For National Park enthusiasts and adventurers who have a penchant for history, this is an especially gripping tale.
During the time of WWI, when most of America’s roads and highways were still unpaved, a group of 12 people undertook the journey of a lifetime. A 5,000 mile, 76-day loop which can aptly be described as “a lariat lassoing the scenic wonders of the west”. These scenic wonders were the 13 national parks that were currently in existence at that time.
National park officials and automobile enthusiasts were invited to participate in this epic journey. In August of 1920, a group of 12 men and their companions set out to help promote these parks by participating in the “Park to Park” journey.
It was the brainchild of Steven Mathers, the first director of the National Park Service in 1916. He visited these parks and realized that in order for folks to come out and enjoy the parks, a road infrastructure needed to be put in place – something that had not yet come to fruition at that time. It was an ambitious undertaking with the overarching goal for people to be encouraged to experience the beauty, wonder and grandeur of the national parks. The theme was “See America First.”
Beginning in Denver on August 26th, the trip would take the group through Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Glacier, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, Lassen Volcanic, Yosemite, General Grant, Sequoia, Zion, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest and back to Denver.
Anton Westgard was the group’s field guide. He also happened to be AAA’s Field Representative. Quite the character, he was known as “the pathfinder” of the trip. He had formidable navigational skills and took over the daunting task of deciding which roads to take throughout the trip.
Said Stephen T. Mathers, “The main objective is to present to the people of the country a panorama of our principal national parks. Set side by side, for their study and comparison. Each park will be highly individual. The whole will be a revelation.”
Rocky Mountain National Park
The first stop on their journey was Estes Park, Colorado, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. The road from Estes Park up the mountain was scenic but treacherous, with many switchbacks, and many cars of the day could not handle the conditions. Despite this, due to the easy proximity of the park to Denver, this national park saw many more visitors than the other parks of its time. Rocky Mountain National Park quickly became the poster child of the sole purpose of the Park-to-Park tour: where good roads and accessibility were available, the tourists would come.After a night at Estes Park, the caravan set out again, bound for Yellowstone. Keeping to a rigorous schedule, the members of the tour were already given a complete itinerary and knew exactly where they would be staying. Their message was clear: with good roads come good tourism, and a shining beacon to exploring all America’s nature had to offer.
The members of the tour group sang this message loud and proud all along the way to local officials throughout their journey.
Some of the roads were treacherous, some were good. Thankfully, the next leg of the tour was relatively painless, as Yellowstone Highway was finished just three months earlier, complete with road signs.
With the Good Roads Movement, and Mathers’ campaign to get decent roads to the national parks, the idea of a national roads system began in the 1920s and the national government did indeed improve roads to the park. Up until now, most roads were dirt. And when it rained, those roads turned into absolute mud baths; often impassable. Something had to change.
Yellowstone National Park
On the 3rd of September, the caravan took Yellowstone Road to Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming), where the group stayed at the Lake Hotel. Here their schedule allowed them to spend 4 days exploring the park’s natural wonders.
Back in 1920, when a car approached the park entrance, an inspection took place that was more about how well the car was equipped than about what you were going to see in Yellowstone. If you didn’t have the correct gear and know-how about how to repair your car in case of a breakdown, you were simply not allowed inside the park.
Established in 1872, the park was one of the first created at the federal level as a National Park. The group experienced the geothermal oddities of Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and many other features of the park’s caldera. Great American bison roamed free throughout, as well as mule deer, elk, pronghorn sheep, bears, and wolves. But the main reason the park was created was due to the amazing geysers, which was an oddity of these lands.
On Sept. 7th, they left Mammoth Springs Hotel and crossed into Montana. Glacier National Park awaited them 400 miles and 4.5 days later. They traveled the Yellowstone-Glacier Beeline Highway.
Glacier National Park
Founded in 1910, Glacier National Park came into being as the 10th national park. Because the Great Northern Railroad still had the upper hand on transportation inside the park, there were not yet any real roads to speak of, so the group’s vehicles had to be sent on to Belton while they visited the park in white tour buses.
Mountains, lakes, and 60 glaciers were their scenery – glaciers that cut into mountains and created the lakes we see today. Because the roads were still being worked on, they hoped that their message of good road building would eventually come to fruition here so that more people could have access to this park.
Reaching the west side of Glacier NP and the town of Belton on Sept. 14th, the caravan moved on further west to rough roads ahead. That begins the tale in the next part in this series.
Meet Rob Decker, Creator of National Park Posters
Photographer and graphic artist Rob Decker studied photography with Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park during the summer of 1979 when he was just 19. It was an experience solidified his love of photography and our National Parks. Now he is on a journey to photograph and create iconic WPA-style posters of all our major national parks as we celebrate the next 100 years of the National Park Service.
"I feel it’s important to protect America’s special places, and to connect people with nature. And it’s up to all of us to pitch in. Perhaps more importantly, we need to inspire the next generation of park stewards. I’m trying to make a difference by giving back to the amazing organizations that support our National Parks. I donate 10% of annual profits, so when you buy one of these original works, you're helping these trusts, conservancies and associations, too."
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