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Our National Parks 🌄

by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

The United States has an amazing number of national parks and monuments. They have been set aside and preserved as national treasures under the management of the U.S. National Park Service. The setting aside of large tracts of land as protected wilderness was a uniquely American idea. Leaders like John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt were among the first to proclaim the importance of wilderness and to follow their words with action. I’m glad they did.

President Roosevelt helped establish Yellowstone National Park in 1872. He had actually seen this area in person and had explored it on horseback. It was our very first national park! Yellowstone is located in the northwest corner of Wyoming, but also extends slightly into Idaho and Montana. It has amazing geysers and hot springs, an abundance of wildlife in their native habitats, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, through which flows the Yellowstone River that contains the Upper and Lower Falls, spectacular waterfalls. This river flows out of Yellowstone Lake, the largest high-altitude freshwater lake in the world. Most of the park is above 7,500 feet in elevation.

Yellowstone is famous for its large herds of bison that have lived there for centuries. It also has black and grizzly bears, elk, pronghorn antelope, and wolves. One can also see large bird species, such as bald eagle, osprey (a fish-eating hawk), and trumpeter swan.

In 1890, John Muir helped spark the creation of Yosemite National Park in California. This amazing valley contains spectacular mountains, cliffs and waterfalls. The famous landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, made Yosemite appreciated through his beautiful black and white photographs published in large-book format by the Sierra Club.

Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915. Enos Mills, who lived in a cabin there, was one of the promoters who helped get this park set aside by act of Congress. Rocky Mountain contains Trail Ridge Road, the highest road in the United States at 12,183 feet in altitude. It is open from the end of May through mid-October, but is otherwise “snowed-in.” Many people visit Rocky Mountain in the fall to witness the elk rutting season and hear the weird bugling sounds made by the bulls.

There are hundreds of other national parks and monuments, as well as national historic sites and national seashores, all under the care of the National Park Service. I was honored to be one of the people who, many years ago, helped establish a national seashore area.

As a graduate student in the Yale Conservation Program from 1951 to 1953, my project was to help save the Sunken Forest on Fire Island, a barrier island off the south coast of Long Island. I spent the summer of 1952 fund-raising on behalf of this unique holly forest. I successfully raised enough to purchase several tracts of the forest, one grant being the first to pass through The Nature Conservancy, newly established by Dr. Richard Pough of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Rachel Carson, the famous author, also helped me, as did John Oakes, a New York Times editorial writer.

Many others became involved, including Mr. and Mrs. James Dunlop, who took over the project from me when I had to return to my Yale studies in the fall. We eventually raised enough funds to purchase the entire Sunken Forest. It later became part of the Fire Island National Seashore when Congress passed the National Seashore Bill, thanks to the efforts of David Brower, the head of the Sierra Club. It was exciting for me to be part of this success.

I hope you will have the chance to visit some of our national parks if you haven’t already. They are a special part of America!

Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check or e-mail or call (303) 499-3647.

Publishers Note: The National Park Service has great programs for children. They even have an online Junior Ranger program for kids of all ages. If you love your national parks, monuments and historic sites, this site is for you. They offer it in English and Spanish. Play more than 50 games and learn about your national parks. NPS just introduced online water safety lessons and cool information on riptides. Check out for more information.

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