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California's national parks: A photographic history seen through The Times' archives

Nine of the country's 59 national parks are in California, the most of any state. (Los Angeles Times Library)

In 1872, Yellowstone became the United States’ – and the world’s -- first national park, beginning a period of preservation for our natural and cultural treasures. Encompassing forests and valleys, volcanoes and glaciers, the national parks have been called America’s “best idea.” More than a century after Yellowstone, the list of American national parks has grown to 59 – and no state has more than California. Here’s a look back at California’s nine best ideas.

Sequoia National Park

Established: Sept. 25, 1890

Leaving Bearpaw High Sierra Camp to the Valhalla -- Sequoia National Park, July 8, 1934.

President Benjamin Harrison established California’s first national park, and the United States’ second, to protect the giant sequoia trees (sequoiadendron giganteum) from logging.

On Sept. 24, 1890, the Los Angeles Times ran this letter, an excerpt from the San Francisco Call (which later merged with the Examiner) on page 6 of the newspaper:

"The land to be inclosed [sic] in the park will cover 50,000 acres. In Mariposa, Calaveras and Humboldt the giant sequoias occur in clumps in the midst of the forests of other growths. In Tulare they are almost continuous; the traveler can journey all day on horseback without losing sight of them. They are nearly, if not quite, the most gigantic of the sequoias; trees have been seen which measured 100 feet and over in circumference at the base over 300 feet in height."
A sequoia tree in the former Grant National Park, which neighbored Sequoia. The park was absorbed by Kings Canyon National Park when it was established in 1940. (Los Angeles Times Library)


Established: Oct. 1, 1890

Yosemite, California’s most iconic national park, first gained protected status from President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. It didn’t become a national park until a week after Sequoia, with famed naturalist John Muir as the spark, according to the National Park Service.

In Muir’s obituary, The Times wrote on Dec. 25, 1914:

“Muir had a great love of the Yosemite and his was a familiar face to summer tourists there. He was a warm advocate of a movement to make the valley accessible to visitors who came to see the Yosemite's grandeur, but he had no regard whatever for those who came to fish in the valley. He could not understand how any one could, even for the moment, neglect nature's wonders for angling. He would refer to them as being ‘sillier than the silly fish themselves.’”

In a 100-year anniversary piece, the Los Angeles Times noted that Yosemite National Park initially included only the high country. “The valley and its soaring granite cliffs were added to the park in 1906."

A figure stands on top of "an unusual rock formation near Vogelsang High Sierra Camp." Undated photo. (Los Angeles Times Library)
A camp at Stoneman Meadow in Yosemite. Undated photo. (Los Angeles Times Library)

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Established: Aug. 9, 1916

An eruption in what’s now Lassen Volcanic National Park in 1915. (Los Angeles Times Library)

In 1912 Lassen Peak and the surrounding wilderness were considered too obscure by Congress to be designated a national park. Then it exploded.

A years-long volcanic eruption – with the peak’s biggest explosion on May 22, 1915 – began in 1914, and suddenly the entire country knew about Lassen Peak.

In September 1996, Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Reynolds wrote:

“Lassen Peak sent up pre-atomic mushroom clouds that rose seven miles into the stratosphere. While thick vegetation survived all around, flows of lava and mud scoured many areas beneath Lassen Peak to an otherworldly bareness--hence such site names as Chaos Crags and Devastated Area.”
A collage of Los Angeles Times headlines from May 22 to May 28, 1915, covering Lassen Peak's eruption. (Los Angeles Times)

Kings Canyon

Established: March 4, 1940

Left, Junction Peak, July 23, 1932. Right, looking east into Middle Fork Canyon and the Kings River, circa 1940. (Walter Huber, left; National Park Service, right)

After Sequoia National Park was established in 1890, John Muir suggested a nearby eight-mile-long valley carved by glaciers deserved the same protection. Muir believed Kings Canyon was even “grander” than Yosemite.

Fifty years later, Muir’s dream for the land would come true. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Kings Canyon and 450,000 acres of federal forestland America’s 26th national park.

The park absorbed General Grant National Park, formed a week after Sequoia. Now the adjacent parks are administered jointly.

“Forest-clad valleys with sheer rock walls reminiscent of Yosemite: above these valleys, the crest of the Sierra Nevada range forms a tumbled array of mountains unequaled in North America for massed effect of peaks, palisades and minarets, with hundreds of lakes, meadows and streams – this is Kings Canyon National Park.”
—Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1940
Photo page in the Los Angeles Times shortly after Kings Canyon was established as a national park. March 17, 1940 (Los Angeles Times)


Established: Oct. 2, 1968

Cut redwoods stacked with redwood forests in the background, outside of Orick, Cal and about two miles from Redwood National Park. Photo dated Jan. 12, 1988. (Jose Galvez / Los Angeles Times)

Home to the tallest trees on earth, Redwood National Park was established after years of battling between conservation groups and the logging industry.

Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson ended the fight when a bill was passed preserving 58,000 acres of redwood forest in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. Lady Bird Johnson would dedicate the park on Nov. 25, 1968, calling it “the crowning moment of a crusade which has lasted two generations.”

Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) described the park’s attractions in news coverage:

1—The trees themselves, tallest on earth, “displayed in all their variety from ridgetop stands to slope and bottomland groves to the seashore…”
2—More than 33 miles of uninterrupted beach at the foot of bluff and headland.
3—Streams and rivers of “great natural beauty” with opportunities for fishing and swimming.
Of the trees, Jackson said, “These giants will live out the years of their existence protected by man, rather than threatened by man. It is our intention that a thousand years from now, redwood seedlings of today will have lived, within this park for the inspiration and wonder of future generations.”
—Los Angeles Times, Sept. 20, 1968

A decade later, President Jimmy Carter signed a law adding 48,000 acres to the park.

Los Angeles Times photo and newspaper clip of Lady Bird Johnson at the Redwood National Park dedication ceremony. Published Nov. 26, 1968 (AP Wirephoto; Los Angeles Times)

Channel Islands

Established: March 5, 1980

Ranger Reed McCluskey makes his way toward a small lighthouse called Arch Point on tiny and treeless Santa Barbara Island. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Anacapa, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Miguel and Santa Cruz islands make up Southern California’s first national park, established by President Carter in 1980.

The park protects the island cluster off Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and the surrounding ocean, both rich in cultural and scientific value.

The islands hold an important place in California history, with thousands of years of Chumash inhabitation, followed by ranching and the appearance of military establishments.

“For many years, the Channel Islands have been widely regarded as some of the most pristine offshore islands in the United States. With many virtually untouched forests, meadows and tidal areas, the islands contain unusually abundant populations of sea mammals and other wildlife.”
—Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1980
"Remains of the freighter Chickasa are strewn on Santa Rosa Island shoreline it ran aground in 1962." Dated Sept. 15, 1986. (Thomas Kelsey)
Dozens of brown pelicans line Sutile Rock located on the west side of the island A long telephoto lens created circled highlights from the sun's reflection on the water. (Los Angeles Times Library)

Death Valley

Established: Oct. 31, 1994

Known as the “land of extremes,” Death Valley became a national park at the same time as Joshua Tree with President Bill Clinton’s signing of the Desert Protection Act in 1994.

The bill ended a long congressional battle to protect almost 8 million acres of ecologically fragile Southern California land from development, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“The desert bill creates the largest U.S. wilderness area outside of Alaska.... Much of the east Mojave Desert becomes a national preserve.”
—Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 1994
Sand dunes. Photo dated Sept. 28, 1975 (Los Angeles Times Library)
Wilis Warnick of Glendora walks through the Salt Creek River bed next to the Stove Pipe Wells Sand Dunes in Death Valley. Photo dated Feb. 4, 1986 (Howard Lipin)

Joshua Tree

Established: Oct. 31, 1994

Grass nurtured by winter rains covers a section of the Hidden Valley area of Joshua Tree National Park. Photo dated May 23, 1986. (Bob Grieser / Los Angeles Times)

Where the Mojave and Colorado deserts come together, the otherworldly Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) thrives. The area was set aside as a national monument in 1936 and national park in 1994 to protect its great plant and animal diversity.

“The terrain is filled with ecological diversity, including several mountain ranges, huge sand dunes, some 2,000 plant and 600 animal species, more than 100,000 archeological sites and even dinosaur tracks.”
—Los Angeles Times, Sunday, Oct. 9, 1994, discussing both Joshua Tree and Death Valley
Oak Tree at Joshua Tree National Monument. Jan. 5, 1971 (Roy Murphy)


Established: Jan. 10, 2013

Left, a postcard featuring a rock formation in Pinnacles National Park. The bottom right corner of the image had been painted over. Photo dated Sept. 17, 1933. Right, another view of Pinnacles. Photo dated April 11, 1954. (Los Angeles Times Library)

Pinnacles had been a national monument for more than 100 years before becoming the country’s 59th and newest national park in 2013.

“The 26,000-acre site, which includes towering rock formations and talus caves created by falling slabs of rock, has played a critical role in the recovery of the California condor. It has been called a volcanic wonderland and a climber’s paradise.”
—Los Angeles Times, Dec. 31, 2012
Boulders, some weighing 50,000 tons, stick between walls in Pinnacles Monument. April 11, 1954. (Los Angeles Times Library)



An earlier version of this post showed a photo of pinnacles that it said were located in San Benito. They were in San Bernardino.


Twitter: @seangreene89

Additional credits: Maloy Moore, Robin Mayper / Times Librarians

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