A man and woman standing on a cliff ledge

See what our national parks first looked like

From sweeping views of the Grand Canyon to stunning waterfalls in Yosemite, these vintage photos capture timeless beauty of national parks in the United States.

Visitors brave the edge of Overhanging Rock at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. Looming 3,000 feet above the ground, the rock is a favorite site for photographers and visitors seeking a spectacular view of the Yosemite Valley.
Photograph by Geo. W. Griffith, Library of Congress

When Yellowstone was established as a national park in 1872, its founding marked the birth of the U.S. National Park System. This ambitious idea steadily grew to include 423 park units (including 63 national parks) for travelers to discover. 

Since 1916, the National Park Service has acted as a guardian of diverse recreational, cultural, and historical resources; and inspired other countries to follow suit, serving as an inspiration for park preservation around the world.

More than 15 billion visitors have explored the park system’s 85,000 miles of rivers and streams; 7,035 square miles of reservoirs, lakes, or ocean; more than 43,000 miles of shoreline; and over 18,000 miles of trails. 

(See 150 years of Yellowstone in these iconic Nat Geo images.)

But its mission—to protect these treasured sites for the education, enjoyment, and inspiration of this and future generations—has not changed.

These timeless vintage images show us several national parks in their youth and remind us of the natural beauty the National Park System preserves.

This story originally published on April 3, 2018. It has been updated with new images and information. Starlight Williams contributed reporting.  

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