How Our National Parks Got Their Majestic Names

The United States has landscapes ranging from majestic mountains to sweeping valleys, from otherworldly deserts to glistening glaciers.

The first national park was Yellowstone, established in 1872. Since then, the number has grown to 60 official national parks from Arches to the Everglades.

What’s more, all the parks bear names that tell their great stories. Here are 10 national parks and what their names say about them.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park, located in southern Utah, is known for the red-tinged sandstone of its dramatic cliffs. These cliffs have been featured in class films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The area was originally named Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909, a nod to the Souther Paiute Indians who originally inhabited the area.

However, it was changed by 1919 to Zion, a name used by Mormons who settled in Utah.

Zion is a hill in Jerusalem and used as a symbol for a spiritual center, refuge, or gathering place.

Grand Teton National Park

A visit to Wyoming’s stunning scenery isn’t complete without a trip to Grand Teton National Park. This park houses amazing animals like moose, pristine rivers, and, of course, its signature mountains.

The name is taken from the Grand Teton, which is the highest mountain in the park. The Teton Range is composed of several prominent peaks. It’s popularly said that 19th-century French trappers dubbed these les trois tétons, or the “three teats” or “nipples.” Because of, um, how they look.

However, the name Teton may be taken from a Native Dakota tribe or word.

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is beloved for its waterfalls, scenic drives, and colorful mountains.

Like many park names, Shenandoah has its roots in Native American languages. Shenandoah National Park is bordered by the Shenandoah River.

This river is thought to be named for the Oneida chief John Shenandoah (also Oskanondonha and Skenandoa). He was storied to have provided corn to George Washington during his winter in Valley Forge, and Washington then named the river in his honor.

If you’re ever in Virginia in autumn, make sure to stop by Shenandoah to see the leaves brilliantly change color.

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park in Arizona boasts a different kind of environment than many other national parks. The desert is home to spectacular rocks from the Tucson Mountains, and its grasslands house animals such as tortoise, coyote, and white-tailed deer.

It’s named after the towering saguaro cactus, the tall, armed cactus familiar to anyone who has seen a classic Western film. Saguaro is taken from the plant’s name in Mexican Spanish saguaro or sahuaro, which might be based on a native word.

Yosemite National Park

The Sierra Nevada mountains in California are home to Yosemite National Park, celebrated for its granite rock formations. Yosemite was also made famous by photographs taken by landscape photographer Ansel Adams in the early 1900s.

The native Yosemite (Ahwahnechee) tribe called the area Ahwahnee, translating to “big mouth” after the valley’s resemblance to a great bear with its maw wide open.

But, Yosemite is itself is said to mean “killer,” an epithet given by the Miwok tribe.

Mesa Verde National Park

This park in Montezuma County, Colorado, also boasts the honor of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mesa Verde was historically home to a group of Native Americans called the Ancestral Puebloans.

They built many of their homes right into the cliff faces the park is known for. Cliff Palace, a big draw for tourists, is the largest of these dwellings.Mesa Verde literally translates to “green table” in Spanish. Spanish colonists and explorers likened the flat-topped mountains to tables, or mesas.

Haleakalā National Park

Haleakalā National Park is one of two located in Hawaii. Although originally part of Hawaii National Park, it was separated in 1961. Located in the park is a dormant volcano, its summit and crater, and an observatory.Haleakalā literally translates to “house of the sun” in Hawaiian and is the name of the volcano.

The park lives up to its namesake, as visitors travel from all over the world to watch the sunrise and sunset from the summit.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the only national park in Ohio, has a long history.

The Cuyahoga River runs through Cleveland on its way to Lake Erie. Due to heavy manufacturing in the area, the river grew so polluted with debris and oil that it caught fire multiple times, most famously in 1969. After years of restoration, the park was made official in 2000.

The river runs along the park. It likely takes its name from a Native term. The Mohawks called it Cayagaga, said to mean “crooked river,” the Seneca Cuyohaga, “place of the jawbone.”

Either way, both are perfectly descriptive of the river’s distinctive crook.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park is one of the hottest places in the world, reaching a recorded temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit.

This national park, located near the border of California and Nevada, is a well-known, if not dangerous, shortcut into California and borax mining site.

And, crossing Death Valley is no easy task. During the Gold Rush of 1849, a group of pioneers got lost there, although only one person is believed to have died there.

But, the name Death Valley remains well-suited.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park has the honor of being the first National Park, and arguably the most famous on the list. Tourists flock to see its hot springs, grand views, buffalo, and, of course, geysers like Old Faithful. Like Mesa Verde, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The name Yellowstone is said to be based on the nearby Yellowstone River, taken from the French Roche Jaune (“yellow rock”), in turn based on the  name among  the Native Hidatsa tribe: Mi tse a-da-zi, or “Rock Yellow River.”

The reason for the name is unclear despite popular claims about the appearance of, well, yellow stones in the river.

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