the national parks.
2013: Pinnacles National Park, CA, becomes our most recent national park.
The National Park System includes almost 400 natural, historical, recreational and cultural areas throughout the United States, its territories and island possessions.
The system is made up of:
59 national parks
77 national monuments
29 national memorials
As well as:
National military parks, national parkways, national recreation areas, national seashores, national scenic riverways, national scenic trails
National Parks Across America
“There is nothing so American as our national parks ... . The fundamental idea behind the parks ... is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”
The National Park Service is a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior and is led by a director nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
The National Park System is made up of 84.6 million acres of natural, historical, recreational, and cultural areas throughout the United States.
The largest national park is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska, which covers 13.2 million acres – that’s more than twice the size of Maryland!
The smallest national park is the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia, PA, which covers just 0.02 acres – a little more than 871 square feet!
1,500 park rangers serve to protect our historic lands and wilderness. That’s 1 ranger for every 56.4 thousand acres of park land.
General Ford is the only president who served as a park ranger in the National Park Service. Employed in the summer of 1936 as a seasonal park ranger, he recalled that time as “One of the greatest summers of my life.”
Department of the Interior
The U.S. Department of the Interior is a U.S. governmental department and serves as steward and guardian of our nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage. Our National Parks Services is an operating unit of the Department of the Interior and was created to oversee the parks, which, prior to 1916, were individually managed.
The National Parks Foundation Mission
The National Parks Foundation, in partnership with the National Parks Service, enriches America’s national parks and programs through private support, inspiring generations of national parks enthusiasts.
In National Parks, You’ll Find:
The highest point in North America: Mt. McKinley at 20,320 feet in Denali National Park and Preserve, AK
The longest cave system in the world: 400 miles mapped at Mammoth Cave National Park, KY
The nation’s deepest cave: 1,593 feet in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM
The deepest lake in the United States: 1,932 feet deep at Crater Lake National Park, OR
The lowest point in the western hemisphere: 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley National Park, CA
A Closer Look at Our Parks
Land Mass: 747,956 acres
Park visitors (2011): 4,098,648
Mammals: Approximately 90 species
Birds: More than 150 regularly occurring species
Amphibians: 12 species
Reptiles: 22 species
Fish: 6 native species
Flowering plants: Approximately 1,500 species
Trees: 35 species
Meadows: 36,620 acres
Giant Sequoias, which grow in Yosemite National Park, are the largest plants on Earth.
Location: MT, ID, WY
Land Mass: 2,221,766 acres
Park visitors (2011): 3,394,321
Mammals: Approximately 67 species
Birds: 322 recorded species
Amphibians: 4 species
Reptiles: 6 species
Fish: 15 species (non-native)
Trees: 7 species of conifers
Lodgepole pine: Approximately 80% of forest
Native plants: Approximately 1,150 species
Exotic plants: More than 199 species
Yellowstone has about 300 active geysers and the largest concentration of free-roaming wildlife in all of the lower 48 states.
Great Smoky Mountains:
Location: TN, NC
Land Mass: 521,085 acres
Park visitors (2011): 9,008,830
Mammals: Approximately 65 species
Birds: More than 200 regularly occurring species
Amphibians/Reptiles: 80 species
Fish: 50 native species
Flowering plants: Approximately 1,600 species
Trees: 100 native species
Shrubs: 100 native species
Though populations are variable, biologists estimate approximately 1,500 bears live in the park, a density approximately two bears per square mile.