Next Stop Wonderland: Packaging Wilderness as a Tourist Destination

In the early 1880s, the Northern Pacific Railway launched an extensive publicity campaign to promote travel to Yellowstone, the nation’s first, newly established national park. Initiated under the direction of passenger agent Charles S. Fee, after completion of a spur line to the northern boundary of the park, Northern Pacific began to tout Yellowstone as a scenic 'Wonderland'. Over the next two decades, Fee oversaw publication of a series of 'Wonderland' brochures and guides, which celebrated the monumental scenery and dramatic natural landscapes that graced the Northern Pacific line. In 1893 Olin D. Wheeler published the first volume of the Wonderland guidebook series fully detailing the scenic attractions and amenities of Yellowstone National Park. Codifying what had already emerged as an established Yellowstone loop tour, which included Mammoth Hot Springs, the geyser basins, Yellowstone Lake, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Wonderland guides celebrated sublime and picturesque scenery, using images of noble savages, soaring eagles, and Lady Liberty to brand the new park as a national icon and tourist destination.

The Wonderland guides reflect a much larger story about the development of outdoor recreation, nature tourism and the promotion and packaging of wilderness in the national parks and other scenic destinations. Specifically, this is a story about defining and marketing wilderness as a consumer experience and giving wildlife and monumental scenery brand name recognition. Whether talking about the geysers in Yellowstone, the glaciers in Glacier National Park, Yosemite’s Half Dome, Lookout Point at the Grand Canyon, or a myriad of other national park destination points, over the past century visitors have been conditioned by the park service and a long line of tourism promoters to understand and appreciate wilderness in consumerist terms. As one National Park Service policy report from the 1950s explained, “wilderness also needs to be regarded as a quality – defined in terms of personal experience, feelings, or benefits.” Wilderness designated more than a particular place or type of landscape, it was a “state of mind.” The Park Service, building on a well-established market for nature tourism, conceptualized, branded, packaged and sold wilderness using the very same consumer motives and practices that reshaped the everyday routines and habits of modern urban industrial consumer culture.