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On Park Service Centennial, Three Big Things That Have Changed

There will be free admission to all national parks from Thursday through Sunday to celebrate the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. President Woodrow Wilson signed the law creating the National Park Service on August 25, 1916.

By then, Congress and various presidents had already established a hodgepodge of national parks and monuments including Mount Rainier National Park in 1899 and Crater Lake National Park in 1902.

President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Mount Olympus National Monument in 1909. This would later form the nucleus for Olympic National Park, established in 1938. North Cascades National Park was established by an act of Congress in 1968.

Crater Lake Park historian Steve Mark said perhaps the biggest change over the past century is how much easier it is to get to these parks.

"We've created a situation now in modern travel where people spend much less than a day -- sometimes as little as two hours -- here and they're on to somewhere else,” he said.

Mark said back when it was harder to get to Crater Lake, the typical visitor would stay several days to a week.


Both Crater Lake and Mount Rainier were accessible by primitive roads a century ago. In fact, President William Howard Taft drove in a touring car all the way to the Paradise Valley high on Mount Rainier in 1911. However, teams of mules had to be positioned at certain spots to pull the president's vehicle through the muddy sections.

Visitation took off at Mount Rainier in the 1920s according to a park history timeline. In 1923, the superintendent reported 27,655 cars and 123,708 people entered the park that year.

Entrance fees

The original national parks in the Northwest have charged admission since their early days. Mark said the first entrance charge at Crater Lake was $1, a rate which lasted until after World War II when the fee was raised to $2.

Mount Rainier National Park began charging an entrance fee in 1907. The park archives contain a copy of the first annual vehicle pass issued by the park the following year to a Seattle resident for $5 -- that’s worth about $120 today.

Entrance fees have been raised in recent years. Last year, the single vehicle entry rate at Crater Lake increased from $10 to $15. At the same time, the cost to drive into Mount Rainier National Park went from $15 to $20.

The National Park Service fee program allows up to 80 percent of the admission charges to stay at the park where they are collected to pay for maintenance and capital improvements. The remaining 20 percent supports national park units with fewer financial resources.

Climate change

Mount Rainier park ranger/interpreter Jim Ross said a visitor who traveled back in time would be astonished by how much the glaciers on Mount Rainier have retreated over the past century, particularly on the south side of the majestic volcano.

"Now you can see the difference almost every year," Ross said in an interview. "You look at some of those older photos of the Nisqually Glacier. It was right down by the bridge and you could walk up and touch it. Now it's almost impossible to get to from the bridge [on the Longmire to Paradise road].”

Ross, a retired high school science teacher, has spent the past 50 summers working at the park as a seasonal ranger.

Crater Lake National Park does not contain any glaciers to measure. But Mark noted change on the landscape is evident in the form of stands of dead and dying trees. These were weakened by extended drought and attacked by pine beetles.

Brace for traffic

With sun in the forecast, Mount Rainier park officials are expecting big crowds and full parking areas during this centennial weekend. In a news release, they advised visitors to prepare for congestion and bring your patience -- or better, to arrive early or late in the day.

In addition to national parks, free admission will extend to Washington State Parks for one day. The usual Discover Pass will not be required Thursday in honor of the National Park Service centennial.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.