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Historic Roads in the National Park System






Early Roads

The Development of Park Roads

Teamwork/Cooperative Efforts

Evolution of Parkways

World War II and Beyond

Understanding and Managing Historic Park Roads


Historic Roads in the National Park System
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The road systems in each of the national parks developed differently. Many were started before the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916. Some were old mining roads that were suitable enough to be upgraded into wagon and motor roads. The army built others for patrolling purposes, and then at the request of the Department of the Interior and through congressional appropriations, expanded some of them into touring roads. Other park roads were built by states, counties, or private enterprises. As more parks were added, some of them came with existing road systems, and others came with no roads at all.

The saga of the start of road construction at Yellowstone National Park was an example of the evolution of park road development. Yellowstone, famous for its Grand Loop Road, received its first appropriation for road construction in the 1880s, and the responsibility for administering it rested with the Corps of Engineers. In 1883, Capt. D.C. Kingman was the first officer detailed as an engineer for road construction at the park. Most of the loop road's layout, however, came under the command of Gen. Hiram Chittenden, who came to Yellowstone at the end of the Spanish-American War. Between 1902 and 1905, Congress appropriated more than $1 million to reconstruct roads in Yellowstone. Besides repairing the earlier roads, the army also constructed a new stage road for Canyon to Mammoth Hot Springs by way of Dunraven Pass and Tower Falls. This work completed the loop road around the park. [79] Stephen Mather led the auto tour that officially opened the Grand Loop Road. [80]

Roads constructed under the aegis of the army included the road over Mount Washburn, the Golden Gate viaduct (11 concrete arches built into the cliff wall of Golden Gate Canyon), the 120-foot steel and concrete arched Chittenden Bridge over the Yellowstone River at Yellowstone, and the entrance road into Mount Rainier from Nisqually (from 1903-1906). By 1910 that road went as far as Paradise. Chittenden believed in only constructing what was necessary to keep the park in its most natural state as possible. He argued that once a road was found necessary, however, that it would detract far less from the scenery if well-built rather than left in an incomplete or rough state. He concluded that "The true policy of government in dealing with this problem should therefore be to make the roads limited in extent as will meet actual necessities, but to make such as are found necessary perfect examples of their class." [81]

Some of the problems encountered at Yellowstone were typical of challenges facing park road construction. During the 1915 National Park Conference, Major Fries, who was in charge of road construction at Yellowstone at the time stated that the army was building some "high-class roads" of broken stone with an oil finish. For cheaper roads, the army usually spent about $100 per mile. In one stretch of that type of cheaper road, they had to construct 55 wooden bridges to span creeks. At Yellowstone, frequently 300 miles of roads were under repair or being constructed at one time. Because there was such a short working season — usually only three months — 400 to 500 men often were working at the same time. Roads built at Yellowstone in 1915 still required the use of horse-and-mule teams, and the teams required forage. His goals included constructing steel bridges with concrete decks and reducing all road grades to 6%. [82]

While Yellowstone's road construction problems tended to be more physically oriented, Mount Rainier also faced political scrutiny. In 1915 only 20 miles of road had been constructed within the park, and repairing and maintaining those roads proved an arduous task. The park road went up as far as Paradise Valley, and the state of Washington was building a road from North Yakima to the east side of the park. The original plan called for constructing roads to encircle the park. In that year the state was nearly ready to move forward with appropriations on approach roads to connect with the park roads at various locations, but the Department of the Interior was lagging behind and had not yet decided where the roads were to go within the boundary and where those connections should be made. The secretary of the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce verbalized the views of his organization: "We have in-mind a great highway crossing from Puget Sound to the southern border of the Mount Rainier National Park, down into the great fruit valleys, and it will be an inspiration that one will never forget, when, after a comfortable breakfast, he can get into an automobile and that the morning drive through those heights, always with this magnificent dome in sight, and have his dinner in the great fruit valleys of the Yakima. What an inspiration!" [83]

In 1916 the Rainier National Park Company operated an automobile service between Seattle, Tacoma, and destination points in the park. At that time the only road entering the park went from Nisqually to Paradise. Stephen Mater noted: "In an automobile one may travel from the cities of Tacoma and Seattle to Paradise Valley and return in one day and in a few hours of this period cover every foot of road in Mount Rainier National Park..." [84] The Park Service was surveying the Carbon River Valley from the town of Fairfax, with hopes of making accessible Spray and Moraine Parks. In conjunction with that effort the State of Washington was considering extending the state highway from Orting to the beginning of the new park highway, which would open up the north and west sides of the mountain. [85]

By the mid-1920s the Rainier National Park Advisory Board submitted fliers to Congress and the National Park Service pushing for additional road development and inviting the federal government to make good on its promises. The state of Washington and the four counties surrounding the park had managed to construct the approach roads to four corners of the park, with some assistance from the forest service and federal aid funds. The company chided that Congress was unwilling to appropriate funding for road building inside the park until the connecting roads were complete, and the company demanded that congress now satisfy its part of the bargain. [86] This type of outside pressure often had a strong influence on the development of park roads.

road over Dunraven Pass, Yellowstone NP
Fig. 4. In Yellowstone, the army constructed the road over Dunraven Pass that connected Canyon and Mammoth Hot Springs between 1902 and 1905. This completed the loop around the park. Dunraven Peak rose above the road in the background. (National Archives, Record Group 79)

Spiral Bridge, Yellowstone NP
Fig. 5. At Yellowstone, the construction of the Spiral Bridge at "S" Hill over Sylvan pass on the Cody Road followed traditions established in railroading in the West. When steep grades over passes were difficult, a loop over a bridge accomplished the change in grade. (National Archives, Record Group 70, n.d.)

Spiral Bridge
Fig. 6. The construction of the Cody Road with its Spiral Bridge depicted the early emphasis in park road construction. Engineering was of primary importance, aesthetics were secondary. (National Archives, Record Group 70, n.d.)

Fig. 7. During the 1920s the road system at Crater Lake had no surface, and the pumice gravel caused maintenance problems, such as this pothole. This photograph was taken of the south entrance road. (National Archives, Record Group 70)


Following the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, the push for park development continued, and a big portion of the boosterism for providing access to national parks came from within the agency and the Department of the Interior. When the agency was progressing into its second decade its annual appropriations remained tied to visitation numbers. The NPS directorate had a vision that included saving the greatest natural resources and the most spectacular scenery of the country while accommodating the recreational and vacation needs of a civilization that possessed automobiles and a growing affluence. The days of the great train trips across the continent to visit the national parks were coming to an end. In their stead were families coming to parks seeking camping opportunities to spend their vacations on the edge of the wilderness. This provided a chance for the new agency to increase its constituency. The tremendous growth in the numbers of automobiles in this country had a major effect on park development. In 1900 there were only 8,000 automobiles in the United States. By 1930, 23 million of them swarmed the roads. [87]

While the Bureau of Public Roads had always pushed the idea of entire road systems rather than individual roads, road construction in and around national parks was only a very small percentage of the work that the agency did. Many of the annual reports submitted to the secretary of agriculture included mention of work in forest reserves but little or no mention of work in national parks. In the 1921 report, however, Bureau of Public Roads Chief Tom MacDonald noted that a growing demand for roads existed — farmers wanted roads from shipping points and agricultural centers to produce areas, and manufacturers wanted roads that facilitated the transportation of raw materials and commodities. In addition, he wrote that tourists were also interested in the development of smooth, hard-surfaced roads that connected cities and areas of natural interest because of the recreational opportunities they could provide. [88] He saw the ever-increasing demand of automobile access as an integral portion of pursuing leisure activities in scenic natural areas.

Echoing his sentiments and analyzing some of the idealistic reasons for this demand was Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work. In 1925 Work wrote with religious fervor about access to park areas and the need to meet the hundreds of thousands of visitors who were on their way:

The national parks are playing a prominent role in our national life. They are giving the people a glimpse of the simpler things of life and are increasing our appreciation and understanding of nature. They are providing education opportunities that otherwise would not exist. And finally they are bringing us closer to the scheme of creation and educating our children "through nature up to nature's god." [89]

His view of one of the national parks as having an inspirational purpose was similar to many others of the period including NPS Director Stephen Mather and his assistant Horace Albright. Even congressmen echoed that sentiment. Rep. Nicholas Sinnott of Oregon was a serious booster of national parks. Standing at the Lookout on Mount Washburn in Yellowstone one day, Sinnott quoted from Isaiah 49:11: "I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be exalted." Horace Albright, then superintendent of the park, was with Sinnott at the time, and he had the park staff paint a small sign with that quotation on it placed at the lookout. For years visitors had their photographs taken next to the sign. [90]

The roads program within national parks continued to grow, and Director Stephen T. Mather viewed road construction as key to park development.

It is not the plan to have the parks gridironed with roads, but in each it is desired to make a good sensible road system so that visitors may have a good chance to enjoy them. At the same time large sections of each park will be kept in a natural wilderness state without piercing feeder roads and will be accessible only by trails by the horseback rider and the hiker. All this has been carefully considered in laying out our road program. Particular attention also will be given to laying out the roads themselves so that they will disturb as little as possible the vegetation, forests, and rocky hillsides through which they are built. In this work the landscape engineering division cooperated closely with the civil engineering forces, and the latter also by separate instruction have been ordered to exercise the greatest care in the protection of the landscape in all road construction work. Especially fine work along this line has been accomplished in Yellowstone, Lafayette [Acadia], and Sequoia national Parks. [91]

The reasons for park development, however, were both idealistic and practical. On one hand the NPS director viewed the importance of parks from an economic perspective, and he stressed the development of parks to keep tourist dollars at home. Switzerland, he argued, lived almost entirely by selling its scenery, and other European countries pushed equally hard for American tourist dollars following the conclusion of World War I. Mather looked at other countries that were developing their own park systems, such as Canada, Australia, and Japan, from the standpoint of the competition they would be giving American national parks. [92]

Harding, Work, Mather, Albright
Fig. 8. This photograph, taken at Yellowstone National Park, includes, from left to right, President Warren Harding, Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work, National Park Service Director Stephen Mather, and Yellowstone Superintendent Horace Albright. All four of these men pushed road development in national parks to introduce the American public to the scenic, recreational, scientific, and inspirational wonders of the park. (National Archives, Record Group 70, Haynes Collection)


The NPS directorate in the 'teens and 'twenties had recognized the importance of tourism to the economy of the western states. Mather, for instance, supported the National Park-to-Park Highway Association, which promoted building a system that connected all of the western parks into one circuit. Roads over the Sierra at Tioga Pass in Yosemite and over Logan Pass in the Rockies of Glacier were in part constructed to take advantage of cross-country travel promoted by the National Park Service. In that way autotourists crossing the continent had additional encouragement to see the parks. [93]

The National Park Service joined the informal consortium that encouraged the construction of a network of roads that connected highways and national park roads. Assistant Director Horace Albright and Chief Civil Engineer George Goodwin worked closely with the Western Association of State Highway Officials. [94] At a meeting with that organization in Yellowstone in 1924, Horace Albright asked the highway officials to support road construction in national parks. Albright argued that because so many roads led to the national parks, the traffic entering the parks concentrated in them. Albright expressed interest in building park roads to carry even higher concentrations of traffic inside parks than the less dense concentrations carried on the state roads outside parks. He wanted the park roads constructed to carry these higher volumes of traffic and given enough attention so that the public could appreciate and enjoy them in a convenient manner. [95]

At the same meeting George Goodwin gave a talk about the problems he encountered with park roads. Goodwin complained than many of the park roads of the period (1924) were not properly located, but they still had to be maintained to carry high volumes of traffic.

So much money had been invested in maintaining the roads that Goodwin believed that it was prohibitive to abandon the roads, especially when there was no funding to survey and lay out new roads to replace them. Also, Goodwin commented, line and grade were sometimes sacrificed in the old park roads so that natural features and scenic vistas could be incorporated along the road. Goodwin commented hopefully that the new appropriations granted to parks for road construction starting in 1924 would allow new roads to be constructed with the most up-to-date practices in highway construction while preserving the "scenic beauties as near as possible as nature created them."[96] Goodwin had requested copies of the pamphlets "A System of National Highways" and "A National Highway System" from the American Automobile Association, copies of a speech by Senator Fops on roads in National Parks, report of the forester for 1922, and the Interior Department bill approved on January 23, 1923, and he based some of his findings on information presented in those documents. [97]

By February 1925, Goodwin had prepared some standard road sections that covered four classes of roadways, and he submitted them to the director for approval. Goodwin's standards included road surfaces of 20 feet, 16 feet, 10 feet, and 8 feet. Mather refused to approve the drawings, and sent them back to Goodwin with instructions to prepare instead "standard cross-sections similar to those approved by the Bureau of Public Roads for forest development roads covering 18-foot, 16-foot, 10-foot, and 8-foot roadways." Mather saw no need for a 20-foot road section unless the service widened a road at some time in the future. He also noted that the Bureau of Public Roads standards approved for forest highway and forest development resulted from a number of years of experience in road construction, and that the Park Service had no reason to adopt a higher standard. Contractors, he argued, were familiar with the standards. [98]

Goodwin overhauled his standard road sections following the standards and resubmitted them a week later. They were nearly identical to the standards adopted by the Bureau of Public Roads. Mather also wrote that although he approved the sections that Goodwin submitted, some variation would be allowed. Widening on curves, for instance, would be approved where conditions required, and a wider width of road might be allowed where conditions warranted and where there would be no disfigurement of the landscape. In the same letter, Mather approved paving the El Portal Road in Yosemite to a full 20-foot width and paving the valley floor roads there — approved as class I roads — to the full 18-foot width. The Middle Fork Road at Sequoia was approved as a class II road, but the director was allowing it to be constructed at less than standard width in some places basxed on the recommendations of the landscape engineer to prevent scarring the landscape. [99]


Congress responded by approving $2.5 million a year for three years beginning in 1924, but funding for the first year was put off due to financial obligations that the country had to its soldiers following World War I. The service was ready to go forward with roads projects as soon as the money came. Mather stressed that motorists were contributing large amounts of money to the federal government through fees charged for park access, and the director believed that park users were "entitled to the utmost consideration and return in the way of good roads that the condition of the Federal Treasury warrants." [100] The director argued that while the amount coming into the federal coffers from automobile license fees came to $1.8 million between 1917 and 1924, the amount spent on roads amounted to only $1.4 million. The director pushed for additional federal aid for approach roads to national parks to accommodate the tourists. At the time 1,060.5 miles of roads existed in national parks, and Mather proposed reconstructing about one third of them through widening, reducing the grade, or improving the base so that when hard surfacing was possible, the base would be adequate to handle it, just as the Bureau of Public Roads suggested. [101] Also, the Park-to-Park Highway was in full swing.

The passage of the 1924 Roads and Trails Act started the formal fiscal commitment for construction, reconstruction, and improvement of roads, trails, and bridges in national parks. At the same time it provided appropriations to do so. Those amounted to $6.5 million from 1924-1928, and $2.5 million under the appropriations act of 1928. By October of 1927, 184.65 miles of roads were under construction and 89.38 miles had already been completed. Surveys were completed or authorized on another 1,000 miles of park roads. Adding further impetus to this was the Leavitt Approach Road Act of 1931 that authorized the National Park Service to spend money outside park boundaries on approach roads that led to the parks. [102]

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