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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



Historic Roads in the National Park System
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Only in this decade have we started to comprehend the significance of historic park roads. In March 1992, the Transportation Research Board included in a series of research needs the preparation of a study on the identification, evaluation, and management of historic highways. [160] The National Register of Historic Places has been recognizing the importance of historic roads and highways and has been working on criteria for evaluation for those resources. The Historic American Engineering Record, with funding from the Federal Lands Highway Program, has been documenting historic roads in a number of national parks throughout the United States. Various regions of the National Park Service have been preparing national register nominations for historic roads. The Olmsted Center of the North Atlantic Regional Office has been working very closely with the Federal Highway Administration and the park staff to come to a meeting of the minds on the treatment of the highly sensitive roads at Acadia. The Pacific Northwest Regional Office is studying the Rim Road at Crater Lake in terms of its importance as part of the park's cultural landscape. The Rocky Mountain Region has worked out a mitigation plan for rehabilitation of Going-to-the-Sun Road at Glacier. These are only a few examples of work underway nationwide on historic park roads. All of these studies show a growing level of concern about historic park roads and their subsequent management of them.

In addition to those studies, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been studying potential conflicts between the AASHTO Green Book and the preservation of historic parkways. In 1993 a program associate of that organization presented a paper to the AASHTO Task Force on Geometric Design. In it, author Paul Daniel Marriott argued that providing a safe driving environment on parkways while preserving significant historic resources is an achievable goal. The National Trust is pushing for the development of a new functional classification for historic parkways n the AASHTO Green Book that would carry with it a distinct series of standards for that type of historic road. Park roads, too, are a road of a different type that deserve a separate classification warranting distinct standards.

Although the preservation community has been quick to grasp the idea of historic roads, the physical elements that make up that road can be confusing. Understanding the nature of historic roads and then managing them accordingly is far more complex than working with historic buildings. A look at the evolution of management of historic structures might provide a useful analogy. Twenty years ago the National Park Service looked most often at only the historic building and paid little or no attention to the surrounding landscape. Now it has evolved to a point where it realizes the importance of the building's environs and the cultural landscape of which it is a part and takes that into account in assessing the significance of and managing the resource.

Roads are even more difficult. In earlier years we understood the importance of the structures on historic roads — the bridges, guardwalls, and culverts — but only recently have we started understanding the importance of the entire road prism, horizontal and vertical alignment, slope design, and the path that the road takes. All those, again, are physical features. In addition roads can possess intangible features, and in a sense they become intellectual properties where the physical features of the road may not be significant, but the road's history or the use of it as an artery can be significant.

Further complicating the issue of historic roads is their continued use in today's world. Of prime concern is safety. Lives depend on it. Many of these historic park tour roads cover some of the roughest terrain in the United States. The geography of national parks can bring with it a host of natural occurrences that threaten road safety, from rockslides and mudslides to fires and floods. Park roads tend to have minimal width and numerous features to cause traffic jams such as scenery and wildlife. Most national parks are overcrowded to the extreme, and the primary method of access to the parks is by automobile. In addition most visitors expect a quality visual environment in any national park. At the same time we have been part of a large trend in this country involving safer highway design for high-speed driving. Most drivers have become accustomed to the easy rhythm of driving interstates and two-lane roads with ample shoulders, and most park roads do not fit into those types. Also, the concept of sustainability can no longer be ignored in a polluted world with rapidly diminishing natural resources. As a result the construction, rehabilitation, and continued use of park roads must be considered in that broader vision in terms of potential impacts to the earth's resources. Trying to mesh all of those factors is a formidable task. All of those considerations must be taken into account in managing historic park roads.

The Park Service is evolving out of a myopic view of resources into a broader vision. The only problem with that evolution is that as we gain understanding of the complexity of our resources, the resources get harder to manage. They seem to become amorphous when we try to nail down the physical characteristics, significance, and integrity.


To start the sorting process of working with historic park roads, the traditional methods still work: inventory and evaluate the resource and determine its significance and integrity, and then address the management direction. First it must be determined what the resource is and the best way to manage it. The management goals might include: preserving portions of the cultural landscape, improving safety, moving traffic more efficiently, improving aesthetics, repairing or rehabilitating existing roads, improving drainage, or enhancing wildlife habitat/crossings. In delineating those goals, however, the broader impacts must be visualized. A "better" road usually accommodates higher speeds, increased traffic, altered landscape or park scene, and greater visitation.

The first step in understanding park roads, as in understanding any other cultural resource, is to inventory the historic resources to meet federal requirements under section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act, Executive Order 11593, section 8© of the DOT Order 5610.1. This task may seem cut-and-dried, but it is quite complex because of the interrelationship among the elements of park development.

Primary park tour roads in nearly all cases were constructed as parts of larger systems that included trails, secondary roads, and primary park roads. For the purposes of the national register, these roads must be considered as integral parts of these larger systems. Most historic park roads should be evaluated as part of multiple property nominations for national parks within the additional context of the individual state comprehensive preservation plans.

Roads should not be considered in isolation. They are an integral parts of a park's cultural landscape. A prime example of the integration of these systems is at Acadia National Park. There, the tour roads, secondary roads, carriage roads, and trails form a network of ways to experience the park. They should be evaluated in terms of statewide and nationwide systems, such as the National Park-to-Park Highway and the connecting roads as well as within the context of the park. The overall context is the key.

However most construction and rehabilitation efforts under the Federal Lands Highway Program involve only the primary park tour road or a section of it. Thus it is the joint responsibility of the park manager and cultural resource staff to consider the road or road segment within the larger context of the park's cultural resources when assessing the impact of any changes proposed by road rehabilitation, repair, or construction.

Grappling with historic park roads is difficult. Understanding what makes a road historic and eligible for the National Register of Historic Places can be difficult. Following the process below will help gain in the understanding of the significance of the road and the relative significance of all of its features.


Roads in national parks most often have complex histories, and tracing that history is imperative in understanding the road as a resource. The preparation of a chronology and the analysis of that information is the first step in understanding the nature of the resource — include in the chronology not only the date that something happened, but what that meant. When doing the assessment, think in terms of "inherited" roads as well as NPS-built roads. Often things were constructed for purposes that had nothing to do with the national park. Consider overall transportation systems and their evolution — from trails, railroads, and international roads. Consider the historical perspective of park roads, how they came about, how road systems are not static but are constantly developing, and evaluate what the changes did to the park experience.

In some instances the existing road fabric may not be eligible for the national register, but the broad transportation corridor in which it is sited may be. An example of that is the Tioga Read at Yosemite National Park. Because the physical features of the road had changed so much over time, minimal fabric was left that met the criteria. Yet at the same time the corridor possessed numerous archeological features that were eligible, and the road had a checkered history that typified the growth of western national parks and the environmental movement.

The Tioga Road developed out of a wagon track to an 1880s mining venture, and it evolved into one of the primary roads to cross the Sierra Nevada. The Tioga Road was included in the National Park-to-Park Highway, and NPS director Stephen Mather believed so much in its importance that he contributed financially to its acquisition. The road also was the center of a huge controversy over appropriate development for national parks during the 1960s that involved Ansel Adams, the Sierra Club, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Public Roads. The controversy was perhaps the largest one ever on a park road. It questioned appropriate road development in national parks, and impacts on scenic and natural resources. Thus the artery possesses archeological and historical significance, but few physical features along its length meet the criteria. In a situation such as this, the road meets certain National Register criteria, but most of what is significant about it is not the physical fabric. Thus, the driving forces behind decisions on changes to the road should be based on priorities that would include impacts on natural and scenic resources, safety, and maintenance.

The elements of a road that might be significant in terms of landscape architecture can vary tremendously. Some of these elements appear in the photographs at the end of this chapter and in the drawings in the appendices. These can include

  • the overall layout of the road and the way in which it lays gently on the land with minimal resource impact
  • the manner in which the topography dictates the design
  • the use of cut-and-fill and flat-fill slope operations
  • the manner in which the slopes are finished and rounded at the top and bottom;
  • the shape and width of the road prism
  • the gentle curvilinear shapes of the road and the ways in which turn-outs are incorporated
  • the presentation of specific vistas and vista clearing
  • the use over the course of the road of a variety of vistas that show the variety of natural features in the park landscape
  • the integration of natural features into the road corridor; the use of tunnels to avoid deep scars to the landscape
  • the design of bridges, culverts, tunnel portals, and other features in harmony with the surrounding natural landscape of the park and in harmony with the built environment of the park
  • use of standard-plan guardrails and guardwalls
  • entrance features such as historic gateways and signs that mark the boundary from the outside world
  • rustic road furnishings such as benches and water stations designed in harmony with the park's natural and built environment
  • vegetation and treatment of it along the road
  • the effect of all of the above on the experience of driving the park road.

Because of the rough terrain encountered in many national parks, particularly those in the West, the construction of park roads included major advances in road engineering and the physical processes involved in building park roads. In reviewing this aspect of the potential significance of a road, the Historic American Engineering Record has prepared background documentation on roads of the major western national parks. The division is working on documenting eastern national park areas now.


After consideration of all of the above factors, the integrity of the significant features needs to be evaluated. Changes that have occurred over time and the effects those may have had on the original design intent need to be carefully assessed. For instance vistas that were an important feature of the park road in its early years may no longer exist because the vegetation had grown up. Mowing patterns along road edges may have altered the historic feel of the road. Widening the road and altering the slopes might have changed the manner in which the driver perceives the park and its resources. Instead of feeling an intimate connection with nature, the road may feel like just another two-lane road through a scenic area. Some road sections may retain high levels of integrity. Others may have none. In considering this category, however, evaluate the road as a whole, rather than just individual segments. Compare the original construction and design intent with extant features.


Not all features of a historic park road are of the same level of relative significance. One specific vista might be the most significant aspect of a road. The built environment along a road, such as the bridges and tunnels or even the curbing, may be more significant than the views from the road. In assessing all of the significant features of a road, they should be grouped in priority order, which will help management in decision making.

In these days of comparative fiscal austerity, most road projects will probably be limited to rehabilitation. Rehabilitation and adaptive use of historic roads go hand-in-hand. The roads are meant to be used. Problems arise when certain elements that contribute to the significance of a road are determined to be a safety hazard.

One feature that is causing some consternation in rehabilitation projects these days is the stone guardwall. Most historic guardrails and guardwalls were constructed to only 18 inches in height. That height was fine for allowing visitors good views of the park landscape from their vehicles. Speed limits were so slow that safety was not a pressing issue at the time the walls were constructed. In the interim some of the walls have lost any semblance of structural stability. Layer after layer of new pavement laid adjacent to the walls has sometimes raised the height of the pavement so much that the wall height is no longer 18".

To counteract that problem several approaches have appeared in national parks in recent years to meet safety concerns. At Shenandoah a new wall of a concrete core and stone veneer is now lining Skyline Drive. The stone veneer is of high quality and appropriate for the park setting. Unfortunately the height of the wall is such that the driver feels more as if he is driving along a parkway than a park. The height has removed the middle-ground vistas from the view in the average automobile, and the views were one of the most significant features of Skyline Drive.


At Glacier National Park the stone walls that are in repairable condition will be repaired, and sections that are too decrepit will be removed and replaced with simulated stone (toned concrete cast from forms made from walls extant in the park). The height of the historic stone wall will remain. The speed limit and the size of vehicles on the Going-to-the-Sun Road will be limited. Reaching those agreements took several years, but it preserved not only the road but the entire park experience of driving the road.

No easy design solutions exist for these problems, and as an agency all we can do is continue with these efforts to refine some solutions, and discard others in future efforts.


In 1994, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt called for no new road construction in national parks. In his words, roads are "the enemies of national parks. They disrupt, divide and fragment animal habitat and the natural systems that are the very reason for the park. Our task is to invite visitors out of their cars and away from the roads." Instead of seeing park roads in that vein, perhaps these roads are just a job too well done. In our quest for nirvana, we have made that place a little too easily accessible, and by doing so we have invited so many that we are threatening to destroy that place of beauty and light.

Environmental historian Roderick Nash pointed out that the controversy between the natural and the utilitarian has been a historic one. In other words, objects like trees can be seen as lumber or scenery. Park roads also can be viewed from two different angles: as parts of transportation systems that provide access into and through national parks, and as integral parts of the entire park experience — and for far too many people the only park experience. The bottom line is how the nation decides to deal with them. [163]

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

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