In April 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt spent two weeks vacationing at Yellowstone Park, after which he designated the area as America’s first national park, laying a cornerstone at its main entrance. “Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors,” he said during his remarks. “This park was created, and is now administered, for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Today, some 120 years later, the National Park Service (NPS), established in 1916, manages more than 400 sites, including about 60 that are designated as national parks. Most are free to enter, allowing the millions who visit each year to enjoy hiking, biking, camping, climbing and exploring these protected lands. Spanning the nation—from California’s Joshua Tree to Shenandoah in Virginia, from Glacier Bay in Alaska to the National Park of American Samoa in the South Pacific—NPS has helped preserve thousands of acres from sea to shining sea and worked to protect the many species of wildlife that call the parks home. What makes them so special? Take a look.

a moose stands in a foggy field
On a cold, damp morning at Rocky Mountain National Park, a moose stands in the burn scar left from a fire, with the fog giving the impression of smoke rising from the ashes. Dawn Wilson, Colorado, 2021
a barn sits in the foreground with mountains in the distance
This barn, built in the late 19th century by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is one of two that remain at Grand Teton National Park. Scott Evers, Wyoming, 2009

a mother bear leadn s two cubs with the mountains in the background
At Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, a mother bear leads two cubs to a spot where they can look for food. In recent years, more than 200 brown bears have been spotted in the park. Scott Evers, Wyoming, 2009
a bison eats in the foreground with a geyser in the background
Yes, the Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone National Park is a sight to behold, but this bison isn’t letting the natural wonder distract it from a snack. Priorities. Peter Mangolds, Wyoming, 2021

a fire lookout on top of a mountain
Writer Jack Kerouac once served as a fire lookout at North Cascades National Park. This structure, located on the Desolation Peak, is one of more than 90 in the state. Basil Tsimoyianis, Washington, 2010
a bear in shallow water with a fish in its mouth
A bear in Katmai National Park and Preserve wades in the water to catch a salmon. An estimated 2,200 brown bears live in the park.  Glen Apseloff, Alaska, 2009

stars in the are shown in the night sky
Known as the Raven’s Nest, this natural cliff along the Schoodic Peninsula in Acadia National Park is a great place to stargaze. Jonathan Zdziarski, Maine, 2020
a rock with a trailing path is seen in desert terrain at sunset
At Death Valley National Park, heavy boulders that remain in the same spot for years sometimes suddenly relocate, seemingly dragged across the ground. After carefully studying the mysterious movements, scientists determined the phenomenon stems from an uncommon combination of water, ice and wind. Kendra Karr, California, 2009
a mountain goat is seen in front of a mountain vista
Glacier National Park is believed to have one of the largest mountain goat populations in the lower 48 states. Here, one enjoys the views near Hidden Lake. Howie Garber, Montana, 2009

a brown ruffed grouse blends into its surroundings
The brown hue of this ruffed grouse at Shenandoah National Park matches its surroundings. The male of the species is known to fan out its tail during mating season. Cindy Tucey, Virginia, 2008
trees cast shadows across a road in the desert
With the sun and mountains in the background, trees cast eerie shadows along a road in Joshua Tree National Park. Laurie Search, California, 2009
a lone stage on a steep foggy hillside
A lone stag surveys the lush mountains of Olympic National Park as clouds roll by. Trevor Brown, Washington, 2019

a hiker is seen in silhouette hiking under a rock archway
A hiker walks under the Skyline Arch as the sun sets behind her in Arches National Park. Sellers Hill, Utah, 2020
a lake is seen from a top mountain terrain
The Beech Mountain Trail at Acadia National Park provides hikers peeks of mountain peaks as they look out over Long Pond. Patrick O’Connor, Maine, 2022

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