National Park-to-Park Highway | United States (1920)


Highway to Cooke City entrance to Yellowstone National Park retrieved from

By David Pelikan


The mission statement of the National Park Service reads as follows: “The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.”

Undoubtedly, this mission has created one of the world’s most robust and cherished conservation programs in our history. Today, the National Park Service seeks to permanently protect 419 units, including 61 national parks. Together, these areas help preserve over 88,000,000 acres of land and water in the United States. However, the NPS mission and its mandate presents a duality in that this preservation is not the only primary goal. The National Parks have always been seen as an opportunity for “the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” As Franklin Roosevelt once declared, the purpose of the parks is for the “making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.” In other words, the purpose of the parks is for human use. And for the entire history of the parks system, the NPS has sought to make these lands more and more accessible for the American consumer. The organization has created infrastructure for bathrooms and gift shops through Mission 66; it’s paved land for parking lots and scenic roads; it’s built hotels and restaurants, even supermarkets and banks. Each of these developments have worked to turn these preserved lands into something more anthropocentric and less natural, but perhaps none of them have done so in the magnitude and the grandeur of the National Park-to-Park Highway.

Sixteen years after the turn of the century, the United States of America was at a crossroads. For decades, transportation was dominated by rail. But from 1915 to 1916, the number of registered cars and trucks in the country had jumped from 2.4 million to 3.6 million. There was a technological and societal transformation happening in America, and few people took more notice than the Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior and soon-to-be Director of the newly founded National Park Service, Stephen A. Mather. At the time, the only feasible way to visit western parks such as Glacier and Yellowstone were by train, which was a resource accessible, primarily, to only wealthy Americans. Mather, who was constantly working to improve park attendance and support, saw the automobile as an opportunity to open the parks to the masses, to “democratize” them. So, he joined a coalition of automobile clubs, chambers of commerce, local governments, “good roads” associations, and car manufacturers to support a “National Park-to-Park Highway,” “a six-thousand-mile loop of improved roads, linking all the western parks” (at the time: Yellowstone, Glacier, Mt. Rainier, Crater Lake, Lassen, Yosemite, General Grant, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, and Rocky Mountain). By 1920, eleven states were involved in the effort.

In August of 1920, twelve motorists set out from Denver, Colorado, near Rocky Mountain National Park, for a 76-day tour of the loop in order to promote tourism and to demonstrate the usefulness of the park-to-park highway., In the surrounding years, from the proposal of the highway through its development, the use of these roads and the parks that they connected soared. In 1916, the national parks had about 326,000 visitors. By 1920, the parks had over one million visitors. Within the decade, over three million Americans were visiting the parks every year, most of them by car and the National Park-to-Park Highway. This trend hasn’t slowed. In 2017, the parks received over 330 million visitors, still by car.

This rapid increase in visitation, spurred in part by the National Park-to-Park Highway, forced the National Park Service to create new accommodations for tourists. Today, if someone were to visit Yellowstone National Park, as about six million Americans do each year, they would have the option to select one of nine hotel or cabin complexes within the park grounds. For food, this visitor could decide between twenty established restaurants. To stow the car, the park has several acres of parking lots with over 9000 individual parking spots. Development like this has created a debate over the dual mandate of the parks, and it’s created questions that our country has to answer. How far should we take recreation as a principle of national parks? Should we be limiting the amount of people entering national parks? Does increased visitation lead to more public support of land preservation? Should the national parks still be considered natural?

There aren’t clear answers to any of these questions, but there is a clear trend in that our national parks have become increasingly humanized by the demands of increased visitation. Many parks have since become more akin to Disney World than to the “pristine” refuges once imagined by the likes of John Muir. Projects like the National Park-to-Park Highway have turned these lands into opportunities for mass human consumption and tourism revenues. And while the parks may be themselves a communalistic idea, a common good, one can’t help but compare their development to the cheapening of land and nature within capitalist systems as proposed by Moore and Patel.

Through their story of “cheap nature,” Moore and Patel rely heavily on two historical figures with one holistic vision. First, they mention Columbus, who grew frustrated with the idea that he could cast his eye on nature and not instantly see money. Then, they mention Descartes, who argued that the “empire of man” must penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature” for the good of humankind. Both Columbus and Descartes shared a mission of cheapening, of transforming nature from its natural state into a mechanism for human profit and consumption. And, despite the righteousness of his pursuits in assisting national parks, Stephen Mather and the proponents of the National Park-to-Park Highway continue in this cheapening by promoting the highway as “the great flow of tourist gold into every community along its route.” Through Mather, the highway became a vehicle for turning the national parks into a mechanism for human consumption within the Anthropocene. The highway, in many ways, has transformed the parks from something natural into something human, and that has manifested itself through harmful effects on park ecosystems.

The overcrowding of parks that has been encouraged by human infrastructure has greatly affected wildlife within park boundaries. Noise pollution, air pollution, littering, human presence and land degradation have caused significant changes in animal behavior. Nesting patterns, breeding cycles, foraging areas, and hunting activities have been altered by tourism within the parks. Vegetation, water quality and land structures have also been affected by human activity. Trampling of species on hiking trails, erosion from off-path wandering, decreased water permeability of soils, and other consequences have resulted directly from the sheer number of people who are visiting the parks each year. By prioritizing human consumption over environmental preservation, we’re fundamentally changing our public lands.

But how should we approach park access within the modern debate of the Anthropocene? Clearly, projects like the National Park-to-Park highway have created a parks system that is anthropocentric and environmentally damaging. But at the same time, the highway has enabled millions of Americans to share the park experience and to find a love for conservation. How do we prevent the cheapening of nature while maintaining the “democracy” of our national parks? Perhaps the answer is to make our public spaces less human and to recognize our place as a species within a larger ecosystem. The answer isn’t to stop the access provided by the highway. The answer is to create a parks system that has the resources and the will to ensure that when visitors pull off of that highway into their public lands, that they’re entering a space that focuses not only on humans, but on the entire ecosystem.

If we’re going to cope with the stress provided by the National Park-to-Park Highway and other initiatives, we have to embrace the multispecies ethics of Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing; we must “make kin”. Tsing once wrote that, “Human exceptionalism blinds us,” and that, “stories fuel assumptions about human autonomy, and they direct questions to the human control of nature… rather than to species interdependence… Human nature is an interspecies relationship.” If we’re going to save the spaces that our parks protect, we have to save that relationship, not only between humans and the species in the parks, but also between humans and the spaces of the parks themselves. We have to ensure that wildlife is able to coexist within park boundaries. We have to prevent the human destruction of soil structure and plant life.  We have to fund the twelve-billion-dollar shortfall that is preventing sustainable park maintenance. We have to dedicate ourselves to making significant changes in order to restore the nature that existed before the cheapening of the parks and before the creation of the National Park-to-Park Highway.

We have to create parks that exist beyond the Anthropocene.

Work Cited

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Finnessey, Lauren. The Negative Effects of Tourism on National Parks in the United StatesMaster’s thesis, Johnson and Wales University, 2012.

Haraway, Donna. “‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene’: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015). doi:10.5040/

“National Park Service History: Famous Quotes Concerning the National Parks.” National Parks Service. Accessed April 25, 2019.

Patel, Raj, and Jason W. Moore. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. 50-53. London: Verso, 2018.

“A 7000 Mile Motor Trip West.” Letter from Margaret Patton. July 13, 1921. In NEBRASKA STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY COLLECTION RECORD.

Schlenoff, Dan. “The Reliable Motor Vehicle, 1916 [Slide Show].” Scientific American. January 01, 2016. Accessed April 25, 2019.

Sellars, Richard West. Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History. 96. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2009.

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Directed by Ken Burns. Amazon Prime Video. 2009.

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Tsing, Anna. “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species.” Environmental Humanities 1,

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“Visitation Numbers (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service. Accessed April 25, 2019.

“What We Do (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service. Accessed April 25, 2019.

Whiteley, Lee, and Jane Whiteley. The Playground Trail: The National Park-to-Park Highway: To and through the National Parks of the West in 1920. 120-121. Centennial, CO: L. Whiteley and J. Whiteley, 2007