Celebrating the National Park Service's 100th anniversary

Thomas Moran’s spectacular paintings of a fantasy-like Yellowstone in 1872 created a national frenzy of excitement that helped lead to the creation of the country’s first national park.

But it was not until August of 1916, 100 years ago Thursday, that the National Park Service was created to protect America’s natural wonders.

Today, the Park Service oversees 413 sites, including 59 major national parks, covering 84 million acres -- from the Great Smoky Mountains, the most visited, to the Grand Canyon, to the Everglades.

The newest addition is the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine, which President Obama designated on Wednesday.

Mike Reynolds, deputy director of the National Park Service, said there is something for everyone in the system.

“If you’re a science person, you can go to Edison and be in his lab as if he never left it. If you’re a rock climber, you can hang upside down on Yosemite National Park on 4,000-foot cliffs. If you’re a history buff you can walk through the steps of Jackson and Lee in the Civil War,” Reynolds said.

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Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

CBS NEWS

Decades ago, some politicians wanted to turn an old towpath and canal in Maryland into a highway. But nature lovers prevailed and today it is the C&O Canal National Historical Park. It runs 185 miles, all the way from West Virginia to Washington, D.C.

The Determan family is among the park’s 5 million annual visitors. Coming to the park has made 9-year-old Astrid wild about wildlife.

“We love to see the animals, the turtles, the salamanders, the egrets,” Astrid said. “We really love nature.”

Keeping the parks in pristine condition is a struggle -- there is a $12 billion maintenance back-log.

Congress did increase the budget this year, and entrance fees from about 307 million visitors a year help.

But this weekend, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Park Service, there will be no charge for admission -- giving all Americans a chance to experience a national treasure for free.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.