Happy Birthday, NPS! Celebrate the National Park Service With These 10 Fascinating Facts & Photos

by Jon D. B.

Did you know Buffalo Soldiers were the first U.S. park rangers? Or that the first national park outdates the National Park Service by 44 years? Few American legacies are as fascinating, or important, as the National Park Service (NPS) as these 10 fact & photo sets show.

August 25, 2022 marks NPS’s 106th birthday, and we’re celebrating by taking a look back with some of the most incredible facts about our beloved U.S. National Park Service. Let’s get to it!

10. Tennessee, New Mexico, and Washington All Share a National Park. Wait, What?

Shift change at the Y-12 uranium enrichment facility in Oak Ridge. Manhattan project, atomic bomb. (Photo by: Prisma Bildagentur/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

America is huge. Enormous, in fact. Which is why it’s a bit mind-blowing that there’s a single national park that you can visit in Tennessee, New Mexico, and Washington state.

This distinction belongs to the Manhattan Project National Historic Park. Founded to preserve the history of WWII’s nuclear bomb program, the Manhattan Project, the park covers separate sites in Oak Ridge, TN, Los Alamos, NM, and Hanford, WA. Each was imperative to the project’s success, and their legacy is (mostly) available to the public to this day.

Trying to hit all of these sections of the park in one day is no small feat, however. It would take almost two entire days to drive to all three sites.

9. The first National Park Came 44 Years Before the Actual National Park Service

Two Horse-Drawn Carriages along Snowy Trail, Rocky Mountain Divide, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA, Magic Lantern Slide, circa 1910. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The National Park Service holds an incredible history. Yet its own history outdates it. In 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first. It wouldn’t be until 1916, though, that the actual NPS was founded to house America’s national parks:

  • 1872: Congress establishes Yellowstone National Park, world’s first national park
  • 1890: Sequoia National Park & Yosemite National Park are born, more follow in decades to come
  • 1906:  Antiquities Act of 1906 gives U.S. President authority to proclaim national monuments on lands under federal jurisdiction
  • 1916: President Woodrow Wilson signs act creating the National Park Service (NPS)

And boy, has it grown since.

8. The Largest U.S. National Park is Unfathomably Huge

Dall sheep in Wrangell-St Elias National Park, Wrangell, Alaska (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Established way later in 1980, Alaska houses the largest U.S. national park by a landslide: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. At a whopping 13.2 million acres, this single park is larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the country of Switzerland put together.

More than a fourth of the park is covered in glaciers, and the rest is some of the wildest land left in America. If you visit, prepare for few-to-no manmade structures in sight.

7. Neither John Muir Nor Theodore Roosevelt Founded the National Park Service

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite National Park. (Photo credit: NPS, Library of Congress)

John Muir. President Theodore Roosevelt. Some of the biggest names in American history had a hand in preserving our lands and creating the National Park Service. Yet as much as both of these ‘Fathers of National Parks’ did, neither was responsible for creating NPS.

On August 25, 1916, well after Roosevelt left office as the U.S. President, that President Woodrow Wilson would sign the act creating the National Park Service. That year, NPS would become a new federal bureau in the Department of the Interior. Its purpose? Protecting the 35 national parks and monuments then managed by the department and those yet to be established.

6. There were 10 National Parks Before NPS’s Founding in 1916

1916: Woodrow Wilson (1856 – 1924) the 28th President of the United States of America. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

When President Wilson created the National Park Service, a total of 35 national monuments and parks existed. 10 of these were parks:

  • 1872: Yellowstone National Park
  • 1890: Sequoia National Park & Yosemite National Park
  • 1899: Mount Rainier National Park
  • 1902: Crater Lake National Park
  • 1903: Wind Cave National Park
  • 1906: Mesa Verde National Park
  • 1910: Glacier National Park
  • 1915: Rocky Mountain National Park
  • 1916: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Today, it’s hard to imagine that this many sites were formed before the government decided to create an agency directly for them. Or is it?

5. Abraham Lincoln Beat Them All to It

American statesman Abraham Lincoln, (1809 – 1865), the 16th President of the United States of America. Half-tone plate engraved by H Davidson, from a photograph by Brady, in the collection of Robert Coster. (Photo by Brady/Getty Images)

Several decades before Muir or Roosevelt came to champion national parks, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant on June 30, 1864. He did so to protect Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley.

In fact, Lincoln’s foresight came almost a decade before Yellowstone became the first national park, and half a century before the creation of the National Park Service. His 1864 land grant became the first time the government protected land because of its natural beauty, and his party did that so the American people could enjoy and behold Yosemite’s splendor – something the National Park Service upholds to this day.

4. Buffalo Soldiers Were the First Park Rangers

In this 1899 photo, Buffalo Soldiers in the 24th Infantry carried out mounted patrol duties in Yosemite. (Photo credit: National Park Service, NPS archives)

As the NPS photo above shows, Buffalo Soldiers were among the first national park rangers in U.S. history, if not the first. Black army regiments, or “Buffalo Soldiers,” were founded after the Civil War. These soldiers were often dispatched westward to fight in the Indian Wars, where Indigenous Plains Tribes gave them this moniker.

After serving in the wars, the soldiers became many of the first backcountry rangers in the budding national parks. From there, they would expand to become park rangers across the first national parks, including Yellowstone and Yosemite. An incredible 500+ Buffalo Soldiers served in Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park alone.

3. Yellowstone Was the Only National Park for Decades

Commotion in the Devil’s Ink Pot, Park Ranger on Horseback in Background, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA, Magic Lantern Slide, circa 1910. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In 2022, Yellowstone celebrates 150 years of parkhood. This magnificent park, founded with the Act of March 1, 1872 would establish the world’s very first national park in the Montana and Wyoming Territories. The park’s original government-stated purpose was “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

It would take almost two decades for the U.S. Government to declare another national park in 1890. Today, more than 100 nations contain around 1,200 national parks. And it’s all thanks to Yellowstone.

2. Every Single Year, Great Smoky Mountains is the Most Visited National Park in the World

Great Smoky Mountains historic postcard. (Photo by: Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

When it comes to the most-visited national park in the world, it’s never a contest. Tennessee and North Carolina’s Great Smokey Mountains National Park sees well over 10-to-14 million visitors every year, with 2021 seeing an astounding 16+ million.

In any given year, the Smokies sees 10 million more visitors than Yellowstone National Park. This gorgeous, ancient landscape has become a lasting icon of the National Park Service as a result.

1. Over 400 National Park Service Sites Exist Today

President Theodore Roosevelt’s western tour; a speech at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Photographic print on stereo card; stereograph. 1903. (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In more than a century, the National Park Service has come a long way. Today, there are 63 U.S. National Parks that hold that specific title. But these parks – ranging from the enormous to the more quaint – are only the beginning.

In fact, The National Park System encompasses 423 U.S. NPS Sites in total. So if anyone asks you “How many U.S. National Parks are there?” – you can now answer truthfully with not 63, but a whopping 423.

For more on the NPS, see An Outsider’s Quick History of the National Park Service next. Happy birthday, National Park Service!