The Grand Canyon is the touchstone American park; whatever happens here could have repercussions throughout the park system. It has withstood threats from ranching, mining, and logging interests and a federal dam project. Today’s challenges include a proposed town development on the South Rim and a tramway that would bring 10,000 visitors a day to the canyon floor.
“Today I am in the Yellowstone Park, and I wish I were dead.” So Rudyard Kipling began his 1889 account of a tour in America’s oldest national park. His disdain was aroused most by the “howling crowd” of tourists with whom he shared the visit. Attractions such as Old Faithful still draw more than three million (mostly well behaved) visitors yearly to Yellowstone; the vast majority of them never go beyond a hundred yards from a paved road. If Kipling himself had ventured deeper into the 3,472-square-mile park to witness the splendor of its river valleys and mountain meadows, his rant might well have given way to rapture.
Standing tall on the aptly named Grandeur Point, a cowboy surveys the Grand Canyon around 1935. President Theodore Roosevelt called the steep-sided gorge in Arizona “a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.”
In March 1868 a 29-year-old John Muir stopped a passerby in San Francisco to ask for directions out of town. “Where do you wish to go?” the startled man inquired. “Anywhere that is wild,” said Muir. His journey took him to the Yosemite Valley in California’s Sierra Nevada, which became the spiritual home of Muir’s conservation movement and, under his guidance, the country’s third national park. “John the Baptist,” he wrote, “was not more eager to get all his fellow sinners into the Jordan than I to baptize all of mine in the beauty of God’s mountains.” Today around four million people a year follow their own thirst for the wild to Yosemite.
On an April day cherry blossoms festoon West Potomac Park, part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C. While the grand parks of the West may elicit more gasps of awe, urban parks draw far more visitors. The National Mall hosts 24 million a year, almost twice the number of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon combined.