100 years of amazing.

Explore 100 years of the National Park Service (NPS) right here, right now. Once called 'the best idea America ever had', the NPS has been protecting and preserving the nation's most beautiful outdoor spaces since 1916.

The inspiring history of the NPS is full of (wild)life and trailblazers who would let nothing stand in their path to beauty and greatness. Just select a decade to learn the background story of national parks in America—including the most popular parks of the time.

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  • 1966
  • 1976
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  • 1996
  • 2006
Welcome to the National Park Service

The fledgling national park service

Dedication to America's wild life: thank you, Pres Woodrow Wilson!

1916 was a pivotal year in national parks' history. Although Yellowstone had already been established as the first American national park in 1872, President Woodrow Wilson signed the historic National Park Service Organic Act in 1916. This legislation put national parks under the control of the US Department of the Interior, where they had once been managed by individual states, or even the United States Army. This paved the way for people and resources to be dedicated to America's wild spaces.

Conservation: now a legal obligation.

America had already made the idea of a national park real with a handful of western parks, including Yellowstone, in the 19th century. The Organic Act made conservation a legal and political obligation. This huge social initiative was a bold statement against speculation that America was a country driven by increasingly capitalist motives.

Aloha, 8 new parks!

Eight new parks were created from 1916-1925, including one in Hawaii. Despite this achievement, recreational visits remained relatively low during this decade. But the stage was set for growth…today, more than 100 nations have national parks of their own.

  • Total Recreational Visits to all National Parks: 7,754,863

  • Park with Most Recreational Visitors: Rocky Mountain, Colorado – 1,849,165

  • Highest Ratio of Visitors to Acre: Hot Springs, Arkansas – 141

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1920 | The last Wolf | Yellowstone

The great depression and the new deal

True fact: National parks did not initially protect wildlife. What?

This painful omission in the NPS bill was made all too real in 1926, when the last wolf died in Yellowstone. This sad moment echoed the national mood as the Great Depression took hold at the end of the 1920s.

Enter 5 new parks!

Despite the hardships of the Depression, America's national parks continued to grow. The NPS designated five new parks, including Grand Teton in 1929. One of the driving forces of NPS expansion was the Civilian Conservation Corps. During FDR's famous New Deal era, the CCC employed around 300,000 workers who tackled combating soil erosion, creating trails and planting trees.

People to know: Horace Albright & George Melendez Wright

NPS Director Horace Albright was instrumental during this period, encouraging Roosevelt to add a wide range of landmarks to the NPS register, including Mount Rushmore. Albright also set up a new wildlife division with a young naturalist named George Melendez Wright at the helm. Wright began an 11,000-mile scientific survey of the western parks—a task that would take four years—and his report would become the foundation of wildlife conservation efforts in American national parks.

  • Total Recreational Visits to all National Parks: 24,999,842

  • Park with Most Recreational Visitors: Yosemite, California – 4,083,061

  • Highest Ratio of Visitors to Acre: Hot Springs, Arkansas – 352

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Pictures of the National Parks

The war years

Ansel Adams: a traveling, photo-taking extraordinaire.

In the early 1940s, a young photographer from San Francisco named Ansel Adams took a series of photographs in Yosemite. These pictures found their way into the hands of President Roosevelt. Next, Adams was commissioned to travel across the country, taking pictures of the national parks.

From conservation to war.

The Pearl Harbor attack turned the national mood away from conservation to war. Park workers became soldiers, shipped overseas to fight in Europe, and the government cut park budgets. With the war came pressure to close the parks, but pioneering Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes insisted that in times of national crisis, the country should look to nature for solace.

A new generation of tree huggers was born.

Park visitor numbers continued to rise throughout this decade. The NPS, in collaboration with the War Department, set up rest camps in the parks for soldiers to recuperate and heal after battle, creating a new generation of nature lovers in the process.

  • Total Recreational Visits to all National Parks: 51,200,993

  • Park with Most Recreational Visitors: Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina – 7,353,825

  • Highest Ratio of Visitors to Acre: Hot Springs, Arkansas – 369

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Time to discover nature

The Post-War Boom Years

Attendance rate triples! Hurray for money and leisure.

Public enthusiasm for the parks was growing at a dizzying rate. Americans had more disposable income in the post-war boom, and a new leisure class was taking full advantage of the country's breathtaking wild spaces. Attendance rates tripled, as the national park ideal embedded itself firmly in the public imagination.

National parks for EVERYONE! Wait, too many people…

The vast number of visitors put a strain on national park resources, and political battles also raged about whether to build dams and roads in the parks. Rapid post-war population increases in the drier western states meant more water was needed. In Yosemite, roads and parking lots were congested with traffic, and campgrounds were regularly overcrowded.

National park trip = rite of passage

All across the country, people began to see trips to national parks as a rite of passage. Big Bend in Texas saw a 4726 percent increase in visitors during this decade—that's 47 times more visits in just 10 years! The NPS faced a new challenge: how would they accommodate the pressures of mass tourism while keeping the spirit of conservation alive?

  • Total Recreational Visits to all National Parks: 136,011,997

  • Park with Most Recreational Visitors: Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina –18,841,381

  • Highest Ratio of Visitors to Acre: Hot Springs, Arkansas – 579

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Mission 66

Colin Firth? No, Colin Wirth.

Another ardent conservationist steered the NPS in the right direction. Colin Wirth proposed an ambitious campaign to upgrade transport systems, recreational areas and management of the parks—Mission 66. This ten-year plan was to be completed on the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service in 1966. The plan reflected the spirit of the times: sweeping, idealistic, socially progressive and a huge budget!

The crowds asked; the national parks delivered.

As countless billions were being pumped into the interstate highway system and the fledgling space program, Wirth successfully fought for public funds to be assigned to the NPS. Sewer systems were enhanced, modern visitor centers were built and infrastructure was improved. Some campaigners argued that bigger crowds could threaten delicate park ecosystems. But work continued as the swinging sixties dawned.

Three new parks help visitor numbers rise.

The 1956-1965 period of consolidation saw just three new parks designated across the country, including Petrified Forest, but recreational visitor numbers continued to rise. Today, as fashions have changed, some of the modernist architecture and systems brought in during Mission 66 have been criticized. But, the pioneering spirit of the initiative is still widely commended.

  • Total Recreational Visits to all National Parks: 254,606,400

  • Park with Most Recreational Visitors: Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina – 43,195,900

  • Highest Ratio of Visitors to Acre: Hot Springs, Arkansas – 1890

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Into the Wild

Flower power: step into the wild.

The end of the sixties saw flower power grip the nation, and millions of people explored the wild. National parks acted as the perfect backdrop for this mass reconnection with nature.

Pollution and endangered species, oh my!

The Leopold Report was published at the end of the decade. This landmark series of ecosystem management recommendations urged that scientific research should now be the basis for all major management decisions by the NPS. A raft of government legislation was brought in to manage pollution levels, endangered species and historic resources in the parks. This was also the decade when the benefits of national parks were broadcast to minority groups who may not have had a relationship with the parks previously.

Happy 100th BD, Yellowstone!

Redwood was among seven new parks added to the register during this period, along with the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail in 1968. The oldest park in the country, Yellowstone, celebrated its 100th birthday in 1972.

  • Total Recreational Visits to all National Parks: 422,356,550

  • Park with Most Recreational Visitors: Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina – 72,096,253

  • Highest Ratio of Visitors to Acre: Wolf Trap for the Performing Arts, Virginia – 17,211

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National Park Rangers

Under Pressure

Recession = reduced park budgets

This was a tricky period for the NPS. The 1981 economic recession created a change of priorities in Washington. The government reduced park budgets – leaving visitor services and leisure demands driving park management, which many people felt was a backwards step. With visitor numbers continuing to climb, conserving natural habitats for future generations was becoming more of a concern than ever.

One ranger for every 50,000 visitors? Not OK.

The 1980 State of the Parks report revealed the growing pressures on the National Park Service. The NPS created this document from a blanket survey of park staff, including administrators, superintendents and scientists. The respondents identified a number of critical issues. For example, it was uncovered that there was only one park ranger for every 50,000 visitors.

Overbuilding, overcrowding, uh-oh.

The NPS identified internal threats to the parks, including overbuilding, overcrowding, and a depleted workforce. External pressures included air and water pollution, accelerated development on park boundaries and destruction of migratory park species outside of NPS jurisdiction.

11 new parks? SCORE!

During this ten-year period, 11 new parks were registered. Tellingly, all 11 new parks were designated in 1978 or 1980, before the 1981 recession hit.

  • Total Recreational Visits to all National Parks: 499,284,483

  • Park with Most Recreational Visitors: Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina – 86,075,283

  • Highest Ratio of Visitors to Acre: Wolf Trap for the Performing Arts, Virginia – 36,723

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Wildfires and The Vail Agenda

Record-breaking fire scorches over 1 million acres.

The fire season comes around every year in America's national parks. Controlled fires actually help the parks to regenerate and grow. But in the summer of 1988, a record-breaking fire scorched almost 1.2 million acres of land in Yellowstone. Fire management across the NPS was called into question.

Native American R-E-S-P-E-C-T

This period also brought a change to archaeological policy in the parks. The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act of 1990 recognized that Native American artifacts and remains discovered in the parks should be returned to their cultural descendants for reburial.

Happy 75th Anniversary, National Park Service!

In honor of 75 years of wondrous nature, industry experts gathered to share their ideas on the future of the NPS. Their report—The Vail Agenda—looked at the needs of the parks for the approaching 21st century. Once again, the report made calls for NPS management to be principally guided by scientific research.

The birth of Death Valley.

Five new national parks, including Death Valley, were designated during the 1986-1995 period, as recreational visits increased by around 18 percent compared with the previous decade.

  • Total Recreational Visits to all National Parks: 588,002,229

  • Park with Most Recreational Visitors: Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina – 89,880,841

  • Highest Ratio of Visitors to Acre: Wolf Trap for the Performing Arts, Virginia – 45,170

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National Park |

The New Millennium

New era, new parks.

As the NPS moved into the 21st century, the number of parks on the register continued to increase. New parks included Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio and Congaree in South Carolina. The idea of national parks was now deeply embedded in the American psyche. Indeed, the idea transcended borders – national parks had become a feature of countries all across the world.

Ongoing difficulties for the NPS.

Despite overwhelming support for American national parks, the problems and pressures the NPS faced were still not widely acknowledged. The days of Mission 66 seemed far in the past, as a backlog of uncompleted maintenance and repair projects created ongoing difficulties. Few visitors would have suspected such widespread systemic dysfunction.

Environmental preservation vs. national security

The advent of the War on Terror and related conflicts stretched the country's resources at the beginning of the new century. As with previous decades, the NPS found itself caught in the middle of competing demands. Environmental and historical preservation on the one hand, jostled with war and the nation's security on the other.

Recreational visits increased by just 10 percent – the lowest increase since records began.

  • Total Recreational Visits to all National Parks: 648,065,406

  • Park with Most Recreational Visitors: Great Smoky Mountains, Montana – 95,920,032

  • Highest Ratio of Visitors to Acre: Wolf Trap for the Performing Arts, Virginia – 42,914

Want to visit?

Welcome to the National Park Service

Centennial of 'The Best Idea America Ever Had'

Introducing the Centennial Challenge.

In 1912, a few years before the founding of the NPS, a British diplomat famously said national parks were 'the best idea America ever had'. Moving to reinforce this idea for the new century, the government proposed the NPS Centennial Challenge in 2006.

100 years. $100 BILLION dollars.

Aimed at strengthening the parks for the next 100 years, this $1 billion initiative was the biggest shake-up since Mission 66. The NPS set specific performance goals and designed a number of signature projects to enhance America's parks before the landmark 100th anniversary. $100 million was spent annually on everything from hiring park rangers to conducting vital repairs.

The smallest increase in visitors. Ever.

Despite investments and increased international tourist visits, the total number of visitors to all parks slowed to less than 0.5% over the 2006-2015 period—the smallest increase in the history of NPS. Various reasons have been cited: the 9/11 aftermath, high fuel and transport costs, hot summers and economic worries.

National parks, irrelevant? No way.

Some claim the parks have become irrelevant to many Americans. These critics suggest that interpretative programs and exhibits from the Mission 66 era do not reflect current demographic trends.

Has America fallen out of love with nature? Will the Centennial Challenge reignite national passion for parks? Only time will tell.

  • Total Recreational Visits to all National Parks: 651,048,371

  • Park with Most Recreational Visitors: Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina – 95,521,757

  • Highest Ratio of Visitors to Acre: Wolf Trap for the Performing Arts, Virginia – 34,978

Want to visit?