THE National Parks of the United States are areas of supreme scenic splendor or other unique quality which Congress has set apart for the pleasure and benefit of the people. At this writing they number eighteen, sixteen of which lie within the boundaries of the United States and are reached by rail and road. Those of greater importance have excellent roads, good trails, and hotels or hotel camps, or both, for the accommodation of visitors; also public camp grounds where visitors may pitch their own tents. Outside the United States there are two national parks, one enclosing three celebrated volcanic craters, the other conserving the loftiest mountain on the continent.


The starting point for any consideration of our national parks necessarily is the recently realized fact of their supremacy in world scenery. It was the sensational force of this realization which intensely attracted public attention at the outset of the new movement; many thousands hastened to see these wonders, and their reports spread the tidings throughout the land and gave the movement its increasing impetus.

The simple facts are these:

The Swiss Alps, except for several unmatchable individual features, are excelled in beauty, sublimity and variety by several of our own national parks, and these same parks possess other distinguished individual features unrepresented in kind or splendor in the Alps.

The Canadian Rockies are more than matched in rich coloring by our Glacier National Park. Glacier is the Canadian Rockies done in Grand Canyon colors. It has no peer.

The Yellowstone outranks by far any similar volcanic area in the world. It contains more and greater geysers than all the rest of the world together; the next in rank are divided between Iceland and New Zealand. Its famous canyon is alone of its quality of beauty. Except for portions of the African jungle, the Yellowstone is probably the most populated wild animal area in the world, and its wild animals are comparatively fearless, even sometimes friendly.

Mount Rainier has a single-peak glacier system whose equal has not yet been discovered. Twenty-eight living glaciers, some of them very large, spread, octopus-like, from its centre. It is four hours by rail or motor from Tacoma.

Crater Lake is the deepest and bluest accessible lake in the world, occupying the hole left after one of our largest volcanoes had slipped back into earth's interior through its own rim.

Yosemite possesses a valley whose compelling beauty the world acknowledges as supreme. The valley is the centre of eleven hundred square miles of high altitude wilderness.

Believed to be the biggest and oldest living thing in the world

The Sequoia contains more than a million sequoia trees, twelve thousand of which are more than ten feet in diameter, and some of which are the largest and oldest, living things in the wide world.

The Grand Canyon of Arizona is by far the hugest and noblest example of erosion in the world. It is gorgeously carved and colored. In sheer sublimity it offers an unequalled spectacle.

Mount McKinley stands more than 20,000 feet above sea level, and 17,000 feet above the surrounding valleys. Scenically, it is the world's loftiest mountain, for the monsters of the Andes and the Himalayas which surpass it in altitude can be viewed closely only from valleys from five to ten thousand feet higher than McKinley's northern valleys.

The Hawaii National Park contains the fourth greatest dead crater in the world, the hugest living volcano, and the Kilauea Lake of Fire, which is unique and draws visitors from the world's four quarters.

These are the principal features of America's world supremacy. They are incidental to a system of scenic wildernesses which in combined area as well as variety exceed the combined scenic wilderness playgrounds of similar class comfortably accessible elsewhere. No wonder, then, that the American public is overjoyed with its recently realized treasure, and that the Government looks confidently to the rapid development of its new-found economic asset. The American public has discovered America, and no one who knows the American public doubts for a moment what it will do with it.


The idea still widely obtains that our national parks are principally playgrounds. A distinguished member of Congress recently asked: "Why make these appropriations? More people visited Rock Creek Park here in the city of Washington last Sunday afternoon than went to the Yosemite all last summer. The country has endless woods and mountains which cost the Treasury nothing."

This view entirely misses the point. The national parks are recreational, of course. So are state, county and city parks. So are resorts of every kind. So are the fields, the woods, the seashore, the open country everywhere. We are living in an open-air age. The nation of outdoor livers is a nation of power, initiative, and sanity. I hope to see the time when available State lands everywhere, when every square mile from our national forest reserve, when even many private holdings are made accessible and comfortable, and become habited with summer trampers and campers. It is the way to individual power and national efficiency.

But the national parks are far more than recreational areas. They are the supreme examples. They are the gallery of masterpieces. Here the visitor enters in a holier spirit. Here is inspiration. They are also the museums of the ages. Here nature is still creating the earth upon a scale so vast and so plain that even the dull and the frivolous cannot fail to see and comprehend.

This is no distinction without a difference. The difference is so marked that few indeed even of those who visit our national parks in a frivolous or merely recreational mood remain in that mood. The spirit of the great places brooks nothing short of silent reverence. I have seen men unconsciously lift their hats. The mind strips itself of affairs as one sheds a coat. It is the hour of the spirit. One returns to daily living with a springier step, a keener vision, and a broader horizon for having worshipped at the shrine of the Infinite.


The Pacific Coast Expositions of 1915 marked the beginning of the nation's acquaintance with its national parks. In fact, they were the occasion, if not the cause, of the movement for national parks development which found so quickly a country-wide response, and which is destined to results of large importance to individual and nation alike. Because thousands of those whom the expositions were expected to draw westward would avail of the opportunity to visit national parks, Secretary Lane, to whom the national parks suggested neglected opportunity requiring business experience to develop, induced Stephen T. Mather, a Chicago business man with mountain-top enthusiasms, to undertake their preparation for the unaccustomed throngs. Mr. Mather's vision embraced a correlated system of superlative scenic areas which should become the familiar playgrounds of the whole American people, a system which, if organized and administered with the efficiency of a great business, should even become, in time, the rendezvous of the sightseers of the world. He foresaw in the national parks a new and great national economic asset.

The educational and other propaganda by which this movement was presented to the people, which the writer had the honor to plan and execute, won rapidly the wide support of the public. To me the national parks appealed powerfully as the potential museums and classrooms for the popular study of the natural forces which made, and still are making, America, and of American fauna and flora. Here were set forth, in fascinating picture and lines so plain that none could fail to read and understand, the essentials of sciences whose real charm our rapid educational methods impart to few. This book is the logical outgrowth of a close study of the national parks, beginning with the inception of the new movement, from this point of view.

How free from the partisan considerations common in governmental organization was the birth of the movement is shown by an incident of Mr. Mather's inauguration into his assistant secretaryship. Secretary Lane had seen him at his desk and had started back to his own room. But he returned, looked in at the door and asked:

Yellowstone National Park
Copyright by Haynes, St. Paul

"Oh, by the way, Steve, what are your politics?"

This book considers our national parks as they line up four years after the beginning of this movement. It shows them well started upon the long road to realization, with Congress, Government, and the people united toward a common end, with the schools and the universities interested, and, for the first time, with the railroads, the concessioners, the motoring interests, and many of the public-spirited educational and outdoor associations all pulling together under the inspiration of a recognized common motive.

Of course this triumph of organization, for it is no less, could not have been accomplished nearly so quickly without the assistance of the closing of Europe by the great war. Previous to 1915, Americans had been spending $300,000,000 a year in European travel. Nor could it have been accomplished at all if investigation and comparison had not shown that our national parks excel in supreme scenic quality and variety the combined scenery which is comfortably accessible in all the rest of the world together.

To get the situation at the beginning of our book into full perspective, it must be recognized that, previous to the beginning of our propaganda in 1915, the national parks, as such, scarcely existed in the public consciousness. Few Americans could name more than two or three of the fourteen existing parks. The Yosemite Valley and the Yellowstone alone were generally known, but scarcely as national parks; most of the school geographies which mentioned them at all ignored their national character. The advertising folders of competing railroads were the principal sources of public knowledge, for few indeed asked for the compilation of rates and charges which the Government then sent in response to inquiries for information. The parks had practically no administration. The business necessarily connected with their upkeep and development was done by clerks as minor and troublesome details which distracted attention from more important duties; there was no one clerk whose entire concern was with the national parks. The American public still looked confidently upon the Alps as the supreme scenic area in the world, and hoped some day to see the Canadian Rockies.


Originally the motive in park-making had been unalloyed conservation. It is as if Congress had said:"Let us lock this up where no one can run away with it; we don't need it now, but some day it may be valuable." That was the instinct that led to the reservation of the Hot Springs of Arkansas in 1832, the first national park. Forty years later, when official investigation proved the truth of the amazing tales of Yellowstone's natural wonders, it was the instinct which led to the reservation of that largely unexplored area as the second national park. Seventeen years after Yellowstone, when newspapers and scientific magazines recounted the ethnological importance of the Casa Grande Ruin in Arizona, it resulted in the creation of the third national park, notwithstanding that the area so conserved enclosed less than a square mile, which contained nothing of the kind and quality which to-day we recognize as essential to parkhood. This closed what may be regarded as the initial period of national parks conservation. It was wholly instinctive; distinctions, objectives, and policies were undreamed of.

Less than two years after Casa Grande, which, by the way, has recently been re-classed a national monument, what may be called the middle period began brilliantly with the creation, in 1890, of the Yosemite, the Sequoia, and the General Grant National Parks, all parks in the true sense of the word, and all of the first order of scenic magnificence. Nine years later Mount Rainier was added, and two years after that wonderful Crater Lake, both meeting fully the new standard.

What followed was human and natural. The term national park had begun to mean something in the neighborhoods of the parks. Yellowstone and Yosemite had long been household words, and the introduction of other areas to their distinguished company fired local pride in neighboring states. "Why should we not have national parks, too?" people asked. Congress, always the reflection of the popular will, and therefore not always abreast of the moment, was unprepared with reasons. Thus, during 1903 and 1904, there were added to the list areas in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Oklahoma, which were better fitted for State parks than for association with the distinguished company of the nation's noblest.

From the brink of the upper falls to the foot of the lower falls is almost half a mile
From a photograph by Pillsbury

A reaction followed and resulted in what we may call the modern period. Far-sighted men in and out of Congress began to compare and look ahead. No hint yet of the splendid destiny of our national parks, now so clearly defined, entered the minds of these men at this time, but ideas of selection, of development and utilization undoubtedly began to take form. At least, conservation, as such, ceased to become a sole motive. Insensibly Congress, or at least a few men of vision in Congress, began to take account of stock and figure on realization.

This healthy growth was helped materially by the public demand for the improvement of several of the national parks. No thought of appropriating money to improve the bathing facilities of Hot Springs had affected Congressional action for nearly half a century; it was enough that the curative springs had been saved from private ownership. Yellowstone was considered so altogether extraordinary, however, that Congress began in 1879 to appropriate yearly for its approach by road, and for the protection of its springs and geysers; but this was because Yellowstone appealed to the public sense of wonder. It took twenty years more for Congress to understand that the public sense of beauty was also worth appropriations. Yosemite had been a national park for nine years before it received a dollar, and then only when public demand for roads, trails, and accommodations became insistent.

But, once born, the idea took root and spread. It was fed by the press and magazine reports of the glories of the newer national parks, then attracting some public attention. It helped discrimination in the comparison of the minor parks created in 1903 and 1904 with the greater ones which had preceded. The realization that the parks must be developed at public expense sharpened Congressional judgment as to what areas should and should not become national parks.

From that time on Congress has made no mistakes in selecting national parks. Mesa Verde became a park in 1905, Glacier in 1910, Rocky Mountain in 1915, Hawaii and Lassen Volcanic in 1916, Mount McKinley in 1917, and Lafayette and the Grand Canyon in 1919. From that time on Congress, most conservatively, it is true, has backed its judgment with increasing appropriations. And in 1916 it created the National Park Service, a bureau of the Department of the Interior, to administer them in accordance with a definite policy.


The distinction between the national forests and national parks is essential to understanding. The national forests constitute an enormous domain administered for the economic commercialization of the nation's wealth of lumber. Its forests are handled scientifically with the object of securing the largest annual lumber output consistent with the proper conservation of the future. Its spirit is commercial. The spirit of national park conservation is exactly opposite. It seeks no great territory—only those few spots which are supreme. It aims to preserve nature's handiwork exactly as nature made it. No tree is cut except to make way for road, trail or hotel to enable the visitor to penetrate and live among nature's secrets. Hunting is excellent in some of our national forests, but there is no game in the national parks; in these, wild animals are a part of nature's exhibits; they are protected as friends.

It follows that forests and parks, so different in spirit and purpose, must be handled wholly separately. Even the rangers and scientific experts have objects so opposite and different that the same individual cannot efficiently serve both purposes. High specialization in both services is essential to success.

Another distinction which should be made is the difference between a national park and a national monument. The one is an area of size created by Congress upon the assumption that it is a supreme example of its kind and with the purpose of developing it for public occupancy and enjoyment. The other is made by presidential proclamation to conserve an area or object which is historically, ethnologically, or scientifically important. Size is not considered, and development is not contemplated. The distinction is often lost in practice. Casa Grande is essentially a national monument, but had the status of a national park until 1918. The Grand Canyon, from every point of view a national park, was created a national monument and remained such until 1919.

[Number, 18; total area, 10,739 square miles]

Hot Springs, 1832 Middle Arkansas 1-1/2 46 hot springs possessing curative properties—Many hotels and boarding houses—20 bath. houses under public control.
Yellowstone, 1872 Northwestern Wyoming 3,348 More geysers than in all rest of world together—Boiling springs—Mud volcanoes—Petrified forests—Grand canyon of the Yellowstone, remarkable for gorgeous coloring—Large lake—Many large streams and waterfalls—Greatest wild bird and animal preserve in world.
Sequoia, 1890 Middle eastern California 252 The Big Tree National Park—12,000 sequoia trees over 10 feet in diameter, some 25 to 36 feet in diameter—Towering mountain ranges—Startling precipice—Large limestone cave.
Yosemite, 1890 Middle eastern California 1,125 Valley of world-famed beauty—Lofty cliffs—Romantic Vistas—Many waterfalls of extraordinary height—3 groves of big trees—High Sierra—Waterwheel falls.
General Grant, 1890 Middle eastern California 4 Created to preserve the celebrated General Grant Tree, 35 feet in diameters—6 mile from Sequoia National Park.
Mount Rainier, 1899 West central Washington 324 Largest acessible single peak glacier system—28 glaciers, some of large sizes—48 square mile of glacier, 50 to 500 feet thick—Wonderful subalpine wild flower fields.
Crater Lake, 1902 Southwestern Oregon 249 Lake of extraordinary blue in crater of extinct volcano—Sides 1,000 feet high—Interesting lava formations.
Wind Cave, 1903 South Dakota 17 Cavern having many miles of galleries and numerous chambers containing peculiar formations.
Platt, 1904 S. Oklahoma 1-1/3 Many sulphur and other springs possessing medicinal value.
Sullys Hill, 1904 North Dakota 1-1/5 Small park with woods, streams, and a lake—Is an important wild animal preserve.
Mesa Verde, 1906 S. W. Colorado 77 Most notable and best preserved prehistoric cliff dwellings in United States, if not in the world.
Glacier, 1910 Northwestern Montana 1,534 Rugged mountain region of unsurpassed Alpine character—250 glacier-fed lakes of romantic beauty—60 small glaciers—Sensational scenery of marked individuality.
Rocky Mountain, 1915 North middle Colorado 398 Heart of the Rockies—Snowy range, peaks 11,000 to 14,250 feet altitude—Remarkable records of glacial period.
Hawaii, 1916 Hawaiian Islands 118 Three separate volcanic areas—Kilauea and Mauna Loa on Hawaii; Haleakala on Maui.
Lassen Volcanic, 1916 Northern California 124 Only active volcano in United States proper—Lassen Peak 10,465 feet—Cinder Cone 6,879 feet—Hot springs—Mud geysers.
Mount McKinley, 1917 South central Alaska 2,200 Highest mountain in North America—Rises higher above surrounding country than any other mountain in the world.
Grand Canyon, 1919 North central Arizona 958 The greatest example of erosion and the most sublime spectacle in the worlds—One mile deep and eight to twelve miles wide—Brilliantly colored.
Lafayette, 1919 Maine coast 8 The group of granite mountains on Mount Desert Island.

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Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009