National Parks: The Big Picture (Literally)

Posted on July 26, 2016 by Kimberly Roblin in ,

The Wyoming Suite. Wilson Hurley, 1996, oil on canvas. Museum commission. 1993.11.5.

One hundred years ago this month, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act and established the National Park Service (NPS) to manage and protect the country’s 35 national parks and monuments. Today the NPS oversees more than 400 sites across the United States and its territories, but many of the early parks and monuments—Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Yellowstone—are synonymous with the American West. As we celebrate this centennial, let’s look at Wyoming Suite by Wilson Hurley, a piece from the Museum’s collection that speaks to the scale and beauty of our oldest national park.


About the Artwork

In 1991, the Museum commissioned Wilson Hurley (1924-2008) to complete five, large triptychs for the new Sam Noble Special Events Center. Called Windows to the West, they evoked the size and splendor of the landscape. Hurley selected the Sandia Mountains, Monument Valley, Point Lobos, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone for the project. Finishing roughly one a year, he completed the final scene, Wyoming Suite, in 1996. It depicts the Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. When completed, the size and weight of Hurley’s creations were worthy of their epic subjects: they measured 40 feet wide and 16 feet high, weighing roughly 1,500 pounds each.


About Yellowstone National Park

A park worthy of the Great Republic, Yellowstone was founded in 1872 not only as the country’s first national park, but the world’s.

  • Nearly 4 million people visit the park each year.
  • The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is one of its prominent features and runs 20 miles in length and averages 1,000 feet in depth.
  • The Lower Falls are 308 feet high, twice the height of Niagara Falls.
  • See the green strip on the left side of the Falls? White froth and foam result from water and air mixing, but a notch in the rim creates a pocket of deep water that stays green.
  • As iron in the canyon rock oxidizes, it produces different colors, notably rust.
  • In 1871, the Hayden Expedition explored and recorded the region. Albert Peale was a member of the group and kept a journal detailing the journey. On Thursday, July 27 he described the Lower Falls and Canyon: The Falls are very pretty, indeed, and the sun shining on the spray formed a beautiful rainbow. On the sides of the rock where the spray dashes there is quite a good deal of vegetation of a beautiful green color. The Canon is grand. It is cut through igneous rocks of various kinds and in places is stained a red color from the iron of numerous springs. In others, it is bright yellow from infiltration of sulphur. In others, it is green from vegetation and still others pure white. The rocks are weathered so as to form columns, towers, etc. Along the banks, from top to bottom, the river rushes through the narrow space at the bottom as if chafing against its imprisonment.
  • In his famous work Our National Parks (1901), John Muir wrote of Yellowstone: The cañon is so tremendously wild and impressive that even these great falls cannot hold your attention. It is about twenty miles long and a thousand feet deep,—a weird, unearthly-looking gorge of jagged, fantastic architecture, and most brilliantly colored…It is not the depth or the shape of the cañon nor the waterfall, nor the green and gray river chanting its brave song as it goes foaming on its way, that most impresses the observer, but the colors of the decomposed volcanic rocks. With few exceptions, the traveler in strange lands finds that, however much the scenery and vegetation in different countries may change, Mother Earth is ever familiar and the same. But here the very ground is changed, as if belonging to some other world. The walls of the cañon from top to bottom burn in a perfect glory of color, confounding and dazzling when the sun is shining,—white, yellow, green, blue, vermilion, and various other shades of red indefinitely blending. All the earth hereabouts seems to be paint. Millions of tons of it lie in sight, exposed to wind and weather as if of no account, yet marvelously fresh and bright, fast colors not to be washed out or bleached out by either sunshine or storms…you will remember these fine, wild views, and look back with joy to your wanderings in the blessed old Yellowstone Wonderland.



Visitors to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum can view Wilson Hurley’s triptychs in the Sam Noble Special Event Center.


For more information on Wilson Hurley, please visit:


For more information on Yellowstone National Park, please visit:





About Kimberly

Kimberly Roblin is Curator of Archival and Photographic Collections at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. For the native Oklahoman, sharing western history through research, exhibitions, and publications is much more than business. It’s personal.