It was novelist, historian, and environmentalist Wallace Stegner who first deemed national parks America’s best idea. In fact, it’s an idea that traces its origins to the early 1900s, when industrialist and conservationist Stephen Mather began spearheading efforts to create a unified, independent agency to oversee and protect federal lands from encroaching development. After years of lobbying, his campaign paid off: On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill authorizing the newly formed National Park Service to maintain the country’s parks and safeguard their landscapes, wildlife, and historical properties “for the enjoyment of future generations.” The following year, the agency officially got underway when it assumed responsibility for Yellowstone National Park.
Today, the National Park Service oversees 408 sites, including fifty-nine national parks, along with national monuments, battlefields, lakeshores, seashores, trails, parkways, preserves, and recreation areas. As the agency celebrates its centennial year, we spotlight five national parks in the American South, noting special details about attractions and activities not to be missed. Together, these five outstanding parks preserve many of the wild and scenic areas that make the South such a special place.