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A Short History of Your Favorite National Parks

Discover who fought for preserving your favorite national parks

By: Jess Fischer + Save to a List

The other day while I was hiking in Shenandoah National Park (my home-base park), I was mindlessly thinking about nothing in particular, and one thought that popped into my head was that someone at some point in time thought this place was so beautiful that they wanted to protect it for as long as possible. I didn't know who did it, why they did it or how long it took but I decided as soon as I got home I needed to find out. My dive into the history of Shenandoah naturally turned into hours of researching and reading about the formation of other national parks across the United States. The national parks across the United States are profoundly rich with landscapes and wildlife but they're also rich with history. To shed light on what other conservationists have done in order to protect these lands for you and I to explore, I'm starting a series called "A Short History of Your Favorite National Parks." Each article will highlight 5 different national parks across the United States and help shed some light on the amazing people who fought for these magnificent areas to be preserved and protected for future generations. 

Grand Teton National Park

Photo: Josh Packer

What was it named after? Grand Teton, the tallest mountain in the Teton Range

When was the park established? February 26, 1929

How big is it? 310,000 acres; 480 square miles

Fun fact: The oldest rocks in the park have been dated at nearly 2.7 billion years old

History: Grand Teton National Park took decades to establish. In the 1920s wealthy Easterners were drawn to the beauty of the west and would pay local ranchers good money to stay in Jackson Hole, use rancher’s horses and enjoy outdoor activities. Local ranchers who, for the longest time, had struggled to raise crops and ranch cattle immediately realized the profit in these long, rich vacations that Easterners were taking and shifted from traditional cattle ranching to dude ranching (called dude ranching because the western men were called "dudes" and women "dudettes"). Lodging, gas stations, and other tourist attractions began popping up in front of the Tetons as the west became a growing attraction and locals came to the agreement that they wanted, and needed, to block further development of the open spaces below the Tetons. In 1923 these locals held a meeting in Maud Noble's cabin and set into motion what would be the conservation and preservation project that eventually became Grand Teton National Park. Soon after this meeting, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. visited the area and absolutely fell in love with the mountains; over the next 20 years he purchased a total of 35,000 acres of land with the intent of donating it to the federal government to be part of the Grand Teton National Park. In 1929 Congress created the original park and in 1943 the remaining federal land in the Valley was declared Jackson Hole National Monument. Six years later, in 1949, Rockefeller donated his 35,000 acres to the National Park and one year after this Congress combined the original park, the Jackson Hole National Monument and all the land Rockefeller donated into the present-day Grand Teton National Park. In 1972, Congress established the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway to honor Rockefeller's philanthropy and commitment to the National Park System. The Parkway connects Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

Learn more here.

Yosemite National Park

Photo: Sarah Vaughn

What was it named after? Yohhe'meti (Southern Miwok) or Yos.s.e'meti (Central Miwok) originally referred to the Indian tribe that lived in Yosemite Valley.

When was the park established? October 1, 1890

How big is it? 748,036 acres; 1,169 square miles

Fun fact: According to John Muir, sheep were a primary threat to Yosemite's natural landscape

History: Up until the 1849 gold rush, Native Americans were the predominant residents of the Yosemite Valley. The gold rush brought thousands of miners and settlers to the region and because of the influx of people Yosemite Valley's ecosystem began to suffer. In 1864, 15 years after the gold rush, conservationists convinced President Lincoln to declare Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias a public trust of California. (Side note: this was the first time the US government protected land for public enjoyment and laid the foundation for the establishment of the national park system- but Yosemite wasn't the first National Park) About seventeen years after this, the famous poet John Muir discovered that the meadows surrounding Yosemite Valley were overrun and being destroyed by domestic sheep grazing; the land lacked government protection. Muir fervently lobbied for the wilderness around Yosemite Valley to have a national park status in order to be protected. On October 1, 1890 Muir’s wishes came true and Congress partitioned over 1,500 square miles of land for Yosemite National Park (the third national park in the country) and in 1906 the state-controlled Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove were added to the rest of the National Park.

Learn more here and here.

Olympic National Park

Photo: Jason Horstman

What was it named after? The Olympic Peninsula, where the National Park is located

When was the park established? June 29, 1938

How big is it? 922,000 acres; 1,442 square miles

Fun fact: Bears have not killed a single person in Olympic National Park, but a Mountain Goat, which is not a native species to the region, killed a man in 2010.

History: In the 1890s logging became a threat to the Olympic Peninsula and many locals became concerned about the areas disappearing forests. In 1897 President Grover Cleveland gave the area its first national designation as Olympic Forest Reserve. In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt designated part of the Olympic Forest Reserve as Mount Olympus National Monument to protect Roosevelt Elk, a local species of elk whose population was rapidly declining from hunting. For 30 years after this, every bill introduced in Congress to make the area a national park was defeated; it was an endless, controversial fight between the Forest Service and the Park Service. Even with the designation of the Olympic Forest Reserve, loggers continued to log the Peninsula and they were approaching the last bits of the original forest in the late 1930s. In 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt took it upon himself to visit the Olympic Peninsula. The Forest Service (who was allied with the lumber industry) tried to convince President Roosevelt that creating a national park would run the local economy. In their efforts to preserve the logging business on the Peninsula, the Forest Service made sure that Park Service officials were not invited to the tour and they also went as far as moving a national forest boundary sign to make it look like the heavily logged areas were not on federal land. Upon seeing the endless acres of devastated forests, Roosevelt stated that he "hope the son-of-a-b**ch who is responsible for this is roasting in hell." After realizing that he had been deceived, that the logging had taken place on federal land and the forest boundary sign had been moved, he decided to vehemently fight for the establishment of a national park. The following year President Roosevelt signed an act designating Olympic National Park and Congress gave the president authority to expand the parks boundaries. In doing so the president saved an 187,000 acre swath of land from the Forest Service and loggers. In 1953 an additional acreage along the Pacific Coast was added to the National Park.

Learn more herehere and here.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Photo: Steve Yocom

What was it named after? The blue fog or mist that hangs over the mountains and in the valleys

When was the park established? June 15, 1934

How big is it? 520,000 acres; 816 square miles

Fun fact: The Cherokee considered the mountains to be a sacred place and referred to the area as “Shaconage” (Sha-Kon-O-Hey): land of the blue smoke.

History: Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) wasn't easy to create. Most of the older parks located out west, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, were much easier to establish because Congress carved them out of land that was already owned by the government. In contrast, the land taken to create GSMNP was owned by hundreds of small farmers as well as timber and paper companies which made the task of crating the National Park exceedingly difficult. The idea to create a national park in the southern Appalachian Mountains began in the late 1890s when a very small group of people began to talk about preserving the cool, healthy air in the mountains. A bill was drafted in the NC Legislature but failed. Efforts to create a national park finally became successful in the mid-1920 with a solid support system based out of Knoxville, TN and Asheville, NC; President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill in May 1926 that established Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Shenandoah National Park. However this didn't designate land to the National Parks, this assigned the Dept of the Interior responsibility for administration and protection of the Smokies as soon as the 150,000 acres of land were purchased. To make things more complicated (are you still following me?), the government was not allowed to buy land for national park use. So, basically the bill was signed to create a National Park as long as they were able to purchase the land needed to create the park. The former political boosters became fund raisers and in the late 1920s the Legislatures of TN and NC appropriated $4 million ($2 mil each) for land purchase. In addition, individuals and private groups who had interest in developing the national park raised money. By 1928 $5 million had been raised and The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund matched what had been raised and donated $5 million, which was enough to purchase the remaining land. But, having all the money still wasn't enough- buying the land proved to be difficult. There were (quite literally) thousands of easements, farms and other miscellaneous parcels that had to be surveyed and appraised. Timber and paper companies had to be compensated from their standing inventories and even worse, people were forced to give up their farms and homes. Fast forward to 1934 and TN and NC had finally transferred deeds for 300,000 acres to the federal government for the GSMNP. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was established during the Depression to provide work and wages for unemployed men and it was these men that worked to create many of the trails, campgrounds and stone bridges/buildings found throughout the park. The park was formally dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in September, 1940... finally. 

Learn more here and here.

Denali National Park

Photo: Lorene Voskinarian

What was it named after? Formally known as Mt. McKinley National Park, it is now Denali National Park. Denali means "the high one" or "Great One" in Koyukon

When was the park established? February 26, 1917

How big is it? 6,075,029 acres; 9,492 square miles

Fun fact: Denali NP is the third largest National Park in the United States

History: The area now known as Denali National Park used to be thought of as nothing more than a frozen wasteland. That all changed when adventurers were drawn to Denali Mountain to scale the continent's tallest summit. As the area gained some recognition, naturalist and hunter Charles Sheldon traveled to the region twice - once for an entire year - specifically for the Dall sheep. It is said that he traveled the world to hunt sheep and he was drawn to Mount Denali because the only documented white mountain sheep resided there. Sheldon fell in love with the region with its unique and teeming wildlife that included grizzlies, moose, caribou and the Dall sheep that he loved. In the winter of 1907-1908 Sheldon watched over 2,000 Dall sheep as they were herded from the Denali area by commercial meat hunters who then sold the carcasses to Alaskan railroad workers and gold miners in Kantishna. Sheldon was perceptive enough to realize that the magnitude of this kind of hunting would cause the fragile ecosystem to vanish. He returned to New York with a mission to save the Denali area. Sheldon moved to Washington DC and with the help of the Boone and Crockett Club (which included Founders George Grinnell and former president Teddy Roosevelt) he relentlessly lobbied for the creation of a bill that would make (the named) Mount McKinley a national park. On February 26, 1917, President Wilson signed into law the bill establishing Mount McKinley National Park as a 2 million acre wildlife preserve. Sheldon's only complaint was that when Congress created Mount McKinley National Park, they had ignored his pleas to return the mountain to its original name: Denali. The park was named McKinley because when the region was still marked as "unexplored" a prospector named it Mount McKinley after the presidential candidate he happened to be supporting at the time. Over time many wildlife studies were done and it was realized that the established park, although it was a impressive 2 million acres, was not large enough to protect the habitats of so many of the animals that resided within the park. Also, the original shape of the park was an elongated rectangle which was an unnatural boundary and didn't reflect drainages or ridge lines, animal movements and seasonal migration routes. Fortunately, in December of 1978 President Jimmy Carter and other promoters of wilderness preservation expanded the park boundaries to 6 million acres when Carter signed into law the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) and the name of the Park was changed to Denali National Park and Preserve.

Learn more herehere, here and here

Great conservationists and members of our government quite literally fought to protect these lands for future generations- for us. We owe it to them to continue to preserve the pristine wildernesses that they, and we, love so dearly. Practice Leave No Trace principles no matter where you go, join volunteer groups to help maintain your favorite park or donate money to the National Park Foundation. Learn how you can make the least amount of impact on an area while still getting to enjoy the beauty of it and please remember wild animals are WILD and don’t attempt to pet, feed or get close to them.

Stay tuned for the next "A Short History of Your Favorite National Parks" featuring Grand Canyon, Glacier, Yellowstone, Acadia and Everglades National Parks!

Cover photo: Josh Packer

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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