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.
A 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.
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.
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.
A 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.
The 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.
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.