Established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park is America's first national park.
Established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park is America's first national park.
Photograph by Michael Melford

National Parks

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.

However, by creating these parks, the U.S. government was taking away land from Native American people who had lived there for thousands of years. For example, once Yellowstone National Park was created, the Shoshone (shoh-SHOH-nee) people could no longer hunt on their homeland. And to create Yosemite National Park, members of the Miwok (MEE-wuk) tribe were attacked and driven from their land. Some Native Americans suggest that to make things right, tribes should manage the parks instead of the government, while still allowing visitors to enjoy the land.

That includes snorkeling, riding horses, biking, skiing, hiking, climbing, spelunking, kayaking, camping, watching geysers blow, relaxing in hot springs, getting close to volcanoes, and so much more in the 401 national park areas. 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.