NPS: The Mostest American Treasures

LAM goes to the extremes in celebration of the National Park Service’s centennial.

BEDIT_F4-NPS_DeathValley_shutterstock_132399008 Meek

On August 26, Americans will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Members and friends of ASLA can feel especially proud, as the society, along with the American Civic Association, was instrumental in the passage of the National Park Service Organic Act, which established the agency, in 1916. Today there are 59 national parks, sublime wedges of paradise where time seems to stand still. To begin the centenary year at LAM, we’ve gone to extremes to find parks with superlative qualities as a reminder of the awe the parks inspire.

Death Valley National Park, California (Driest)

Death Valley National Park is three million acres of extremes. It is the driest of our national parks, receiving an average 1.94 inches of precipitation a year. It is said to have registered the hottest air temperature recorded on Earth’s surface (134 degrees Fahrenheit). And it has the lowest elevation in North America, at 282 feet below sea level. Given this punishing environment, the park’s most surprising feature (subjectively speaking) is Darwin Falls, a series of freshwater cascades that total 80 feet in height. Its stream, Darwin Creek, is one of four in the park, and supports an abundance of plant life that is rare in its thankless surroundings.


Historic American Engineering Record HAER AR-4-G

Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas (Smallest)

Bubbling up at around 143 degrees Fahrenheit, the 47 springs in Hot Springs National Park have attracted the curious, the infirm, and the enterprising for nearly 200 years. Hot Springs became a national park in 1921—it was made a national reserve in 1832—and its thermal waters, which are potable, continue to be the park’s primary cultural attraction. According to a 2002 park service technical report, it is still not completely clear how the flow and thermal dynamics of the springs work, but the water, which originates about a mile below the surface, is believed to be thousands of years old.

At 5,500 acres, Hot Springs is the park system’s smallest park. Its boundaries include Bathhouse Row, an avenue of eight independently operated bathhouses, some of which still provide therapeutic bathing and recreational facilities for tourists. The waters emerging from the springs were covered and piped into these lavish settings, an example of innovative early 20th-century technology documented by the Historic American Engineering Record.

Jordans Salamander (Plethodon jordani), redcheek variety, on moss, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Jordans Salamander is highly variable in coloration. Predators that feed on a variety of invertebrates, their habitat is in high-elevation humid
Getty Images/Martin Shields

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina (Most Visited)

There are about 1,500 black bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee. That’s two bears per square mile, but for some of the visitors to this, the most visited national park in the United States, the bears are not the most interesting fauna to be seen here at the southern end of the Appalachians. Scientists and amateur herpetologists come to the park to study its more than 30 species of salamanders that have given the park the nickname of Salamander Capital of the World. The conditions in the park suit the amphibians: The upper elevations are temperate rain forests, and the “smoke” that wreaths the mountains is fog produced by rain and the transpiration of the trees.


BEDIT_F4-NPS_McKinley_shutterstock_211864378 Schremp

Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska (Highest)

Within the more than six million acres of Denali National Park & Preserve is a familiar feature—Denali, formerly Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. Of the 1,204 registered climbers of Denali in 2014, 429 made it to the 20,310-foot summit. Most climbers, more than 90 percent, take the less-technical West Buttress route to the top, flying in a ski-equipped plane to a base camp on Kahiltna Glacier. Travelers who prefer to stay in the lower elevations can enter the park by car, but only for 15 miles or so. The remainder of the 92-mile road is mostly restricted to bus tours. Despite its rugged conditions and weather extremes—the coldest recorded temperature at the park’s headquarters is -55 degrees Fahrenheit—the park is open year-round.


BEDIT_F4-NPS-Kobuk_The_Great_Kobuk_Sand_Dunes_(8029771509)_CREDIT By National Park Service, Alaska Region [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By National Park Service, Alaska Region [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska (Least Visited)

Thirty-five miles north of the Arctic Circle, Kobuk Valley National Park is one of the most remote parks managed by the National Park Service. It is so remote that it is the least visited national park. There are no roads that lead to the park, and the official visitor center resides in the town of Kotzebue, 100 miles away. But anyone who charters a plane to the site is rewarded with miles upon miles of wilderness, including the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, which were used in a NASA study as an analog for Martian dunes, according to an article by Cynthia L. Dinwiddie, a principal engineer with the Southwest Research Institute. “We don’t keep track of those who visit the park. We don’t even know who visits,” says Tyler Teuscher, an education specialist with the Western Arctic National Parklands. It’s assumed that if you plan for a successful trip to Kobuk, you’re an experienced traveler, but some who visit do so in an attempt to visit every national park. “They’ll fly out, step on the dunes, then go to the next one. Kind of like a bucket list,” Teuscher says. “Those are the visitors we hear from most.”


Courtesy ND Holmes

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park, Alaska (Largest)

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, which covers 13.2 million acres, is the largest park managed by the National Park Service. It’s so large that it contains four major mountain ranges: Wrangell, St. Elias, Chugach, and the eastern part of the Alaskan Range. Nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States lie within the park’s borders, with Mount St. Elias, at 18,009 feet in elevation, standing as the second-highest peak. In 1900, a vast copper deposit was discovered in the park, and from 1911 to 1938, copper, gold, and silver from the Kennecott mines generated nearly $200 million for the Kennecott Copper Corporation. To sustain the business, a company town and railway were built and maintained until the mine’s closure. “The former Copper River and Northwestern Railway was built on top of Allen Glacier, which was active. It was the only time a railroad was ever built on an active glacier,” says Bryan Petrtyl, a park ranger for Wrangell–St. Elias. “The railroad company had to literally rebuild it every year.”


Peter Craig, National Park Service

The National Park of American Samoa,
American Samoa (Newest)

The land for the only U.S. national park south of the equator, the National Park of American Samoa, which is also the newest national park, isn’t owned by the National Park Service; it’s leased from several different communities. The park is spread across three islands—Ta’u, Ofu, and Tutuila—and a third of the park is underwater, including coral reefs with more than 250 species of coral. On land, Samoa has one native mammal—bats. Two species of fruit bats live in the park and can be seen hanging from trees during the day. They’re important pollinators on the islands, and flowers have evolved to be large so the bats can easily transfer pollen.


Norris Museum; Diane Renkin; February, 2013; Catalog #19048d; Originial #DSCN9332
Diane Renkin/Yellowstone National Park (CC BY 2.0)

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming (Oldest)

Yellowstone National Park has the distinction of being anointed the first national park (1872), and although its historic landscape—from the outset shaped by commerce, railroads, and tourism as much as its storied natural features—is without parallel, the park’s reputation as a center for innovative research and forward-looking design deserves to be better known.

The park’s superintendent, Dan Wenk, is a landscape architect, and Yellowstone has about eight other landscape architects working on various initiatives, such as the design of park roads, overlooks, and entrances; preserving the vegetation gene pool; park sustainability; accessibility; planning and compliance; and cultural landscapes and historic structures. Since opening up the park to non-site-based research in the 1960s (previously permits were granted only for projects that benefited park management), Yellowstone has also become an active research center. In 2014 there were 177 research permits granted for projects in biological resources, landscape processes, and mapping, among others, and research on problems such as large-scale landscape disturbance from fires has potential implications far outside the park. Perhaps best known for the rusticated, timber-forward architecture of Old Faithful Inn and its many imitators, Yellowstone has a strong design identity that comes directly from landscape architects’ involvement in the park’s development. Their influence continues to be seen and felt throughout the park system.

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