The National Park Service Turns 99, Offers Free Admission

8-25-15 Grand Canyon
Overall view from the south Rim of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado river near Tusayan, Arizona, on August 10, 2012. Charles Platiau/Reuters

The National Park Service (NPS)is one year short of its centennial, turning 99 years old on Tuesday, but it's not waiting for the round number to celebrate. The agency is inviting visitors to spend the day at one of 408 national parks, monuments and other sites, and waiving fees for the 127 of them that aren't already free to enter.

Yellowstone was the first designated national park, established by Congress on March 1, 1872 "as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," and several other parks and monuments were authorized in the decades that followed. But it wasn't until August 25, 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson signed the "Organic Act" that created the National Park Service as a federal bureau to oversee the system of parks.

"The Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations," the act read, whose "purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

Nearly a century later, the National Park System now covers more than 84 million acres in 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan and the Virgin Islands, according to its website, and employs more than 20,000 people. The system—which includes national parks, historic sites, monuments, recreation areas and more—recorded nearly 300 million recreation visits in 2014. Of the 58 national parks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was most popular in 2014 with more than 10 million recreation visitors, followed by Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Parks, with 3 million to 5 million recreation visitors each.

In honor of its last year as a nonagenarian, the service launched "Find Your Park," a new website featuring centennial events, a quiz to help you choose a park to visit, and a list of 99 suggested activities to try. It asks visitors to share their park experiences on social media using the hashtag #FindYourPark with the promise of prizes—such as tickets to the centennial celebration and yearly national park passes—to the top 100 submissions.

The NPS is not only celebrating its past as the centennial approaches, but it is also looking ahead to the tasks awaiting it in the next 100 years. "To us, it's not about cakes and candles—it's about being an organization ready to take on the challenges of our second century," reads the webpage introducing "A Call to Action," the NPS's vision and blueprint for the next century.

"America has changed dramatically since the birth of the National Park Service in 1916. The roots of the National Park Service lie in the parks' majestic, often isolated natural wonders and in places that exemplify our cultural heritage, but our reach now extends to places difficult to imagine 100 years ago—into urban centers, across rural landscapes, deep within oceans and across night skies," the NPS writes. "In our second century, the National Park Service must recommit to exemplary stewardship and public enjoyment of these places."