This article was written by Jennifer Pocock and originally appeared on How Stuff Works.
Imagine for a moment that you’re hiking around Indiana Dunes National Park. You’re slipping around in black sand dunes on trails that wind along wetland bogs. Prehistoric-looking ferns and rare, endangered wildflowers of every type stretch as far as the eye can see. Old, bent black oak trees spring up around you from the sand, creating the feel of a fairy tale forest.
When you reach the top, the land opens up to reveal rolling, naked dunes that gently slope down to the sandy shores of Lake Michigan. You smile, because you know that without the intervention of dedicated people, this pristine shoreline might easily have become just another strip mall or the site of another steel mill, like the two that already flank the park. You’re happy because you can tangibly enjoy something that the government has provided for you.
National parks are here to preserve. They represent the best of what any nation has to offer — from interesting land formations, endangered species and dynamic ecosystems, to historical artifacts and cave paintings. National parks are here to remind us of the rich diversity that our world has to offer. They help us celebrate past cultures and function as living laboratories for scientists, botanists, archaeologists and any curious visitor in search of something new.
Do you know the name of the oldest national park in the world? Find out next.
What does it take to make a national park in the United States? It takes an act of Congress. However, it also takes thousands of years of nature flexing its creative muscles to form sky-piercing mountains, glittering caves, wandering waterways and fragile ecosystems in which only certain animals can survive. On March 1, 1872, Congress and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant became the first to officially recognize that some areas of the country are simply too precious to develop. It was this day that Yellowstone National Park was established, making it the first, and therefore the oldest, national park in the world. By becoming federal property, this land officially became the property of the people of the United States as a place to visit, enjoy and cherish. Soon after, other countries around the world began to establish their own parks and protected wildlife areas.
Today, the U.S. National Parks Service is operated by the Department of the Interior. The entire system of national parks includes 385 areas and covers more than 84 million acres.
Some of the best-known parks in the U.S. are Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Denali and Yosemite. Together, these parks cover 8,939,372 acres of land across six states. They include the country’s deepest gorge, the highest peak, the most active geysers and some of the most beautiful waterfalls. But these parks are just the tip of the iceberg.
The U.S. approaches park creation from many different standpoints. Each and every park in the country was chosen and set aside for some unique quality that makes it indispensable and interesting. The U.S. National Parks System celebrates and preserves the birthplaces of great presidents, monuments to national victories and the workplaces of artists. They protect coral reefs from destruction and demonstrate the majesty of active glacier systems. Some parks are living laboratories that house important areas for biodiversity, mating grounds, rare plants or scientific study of species. These types of national parks may seem unexciting and they’re not especially popular to visit, but they are of national importance. Some parks are important for preserving and spreading the cultural history of Native Americans, while others are just so stunningly beautiful that to not protect them would be a crime. No matter what, the national parks of the U.S. exist to remind people of the beauty and diversity of a country that is often overlooked.
Obviously, the U.S. isn’t the only country with a national park system. Keep reading to find out where some of the most interesting national parks in the world are located and discover what makes them so special.
Forget about visiting the world’s largest ball of twine. Well, maybe not. Just try to do it on your way to Romanafana National Park in Madagascar to see the rainforests and endangered aye-ayes.
The national parks of the world offer activities for every type of enthusiast, not just hikers and campers. Bird watchers, for example, can find nearly half of Europe’s migrating bird population in Doñana National Park in Spain. Mountainclimbers can explore the peaks of Northern Japan and China, and of course Sagamartha National Park in Nepal — home to Mount Everest.
Adventurous SCUBA divers — those who aren’t afraid to get a little cold, anyway — can enjoy Fathom Five National Marine Park of Canada, a freshwater marine park that protects 22 historical shipwrecks in Georgian Bay, Lake Huron. For divers who like their water a bit warmer and their wildlife a bit more dangerous,Great Barrier Reef National Park in Australia houses box jellyfish, great white sharks and crocodiles. Of course, not all the wildlife there will try to eat or poison you. The Great Barrier Reef is also home to dugongs, whales, whale sharks, dolphins, turtles and a spectacular array of coral and other plant life.
Every country approaches the creation of its national parks in different ways. China, India and Japan approach park creation from a religious standpoint. They want to protect the lands their ancestors viewed as sacred, as well as historical shrines and other revered spots. These countries also happen to be densely populated and therefore work out their park creation with the people who live there. Japan, being a small island with a large population, allows people to own land in national parks with the agreement that they will keep the parklands clean and allow others to enjoy the area. Parks in North America face this problem as well. Many parks buy the land surrounding existing residences and businesses and then expect the residents to abide by park rules.
Africa approaches park creation from a wildlife protection standpoint. The endangered species of Africa are some of the world’s most famous: lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, hippopotami, monkeys, zebras, gorillas — the list could go on and on. All live on this rich and fertile landscape. Unfortunately, these animals are in constant danger from poachers and land development. The African government created its national parks in an attempt to control these problems and save their natural resources. The same can be said for the Galapagos Islands Parks, Peruvian Rainforests (Manu National Park) and many more throughout the world.
Up next, find out how national parks throughout the world are cooperating to solve international problems.
Whenever land ownership and government come together, there are bound to be issues as to how people feel that the land should be used. Every park has its problems. Some have to fight seemingly constant wildfires, while others have to stop endless threats by poachers. Others, however, are embroiled in politics. Surprisingly, this can often have a positive impact.
The parks services of several countries often come together to solve international problems. The U.S., Mexico and Canada, for example, use the National Parks System to help regulate problems such as border control and inter-boundary pollution. For example, national park systems in these countries work together to locate disrespectful park visitors who camp in one area and dump trash into rivers and streams that flow from one country to the next. Additionally, parks on boundary lines, such as Rio Grande National Park in Texas and Glacier National Park in Montana, carefully observe the visitors coming in and out of the park grounds. In this way, they are able to control those who might be violating the country’s immigration policy.
Other countries work together in surprising ways. While some may not know it, the Middle East contains a rich and diverse ecosystem. The Red Sea region of Saudi Arabia houses juniper forests, carpets of wildflowers, mountains, pristine sea shores and a bevy of interesting wildlife, like baboons, red foxes and hyraxes. The U.S. parks service worked with Saudi Arabia in 1979 to create Asir National Park to protect these areas. This was a long time before international conflict between the Middle East and the U.S.; however, these two regions continue to work together to scout lands viable for parks in the Middle East. Current projects exist between the U.S. National Park Service, Jordan and Qatar for preservation of natural and historical sites.
In other parts of the world, parks have been used to keep the peace nationally. In Australia, for example, most of the lands of Kakadu National Park belong to Aboriginal tribes who lease their land to the government. They say that the government can use the land, as long as it preserves the Aboriginal culture and teaches visitors about it. This is exciting, since this national park provides evidence of human life from 30,000 years ago. Similarly, the Maori tribes of New Zealand have donated land for Tongariro National Park as a way to ensure continued respect for their sacred national volcanoes and preservation of their culture.
Are you interested in visiting a national park? Possibly spending a few evenings sleeping under the stars?
National parks are great places to get back to nature and flex your pioneering prowess. Parks have different camping areas ranging from recreational vehicle (RV) sites with water and electrical hookups to primitive camping sites which might include a fire circle, a bench and a place to pitch a tent. Many parks also have backwoods areas that must be hiked to and take no reservations. Some areas are known as national recreational areas. Many of these have places where camping, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, rafting and other sports are allowed. These parks will often provide equipment rentals or special guides.
Adventurers interested in backcountry wilderness hiking and camping should abide by a few safety rules. First, always tell park rangers that you’re heading into the wilderness, the areas you expect to explore and how long you expect to be gone. Even more importantly, tell your friends and family. Many rescue teams won’t assume that you need help until someone close to you reports that you’ve been away longer than expected. Another safety tip is to always camp on high, level ground away from water sources. A rainstorm upstream from you, for example, can cause a flash flood along a river with no notice — even if the weather is perfect downstream. Also, remember to hike and camp only to your abilities. For example, if you’re experienced only at RV camping, then maybe heading out to the Alaskan wilderness to try and trap your own food and survive on nuts and berries isn’t the best idea.
Â Making fires in a national park is a sensitive topic. If you’re camping in a more populated area, fires are permitted only in designated grills or fire areas. If you’re camping in the back country, you should make fires only in wind-sheltered areas with water or sand nearby so that you can remain in control. Make your own fire ring with rocks and sand or moist earth to prevent spreading, and never make fires near dry grass or wood. While natural fires caused by lightening can rid the area of dead or diseased trees, fertilize the soil and encourage growth of certain plants, one careless match by a human in the wrong place can wipe out entire ecosystems and species
National Parks belong to the national governments of the countries where they’re located. This means that the national parks belong to the citizens of those countries. It’s the responsibility of the governments and of the citizens to use these parks respectfully and not to abuse the privilege of these lands. While every park varies in its rules and regulations, there is one prevailing rule of respect: Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints.