The Wawona Tunnel Tree was a popular early tourist attraction at Yosemite National Park. THF130220
At the dawn of the 20th century, horseless carriages were still untested novelties. They were prone to mechanical breakdowns over long distances and likely to get mired in the muck of bad or non-existent roads. Yet, despite these challenges, the lure of taking them out to view the scenic wonders of America’s national parks was irresistible.
The first adventurous motorists showed up at Yosemite National Park in 1900 and at Yellowstone two years later. They shocked everyone and were promptly ordered to leave. For more than a decade afterward, automobiles were banned from the parks. After all, these newfangled contraptions endangered park visitors, spooked the horses who regularly pulled tourist carriages and wagons, and seemed out of keeping with the quiet solitude of the parks. It would take the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 and the vision of its first director, Stephen Mather, to wholeheartedly embrace automobiles as an asset to the parks. And perhaps no other single decision would have more impact on both the parks themselves and on Americans’ attitudes toward them.
Stagecoach loading well-to-do tourists in front of Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel at Yellowstone National Park, part of a package tour offered by the Northern Pacific Railroad. THF120284
Slowing down acceptance of automobiles in the parks was the control of the railroads, who early on realized the profits that could be made by providing exclusive access to the parks. Railroad companies not only brought tourists from distant cities and towns but also financed many of the early park hotels and operated the horse-drawn carriage tours inside the parks. The long railroad journey, hotel stays, and park tours were all geared toward wealthy tourists who could afford such extended and expensive pleasure trips.
Despite the railroad companies’ lobbying efforts and park managers’ arguments that they spoiled the experience of being in nature, automobiles entered the parks in increasing numbers. Mount Rainier National Park was the first to officially allow them in 1907. Glacier allowed automobiles in 1912, followed by Yosemite and Sequoia in 1913. Motorists to the parks still faced long lists of regulations: written authorization to enter, time restrictions on the use of their vehicles, strict attention to speed limits, and rules about pulling over for oncoming horses and honking at sharp turns.
Advertising poster promoting Metz “22” automobiles, winner of the American Automobile Association-sponsored Glidden Tour of 1913—a 1,300-mile endurance race from Minneapolis to Glacier National Park. THF111540
As automobile clubs exerted increasing pressure on local and state governments, Congress slowly began taking steps to improve park roads to make them safer for motorists. The advent of World War I—sharply curtailing travel to Europe—coupled with an aggressive “See America First” campaign by highway associations like the Lincoln Highway Association encouraged more Americans than ever to take to the open road. By 1915, so many motorists stopped at Yellowstone National Park on their way to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco that in August of that year, automobiles were finally officially allowed entrance to that park.
The scenic Cody Road to Yellowstone National Park, which opened in 1916, offered eastern motorists a more direct route into the park than the original north entrance used by tourists arriving by the Northern Pacific Railroad and the west entrance used by those taking the Union Pacific Railroad. THF103662
In just 15 years, automobiles in the national parks had grown from a trickle to a steady stream. But the real turning point came with the creation of the National Park Service on August 25, 1916, and the vision of its first director, Stephen Mather. Mather wanted all Americans to experience the kind of healing power he himself had found in the national parks. So he aligned himself with the machine that was dramatically transforming people’s lives across the country—the automobile. Mather knew how to appeal to motorists, promising them “a warm welcome, good roads, good hotels, and public camps.” Furthermore, he innately understood that the point-to-point travel of horse-drawn carriage tours would not work for motorists, who wanted to travel on their own schedule and stop where they wanted. Scenic highways with turnouts, lookouts, and trailheads would be oriented to the understanding that, as Mather’s assistant Horace Albright maintained, “American tourist travel is of a swift tempo. People want to keep moving [and] are satisfied with brief stops here and there.”
So many early motorists arrived at the parks prepared to camp that public campgrounds were soon created to ensure safety, order, and control. THF128250
Mather’s ceaseless promotion worked. In 1918, the number of tourists coming to Yosemite by automobile outnumbered those arriving by train by a ratio of seven to one. In 1920, for the first time, the number of people visiting the national parks exceeded one million during a single year. Mather could happily declare that the American people “have turned to the national parks for health, happiness, and a saner view of life.” And the automobile, he concluded, “has been the open sesame.”
As the parks officially opened to automobiles, motorized touring cars rapidly replaced horse-drawn vehicles—in 1917 for both Yellowstone and Yosemite and in 1919 for Rocky Mountain National Park. THF209509
Numbers rose dramatically from that time on. In 1925, yearly visitation to the parks exceeded two million and in 1928, three million. With increased visitation came more willingness by Congress to support the parks. Annual appropriations went toward improvements geared to motorists, including campgrounds, picnic areas, parking lots, supply stations, and restrooms. Newly paved roads were designed to harmonize with the landscape and offered plenty of scenic turnouts and vistas. At the same time, the majority of land would remain wilderness for backcountry hikers and campers.
Roads for motorists were designed to heighten the experience of the parks’ scenic wonders, as shown by this view next to the Three Sisters Trees in Sequoia National Park. THF118881
When automobiles entered the national parks, the foundation was laid for the ways in which we experience them today. Mather believed that there was no better way to develop “a love and pride in our own country and a realization of what a wonderful place it is” than by viewing the parks from inside an automobile. Everyone did not agree, of course. Some argued that cars were a menace, a nuisance, an intrusion. Either way, the automobile was destined to become the “great democratizer” of our national parks.
This 1929 guidebook offered automobile tours not only along the rim of the Grand Canyon but also to the outlying, lesser-known Navajo and Hopi reservations. THF209662
For more on automobiles in the national parks, check out:
Yellowstone National Park, the first national park established in 1872, was a uniquely American innovation. Like the Declaration of Independence, it embodied America’s democratic ideals—in this case, the groundbreaking idea that our magnificent natural wonders should be enjoyed not by a privileged few but by everyone. The inscription over Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance to the park, "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People," symbolizes the ideals that established Yellowstone and defined the vision for all national parks to come.
Come now on a virtual tour through The Henry Ford’s collection to view the wonders of Yellowstone National Park.
Imagine it is the early 1900s, and you’ve chosen to take the four-day guided tour through the park by horse-drawn carriage. From the north entrance, you travel through towering canyons to your first stop, Mammoth Hot Springs.
The hot springs there, heavily charged with lime, have built up tier upon tier of remarkable terraces. The springs are constantly changing, presenting what one guidebook calls “an astonishing spectacle of indescribable beauty.” After viewing the hot springs and walking among its many terraces, you spend your first night at the humble but serviceable Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.
The next day, anticipation builds as you head south into the area with all the geyser activity. You pass Roaring Mountain, so named for the sound of steam fumaroles that became very active and noisy there in 1902.
Before long, you reach the first great geyser basin: Norris Geyser Basin. At the intersection of three major earthquake fault zones, Norris is the hottest, most active geyser basin in the park. Underground water temperatures of 706 degrees Fahrenheit have been measured. Norris has it all: hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, and bubbling mud pots.
From Norris, you proceed to Lower and Middle Geyser Basins until you finally reach Upper Geyser Basin—the place you’ve heard so much about. Approximately two square miles in area, Upper Geyser Basin contains the largest concentration of geysers in the park—in fact, nearly one-quarter of all of the geysers in the world! A variety of other thermal features also exist here, including colorful hot springs and steaming fumaroles.
Upper Geyser Basin is home to Old Faithful, the most famous and celebrated geyser in the world. The 1870 Washburn Expedition camped near this geyser. They were the ones who named it Old Faithful, because they discovered it had frequent and regular eruptions. It can last from 2-5 minutes, reach a height of 90 to 184 feet, and emit 10,000 to 12,000 gallons of water at a time.
You stop for the night here at Old Faithful Inn, a grand hotel built in 1903. Most resort hotels at the time were intended to serve as civilized oases from the wilderness. However, Old Faithful Inn, the first true rustic-style resort, was designed by young, self-taught architect Robert Reamer to fit in with nature rather than to escape from it. The inside of the hotel continues the rustic look, with a spectacular seven-story log-framed lobby containing a massive stone fireplace.
Heading down the road, West Thumb Geyser Basin is one of the smaller geyser basins in Yellowstone. Located along the edge of Yellowstone Lake, it consists of a stone mantle riddled with hot springs. These resemble vast boiling pots of paint with a continuous bubbling-up of mud.
About 30 miles from Upper Geyser Basin is Yellowstone Lake—one of the coldest, largest, and highest lakes in North America. The lake includes 110 miles of shoreline and reaches depths of up to 390 feet. The bottom of the lake remains a constant 42 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.
Here you rest for the night at the charming Yellowstone Lake Hotel, the oldest surviving hotel in the park, built in 1891. Robert Reamer added the colonial-style columns to this quintessential Eastern-styled hotel in 1903.
Heading back north along the park’s Grand Loop Road, Hayden Valley is filled with large, open meadows on either side of the Yellowstone River—the remains of an ancient lakebed. The valley is the year-round home to bison, elk, and grizzly bear.
As the Yellowstone River flows north from Yellowstone Lake, it leaves the Hayden Valley and takes two great plunges: first over the Upper Falls and then, a quarter mile downstream, over the Lower Falls—at which point it enters the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. In places, the canyon walls drop some 1,000 feet to the river below. You spend the night at the last of the four great Yellowstone resorts, Grand Canyon Hotel, before returning to Mammoth Hot Springs and the end of your tour.
It is inevitable, of course, that more and more motorists are arriving at Yellowstone every day. The use of automobiles in the park are bringing paved roads, parking areas, service stations, and improved public campgrounds. Most early motorists are used to roughing it and come prepared to camp.
Yellowstone will set the tone for all the other national parks to come. When the National Park Service is formally established in 1916, it incorporates many of the management principles that the U.S. Army brought to Yellowstone when its soldiers first arrived to establish order there back in 1886. Old Faithful Inn will help define the style of Western resorts and park architecture for the next several decades. Finally, as some early tourist behaviors—like feeding bears, peering into geysers, and fishing in hot springs (as shown in the postcard of Fish Pot Hot Springs)—are found to be harmful to Yellowstone’s fragile ecosystems, the park will become a testing ground for exploring and defining what it means to be a national park—serving the dual mission of preserving natural wonders while, at the same time, letting the public enjoy them.
Donna R. Braden is the Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.