The centennial is an open invitation to experience the beauty and healing qualities of our national parks,” said Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Superintendent Woody Smeck. “We’re extending a special invitation to first-time visitors to see the Giant Sequoias.”

The National Park Service is marking its centennial this year, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are celebrating with special events.

In 1890, Sequoia National Park became the nation’s second national park, following only Yellowstone. Two other parks, Yosemite and General Grant, which would be expanded to become Kings Canyon in 1940, were established a week later. The local parks were among those administrated by the military before the National Park Service was formed in 1916.

“Historically speaking, Visalia has an amazing connection not only to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, but to the creation of the National Park Service,” said Suzanne Bianco, tourism and marketing manager for the Visalia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The Mather Mountain Party of 1915 gathered at the Palace Hotel in downtown Visalia before embarking on their trek through Sequoia National Park. The result of that trip was the creation of the National Park Service the following year, with Stephen Mather being named its first director.”

Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Stephen Mather, who led the party, was a strong advocate for the creation of a National Park System. He returned to Visalia in 1916 where he announced the passage of the National Parks Bill, according to local historian Terry Ommen.

“There had been a push, led by George W. Stewart, editor of the Visalia Delta, who advocated for preserving the big trees and keeping them from being destroyed by logging interests,” said Terry, who also credited Daniel K. Zumwalt, a land agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the people of Kaweah Colony for helping establish Sequoia as a national park.

Exactly 100 years after the mountain party gathered, an event to commemorate the trip was held at the Lunch Box restaurant, which is in the former Palace Hotel building at Court and Main streets in Visalia. This history and Visalia’s continuing role as a “Gateway to the Sequoias” forever link the city with the local national parks, according to Terry.

“There actually is a Giant Sequoia tree in Visalia that was planted on the west side of the downtown post office in 1935,” said Suzanne. “It was brought from the General Grant Grove in Kings Canyon by Superintendent Guy Hopping as a gift for the postmaster. Hopping would work out of an office in the basement of the post office during the winters from 1933-1943. What greater connection can you have than a piece of the park right here in town?”

More than 1.6 million visitors come to these parks annually, according to Suzanne. “Those visitors mean a lot to the city of Visalia as visitors stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, and buy from our shops,” she said.

“People come from all over the world to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and we hope to attract even more of our local audience for the centennial,” said Dana Dierkes, centennial coordinator for the local parks, who has been busy planning their 2016 schedule, which includes:

National Park Week. April 16-24 features ranger-led programs, as well as Junior Ranger Day on April 23 where kids will earn a Jr. Ranger patch.

The Centennial BioBlitz. On May 21, the BioBlitz is an opportunity to learn about the terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, plants, bats, and owls in the local parks. “People can team up with scientists to identify plants and animals at a BioBlitz,” explained Dana. “People get to learn first-hand what science is like.”

Mule Days. The Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, along with the Sequoia Parks Conservancy, a nonprofit group, will have a booth at Mule Days in Bishop on May 27-29. They will also participate in the parade. “We’re also going to have a team compete for world championships in a variety of events with horses and mules,” said Dana. “We use mules and horses to get supplies to remote locations in the parks.”

National Trails Day. On June 4, National Trails Day offers an opportunity to learn about trails at the local parks. In addition, students and park staff will reroute and restore a 100-foot section of the Hazelwood Nature Trail in Giant Forest.

The Legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers. This will be celebrated on June 18 with a re-enactment of the soldiers’ encampment, ranger-led programs, exhibits, and short movies. “The Buffalo Soldiers completed Colony Mill Road to provide access to the big trees,” said Dana. “They also completed a trail to Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states.” A sequoia tree is named in honor of Col. Charles Young who led the Buffalo Soldiers at the local parks in 1903.

The Fourth of July Parade. Sponsored by the community of Wilsonia, the parade will be held at Grant Grove Village in Kings Canyon National Park.

Dark Sky Festival. On August 5-7, the Dark Sky Festival will focus on the night sky and astronomy with star programs, telescope demonstrations, and campfire talks.

The Founders Day Celebration. On August 25, this day will feature ranger-led programs, “Buddy Park” Cave Tours at Crystal Cave, and an open house highlighting the history of National Park Service uniforms.

Find Your Adventure Food Truck Fest. Held at Mooney Grove Park in Visalia on September 17, this event is an opportunity to learn about national parks through interactive activities. Food trucks will provide a variety of dining options.

Trek to the Nation’s Christmas Tree. On December 13, the Trek to the Nation’s Christmas Tree will be held in Kings Canyon National Park. This annual event includes speakers, music, a non-denominational Christmas message, and a tribute to the military.

The Sequoia Shuttle will also begin its 10th year of service on May 26, taking park visitors from hotels and other locations in Visalia into the local parks at a nominal fee, which includes park admission. The shuttle will run daily through September 11.

“We stayed with the same $15 roundtrip rate, but we will offer special $10 rates on the 10th of each month,” said Monty Cox, Visalia transit manager. “Reservations are required because of limited seating. We do take ‘walk-ups’ – but at your own risk.”

Once inside the park, visitors can ride the free shuttles to all the major park attractions. For reservations or more information, visit sequoiashuttle.com/reservations or call 1-877-287-4453.

The National Park Centennial is also being celebrated in nearby Yosemite National Park.

“It is a very exciting time for us at Visit Yosemite Madera County to celebrate the upcoming National Park Service Centennial,” said Rhonda Salisbury, CEO of the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau. “In celebration, we have many exciting plans and events for our visitors to delight in and support the parks.”

Yosemite events include a series of centennial hikes, a Sierra Art Trails 2016 Special Exhibit, the Bass Lake Yosemite Triathlon, and Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. For more information, visit yosemitethisyear.com.