How America's National Park to Park Highway was Formed

With 2016 being the centennial year of the National Park Service, National Parks are seeing a huge increase in visitor numbers. Often times these visitors pack their tent and sleeping bag to camp along the way. But did you know car camping in the National Parks has its own 100 year history?

National Park to Park Highway

In 1916, Steven Mather, the first National Park Service Director, worked with a group of automobile enthusiasts to create the National Park to Park Highway Association. The group charted out an automobile route connecting the twelve National Parks of the west then in existence and launched an epic road trip in the fall of 1920.

National Park to Park Highway Photo by AG Lucier.

Their goal? Raise funds and awareness for the necessity of good roads to and through the National Parks.

Since most roads of the west at that time were designed with the horse and buggy in mind, they had their work cut out for them. Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Parks were easily accessible by the automobile, but many others like Crater Lake and Mesa Verde had only dirt wagon trails to the park. Lassen Volcanic didn't have a single automobile road within the park; all visitors entered on horseback or on foot.

Inaugural Tour

In the summer of 1920, AL Westgard plotted a route from Denver, through Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California, Utah and Arizona. As a seasoned route finder for AAA, Westgard's maps and mileage reports were invaluable for the National Park to Park Highway group.

National Park to Park Highway Map Courtesy The Playground Trail by Lee and Jane Whiteley.

With Westgard as leader, 22 motorists left Denver on August 26, 1920. Together they drove a publicity tour to all the Nation's Playgrounds, as National Parks were then called. On the list were Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Glacier, Rainier, Crater Lake, Lassen Volcanic, Yosemite, Kings Canyon (then General Grant), Sequoia, Zion, Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde National Parks. This "Grand Scenic Tour of the National Parks" was the longest auto trail of its time -- 5,600 miles over mostly dirt roads through seven western states.

The rough road was not for the amateur motorist. Horace Albright, the first Assistant Director of the National Park Service and future Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, described sections of the road like this:

"...We were driven up to Crater Lake National Park, [on] about fifty miles of the worst road I had ever been on. Probably an animal track would have been better than that deep-rutted dust bin." -Horace Albright, 1915, Crater Lake National Park

"...Convict labor had been used to make these so-called roads. Those men probably took out their hate and frustration on the projects."- Horace Albright, 1917, Zion National Monument

"This twenty-mile stretch was one of the most disreputable, dangerous, fearsome bits of slippery, rutted miseries I ever had the misfortune to travel." -Horace Albright, 1917, Mesa Verde National Park

Tour members averaged 65 miles a day, covering approximately 5,000 miles in 76 days. The side trip to Zion National Park was not attempted due to difficult roads.

National Park to Park Highway Photo by AG Lucier.

On November 9, 1920 tour members arrived back in Denver, just in time for the first National Park to Park Highway Convention November 11-13, 1920. Thanks to the efforts of the association, state and federal aid for roads increased and more motorists were able to travel to and through the National Parks in subsequent years.

Modern Day Travel on The National Park to Park Highway

A lot has happened to the roads of the west since 1920. Today The National Park to Park Highway can be easily driven on paved highways with gas stations and hotel beds at ready supply.

Now the question isn't "How do we drive to these iconic National Parks?" but rather "How many National Parks and Monuments can we fit into one road trip?" So many more National Parks and Monuments have joined the ranks of the Nation's Playgrounds that an auto tour of all the U.S. National Parks would take months if not years to complete.

I've asked that very question in planning my family's summer road trip. Since this year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, we'll be celebrating by traveling the entire National Park to Park Highway with my young family of five. It's a seven week sage brushing road trip in honor of the 1920s tour.

Park to Park Highway Photo courtesy Susan Strayer.

But we couldn't content ourselves with just the twelve parks they visited. We've added Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Olympic, Grand Teton and Joshua Tree National Parks to our itinerary as well as several National Monuments along the way. Like millions of other nature tourists we want to "See America First." I figure there's no better way to celebrate a century.
posted by
Susan Strayer
Susan Strayer from is all about getting families into nature. She and Mountain Dad live with their three young kids in the mountains near Sundance, UT. They hike, bike, ski and camp as often as they can. Summer of 2016 they're road tripping the US National Park to Park Highway.
Comments (1)
6/20/2016 at 2:58 PM
I had no idea there was a park to park highway...and we go to the Tetons each summer. Thanks for all the research and information.
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