Our Oldest National Park

Since the last time I blogged here, I’ve started writing the first book I’m doing for Tule Publishing. Not only is this book set in one of the most beautiful areas of the United States — the Paradise Valley of Montana — it’s also adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, which is our nation’s oldest national park. The park was established by Congress, and President Ulysses S. Grant signed it into law March 1, 1872. That was more than a decade before any of the three states in which the park currently sits — Montana, Wyoming and Idaho — even became states.

By Henry Wellge (1850-1917) (David Rumsey Map Collection) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Yellowstone is not only very ecologically diverse, including being home to half of the world’s geothermal features, it also has a rich history. The area the park covers, more than 3,400 square miles, has been home to Native Americans for around 11,000 years. We know this because an obsidian projectile point was found during the 1950s excavation for the building of the post office in Gardiner, Montana, which is the gateway community where the northern entrance to the park is located. Arrowheads made from the same type of Yellowstone obsidian have been found as far east as the Mississippi Valley.

Though mountain men occasionally visited the area as far back as the late 1700s, it wasn’t until the late 1860s that organized exploration made it to this rugged and remote area. Prior to that, occasional tales from the area, such as those told by John Colter of a place made of “fire and brimstone,” were dismissed as a product of delirium or as pure myth. In fact, it became known as an imaginary place called “Colter’s Hell.” Though famous mountain man Jim Bridger also spoke of the area, he was also not believed because he was known to be a great teller of tall tales. It wasn’t until two different expeditions in 1869 and 1870 that the world began to believe that Yellowstone was real. Shortly thereafter, several voices spoke up for the protection of the area as a national park.

Photo taken by Daniel Mayer and released under terms of the GNU FDL.

Initially under the purview of the Secretary of the Interior, the park subsequently was overseen by the U.S. Army for a period of 30 years from 1886 to 1916. You can still see the Army’s Fort Yellowstone structures, which serve as the park’s headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs in the northwestern corner of the park. Throughout the park, you’ll find museums and roadside exhibits that detail various aspects of the park’s history, wildlife, geothermal features and ecology. The wildlife is interesting in that the herds of bison and elk and the free-roaming bears and wolves give modern-day visitors a small glimpse of what the great landscapes of the West were once like.

By Jim Peaco, National Park Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Since 1916, Yellowstone has been a part of the National Park Service. Its creation has led to the protection of more than 400 units of the NPS covering more than 84 million acres in every state as well as the territories of Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. These park units collectively had more than 330 million visitors last year. Fifty-nine of the units are designated national parks, many of which are also World Heritage sites. Thirty-five of those 59 parks are located in the West and protect a variety of landscapes and history that embody the American West. That’s not counting a huge number of other NPS units that are designated as national monuments, battlefields, seashores, historic sites, national historic parks, preserves, lakeshores, wild and scenic rivers, recreation areas, military parks, parkways, cemeteries, historic and scenic trails, and heritage areas.

Have you ever visited Yellowstone? Other National Park Service units? What is your favorite?

To find out more about Yellowstone National Park and the rest of the units of the National Park Service, go to http://www.nps.gov.

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32 thoughts on “Our Oldest National Park”

    • I love the Smokies, too, Denise. Went there a number of times during the 20+ years I lived in Tennessee. It’s so pretty, and I was so sad when I saw the news of the devastating fires around Gatlinburg.

  1. One summer we had a wonderful vacation where we saw some great sites, basing our car travel out and back mostly on the Lewis and Clark Trail and the Oregon Trail. Some of what we saw includes the Badlands, the Black Hills, Devil’s Tower, Little Bighorn Battlefield, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Courthouse Rock, Independence Rock, and several sites with wagon wheel ruts. I couldn’t pick just one site from that wonderful trip; it was all so wonderful. Also, being from the Northeast, it was my first car trip west, and the open plains and the big sky made a huge and lasting impression on me.

    • Sounds like a fabulous trip, Eliza. I love those car trips out West. So much beauty and history to see. I love the Oregon Trail and traveled along part of it in Nebraska and Wyoming — Scotts Bluff, Fort Laramie, etc. I’ve also been to the Badlands, Devil’s Tower, Little Bighorn, Tetons. I’ve also seen those wagon ruts in the rock in Nebraska. Amazing.

    • Grand Canyon is still on my bucket list, along with many of the other parks in the Southwest. The only one I’ve been able to visit in the Southwest is Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, when I was in Santa Fe for a work conference many years ago.

  2. Trish, I’m hoping to get to Yellowstone next spring, before farm season begins… I’ve been longing to see this amazing place for years. I’ll be so excited! Thanks for a great look at a national treasure.

    • It’s such a neat place. My sister worked there back in the ’90s and lives in the Northwest, so I visit the park any time I can. I hope to again next summer after the RWA conference in Denver.

  3. Trisha- I had the huge privilege of finally getting to visit Yellowstone this past summer and we are planning a trip back up there in 2018. It’s amazing that over 500 geysers are in this one park. The most active thermal site in all of the world. If you have never visited this park this is definitely the most beautiful place to go see.

    • It’s like another world entirely, isn’t it? What I really like is to go to some of the less visited areas (not backcountry; I’m a bit too scared of encountering a grizzly), but there are areas at some of the less well-known spots where the absence of modern, mechanized sound is just so peaceful.

  4. It’s sad to say that I’ve never been to Yellowstone. I’m not sure I’ll ever make it. Great blog! I learn so much from all you HWR authors that I never learned in school.

    • I hope you get to visit, Stephanie, but if you don’t it’s well worth watching some nature documentaries about Yellowstone and the other parks. I really want to visit some parks in Alaska, but I’m not sure when or if I’ll make that.

  5. I have never visited Yellowstone or any of the others out west although I have on my bucket list to visit one day. I have been to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and so want to go back for it has been nearly 30 yrs since being there. I to have learned more in history HWR than I ever did in so not only do I get a great story from books I read. I also get to travel vicariously thru the books

    • Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the system, largely because it is within a day’s drive of a huge portion of the U.S. population. And it’s free entry there, unlike some other parks. At least it was when I was last there.

  6. Love Yellowstone and its diverse landscape. Now that I live closer to the east, I want to visit the Smokey Mountains.

    • If you’re able, I’d find an NPS unit nearest to where you live and check it out. Even the small units are well worth a visit. NPS does a good job of showcasing the natural and historical reasons for why a park unit was included in the system.

  7. Very interesting, Trish. I’ve never been to Yellowstone but I hope I get to go before I die. I hear it’s magnificent. Can you only imagine what those mountain men thought when they saw it the first time? What a thing to tell about.


    • Yes, I’m sure it was like seeing something totally alien. I’m sure when they saw the bubbling mud pots and the geysers and boiling rivers, they must have thought it was a gateway to hell.

  8. I grew up a few miles from Saratoga Geyser State Park. ( there are a lot of fabulous State parks,too.) The first time I visited Yellowstone I realized how puny our NY geysers are. The mineral water falls are similar in color but Yellowstone is so vast. It is no wonder people thought the early reports of this area were tall tales.
    Our grandchildren have National Park passport books. Thanks to their many moves to different Naval Bases the kids have been able to gather many stamps in their books,

  9. We have been to Yellowstone twice and love it. The first time it was just my husband and me. The second time we brought our 15 year old grandson. It is a diverse and interesting area. We have visited many of the National Parks and Monuments (well over 30). I am going to have to get a list of them all, check off what we have seen and work on seeing them all. We need to finish the West and plan on going to Alaska next year. We are also working on the Canadian National Parks and have visited a few in Puerto Rico. They are such a treasure for us all.

  10. Kentucky is home to Mammoth Cave and I have also been to the Smoky Mountains. I have always wanted to visit Yellowstone. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi, Connie. I’m a Kentucky native, so I’ve been to Mammoth Cave along with the rest of Kentucky’s NPS units — Big South Forth National Recreation Area, Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, Fort Donelson National Battlefield, Cumberland Gap NHP, and Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. I really am a NPS junkie. 🙂

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