1. The National Park Service just had a big birthday — it turned 100 years old on August 25, 2016.
President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, creating the National Park Service, on August 25, 1916. The act was designed “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein,” and essentially formalized federal control over previously-established national parks, including Yellowstone and Yosemite.
2. Speaking of Yellowstone, it was the very first national park — or was it?!
Yellowstone was declared a national park by an act of Congress on March 1, 1872, but in recent years, some have argued that Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas should be recognized as the first, since it was created (as Hot Springs Reservation) in 1832.
3. Either way, Yellowstone is basically just a giant freakin’ volcano, and if it ever erupts, we’re toast.
Yellowstone is technically a supervolcano, which means it’s capable of an eruption of more than 240 cubic miles of magma. The most recent eruption, which happened more than 640,000 years ago, made the area collapse around itself, creating the geysers and boiling hot springs that makes the park so distinct. When it erupts again, which probably won’t happen anytime in the next 10,000 years, it could spread ash as far as Florida, make the air smell like sulphur, and damage crops for years.
4. Moving on! The National Park Service isn’t just responsible for gorgeous natural wonders. It also oversees a whopping 417 public sites, and only 59 of those are national parks.
National parks must be created by Congress, and generally are designated as such because of their natural beauty, unique geological features, or unusual ecosystems. Other kinds of sites run by the NPS include national monuments (of which there are 79), 78 historical sights, and 46 historical parks. Those include some unexpected spots, like The White House, Alcatraz Island, the Statue of Liberty, and the site of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
5. The tallest tree in the world is Hyperion, which is in Redwood National Park in California — but almost no one knows exactly where it is.
Hyperion is about 700-800 years old and is 369 feet tall! It was discovered in 2006, but its exact location has never been revealed due to fears that human traffic would disturb its ecosystem.
6. And the longest known cave system in the world is in Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.
It has more than 400 miles of cave!
7. Speaking of caves, you can buy and eat food inside of one at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
The underground snack bar in the park is an anomaly, as the NPS generally restricts commercial areas directly in or on its distinctive geographic features. It’s also a little controversial, as it reportedly has changed the ecosystem of the cave. Still, it’s hard to beat that view.
8. National parks used to have something called “bear shows,” which basically consisted of tourists watching bears eat out of open garbage dumps at night.
The late 1800s to early 1900s were a wild time for the national parks. According to the NPS, some parks set up bleachers or lighted areas to help visitors better see the bears’ feast. Unsurprisingly, this led to some injuries, and the shows were discontinued by 1942.
9. And until the early ’60s, people would feed bears from their car windows.
PLEASE DON’T DO THIS.
10. Drowning is the most common cause of death in a national park — but park deaths are relatively rare.
Yes, a man’s body disintegrated in a hot spring at Yellowstone last year, and yes, walking around the rim of the Grand Canyon is terrifying, but on average, only about 160 out of more 305 million visitors per year die while visiting national parks. As of 2014, the second-most common cause of death was vehicle accidents.
11. The NPS has never disclosed how many people have gone missing in the parks, but the number is estimated to be more than 1,100.
Author David Paulides has written several books on missing people, and uncovered some chilling details on national park-related disappearances. For example, in Yosemite National Park, which had the largest cluster of vanishings at the time, there were almost always huckleberries in the area of disappearance. He also found that most lost persons are children ages 20 months to 12 years old, and the elderly ages 74 to 85, and that many of the areas that people have disappeared from have names like Devil’s Gulch, Devil’s Lookout, Twin Devil Lake, and Devil’s Punch Bowl. Read up on some creepy disappearance stories here.
14. The current oldest full-time park ranger is 95-year-old Betty Reid Soskin, who works at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California.
Soskin was also a clerk for the all-black Boilermakers A-36 unit during WWII. Hero!
15. The NPS first hired female park rangers in 1918, just two years after it was founded.
Clare Marie Hodges, also called “Yosemite Clare,” is considered the very first fully-commissioned female park ranger. The earliest women hired by the parks were supposed to be temporary employees to fill spots left vacant by men serving in World War I, and many were brought on as “ranger-naturalists” who did tours and ran educational programs. Male employees, who saw themselves as military-like rugged protectors of nature, weren’t thrilled about this, seeing the women as threats to their careers and even calling male ranger-naturalists “pansy pickers” and “butterfly chasers.”
16. In fact, the NPS might not exist if it weren’t for the help of women!
The National Women’s Club had thousands of women sign the bill to establish the NPS in 1916, and clubs like the Garden Club helped maintain park grounds. It wasn’t until Title VII was made law in 1964 that NPS jobs fully opened up to women. As of 2016, women made up about 40% of the total NPS workforce — although, sadly, there is still a lot of work to be done.
17. And until 1978, female park rangers weren’t allowed to wear the same uniform as their male counterparts.
Until 1947, there was no standardized uniform for women, and they could design or choose whatever they wanted to wear. When a uniform was finally introduced, it included a calf-length skirt and a jaunty hat.
The NPS redesigned the women’s uniform in the ’60s, modeling it after flight attendants’ uniforms, but it was not popular. As one female park ranger said at the time, “We climb hills and mountains and rocks. It’s rugged…We need something more functional. Loose slacks are fine and Levi’s are great.” Even the hat was a point of contention! Apparently, everyone thought it was “unattractive, dated, and a threat to their hairdos.”
By the 1970s, things were even worse — women now had seven options to pick from, but many called them the “McDonald’s” uniform. Thankfully, this rock bottom moment led to the NPS to authorize women to wear the exact same uniforms as men in 1978.
18. Some parts of the distinctive park ranger uniform are descended directly from the United States Army Cavalry’s 19th century uniforms.
Until the cavalry started protecting the parks in 1886, there was no standardized uniform; the olive-colored coats and “Smokey the Bear hats” are taken from the cavalry’s outfits of the day.
19. The largest national park by area is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, in Alaska, and it’s 20,625 square miles.
That’s slightly smaller than the entire country of Croatia.
21. Pinnacles was California’s ninth national park, which makes California the state with the most national parks.
It used to be tied with Alaska, which has eight. Take that, Alaska.
22. Only one state doesn’t have have any sites run by the National Park Service, and that’s wee, little Delaware.
The First State doesn’t have a national park, national monument, historical site or historical park, but who knows! Maybe Joe Biden’s home will be chosen for special recognition someday.
23. The most visited national park is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which had an insanely impressive 10,712,674 visitors in 2015.
That’s nearly double the number of visitors of Grand Canyon National Park, the second-most visited park. (It welcomed 5,520,736 visitors in 2015.)
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and see what they have to offer!