Although the National Park Service began in 1916, the idea to create national parks started long before then. As early as 1832, artist George Catlin worried about how America’s westward expansion would affect the country’s wildlife and wilderness areas. He hoped these things might be preserved by the government in “a nation’s park.”

The idea of setting aside large pieces of land for everyone to enjoy was unheard of at the time. Most pioneers wanted to own new land that they could develop for its natural resources.

The idea of preserving land slowly gained momentum, though. In 1864, Congress donated Yosemite Valley to California to preserve as a state park. Yosemite soon inspired others to seek protection for other areas.

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone National Park as the country’s first national park. This critical milestone was the first time public land had been set aside by the federal government “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Over the next 40 years, additional areas of land were set aside. There was no coordinated system of national parks, though, until President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act on August 25, 1916, which created the National Park Service.

Today, the National Park Service oversees a large national system of areas of cultural, scientific, scenic and historic importance. In total, the National Park Service oversees 394 areas that total more 84 million acres.

Although these areas may be known as “national parks” in a general sense, they are not all national parks like Yellowstone National Park or Glacier National Park. Some of these areas fall into one of the other 19 categories the National Park Service uses to describe its properties.

In addition to actual national parks, these areas include monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and even the White House!

These many different types of areas overseen by the National Park Service can be found in every state but one: Delaware. That may soon change, though, as Delaware currently is seeking national recognition for several different areas.

But Delaware is not alone in lacking a true “national park” like Yellowstone or Glacier. Only about half the states have such a large, traditional national park.

Some interesting facts about national parks:

  • The largest national park is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska (13.2 million acres).
  • The smallest national park is Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania (0.02 acres).
  • In 2010, there were more than 281 million recreational visitors to the national parks.
  • The official emblem of the National Park Service contains a lot of important symbolism. The Sequoia tree and bison represent vegetation and wildlife. The mountains and water represent scenic and recreational values. The arrowhead represents historical and archeological values.


10 Join the Discussion

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars  (17 votes, avg. 4.18 out of 5)
  1. We LOVED the video!! We enjoyed seeing all the different animals. We even came up with our own wonder of the day!! :) We wondered if one of the animals in the video was a moose… Then we began thinking, “I wonder what the plural form of moose is?”… We found that most Native American words keep their same form whether singular or plural (e.g., moose, deer, grouse, papoose, etc…)

    What a great way to get our brains engaged today!! Thanks for another fun wonder. :)

    • Good morning, Kerrick Elementary School 2nd/EBD classroom! We are SO excited to hear of your extra “WONDERING” about words! Thank you for sharing what you learned today with everyone in Wonderopolis! :-)

  2. I loved the wonder of the day, it was awesome. I never new we had a national park system. I live near Gateway National park in New Jersey. I wonder if anyone at wonderopolis has been to Gateway National Park.

    Maddy M.

    • We will have to add Gateway National Recreation Area to our list of places to visit very soon, Maddy! It looks like there are so many WONDERful things to see and do there! Thank you for sharing with everyone today! :-)

      For our Wonder Friends who might not be familiar with Gateway National Recreation Area, here is a link to the park website:

  3. I love it! What a great way to inspire reflection and journaling! The video is WONDERFUL! I will begin my 3rd grade class with a wonder of the day – everyday!

    • We are so happy to meet new Wonder Friends, Sonia! Thank you so much for visiting Wonderopolis and for sharing your love of learning with your students! :-)

  4. Dear wonderopolis,
    I enjoyed this video. In my classroom we read about the yellowstone fire. So then I was looking for a different video and then this video caught my eye. Thanks for putting this video on wonderopolis. So I’ll tell my teacher Mrs. Venglar to try to watch it. Please write back.

    • HOORAY, we’re so excited you have been WONDERing with us Aubrey! How COOL that you and your Wonder classmates have been learning about Yellowstone National Park! We are excited that you found us here at Wonderopolis– we LOVE meeting new Wonder Friends! :)

    • Hi, Jonathon! We agree, it would be nice if every state had a historic or National Park. Unfortunately, the WONDER tells us “only about half the states have such a large, traditional national park”. Maybe one day that will happen! Thanks for WONDERing with us! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Does every state have a national park?
  • How many national parks are there?
  • What is the goal of the national park system?

Wonder Gallery

yellowstone national park_shutterstock_36257749Vimeo Video

Try It Out

Do you live close to any national parks? If so, which ones? Do some research online, or talk with friends and family members. How long would it take to drive from your home to the nearest national park?

If you can plan a trip sometime soon to visit a national park, do it! Our national parks are treasures for everyone to enjoy. The wildlife, history and natural beauty to be found can’t be beat.

Of course, there are many great places you can visit if you don’t live close to a national park. States have state park systems, and many smaller units of government — counties, cities and towns — also have local park systems.

What parks are in your area? What sorts of recreational activities do the parks near you offer? Do you have a favorite local park? What do you like to do there?

Most parks offer places to relax and enjoy the natural scenery. You often can find places to exercise, such as bike paths or hiking trails. Some parks with lakes and rivers also allow boating and fishing.

You also may find play areas for small children, as well as picnic areas where your whole family can gather for a fun meal in the great outdoors.

Check out your local parks, and see what they have to offer. Then get out and have some family fun!


Still Wondering

Check out National Geographic Xpeditions’ Geotourism: Be a Friend to our Parks lesson to learn more about geotourism and the concept of “traveling without trampling.”


Wonder What’s Next?

Tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day isn’t written in stone, but we think it will stick around for quite a while!

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