National Parks


The world's first national park, Yellowstone, was created by an act of Congress in 1872. Today, the national park system includes 392 sites (58 national parks), over 83 million acres of land, and hosts over a quarter million visitors per year. Join Active Minds as we tell the story of the development of our national parks system and highlight some of the more notable parks and their stories.

Key Lecture Points

  • The National Park System consists of 84.6 million acres of land, slightly more than the entire state of Kansas.  The idea of a National Park system for the United States was inspired by the natural beauty of the land, its plant and animal life, as well as the historical and archaeological legacy of the Native Americans.  In addition to protecting vast natural landscapes like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, the National Park System preserves historic and cultural sites like Independence Hall and the Jazz National History Park in New Orleans.
  • The first National Park, Yellowstone, was created by an act of Congress signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.  Thereafter, the number of national parks grew gradually.  During his Presidency, Theodore Roosevelt wielded the Antiquities Act of 1906, to use the power of the Presidency to declare National Monuments, including the Grand Canyon, to vastly enlarge the territory preserved under the control of the federal government.
  • In 1916, Woodrow Wilson signed the Act that created the National Park System that brought National Parks, National Monuments and other federally preserved lands under the singular control of the Department of the Interior.
  • Overuse and underfunding has characterized our National Park system from its earliest days to today.   With the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and cheap gas, attendance during the 2016 tourism season is expected to be even higher than the 2015 record of 300,000,000 visitors.  Budget cuts in recent years mean fewer resources are available to meet the rising public demand.
  • The National Park Service faces the following challenges as it goes into its second 100 years: getting the funding needed to address its backlog of infrastructure repairs, remaining relevant to an increasingly diverse population the changing landscape caused by climate change.

Exploration Questions

  • Name three Presidents who played a role in the development of our national park system and describe their contributions.
  • What are the major challenges the National Park Service faces in its next 100 years?
  • What role in our society do national parks play?  How do you see them adding to American culture and national identity?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you know anyone who participated in the Civilian Conservation Corps efforts in the National Park System?
  • What is your favorite National Park? Why?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Burns, Ken, and Duncan, Dayton. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Alfred Knopf, 2009. 403 pages. The companion volume to the new Ken Burns film. An in depth illustrated history of the American national park system.
    Click here to order
  • Runte, Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience. Taylor Trade, 2010. 307 pages. Written by an acclaimed environmental historian, a history of the national park system with an emphasis on conservation efforts, past, present, and future.
    Click here to order
  • White, Mel. Complete National Parks of the United States. National Geographic, 2008. 527 pages. An illustrated guide to over 400 units in the national park system.
    Click here to order
  • Barr, Nevada. Boar Island.  Minotaur Books, 2016. 384 pages.  This mystery involves cyberbullying and stalking at Acadia National Park in Maine.  It is part of an ongoing series written by a former NPS park ranger.
    Click here to order
  • Muir, John. My First Summer in the Sierra. Dover Publications, 2004.  146 pages.  The influential naturalist, John Muir describes his 1869 stay in California’s Yosemite River Valley and the Sierra Mountains.
    Click here to order