The United States created the world’s first national park on March 1, 1872, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation setting aside Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Before the century was out, the country had four more parks – General Grant (now Kings Canyon), Sequoia, and Yosemite in California, and Mount Rainier in Washington. By that time the idea of preserving stretches of wilderness was spreading to other countries.
Today the United States has the finest, most extensive system of national parks in the world. From the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia (1/50 of an acre) to the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska (13 million acres), the National Park Service administers more than 84 million acres. The system includes about 400 parks, historic places, monuments, battlefields, preserves, and more. As the conservationist J. Horace McFarland observed, “The parks are the nation’s pleasure grounds and the nation’s restoring places. . . . [They] are an American idea. . . . These great parks are, in the highest degree, as they stand today, a sheer expression of democracy.”
Yellowstone, which lies mostly in the northwest corner of Wyoming but spills into Idaho and Montana, covers some 2.2 million acres that boast natural wonders such as petrified forests and bubbling pools of colored mud called paint pots, as well as wildlife such as elk, bison, and grizzly bears. The park contains more hot springs and geysers than any other area in the world.
In the first part of the nineteenth century, hunters and trappers returned from the region describing a place of “fire and brimstone” with boiling mud and trees made of rock, accounts at first dismissed as myths. After the Civil War, several expeditions confirmed the stories. Their reports of a surreal, spectacular landscape convinced the government to preserve the area as a giant public park.