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Little Known Facts: U.S. National Parks

So much trivia

With 388 "units" and counting, it's not surprising that some history and trivia in the National Park Service has been conveniently lost over the years. Of the following factoids and trivial pursuits, the NPS provides much of this information for the researcher willing to make even a casual effort. There are a few, however, that the NPS will officially deny or dispute. Those are the most fun, of course.

Some Numbers

The 388 "official" units of the National Park Service are found in 49 States, the District of Columbia, and 5 Territories or Protectorates. The most in any one of these is the 31 units located in Washington DC.

The 50th state -- the one without an official NPS unit -- is Delaware. Although Delaware was the first State in the USA, it will be the last to receive a National Parks site when and if it does. Prior to Delaware, the last state to receive an NPS locale was Vermont. Which was the first? We'll get to that later.

The actual classifications, and numbers, are as follows. This list will likely be obsolete when you read it.

  • International Historic Site: 1 (Saint Croix IHS, Maine/Canada)
  • National Battlefields: 11
  • National Battlefield Parks: 3:
  • National Battlefield Site: 1 (Brices Cross Roads NBS, Mississippi)
  • National Historic Sites: 77
  • National Historical Parks: 41
  • National Lakeshores: 4
  • National Memorials: 29
  • National Military Parks: 9
  • National Monuments: 74
  • National Monument and Shrine: 1 (Fort McHenry)
  • National Parks: 56
  • National Parkways: 4
  • National Preserves: 18
  • National Recreation Areas: 18
  • National Reserve: 2
  • National Rivers: 5
  • National Scenic Trails: 3
  • National Seashores: 10
  • National Wild and Scenic Rivers: 10
  • Other Parks: 11 (e.g. Catoctin Mountain Park)

Notice that the number of National Parks is 56 as of this writing. Look for that to jump to 60, either through new parks or new designations for National Monuments or Recreation Areas. The NP designation represents the cream of the Park Service, and it is historically a nice round number. The official number stood at 20 for many years, later at 40, and then had a lengthy run at 50. A quick look at the NPS map reveals a couple of likely candidates, including a few in California alone.

After a quiet period of parks creation during the 1980s, President Clinton added a relatively large number during his administration. Five were added on a single day in January 2001 as a result of Clinton's efforts. In less than four years the George W. Bush administration has spewn out ten more, although two were promulgated by Clinton.

Those numbers pale in comparison to Franklin D. Roosevelt's single executive order that added 63 sites to the NPS ranks in 1933. The majority of these were simply transfers, having been National Monuments and Military Parks managed by other government entities. Second place for the most added in a single day is August 25, 1916, when Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service act. Notice the word "added," because none were actually "created" on that date. It's important to remember this particular date, since it directly contradicts one of the key historical facts trumpeted by the Park Service.


Lost Parks

Like the Lost Colony, Ebbets Field, or Atlantis if you will, a number of National Parks have simply disappeared from the map. A few were absorbed by other entities, and a couple never should've been established in the first place.

Think political pork is a new phenomenon? Guess again. Three National Parks were added from 1903-1906 that were little more than political favors. The first, Wind Cave NP, never was "Park" caliber -- and still isn't -- although it's at least worthy of Monument status. It was far superior to the two pork barrel parks that followed -- Sully's Hill NP in 1904 and Platt NP in 1906. Both were little more than moderately scenic open spaces.

Sully's Hill was a rolling North Dakota prairie with almost no other National Park qualities, and was declassified in 1931. Oklahoma's Platt contained Sulphur Springs Preserve, and the NPS barely bothered to promote what was otherwise a dud. During the CCC works programs of the 1930s, efforts were undertaken to make Platt into a more parklike National Park. Flat land was bulldozed into hills, trees and shrubs were planted, ponds were created, and waterfalls were designed and constructed. This "engineered" National Park was carried along until 1976, when wisdom prevailed and the whole shebang was folded into Chickasaw National Recreation Area.

Not all of the disappearing parks were undeserving political creations. In fact the third (second according to the official NPS rolls) National Park to be established was the very deserving Mackinac Island, which was returned to the state of Michigan in 1895 when the US Army abandoned Fort Mackinac.

Lack of funds caused the NPS to give up on Lewis and Clark Caverns NM, and it became Montana's first state park in 1937. Another semi-forgotten unit is California's General Grant National Park, set aside to protect a few acres of sequoias. It was created as a national "park" because public and politicians alike clamored for its protection, and the specific criteria for full-fledged "park" status had yet to be established. Were the same sort of circumstances to occur today, it is likely General Grant would be established as a National Monument or Preserve. In any case, General Grant was carried along as a tiny National Park until 1940, when it was folded into King's Canyon.

Another "lost" National Park has disappeared in name only -- twice for that matter. The Sieur de Monts National Monument was established in 1916, but vanished soon after when it was renamed Lafayette National Park in 1919. Lafayette NP was erased from the maps just a decade later, but you can still visit it today as the expanded gem known as Acadia. A less dramatic name change was done for Hawaii NP. The park carried that name from 1916 until 1960, when part of it was split off as Haleakala NP. The remaining Hawaii NP was renamed Hawaii Volcanoes NP a year later.


Non-Existent National Parks on the Map...

The name game has even more oddities. Two "National Parks" are found on maps, but never came to be. The oldest is the town of National Park, NJ 07752. This nondescript village on the banks of the Delaware sought park status for something or other, and changed its name to legitimize its efforts and sound more appealling to visitors and businesses. Some misguided cartographers now indicate National Park as a site of interest, set in the same red italics as Independence NHP across the river. Many have even mistakenly added a national park arrowhead or similar symbol to call attention to this pleasant but decidedly unexciting community.

The other National Park Service unit shown on countless published maps is New Mexico's Zuni-Cibola National Historical Park. Visitors seeking this park won't find it, but they will think they've traveled back in time a few centuries. Zuni is a bonafide operational pueblo -- adobe and wood structures built atop one another with all sorts of ladders and Zuni Indians going about their business. They value their privacy and their traditions, and at the last minute changed their minds and voted overwhelmingly against the planned Park Service protection.

...and off the Map

Some sites adjacent to larger parks have been "absorbed." These include Gran Quivira National Monument, which was folded into Salinas NM, and Mukuntuweap NM, added to Zion NP in 1918.

A handful of NPS units existed at one time, and still exist in a manner of speaking. These include Wheeler, Shoshone Cavern, Papago Saguaro, Old Kasaan, Verendrye, Fossil Cycad, Castle Pinckney, Father Millet Cross, Holy Cross, and the aforementioned Lewis & Clark Cavern. A couple have disappeared from the map altogether. Wyoming's Shoshone Cavern was decommissioned in 1954 and can no longer be visited.


The Park Service's Dirty Little Secret

One of the decommissioned units, Fossil Cycad, is among the few failures in the Park Service's otherwise admirable resumé. Established in 1922 by Warren G. Harding, Fossil Cycad NM, South Dakota, was designated to preserve the world's greatest concentration of cycad fossils from the Cretaceous period. It was originally intended that the superintendent of Wind Cave NP would oversee this treasure, but it appears to have been paid little attention until 1933.

With no visitor's center, no security, and no management, the cycad fossils on the surface were routinely picked clean by researchers and collectors. By the time a specimen was sought in 1933 for the upcoming Chicago World's Fair, none were to be found. A fossil was eventually borrowed from a collector, but the Park Service lost that one too. The collector hounded the NPS for $75 compensation, but the bureaucracy was much better at stalling and stonewalling than it was at managing priceless paleontology. Finally, in 1949, an Act of Congress awarded $125 to the collector.

After further study revealed that Fossil Cycad NM was now void of specimens, the NPS requested that Congress deauthorize this unit. It was done so in 1957, and turned over to the Bureau of Land Management. To add insult to injury, a wealth of fossils were uncovered in 1980 when a highway was being constructed through the ex-National Monument. It's now judiciously protected, but the NPS is out of the picture.


America's First National Park

Since sometime in the 1930s the National Park Service has promoted the myth that Yellowstone was America's First National Park. In truth, it was the second by almost 40 years. It is very difficult to find anyone in the National Park Service -- or the entire Department of the Interior for that matter -- who will admit that they've been fibbing for over 70 years. And now they believe their own mythology.

Fact: On April 20, 1832 Congress established Hot Springs Reservation, Arkansas, as a "National Park." Fact: On March 1st 1872, Congress established Yellowstone as the second National Park. The third was Mackinack Island, the fourth was Sequoia, then Yosemite, and so on. The problem was that these were loosely managed by the U.S. Cavalry, citizens' groups, State agencies, and some with no management at all. So on August 25, 1916, President Wilson created the National Park Service.

The presidential order that created the National Park Service expressly spelled out that it was to protect the National Parks, Monuments, and Hot Springs Reservation.

In the early years, the NPS stated that Hot Springs was our first National Park. The National Park Service Portfolio, written by Robert Sterling Yard, published by the National Park Service, and printed by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1921, lists a basic chart of National Parks on page 6, "Chronologically in order of their creation." Hot Springs is listed first.

On page 229 of this same portfolio -- with an introduction by the "Father of the National Park Service" Stephen Mather -- are the words that directly contradict the current line from the NPS:

The reservation [Hot Springs] is the oldest national park, having received that status in 1832, forty years before the wonders of the Yellowstone first inspired Congress with the idea that scenery was a national asset deserving of preservation for the use and enjoyment of succeeding generations.

As the Park Service grew, the romantic notion of the wild and rugged Park Ranger grew along with it. The first National Park should be the wild wonders of Yellowstone, not some manicured city resort. So the spin goes as follows: The NPS didn't make it a National Park until 1921, therefore Yellowstone is the oldest in the NPS system. The only problem with that definition is that the NPS didn't exist until (remember the date?) 1916, so using their logic, none of the parks were "official" until then.

It's convenient to point the finger at the Park Service, but Americans should look a little deeper. By touting Yellowstone as the first National Park, the Park Service is simply reflecting a very real, but very unspoken, facet of the American psyche: We see ourselves as rugged frontier types who belong in the outdoors, hiking, climbing, kayaking, and bouncing through the wilds in our mammoth SUVs. The reality is that most of us live in cities and spend very little time in the country. We maintain a romantic, free-spirited picture of ourselves, perhaps to avoid the fact that we live in a carefully controlled environment and drive on congested, maintained roads. Similarly, we want to portray our Park Rangers as lone protectors of the wilderness and rugged outdoorsmen, but in reality they are government bureaucrats with rather smart uniforms. And it applies to the Hot Springs/Yellowstone question: It simply wouldn't do to have our original National Park be a city with meticulous gardens and hot springs that have been tamed and rerouted through plumbing systems. The untamed thermals and soaring vistas of Yellowstone are much more appropriate as our first national park, history be damned.


Some more Trivia, Oddities, & Absurdities

  • Closed! Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace NHS is a small unit of the NPS in New York City that celebrates the early years of one of our presidents. Unfortunately it is closed on -- believe it or not -- President's Day.
  • Which unit has a connection to nine Indy 500 victories? Petroglyph National Monument is located on Unser Boulevard, named for the famed racing family and Albuquerque natives. Petroglyph was established in 1990.
  • Blundering Boy Scouts and Boardwalk Attractions Assateague Island National Seashore is a barrier island famed for its wild ponies (they're actually horses) but it is fairly overrun by Sika Deer. The Sikas are miniature elk from the Far East, with no natural enemies on the island. In 1920 a group of Boy Scouts purchased a small collection of Sikas from a quirky local naturalist/farmer to exhibit on the boardwalk in Ocean City, MD. They charged vacationers a small fee to see the deer, which was a successful fundraiser but required far too much work to be worthwhile. The Scouts innocently released the herd on nearby Assateague, and the problematic Sikas have put extreme pressures on the native whitetail and other species.
  • Rich as Rockefeller Two National Park units bear the Rockefeller name: John D. Rockefeller Parkway (connecting Grand Teton and Yellowstone) and Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller NHP in Vermont. But the Rockefellers' reach goes far beyond just those two. Among the NPS units that were partly or completely donated or funded with Rockefeller cash are: Acadia NP, Grand Teton NP, Colonial NHP, Virgin Islands NP, Valley Forge NMP, Great Smoky Mountains NP, Shenandoah NP and others. The Rockefeller family is also responsible for financing museums at Mesa Verde NP, Grand Canyon NP, and Yellowstone NP.
  • Got a minute, man? Remember to differentiate between Minute Man and Minuteman. We have a Minuteman Missile NHS and Minute Man NHP. Minuteman commemorates the Cold War and is managed by Badlands NP. Minute Man commemorates the Revolutionary War and is always Minute Man (two words).
  • The NPS' Best-Kept Secret that shouldn't be a Secret is unquestionably the Junior Ranger program. It's a terrific educational program, it promotes the parks to our youth, and it's still free. Most of the NPS rangers do a fantastic job when it comes to "swearing in" the junior rangers who complete the activities, administering the oath with proper gravity, raised right hands, the whole bit. Kudos to the NPS rangers who make the most of this program.
  • Politically Correct Dead People Four Corners area treasures Canyon de Chelly NM and Mesa Verde NP are both designed to protect ancient Indian cliff dwellings and related sites. At Canyon de Chelly, the ancient Indians are referred to as "Anasazi." But ask a Park Service Ranger at Mesa Verde if their ruins were inhabited by Anasazi, and they will smile politely and say something like "wellll....yes, but we don't use that term anymore. We've found that they have descendants among the Pueblo People south of here, and Anasazi is a Navajo word. It means ancient ones, but it also could mean people who are different so it isn't politically correct. We now call them Ancient Puebloan Peoples." Got that? Is it really necessary to be politically correct about long-dead people who, after all, abandoned the place 700 years ago? I'm wondering how much we're going to spend to replace all the Mesa Verde interpretive signs with the word "Anasazi" on them.
  • Not Quite as Rich as Rockefeller You either have it, or you don't. Another wealthy family from America's golden age of industry is associated with a couple of NPS sites, but it's with a lot less glory. The Mellon family sought to set aside a substantial part of Lake Michigan shoreline at what is now Sleeping Bear Dunes NL. The proposal was wildly unpopular with the local citizenry and not adopted until it was downsized considerably. (Rumor has it that Rockefeller involvement moved things along as well). Prior to Sleeping Bear Dunes, the only other Mellon family association with a National Park is the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. It was there in 1889 that a poorly built earthen dam -- owned by the Mellons and others -- let loose and killed thousands of people. That tragedy was only recently surpassed as the event with the highest single death toll in U.S. history.
  • The National Park almost everyone wanted Yet another Rockefeller, New York Governor Nelson, pushed hard for the establishment of Adirondack National Park in 1968. State and Federal governments agreed, and the Park Service was downright enthusiastic. Unfortunately for the NPS some pesky locals hated the idea.
  • The National Park almost nobody wanted In the early 1960s a New Englander named Nelson Blount had a hodge podge collection of locomotives and other rolling stock, and a passion for preserving steam locomotion. He called his menagerie Steamtown, and local pressures and laws forced him to move his collection numerous times (some sources say it was mainly in Massachusetts). In 1963 issues caused him to relocate to Bellows Falls, VT. Things were just getting started when Blount was tragically killed in a small plane crash (1967). His operation continued to "gain steam" until the State of Vermont passed environmental laws in 1970 that, incidentally, made steam locomotion illegal. PSssssssssssss. In 1984 Steamtown moved to greener pastures in Scranton, PA where it soon went out of business. Most of the locomotives were auctioned off in 1988 to pay off debts, and Steamtown was but a memory until political wranglings resulted in a new NPS unit in Scranton...conveniently, Steamtown NHS. Today it is a shining example of government and private preservation groups working together, and it is probably very close to the wonderful working museum Blount envisioned. It's a tremendous asset to downtown Scranton; Bellows Falls is fairly quiet these days.
  • O'say can ye see Like many historic Forts in the NPS, Fort McHenry served well beyond the war for which it is best remembered, doing duty as a Civil War stockade and World War I Army hospital. But it will always be synonymous with the "Star-Spangled Banner." As for trivia, the 49 star flag and 50 star flag both flew first in ceremonies at Fort McHenry.
  • Split Parks... The units with full "Park" status are largely contiguous, but a handful have multiple locations separated by non-NPS lands. These include Acadia, Zion, Olympic, Canyonlands, Saguaro, and others. A couple of others, such as Shenandoah and Cuyahoga, wander all over the map -- small parcels here and there -- as the park service acquires land.
  • Arches & Bridges Obviously these are found at Arches National Park and Natural Bridges National Monument, and you're likely aware that these formations are also found at Grand Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and virtually all of the southwest units. If you're an avid Parks fan, you might also be familiar with formations at Mt. Rainier, El Malpais, Badlands, and others. Now for the trivia: Can you name the NPS unit east of the Mississippi with the greatest number of natural arch formations? Note that this specifically relates to National Park units -- not the Forest Service -- so Kentucky's Red River Gorge Geologic Area is not included in the mix. Also note that a true arch has an opening of one square meter or more, so the micro-arch formations at Cuyahoga and others do not count. But if you knew that there are at least 100 known natural arches in Big South Fork NRA, consider yourself a true NPS trivia expert. Running a close second is Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Incidentally, one of those at Pictured Rocks is a very active arch formation under Grand Portal Point. Here's a link to a very good web page detailing the expansion of this arch an off-site article by Jonathan Gennick.
  • The rest of the story... Have any National Parks related trivia or anecdotes? This article is a work in progress, and it's your opportunity to share those gems with thousands of fellow slackpackers. Just drop an e-mail to rick(at)slackpacker(dot)com.

uh, National Scenic Historic Heritage System Trail System

We're just kidding with that headline. Special thanks to Fred Szarka, Trail Manager of the North Country National Scenic Trail, for offering a little insight on the alphabet soup used for our favorite footpaths...

“Note that Congress created National Scenic Trails and National Historic Trails with the National Trail System act and numerous amendments (almost one for each trail). The trails are administered by 3 different agencies: the Park Service, US Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management. For many years a number of the trails managed by the NPS including the North Country and Ice Age NSTs, sought recognition as full units by the NPS. The three that are "official" units are the Appalachian Trail (one of the original trails in the Nat'l Trails Act), the Potomac Heritage and the Natchez Trace, both of which lie primarily within other NPS areas. The Pacific Crest Trail, which is the other "original" National Scenic Trail, is managed by the Forest Service.”

I don't know any way to simplify or explain it any better than that, so we'll stick with Fred's description. If you ever have an opportunity to trudge along the North Country NST, say hello to Fred. (My favorite section of that trail is along Lake Superior).

The NCST is one of those trails that some people thru-hike, while some (like me) prefer to slackpack. There is a rather extensive network of trails like that, and I think they're well described in Schlimmer's Thru Hiker's Guide to America, subtitled 25 Incredible Trails You Can Hike in One to Eight Weeks and published in early 2005. It contains some great alternatives to AT or PCT treks, including Mt. Rainier's Wonderland Trail (95 miles), The Arizona Trail (790 miles), Ohio's Buckeye Trail, Metacomet-Monadnock, Ozark Highlands, Ouachita, Tahoe Rim Trail, and so on. The Florida Trail is the longest at 1300 miles. Each trail has its own chapter, and features photographs, maps, plusses and minuses, average temperatures, terrain and water descriptions, scenic highlights, and summaries from hikers who have completed the trails. It's important to note that Schlimmer only included trails that are complete from end to end. The link takes you to Amazon.com, which has more information about the book.

National Park Nomenclature

Speaking of alphabet soup, ever wonder what the difference is between a National Park and a National Monument, or why some places are National Historic Sites and others are National Historic Parks? The National Park Service explains it fairly well on their Nomeclature page.

But no matter how well they explain it, the whole nomenclature thing is an entangled puzzle in dire need of simplification. Gettysburg is a National Military Park, yet nearby Antietam is a National Battlefield. Events a few years later resulted in Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The Battles of Lexington and Concord are memorialized at Minute Man National Historical Park. And if that isn't confusing enough, Perry's Naval Victory during the War of 1812 is celebrated at an International Peace Memorial. Huh?

We have National Reserves and National Parks, as well as a National Park and Preserve. Did you know that mining and logging is permitted in National Preserves? (I'm thinking preserve might not be the right word there). We have National Parkways, and National Memorial Parkways. We have Recreational Rivers, and Wild and Scenic Rivers. We have National Monuments and National Memorials. Still not confused? Bet you didn't know that the Washington Monument is a National Memorial.

The purpose of the designations is to be very specific, so that citizens will know what a particular unit offers. Hunting is allowed in Preserves, but not in Parks, etc. However the whole nomenclature deal is so convoluted that efforts to be very specific have simply made it very confusing.

Wouldn't it be easier to have a handful of general designations, and then spell out specific rules and regulations for each unit? Here's a proposal to simplify the whole shebang:

  1. National Park Leave this designation as is, but redesignate some of the parks.
  2. National Monument Change this designation slightly to represent natural areas or geological features lacking the scope of a National Park, yet give them the same protection as National Parks. Structures and historic areas would no longer have this designation. Examples: White Sands, Jewel Cave, Pinnacles, etc. would remain National Monuments. Sites like Cabrillo NM would change to NHS status.
  3. National Recreation Park A catch-all heading for all the preserves, reserves, recreation areas, seashores, lakeshores, recreational rivers, recreation corridors, blah blah blah. Examples: Cape Cod, Chattahoochee, Mojave, Catoctin Mountain, Indiana Dunes, Great Falls, etc.
  4. National Historic Site All historic sites, archaeological sites, historic parks, battlefields, military parks, etc.
  5. National Memorial Leave this designation as is, but incorporate National Cemetaries. After all, cemetaries are collections of memorials.
  6. National Parkway Any roadway supporting motorized vehicular traffic. Eliminates the "Memorial" Parkway designation.
  7. National Trail Anything not supporting motorized vehicles. All "paths" and trails would be lumped in this regardless of specific traffic allowed (bike vs. non-bike, etc.). Eliminates "historic trail" and "scenic trail" and other designations.
  8. National River Any and all; eliminates the "Wild and Scenic" and "Recreational" and other confusing designations.
  9. National Park Unit This would be the catch-all designation for those units that do not fit any other; The White House, Constitution Gardens, etc. Some "heritage corridors" may fit this category as well.

As the nomenclature is nearing three dozen and counting, this type of revision (or one similar) would help many Americans make better sense of their road maps.


Of all the published handbooks, the National Geographic Guide to the National Parks of the United States is easily the best single volume I've found. Yes, there are more in-depth guides for individual parks -- particularly for hiking trails -- but this one is a thorough all around guide. It explains clearly what the "can't miss" points are at each NP, then delves further based on how much time you have. It doesn't mince words when a certain feature or hike is overrated, and lists reasonable hikes for all abilities. Also offers "insider" suggestions for key photo spots and little-known sights, etc. When I travel in the USA, this book accompanies me on every trip. Now keep in mind that it doesn't cover every NPS unit -- no Monuments, Historic Sites, Rec Areas, etc -- but it does cover every unit with "Park" status, from Acadia to Zion. Excellent book that I've yet to disagree with.

This article wouldn't be complete without mention of, and kudos for, Gabrielle and Michael Sedor, who operate a website called usa-c2c.com sea to sea - get it? Gabrielle and Michael are spending two years to travel to all 358 National Park sites (or however many there are now) in the Continental U.S. They review each NPS site foraccessibility, beauty, fun, crowds, services, etc. These reviews, along with photos and stories, are found on the website. It includes day to day accounts of extended hikes, such as Isle Royale and the Grand Canyon. They are otherwise day hiking and car camping, or staying at cheap hotels, and their tally of visited NPS sites is incredible. You have to click around a little, but definitely find the ratings page, and click on specific NPS sites for their in-depth reviews. This is quite an impressive undertaking, and thus far the Sedors have one very impressive website.

-- Rick Bolger

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