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History Overview

Over the course of more than 150 years, a once-radical idea has evolved into a cohesive national parks system, with a sometimes conflicting two part-mission: to make the parks accessible to all and to preserve them for future generations.

Check out the timeline charting the evolution of the park system, and follow the history of the parks as shown in each episode of The National Parks: America's Best Idea.

Early tourists in front of Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, circa 1880

EPISODE ONE: 1851–1890
The Scripture of Nature

The astonishing beauty of Yosemite Valley and the geyser wonderland of Yellowstone give birth to the radical idea of creating national parks for the enjoyment of everyone; John Muir becomes their eloquent defender.

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, 1903

EPISODE TWO: 1890–1915
The Last Refuge

A young president, Theodore Roosevelt, becomes one of the national parks' greatest champions; in Yellowstone, a magnificent species is rescued from extinction; and in Yosemite, John Muir fights the battle of his life to save a beautiful valley.

Stephen Mather and Horace Albright at dedication of Yosemite Post Office, Yosemite National Park, 1925

EPISODE THREE: 1915–1919
The Empire of Grandeur

In John Muir's absence, a new leader steps forward on behalf of America's remaining pristine places; a new federal agency is created to protect the parks; and in Arizona, a fight breaks out over the fate of the grandest canyon on earth.

Tourist at the edge of the Grand Canyon, 1914

EPISODE FOUR: 1920–1933
Going Home

As America embraces the automobile, a Nebraska housewife searches for peace and inspiration in park after park, while a honeymoon couple seeks fame and adventure in the Grand Canyon; and the future of the Great Smoky Mountains becomes caught in a race with the lumbermen's saws.

Members of the CCC, Glacier National Park

EPISODE FIVE: 1933–1945
Great Nature

In the midst of an economic catastrophe and then a world war, the national parks provide a source of much-needed jobs and then much-needed peace; the park idea changes to include new places and new ways of thinking; and in Wyoming, battle lines are drawn along the front of the Teton Range.

Tourists crowd entrance of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, 1960

EPISODE SIX: 1946–1980
The Morning of Creation

A stubborn iconoclast fights a lonely battle on behalf of a species nearly everyone hates; America's "Last Frontier" becomes a testing ground for the future of the park idea; and in unprecedented numbers, American families create unforgettable memories, passing on a love of the parks to the next generation.

A proud tourist points at her National Parks windshield stickers, 1922; David Brower in Glen Canyon, 1966; Dayton Duncan's son, Will, standing at edge of canyon. Bryce Canyon National Park, 1998

Share Your Story

Have you visited a national park recently? Did an experience in a national park leave a lasting impression? Share your unique park story with us.

Discover Your National Parks

Discover Your National Parks

Explore your nearly 400 National Parks and get involved at the National Park Foundation web site.

Own the DVD / Book / CD

Own the DVD / Book / CD

Do you like what you've seen so far? Order your copy of the DVD, the companion book, and CD soundtrack from Shop PBS today!

For Educators

Check out the lesson plans and other materials for teachers and educators.

Bank of America Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr Fund Corporation for Public Broadcasting The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Park Foundation

National Park Foundation The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation The Pew Charitable TrustsGM

THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA'S BEST IDEA is a co-production of

Florentine Films and WETA

 

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