National Geographic and the National Parks: A Brief History

Mather Mountain Party in Sequoia National Park, 1915.


April 22nd through April 28th is National Park Week. It’s a celebration of the more than 400 national parks in the U.S., including canyons, forests, beaches, historic houses and battlefields.  While National Geographic can’t take any credit for these spectacular places, we do take a certain amount of pride in our long-standing connection to the national parks, a connection that stretches back all the way to the 1800s – before either the National Geographic Society or the National Park Service even existed.

When Yellowstone, the first national park, was created in 1872, it would still be another 16 years before the National Geographic Society was founded.  But our founders-to-be were already hard at work exploring the wild places that would later become park lands and visited by millions of Americans.  John Wesley Powell, Almon F. Thompson, and Clarence Dutton were among the first to systematically explore the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Park areas.  Lieutenant Rogers Birnie was the first to find a passable route over what became Death Valley National Park.  Israel Russell led the first expedition to the area now part of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park; and Robert Muldrow would be the first to measure the height of Mt. MicKinley, North America’s highest summit and the central feature of Denali National Park.

But despite these associations, the relationship between the young Society and the national parks did not blossom until National Geographic editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor published an article on them in the June 1912 issue of the magazine. During this time, he and Franklin K. Lane, the head of the Interior Department, began informally discussing ways to build up the nation’s fledgling national park system. But it remained for a third man, Stephen Mather, to finish what these two had begun.

Stephen Mather’s stewardship of the National Park Service started with angry letter in 1915.  A self-made millionaire, now retired, Mather was so appalled by the deplorable conditions he discovered on a visit to one of the national parks that he wrote to Secretary Lane requesting that something be done.

Lane fired back:  “If you don’t like the way the parks are run, why don’t you come to Washington and run them yourself?”  It was a challenge, and Mather took him up on it.

One of Mather’s first goals was to stimulate interest in the parks, so he arranged a two-week pack trip into the Sierra Nevada in California and invited influential writers, reporters, and businessmen to see first-hand the great beauty of Sequoia National Park and surrounding areas.

Gilbert H. Grosvenor snapped this photo of people ringing a giant sequoia.
Gilbert H. Grosvenor snapped this photo of people ringing a giant sequoia.

The “Mather Mountain Party” as it would later be called, did not exactly rough it.  Pack mules carried their gear and the men slept on air mattresses beneath the stars and the enormous leafy canopies of the Giant Trees. Most importantly, they enjoyed the services of Ty Sing, a famous trail cook. One member of the party admitted to polishing off a breakfast of “a grapefruit, a cantaloupe, a few trout, two tenderloin steaks, potatoes, hot biscuits, and coffee.” Another memorable dinner on linen-covered folding tables included “soup, salad, fried chicken, venison and gravy, potatoes, hot rolls, apple pie, cheese, and English plum pudding with brandy sauce.”

As it so happened, the Mather party included Geographic’s Grosvenor, who, despite being an experienced international traveler, had never traveled west of Ohio.  He was enthralled by everything he saw and became one of Mather’s staunchest supporters. Grosvenor devoted the contents of the entire April 1916 National Geographic — called the “Land of the Best” — to America’s scenic wonders, exhorting his fellow citizens to appreciate their parks and to support an agency to run them.  Every congressman received a copy while legislation to create a park service was pending. Grosvenor even helped draft that legislation’s wording and lobbied for its passage.

But that wasn’t all. Grosvenor also convinced the Society’s Board of Managers to take $20,000 from the 1916 Research Fund and give it to the newly-founded National Park Service.  The grant allowed the Park Service to purchase a portion of the forests that now make up Sequoia National Park from private landowners, thereby ensuring that they would remain protected.  In a show of appreciation for the gift, a 2400-acre tract of the park was dedicated as “The National Geographic Grove.”

Ever since those early days, the Society has maintained its abiding interest in the national parks, with scores of articles appearing in National Geographic. The entire July 1979 issue was devoted to the parks, and in August 1991 the magazine published, “The Best Idea America Ever Had,” a tribute to the National Park Service’s 75th anniversary.  And, as befits an organization with the world as its subject, the National Geographic Society has also become concerned with national parks in other countries. In 1967 the Society helped establish Gombe Stream National Park where Jane Goodall carried out her pioneering studies of chimpanzees.

In 2002, publicity from Explorer–in-Residence Mike Fay’s National Geographic-Wildlife Conservation Society Megatransect Field Expedition, helped persuade the government of Gabon to establish that country’s national park system. Nearly 10% of Gabon was set aside for protection.

Most recently, teams of scientists, naturalists, kids, and volunteers have been gearing up once a year for the BioBlitz – a 24-hour, all-out inventory of the plant and animal species in national parks. This year’s BioBlitz will start on May 17th at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Louisiana. (You can find information on registering here.) The BioBlitzes, our latest joint venture with the national parks, will continue annually until the Park Service’s centennial in 2016.

Even if you can’t make it to Louisiana, you can celebrate National Parks week closer to home.  From now until April 26th, entrance to all National Parks is free.

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Alyson Foster works in the National Geographic Library where she purchases books for the Library’s collection and assists NG staff with finding research materials.