Six of the Places Where Our National Parks Were Made

Nation­al Parks owe their his­to­ry to some key peo­ple and key moments. But what about places? Parks are, after all, spe­cif­ic places on earth. The Nation­al Park Ser­vice was found­ed more than 100 years ago. So let’s look back at a few patch­es of ground that have had an out­sized impact on the Nation­al Parks movement.

yosemiteA Nonex­is­tent Camp­fire Some­where in North­west­ern Wyoming
As myth has it, the idea of a nation­al park was born around a camp­fire by the first east­ern Amer­i­cans to explore Yel­low­stone: David Fol­som, Hen­ry Wash­burn, and Fer­di­nand Hay­den in 1869–71.

As the sto­ry goes, dis­cus­sions around the camp­fire led to that the area should be kept pub­lic and not be sold off to pri­vate indi­vid­u­als as much of the West was being home­stead­ed in the late 1800s. Sup­pos­ed­ly this led to the cre­ation of Yel­low­stone as the first nation­al park.

The sto­ry is almost cer­tain­ly false. In fact, Yel­low­stone wasn’t real­ly the first “nation­al park”. Abra­ham Lin­coln, inspired by Car­leton Watkins’ pho­tographs, had signed a bill back in 1864 that declared the Yosemite Val­ley inviolate.

But in 1876 park advo­cates latched on to the appeal­ing sto­ry of rugged explor­ers kick­ing ideas around a camp­fire and made polit­i­cal hay from it. The North­ern Pacif­ic Rail­road, seek­ing tourist des­ti­na­tions for their route through the west, sup­port­ed the Park. Through a tall tale retold, the Nation­al Park idea gath­ered steam.

©istockphoto/traveler1116 Glac­i­er Point, Yosemite
In 1903, Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt toured Yosemite. He told his entourage, wait­ing for him at the Wawona Hotel, that he would join them “short­ly”. The Pres­i­dent didn’t show up for three days; he had ditched them to go off camp­ing with a fel­low named John Muir.

The two slept beneath the giant trees in the Mari­posa Grove, hiked up Sen­tinel Dome, and woke up cov­ered in snow at Glac­i­er Point. It was prob­a­bly the most impor­tant camp­ing trip in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. The com­pa­ny of Muir and the land­scape of Yosemite sent Roosevelt’s already-strong con­ser­va­tion instinct into hyperdrive.

Muir’s imme­di­ate goal was renewed fed­er­al pro­tec­tion of Yosemite. He got that and more. Roo­sevelt cre­at­ed 5 oth­er nation­al parks, 18 nation­al mon­u­ments, four game pre­serves, 150 nation­al forests, and over 230 mil­lion acres of pub­lic lands.

©istockphoto/tobiasjo Mile 32.8, Col­orado Riv­er, Arizona
Mile 32.8 of the Col­orado Riv­er in the Grand Canyon is fair­ly innocu­ous. The last big rapid is eight miles back, and the next siz­able drop, Unkar Rapid, is forty miles down­riv­er. Boaters look for­ward to stop­ping at Red­wall Cav­ern and fill­ing up with fresh water at Vasey’s Par­adise, but it’s hard to miss the four big square holes up high on the wall.

They’re the test holes for the Mar­ble Canyon Dam, which was pro­posed and even sur­veyed. In 1963, the Bureau of Recla­ma­tion, hav­ing just closed the flood­gates on the Glen Canyon Dam upstream, pro­posed a 300-foot dam in Mar­ble Canyon that would have backed a reser­voir all the way up to the foot of Glen Canyon Dam. A sec­ond pro­posed dam in Bridge Canyon on the west end would have turned the leg­endary Col­orado Riv­er into a series of reservoirs.

As crazy as this sounds now, the 1950s and 60s were the era of big fed­er­al dam build­ing and the Sun Belt was grow­ing and thirsty. The fight over the Grand Canyon was a seri­ous one. It turned a riv­er rat into a sea­soned con­ser­va­tion­ist (Mar­tin Lit­ton) and a small region­al group of out­door activists into a nation­al force to be reck­oned with (the Sier­ra Club). Col­orado still flows like a riv­er through the Grand Canyon.

florida evergladesA Swamp in South Florida
A swamp near Mia­mi does­n’t seem like the per­fect place for a nation­al park; but when Con­gress autho­rized the cre­ation of Ever­glades Nation­al Park 1934, it was ground­break­ing even though they didn’t appro­pri­ate any mon­ey for the Ever­glades for anoth­er five years.

Ever­glades Nation­al Park was game-chang­ing in two ways. First, it was the first nation­al park in the East, where most Amer­i­cans lived at the time. The Ever­glades broke a pat­tern of parks being estab­lished almost exclu­sive­ly in the high moun­tains of the West.

And sec­ond, it was the first park to be pre­served not for its scenic beau­ty, but to pro­tect frag­ile ecosys­tems at risk from water draw­downs and agri­cul­ture. In the midst of the Great Depres­sion, plac­ing the eco­log­i­cal con­cerns of a bug­gy humid swamp at the top of any list was a coura­geous move. The Ever­glades was the first vic­to­ry for the new sci­ence of ecol­o­gy that would gath­er steam in the com­ing decades.

©istockphoto/tondaThe Mouth of the Lit­tle Col­orado Riv­er, Grand Canyon Nation­al Park
The les­son of Hetch Hetchy and the Grand Canyon Dam pro­pos­al is that nation­al parks still need defend­ers after they’re estab­lished. One of those places is the unde­ni­ably mag­i­cal blue waters of the Lit­tle Col­orado Riv­er where it meets Col­orado, a sacred site to many Nava­jo and Hopi.

The pro­posed “Grand Canyon Escalade” devel­op­ment would build a 1.4‑mile motor­ized tram to shut­tle up to 10,000 vis­i­tors a day to the bot­tom of the Grand Canyon and would fea­ture a hotel, restau­rant, RV cen­ter, and amphithe­ater. Forty years after the defeat of the Grand Canyon dam pro­pos­als and the expan­sion of the park, the Grand Canyon is still under threat.

©istockphoto/OGphoto 146 Acres in Zip Code 20004
It may be one of the small­er Nation­al Parks, but it’s the most impor­tant. The Capi­tol Mall in Wash­ing­ton D.C. is where Yosemite, Glac­i­er, Denali, and Canyon­lands were cre­at­ed. Parks are estab­lished, fund­ed, defund­ed, pro­tect­ed or pri­va­tized by the action (or inac­tion) of Con­gress and the Pres­i­dent. Far away as it may seem from the depths of a slot canyon in Zion or atop a pin­na­cle in the Tetons, the Capi­tol Mall is a place park advo­cates can’t afford to overlook.