— Happy 120th birthday, Yosemite!
One of the nation's best known national parks is also one of many celebrating milestones this year. Ten years, 70 years, 100 years — from coast to coast, more than a century of historic preservation is there for the viewing.
If, that is, you know where to look. The fact is, few parks have made much of their decadal significance. In large part, that’s because most were “born” even earlier as forest grants or national monuments and their official birthdays only refer to the dates they were designated as national parks.
Still, considering that 16 of America’s 58 national parks are celebrating some sort of decadal anniversary this year, it seems like a good excuse for a late-year visit to one or more of them. Each of the eight parks below offers its own take on American history — or you can wait for Veterans Day (Nov. 11) when admission fees will be waived.
First protected in 1864 — eight years before Yellowstone became America’s first national park — Yosemite was officially designated a national park on Oct. 1, 1890. For a taste of its earliest days, take a break from the crowds in Yosemite Valley and head to the Pioneer Yosemite History Center in Wawona, just inside the park’s south entrance. Tour the vintage stores and cabins; take a horse-drawn carriage ride, and be thankful for the ensuing improvements in the park’s visitor services.
Home to several of the largest trees on the planet, Sequoia National Park could very easily have boasted some of the largest stumps on the planet if it hadn’t been designated a national park in 1890. (Fortunately, sequoias make lousy lumber.) Naturally, you’ll want to check out the Giant Forest, but afterward, head over to the Wolverton BBQ, which combines an outdoor, all-you-can buffet with living-history presentations about pioneer life and the park’s early days ($21.99 for adults, $9.99 for children, through September 5).
One hundred years ago last May, Glacier became the 10th park in America’s burgeoning National Park system. This year, the park in northwest Montana is commemorating its centennial with interpretive programs, art exhibits and a new book chronicling 100 years’ worth of local stories. After a day amid the peaks and snowfields, head to the Hockaday Museum of Art, in nearby Kalispell, where the oil paintings of John Fery (1859–1934) and large-format photographs of Chris Peterson bookend the park’s past and present.
Most folks who visit Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico opt for the free, self-guided tours of the Big Room, a one-mile stroll augmented by electric lighting. Instead, sign up for a Ranger-led tour of Left Hand Tunnel, a two-hour excursion led by lantern-light. Shifting shadows only accentuate the fanciful formations, at least until everyone cuts their lights and you’re plunged into the same darkness that greeted early explorers. (Note: tour fees — $7 for adults, $3.50 for children — still apply during fee-free weekends.)
Once mined for copper, then logged for timber, Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior has spent much of the intervening years reverting to wilderness. To experience it in relative comfort, consider taking an interpretive cruise/hike on board the M.V. Sandy. The Edisen Fishery/Rock Harbor Light tour ($37.75), for example, visits the oldest lighthouse (1855) on the island while the Northside Cruise/Minong Mine tour ($45.25) traverses harbors, bays and a mine site from the 1870s.
Fifty years ago, what is now Biscayne National Park, outside Miami, almost became the site of a major urban development and industrial seaport. Fortunately, the plan was scrapped; the area was declared a national monument and eventually designated a national park. Today, you can get a glimpse of what was at stake by heading to Elliott Key, where the so-called Spite Highway — a six-lane road bulldozed in protest in 1967 — now forms the park’s one real hiking trail.
The Channel Islands, off the coast of Southern California, bear witness to 12,000 years of human history, but have only been a national park for 30. To explore that longer span, head to the one-year-old visitor center at Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island, which highlights native Chumash culture, pioneer living and the park’s phenomenal biodiversity.
Although it was designated a national park just 10 years ago, Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio has been providing an escape from the pressures of urban life for more than a century. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad retraced that rich history last month with a variety of daily excursions, including a special series of runs powered by vintage steam locomotives.