Celebrating 100 Years of National Parks

100 years ago this week, the National Parks Service came into being and changed the landscape of our country. Or, more accurately, preserved the landscape of our country by protecting parks and forests so that people may enjoy their natural beauty.

As we celebrate the centennial of the National Parks Service, we look forward to future years of enjoying our nation's natural wonders. Keep reading to learn more about the history of the National Parks, what you can do when visiting a National Park, and some of the best parks - whether you prefer the popular sites or those off the beaten trail.

Celebrating 100 Years of National Parks: Where to Visit and What to Do

History of National Parks

While the National Parks Service was created 100 years ago, some of the most beloved National Parks were founded years earlier.

In the 1860s, President Lincoln had granted Yosemite to the state of California, thus starting a trajectory of legislations that would lead to the National Parks Service over 50 years later.  Yosemite National Park celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, thanks to the work of John Muir in 1890.

Yellowstone National Park is our country original National Park. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed Yellowstone into government protection by legislating the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act.

While industry and environment are often opposed in modern America, it was an industrial tycoon who founded the National Park Service in 1916. Millionaire Stephen Mather desired overarching federal management to preserve the United States’ National Treasures. With the support of other industrial tycoons, newspapers, the National Geographic Society, and even schoolchildren, Mather successfully advocated for the creation of the National Parks Service.

Mather served as the first director of the National Parks Service. For Mather, preservation was more than a political issue. Mather enjoyed nature and found that it alleviated his bouts of depression. The National Parks Service was a highly personal endeavor for Mather: he paid for the staff’s salaries out of pocket, often purchased land and donated it to the NPS, and sought to democratize the National Parks so that people of all classes may enjoy nature. (Source)

Over the past 100 years, the National Parks Service has grown to include 392 national areas, including 58 National Parks and numerous forest, monuments, battlefields, and preserves.

Celebrating 100 Years of National Parks

What to Do in National Parks


National Parks offer endless paths for adventure if you love to hike and explore. From Acadia National Park in Maine to Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state, many of the great treasures of National Parks are best seen on the hiking trails.

Most National Parks offer a wide variety of hiking trails for every level of experience. Visit each National Park’s website to find the best hike for you and your family.


Whether you prefer car camping or backpacking, camping extends your trip in the National Parks into a multi-day experience.

For those who prefer to stay inside, most National Parks offer remarkable historic lodges. You can enjoy delicious food, comfortable amenities, and superb views of many of the park’s best natural attractions. Many National Park lodges do not include TVs, phones, or even internet, so you can still enjoy the relaxing experience. Popular lodges include the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, Crater Lake Lodge, and the Old Faithful Inn, which has hosted many presidents throughout its time.

Rock Climbing

For more adventurous types, the soaring peaks at many National Parks offer exhilarating opportunities for rock-climbing. Popular destinations for climbers include Yosemite, Grand Tetons, and Mount Rainier National Parks. Don’t forget to pause and take in the views at the top!

Rock-climbing requires special gear and expertise, so don’t embark on freestyle rock-climbing on your own. Many National Parks will offer guided trips for rock-climbing, such as Yosemite and the Grand Tetons.


If you want to explore underwater as well as on land, many National Parks offer snorkeling and diving. The Channel Islands National Park in California lets you explore sea caves. At Biscayne Bay National Park in Florida, snorkeling lets you get up close with manatees, coral reefs, and sea turtles.

Snorkeling can be a dangerous activity, so be sure to take lessons, use proper gear, and be aware of your surroundings. But don’t let this discourage you - it’s not an experience you want to miss out on!


If you prefer to avoid crowds when possible, winter is the best season to visit popular parks such as Yosemite. The downside of winter is snow, especially in the mountains, but don’t let some powder discourage you from experiencing a National Park in the wintertime. Snowshoeing is an enjoyable alternative to hiking and lets you explore the parks as they transform into winter wonderlands.

Outdoor Photography

Even if you don’t enjoy hiking or other outdoor sports, you can still enjoy the National Parks’ beauty. Whether you opt for a manual camera or the one built into your smartphone, the National Parks offer unlimited photo opportunities.

Some of the National Parks offer photography classes to help you capture the beauty of nature. Yosemite National Park lets visitors sign up for seasonal photography seminar that includes a short hike to a breathtaking spot and receive guidance from professional outdoor photographers.

Celebrating 100 Years of National Parks

Most Popular National Parks

Millions of people visit National Parks each year. Some attract more than others, and for good reason. What can compare to the geysers at Yellowstone or El Capitan at Yosemite? According to National Geographic, the top ten most popular National Parks are:

  1. The Great Smoky Mountains (Tennessee and North Carolina)
  1. Grand Canyon (Arizona)
  1. Rocky Mountains (Colorado)
  1. Yosemite (California)
  1. Yellowstone (Wyoming, Idaho, Montana)
  1. Zion (Utah)
  1. Olympic (Washington)
  1. Grand Teton (Wyoming)
  1. Acadia (Maine)
  1. Glacier (Montana)

Most Exotic Parks

If you prefer to explore off the beaten path, these exotic National Parks may be the best of you:

American Samoa National Park (American Samoa)

American Samoa National Park is tropical paradise located in the South Pacific. During a visit to American Samoa, you will see small plantations since farming is allowed,, vibrantly colored wildlife, and volcanoes. American Samoa is ideal for snorkeling, hiking in a rainforest, or even lounging on a sandy beach.  

Haleakala National Park (Hawaii)

Haleakala will feel like another world for many tourists: bamboo forest, volcanic landscapes, and ocean coasts provide a visual feast for visitors. Rare endangered species inhabit Haleakala, so a visit gives you the chance to witness plants animals that don’t live anywhere else.

Kobuk Valley National Park (Alaska)

Most people envision Alaska as endless fields of snow, but Kobuk Valley National Park is actually an Arctic sand dune. In summer you can enjoy a wide range of activities, from fishing and boating to hiking and flightseeing along the sand dunes. If you visit in winter, you can participate in skijoring, dog sledding, skiing, and snowshoeing along the snow-covered dunes.

Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida)

Historical buffs will enjoy Dry Tortugas National Park, which is on an island 68 miles off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. The explored Juan Ponce de Leon discovered the island in the 16th century. Over the centuries, numerous shipwrecks occurred along the archipelago of coral surrounding the island. Most famously, Dry Tortugas served as a military prison in the 19th century. When visiting, you can enjoy sightseeing, camping, snorkeling, fishing, and kayaking.

Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona)

The Petrified Forest is a visual wonder, from its millions-years-old fossilized trees to the Painted Desert. In this surreal park, you can hike, backpack, geocache, and photograph natural wonders that are far older than our nation.

Whether you visit Denali in Alaska or the Everglades in Florida, there’s no better year than the Centennial to embark on an adventure and visit one or more of our national natural treasures. And don't forget to bring with you the gear for life's adventures


NPS 100th Anniversary Statistics Gear Well