Image: Half Dome
Ben Margot  /  AP
A view of Half Dome from the valley floor of Yosemite National Park is shown on Oct. 20, 1997, in Yosemite, Calif.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/1/2010 9:28:35 AM ET 2010-10-01T13:28:35

Happy 120th birthday, Yosemite!

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One of the nation's best known national parks is also one of many celebrating milestones this year. Ten years, 70 years, 100 years — from coast to coast, more than a century of historic preservation is there for the viewing.

If, that is, you know where to look. The fact is, few parks have made much of their decadal significance. In large part, that’s because most were “born” even earlier as forest grants or national monuments and their official birthdays only refer to the dates they were designated as national parks.

Still, considering that 16 of America’s 58 national parks are celebrating some sort of decadal anniversary this year, it seems like a good excuse for a late-year visit to one or more of them. Each of the eight parks below offers its own take on American history — or you can wait for Veterans Day (Nov. 11) when admission fees will be waived.

1890
First protected in 1864 — eight years before Yellowstone became America’s first national park — Yosemite was officially designated a national park on Oct. 1, 1890. For a taste of its earliest days, take a break from the crowds in Yosemite Valley and head to the Pioneer Yosemite History Center in Wawona, just inside the park’s south entrance. Tour the vintage stores and cabins; take a horse-drawn carriage ride, and be thankful for the ensuing improvements in the park’s visitor services.

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Home to several of the largest trees on the planet, Sequoia National Park could very easily have boasted some of the largest stumps on the planet if it hadn’t been designated a national park in 1890. (Fortunately, sequoias make lousy lumber.) Naturally, you’ll want to check out the Giant Forest, but afterward, head over to the Wolverton BBQ, which combines an outdoor, all-you-can buffet with living-history presentations about pioneer life and the park’s early days ($21.99 for adults, $9.99 for children, through September 5).

1910
One hundred years ago last May, Glacier became the 10th park in America’s burgeoning National Park system. This year, the park in northwest Montana is commemorating its centennial with interpretive programs, art exhibits and a new book chronicling 100 years’ worth of local stories. After a day amid the peaks and snowfields, head to the Hockaday Museum of Art, in nearby Kalispell, where the oil paintings of John Fery (1859–1934) and large-format photographs of Chris Peterson bookend the park’s past and present.

1930
Most folks who visit Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico opt for the free, self-guided tours of the Big Room, a one-mile stroll augmented by electric lighting. Instead, sign up for a Ranger-led tour of Left Hand Tunnel, a two-hour excursion led by lantern-light. Shifting shadows only accentuate the fanciful formations, at least until everyone cuts their lights and you’re plunged into the same darkness that greeted early explorers. (Note: tour fees — $7 for adults, $3.50 for children — still apply during fee-free weekends.)

1940
Once mined for copper, then logged for timber, Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior has spent much of the intervening years reverting to wilderness. To experience it in relative comfort, consider taking an interpretive cruise/hike on board the M.V. Sandy. The Edisen Fishery/Rock Harbor Light tour ($37.75), for example, visits the oldest lighthouse (1855) on the island while the Northside Cruise/Minong Mine tour ($45.25) traverses harbors, bays and a mine site from the 1870s.

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1980
Fifty years ago, what is now Biscayne National Park, outside Miami, almost became the site of a major urban development and industrial seaport. Fortunately, the plan was scrapped; the area was declared a national monument and eventually designated a national park. Today, you can get a glimpse of what was at stake by heading to Elliott Key, where the so-called Spite Highway — a six-lane road bulldozed in protest in 1967 — now forms the park’s one real hiking trail.

The Channel Islands, off the coast of Southern California, bear witness to 12,000 years of human history, but have only been a national park for 30. To explore that longer span, head to the one-year-old visitor center at Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island, which highlights native Chumash culture, pioneer living and the park’s phenomenal biodiversity.

2000
Although it was designated a national park just 10 years ago, Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio has been providing an escape from the pressures of urban life for more than a century. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad retraced that rich history last month with a variety of daily excursions, including a special series of runs powered by vintage steam locomotives.

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Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images
    Above: Slideshow (28) America's national parks
  2. Image:
    Stephen Saks / Lonely Planet Images
    Slideshow (18) America’s lesser-known national parks

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