America's Best Idea: Featured National Historic Landmarks

Twenty National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) are found in the national parks featured in Ken Burns' documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea. National Historic Landmark designations are appropriate for park cultural resources that meet National Historic Landmark criteria if the national significance of those resources is not adequately recognized in the park's authorizing legislation or presidential proclamation. Cultural parks may warrant landmark designation as parts of larger areas encompassing resources associated with their primary themes.

The National Park Service is entrusted with the stewardship of the nation's natural resources but our mission also encompasses the protection of our nation's cultural heritage through historic preservation programs like the National Historic Landmarks Program. The NHL Program was established to "preserve historic sites, buildings and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States."

fort with parade grounds and mountains in background
Fort Yellowstone / NPS Photo

Fort Yellowstone is significant for its association with the military administration of Yellowstone National Park, which developed principles and policies that influenced the emerging conservation and national park movements in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The fort served as headquarters of the US Army during its administration of the park from 1886–1918 and represented the military’s longest and most extensive presence in the national parks. Military commanders promulgated rules and regulations that expressed a conservation philosophy, defined the nature, characteristics, and management of national parks, and were influential in the subsequent establishment of the National Park System. Fort Yellowstone’s typical western military post, with parade ground, quarters, and support structures retains a remarkable degree of integrity from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Obsidian Cliff
Obsidian Cliff, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996, is located on the Grand Loop Road between Mammoth and Norris. NPS Photo

Obsidian Cliff is the source of one of the most extensively traded and highly prized materials utilized by prehistoric peoples throughout the Northern Plains. For nearly 12,000 years Native Americans worked and traded this volcanic "glass," fashioning it into tools sharper than modern surgical scalpels or into jewel-like precious objects. Obsidian objects have been found as far away as the Ohio River Valley and Southern California. In addition to the actual cliff, the site in Yellowstone Park includes intact mining features, workshops and campsites of what can be considered one of the first industrial workshops on the North American continent.

Old Faithful Inn
Old Faithful Inn / NPS Photo

This superb hotel is the first building in a national park constructed in a style designed to be harmonious with the grandeur of the surrounding natural landscape. The Northern Pacific Railroad built it, between 1903 and 1904, adjacent to one of Yellowstone's most popular attractions. The hotel reflects an architectural style that had been used often in rustic vacation camps in the Adirondacks of New York state. Here, the idiom was enlarged to enormous proportions; the seven-story-high lobby, constructed of gnarled logs and rough-sawn lumber, is a veritable wonderland of wood. Old Faithful Inn had a sense of place as identifiable as the park it graces and the geyser it stands beside.

A one-story stone and log building with wooden shingles beneath a mountain
Madison Museum (Madison Information Station), one of the three museum buildings located in Yellowstone National Park that comprise the NHL. NPS Photo

Built between 1929 and 1931, these three museums are located in different areas of Yellowstone National Park. Architect Herbert Maier took great pains to make them harmonize with their surrounding landscapes. All display bold stone foundations, seemingly part of natural rock outcroppings. The frame and log constructions above are often exaggeratedly rustic. These naturalistic, or rustic, designs served as models for hundreds of state and county park structures built by Works Progress Administration workers during the Great Depression.

Northeast Entrance, winter
Northeast Entrance ranger station / NPS Photo
This rustic entrance building and the adjacent ranger station/residence mark the northeastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. They not only delineate a physical boundary but also mark a psychological separation between the rest of the world and an area set aside as a permanent wild place. The log structures, with their exaggerated saddle notches, were purposely designed to appear as if they had been executed by pioneer craftsmen with limited hand tools. The buildings remain virtually unchanged from the time they were built in 1935.
ahwahnee hotel
Ahwahnee Hotel / NPS Photo
This resort hotel at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley is named with a local Indian word meaning "deep, grassy meadow." Carefully constructed of rough-cut granite and concrete stained to imitate wood, designed to blend with its inspiring surroundings, the hotel opened in July 1927. Wrought-iron fittings, stained-glass windows, and murals based on Indian designs enhance its internationally rustic atmosphere.
lodge with conical-shaped roof, surrounded by trees
LeConte Memorial Lodge from the northeast. NPS Photo / Laura Soulliere Harrison
This small lodge was built in 1903, then moved a short distance west of its original site in 1919. It continues to serve as a reading room and information center maintained by the Sierra Club, which once thought of establishing headquarters in its namesake Sierra Nevada. The building relates handsomely to its setting, with rough stone walls and exaggeratedly steep roof lines suggestive of the cliffs that surround Yosemite Valley.
parsons lodge during winter
Parsons Memorial Lodge, south elevation. NPS Photo / Laura Soulliere Harrison
Built in the summer of 1915 by the Sierra Club as an overnight shelter high in the Sierra Nevada, this rubble granite lodge was one of the first rustic stone buildings in a national park. The small building, named for an early director of the Sierra Club, combines the designer's thorough understanding of its harsh environment with an expressive use of natural materials.
ranger lodging set among trees
Rangers' Club from the northwest. NPS Photo / Laura Soulliere Harrison
Stephen T. Mather, first director of the National Park Service, personally funded this U-shaped frame structure built to house rangers in Yosemite Park. The rustic chalet with board-and-batten siding is evidence of Mather's commitment to an architectural aesthetic appropriate for national parks.
Wawona Hotel / NPS Photo
This seven-building group consists of the Wawona Hotel and annex, several cottages, manager's house, and the Hill Studio. Constructed between 1876 and 1918, the frame buildings with broad, encircling porches constitute the largest and best-preserved Victorian-era resort hotel complex within a National Park. Landscape painter Thomas Hill built his studio/sales room by 1886, and it served these uses until his death in 1908.
two adobe buildings
Park headquarters building, looking east. NPS Photo / Laura Soulliere Harrison
These 1920s core structures - park headquarters, museum, post office, and subsidiary buildings - were the first constructed by the National Park Service based on cultural traditions and designs represented in a particular park. Excellent examples of the Pueblo Revival style, they were the work of Jesse Nusbaum, archeologist and superintendent at Mesa Verde, who believed that appropriate designs would "help to preserve the Indian atmosphere which the ruins and the environment create" and could be used to interpret and explain construction of the famous prehistoric dwellings built into the cliffs ca. A.D. 1100 to 1275.
watchtower with surrounding landscape
Mary Colter's Desert View Watchtower in Grand Canyon National Park

NPS Photo / Caridad de la Vega

These four structures were designed by architect and interior designer Mary Jane Colter, built by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railway, and managed by its concessioner, the Fred Harvey Company. Hopi House (1905), modeled after a Hopi pueblo, was built to merchandise Indian handicrafts in a historically accurate environment. Hermit's Rest, a refreshment stand, and the Lookout, both dating from 1914, were designed to appear as if they had grown out of the rocky landscape. Colter's last major structure on the South Rim, Desert View Watchtower, was completed in 1932, long after the establishment of Grand Canyon National Park. Modeled after an Anasazi tower, it has notable interior spaces based on circular forms. All four structures respect their incomparable settings and reflect the cultural heritage of the area.
Historic El Tovar Hotel
El Tovar Hotel / NPS Photo
This rambling stone, log, and frame hotel bridges the stylistic gap between Victorian-era resort architecture and the rustic mode later deemed appropriate for such spectacular natural settings. Designed by a staff architect of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, it opened to the public in 1905. Located at the edge of the South Rim, the hotel became the focal point for the railway's Grand Canyon resort; it continues to provide food and lodging to visitors at one of the country's most popular national parks.
Grand Canyon Train Depot
Grand Canyon Depot / NPS Photo
Built in 1909-1910, this log depot, just south of El Tovar, gave visitors their first impression of the rustic sense of place the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway intended for its Grand Canyon "destination resort." It was one of the very few rustic depots of its period and is the only one remaining in which logs were used as actual structural members, not merely as decoration.
log and stone ranger operations building
This stone, log, and frame building, erected in 1929, took its architectural cues from its surroundings. Roughly textured stone piers at the corners imitate the canyon's rock formations, and the log pillars they support have the diameters of surrounding trees. The building, now a park ranger office, is a prime example of the purposely rustic style employed by the Landscape Division of the National Park Service.
Stone and wood building with chalet-style influences. Four people are standing in front examining the building.
Grand Canyon Power House

NPS Photo / Caridad de la Vega

This 1926 masterpiece of tromp l'oeil employs overscaled elements to disguise its true size. Designed as a Swiss chalet, the building has a second-floor balcony that, from a distance, appears to be a likely spot to rests one's elbows. As the railing is actually five feet tall, it would be easier to rest a chin than an elbow. Inside, the diesel equipment that provided power to structures on the canyon's South Rim until 1956 remains in place.
three-bay log building part of Grand Canyon Village
Grand Canyon Village / NPS Photo
This village complex is the largest and most ambitious "town" ever developed by the National Park Service to provide for the needs of visitors, park staff, and concessioners. In addition to the discrete areas for each of its major functions, the village is remarkable for the consistent architectural idiom its buildings and landscape features present. As a testament to the success of the early twentieth-century plan, Grand Canyon Village has maintained its integrity over the years in spite of the ever-increasing numbers of visitors to this popular national park.
aerial view of canal surrounded by low vegetation
Mud Lake Canal / NPS Photo
Mud Lake Canal is an engineering achievement of the Tequesta People and is the best preserved example of an aboriginal canoe canal. Located on Cape Sable, at the juncture of the freshwater Everglades and the saltwater Florida Bay, the canal's construction required considerable labor as well as a detailed knowledge of local hydrological and topographical conditions. The long, linear earthwork reflects the Tequesta's impressive organizational skills and adaptation to the unique Everglades ecosystem. Tequesta sites are part of a broader tradition of long-distance canoe canal building. The Tequesta are also notable as one of the first recorded Native peoples encountered by Ponce de Leon during his explorations of the Florida coast in 1513.

Everglades National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park

Last updated: May 21, 2019