10 Small Moments That Made Our National Parks


Ken Burns called the National Parks “America’s Best Idea.” They’re certainly on the short list of American innovations. But the success story that’s been the National Park system owes it success to a series of small coincidences, acts of rebellion and things that seemed minor at the time. These ten moments have shaped the National Park system and will influence our Parks in the next 100 years.

The Photographer and the President
In 1864, the Civil War was raging. With the nation drowning in the blood of the battles of Cold Harbor, Spotsylvania and Wilderness, the beauty of a small mountain valley 3,000 miles away must have seemed insignificant to Abraham Lincoln, who was expected to lose the presidential election in 1864. But when an obscure, failed gold miner-turned photographer showed up with a set of giant photographs, the President listened.

His name was Carleton Watkins, and his 130 mammoth plates were the first images easterners saw of Yosemite Valley. In the midst of a war, Lincoln proposed making Yosemite inviolate. To build support, California Senator John Conness (one of Yosemite’s highest peaks now bears his name) walked the photos around Congress personally. Twelve years before Yellowstone was declared an actual National Park, the concept was born.

“I So Declare It”
In 1903 Teddy Roosevelt asked an aide if there was any law that prevented him from issuing an executive order protecting the birds of Pelican Island from hunters. When the aide said he didn’t think so, Roosevelt said simply, “Very well. I so declare it.” The National Wildlife refuge system was born. Three years later, a nation fretting about the “end of the frontier” passed the Antiquities Act, which allowed the president to create national monuments with the stroke of a pen.

TR needed no encouragement. He immediately declared Devils’ Tower a national monument. Ever since, the Antiquities Act has offered a conservation antidote to Congressional gridlock. All but four subsequent presidents have used it to preserve wild places. The heritage of the Antiquities Act includes Mount St. Helens, John Day Fossil Beds, Newberry Crater, Paria-Vermillion Cliffs, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and the San Juan Islands.

A Borax Baron Runs The Parks
By the early 1900s, the U.S. government had acquired a chunk of national parks, including icons like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Crater Lake, and a random smattering of national monuments and civil war battlefields. Most were managed by the army until the National Park Service was created in 1916. Woodrow Wilson’s choice to run the agency was a head-scratcher: an independently wealthy New York borax magnate named Stephen Mather. But what a choice it was.

Mather unified the lands into a coherent agency, professionalized the staff, aggressively added new parks and made the Park Service once of the most respected federal agencies. When Congress balked at the cost of adding the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias to Yosemite, Mather bought it with his own cash on the spot. He welcomed cars to the parks, a move that extended their mass appeal beyond wealthy railroad tourists and created a nation of supporters, but which also opened the parks to the risks of being “loved to death” decades later. He led the Park Service until the stroke that led to his death 14 years later.


John D. Rockefeller Jr. Gets Impatient
One of Mather’s deputy Horace Albright’s first priorities was to add the area around Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons to Yellowstone. When the bill died in the Senate after ranchers fought back, Albright enlisted John D. Rockefeller Jr., who visited the area incognito, to the cause. Rockefeller quietly bought up land with the intention of donating it to the park. But the conflict over the Tetons raged bitterly for two decades and Mather died in 1930. Rockefeller lost patience and broke the stalemate. He wrote a letter to FDR saying that if the federal government wouldn’t accept his land gift, he’d simply sell it on the open market to anyone. He was almost certainly bluffing, but his threat forced FDR’s hand. Also in the midst of a war, FDR designated Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943, and Grand Teton National Park took on the form it holds today seven years later.

Warren Harding Climbs the Nose
In 1958, Warren Harding—the climber, not the President—spent an unheard-of 45 days clinging to the vertical wall of El Capitan. He and Mark Powell endured three storms 2,500 feet above ground on the first ascent of El Capitan by what is now known as “The Nose” route. Harding, one of the most notorious, hard-drinking, rebellious characters of the Yosemite climbing scene, used Himalayan ideas to basically invent big-wall climbing, with portaledges that allowed climbers to live on the wall for extended periods of time. In the 15 hours he and Powell spent on the final portion, Yosemite granite and Camp 4 became household names. On his first ascent of The Wall of Early Morning Light 12 years later, a news crew would be waiting at the top.

A New Jersey Waiter goes to Utah
In 1956, a waiter from New Jersey got a job as a summer ranger in Arches National Monument. His name was Edward Abbey. He spent summers on the slickrock and returned to waiting tables in Hoboken in the winter. His notes eventually became Desert Solitaire, a lyrical reflection on the Utah desert that lured two generations of explorers to explore the slickrock canyon country of the Southwest (this writer was one of them). His fierce critique of “industrial tourism,” led the Park Service to w relegated him to a fire lookout. If they wanted to silence Abbey, it was the worst move possible: it gave him plenty of time to write. The Monkey Wrench Gang, his most famous work, was written at Numa Lookout in Glacier National Park.


Between Dec. 4 and 6, 1966, 14 inches of rain fell on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. The water came down the slickrock in torrents. A flash flood roared down Crystal Creek, dumping boulders into the Colorado at mile 98, in the heart of the Upper Granite Gorge. The debris fan constricted the river to a quarter of its previous width, instantly creating a new rapid. A massive boulder midstream created an enormous recirculating hydraulic, now known as “the eater” and “the maw,” or just “the hole.” Crystal became the most feared rapid on the Colorado overnight. Simply naming the sequence of rapids in the heart of the Grand Canyon—Horn Creek, Granite, Hermit and Crystal—will cause any boater to take a deep breath.

If someone told you that a single bill could forever preserve national parks, monuments and preserves equal to the entire state of California, most people would say “it will never happen.” But it already has happened. In 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the single boldest stroke of conservation ever. It was bolder still considering the U.S. was only a few years removed from the OPEC oil embargoes and Alaskan oil was in demand. ANILCA gave us household names like Glacier Bay, Katmai and Kenai Fjords, and an expanded Denali Park. We also got parklands you might never have heard of: Cape Kursenstern, Aniakchak, Kobuk Valley and Yukon-Charley. In other words, without ANILCA, Alaska wouldn’t be Alaska.

Denali is Denali Again
On August 15, 2015, Barack Obama ordered the Secretary of the Interior to make a subtle but telling symbolic move: renaming the highest peak in North America Denali instead of Mt. McKinley. The park itself was re-named Denali as park of ANILCA in 1980. Human habitation in the region goes back 11,000 years before President McKinley took office. One of the less savory aspects of the National Parks’ legacy is displacement of native peoples. When parks were established, most were already inhabited by Native Americans who lost their homes in the process. Obama’s gesture is a step toward acknowledging this history. And Denali (“High One” in Athabaskan) is also a more fitting name for the continent’s highest peak.

The Dawn Wall Goes Free
At 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 14, 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson topped out at the top of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. They were the first to free-climb the entire 3,000-foot face, rated 5.14+, an endeavor closely followed by social media. The free-climbing of the route first aid-climbed by Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation) in 1970 brought big walls back to the climbing forefront after three decade of focusing on short sport climbs and rock gyms.

Those are some moments that drove the first hundred years of our National Parks. What will the next century bring?