Nat Geo at 125: Travel Touchstones

The National Geographic Society has been bringing the far corners of the Earth to its members and readers since its founding in 1888. As Alexander Graham Bell, one of the Society’s 33 founders, famously noted: “The world and all that is in it is our theme, and if we can’t find anything to interest ordinary people in that subject we better shut up shop.”

But went on, we did. “We’ve essentially taught the world how to travel by seducing people into falling in love with the planet” says National Geographic Traveler Editor-in-Chief Keith Bellows. “But so many of them did it from afar–through the pages and through the screen.”

In 1984, the Society launched Traveler magazine as a resource for readers who wanted to visit the places highlighted in National Geographic Magazine–“to take people out of their armchairs and into the world itself,” as Bellows put it–“to give action to wanderlust.”

In honor of 125 years of exploration and high adventure, here are four ways National Geographic has made a lasting mark on the world of travel:

1. Uncovering Archaeological Icons

What’s more fascinating than ancient societies–the humans that came before us, leaving their own unique mark on the world? Cities lost to time, sunken treasures, offering insight into a time forgotten?

One of the most exciting Society-sponsored expeditions was Hiram Bingham’s search among the Peruvian Andes for the legendary Inca capital, Machu Picchu. After Bingham located–aided by local guides who knew where the ruins lay–the astonishing abandoned city in the clouds in 1911, the harrowing story of his quest and discoveries filled most of the April 1913 issue of National Geographic, inspiring wanderlust in readers around the world. Today, Machu Picchu is one of the most popular attractions in all of Latin America and the most visited site in Peru.

This was followed by the work of Neil Judd, who in the 1920s explored the mysterious Pueblo Bonito (“beautiful village”), the largest ruin in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon National Monument, and Matthew Stirling‘s Depression-Era discovery of traces of the Olmec, a pre-Columbian civilization whose colossal carved-stone heads are still not yet fully understood, in the forests of Mexico. And when, in 1923, Egypt yielded up its latest treasure, the National Geographic Society was there to record the breathless opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

2. Advancing America’s National Parks

Exploring and preserving places of wildness and beauty is in National Geographic’s DNA–and that certainly holds true when it comes to America’s national parks.

When the U.S. Congress was debating the creation of a formal entity to oversee the management of the parks, National Geographic‘s first full-time editor, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, dedicated the entire April 1916 issue, titled “Land of the Best,” to celebrating the parks and urging readers to support the agency’s formation. He also had a copy sent to every member of Congress. Later that year Grosvenor helped draft the Organic Act, legislation that would eventually establish the National Park Service.

In 1966, National Geographic commemorated the 50th anniversary of the park service by devoting its July issue to showcasing the 32 parks that existed at the time (there are now 59)–and advocating for the creation of a new one. Our efforts paid off: Redwood National Park was established two years later. Downstate, in Central California, you can visit “National Geographic Grove” in Sequoia National Park.

Cartographers Tibor G. Toth and Bradford Washburn discuss relief shading on a Grand Canyon map.  (Photograph by Jim Mendenhall, National Geographic Creative)
Cartographers Tibor G. Toth and Bradford Washburn discuss relief shading on Washburn’s Grand Canyon map. (Photograph by Jim Mendenhall, National Geographic Creative)

Honorary Explorers in Residence, husband-and-wife team Bradford and Barbara Washburn, devoted seven years to making a precise, large-scale map of the Grand Canyon with our support. Visitors to the museum at National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., need only look up to marvel at Washburn’s groundbreaking map on the lobby ceiling. What motivated the duo? “The wish to turn on young people to pursue the thrill of the unknown,” they said.

Over the years our field expeditions have explored, mapped, and photographed many natural wonders that were deemed worthy of incorporating into the park system, including Alaska’s spectacular “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes” and Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. Here’s to many more.

3. Exploring Travel’s Outer Limits 

National Geographic has been on the frontline of extreme travel from the very beginning. In 1890 Israel C. Russell led the Society’s first expedition to map Mount St. Elias in Alaska. Since then, we’ve funded thousands of grants for research and expeditions to the far reaches of the planet. The stories that have emerged from these daring explorations fill the pages of our magazines and leap from the screen in our television specials, pushing the limits of what humans think is possible.

In the mid-1950s National Geographic senior staff writer and photographer Tom Abercrombie became one of two journalists to reach the coldest place on Earth, the South Pole, while on assignment–and in 1986, the Society’s inaugural Explorer in Residence, Will Steger, made the first confirmed unsupported journey to its counterpart in the north.

In 1963, National Geographic reached the top of the world on May 22, when magazine staffer Barry Bishop planted the Society’s trademark flag on the summit of Mount Everest–what amounted to a crown on its 75th anniversary year. Bishop was a member of the first America team–and one of the first groups–to summit the world’s tallest mountain. In 1981, in cooperation with the Society, the Washburns began work on a project that would produce the most detailed and accurate map ever made of Mount Everest. And in 2012, with our support, Explorer in Residence James Cameron made it to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, in a one-man custom-made submersible.

And, what’s more extreme than space? In June 1962, the Society went intergalactic when astronaut John Glenn carried our flag with him on the first U.S. orbital space flight. Three years later, it traveled to the moon and back with Apollo 11.

4. Protecting the World’s Wildlife

Explorer in Residence Sylvia Earle underwater in the Atlantic off the coast of the Bahamas (Photograph by National Geographic Creative)
Explorer in Residence Sylvia Earle underwater in the Atlantic off the coast of the Bahamas (Photograph by National Geographic Creative)

National Geographic has a long history of supporting people who care about the world’s wild animals and the places they need to survive and thrive. In addition to funding important work in the field, the Society has played a vital and active role in helping to incentivize the practice of treating native fauna as a renewable resource that can drive tourism, making wildlife conservation a win-win situation for communities that coexist with some of the most fascinating and powerful wildlife on the planet.

From Jane Goodall‘s groundbreaking work with chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park and filmmaking duo Dereck and Beverly Joubert‘s courageous efforts to improve the plight of the world’s big cats to Sylvia Earle‘s passionate pleas on behalf of protecting our living oceans, we will continue to partner with the best and brightest minds in the scientific and artistic communities to preserve biodiversity in the world we all share.

Here’s to 125 years of pushing the limits of what we can achieve–and to the wonder of knowing how much more we have yet to uncover and understand.



  1. Megan Heltzel
    United States
    November 27, 2013, 3:12 pm

    Hi Demetria – Here is a link for you to become a free member with National Geographic: Thanks!

  2. Demetria C. Dagandan
    November 21, 2013, 10:35 pm

    I would like to become a member how?

  3. Felix N. Kwan
    Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia.
    November 21, 2013, 7:01 pm

    i’ve been reading with the Society’s magazine more than 50 decades. every issues widening our knowledge, specially explore the cosmos.