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North Hills Monthly

National Park Service Celebrates 100th Year

Jul 31, 2016 08:18PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Photos courtesy Jeff Prem,

America’s greatest treasure—its national parks—is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that established the National Park Service (NPS), a division of the Department of the Interior. In the past 100 years, there have been 412 units designated as part of the NPS, encompassing 84 million acres.

This acreage includes 59 national parks, including the most visited—the Grand Canyon—and the least-visited Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska. Hot Springs in Arkansas is the smallest national park, and Yellowstone National Park is the oldest, created in 1872 before the national park system became official. Pinnacles National Park in California is the newest, established in 2013.

My personal favorites are Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, which my family and I visited in 2013 and got the opportunity to see a momma bear and her three cubs, and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, which was last year’s breathtaking vacation. Then again, I am 55 parks shy of completing my ‘tour de parks,’ so I do not have much with which to compare.

Marcy Prem of Franklin Park, on the other hand, has visited 33 of the 59 national parks to date. “My first real impression of the national parks was in 1996, when my husband and I visited Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Arches and Rocky Mountain national parks,” she explained. “It was a fabulous trip, and it sparked my interest to visit more parks. 

“As a couple, we have visited Haleakala and Volcanoes national parks in Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands on St. John, and Acadia in Maine,” she continued. “After all those parks, we were hooked.” 

Once their two sons were old enough to appreciate these treasures, the Prem family made annual excursions to the national parks, often visiting multiple parks per vacation. For example, a few years ago, they toured four California national parks; another year, they flew to Montana, rented an RV and drove to Devil’s Tower, the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Wind Cave, Grand Teton and Yellowstone. Just a few weeks ago, they returned from a week at Glacier National Park in Montana, which Prem describes as one of the most scenic. To date, her sons have visited more than 20 national parks.

Prem’s sons have quite a collection of Junior Ranger Badges, which are earned by completing activities in booklets provided by the parks that provide information about the landscape and wildlife in each area. You can also buy a passport and get it stamped at each unit.

There are also a slew of other sites within the park system that encompass national battlefields, historical sites, monuments, memorials, lakeshores, and seashores, among other attractions. For example, many folks do not realize that the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial are national parks units.

Five of those units are in and around western Pennsylvania. These include the Johnstown Flood National Memorial; Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site; Fort Necessity National Battlefield; Flight 93 Memorial and Friendship Hill National Historic Site.

“There are these treasures in our backyards that people are not aware of; three of these five sites are free, which provides a very economical way for a family to visit a site nearby,” explained Mary Ellen Snyder, management assistant with the National Park Service, adding that these areas provide an easy way to learn about Pennsylvania’s history. 

If you visit these western Pennsylvania sites before the end of the year and your children complete the Junior Ranger program, they can also earn a special centennial patch.

Last year, 305 million people visited national parks, a record number, perhaps due in part to the ‘Find Your Park,’ initiative that was designed to increase awareness and traffic to these gems that are dispersed throughout the country. Fourth-graders and their families also received free admission to the parks in 2016, and will again in 2017, through the ‘Every Kid in a Park’ program.

While many parks are free, 127 national park units charge an entrance fee. However, there are free entrance days in national parks, which include August 25-28, which is the birthday week of the National Park Service; September 24 and November 11. Before visiting any unit of the National Park Service, it is advisable to check the park’s website for hours, fees, potential warnings, lodging information and other helpful travel tips.

Incredible adventures and sights beckon at the national parks—from scenic hikes to incredible rock formations, to deep lakes and caves to wildlife and geysers, and much, much more. 

“I love the beauty of the national parks and what they stand for—the arch in Yellowstone says it all: ‘For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People,’” said Prem. “It is amazing that some very forward-thinking Americans decided to permanently set aside lands for the enjoyment of the citizens of the country. It was never done before in the world and it makes me proud. And grateful.”