US National Park History and Information

History of US national parks US national park history and information USA national park history national park service

The USA National Parks history is full of winding laws and departments. The National Park Service is within the Department of the Interior.  The history of National Parks in the US dates back to before Wyoming was even a state! Yellowstone was the first National Park followed by Sequoia and Yosemite.

The West Coast is home to the most National Parks in a region and is a wonderful place to take a road-trip.

We have listed the major laws that have passed that have gotten our Park Service where it is today.  We list the various designations within the National Park Service below the timeline.


National Parks By State


US National Park Service History

Yellowstone National Park Act, 1872 

Yellowstone was made a National park by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, decades before there was a National Park Service. 


This was the first truly national park. It took more than 2 million acres from the public domain in the Montana and Wyoming territories from occupancy, settlement, or sale “to be dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”.


This placed the park under the control of the Secretary of the Interior, who was also responsible for preserving all timber, mineral deposits, geologic wonders, and other resources within the park.



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The Antiquities Act of 1906

Signed by President Theodore Roosevelt it came from an effort to conserve elements of the Southwest, like early missions, pueblo ruins, and prehistoric cliff dwellings.


It authorized Presidents to proclaim and reserve "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest" on lands owned or controlled by the United States as "national monuments." 


Almost 25% of the National Park System came from the Antiquities Act.

History of US national parks US national park history and information USA national park history national park service



Act To Establish The National Park Service, 1916

The National Park Service (NPS) was brought into existence by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916, when he signed an act establishing the Service. At this point, the Department of the Interior was responsible for 14 national parks, 21 national monuments, and the Hot Springs and Casa Grande Ruin reservations, but lacked central leadership.


This act created the foundation for the basis of the fundamental mission, philosophy, and policies of the NPS.


Reorganization of 1933

The major impacts this executive branch had on the National Park Service was the transfer of the War Department’s parks and monuments and the national monuments from teh Forest Service.  In addition, the NPS took on the parks in Washington DC.


These changes had the single largest impact on the structure and form of the national park system.


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Mission 66, 1956-66

This was a decade long project that was begun by the NPS Director in 1956. More than 1 billion dollars was spent over the ten year period and left a legacy of many visitor centers, employee residences, and employee training centers at Harpers Ferry and Grand Canyon.


Wilderness Act of 1964

This is probably my favorite one on this timeline.  This established a policy of securing wilderness areas for the enjoyment and benefit of Americans then, now and in the future.  The ‘wilderness areas’ would be administered in a way that would leave them unimpaired.


The Service quickly evaluated all parkland that might qualify as a wilderness area and added legal protection for park areas facing threats of development.

History of US national parks US national park history and information USA national park history national park service


Land And Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965

This act established a fund managed by the for adding more lands to existing parks or new parks. Some of the money came from fees at existing parks, surplus property sales, fuel taxes from motorboats, and other sources. 


National Historic Preservation Act of 1966

This act made entering historical parks into the National Register of Historic Places a requirement. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a new federal agency established by the Act is responsible for reviewing NPS and other federal agency activities that would affect historic sites.   


Wild And Scenic Rivers Act, 1968

This act created preservation and protects select rivers that are scenic, recreation, geologic, fish and wildlife, cultural, or historic value. There were eight original rivers and then 27 other rivers were named as potential additions. This addition created more complex management challenges.


National Trails Systems Act, 1968

The National Trails System Act created national recreational trails that you can get to from developed residential or urban areas. 


Two of the most popular through hikes in the United States, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail.  There were also over a dozen additional routes that were to be evaluated for the designation of national scenic trail designation.


History of US national parks US national park history and information USA national park history national park service


Volunteers in the Parks Act of 1969

This legislation created the "volunteers in the parks" program to help with visitor services and other needs of the National Park Service. Once they were able to really utilize the volunteers the force of support has grown year after year.


National Environmental Policy Act of 1969

The National Environmental Policy Act directed the federal agencies to conduct all projects without or by minimizing environmental harm. 


They also added a section in the process for public input. This also increased the maze of paperwork and approvals in the way the Service managed resources in the parks.


General Authorities Act, 1970

The was an inclusive act that was the first to include recreational areas like parks, parkways, historic, parkways, or similar areas.  This also helped create various types of parks to be part of one unified system.

History of US national parks US national park history and information USA national park history national park service


Endangered Species Act of 1973

The Endangered Species Act makes sure that the federal agencies do not hurt endangered or threatened species.  It also protects habitat and nearby areas. In addition, it protects these species from the possession, export, or import.


Redwood National Park Expansion Act, as amended, 1978 

By the 1970's  Congress was grappling with the issue of encroachment on the parks by nearby activities. In particular the coastal trees of the Redwood National Park had logging activities happening right next to it. This legislation expanded th park to include the watershed and to protect the natural ecosystem.


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National Parks and Recreation Act, 1978 

This added recreation areas.  In particular it added 15 more areas and includes the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area among others.


Archaeological Resources Protection Act, 1979

There were more than 70 years of insufficient protection for historical and archaeological artifacts and sites.


History of US national parks US national park history and information USA national park history national park service

Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, 1980

This legislation converted the national monuments in Alaska into national parks and preserves and added over 47 million acres to the National Park System.


Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, 1990 

In addition to the previous laws regarding the unlawful nature of excavating the graves of Native Americans and the removal of other remains and artifacts.  This law added that museums had to return any remains to the descendants for reburial.


National Park Omnibus Management Act of 1998 

This large Omnibus Act helped to improve the accountability and management for some programs.  It is the first to include laws reforming the way that the NPS does business with concessions.  There were new guidelines and practices initiated by the National Park Service. It also allowed parks to keep more fees that previously within the park where they were collected.



Buffalo Soldiers

The US Army regiments were the first park rangers and mostly they were in the west.  The all-black regiments included the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry.  The Cheyenne and Plains people gave them the name Buffalo Soldiers for the way their hair reminded them of the cushion between a buffalo’s horns.

One contribution was their service in Yosemite and Sequoia national parks before there was a National park Service.  Beginning in 1899 and into 1904 the all-black regiments served during the summer at the second and third named national parks, Sequoia and Yosemite. Something that stuck was the military hat that the rangers still wear today.

History of US national parks US national park history and information USA national park history national park service


There is one Buffalo Soldier that stands out and that is Captain Charles Young.  He was the third black person to graduate from the United States Military Academy.

He became the first black superintendent of a national parkin 1903. While there he named a giant sequoia for Booker T. Washington.  More recently, a sequoia was named for him in Giant Forest.

Find the Perfect Place to Rest

Skip the tent and stay in a house with a bed for your next trip.

It should be noted that despite major contributions to the United States black Americans, no matter their position, faced violence, outright and systemic racism.  It is a tale of great integrity, character, and motivation that these men did what they were able to do.

National Park Arrowhead Emblem

History of US national parks US national park history and information USA national park history national park service

The emblem became official in 1951.  The elements represent the variety and beauty of the parks.  There are a bison and the sequoias representing the plant and animal life, as well as water and landforms that represent the scenery and recreational enjoyment. The arrowhead itself representing the historical and archaeological value these spaces hold.


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What You Need to Know Before You Go!

Find out what you need to bring to be ready for your next National Park adventure.

Show up at the right places prepared with everything you need!


Areas Of The National Parks

The 419 areas of the national park system cover over 80 million acres.  The system touches all the states plus Washington DC, America Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. 

National Park Designations

  • A national park will have many resources as well as cover a large area of land or water so that the resources can be adequately protected.

  • The national monuments are usually designed to protect one resource and is typically smaller than a national park with less to see and do.

  • National preserves are established to protect a certain resource or group of resources. Some activities, like hunting, fishing, or the extraction of minerals or fuels can be done if the protected resource is not put into jeopardy.

  • Focusing on the preservation of natural features, the national lakeshores and seashores also offer water-related activities.

  • The national rivers and wild and scenic riverways preserve streams and the local and adjacent environment. They must flow freely without dams or other alterations.  These areas are not only protected, but they also offer fun outdoor activities like canoeing, hiking and hunting.

  • National scenic trails are usually well-maintained trails that go for a long-distance winding through beautiful natural areas.

  • The national historic trails pay tribute to historical and original routes of interest or importance.

  • A national historic site is the most common title of a newly appointed area of the National Park System. They have many titles including a national battlefield, national battlefield site, national battlefield park, and national military park.
  • National historical parks are larger than national historic sites and offer more variety and are larger.

  • For areas that are primarily commemorative, the designation national memorial is given.

  • The idea of what a national recreation area is has evolved from being limited to the water and surrounding areas of a dam to include separate water areas intended for recreational. Sometimes these are actually embedded in an urban area. 

  • National parkways offer scenic drives and are designed to be taken slowly and enjoyed.

History of US national parks US national park history and information USA national park history national park service

National Park Management, Staff and Volunteers

The National Park Service is a bureau of the Department of the Interior and its operations are overseen by the department’s Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife Parks.

There are approximately 20,000 employees, including permanent, temporary, and seasonal.

In 2019, the number of volunteers in the National Park Service was over 10 times the number of employees with more than 279,000!

Find the Perfect Place to Rest

Skip the tent and stay in a house with a bed for your next trip.

National Park Visitors

In 2019 there were over 300 million visitors to the national parks.


Pets and National Parks

Most parks do not allow pets. Some national parks allow pets, usually on developed areas like campgrounds, trails and in certain lodging.

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