National Parks

How the national parks system got its wild start in the United States

Setting aside wilderness areas for people to enjoy the rugged beauty of the United States while protecting the landscape, plants, and animals for future generations sounds like a modern idea, right? But it's not. More than 140 years ago, the United States created the world's first national park.

In 1872, the U.S. Congress set aside 3,400 square miles (8,805 square kilometers) of land in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to establish Yellowstone National Park. The idea of a national park might have started several years earlier. In 1864, Congress gave Yosemite Valley to the state of California to help protect the unspoiled land. Later that area became part of the larger Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite was the first of 401 national park areas where people can snorkel, ride horses, bike, ski, hike, climb, spelunk, kayak, camp, see geysers blow, relax in hot springs, get close to a volcano, and so much more. About 60 percent include important historical sites like battlefields, memorials, and historical homes, as well as the continent's prehistory: ancient dwellings, petroglyphs, and pictographs from earlier cultures.

Since Yellowstone's creation, the role of the national parks has grown and changed, just as the United States has grown and changed. Better scientific understanding of protecting wildlife, native plants, and natural resources has strengthened the commitment of the role of national parks.