by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent

This summer the National Park Service of the United States celebrated its 100th birthday. A century ago, on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created a federal bureau within the Department of the Interior to oversee the country’s already-existing 35 national parks and monuments, as well as any additional going forward. One hundred years later, that number has grown to 413. This includes national parks and monuments, as well as properties with a variety of other “national” classifications, such as battlefields, historic sites, rivers and seashores. To mark the centennial, this year on August 25th, President Obama designated 87,500 acres in Maine as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Four-hundred-thirteen isn’t a huge number. It’s entirely possible that a person could visit every single one of our national park properties in a lifetime. (Ambitious, but still possible.) While I doubt I’ll make it to all 413 (or more, as there’s a good chance the number will continue to rise) it’s fun to contemplate which parks I might like to see next, and why.

Why do we have national parks? They preserve wild and natural places, not only for posterity, but also as a source of national pride. The first national park in the United States – possibly the first one on the planet as well – was Yellowstone, designated in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant. While Grant was the first president to create a federally-owned park, Theodore Roosevelt is generally known as the “conservation president.” Roosevelt doubled the number of national parks while he was in office. Perhaps more importantly, he oversaw the passing of The Antiquities Act, which gave the president unilateral power to designate national monuments as well. Creating a national park requires an act of Congress, so the passage of The Antiquities Act opened the door to significantly greater conservation efforts nationwide.

Our national parks are truly a treasure, and I encourage you to check some of them out! Here’s a series of questions to get you thinking along those lines . . . along with my own answers.

  1. Have you ever visited a US National Park? Do you have a favorite? I’ve been fortunate to visit a lot of them. My favorite might be Acadia, in Bar Harbor Maine, where I climbed Cadillac Mountain and rode trail bikes with my son last summer. Or maybe it’s Yellowstone, in Wyoming, because the park itself is so varied – mountains, lakes, waterfalls, geysers, mineral pools, bison roaming everywhere! Or possibly Canyonlands in Utah, even though – thanks to a 5-day whitewater rafting trip in 1993 – it’s also the setting of one of my recurring nightmares.
  2. What was the first national park you visited? Mine was either the Cape Cod National Seashore or the White House, both before age ten, but the one that made the biggest impression on me, and got me paying attention to the National Parks System at an early age, was The Grand Canyon, which I traveled to with my family when I was twelve. (And again with a friend on a cross-country road trip at age twenty. . . And on another cross-country trip at 29. . . And again at 44.) Each visit revealed different aspects of the park, the canyon, the Colorado River . . . as well as varying insights into our national character.
  3. Can you name the 19 National Parks, National Historic Sites, National Seashores, and other NPS properties in Massachusetts? Off the top of my head, I cannot! But here’s a list. National Historic Parks: Adams, Boston, Lowell, Minute Man, and New Bedford Whaling. National Historic Sites: Boston African American, John F. Kennedy, Longfellow House/Washington’s Headquarters, Frederick Law Olmsted, Salem Maritime, Saugus Iron Works, and Springfield Armory. National Scenic Trail: Appalachian Trail. National Heritage Corridor: Blackstone River Valley, Quinebaug and Shetucket Rivers Valley. National Recreation Area: Boston Harbor Islands. National Seashore: Cape Cod. National Heritage Area: Essex. Wild and Scenic River: Westfield River. This list alone could keep an eager traveler busy for quite some time!

It is worth noting that in 1977 our very own North and South Rivers were designated a National Natural Landmark by the Department of the Interior, “possessing national significance in illustrating the natural character of the United States.” The National Park Service oversees the National Natural Landmark (NNL) program. While an NNL designation doesn’t confer park status on the river and its watershed, the recognition still significant. There are eleven NNLs in Massachusetts, and close to 600 nationwide.

  1. Which national park would you like to visit next?With a ten-year-old, I’m in “revisiting” mode – going back to places I’ve already seen, in order to offer my son some different perspectives on the landscape and on our country in general. We toured 11 national parks, monuments, and historic sites in Arizona this summer, along with a handful of Navajo tribal parks. Southern Utah is next on the family list – Arches, Bryce, Zion, Capitol Reef, etc. – but the historic sites and memorials of Washington DC rate pretty highly as well.
  2. What are the Top Five national parks you’re hoping to see in your lifetime? There are a bunch of parks and monuments in Alaska and Hawaii . . . sigh! Maybe someday! Glacier National Park in Montana; Voyageurs in Minnesota; Joshua Tree and Death Valley in California. And if I ever get to the point where giant reptiles don’t make me squeamish, an airboat tour of the Everglades in Florida would definitely appeal.


Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 20 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit