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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. Learn how the photographer composed these images.

How National Parks Tell Our Story—and Show Who We Are

They’re more than scenic places. They’re a nation's common ground.

This story appears in the January 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

A hundred years ago, in the early months of 1916, America stood possessed of a magnificent, visionary, slightly confused and inchoate idea: national parks. These would be parks for the American citizenry, not pleasure grounds or private hunting reserves for nawabs and kings; parks to be shared, even, with visitors from around the world.

At that point 14 national parks already existed in the United States, the oldest being Yellowstone, which had been set aside by federal law, back in 1872, as the first national park anywhere in the world. The other U.S. parks, representing a diverse sample of majestic landscapes, all west of the Mississippi, included Yosemite in California (originally a state park, nationalized in 1890), Wind Cave in South Dakota (1903), Glacier in Montana (1910), and Rocky Mountain in Colorado (1915). There were also 21 national monuments—a form of protection more easily achieved because it could come by presidential decree under the Antiquities Act (passed in 1906), as robustly exploited by Theodore Roosevelt during his last three years as president. That early list of national monuments included Devils Tower, Chaco Canyon, Muir Woods, and the Grand Canyon.

What the country did not have in 1916, but now realized it needed, was a coherent definition of what a national park is or should be, supported by a single agency empowered to manage, defend, and oversee the expansion of its scattered patchwork of parks and parklike monuments. In August of that year—a time when European civilizations were gruesomely entangled at the first Battle of the Somme—Congress passed an act, and President Woodrow Wilson signed it, creating a National Park Service within the Interior Department. Stephen Mather, a Californian who had gotten rich selling borax but who cared deeply about conservation, became the first NPS director. His assistant and sidekick was an impecunious young lawyer named Horace Albright, son of a mining engineer, who would serve as superintendent of Yellowstone beginning in 1919 and eventually succeed Mather as NPS director. These two crucial men and their many allies mustered support for the system and for adding new units, but the project of defining a national park’s essence didn’t end with their work.

The early parks in the American West had been established primarily to protect scenic wonders, splendors of soaring rock and tumbling water and perennial ice, severe places that offered little prospect for economic exploitation—except maybe in the form of tourism as envisaged by railroad tycoons. That perceived dearth of business opportunity, plus the patriotic savor of touting America’s natural “cathedrals” in counterpoint to the cathedrals and monuments of old Europe, made creating parks easier than it would be later. Another factor was the negative example of Niagara Falls, where the best overlooks had been bought up and fenced by private operators, turning a national icon into a cheesy, for-profit peep show. Heaven forbid that should happen to Old Faithful or the Yosemite Valley. Protection of living creatures—the American bison in Yellowstone, the gigantic Sierra redwoods later known as sequoias—became part of the idea too. But it wasn’t until 1947 that any U.S. national park was approved largely for the protection of wildlife. That was Everglades National Park, a vast wetland in Florida, lacking mountains or canyons but full of birds and alligators.

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“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.
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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.

Since then, our national parks have gradually taken on the high purpose of preserving nature’s diversity—native fauna and flora, ecological processes, free-flowing waters, geology in its raw eloquence— as exemplars of Earth’s interactive complexity, not just as scenic wonderlands. Now they teach us as well as delight us. They inspire active curiosity as well as passive awe. They help us imagine what the American landscape and its resident creatures looked like before railroads and automobiles and motels existed. Repeat: They help us imagine. They carry a glimpse of the past into the present and—if our resolve holds and our better wisdom prevails—they will carry that into the future.

The way so far has been a stumbling, incremental process, fraught with politics and economics and conflicting ideals, that has brought us to where we are now. National parks were a good idea that has gotten better, and a big idea that has gotten bigger. The system now includes not just parks proper and national monuments but also battlefields, forts, seashores, scenic rivers, grave sites, and other significant places (some still privately owned) that are recognized as national historic landmarks, as well as noteworthy paths through landscape and history, such as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama. Jon Jarvis, the current director of the National Park Service, says that its purpose is to tell America’s story, not simply protect parcels of landscape. “If not us, who else? It’s our job.” As we celebrate the centennial, we also should remember that, although one act of Congress and a presidential signature can put a park on the map, the work of preserving these places and their stories falls to us too, as citizens, as owners, and it’s never done.

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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.
For years photographer Stephen Wilkes dreamed of “compressing the best parts of a day and night into a single photograph.” Now, with digital imaging technology, he can create such time-spanning panoramas.

To make the photos seen here, Wilkes selects a vista, sets up his camera and computer gear, and establishes a fixed camera angle. Based on sun directions, moon phases, weather, and more, he chooses an hour to start. He then continuously shoots thousands of images through day and night, in whatever conditions nature gives him. “I have zero control,” he says, “until the end of the process, when I have complete control.”

Wilkes takes weeks to select what he considers “the 50 best moments” from a shoot. He decides on the image’s time vector—where in the frame the day-night cycle will begin, and which way time will proceed: top to bottom, left to right. Then he digitally blends the photos to layer parts of some on parts of others, turning separate “magical moments” into a seamless composite image. —Patricia Edmonds

See more images and read an interview with Wilkes on the Proof blog.