It was a trickle that started during Abraham Lincoln's presidency — a bill to protect the wild beauty of Yosemite in California from developers, homesteaders and industrialists.
That was followed by legislation to protect Yellowstone in Wyoming, coming as railroads and photographs in newspapers were starting to connect Americans to the nation's breathtaking wonders.
Then a spate of bills under President (and conservationist) Theodore Roosevelt to safeguard monuments, forests, game reserves and parks.
And on Aug. 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson opened the floodgates, establishing the National Park Service — at the time it encompassed 14 parks, 21 monuments and two reservations open to the public. Rangers recorded 326,000 visits to those sites that year.
As of last year, 409 locations drew 307 million visitors.
Many of those attractions are hosting events and activities throughout 2016 to celebrate the Park Service's centennial and its objectives: that the most wondrous and spectacular landscapes in the world's largest democracy should be accessible to everyone, and that our indigenous plant and animal life should be provided protected free-range habitats.
These are the places and spaces where your senses become enlivened with the exotic sights, sounds, and smells of wildlife, scenery, and history, ever so slyly teaching your kids about stewardship without your saying a word.
Even better, such excursions can accommodate any budget and style, ranging from low-cost campsites to high-end lodges.
•June 4 is National Trails Day; U.S. park sites host events demonstrating their array of trail activities, including hiking, biking, paddling, horseback riding, and wildlife spotting. (nationaltrailsday.americanhiking.org)
•On National Park Week (April 16-24) and on the Park Service's 100th anniversary (Aug 25-28), admission fees will be waived at all park sites, and many parks are also hosting their own free days throughout the year. (nps.gov/findapark/national-park-week.htm)
•And fourth-grade students — hurry! you can visit free through the rest of the 2015-2016 school year, thanks to the Every Kid in a Park initiative. (everykidinapark.gov)
Of course, the dramatic landscape of Yellowstone and Yosemite make wonderful excursions.
But you needn't venture so far to enjoy America's wonderful park spaces. We've uncovered some fabulous ones within easy driving distance of Baltimore. Be certain to check their dedicated websites for special centennial events and activities.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
Called America's Favorite Drive, the 469-mile parkway runs from the Shenandoah National Park in Waynesboro, Va., (about 3½ hours from Baltimore) to the Smokey Mountains on the North Carolina/Tennessee border.
This spectacular drive winds through highlands, forests and mountains abundant with trails for hiking and biking, pure mountain waterways for kayaking and canoeing, wholesome towns with local food and a strong heritage music scene. Facilities and park-run venues begin opening for the season in April. (nps.gov/blri)
Well preserved: Geologists cite the Blue Ridge to be among the oldest ranges in the world, over 1 billion years old (second to South Africa's Barberton greenstone belt). Its Mount Mitchell is the highest (6,684 feet) mountain peak in the Eastern U.S., the New River is the oldest river in North America and Whitewater Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Rockies.
Don't miss: National Park Week Kick Off — Earth Day Celebration (April 16): Guided nature and history walks, demonstrations and entertainment. Peaks of Otter Lodge Parkway.
Humpback Rocks Visitor Center, encompassing a museum of 19th-century log buildings, access to the Appalachian Trail and trails to the summit of Humpback Mountain.
James River and Otter Creek: Visitor Center, restored canal locks on the James River, hiking and restaurant.
The Saddle Overlook (elev. 3381): Ridge connecting two points high above the verdant valley. A five-minute hike on the trail takes you above a stone hut, the original parkway shelter.
Stay: Providing breathtaking mountain and lake vistas, Peaks of Otter Lodge is the Parkway's only year-round accommodation. (peaksofotter.com)
Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail
America's first water-based National Historic Trail traces 3,000 miles of routes from Smith's historic voyages (1607-1609), during which he created the first detailed map of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries throughout what are now Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia. The trail includes sites Smith traveled in his quest to discover gold, silver and potential trading posts with native Americans. Visitors can traverse the trail's nine rivers and three regions along the Chesapeake via a variety of boats, ranging from 16-foot canoes and kayaks to 60-foot trawlers. (nps.gov/cajo)
Well preserved: The oldest body of seawater ever found (estimated to be 100 million to 145 million years old) in a crater underneath the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, off Cape Charles, Va.
Three geologic formations of fossils from the Miocene age (approximately 6 million to 20 million years old) are exposed in Calvert Cliffs State Park. Visitors are permitted to collect all artifacts (include ancient shark teeth) that wash up along the shore below the cliffs.
Don't miss: National Trails Day Paddling Event (June 4): Two-hour kayak tours departing from Piscataway Park led by an experienced guide or instructor.
Try a trip along the calm Patuxent River or the Potomac River in Southern Maryland, filled with 1812 historic sites:
•Potomac River: Point Lookout State Park (Maryland's southernmost tip), Historic St. Mary's City, St. Clement's Island and the Potomac River Museum.
•Patuxent River: Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum has a historic Indian Village replicating life at the time of Captain John Smith and an archaeological museum.
Itineraries and sights for all of the waterways are provided at smithtrail.net/things-to-do/adventure-planner.
Stay: Island Inn and Suites, overlooking St. George Creek and the Potomac, is within walking distance of the Park Service's Piney Point Lighthouse and Museum.
Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park
One hundred and five miles of glorious forest and parkland stretching from Front Royal, Va., (less than two hours from Baltimore) to the Waynesboro-Charlottesville region. The park is famed for world-class rock-climbing, breathtaking vistas, hiking, horseback riding, fishing and star gazing. Famous Skyline Drive is the scenic roadway that takes you through the park. (nps.gov/shen)
Well preserved: Shenandoah's greenstone lava flows, visible throughout the park in the form of jagged cliffs and columns, possess hues spanning from dark green, lime and purple to rust-red and white. They were formed by molten lava over 500 million years ago. Visible at Franklin Cliffs Overlook.
Don't miss: From April to September, the park is creating a melodic landscape with performances by musicians like Ed Willet, who delivers the words of conservationist John Muir in song. Junior Ranger Day (April 23): A free day of activities teaching stewardship. National Parks Quilt Tour (July 30) features quilts depicting historic images of national parks. Demonstrations and kits available for purchase.
Stay: Shenandoah River Cabins: Waterfront, fully equipped, restored vintage log cabins come with creature comforts such as kitchens, grills, AC and hot tubs. From $395, but hurry — they book up fast. (river-cabins.com/Shenandoah-river-rental-cabins)
Star Spangled Banner Trail
O! Say; this historic land and water route wends through Maryland, Virginia and D.C., along important sites from the War of 1812, including Baltimore, where Francis Scott Key was impelled to write "The Star Spangled Banner." (nps.gov/stsp)
Well preserved: The original handwritten draft of "The Star Spangled Banner" can be viewed at the Maryland Historical Society.
Don't miss: Centennial events at Fort McHenry include the Star Spangled Banner Defenders' Day weekend (Sept. 10-11), where kids can "enlist" as a soldier in the War of 1812 and attend re-enactments, concerts and more. Hop a ferry to Tangier Island, Va., from Crisfield and explore the island by bike or in a kayak, which you can borrow, free of charge, from the Tangier History Museum and Interpretive Cultural Center.
Stay: Close to Fort McHenry, the circa-1798 Rachel's Dowry in Ridgely's Delight. The Carey Frank Suite has an extra daybed for the kids, 18th-century kitchen with cooking fireplace and private courtyard. From $191. (rachaelsdowrybedandbreakfast.com)
The owners of Tangier Island's Bay View Inn will pick you up from the dock in a golf cart and transport you to your cottage, from which you can walk into town. From $125. (tangierisland.net/accommodations)
Colonial National Historical Park
A collection of historical sites that encompass Jamestown (America's first colony), Yorktown Battlefield and the spectacular 23-mile Colonial Parkway connecting Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg. Activities and events span pre-17th century colonization through the Revolutionary War, and leading into the Civil War. (nps.gov/colo)
Well preserved: The circa-1790 church tower in Jamestown is the only 17th-century structure surviving above ground here.
Don't miss: Pedal The Parkway (May 7): The historic road is closed to motor vehicles for the day, welcoming cyclists and pedestrian traffic to enjoy the sites. Jamestown Landing Day (May 9-10): Special programs and tours commemorating the landing of the first settlers at Jamestown in 1607. Bacon's Rebellion (Sept. 17): A re-enactment of the uprising, including a symbolic burning of Jamestown.
Stay: Try to book one of the reproduction colonial houses, on the grounds of the historic park, filled with period reproduction furnishings. From $214. (colonialwilliamsburg.com/stay/colonial-houses/)
Fire Island National Seashore
New York State's only federally designated wilderness is a barrier island just off the coast of Long Island, with stunning dunes, forests, wetlands and a variety of ecosystems.
The island, sandwiched between the Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, contains no paved roads, just 26 miles of shoreline, covered with white sand, laced with flecks of red garnet and black magnetite. (nps.gov/fiis)
Well preserved: The "globally rare" Sunken Forest, where saline mist of the sea actually stunts the growth of the flora. Some of the dwarfed trees in this maritime forest date back 300 years.
Don't miss: The Otis Pike Wilderness, where dunes can soar 40 feet high. The 16th-century William Floyd estate, on the mainland but still part of the national forest, is a 25-room mansion filled with three centuries of relics, 12 outbuildings and a family cemetery of eight generations of Floyds, including one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Stay: The Fire Island Hotel: Housed in a turn-of-the-20th-century lifeboat station perched atop a sand dune, this resort boasts one of the best views on the island. Choose a family cottage, with kitchens and outdoor showers. From $250. (fireislandhotel.com)