U.S. National Parks Reflect America’s Spirit

In the United States, summer is the traditional time for vacations. The ways in which Americans spend their leisure hours are as diverse as the land and its people. One popular activity is visiting national parks. Since 1985, America has celebrated July as the nation’s official Park and Recreation Month.

The National Park Service oversees a diverse range of places, from monuments, battlefields, military parks and other historic sites to lakeshores, seashores, scenic rivers and trails. Whether vast wildernesses or tiny buildings, these parks capture the splendor and the grandeur of the United States, its natural and historical treasures, the nation’s pride, shame and sorrows.

The U.S. National Park System is one of the country’s most valuable inheritances, held in trust for the citizens of the United States and nurtured for enjoyment by future generations. All American citizens are, in a sense, stewards of sites where history unfolded, where mountains soar, and where rivers run. They keep these parks for the future, and they treasure them today. As former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people.”

Havasu Falls

The waters of Havasu Creek tumble 70 meters at the base of the Grand Canyon, a U.S. World Heritage site. (cc Flickr user AndrewH324)

The U.S. National Park System arose from the energy, passion — perhaps even obsession — of visionaries who committed their time, talents and resources to focusing national attention on national treasures. Without them, natural wonders like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Denali and the Everglades likely would not exist in their current forms.

The nation’s roots are deep in the ancient volcanoes of Oregon’s Crater Lake and Washington state’s North Cascades; fossils of the land’s earliest inhabitants lie in Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument. The towering walls of the Yosemite Valley and the deep cleft of the Grand Canyon bear witness to the power of nature, while South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore and San Francisco’s Golden Gate testify to the power of man.


Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park

The U.S. National Parks also tell the stories of the nation’s peoples, from the ancient settlers from Asia commemorated at the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve to more the recent arrivals listed at Ellis Island under the gaze of the Statue of Liberty. The tragedy of the forced removal of American Indians from their homelands is commemorated on Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which stretches across nine states. In the District of Columbia, the triumph over the evils of slavery is celebrated at the Frederick Douglass House, home of the famous abolitionist, writer, lecturer, statesman and Underground Railroad conductor, himself a former slave.

Within the park system, monuments to the grief and glory of U.S. armed conflicts stand in mute eloquence at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg, the USS Arizona in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor and the District of Columbia’s Vietnam Memorial.

Since their creation, these parks have been expanded, maintained and improved with government and private-donor support. That spirit of philanthropy continues today, through contributions, large and small, and the efforts of dedicated volunteers who help ensure the nation’s parks will be around for many, many generations to enjoy.

When a Park Is Not a Park

A park, by the common English definition, is an environment with woodlands, flowers, and winding paths where one goes for recreation. But some sites maintained by the National Park Service don’t fit this description at all. Browse through the index of the “units” in the NPS system, and you’ll find battlefields, military parks, historic sites, memorials, monuments, rivers, seashores, and trails. And parks, too.
More than 130 years have passed since the designation in 1872 of the first national park in the United States. In fact, that first park — Yellowstone — had entered middle age by the time the National Park Service was created in 1916 to be the agency responsible for overseeing these treasured national places. Over the decades, ideas on the sites that merit federal protections have varied and evolved.

The Grand Canyon (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

Whether they are officially known as monuments, parks, historic sites, or one of the other 20 park categories, the places chosen by the generations for special protections and preservation reveal a lot about what the United States values and the story it wants to save for the future.

National Parks contain a variety of resources and encompass large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of these natural features. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the southeastern United States and the Grand Canyon in the Southwest are two of the most popular sites in this category.

The Statue of Liberty in New York

National Monuments preserve at least one nationally significant resource. Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly (pronounced shay) and Casa Grande Ruins are both remnants of dwellings of ancient peoples and are designated national monuments. The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, given to the United States by the French in honor of America’s centennial in 1876, is also designated a national monument.

Gettysburg National Military Park

National Historic Parks and Sites mark places where the fate of the nation unfolded for better or worse, and may also include military parks and battlefields. Independence National Historical Park includes structures and sites in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where rebellious American colonists drew up their plans to declare independence from the British Crown. The Manzanar National Historic Site in eastern California protects and interprets the site where Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. This group also includes the Gettysburg (Pennsylvania) National Military Park, the scene of a significant battle in the U.S. Civil War in 1863.


US Marine Corps War Memorial

National Memorials are primarily commemorative sites that do not necessarily have a direct geographic link to their subject. Memorials in Washington, D.C. pay tribute to World War II and to the Korean and Vietnam wars. The memorial designation is also frequently given to sites honoring former presidents, be they statues that honor leaders of the past or the actual residences of those individuals.


Website National Parks Service: http://www.nps.gov

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