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America's National Parks

Great natural areas in the USA

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A learner's guide to discovering the United States

Page guide : Parks in the West Parks in the Eastern USA Other parks and sites

The story of America's National Parks

Old Faithful
Yellowstone - The Old Faithful geyser
    Today, there are sixty-three National Parks in the USA... This large number may come as a surprise to some people, but it is easily explained; and the first explanation is that the USA was the very first nation in the world to designate areas of land as "National Parks". When Congress established Yellowstone as America's first national Park, on March 1st 1872, it was doing something that no other nation had ever done, and was establishing a new and far-sighted policy for protecting some of the most outstanding, beautiful, and significant natural areas in North America.

    Those nineteenth century Congressmen could hardly have imagined the extent and the importance of the process they were setting in motion, as they drafted their legislation in Washington. With the means of transport of the age, they, and most of the American population, were several days' train ride from Yellowstone, a park on the borders of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The legislators surely did not even dream that 150 years later, for instance, the number of visitors to National Parks Service areas would be over three hundred and ten million.

    They knew, all the same that they were doing something necessary, and something of historic value.

Bryce Canyon
Stunning rock formations in Bryce Canyon

    The original Act of Congress clearly defined the purpose of the National Parks, which was to:

    "Conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

    No other country had any similar policy; yet it should be remembered that the United States was in a singularly different position at the time, from any other developed country. While virtually all land in Europe belonged to private landowners, and only a small proportion was in state hands, things were very different in the USA, particulartly in the West where there were millions of acres land, uninhabited and often uninhabitable.

    The act of 1872 established a new public land policy, namely that public lands were to be:

 "reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasure ground, for the benefit and enjoyment of people."

    Yet Recreation and enjoyment were not the only reasons for which Congress decided to set aside National Parks; as early as 1800, poets and nov­elists had been writing about the mag­nificence of natu­ral sites. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Ameri­can philosopher and writer Henry David Thoreau was al­ready fleeing city life and de­veloping his own back-to-nature movement, and his book, Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854), had a major im­pact on Americans' awareness of their natural heritage. Thoreau's idealism cer­tainly played a part in the legislators' decision to preserve large areas of America's natural heritage for posterity.

    So it was that Congress declared that some of the most spectacular and beautiful regions of the American West should be preserved for posterity. And one by one, the Grand Canyon, spectac­ular parts of the Rocky Mountains, and California's Yosemite mountains found them­selves among a number of national parks which has continued to grow for over a century.

    While the most spectacular of America's National Parks are to be found in the West, there are others in the eastern half of the USA, in Alaska and Hawaii.

    Thanks to the foresight of earlier generations, Americans, and an increas­ing number of visitors from other coun­tries, can today enjoy some of the finest National Parks in the world.

Recreation and accommodation in National Parks

Both recreation and accommodation are the subject of rules and regulations in National Parks and other areas.
    Access to National Parks is by permit, and permits can generally be bought at the entrance to each park. A permit covers a vehicle and its passengers, and is generally valid for 7 days. Annual permits giving access to all areas of national park and forest can be bought online via the National Parks Service
    These areas being set aside for recreational use, such use is encouraged, and all parks offer many miles, indeed sometimes hundreds of miles of waymarked hiking trails. The parks are patroled by Park Rangers who try to help visitors stick to the rules. Straying off marked ways in the wilder of parks may be dangerous, as they are home to bears and other potentially dangerous wild animals.
    Accommodation is provided in many parks in the form of lodges, which are state or federal run hotels built to blend in with the environment, when this is possible. Alternatively, there are lots of campgrounds, some of them well equipped and staffed, other unattended, places where campers can park their RV of set up their tent for the night..
    While there is an entrance fee for most National Parks, some such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are free (though there are parking charges since 2023).

Eleven of the greatest National Parks in the US West

A selection of some of the finest parks in the American West
More information: For a really good overview of all 63 parks in the USA, classed from best to worst, with photos, information and in some cases videos, see https://morethanjustparks.com .

Parks in the east of the USA

Unlike in the west, most land in the east of the USA was already in private hands by the mid 19th century. However after the National Park system was set up, the US government set about buying up tracts of spectacular and largely uninhabited land, to preserve it in the same way as the public lands in the West. The fedreal government did not encounter much resistance to this, and indeed many landowners were happy to donate their parts of their land to the government.

Other parks

National Parks are the icing on the cake, areas of natural landscape protected by the US Government at the federal level.  
In addition to these, the United States boasts hundreds more federally protected areas, known as National Historic Sites, National Monuments, National Seashores or National Recreation Areas  small areas protected for their historic significance.
    In addition there  are also many hundreds of State Parks, areas similar to National Parks that have been set aside for preservation by individual states, not by the federal government.

A small sample of Historic sites

For more background to the USA.....

Book / ebook     A Background to modern America -  people, places and events  that have played a significant role in the shaping of modern America. A C1-level Advanced English reader for speakers of other languages, and anyone wanting to  learn some of the background to today's USA.  Twenty-two texts, with vocabulary guides and exercises. Linguapress 2023.

For California, discover About-California.com, a short guide for visitors.

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The Grand Canyon

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