Heroes of Vietnam: The Stories of Fallen Soldiers

Vietnam SIP CoverThis article and other features about America in Vietnam can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Heroes of Vietnam.



Vietnam Veterans Memorial lit at night
For some, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is another stop on a long list of tourist attractions; for others, it’s a special chance to see and touch the name of a lost loved one enshrined forever. (National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is names — more than 58,000 names of men and women who were killed or missing in action during the Vietnam War. When you visit the Memorial, the sheer volume of names is inescapable.

Millions of people visit The Wall each year. For some, it is another stop on an agenda filled with tourist attractions. But for others, it is a special visit to see and touch the name of a loved one enshrined forever on our National Mall, maybe to leave a note or personal item in remembrance. Veterans overwhelmed by emotion come to pay their respects. Friends and family remember loved ones lost decades ago. Parents show names to their children, and talk about why that person was special.

It is important for us to honor these people who served and sacrificed for their country. But we should also remember that they were people, just like us.

It is important for us to honor these people who served and sacrificed for their country. But we should also remember that they were people, just like us. They enjoyed crazy adventures with high school friends. They had crushes, fell in love, and got married. Some even had children. They were people with special talents and many goals. Some wanted to be soldiers or pilots; others wanted to be doctors, nurses, or ministers. Some excelled at sports. Others liked fast cars or motorcycles. Some had children they cherished and missed when they were away. Others had children they never met. There are so many stories on The Wall — stories of people as diverse as our nation itself.

—Jan C. Scruggs, founder and president emeritus Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF)


An American Hero

William Howsa Ragin
(National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

William David Howsa Ragin is honored on Panel 1E, Row 62 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Capt. David Ragin was my brother-in-law and my hero. He was killed in action on August 24, 1964, in a bloody battle along with three other brave American advisors serving with the Vietnamese 41st Ranger Battalion in Kiên Hoa province, 45 miles southwest of Saigon. The Rangers suffered more than 200 casualties during this violent ambush. All four received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. Dave was last seen alive firing a machine gun while covering the withdrawal of his unit.

—Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who served 32 years of active military duty, was awarded three Purple Hearts for wounds received in infantry combat, two Distinguished ­Service Crosses, and two ­Silver Stars for valor.

Remembering Sgt. Tom Young, USMC

Thomas Young
(National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

Thomas Franklin Young is honored on Panel 37E, Row 16 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

We were sitting in one of the huge old blimp hangars at the Marine Corps Air Facility, Santa Ana, California, in the late summer of 1967, contemplating orders to pack our trash and say our goodbyes. We were headed for Vietnam. Tom said he thought he’d better submit his leave papers in a hurry and try to squeeze out 30 days with his family back in Arkansas. The anxiety over leave was perfectly understandable. But Tom was even more anxious to get to Vietnam and talked about leave as though it were just an expected step along the way to some momentous journey of discovery.

“Hemingway was right,” he once told me. “War is man’s greatest adventure.” As Marine Corps Combat Correspondents, we could be assigned anywhere in-country where Marines operated, as well as in a few interesting billets that did not involve accompanying line units into combat. I got orders to one of the line units, and Tom got assigned to an American Forces Vietnam Network radio and TV outlet in Huê. That meeting was in January 1968. There was no way for either of us to know what lay in store. When the North Vietnamese army staged its offensive during the countrywide Têt celebrations, Huê was one of their primary targets. After a gallant standoff involving vicious firefights, the station was overrun. Two were killed in the action — and one of those was my friend Sgt. Tom Young.

Later in the fighting to retake Huê, I was assigned to assault units and managed to get a close look at the battered and shattered AFVN station where I’d visited Tom prior to Têt. The evidence was clear: The NVA made a major effort to take the station, and the people resisting that effort had put up a hell of a fight to prevent it. It was cold comfort for the loss of a friend, but it was obvious that Sgt. Tom Young had experienced man’s greatest adventure — and greatest tragedy.

—Dale Dye enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1964 and served as a Marine correspondent in Vietnam during 1967–70, surviving 31 major combat operations. During the war, he received a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in combat.

Remembering Max

Muriel Stanley Groomes
(National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

Muriel Stanley Groomes is honored on Panel 39W, Row 8 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Besides being new guys in the platoon, Max and I both came from the same area of the country: Max from Hampstead, Maryland, and me from Manassas, Virginia. There was only three years difference in our ages — he was 19 and I was 22 — yet he referred to me respectfully as “Lieutenant” or “The Old Man” (with a smile) when I later became the company commander. I referred to him as “Little Brother” because our interpreter had told me that the Vietnamese word for an enlisted man was anh em, which means “little brother.” It was appropriate; I was the big brother responsible for taking care of and watching out for him and my other men.

My recollections of Max are of a Marine who was always willing to do more than what was expected of him. On patrol, even when suffering from both malaria and active dysentery, he willingly shouldered another Marine’s heavy machine gun when that Marine complained of not being able to make it. Max willingly shared the contents of his packages from home and gave away his rations of beer and cigarettes. He was selfless in nature, always willing to do his job without complaint and usually with a shy smile. Seldom did he speak of home except an occasional mention of older brothers, a fondness for Maryland seafood, and a desire to get back to “the world,” our slang term for the United States. He was the quietest member of our small portion of the brotherhood. There was no pretense or false bravado about him. Max listened more than he talked. His actions were more memorable than his conversations. He was just a damn good Marine.

As a combat leader, I learned to steel my emotions to the news of casualties in our unit. However, shortly after I left the rifle company and was awaiting reassignment, I was notified that one of my men had been killed in action. I ran to the landing zone to check on the casualties evacuated to the battalion aid station, and there was Max, his shattered remains wrapped in a poncho and guarded by the sergeant who had been wounded with him. Both men had absorbed the blast of a command-detonated claymore mine. One Marine had lived; the other had died. Max had volunteered to carry the radio that day. Typical of Max, he had helped someone else and then made the ultimate sacrifice.

—Justin “Jerry” Martin is a retired Marine Corps ­lieutenant colonel and Vietnam veteran. Among his combat decorations are the Silver Star for gallantry and the Purple Heart.

Roses lay atop a statue of Vietnam War nurses as they tend to a wounded soldier.
Just 300 feet from The Wall sits the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, Washington’s first national memorial honoring women veterans. (National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

‘I Don’t Remember His Name’

The medical patients usually came in late afternoon. Most would be an FUO (fever of unknown origin, which usually would turn out to be malaria or typhus), sometimes dysentery, occasionally pneumonia, and once or twice a cardiac case. One afternoon, a call came from the ER: FUO, unconscious, temperature off the end of the thermometer. They brought him up from the ER on a stretcher, packed in bags of ice. We got all the diagnostic tests, got another IV in him and a urinary catheter. None of the tests showed anything in particular. We kept sponging him down, and between that and the aspirin suppositories, his temperature started coming down. And then he began to slip away from us. It was nothing dramatic, just blood pressure gradually dropping, urine output decreasing. No heroics — there wasn’t anything else to be done. And then, he was gone. I don’t remember his name or where he was from, but I know where he is now. His name is somewhere on the west wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, panels 26-19.

He didn’t die alone.

And I remember him.

—Sara McVicker served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps from 1968 to 1971, including a tour in Vietnam at the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku. A longtime member of Vietnam Veterans of America, she currently serves on its National Board of Directors.

His Great Love

Earl Watson Tharp
(National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

Earl Watson Tharp Jr. is honored on Panel 9W, Row 97 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Earl Watson Tharp Jr. was born on October 3, 1949, to Earl and Billie Tharp. Earl got the baby sister he wanted when I was born. I thought he was great — strong, handsome, generous, patient, and kind. I felt safe and secure with him.

When Earl graduated from high school, he promptly enlisted in the Army and served with Company B, 229th Aviation Battalion (Assault Helicopter) (Airmobile). He wanted the people of Vietnam to have the freedom we had. He wanted the children of Vietnam to have a better life than their parents. Given his mechanical skills, it was no surprise to find out that he would be a helicopter gunner and, subsequently, crew chief overseeing maintenance of a helicopter. Earl’s fellow soldiers gave him the nickname “Preacher” because of the example he set and his faith in Jesus. June 26, 1970, he demonstrated this with honor when his base came under heavy rocket and mortar attack.

Earl made it to the protection of a sandbagged bunker. But when he saw that a friend caught in the open fire had been seriously injured and was unable to get to cover under his own power, Earl ran through a barrage of exploding rounds to help. Before he could carry his wounded friend to safety, an exploding round mortally wounded him. He died a short time later. In the Bible, John 15:13 says: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

My brother died carrying a friend, not firing a gun. He laid down his life for a friend he knew less than two years. He is a hero. I honor him for his great love.

—Jane (Tharp) Woodruff and her husband live in ­Virginia with their four children. In 2008, she joined VVMF’s Teach Vietnam teachers network.

A Simple Day

Jose L. Montes
(National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

Jose L. Montes is honored on Panel 41W, Row 25 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Dad and I left the house early. As always, we had breakfast together. It was still dark outside, but I did not care. That day was going to be just Dad and me.

After lunch, Dad and I played golf. I had never played golf before that day. I do not like golf. I never have. That day, I loved golf. It was our special day, and for a little girl who adored her father, it was heaven. We talked, walked, and laughed all through the golf course while trying unsuccessfully to play. Years later, I learned that Dad had received deployment orders just a week before our little outing. He was going to Vietnam. He left, never to come back.

Among the personal items returned to us by the Army were pieces of Dad’s rosary. He always wore it around his neck. On my wedding day, I hid it in my bouquet. No one knew. In a very simple and quiet way, he walked down the aisle with me.

—Yolanda Acevedo lost her husband, Navy Cmdr. Joseph Acevedo, in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom and is a member of Sons and Daughters in Touch.

Living Life to the Fullest

Keith Allen Campbell
(National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

Keith Allen Campbell is honored on Panel 15E, Row 8 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Live, laugh, love. When I think of my brother Keith Allen Campbell, I think of those three words. Keith was the epitome of someone who lived life to its fullest. Sadly, he left this earth on February 8, 1967, while serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). An Army medic, he used his body as a shield to protect a fellow soldier after he had provided life-saving medical treatment. Being a medic in the Army was just the first step in my brother’s life plan — he eventually saw himself becoming a doctor. While he never was able to complete all he wanted to do, he did use his medical skills to help many people before he died. In my heart, I will always be honored to say that not only did I know Keith Allen Campbell, but I was blessed to be his baby sister.

—Judy C. Campbell lives in Wilmington, Delaware, and is an active participant in VVMF ceremonies and programs. She works tirelessly on behalf of Gold Star Families everywhere.

From the book Dreams Unfulfilled: Stories of the Men and Women on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Jan C. Scruggs. Published by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

9 Places to Relive American History

These U.S. travel destinations tell the nation’s story through preservation, research, and reenactment. From prehistory to modern times, this is a bucket list for American history buffs.




National Park Service, Jacob W. Frank

Built by ancestral Puebloans between A.D. 1200 and 1300, the towers of Hovenweep are a fascinating display of early masonry located at the border of Colorado and Utah, about 25 miles from the Four Corners. Hiking trails in the park offer views of the ruins as well as the canyons surrounding the Cajon Mesa. Hovenweep’s remoteness also yields brilliant stargazing opportunities from the onsite tent camp.


Minute Man Park

Jay Sullivan

A wealth of American history lies in this National Historic Park that stretches from Concord to Lexington, Massachusetts. The five-mile Battle Road Trail leads visitors through various sites of the first battle of the American Revolution, and at the North Bridge you can relive “the shot heard ’round the world.” The Wayside, a preserved Colonial home, housed authors Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Sidney throughout the 19th century, and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond is located just south of the site.


Hamilton Grange

Hamilton Grange was moved to its current location in 2008, National Park Service

Alexander Hamilton’s Harlem home was moved twice before landing in its current spot in Saint Nicholas Park in Manhattan. The controversial Founding Father completed the home in 1802 on his 32-acre estate in upper Manhattan. Hamilton Grange tells the story of Hamilton’s self-made career and influential vision of industry. The recent restoration of the mansion was completed, inside and out, to replicate Alexander Hamilton’s original furnishings and landscaping.


Homestead National Monument

National Park Service

Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act of 1862 provided 270 million acres of free land to Americans eager to start a life out West. The Homestead National Monument was established by Franklin D. Roosevelt in southeast Nebraska to commemorate the impact of Lincoln’s law on the economic and cultural development of the West. The site features 211 acres of prairie and woodlands preserved to represent the plains before settlement. You can tour an 1867 cabin and the Freeman School, a one-room schoolhouse that served students from 1872 to 1967.


Manassas National Battlefield Park

Kurz & Allison

The First Battle of Bull Run, the start of the Civil War, took place on the well-preserved grounds of Manassas National Battlefield Park. Civil War history buffs can experience reenactments and cannon-firing at this site just 25 miles from Washington D.C. Antietam, Harpers Ferry, and Fredericksburg battlefields are a short drive from Manassas as well.


Henry Ford Museum

1914 Ford Model T, Michael Barera

The largest museum complex in the country houses a plethora of artifacts from American history, particularly from the Industrial Revolution. Thomas Edison’s laboratory, JFK’s presidential limousine, and the bus on which Rosa Parks took a stand all reside at the museum’s campus in Dearborn, Michigan. Most notable is the museum’s collection of cars that spans the history of automobiles in the United States.


New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park

Louis Armstrong Park, Shutterstock

Located in Louis Armstrong Park just blocks away from the French Quarter, the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park is a new kind of national park that offers programs and tours to educate visitors on the birthplace of jazz. Rangers guide groups through jazz walks of the city as well as interactive demonstrations. The park also offers free concerts at a venue in the French Quarter.


Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Shutterstock

The BCRI strives to act as a “living memorial” to the civil rights story of Birmingham, Alabama. Dramatic and interactive exhibits depict the civil rights movement in Birmingham as a necessity for understanding present and future human rights, as well as the past. The museum is situated in downtown Birmingham, close to other key sites from the Birmingham movement.


USS Midway

USS Midway Museum

From 1945 to 1992 the USS Midway was an active aircraft carrier, but now the vessel rests in San Diego as a museum ship. Guided tours, flight simulators, and 29 restored aircraft from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and Operation Desert Storm are aboard the massive carrier.

Vintage Advertising: Selling the National Parks

Long before there was a National Park Service, Americans were travelling to the parks on horseback and in stagecoaches. But at the turn of the century, the railroads began building spur lines to the parks and lodges for park guests. And they started advertising their park routes to Post readers. The ads ran well into the 1950s, when families preferred to reach the parks in the family car.

The old rail lines dropped passenger service long ago, but their routes to the parks are now served by Amtrak, which provides transportation to 237 of the National Park Service’s properties.


Union Pacific to Yellowstone
June 25, 1910

When it was established in 1872, Yellowstone Park was accessible only by horseback or carriage. Consequently, the park had only 1,000 visitors a year. By 1902, the Union Pacific Railroad had started passenger service to the park, carrying travelers from the Idaho Falls station to the park entrance in a stagecoach. Shortly before this ad appeared, however, it had opened passenger service on a line from St. Anthony, Idaho, to the park’s west entrance.



Great Northern to Glacier
April 29, 1916

The Great Northern Railway Company, created in 1889, grew across the Great Plains from St. Paul into North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. When the railway recognized the appeal of Glacier National Park, it built stations at the park’s west and east entrances, its rail line crossing the continental divide. It also built Glacier Park Lodge, which is shown in the background of this ad.



Milwaukee Road
June 21, 1924

The Milwaukee Road was proud of its electric locomotive service when it was introduced in 1919. They staged public demonstration to show that its Class EP-2 electric engine could out-pull steam locomotives. This electric engine pulled the Olympian, the company’s passenger train that ran from Chicago to Seattle, stopping at Rainier National Park.



Northern Pacific
July 12, 1930

The North Coast Limited operated between Chicago and Seattle from 1900 to 1971. When this ad appeared, the Limited was making its 2,331-mile run in 63 hours — incredibly fast for that time. The Northern Pacific had also just upgraded the passenger cars, adding barber and valet service, separate bath and showers for men and women, and even radios on board!



Santa Fe to Grand Canyon
October 25, 1947

The Santa Fe first built a spur line from Williams, Arizona, to the Grand Canyon in 1901. In 1905, it completed construction of the famous El Tovar Hotel, operated by the Fred Harvey Company. It was located right on the South Rim of the Canyon, just 300 feet from the railroad station.



Union Pacific to Bryce Canyon
April 10, 1948

The Utah Parks Company, run by the Union Pacific Railway, managed several inns and lodges in Cedar City, Utah. From there, rail passengers would be driven by bus to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and other sites.




White/Union Pacific Buses
June 20, 1931

Starting business as a sewing-machine manufacturer, the White Company began making vehicles in 1900 and continued until 1980. The company developed its buses specifically to provide passenger service through the national parks. They were unique for their canvas tops, which could be rolled back for sightseeing in good weather. Today, 43 White buses are still providing transportation at Glacier and Yellowstone, as well as Gettysburg National Battlefield.


March 29, 1931

Greyhound Lines began in 1914, when an out-of-work car salesman offered rides to miners who wanted to hit the saloons in Alice, Minnesota. Within four years, his company had grown into a profitable 18-bus company. By the year of this ad, the company had combined 100 different bus lines and was offering service over 40,000 miles. Travelers often chose to take the bus because it was cheaper than the train.



U.S. Royal Cords
July 21, 1928

It would have been an intrepid motorist who drove the family to the parks back in the 1910s­. The western roads were often unpaved and filled with debris. Blowouts were a frequent, time-consuming annoyance to passengers. By the late 1920s, though, tires had become smaller and wider. The new profile made riding more comfortable. And reinforcements by cord fiber in the rubber made them more durable.



Oregon Highways
April 23, 1938

By 1938, federal programs like the CCC and WPA had expanded and improved the country’s highway system. For Americans fortunate enough to afford the car and gas (10 cents a gallon), the national parks were never more accessible.



Coca-ColaJune 13, 1931
June 13, 1931

The Old Faithful Inn, shown in this Coke ad, was built in 1905 and was operated by the Northern Pacific Railroad. Today, the park takes measures to keep bears and tourists far apart. Visitors are strictly warned against feeding bears — or giving them soft drinks.

A Landscape So Powerful

When I was in my late teens, some of my friends slung on backpacks and scooted off to see the world. As an East Coast city kid who’d never been past the Mississippi, I wanted to see America. So, after a certain amount of wheedling and cajoling, a friend and I convinced our parents that we could responsibly travel out West by ourselves one summer without getting into too much trouble.

It was a life-changing experience, and one of the highlights was riding up out of Jackson Hole and getting that stunning view of the Teton Mountains just shooting up from the valley floor.

When you’re 17, your first thought is I have to go up there. So, with no experience at such altitude and no technical gear whatsoever (my footwear, if you can call it that, consisted of a pair of work boots with balding tread), we climbed.

Middle Teton (the peak right next to Grand Teton) is a walkable ascent, except for one hairy short section near the top. After a full day’s slog up the glacier and a night camped at the treeline, we reached the peak on day two and munched on cheese sandwiches in the chill thin air. Before us lay a 360-degree view of jagged peaks and unspoiled valleys. About 1,000 feet down, a small lake, still frozen in July, appeared as a patch of turquoise.

You don’t forget something like that. As Karen Berger, who wrote our cover story on the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, describes her own hike to the top of Yosemite Falls: “The view can make you understand how a landscape can be so powerful that you’d change your life to save it for the next generation.”

And that’s just it. The very notion of preserving, rather than exploiting, great swaths of land for future generations was a novel concept 100 years ago. It took the passage of a law — with, I must add, a drumbeat of support from this magazine — to form the National Park Service. That landmark achievement is honored in this issue. As documentary filmmaker Ken Burns points out, “For the first time in all of human history, land was set aside for everyone; not for kings or noblemen or the rich but for everyone.”

In 1916, when Congress was considering the bill that would ultimately establish the U.S. National Park Service, the Post repeatedly showed its support. That year, a quick succession of editorials from Post editor George Horace Lorimer laid out his arguments for passage of the bill in the issues for January 1, February 12, and March 18.

National Parks at 100

The long lonely call hung in the night, with notes from a musical scale known only to canines. The next morning, a ranger would tell me it was a coyote, but at that moment — and even now, remembering — I’d swear it was a wolf: one call, not many, and lower-pitched than the coyotes I’d heard before. The difference between a cello and a chorus of pennywhistles.

I was more than 2,000 miles into a 3,000-mile walk along the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, hiking from Mexico to Canada through five states, 25 national forests, and Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks. After more than four months, the routines of wilderness living — sleep eat walk eat walk eat sleep — were as comfortable as my broken-in boots; so were the daily chores of route finding, fording rivers, stepping around rattlesnakes, and hanging food in trees where bears presumably couldn’t requisition it. But the wildness of northern Wyoming was a different order of magnitude, and something had shifted inside me. For the first time, I was acutely aware of just how thin the nylon barrier was that separated me from whatever lurked outside.

The next morning, the ranger talked wildlife. Moose injured more tourists than bears, he said, and buffalo were dangerous, too. Visitors got gored, or stomped on: 1,500-pound animals with unpredictable temperaments made lousy selfie-plus-a-wild-beast subjects. As for bears: According to the National Park Service, between 1980 and 2014, there were 45 human injuries caused by grizzly bears in the backcountry, an average of one per year — which means, according to some statistical modeling magic, that the odds of a visitor being injured by a bear in Yellowstone are 1 in 2.2 million.

But statistics are only reassuring in theory. Back in reality, the trail I’d wanted to take was closed because a grizzly mom and cubs had been sighted in the area. A parallel trail was still open. I wondered aloud if the bears knew which trail was for them and which trail was for us. The ranger laughed and sat back looking unworried, but then he carried a gun. I carried a can of bear mace, holstered in a pouch attached to the hipbelt of my backpack. I considered just how fast I could pull it out, pop the safety, aim, and spray. Even if I were the fastest draw in the West, as a defense against the contiguous 48’s most fearsome predator, my weapon felt as insubstantial as the tent I’d lain awake in the night before.

The trail I’d wanted to take was closed because a grizzly mom and cubs had been sighted in the area.

I headed up the Snake River, presumably away from the mother bear. The trail loosely paralleled the Continental Divide through the remote southern borderlands of Yellowstone National Park. A bush shifted in the breeze — or was that a bear? A cloud made a shadow on a boulder — or maybe it was a bear cub? Ahead, a plume of smoke drifted lazily upward. A forest fire? Campsite? But no: It was a backcountry geyser basin spouting sulfurous steam; a faint odor of rotten egg hung in the air. You could believe the border between Earth and hell had broken open here, that the cauldrons of the underworld spewed their stinking concoctions into the clear mountain air. With my mind on grizzly bears, I’d completely forgotten where I was. There were no signs, no boardwalks, no warnings, no guardrails: I saw my first Yellowstone geyser much the same way John Colter, usually credited with being the first European to explore Yellowstone, might have seen it: as a complete surprise.

We have only handed-down hearsay for the details: Colter had earlier been a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which passed north of Yellowstone in 1806 but missed it entirely. A few months later, as the expedition was drawing to its close, Colter was honorably discharged in order to guide a trapping party back west toward the Upper Missouri. He spent the next four years exploring the northern Rockies, including the region we now know as Yellowstone. Colter was among that self-selected subset of people who think that walking across half a continent and back was a fine way to pass a year or two. When he finally returned east in 1810, he brought stories of adventures and close brushes with death. Audiences thrilled to his tale of Blackfoot Indians who killed Colter’s traveling companion and then stripped him naked and told him to run, telling him if they caught him, he would die. But Colter’s descriptions of the landscape were so over-the-top that they were greeted with skepticism and the mocking name “Colter’s Hell”; audiences were more apt to believe tales of Indian attacks than stories of gushing geysers and foaming fumaroles.

Steam engine:
Yellowstone is home to half the world’s geysers. One of 500 in the park, Lone Star Geyser erupts every three hours. (Shutterstock)

Jim Bridger, who explored Yellowstone in the 1820s, fared no better where believability was concerned. In part, that was his own fault: His descriptions of waterfalls falling upward and “petrified trees with petrified birds singing petrified songs” were embellished — okay, slightly more than embellished. But there was truth at the core: What Bridger called a mountain of glass we now know as Obsidian Cliffs, and there is indeed a place where a fish can swim across the Continental Divide — I’ve seen it with my own eyes how the water of Two Ocean Creek runs down the Divide, slows at a saddle, then splits in half, although the only thing that crossed the divide when I was there was a little twig I had tossed in the water to see which ocean it would turn toward.

And so it went. The few people who made their way to remote northwestern Wyoming and returned with stories of geological oddities were roundly thought to be liars. Philadelphia’s Lippincott Magazine rejected one expedition’s story about Yellowstone, saying, “We don’t print fiction.”

And then, in the way of tectonic plates that rearrange themselves to create a new reality, the weight of evidence shifted. Finally, there were too many reports to ignore. Fact was, indeed, stranger than fiction: In a little-known corner of northwestern Wyoming, rivers boiled, mud pots bubbled, and geysers spouted, all in a mountain landscape rich with wildlife and forests.

Here’s the part I find remarkable: Those in the know — the explorers and surveyors and expedition members who were there first — the ones who could have claimed the land, built it up, maybe even ruined it, didn’t.

Instead, there was a consensus of sorts, so widespread that historians still argue whose idea it was, that Yellowstone should be protected for future generations. In 1872, it became the first national park. Not an amusement park. Not part of some commercial boondoggle. Simply a park, with essential services and infrastructure to handle visitors, and the goal of protecting the landscape, unspoiled and undeveloped, for the future. Over the next 44 years, another 34 national parks and monuments would be established and then gathered together into the National Park Service, established by an Act of Congress in 1916. Wallace Stegner called the national parks America’s “best idea,” one that inspired national park systems around the world. Today, 100 years later, America’s National Park Service manages more than 400 units ranging from caves to coral reefs to the St. Louis Gateway Arch to former Japanese internment camps to enormous country-sized swaths of Arctic wildlands — including examples of virtually every environment, ecosystem, and landform to be found in the country.

Into thin air: At 13,153 feet, Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevadas is the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail. (Shutterstock)

I can’t think of a single thing in my daily routine that is the same as it would have been when the National Park Service was founded 100 years ago: I heat my house with oil, I make coffee in an electric espresso machine, I bank by computer, and I read books on a tablet. But the national parks seem to be places where time stands still: the ranger uniforms, the appropriately rustic buildings, the wooden signs; everything covered with park-service brown-and-green. And the backcountry, where hiking trails act as a sort of time machine, leading us to a world stripped to simple essentials. In modern life, we forget what it means to travel the way most of humanity did for almost all of history, at two or three miles an hour. We forget what a mile actually means. Walking into the backcountry of our national parks, we remember.

Consider this: In the High Sierra of California, following the Pacific Crest Trail across Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia national parks, you can hike a full 200 miles — the entire straight-line distance between Washington, D.C., and New York City, and considerably more than the distance between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington — without seeing a single road, car, cell tower, fence, electric line, or human settlement.

It’s the oldest cliché in the book: largeness of landscape, smallness of human. But when you’re standing atop a high pass looking ahead to the prospect of walking some 500,000 steps, give or take, over mountains, feeling small isn’t so much a cliché as an acute realization of exactly how your all-too-human body measures up against an untamed landscape of high peaks and passes.

Going to Extremes

Facts and figures about our national parks

Oldest Youngest
Yellowstone: 1864 Manhattan Project: 2015
Largest Smallest
Wrangell-St. Elias: 13,005 square miles Hot Springs: 8.7 square miles
Highest point Lowest point
Denali: 20,320 feet Death Valley: 270 feet below sea level
Hottest annual temperature
Coldest annual temperature
(excluding Alaska)
Death Valley: 134 degrees at Furnace Creek Yellowstone: 33 degrees
Most annual visitors Fewest annual visitors
Great Smoky Mountains: 10 million Gates of the Arctic: 13,700


So: Forester Pass on the border of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, which, at 13,200 feet, is the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail. Standing there (really, gasping for breath), I felt a curious mixture of superhuman strength (I’d climbed up here from down there, hadn’t I?) and heart-racing terror (between me and the next piece of pavement, I’d have to climb another five snow- and ice-covered passes, each between 10,000 and 13,000 feet). Below the pass, the mountain dropped away like a chute in one of those extreme-ski videos where a good run means cheating death. In July and August, the trail clings to the steep pitched wall via a corkscrew series of hairpin switchbacks, but I’d arrived in mid-June, and a blanket of snow still covered any slopes gentle enough to hold snow; on the steeper slopes, the rock was bare. Avalanches were a possibility. And if I fell — forget about calling for help. In this zero-bar zone, I’d be better off with carrier pigeons. The nearest road was at least two days’ walk away. I looped the ice ax strap around my wrist and gripped the adze. In the rest of the world, computers connected people and businesses, jet planes carried travelers across oceans, and bank transactions occurred at the speed of light. Here, atop the pass, it may as well have been the year 1868, when John Muir first came to these mountains.

I hasten to add that it’s not necessary to take your life in your hands to experience the High Sierra, or any other backcountry in any other national park. I’ve crossed these parks in July and in August, when the snow is down and the crowds are up, when it’s easier to put one foot in front of the other, not to mention safer. Either way, I marvel at the fact that in a world as protected and regimented as ours, our national parks and our wilderness areas make it possible, within a few hours’ drive of a major metropolis, to walk into a world of ice and snow and high mountains, where civilization is so far away that for all practical purposes — rescue, resupply, a hot bath, a Wi-Fi connection — it might as well not exist.

Perfect form: Celebrated photographer Ansel Adams is best known for his iconic black-and-white images of the American West, including this one, Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, 1940. (Photograph by Ansel Adams/Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona © 2015 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust)

Nor do you have to sleep in a tent to get the full experience: an eyeful of more than you can possibly absorb. I remember my own first visit to Yosemite Valley, when I was young and jaded. I’d just gotten off another long hike in the high country, and I was taking a short detour by car into the Valley. I’d been overwhelmed in the high country; at every single step, you could trip and fall and your camera would shoot off a picture that could, today, make you an Instagram star. I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed on a busy road with cars and tourists and buildings. But then the road bent and the trees opened and I saw the view — that view — Ansel Adams’ view of El Capitan among the swirling black-and-white clouds, the view that each of Yosemite’s annual four million visitors gets to see smack as they enter the park. It stopped me in my tracks. I had to pull off the road for fear I’d wreck the car.

Which was pretty much the same reaction (minus the car) John Muir had when he arrived in Yosemite in 1868, four years after the federal government deeded Yosemite to the State of California for permanent protection. Muir had been peripatetic for a while; he’d explored the northern United States and Canada, then walked a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. He’d sailed to Cuba, hopped over to Panama, crossed the isthmus (there was no canal then), and caught a steamer to San Francisco, where he asked directions to “someplace wild.” That sent him 200 miles east on foot to the Sierra Nevada, where a rancher offered him a job as a sort of shepherd supervisor: He was to keep an eye on the guy who kept an eye on the sheep.

Muir fell in love with the land, and as lovers tend to, he spent those heady early days obsessing. He took notes on everything from the habits of marmots to the cycles of alpine flowers. He described glaciers and pine cones and the destructive grazing habits of the sheep (which he referred to as “hoofed locusts”). Arriving in Yosemite, he wrote, “Never before had I seen so glorious a landscape, so boundless an affluence of sublime mountain beauty.” Muir would travel widely for the rest of his life; he once wrote, “The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.” But he would always return to the Sierra. It inspired not only his writing, but his activism: founding the Sierra Club, helping to establish Yosemite as well as Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon National Parks, and lobbying for the formation of the National Park Service.

My response to the same view was more ordinary: I took pictures and I drove to the main viewpoints, every inch a tourist. I did climb to the top of Yosemite Falls, where too much curiosity about what lies just over the edge can send you falling to your death. It’s a hike well worth the huffing and puffing. The view can make you understand how a landscape can be so powerful that you’d change your life to save it for the next generation.

The next generation needs it.

Desolate beauty: Petrified Forest National Park, one of the many sites championed for preservation by John Muir.
Desolate beauty: Petrified Forest National Park, one of the many sites championed for preservation by John Muir. (Shutterstock)

Years ago, I used to lead small groups of Washington, D.C., city kids into the wilds of Shenandoah National Park. We’d sleep in an Appalachian Trail shelter not more than a couple of miles’ walk from Skyline Drive, and the kids would marvel, and sometimes cower, at the great wilderness they thought they’d entered.

At night, the wind would send tree branches rattling against the corrugated iron roof, and deer would snort outside. It’s a startling sound, if you’ve never heard it, somewhere between a bark and a cough — less like Bambi, more like something that could eat you for dinner. The Shenandoah backcountry isn’t true wilderness, what with the highway and the resort and the restaurant and the parking areas and even the lean-tos themselves, but that didn’t matter: The definition of wilderness is very much in the eyes (in this case the ears) of the beholder. A perhaps apocryphal quote from early American settlers came to mind: “Wilderness is a dark and dismal place where all manner of wild beasts dash about uncooked.” I knew what the kids felt like. In Yellowstone, with the howling wolf and the unseen grizzly, I’d felt that way myself. Being in the wilderness makes you reexamine your place on the food chain — an unsettling feeling, even if the only thing outside your tent is a white-tailed deer.

The kids were usually sleepless the first night. By the second night, they were ready to collapse. Hiking in the woods for two days straight can have that effect. The kids learned to work the camping stoves, and we hiked around looking for animal tracks. I was just a hiking guide, not a social worker or a psychologist, but it seemed to me that some of these kids had tough lives back home, and that the outdoors acted as a gentle tonic. “I like it here. I have to breathe harder, but it feels like I can breathe better,” one of them told me. Which nicely sums it up.

In 1916, when Congress was considering the bill that would ultimately establish the U.S. National Park Service, the Post repeatedly showed its support. That year, a quick succession of editorials from Post editor George Horace Lorimer laid out his arguments for passage of the bill in the issues for January 1, February 12, and March 18.

100 Years of the National Park Service

On August 25, 2016, the U.S. National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary. We all have our own, personal relationship with the national parks. For some, it’s a world of untouched, natural beauty; for others, it’s memories of fun vacations with family and friends. This series offers perspectives on the history and importance of the NPS.

Join the conversation on Twitter: #NPS

Cathedral Rocks at Mirror Lake

National Parks at 100

In the feature story from our March/April 2016 issue, author and consummate hiker Karen Berger writes about the past, present, and future of America’s “best idea” as she describes her personal relationship with our national parks. Read more »

person kayaking on river

National Park To-Do List

Many people think of our national parks as places to go see, but as this list shows, there are plenty of activities to do there as well. Read more »

Waimoku Falls

America’s Hidden Treasures

“America the Beautiful” is certainly an appropriate description. From the thundering power of the Niagara Falls, the panoramic splendor of the Grand Canyon, and the towering proportions of Mount McKinley, residents are surrounded by some of the most majestic places on Earth. But what about all the places in between? Read more »

Ken Burns

Preserving the Primeval

Interview by Jeanne Wolf
Documentarian Ken Burns talks about what the national parks system means to him and what he hoped to accomplish with his 2009 documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Read more »

Grand Canyon National Park WPA Poster

WPA Poster Project: Promoting Our Parks

From 1938 to 1941, the National Park Service employed WPA-FAP artists to create promotional posters for the parks. Only 14 designs were created before the project was suspended at the onset of World War II. Of the 14 produced, few survived. Read more »

From the Post Archive:

Man standing in front of a Redwood Tree

Saving America’s Living Monuments

In 1953, Horace Albright tells the story of a campaign to save “the Big Trees” for the public. Read more »

Glen Canyon Dam (Lorcel/Shutterstock)

Damming the Parks

In 1954, Conrad Wirth, the director of the National Park Service, was responsible for 24 million acres of properties and the myriad troubles that came with them. Today, NPS sites cover an area larger than New Mexico, and the problems keep coming. Read more »

Two men looking at plans in front of White House

Overseeing the Parks Is No Picnic

In 1950, a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian warned the American people to keep an eye on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Project, which proposed a dam that would cover most of Dinosaur National Monument. Read more »


Vintage Ads: Selling the National Parks

Long before there was a National Park Service, Americans were traveling to the parks on horseback and in stagecoaches. After the railroads began building spur lines to the parks, they started advertising their park routes to Post readers. Read more »

Mirror Lake, Yosemite

National Park Service — January 1, 1916

The Post showed its support for the establishment of the National Park Service from day one. A January 1, 1916, editorial warns that not passing the National Park Service bill waiting before Congress would be a careless mistake. Read more »

Yellowstone National Park

Parks for Posterity — February 12, 1916

The Post voiced support for the National Park Service bill again in February of 1916. Here, he argues that the wisdom of the plan to preserve these parks for future generations “is so self-evident that no room is left for argument.” Read more »

Glacier Park

National Park Service — March 18, 1916

In March 1916, the Post drummed up more support for the creation of the NPS by tapping into readers’ sense of patriotism. The editorial compares America’s mismanaged national parks with the unified (and more popular) Canadian parks system. Read more »

The Post and the Parks

George Horace Lorimer
Library of Congress

The National Park Service was formed by an act of Congress on August 25, 1916. Prior to that, most of our national parks fell under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior (DOI), which was underfunded and responsible for eight different divisions that managed, among other things, patents, Indian affairs, education, railroads, and the census.

Some parks were staffed by the U.S. Army, which had to enforce laws against poaching, grazing, and vandalism. Other sites were managed by civilians. National monuments had minimal staffing. Historic battlefields were run by the U.S. War Department, whose interest in maintaining these sites was low on its list of priorities.

By 1916, thanks to the Model T, millions of Americans actually had the means to visit the parks. But the parks were poorly maintained — many had only rough dirt roads. At the core of the problem was a fragmented management system that couldn’t share resources or information from one park to the next. “The present situation is essentially that of a city with a dozen splendid but largely undeveloped parks, each of them under a separate management,” the Post commented in an editorial from February 1916. “Of course no city would tolerate any such absurd arrangement. It would immediately establish a park board or bureau to manage all the parks coordinately.”

One of the biggest challenges was a lack of agreement on whether conservation meant protecting park land for its wilderness or usable resources. The dispute came to national attention in 1913 when a valley in Yosemite Park was dammed to provide water supply for San Francisco. Fears that the parks’ resources would be squandered prompted the drive to unify the parks.

Post editor George Horace Lorimer was a fierce supporter of the National Park Service bill, which proposed a unified system to run all the nation’s parks and monuments from within the DOI. In the year before the bill was finally passed, he ran no fewer than seven editorials endorsing it, sometimes as frequently as two weeks apart. The Post’s nature writer, Emerson Hough, also wrote in support of conservation and the parks. And his “Made in America” series in 1915 promoted the parks to American travelers who wouldn’t be vacationing in war-torn Europe.

In the aftermath of the bill’s passage, many credited the Post for its drumbeat of support: As Richard B. Watrous, secretary of the American Civic Association, said in a statement before the House of Representatives after the bill’s passage in April of 1917, “I might cite The Saturday Evening Post, which has had an editorial in it every two or three weeks for the past three months by its managing editor, Mr. George Horace Lorimer in very marked approval of the idea of having a national park service.”

Click the blue headlines below to read three of those impassioned editorials:

National Park Service — January 1, 1916

In 1916, Post editor George Lorimer wasted no time voicing the magazine’s support for the formation of a National Park Service to unify and manage the nation’s four dozen or so parks and monuments, which at that time were maintained separately. The following editorial appeared in the Post on New Year’s Day of that year.

Parks for Posterity — February 12, 1916

In February of 1916, Post editor George Lorimer showed his support once again for the passage of the National Park Service Organic Bill of 1916, which would establish the NPS as a bureau within the Department of the Interior. In “Parks for Posterity,” he argues that the “wisdom of this plan is so self-evident that no room is left for argument.”

National Park Service — March 18, 1916

In the Post of March 18, 1916, George Lorimer compared the success of Canada’s national park system to the relative failure of America’s parks, adding a note of patriotism to his arguments in support of the creation of the U.S. National Park Service. He contended that it wasn’t a question of quality, but of management.

National Park Service — January 1, 1916

In 1916, Post editor George Lorimer wasted no time voicing the magazine’s support for the formation of a National Park Service to unify and manage the nation’s four dozen or so parks and monuments, which at that time were maintained separately. The following editorial appeared in the Post on New Year’s Day of that year.

National Park Service

January 1, 1916

Mirror Lake, Yosemite
Mirror Lake, Yosemite, c. 1865 (Photo by Carleton E. Watkins, via Library of Congress)

A very simple bill to unify the management of the national parks will come before Congress this winter. It provides for a bureau in the Department of the Interior, in charge of a director who shall receive $6,000 a year, with such clerical, technical, and other assistance as the Secretary of the Interior deems necessary; and for an advisory board of three members, to serve without pay, on whom the director may call for engineering, landscaping, and like advice.

There are 12 national parks, besides some 30 national monuments. Each of them is appropriated for and managed separately. Something over a year ago, the superintendent of Yosemite Park was an army officer. A movement of troops ordered by the War Department would have taken him away, and there was nobody to take his place. An electric-power concern, with a concession in Sequoia Park, wished to make a change in its installation. Nobody in the Interior Department, 3,000 miles distant, knew whether this change ought to be permitted or not, nor was there an expert available to send there. Problems of engineering and of landscaping, the right solution of which requires the best expert advice, are continually arising in the various parks. It would be rather extravagant for any one park, operated as a separate unit, to maintain a staff adequate to deal with these problems, and under the present system, with each park appropriated for and managed separately, there can be little cooperation. But one staff under a unified management could serve all the parks.

President Taft, Secretary Fisher, and Secretary Lane heartily endorsed a unified park management such as this bill proposes to create, for the new bureau would have all the parks and monuments under its charge. The chief obstacle seems to have been merely congressional carelessness; but the national parks are too valuable a possession to be careless about. We trust the present Congress will see it that way.

Read more about how the Post showed continued support for the National Park Service through George Lorimer’s editorials in “The Post and the Parks.”

Parks for Posterity — February 12, 1916

In February of 1916, Post editor George Lorimer showed his support once again for the passage of the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916, which would establish the NPS as a bureau within the Department of the Interior. In the editorial “Parks for Posterity,” the author argues that the “wisdom of this plan is so self-evident that no room is left for argument.”

Parks for Posterity

February 12, 1916

Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park (Library of Congress)

A prime object in establishing the National Parks was to preserve their scenic attractions for future generations. They have been managed pretty exclusively to that end. The scenery is all there for future generations to enjoy. But scenery does not wear out with use, like clothing. The big travel to the San Francisco Exposition was only one of many signs that this generation has a lively interest in it; and not even Yellowstone Park has been made as available for present inspection as it might have been.

The trouble is that the National Parks, properly speaking, have not been managed at all. There has been no proper machinery for managing them. Each has been treated as a separate thing. The broad problems that affect all of them pretty much alike have never been handled as a whole. No expert staff has ever been available to handle them. The bill now before Congress for a National Park Service would remedy this at an expense that is trifling in view of the importance of the parks. The present situation is essentially that of a city with a dozen splendid but largely undeveloped parks, each of them under a separate management, which had to wrestle with the problems of that particular park as best it could without reference to any of the others. Of course no city would tolerate any such absurd arrangement. It would immediately establish a park board or bureau to manage all the parks coordinately.

That is precisely what the National Park Service Bill proposes to accomplish for the National Parks. The wisdom of this plan is so self-evident that no room is left for argument; in fact, the obstacle is not based on argument. It is based merely on inertia. Presidents, Secretaries of the Interior, and virtually all those who have really examined the subject favor unified management. Congress has simply put it off.

Let Congress do it now.

Read more about how the Post showed continued support for the National Park Service through George Lorimer’s editorials in “The Post and the Parks.”

National Park Service — March 18, 1916

In the Post of March 18, 1916, the Post compared the success of Canada’s national park system to the relative failure of America’s parks, adding a note of patriotism to the arguments in support of the creation of the U.S. National Park Service. The author contended that it wasn’t a question of quality, but of management.

National Park Service

March 18, 1916

Glacier Park
Glacier Park at Sun Rise, c. 1916 (Photo by Jacob Neitzling, via Library of Congress)

We are told on what we believe to be good authority that there were more visitors to the national parks of Canada in 1915 than to those of the United States. The reason is very simple. It is not at all that Canada’s national parks are superior to ours in natural attractions. It certainly is not that there was more travel to the western part of Canada last year than to our Pacific Coast. It is just because Canada manages her parks intelligently, and we do not. The Canadian parks are managed as a whole, by one bureau, which not only studies their needs as a unit but takes good care that information about them is put in the way of Canadian people.

Each of our 14 splendid national parks is managed separately, appropriated for separately. There is no single person or body to supervise all of them. Naturally they get developed, so far as they are developed at all, in a haphazard, spasmodic manner.

Four years ago President Taft said, in a message to Congress recommending unified park management, that only in the single case of the Yellowstone “have we made anything like adequate preparation for the use of a park by the public.” That observation is still true. Probably it will remain true until all the parks are put under one management — which virtually means that the magnificent scenery of the other parks will be mostly locked away and kept under cover. Properly developed and exploited, the parks should presently yield enough revenue to pay for their own upkeep.

A bill for unified park management is before the present Congress. There is no question that it ought to pass.

Read more about how the Post showed continued support for the National Park Service through George Lorimer’s editorials in “The Post and the Parks.”

WPA Poster Project: Promoting Our Parks

March/April 2016 cover
The Saturday Evening Post March/April 2016 cover features the beautiful Yellowstone National Park design. It is believed to be the work of C. Don Powell, chief designer for the WPA-FAP poster program, which was suspended at the start of World War II.

Created in the mid-1930s in response to the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and its Federal Art Project (FAP) employed more than 5,000 artists who created 225,000 works of art for the American people. From 1938 to 1941, the National Park Service employed WPA-FAP artists to create silk-screen promotional posters for national parks. Only 14 designs were created before the project was suspended with the onset of World War II. Of the 14 parks posters produced, few survived — until Doug Leen, a former park ranger, happened upon one at Grand Teton National Park in the early 1970s. Fascinated with the artwork and the history behind it, Leen embarked on a mission to find, restore, and eventually reproduce the vintage NPS posters. (For more on Leen and his quest, visit rangerdoug.com.) Just over 40 of these rare, original national park posters have since resurfaced and are now in National Park archives, the Library of Congress, and with private collectors.

The Artists

Relatively little is known about the individual artists who created the national park designs; the posters do not bear any artist’s signatures. Yet a National Park Service informational display produced in 1939 contains several photographs of one artist in particular, later identified as C. (Chester) Don Powell.

Man looking at artwork
C. Don Powell

Born in 1896, Powell grew up in Kansas but studied art in Chicago where he also did commercial work for companies such as Wurlitzer. In 1927, Powell and his wife moved to San Francisco, where he set up a studio until the stock market crash of 1929. Out of work as an artist, he went to work for the WPA, first as a flagman on a road crew. But when his creative talents came to light, Powell was transferred to the National Park Service. Powell is believed to be the primary artist for the Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Zion serigraphs.

The poster project was closed down in 1941, with the onset of Word War II. When his assignment for NPS ended, Powell took a course in marine drafting and went to work as a modeler at Kaiser Shipyards in nearby Richmond, California. After World War II, Powell taught Adult Education courses in silk screening for Oakland City Schools and continued to pick up freelance jobs. His post-war work was mostly architectural — designing churches, schools, gymnasia, and houses — although he also did sign making, magazine and book illustration, set design, painting restoration, and commercial artwork. The last nine years of his life were spent as a draftsman with the 6th Army Engineers. He died virtually penniless in 1964 and is buried in Hayward, California.

The Art

WPA-FAP artists created 14 original designs between 1938 and 1941 for these 13 national parks — Fort Marion (now known as Castillo de San Marcos), Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Lassen, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, Wind Cave, Yellowstone (2 designs: Old Faithful and Yellowstone Falls), Yosemite, and Zion.

Click the gallery images below to expand.


America’s Best Hidden Parks

“America the Beautiful” is certainly an appropriate description. From the thundering power of the Niagara Falls, the panoramic splendor of the Grand Canyon, and the towering proportions of Mount McKinley, residents are surrounded by some of the most majestic places on Earth. But what about all the places in between? The Post has compiled a list of America’s lesser-known scenic beauty. We invite you to post your tales of visits to these locales and any other hidden treasures below.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park
According to the National Park Service, more than 104,000 people made a recreational visit to the park in 2008, compared to the more than 9 million people that visited the Smoky Mountains. Congaree, the largest old-growth floodplain forest in America, is a treasure trove of wildlife, including everything from river otters to marbled salamanders. The swampland is also noted for its hiking trails, fishing, kayaking, and its 2.4-mile elevated boardwalk.

Crater Lake, Oregon

Crater Lake
More than 7,000 years ago, Oregon’s Mount Mazama erupted in one of the most violent explosions known to man. The resulting implosion of the mountain created this 6-mile wide, ½-mile deep lake which features some of the clearest blue waters in the world and is the deepest in the United States. According to the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program, Crater Lake was one of very few eruptions since 10,000 B.C. with a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 7. To put it in perspective, Mount Vesuvius (known for the destruction of the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum) was a 4. The region’s long winter season, lasting from October to June, makes it one of the snowiest areas in the Northwest.

Isle Royale, Michigan

Isle Royale
Located 55 miles north of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and accessible only by boat or plane, Isle Royal creates an incredibly unique ecosystem where scientists and citizens alike flock to study some of the most untouched wildlife in the world. Many of the island chains’ inhabitants, including grey wolves, moose, and muskrats, are normally found over larger areas. Due to Isle Royale’s smaller habitat and limited amount of natural resources, it creates fierce competition among the wildlife, resulting in a survival of the fittest mind-set. Isle Royale exemplifies virgin, pristine wilderness and the ability of life to adapt and flourish against the odds, and that is what makes this park truly special.

Guadalupe Mountains, Texas

Guadalupe Mountains
Although the Guadalupe Mountains are located in a desert, one of the biggest attractions is a well-preserved, 250-million-year-old fossilized Coral Reef, a reminder of how much life and landscape can change. In modern time, the mountain elevation creates a biological event uncommon in the Southwest: seasonal leaf change. The cactus is king throughout most of the park, but the temperatures at higher elevations are cool enough for deciduous plants to thrive, resulting in a colorful autumn that seems like September in New England with a Texas twist.

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller, Vermont

Marsh Billings-Rockefeller
The natural splendor of this national historic park’s Vermont countryside is reminiscent of the land that made our founding fathers fall in love with America. Rolling hills and captivating forests form a backdrop against which the relationship of nature and man is explored. The park is named after four well-known conservationists: George Perkins Marsh, considered by many the father of the American Conservationist Movement; Frederick Billings; and Laurence and Mary Rockefeller. Visitors can tour the mansion and gardens, which were home to all three of the namesakes at different periods of time, as well as enjoy the picturesque woodlands and programs on forestry and other conservation efforts.

Conkles Hollow, Ohio

Ash Cave (Hocking Hills)
Located in Ohio’s Hocking Hills State Park, Conkles Hollow is a hiker’s dream. The cooler climate, a holdover from the last ice age, allowed trees such as the Canada yew, Eastern hemlock, and yellow birch to grow farther south than normally found, and Conkles Hollow’s natural coolness has allowed these northern trees to thrive, millennia after the glaciers receded. These trees blend with several native trees, resulting in over 150 different species putting on a colorful display every fall. Several trails lead through this scenic area, including a 3-mile rim trail overlooking the gorge from atop its 200- to 300-foot cliffs.

Great Basin, Nevada

Great Basin
The Great Basin National Park, which was visited by less than 70,000 people in 2008, is only a small piece of the large area known as The Great Basin, which covers virtually all of Nevada and a good portion of the surrounding states. It has an independent hydrology, meaning water here does not flow into larger systems like the Pacific or the Gulf of Mexico, but instead remains self-contained. This national park showcases the best facets of this region. The varying elevation (between 5,000 feet and 13,000 feet) allows a wide variety of life to flourish, and at night stargazers get a chance to see an astounding array, including spectacular views of the Milky Way, with the naked eye.

Redwood National Park, California

Redwood National Park
Visitors are astounded by the sheer magnitude of the Redwoods towering up to 325 feet overhead—the tallest trees on Earth. Home to salmon-filled streams, grassy meadows, the Pacific coast, and tide pools (rocky formations that hold water during low tide and sustain unique life forms), Redwood National Park has more to offer than the trees. An immense variety of animals, from the aptly named banana slug to the Pacific gray whale, live here. Fewer than 400,000 people visited this pristine forest last year, while neighboring Yosemite hosted more than 3.4 million.

Glacier Bay, Alaska

Glacier Bay, Alaska
The name “Glacier Bay” offers unique insight into these icy giants which shaped the natural landscape of North America. In 1794, Captain George Vancouver and his crew surveyed a glacier of immense proportions (4,000 feet thick, 20 miles wide, and 100 miles long). This icy, barren landscape supported little life. However, it retreated some 60 miles over the next 125 years, and a bona fide wildlife haven was left in its wake. Killer whales stalk seals in these icy waters, while their larger relatives, humpbacks and gray whales, come for prey of a much smaller variety—plankton and krill. Another predator, the extremely rare blue bear (or glacier bear) can be found on land in this hidden treasure, along with hundreds of other animals, scenic mountains, and new-growth forests.

Nantahala, North Carolina

The Cherokee, who are native to this national forest, call it Nantahala, meaning the “Land of the Noonday Sun.” High noon is the only time the sun is not blocked by the western North Carolina Appalachians. This forest boasts a wealth of attractions, including awesome waterfalls, 400-year-old trees, scenic gorges, and the 5,200-foot high Wayah Bald. The Nantahala River is known as one of the best places to go whitewater rafting in the United States and is a great spot for fishing. This place also boasts a captivating history. During one of the darkest times in American history, the Cherokee were forcibly removed from much of the southeastern United States in the “Trail of Tears.” However, a brave few used the Nantahala as cover, hiding among the trees and successfully avoiding Andrew Jackson’s forces. They live here to this day, preserving a way of life that was nearly destroyed and demonstrating the resilience of the human spirit.

Waimoku Falls, Hawaii

Waimoku Falls
The adventure of getting to this spectacular Hawaiian waterfall is almost as much fun as seeing it. First, visitors hop on to Maui’s famed Hana Highway, a 60-mile stretch of road known for hairpin turns and breathtaking views. Then, they venture onto Haleakala National Park’s Pipiwai Trail. Roughly 4 miles round trip, this hike showcases scenic waterways, stunning ocean views, and lush vegetation. The trail ends at majestic Waimoku Falls, a 400-foot waterfall that drops over a sheer lava wall into a pool of boulders. Waimoku Falls is one of Hawaii’s “Seven Sacred Pools,” many of which can be seen along the trail.

Black Canyon, Colorado

Black Canyon
Narrow walls and stunning, sheer vertical drops of well over 2,000 feet render Black Canyon a sight to behold—for anyone without a fear of heights! The Gunnison River, which runs at the bottom of the canyon, settled on its current course millions of years ago. Slowly but surely, the river has been cutting away ever since, sometimes as slowly as 1 inch every hundred years. The combination of water and time created an awesome natural wonder, as well as a rocky timeline of Earth’s history. From relatively young rock at the top to nearly 2-billion-year old Precambrian-age rock at the bottom, the canyon showcases geology from almost every era of life. Only 160,000 people visited the Black Canyon in 2008, compared to the 2.7 million visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park and over 4.4 million to the Grand Canyon, making it a hidden treasure indeed.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

Mammoth Cave
At roughly 367 miles long, Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world. To put its “Mammoth” size in perspective, consider that it is more than 200 miles longer than its runner-up, South Dakota’s Jewel Cave. Mammoth Cave offers beauty in addition to sheer size. Astonishing geological features have been created from thousands of years of water running over limestone. More than 80 forms of trees and 1,200 types of flowering plants reside harmoniously above ground and 300-million-year-old fossils have been discovered in the cave.

North Cascades, Washington

North Cascades
Washington’s Olympic Park, renowned as one of the best national parks in the country, features a fabulous array of different terrains, wildlife, and ecosystems and attracted more than 3 million visitors in 2008. However, visitors who prefer the road less traveled will rave about nearby North Cascades, an off-the-radar wilderness that rivals its interstate neighbor in astonishing natural scenery and ecological diversity. This National Park Service Complex, which also includes Lake Chelan and Ross Lake, is a true gem. The relatively small number of visitors—about 19,000 to North Cascades, 25,000 to Lake Chelan, and 253,000 to Ross Lake in 2008—is astonishing. Those that do come enjoy a serene, tranquil landscape with privacy harder to come by at other, more well-traveled parks.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt had no idea what was in store when he first came here on a hunting trip in 1883. He, like many at this time, had come to hunt the prized buffalo. After the deaths of both his mother and wife, mere hours apart, he returned here to start a new life as a cattle rancher. This rebuilding period changed Roosevelt. Enchanted by the wide-open spaces and captivating scenery inherent to the Badlands, he realized that America is a special place, full of beauty, and that it is important to preserve it. Without this chapter in his life, we might never have had the conservationist president, whose efforts created the National Park Service as we know it today. This park, which was initially part of the ranching business, is named in his honor. Today, visitors enjoy the same landscape; a wide variety of northern grassland plants and animals, including a healthier bison population; and a spectacular night sky, occasionally featuring the northern lights.

Glacier National Park, Montana

Glacier National Park, Montana
Driving along the “Going to the Sun” highway, visitors will be awestruck by the glacially carved mountain backdrop and 1 million-plus acres of untouched wilderness, teaming with a thousand types of wildflowers and wildlife ranging from bighorn sheep to the Canada lynx. Across the border, Canada’s Waterton-Lakes National Park preserves the uninterrupted natural landscape, and together they form the world’s first international park, appropriately titled Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

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All images courtesy National Park Service