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On Their Centennial, Visits To National Parks Offer More Than Nature

Bellamy Pailthorp
Driving in Idaho looking at Grand Teton National Park in the distance.

National Parks date back to 1872, so it might seem a little unusual that they’re celebrating their centennial this year. It’s because the agency that manages them – the U.S. National Park Service – wasn’t created until 1916. KPLU travel expert Matthew Brumley says the more than 400 national parks are great places to spend a vacation, offering nature, and a lot more.

Presidents And Rails

So who gets credit for creating the national parks?

Congress established Yellowstone National Park in 1872, and it was President Ulysses Grant who signed it into law. Theodore Roosevelt – best known for a legacy of conservation – presided over massive growth in the number and acreage of national parks. And then Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service in 1916 to oversee their management.

But a lot of the credit for the early popularity of the national parks belongs to the railroads – eager to start moving people west.

“Wealthy Bostonians, people from Philadelphia, New Yorkers; they wanted to get out and see the wild west,” Brumley said. “The park system, along with the railroads, built these gorgeous lodges – these grand dames you find spread out through the national park system.”

The lodge at Yellowstone National Park is one notable example. It happened in Canada, too, with the creation of the Chateau Lake Louise, the Banff Springs Inn, and even the Empress Hotel in Victoria.

“You could just imagine — it’s 1920, and you’re in New York, you’re seeing this beautiful poster of people having tea out by Old Faithful,” he said. “It was very alluring for people wanting to get out and see this.”

Around Here

The newest addition to the national park firmament is the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The park commemorates the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs in the United States – telling the story not only of the science and research that went into making the weapons, but also their effect around the world.

The park is based at three sites: Los Alamos in New Mexico, Oak Ridge in Tennessee, and Hanford, here in Washington state.

Washington state is full of national parks, though. The big three are Mt. Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades. But you’ll also find a variety of trails, recreation areas and historical parks – including one downtown Seattle.

Book Early

“If you want to get out to the uberfamous national parks, you should be making your reservations right now,” Brumley said.

In a lot of cases you can put a deposit down and cancel later if you decide not to go after all. The key is being prepared.

“You have to be organized so you’re not sleeping next to the propane tank, like I was with my family when I got the last campsite,” he said.


“Going Places” is KPLU’s weekly exploration of travel topics. Matthew Brumley is the cofounder of Earthbound Expeditions on Bainbridge Island, which provides small group travel to clients including KPLU.  

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.