Large stone arch with roadway passing underneath
Entryway to Yellowstone, the world’s first [official] national park (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2016)

Yellowstone, established in 1872, is the world’s first national park. Its claim as the originator of national parks, however, comes with some contingency. Two of the nation’s parks had their beginnings before Yellowstone.

A national park precedent

Yosemite National Park has been widely recognized as Yellowstone’s predecessor. In fact, partisans of Yosemite continue to regard the California park as the world’s first national park. Historian Alfred Runte, for instance, concludes that “In fact, if not in name, Yosemite was the first national park.”

The park originated with the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on June 30, 1864. The legislation protected the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. However, it was not initially a national park. Instead, the law granted the new park to California with the stipulation “that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation.” It was up to the state to decide how to manage Yosemite and implement this mandate. Lincoln had more pressing concerns than to worry about running a remote park in the far west.

River in foreground with trees on far bank and steep cliffs in background
The Merced River flows through the Yosemite Valley (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2022)

Congress in 1890 made the surrounding areas a national park to better protect the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. Thus, Yosemite became the nation’s third national park. But even then it did not include the Yosemite Valley or the Mariposa Grove, the chief attractions. Those features remained a state park until 1906 when they were added to Yosemite National Park.

The first protected area for public use

Many people are surprised to learn that Hot Springs in Arkansas has the earliest origins of current US national parks. Congress established the Hot Springs Reservation in 1832, four decades before Yellowstone.

The legislation permitted the Arkansas governor to lease salt springs in the territory as a source of revenue to build roads. But the law stipulated that the hot springs were to remain “for the future disposal of the United States.” This was the first time the federal government reserved a protected area for public use. The intention, though, pertained to accessing the purported health benefits of the springs. Unlike later parks, it did not preserve a unique scenic area. Nevertheless, Hot Springs can claim, in the words of National Park Service historian Ron Cockrell, “boasting rights as the ‘first’ national park.”

Black and white drawing of two men standing in field with hills and houses in background
Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1834 (Hot Springs National Park archives [public domain])

Like Yosemite, though, the claim of Hot Springs as the first national park comes with caveats. It did not begin as a national park in the way that we understand today what constitutes a park. In fact, it did not gain official national park status until 1921. Most folks regard Hot Springs as our nineteenth park.

Nevertheless, the Hot Springs Reservation was like nothing before. It created a place set aside from private ownership and commercial development. It reserved a natural feature specifically for the benefit of the nation as a whole. It would be another thirty-two years before Congress would make Yosemite a park for California, and forty years before the first official national park would become a reality in Yellowstone. Thus, the precedent of Hot Springs became the wellspring of the entire US national park system.

White building with columned porch and US flag on rood
The Ozark Bathhouse, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2023)

The quotation of Alfred Runte is from National Parks: The American Experience, 2nd rev. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), p. 30. Ron Cockrell’s quotation is in The Hot Springs of Arkansas: America’s First National Park (Omaha, Nebraska: US Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Midwest Regional Office, 2014), p. 1, available at https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/DownloadFile/602839.

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