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15 Stunning Vintage Photos of U.S. National Parks

Half Dome, 1922
15 Stunning Vintage Photos of U.S. National Parks
Before there was the National Park Service, there was just Yellowstone. In 1872, Congress declared the wild and vast territory, scattered with spewing geysers and wandering buffalo, as a “public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” By 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed an act officially establishing the National Park Service, the Department of the Interior had extended protection to 35 more parcels of land.

Today, 101 years later, 59 U.S. parks are under the protection of the NPS. And they are parks meant for marveling at, playing in, and exploring. Their preserved existence also serves as a humbling reminder of the beauty of the natural world. You can celebrate that beauty all year long but especially on its birthday, August 25, when admission to every park is free for all.

By Alina Polishuk, AFAR Contributor
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    Half Dome, 1922
    Half Dome, 1922
    Perhaps one of the most iconic symbols of the U.S. National Park Service, Yosemite’s Half Dome, pictured here in 1922, remains undisturbed and unchanged.

    Courtesy of Library of Congress
  • 2 / 16
    Grand Canyon, 1902
    Grand Canyon, 1902
    The view at the Grand Canyon is one that has survived the ages. Back in 1902, Los Angeles–based photographer Oliver Lipincott commissioned a Toledo to be the first car to be driven into the Grand Canyon. Lipincott is pictured here, marveling at the view and (most likely) congratulating himself on a job well done.

    Courtesy of Library of Congress
  • 3 / 16
    Mt. Rainier, Early 20th Century
    Mt. Rainier, Early 20th Century
    Despite the lack of advanced gear (are those skirts we’re seeing?), the desire to reach great heights has long been a theme for adventurers. These climbers were photographed trekking up Paradise Glacier on Mt. Rainier sometime between 1911 and 1920.

    Courtesy of Library of Congress
  • 4 / 16
    Mt. Rainier, Early 20th Century
    Mt. Rainier, Early 20th Century
    The same group of men and women, post-climb.

    Courtesy of Library of Congress 
  • 5 / 16
    Mirror Lake, 1911
    Mirror Lake, 1911
    Although summer is typically the most popular time to visit Yosemite, this group of cold-braving adventurers visited Mirror Lake in the winter of 1911. 

    Courtesy of Library of Congress
  • 6 / 16
    Wawona Tree, 1918
    Wawona Tree, 1918
    The 26-foot wide Wawona Tree in Yosemite was an icon among icons—that is, until it toppled in 1969 under the weight of a particularly heavy snowfall. These visitors drove through the tree’s large base in 1918.

    Courtesy of Library of Congress
  • 7 / 16
    Grand Canyon Lodge, 1922
    Grand Canyon Lodge, 1922
    Though not nearly as frequently photographed or marveled at, the lodges at many of the U.S. National Parks are as noteworthy as they land they sit upon. The Grand Canyon Lodge in Yellowstone was once an elegant retreat for visitors—until it was abandoned post-WWII.(Yellowstone has its own Grand Canyon, not to be confused with the one in Arizona.) The hotel burned to the ground in 1960.

    Courtesy of Library of Congress
  • 8 / 16
    Mesa Verde, 1939
    Mesa Verde, 1939
    When Theodore Roosevelt declared Mesa Verde a National Park in 1906, he said it would be the first park to “preserve the works of man,” rather than of nature. The cliff dwellings, pictured here with a group of visitors in 1939, were built by Ancestral Puebloans sometime between 550 and 1300.

    Courtesy of Library of Congress
  • 9 / 16
    Glacier, 1941
    Glacier, 1941
    One of the most visually stunning parts of a visit to Glacier National Park? That iconic drive, the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This is what it looked like in 1941.

    Courtesy of Library of Congress
  • 10 / 16
    Glacier, 1941
    Glacier, 1941
    These cottages, positioned on the banks of the pristine-looking Saint Mary’s Lake in Glacier National Park, seem like the perfect place to absorb the park’s natural beauty. Photo from 1941. 

    Courtesy of Library of Congress
  • 11 / 16
    Great Smoky Mountains, 1942
    Great Smoky Mountains, 1942
    We now know that petting a bear cub in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains is an activity best avoided; in 1942 this man didn’t seem to think twice

    Courtesy of Library of Congress
  • 12 / 16
    Sequoia National Park, 1957
    Sequoia National Park, 1957
    This 1957 photo of the camp village at Sequoia National Park could almost be replicated today—with a different set of cars.

    Courtesy of Library of Congress

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    Rocky Mountain, 1972
    Rocky Mountain, 1972
    In this photo from 1972, visitors to the Colorado Rockies take a break to admire the view. 

    Courtesy of National Archives
  • 14 / 16
    Canyonlands, 1972
    Canyonlands, 1972
    These river-rafters passed the iconic Canyonlands Pinnacles on a trip down the Colorado River in 1972.

    Courtesy of National Archives
  • 15 / 16
    Arches, 1972
    Arches, 1972
    These windswept rock formations in Arches National Park just beg to be climbed, as demonstrated by these visitors in 1972.

    Courtesy of National Archives
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    What’s Next
    What’s Next
    Plan your trip: The AFAR Guide to the U.S. National Parks

    Photo by Nick Meeks