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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
National Park Service Arrowhead



Big changes occurred in the development of roads after World War II. The first item affecting park roads was the change that had occurred in visitation, second was a development program known as Mission 66, and the third was an overriding change in the way in which the agency managed its resources. All of these combined forces influenced the way in which roads were constructed in national parks.

In 1941 the deputy chief of planning for the National Park Service was Tom Carpenter. After being involved in the development of national parks since the 1930s, he became concerned about overcrowding in parks and the effect that the construction, management and use of roads had on the visitor experience. Consequently, Carpenter wrote a position paper about road design and speed limits in national parks. In it he explored the influence of speed and people's perception of parks.

In his view there was a limit at which people could travel a road and still perceive the scenery clearly enough to enjoy it. He believed that park roads should reveal representative examples of the types of scenery included within their park boundaries and he saw a need for use limitations. Carpenter reasoned that most of a visitor's park experience was a view from the road, and because of that reason roads took on an increased importance. Carpenter warned that unless the National Park Service accepted some average speed as a criterion for experiencing a park's terrain and scenery, then the agency would have to acknowledge that it was designing roads without consideration for the primary reason for setting aside park areas. Carpenter wrote about the scenic and inspirational values of parks, and notes that park roads and the slowed tempo went hand-in-hand.

But he also noted a differentiation between types of park roads. He believed that the upper portion of the General's Highway at Sequoia should be driven at a maximum speed of 35, while roads built in open, rolling terrain, such as the North Rim approach road to the Grand Canyon, could accommodate a faster speed. He stated that a human limitation factor existed which set a limit to the speed at which a visitor could travel a road and still perceive enough of the scenery to enjoy it. He wanted the National Park Service to establish a criterion of design speed for park roads. He cautioned:

Unless we accept some average speed as a criterion, for the given conditions of terrain and scenery, then we have to acknowledge that we are designing roads without consideration of the primary reason for setting aside park areas and are, on the other hand, concerned only with building roads without any definite limit as to how high the standard may become in the future, and that limit controlled probably only by cost. [138]

Thus, on the eve of World War II, the idea that restrictions should be placed on park road development and management through design speed had been planted.

Development and construction of park roads came to a near standstill during World War II, and appropriations following the war were insufficient to cover the cost of delayed maintenance of the park facilities that had been postponed until after the war. In 1942 the Public Roads Administration put out a report stating: "Efforts of the Public Roads Administration during fiscal year 1942 were centered on meeting needs of highway transport for war purposes." [139] The Bureau of Public Roads annual report for that year included no information on park or forest roads, which was unusual. By 1945 the situation had improved somewhat. While most road construction in park and forest areas was suspended during the war, a few projects had been completed where timber or mineral deposits were significant and necessary for the war effort. To pick up the slack the Public Roads Administration had completed a considerable amount of survey work, soils investigations, preparation of plans and specifications, and the development and approval of upcoming projects to be completed under the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944. The report also noted:

The funds for park highway improvement are not apportioned by states but are assigned to projects by the National Park Service in accordance with its development program. The program for park roads and parkways was nearing completion at the end of the fiscal year. Plans and specifications are now prepared for projects that will absorb all park and forest highway funds and those for parkways for the first postwar fiscal year. Construction will begin whenever it is authorized and weather permits. [140]

The suspension in park road construction was about to pick up again.

After World War II the changes in transportation in national parks had become evident. By the 1950s only between 1% and 2% of visitors came to the national parks by transportation other than automobile. The vehicle of choice for getting to and around national parks was the car. Park facilities continued to deteriorate, but visitation increased. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 further compounded the situation when congress reduced appropriations to the parks even further to cover the cost of the war effort. Yet the agency still faced the philosophical dilemma of providing safe, adequate roads to accommodate the cars without marring the landscape and harming the resources it was charged to protect.


To ameliorate the problem, Conrad Wirth, who had been appointed director of the National Park Service in 1951, devised a plan which he christened Mission 66. He targeted the program for completion in 1966, the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service. This 10-year restoration and development plan covered every type of park facility from employee housing to visitor centers to roads. Mission 66 included a proposal for construction, repair, and rehabilitation of 2,000 miles of park roads. Yellowstone National Park received special emphasis in preparation for its 100th anniversary in 1972. Appropriations for the entire Mission 66 program amounted to more than a billion dollars over a 10-year period. [141]

To kick off this new program, Wirth put together an American Pioneer Dinner in the cafeteria of the Interior Department. In attendance were approximately sixty members of the Senate and House of Representatives, members of the American Planning and Civic Association, and members of conservation groups. Sponsoring the dinner were the secretary of the interior, the National Park Service, and the American Automobile Association. The South Dakota state park system provided the meat for the feast: elk and bison. Walt Disney put together the movie for the event which he entitled "Adventures in the National Parks." Distributed at the meeting was the booklet "Our Heritage." [142]

Wirth explained to his audience the guidelines and justification for Mission 66. Although park preservation was the underlying thread throughout the guidelines, other trends appeared. The second guideline, for instance, stated: "Substantial and appropriate use of the National Park System is the best means by which its basic purpose is realized and is the best guarantee of perpetuating the System." The third guideline noted that adequate and appropriate developments were necesary for public use and appreciation of an area, as well as for the prevention of overuse. Another stated that all visitors desiring to enter a park area could do so. The program's emphasis on development was apparent.

In his memoirs, Wirth summarized the Park Service's relationship with the Bureau of Public Roads in light of the Mission 66 program:

Before Mission 66 the master plans were loaded with projects of this type that needed financing. Mission 66 provided the momentum and resulted in a long list of completed projects that improved protection and the preservation of park values. Many of these projects involved major road construction, the engineering aspects of which were handled by the Bureau of Public Roads under agreements dating back to the twenties. Over the years the Bureau of Public Roads worked closely with the landscape architects of the design office and was very sympathetic to the policies of the service. It followed the approved priorities and recommendations outlined in the master plans. Differences of view regarding road standards and safety requirements admittedly caused some disagreements. The questions of location and design as well a final approval have always been the Park Service's responsibility. In the overall performance of its responsibilities, however, the bureau rendered outstanding service. It provided park visitors with excellent roads that brought a minimum of complaints.

Wirth recognized a series of indicators that pointed toward an increase in park use that, in his mind, justified development: per capita income was on the rise; more cars were on the highways; and the average length of vacation time was increasing. The national park system had to accommodate more than 50 million visits by 1955, when the parks were designed to carry less than half that number. Wirth used Mission 66 to meet that demand by improving access to national parks. The bottom line of Mission 66 was to develop parks to accommodate visitors. This included widening some roads, changing some to one-way roads to abate traffic congestion, and constructing additional parking space. [144]

After Mission 66 got underway, disenchantment with road development had set in. The Sierra Club, which had often supported the construction of roads in national parks, saw the upgraded roads of Mission 66 as threats to the parks and the resources they contained. [145] One of the projects that the Sierra Club criticized was the Tioga Road rehabilitation in Yosemite. Between 1932 and 1937, the National Park Service had realigned the eastern section of the road from Cathedral Creek near Fairview Dome to the eastern boundary of the park at Tioga Pass. Between 1935 and 1939 the Park Service worked on about 14.5 miles of the western section of the road, realigning parts of it and paving it from Crane Flat to the White Wolf intersection. This older road was noted for the way in which is "tiptoed" across the landscape. The careful work completed during the 1930s had included upgrading alignments, grades, cuts, and fills, and blending all structures along the road including bridges and culvert headwalls with the landscape.

Under the auspices of Mission 66, the 21-mile-long section between White Wolf and Cathedral Creek was scheduled to be realigned and replaced. When the final section of road was under construction curing the 1950s, engineers with the Bureau of Public Roads and politically active conservationists went head-to-head. Besides receiving in-house review and approval in the National Park Service and the Bureau of Public Roads, a group of citizens known as the Yosemite Advisory Board reviewed and approved each step of the project. Members of the board included San Francisco Engineer and conservationist Walter Huber, Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and William Colby of the Sierra Club.

Safety standards had changed since the 1930s, and the new design offered by Bureau of Public Roads included 4-foot shoulders on either side of the 20-foot road. The Park Service was fighting for 2-foot shoulders with turnouts where terrain allowed. The Park Service contacted Huber, a past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers and a man who had built a number of roads in Yosemite and the Sierra, to settle the dispute. Huber sided with the Park Service on the 2-foot shoulders, and the bureau accepted that decision. Despite that less intrusive course of action, one report stated that the new road "elbows and shoulders its way through the park it blasts and gouges the landscape." In addition critics of Mission 66 castigated the program for what it failed to do: make advances in resource management and ecological maintenance of the parks. [147]


By the time that Mission 66 came into being park roads had developed an identifiable character of their own. The lessons and standards that started in the west in Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and the other large western parks had spread east and evolved even further at Acadia, Shenandoah, and eventually the Blue Ridge Parkway. Dudley Bayliss, the Chief of Parkways for the National Park Service in 1957, wrote an article in the July, 1957 edition of Traffic Quarterly that the Park Service reprinted and distributed widely throughout the agency. In it Bayliss summarized the differences between park roads and high-speed highways. He noted that they had specialized access and circulation, and that

1. Park roads were planned to reach the principal features of the park rather that be the most direct route between two points.

2. Park roads were designed to fit the topography of a park rather than to conform to the standards of gradient, curvature, and alignment used in statewide or nationwide applications. The roads lay gently on the land rather than cut through it.

3. Park roads were designed to be low speed roads so that visitors could see and enjoy the park. Their design as low speed roads allowed easier fit into the landscape and reduced the amount of construction scars.

4. Whenever possible, the roads were designed to present the park in the best chronological or interpretive order.

5. In the location of new park roads or in relocation of old roads, NPS landscape architects incorporated points of scenic, historic, or scientific interest even at the expense of additional length or nondirectional alignment.

6. The Park Service employed various methods to protect roadside slopes, to heal cut and fills, and to secure against erosion. These included flattening and rounding slopes, fertilizing, mulching and seeding, restoring native vegetation, protecting natural features from blasting operations, and locating and screening borrow pits from public view.

7. An integral part of park roads were the views and vistas. The agency conducted selective cutting and thinning operations to open and maintain views and vistas. In some instances the designers strived for "canopy views" in which the understory or lower branches of a tree were removed, and the larger trees and their shade remained. Mowing, too, was included as part of that vista maintenance.

8. Master plans prepared by the National Park Service guided all park development. The road system plan was a section of each master plan. Each master plan, including road system portion, was developed with the expertise of a variety of disciplines such as landscape architects, engineers, biologists, and administrative representatives who took into account their respective disciplines in developing the plan. Master plans provided a direction to park development that was relatively removed from the effect that changes in personnel might bring to a park.

The summary clarified for many the differences between park roads and other roads.


A key piece of legislation indicative of the changes in tenor of this time period was the Wilderness Act, signed into law in 1964. In general, the country had started placing a greater emphasis on natural resources — 1964 was the same year that NPS Director George Hartzog established the three-part classification system for national parks to better identify and manage the resources in terms of their inherent values and appropriate uses. Hartzog firmly believed that the key purpose of national parks was to bring humans and their environment into closer harmony. Thus, he believed that the quality of the park experience was of greater importance than the quantity of people who experienced it.

Hartzog expanded his ideas to cover park access and development. He stated:

The automobile as a recreational experience is obsolete, we cannot accommodate automobiles in such numbers and still provide a quality environment for a recreational experience . . . . No more roads will be built or widened until alternatives are explored. We want to give a park experience not a parkway experience .... The National Park Service must not be obligated to construct roads, or to manage traffic, in order that new kinds of mobile camping vehicles be accommodated. The development of parking areas for trailers at park-entrances, and the exclusion of vehicles from park roads not capable of handling them, are appropriate solution. [148]

Hartzog continued by reinforcing his stance on road construction. In his view if the agency were faced with a choice of creating a severe road scar to bring visitors to a point of interest, or requiring visitors to walk, or provide an alternative transportation system, the decision should be against the road. [149]


In 1966 the functions of the Bureau of Public Roads were transferred to the Department of Transportation and assigned to the Federal Highway Administration. At about the same time the National Park Service had pulled together a team to write the first formal edition of park road standards. The committee who wrote them included: photographer Angel Adams; John Penfold from the Izaak Walton League; Ira Gabrielson of the Wildlife Management Institute; and from the National Park Service Charles Kreuger, assistant director, design and construction; Robert Linn, deputy chief scientist; and as its chairman William C. Everhart, assistant director, interpretation. The composition of the group — three from outside the Service and three from inside — and the disciplines represented (design and construction, the arts and sciences, aesthetics, and interpretation) proved an interesting mix. Missing was any representation from the Federal Highway Administration.

The new standards the group wrote concentrated on establishing an ethic for road design. The standards pointed out that the increase in the numbers of park users was threatening not only park values but the "extraordinary opportunity to make those values a more meaningful part of this nation's cultural inheritance." They were looking at National Parks in a new light.

The standards readily admitted that visitors needed to be manipulated. It stated:

In this era of enormously increasing vacation traffic, it must be assumed that those who visit the National Parks do so for the purpose of enjoying a unique experience, and are therefore willing to accept necessary restrictions, including those regulating numbers of people and their means of travel. Such regulations, as necessary, may deepen the awareness of visitors that they are truly in places of special importance. [150]

The document recognized that higher speed on park roads diminished the perceived size of parks, as conversely a slower speed could expand the size. The example it gave proved effective. If a visitor were traveling in canoe at 3 miles per hour, the visitor would perceive that lake as 10 times as long and 10 times as broad as the person zipping across the lake in a speedboat at 30 miles per hour. It concluded that "every road that replaces a footpath, every outboard motor that replaces a canoe paddle, shrinks the area of a park."

The 1967 Park Road Standards looked at broad park road issues and came to some conclusions. The document stated that new roads should be considered only as a last resort in seeking solutions to park access. In park areas that already had established roads the document suggested that the National Park Service consider reducing speed limits, converting a one-way road systems, and limiting automobile use in certain areas of the park. To deal with larger vehicles the document suggesting excluding them from parks instead of constructing roads to those standards, and it recommended that all park roads should be designed for slow speed.

The standards also proposed a formal process for approval of road design and construction. The first consideration dealt with a professional ecological determination to ensure that the effect on park resources would be minimal, and the second was a determination about which means of transportation would provide the maximum opportunity for visitor enjoyment and appreciation of park resources.

The key to the ethic summarized in the 1967 Park Road Standards was included in the document. NPS Director George Hartzog wrote a short piece that park visitors received at some entrance stations:

If the National Parks were like the rest of the countryside, you probably wouldn't be visiting one new. The National Parks are different, though, and one reason for this is that roadways, where they exist, are planned for leisurely sightseeing. Park Roads are designed with extreme care and located with a sensitive concern for the environment. They are often narrow, winding, and hilly. At times they are little more than trails. But therein lies their appeal. These roads can take you close to America's most breathtaking places of beauty and history. To experience a park at its best, try getting away from your car. Walk or, if conditions permit, go by horse or canoe to the more remote reaches. It is almost a truism that the slower you got the more you will see. The next best thing, for those who have neither the time nor zest for roughing it, is a judicious use of park roads. Along these roads, you will find a world as varied as it is unhurried. But park roads are for leisurely driving only. If you are in a hurry, you might do well to take another route now, and come back when you have more time. [151]

Although the design ethic proposed in the document came through brilliantly, the practical application of the principles to road design, rehabilitation, and construction, was lacking. The exclusion of the involvement of the Federal Highway Administration in preparation of the document was evident.


Almost 20 years later the Park Road Standards were in need of revision again. The passage of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 set up a coordinated Federal Lands Highways Program, which made Highway Trust Fund money available for the construction and rehabilitation of park roads and parkways, as well as any other federal agency roads. The Federal Highway Administration and the National Park Service signed a new interagency agreement in 1983. According to the terms of the agreement the National Park Service developed park road and parkway design, construction, maintenance, and safety standards. Federal Highways responsibilities included performing planning assistance, research, engineering studies, traffic engineering service, project development and contract administration. The Park Service provided architectural and landscape architectural services to ensure that "the highest standards of esthetics and resources protection are followed in the placement of road prisms and the design of structures appurtenant to park roads and parkways." [152] Also, Federal Highways was committed under the agreement to accommodate the aesthetic, environmental, and cultural resource protection concerns brought up by the Park Service.

The Park Service began work on the new road standards. Besides completing its task under the interagency agreement, NPS staff noticed additional items that needed to be addressed in new road standards. An internal memo pointed to discrepancies in the application of the 1967 park roads standards, and the fact that the standards did not address the actual types of vehicular and pedestrian use occurring in many park areas. As a result, the NPS director established a task force to look at park road use and to revise the road standards. Members of the task force included Jim Straughan, Denver Service Center; Donald Falvey, Rocky Mountain Region; John Gingles, Washington Office; Robert Jacobsen, Shenandoah National Park; Gerald Lorenz, Denver Service Center; Merrick Smith, Denver Service Center; and George Walvoort, National Capital Region.

The task force wrote that its purpose was to develop a document with road standards that accommodated existing and future road use while continuing to preserve the natural and cultural values of park areas, and at the same time addressing the requirements of Standard 12 of the Federal Highway Safety Program Standards and 23 CFR 1230. The task force wrote the document as a "definitive guide for manager, planners,, designers and others involved in the planning, design and construction of park roads." [153]

The document cited the Senate report that accompanied the Federal-Aid Highway Improvement Act of 1982, which stated that roads through federal land-managing agencies must be designed to protect the significant natural and cultural features, and that they must be designed to blend with the landscape. Also because of the type of use these areas received "the roads in certain instances do not have to be constructed to normal highway standards." The supporting documentation for the bill, then, noted that park roads were different, and could be constructed with a type of flexibility not allotted to state and federal highways.

The standards provided a great deal of flexibility wherein designers could take into account variations in types and intensities of park use, differences in terrain and climate, and protection of natural and cultural resources. The document left many of the basic decisions on the application of the standards to park management. [155] The preface and statement of purpose in the road standards again stressed the quality of the park experience and the importance of the road to that experience.

Although all of that information was included, the standards lacked an interpretation of the design elements to show in more depth how using them assisted in creating that traditional "feel" of a park road. The link between the two was weak. The document stressed generous rounding at the tops of backslopes "to minimize erosion and ensure long-term stability and revegetation of cut slopes," for instance. But it said nothing about how the Park Service and the Bureau of Public Roads developed this method in the 1920s to accommodate stability and revegetation, and to improve the visual quality of the road and contribute to the way in which it rested gently on the land. [156] That was one of the physical features that made a park road distinct. In the section on guardwalls, the document discussed choosing materials sensitive to the surrounding environment, but it did not discuss the founding principles of the rustic design ethic that gave so many parks a distinctive design vocabulary, which is often extant. The height of guard walls and guardrails was not discussed from the standpoint of considering their impact on vistas and the kinetic scenery — usually highly significant aspects of the park driving experience. The treatment of historic structures was terse and inaccurate: "Preservation or restoration may be the only option for such historic roadways or structures" when rehabilitation/adaptive use is the most common and often the most practical treatment. The document came closer to addressing hard safety and design issues in conjunction with park philosophy than had the 1967 edition, but it held some room for improvement.

NPS Landscape Architect Jay Bright critiqued the standards saying that they did not discuss the relationship between horizontal and vertical geometry. In his eyes — and he had driven thousands of miles of park roads before he wrote his comments — the single most distinctive features of a park road was its curvilinear design. Also, the document did not stress the importance of the landscape architect in the design of park roads. [157] Like the earlier version, this group of standards had room for improvement.

The aesthetics of park roads was only one issue of discussion. The question of liability and safety on park roads, however, was a thorny one that kept cropping up. The historic roads in national parks, for instance, were constructed to lesser standards than those being built in the 1980s. Disagreements often ensued between the FHWA engineers and NPS landscape architects on park road rehabilitation projects. After considerable discussion James F. Zotter, assistant regional counsel for FHWA in Portland, Oregon, wrote an opinion on the tort liability of the new Park Road Standards. In it he cautioned:

While each case must be decided on its own facts and circumstances, it is imperative that in those instances where the decision is made to construct a park road to less than the applicable design standards the administrative record describe in detail the factors that were considered in making the decision to waive the standard. Such contemporaneous records are critical to the Government's case, but even with such records, the Government bears a heavy burden in proving that its decision to waive the standards was reasonable under the circumstances.

This opinion provided cautionary guidance for park road designers. Yet statistics gathered in the mid-1980s indicated that driving the Blue Ridge Parkway was three times safer than driving on state roads in Virginia or North Carolina. [159]


Prior to World War II, NPS Landscape Architect Tom Carpenter recognized that the speed in which people experienced a landscape had an effect on their perception of it. He applied that to park roads design and pushed the concept of slower speed in national parks. Road work slowed during World War II, when the nation focussed its attention on the war effort. After years of delayed maintenance, Mission 66 helped get rid of some of that backlog, and forged ahead in the construction of new roads, housing for park employees, and visitor centers. The development push of Mission 66 affected park roads, and that strong emphasis on "modern" development to accommodate visitors often had a detrimental effect on the character of the park roads of earlier decades through design based on safety standards rather than aesthetics and resource management concerns. This approach disenchanted environmentalists who often had supported road construction in the earlier years of the agency.

Dudley Bayliss defined what made park roads different than other roads with a listing that identified some of those features. The political strength of the environmental movement during the 1960s culminated in the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, and it was indicative of public efforts at the time. In 1968, the National Park Service published its Park Road Standards that echoed the sentiments of environmentalism and questioned the validity of any roads at all in the national parks. Despite the philosophical issues raised in that document, the visitors kept coming and the agency continued to repair, rehabilitate, park roads. Although the emphasis had changed during the 1960s from park aesthetics to park environmentalism, the identifiable character of park roads was evident even to the casual observer.

The Park Road Standards underwent a revision in 1984. That update stressed the engineering aspects of road design rather than aesthetics and environmental issues. Shortly thereafter a legal opinion on the potential liability of park roads recognized that applicable standards could be waived with adequate documentation, although the National Park Service would bear the burden of proving that decision was a reasonable one.

As park roads such as Going-to-the-Sun aged, their significance started to emerge. At first the agency began recognizing only specific features along the roads as historic — bridges, culverts, aqueducts. Then the entire road corridor came under study: the history, the engineering feats, the masterful landscape treatment.

Now designers are charged with rehabilitating historic roads that provide access to national parks in a way that ensures visitor safety while at the same time addresses the sense of place the roads provide. Part of that sense of place comes from the landscape itself, but also key to that is the sensitive design that occurred through the symbiotic relationship between the Bureau of Public Roads/Federal Highway Administration and the National Park Service. Today's challenge is to continue that partnering of good engineering and good design with a respect for the past while meeting the social and environmental needs of the future.

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Last Modified: Mon, Aug 23 2004 10:00:00 pm PDT

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