First Things First: What Are National Parks?

Before we regale you with action-packed stories from places like Acadia and Yellowstone, let’s start with one basic question: what are national parks? Glad you asked.

At its core, a national park is a place that’s been set aside for conservation and preservation. These are often places of iconic natural beauty, like Yosemite and Grand Canyon, but national parks can also be in urban areas, historic battlefields, and beyond. You might be surprised by the breadth of parks, and the fact that there might be one in your own backyard.

Acadia National Park/Photo by Matt Kirouac

The world’s first national park was Yellowstone, which made history when it was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872, marking the first time land was given federal protection like this. It set a new standard for similar parks across the U.S. and around the world.

In the U.S., the National Park Service denotes certain criteria for a place to be considered for national parks designation. Said criteria includes: a place must possess nationally significant natural, cultural, or recreational resources; it must be in need of protection; and it must be able to be protected. In the case of Yellowstone, this was certainly an area of great natural, cultural, and recreational resources, erupting with geysers and teeming with immense wildlife; a place so beautiful and unique that early politicians thought explorers were making it up when they tried to describe their findings.

Since that fateful day in 1872, Congress has designated 419 national park units across the country, ranging in size and scope from parks the size of some countries to small-but-mighty sites like New York City’s Stonewall National Monument, the first of its kind dedicated to LGBTQ rights, or the Oklahoma City National Memorial, a tear-jerking homage to the victims, rescuers, and survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Oklahoma City National Memorial/Photo by Matt Kirouac

Best of all, national parks are for everyone. These are common grounds where we can all come together for a shared experience, regardless of where we come from, what we look like, or who we love.

As author Wallace Stegner wrote in 1983, “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

Header photo: Yellowstone National Park/Photo by Matt Kirouac

Matt Kirouac has been writing about food and travel since 2008, for outlets like Travel + Leisure, TripSavvy, DiningOut magazines, Plate Magazine, KOA, Culture Trip, Zagat, and Food Fanatics magazine. He’s the author of The Hunt Guides: Chicago and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago. He fell in love with national parks while on a trip to South Dakota, where Badlands National Park stole his heart…and has been holding it ransom ever since.


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