growing up, our vacations almost always had an historical or natural focus to them — lots of national parks/monuments/forests. my sister and I even got “National Park Passports” at one point to collect stamps from all the places we visited. I still have it, but don’t carry it around and don’t usually pick up stamps on slips of paper when I visit places these days. as with a lot of my “standard” childhood experiences, I tend to think people my age went on similar road trips with their parents — unwillingly made to learn things on vacation. (Becca’s family took those kinds of trips, so I’m not totally off base.) it always surprises me a little when it arises in conversation that people haven’t been to iconic National Parks, like Mount Rushmore, or the Grand Canyon since, in my mind, they’re powerful visual representations of the U.S.
of course, lots of National Parks (including Mount Rushmore) are quite far from anywhere and, while there are lots of other National Parks in close proximity to Rushmore, those areas of the country have to be your destination. part of what makes them so great is their inaccessibility — it preserves the natural elements that made them worth preserving in the first place.
the first effort to preserve natural landmarks for the benefit of the nation came in 1832, when Andrew Jackson set aside land to protect hot springs in Arkansas. the federal government wasn’t given any legal authority over the land, though, and control wasn’t sorted out until 1877. Yosemite was the first true national park; established in 1872 from land within federal territories, at the time there were no local governmental authorities that could take responsibility for the preservation of the valley, which consequently fell to the federal government. it succeeded in part because the Northern Pacific Railroad saw the financial benefits of creating a major tourist destination on their rail line and their support helped legislation pass Congress.
initially, each national park was managed independently but because of the discrepancies in quality of management, Stephen Mather petition the government to develop a singular authority. in 1916, Woodrow Wilson signed legislation that created what is now the National Parks Service. in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt reorganized the Executive Branch to consolidate responsibility for the growing number of federally protected parks/monuments/memorials/cemeteries/etc. under the jurisdiction of one office. prior to this reorganization, for example, the War Department oversaw National Military Sites (e.g. Gettysburg, Revolutionary War battle sites) and one line of National Monuments (which included Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego), while the Department of Agriculture oversaw another line National Monuments (which included Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico and the Grand Canyon, among others). following the reorganization in 1933, there were 137 sites under the administration of the National Parks Service. today, there are 392 sites, most of which are National Historic Parks/Sites (123) but the National Parks see nearly twice as many visitors. while the largest ones are out west (not surprisingly), there are sites in every state and territory — which means no one has an excuse for not visiting at least one. find the one closest to you or, even better, plan a road trip!