Glimpses of our National Parks
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THE national parks are areas which Congress has set apart, because of extraordinary scenic beauty, remarkable phenomena or other unusual qualification, for the use and enjoyment of the people for all time. They are administered by the National Park Service.

These are not parks in the common meaning of the word. They are not beautiful tracts of cultivated country with smooth lawns and winding paths like Central Park in New York, or Lincoln Park in Chicago, or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. They are, on the contrary, large areas which nature, not man, has made beautiful and which the hand of man alters only enough to provide roads to enter them, trails to penetrate their fastnesses, and hotels and camps to live in.

There are nineteen national parks, of which twelve or more are of the first order of size and scenic magnificence—which means a great deal in a land so beautiful as ours. Every person living in the United States ought to know much about these twelve or more national parks and ought to visit them when possible, for, considered together, they contain more features of conspicuous grandeur than are readily accessible in all the rest of the world together; while, considered individually, there are few, if any, celebrated scenic places within easy reach abroad which are not equaled or excelled in America; even the far-famed Swiss Alps are equaled, and, some travelers believe, far excelled, by the scenery of several of our own national parks.


At the same time there are many features of American scenery which are not to be found anywhere close, or, if found, are unequaled abroad in sublimity or beauty. There are more geysers of large size in our Yellowstone National Park, for instance, than in all the rest of the world together, the nearest approach being the geyser fields of Iceland and far New Zealand. Again, it is conceded the world over that there is no valley in existence so strikingly beautiful as our Yosemite Valley, and nowhere else can be found a canyon of such stupendous size and exquisite coloring as our Grand Canyon of the Colorado. In the Sequoia National Park grow trees so huge and old that none quite compare with them. Mount McKinley, in Alaska, rises 17,000 feet from the ground on which the observer stands to its ice-clad summit among the clouds. These are well-known facts with which every American ought to be familiar.

The twelve national parks of the first order are the Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, the Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, the Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in California, the Glacier National Park in Montana, the Yellowstone National Park, principally in Wyoming, the Rocky Mountain and Mesa Verde National Parks in Colorado, the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, the Mount McKinley National Park in Alaska, the Lafayette National Park in Maine, and the Hawaii National Park in the islands of Hawaii.


One of the striking and interesting features of the twelve greater national parks of our country is that each one of them is quite different from all the others; each has a marked personality of its own.

Mount Rainier, for instance, is an extinct volcano, down the sides of which flow 28 glaciers, or rivers of ice.

Crater Lake fills with water of astonishing blue the hole left when the top of Mount Mazama, another volcano in the same chain as Mount Rainier, was swallowed up in some far distant past.

The Yosemite National Park, in addition to its celebrated Yosemite Valley and lofty waterfalls, has in the north a river called the Tuolumne which spouts wheels of water 50 feet and more into the air. It has great areas of snow-topped mountains.

The Sequoia National Park contains more than a million sequoia trees, of which 12,000 are more than 10 feet in diameter, and some twice that and several from 25 to 36 feet through from side to side. Measure 36 feet on the sidewalk and see what that means. Some of these trees are older than human history.

The Glacier National Park was made by the earth cracking in some far distant time and one side thrusting up and overlapping the other. It has cliffs several thousand feet high and more than 60 glaciers feed hundreds of lakes. One lake floats icebergs all summer.

The Upper Yosemite Fall drops 1,430 feet sheer, nearly as high as nine Niagaras piled one above the other. The Lower Yosemite Fall drops 320 feet. Their combined height, including intermediate cascades and rapids, is half a mile.

The Yellowstone National Park, beside its geysers, has many hot springs which build glistening plateaus of highly colored mineral deposits. It has a canyon gorgeous with all the colors and shades of the rainbow, and it is literally the greatest wild animal sanctuary.

The Rocky Mountain National Park straddles the Continental Divide at a lofty height, with snow-capped mountains extending from end to end. Its glacier records are remarkable.

The Mesa Verde National Park hides in its barren canyons the well-preserved ruins of a civilization which passed out of existence so many centuries ago that not even tradition recalls its people.

The Mount McKinley National Park incloses a mountain higher above the near observer than any other mountain in the world; its caribou run in herds of 8,000 or more.

The Hawaii National Park, besides its three volcano peaks, possesses a lake of boiling lava which may be photographed at night by its own light.

The Grand Canyon National Park exhibits the mightiest chasm by far in the world. It is one of the world's great wonders.

The Lafayette National Park in Maine exhibits some of the oldest granite mountains in America, the only mountains on the Atlantic Coast.

It will be seen that one may visit a new national park each year for more than a decade and see something quite new and remarkable at each visit.


It is plain that our national parks, with very few exceptions, have a quality so unusual that they are destined some day to become more celebrated internationally than the Swiss Alps are to-day. When that time comes, they will constitute an economic asset of incalculable value; they will become a maker of much good business in many lines of industry besides transportation, and a source of enormous national income.

Therefore it is good policy faithfully to maintain the trade-mark "National Parks of America" at its present high level; to which end wisdom advises against calling new reservations national parks whose scenic sublimity falls short of those which now exist.

Photograph by Pillsbury


The map will show where these national parks are located. All of those in the United States are upon lines of railways and are easily and comfortably reached from any part of the country. Each of them is in charge of a resident superintendent, who has under his charge enough park rangers to protect the forests from fire, the wild animals from hunters, and the visitors from harm. There are good roads in all of these parks, and hotels or public camps or both where visitors may stay as long as they like to enjoy the scenery and study nature. Trails are built to the waterfalls, up the highest mountains, and, in short, wherever especially fine views may be found. Over these trails visitors may walk or ride on horseback as they prefer.

Many of the hotels are fine ones where every luxury may be had by those who insist upon luxuries even in the wilderness. There are often cheaper hotels also, and in the great public camps visitors may live very comfortably indeed and quite economically. One may go to these camps just as to a hotel, only he is assigned a comfortable tent instead of a room, and eats his meals in a big central building, which also serves as a general living room. At night a camp fire is built in the woods, and all gather around it to sing and tell stories. Many persons who can easily afford the luxuries of hotels live in the camps because they prefer doing so.

The National Park Service, which has all the national parks in its care, is trying to make them popular and comfortable and available for people of all degrees of income.

Not only should these parks he the best and most fully patronized health and pleasure resorts in the United States, but they should also become great centers of nature study. In the national parks only is nature most carefully conserved exactly as designed. No trees are cut down for lumber, as in the national forests outside the parks, but are allowed to reach their utmost size and age. No animals are killed except mountain lions and other predatory beasts which destroy the deer and young elk. Here, then, the student and the lover of nature must study nature in her pristine beauty and under conditions which elsewhere exist only in the few remote lands not yet invaded by man.

To these national parks, then, the National Park Service invites the student, amateur, and professional alike.


One must not confuse the national forests with the national parks. The national forests aggregate many times the area of the national parks. They were created to administer lumbering and grazing interests for the people; the lumbering, instead of being done by private interests often ruthlessly for private profit, as in the past, is now done under regulations which conserve the public interest. The trees are cut in accordance with the principles of scientific forestry, which conserve the smaller trees until they grow to a certain size, thus perpetuating the forests. Sheep, horses, or cattle graze in all pastures under governmental regulation, while in national parks cattle may be admitted only where not detrimental to the enjoyment and preservation of the scenery, Regular hunting is permitted in season in the national forests, but never in the national parks. In short, the national parks, unlike the national forests, are not properties in a commercial sense, but natural preserves for the rest, recreation, and education of the people. They remain under nature's own chosen conditions. They alone maintain "the forest primeval." Congress has wisely placed the national parks and national forests under the control of different executive bureaus in order that two services dealing with areas so similar in kind and location may the more surely maintain their individualities and widely different points of view.


Besides the national parks there are many reservations called "national monuments," several of which are qualified by size and scenic sublimity to be national parks, and all of which, small as well as great, are interesting and important. They were created by presidential proclamation under the American antiquities act because they were "historic landmarks" or "prehistoric structures," or because they possessed "historic or scientific interest."

The difference between a national park and a national monument is not always easy to state. A national park is created only by Congress, with the presumption that it will be developed as a people's playground. The presumption in regard to a national monument is that it will be conserved and protected only. Both presumptions have exceptions, some of them important. Most of the national monuments are under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, but a few, when created, were put in charge of the War and Agriculture Departments.


Lovers of sport also find their national parks rich fields of pleasure, provided they do their hunting only with the camera. This is encouraged; and there are no other places in the world where wild animals may be approached so closely. In the Yellowstone, where shooting has been strictly prohibited since 1894, one may with reasonable care and precaution photograph deer at close quarters, approach elk and antelope and even moose and bison near enough for good pictures.


The lesson of the Yellowstone is that wild animals greatly fear man only when man is cruel and murderous. Another lesson from national parks experience is that no wild animal will injure human beings except in self-defense. The monster cat of our rock fastnesses—the mountain lion—big enough and powerful enough to drag down a full-grown elk, is one of the most timid of all the beasts in the national parks, flying at great speed at the first sight or scent of man.

The national parks cover a great area, 6,949,760 acres in all. If all were put together it would mean an area of 10,859 square miles.


It will be apparent that our national parks serve other and far nobler purposes than merely to contribute importantly to the recreational opportunity of the people. Of course they are playgrounds of high order—the highest order, in fact. But also, and more importantly, they are museums of the mighty past of the earth's making; exhibits upon an enormous scale of the operation of the titanic forces which shaped and still are shaping this land; conservation areas of the native wild life, animal and vegetable, of America; and, because of these functions, and of their attributes of majesty and sublimity besides, they are fountains of inspiration alike to education, patriotism, and the impulses to art and literature. Men return from our mountain tops better shopkeepers and tailors, as well as better teachers, lawyers, and painters.

This is an appropriate place to say that the degree of your enjoyment of your national parks, and in fact of all natural scenery, will depend upon your knowledge of the elementary facts of geology. Nothing is more easily and pleasantly acquired, for what most persons suppose is the dullest of sciences is, in its simplified outlines, one of the most interesting to study and fascinating to apply to nature's tremendous examples.


Geology is the anatomy of scenery. It is as necessary for the comprehension and appreciation of scenery as a general knowledge of anatomy is to the painter of the human figure in action and to the critic of his painting. Therefore take with you to your national parks some knowledge of the great forces which nature uses in world making and how she applies them to the shaping of the several great classes into which scenery is divided, and your enjoyment will be increased many fold. Consider this knowledge as necessary a part of your equipment, to be carefully acquired in advance, as your shoes and khaki and contour map.


Nearly all tourists the world over are content to see new places without more definite knowledge of locations and bearings than the distorted maps of the railroad advertising department or the guess of a chance guide. To these I have no message, but to the increasing number of orderly minded travelers let me say that the United States Geological Survey has made an admirable contour map of each of the national parks within the borders of the United States, with the aid of which one needs no guide except to make sure of his trail. It is easy to learn to read these maps. Every mountain, lake, and stream is named, which has an authoritative name, and the contour lines conform accurately with the surface, enabling the traveler instantly to reckon any altitude for himself. The contour-map habit is extremely easy to acquire and is the source of keen enjoyment and of intimate knowledge which may be obtained in no other way.

This map may be had from the superintendent of the park, but it will save time and trouble to write in advance for it to the United States Geological Survey, at Washington, D. C. There is a small charge.


The following descriptions of some of our national parks are not intended to be exhaustive. In each, those characteristics are emphasized which individualize the park, distinguishing it from others. Any person who wishes to know more about any national park than is here available, who wishes, for instance, to know the particular traveling and living facilities in each and the expense of a visit thereto, should write to the Director, National Park Service, Washington, D. C., for the General Information Bulletin of the particular national park in which he is interested. It will be sent free.

Those who want information about reaching the national parks may write to the United States Railroad Administration Bureau of Service, National Parks and Monuments, 646 Transportation Building, Chicago, Ill.

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Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009