History and Experiences in America’s National Parks

2016 marks 100 years of the National Parks Service.  We love spending time in the national parks and enjoying all the natural wonders that this great country has to offer. We also appreciate all the hard work the National Parks Service puts into keeping our National Parks clean, well-managed, and beautiful. In celebration of 100 years, we wanted to share a brief history of how the national parks came to be and some memorable stories from the parks.


During the 1800s, when the natural wonders of the United States was still being explored and the public were first becoming aware of the beauty of places like Yellowstone and the Yosemite Valley, people began to talk about how to preserve these natural wonders so that they’d be around for future generations. In 1872, President Grant signed a law that created Yellowstone—America’s first National Park. These 2.2 million acres were to be, “A public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Since the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, 58 more national parks have been added as well as many National Monuments and Preserves, all with the goal of preserving them for future generations.


The history and happenings of the parks have varied from hilarious to tragic. For example, well over 300 deaths have occurred in the 144 years of Yellowstone’s existence. This has occurred in many ways, including bear, bison, and other animal attacks; people drowning; scalding from hot geyser water; poisonous gases, and falling. Other parks, such as Grand Canyon National Park, saw 43 deaths in 2012 alone. As the wild places of the country have been opened to the public, some of the public have paid the ultimate consequences of the wild.


But, not all tales from the national parks are tragic. In fact, some are simply funny. A park ranger tells a story one time of a visitor to Yellowstone National Park who ran frantically into the ranger station because there was a grizzly bear in the parking lot and he was afraid for his children’s safety. The park rangers grabbed their rifles and ran quickly into the parking lot to defend the patrons of the park. Upon arrival, the rangers scanned the parking lot, but couldn’t find the bear. “There! There, between the cars!” the man pointed frantically. “Shoot it!” One ranger, confused, pointed down at the small, brown rodent waddling through the parking lot. “Is that the bear you are talking about?” he asked. “Yes! What are you waiting for? Shoot it!” “I’m sorry, sir,” the ranger replied, “that is a marmot. It is like a large ground squirrel. It is not dangerous.” “Oh,” the man replied. “It looks just like a grizzly bear.” The ranger explained that a grizzly bear is much larger than a man and is much more dangerous than a marmot. “Oh,” the man said. “It didn’t look that big in the magazine.”

Another story is told of a young family visiting Yellowstone. Their tour bus stopped to look at a field of bison. This young family left the bus to get a better look and some photos. Wanting to get just the right shot, the husband walked out into the field and lifted his child up over one of the bison that was bedded down in the grass as his wife snapped some photos. Luckily, the bison was having a good day and nobody was hurt. The foolish parents were able to snap a once-in-a-lifetime shot of their baby riding on the back of a wild bison. Other equally crazy people have not been so lucky.

Park rangers have published some of the funny questions that people have asked them. One woman, obviously tired of touring the park, asked the ranger how the heck she could get out of the park. The ranger pointed down the road and said that the park entrance was five miles away. “I don’t need an entrance!” the woman yelled.  “I need to get out of here. Where’s the exit!”

Other rangers report being asked:

  • At what altitude does a deer become an elk?
  • Does this river run downstream?
  • These animals out here, they can’t be wild, are they? If they were wild, you wouldn’t just let them run around loose like this.

And then, of course, there was the famous Yellowstone incident of winter 2016 when the concerned family saw the baby bison out in the snow and felt compelled to rescue it. They went and picked up the endangered animal, stuck it in their warm vehicle, and hauled it to the nearest ranger station. Unfortunately, it didn’t end well for the baby bison and the world has ridiculed the well-meaning, albeit misguided good Samaritans to the nth degree, but the story is still good for a head shake.


But not all national park experiences are as ridiculous as the previous stories. I have had many life-changing experiences in the National Parks and I’m surely not the only one. It was in Yellowstone National Park that I first got up close and personal with a bison (I was in my car with a thin layer of glass between my eye and his) and my love for wild things was nurtured. It was in the Mariposa Grove of Yosemite National Park that my appreciation for the majesty of God’s creations and a desire to protect and respect those creations was kindled. It was in Grand Teton National Park that my desire to view the world from above became insatiable. And, it was atop the Grand Teton a couple years later when my appreciation for the safety of flat ground was realized. While traveling through a slot canyon in Zion National Park, I gained a greater respect for wetsuits and teamwork as I was lifted out of a frigid, water-filled pothole that was too deep for me to climb out of on my own. It was in Glacier National Park where my older brother and I searched for grizzly bears for almost an entire week. We didn’t find any bears (but everybody else we met “just saw one. It’s like five minutes down this trail. You can’t miss it.”), but our experiences there further strengthened our relationship just before our circumstances would send us to opposite sides of the world.  And, finally, it was at Gettysburg National Military Park that I gained a greater understanding of how good my life is and how much was given by so many so I could enjoy my life and freedoms.

Many of us have had wonderful, life-altering experiences in our national parks. We are grateful for the National Parks Service for the last 100 years of hard work and dedication in maintaining these wild and historical parks so that we and future generations may also have these experiences.

Stephen T. Mather, the National Park Service director for 1917-1929, may have said it best:

“The parks do not belong to one state or to one section…. The Yosemite, the Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon are national properties in which every citizen has a vested interest; they belong as much to the man of Massachusetts, of Michigan, of Florida, as they do to the people of California, of Wyoming, and of Arizona.

“Who will gainsay that the parks contain the highest potentialities of national pride, national contentment, and national health? A visit inspires love of country; begets contentment; engenders pride of possession; contains the antidote for national restlessness…. He is a better citizen with a keener appreciation of the privilege of living here who has toured the national parks.”