Tuzigoot. Great Egg Harbor. Yosemite. Who came up with these names? What do they mean? Sometimes they come from one person, sometimes a whole culture—but the stories behind these memorable monikers reveal interesting details about these places and the people who have loved and lived in them.
1. Yosemite National Park, California
Standing amid the beauty of Yosemite’s granite walls and sparkling waterfalls, visitors might be surprised to learn that the park’s name literally means, by different accounts, “those who kill” or “they are killers.” The name stems from the words Yohhe'meti and Yosse'meti used by the Miwok tribes of the region to describe a group of tribes that the Miwok feared and viewed as enemies.
2. Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona
One of the more unusual-sounding names in the park system, Tuzigoot actually refers to something pretty basic: water. More specifically, it means “crooked water” in Apache. The term refers to Pecks Lake, the curving reservoir that bends around the western side of the monument.
3. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Who would call this park “dry” when it is literally surrounded by the ocean? The term was actually used by mariners to indicate that none of the seven small islands has fresh water. Meanwhile, “tortugas” dates back to Spanish explorer Ponce de León, who found the area’s numerous turtles so notable that he dubbed the islands “Las Tortugas” in 1513.
4. Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
Numerous Native American tribes consider this distinctive igneous rock formation sacred and know it by many names. Bear’s Tipi. Tree Rock. Great Gray Horn. Bear Mountain. None of these names, however, mention a devil. Members of an 1875 U.S. Army expedition to the site misinterpreted the name as “Bad God’s Tower,” which was later shortened to Devils Tower.
5. Nicodemus National Historic Site, Kansas
In 1877, seven men from Kentucky—most of them formerly enslaved—set out to create the first all-black settlement on the Great Plains. These pioneers viewed Kansas as a “promised land” to escape the discrimination, racial violence, and poor living conditions of the South following the Civil War. They named the town after a legendary enslaved man (by some accounts an African prince) who had purchased his own freedom.
6. Haleakalā National Park, Hawaii
Haleakalā is Hawaiian for “house of the sun.” That may sound like a whimsical way to describe this tropical park, but the Polynesian legend behind the name reveals a superhuman clash. According to folklore, the sun god La was fond of sleeping in and spent his days racing across the sky to make up for his late mornings. The demigod Maui (for whom the island is named) was unhappy with the shortened days, so he climbed to the top of a mountain and lassoed La with a giant handmade rope. Maui held La until he finally agreed to travel more slowly through the sky, drenching the island in the brilliant sunshine it is known for today.
7. Acadia National Park, Maine
Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano named the entire Atlantic coast north of Virginia after Arcadia, an area of Greece known for its idyllic beauty. The Greek name derives from the mythical character Arcas, son of Zeus and the nymph Callisto; Zeus hid Arcas in what would become Arcadia to protect him from Hera’s jealous rage. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, settlers adapted Verrazzano’s name and established the French colony of Acadie in what is now parts of Maine, Quebec, and the Maritime provinces of Canada—a region which now includes Acadia National Park.
8. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
This cave—the first in the National Park System—is named for the gusts of wind that blow in and out of it, changing direction based on atmospheric pressure. When the outside air pressure is higher than it is inside the cave, air flows into a natural fissure in the ground. When the atmospheric pressure is lower outside the cave, air “exhales” through this same fissure. Although all caves “breathe” in this way, the wind at this cave can be particularly strong, because it is a large cave with relatively few openings allowing air to flow.
9. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
Much like Haleakalā, this park’s sweet-sounding name derives from a more elaborate tale—in this case, a tragic one. According to Ojibwe legend, a mother bear led her two young cubs across Lake Michigan to escape a fire that had consumed their Wisconsin den. After reaching the shore, the mother bear waited for her cubs, but the cubs drowned in exhaustion and never made it to the Michigan shore; the mother bear died from grief. The Great Spirit Manitou raised two islands in the water where the two cubs died, now known as North Manitou and South Manitou Islands. These islands and the forested mainland where the mother died make up what is now the national lakeshore.
10. Great Egg Harbor National Scenic and Recreational River, New Jersey
Great Egg Harbor River. Video © Chris Sanfino.
When Dutch explorer Cornelius Jacobsen Mey discovered an inlet of this river in 1614, he was struck by the number of birds—including geese, ducks, seagulls, and plovers—and the nests with eggs that covered the meadows. He called it “Eyren Haven” in his native tongue, literally Egg Harbor.
11. Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico
This national monument preserves the ancient ruins of the Ancestral Puebloans, though the site is named for Adolph Francis Alphonse Bandelier, a Swiss-born archaeologist and scholar who devoted his life to studying indigenous communities of the Southwest, Mexico, and South America. His studies helped establish the importance of understanding and preserving the Ancestral Puebloan culture of the region. His ashes were spread in the canyon in 1980.
12. Appalachian National Scenic Trail
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This famous trail is named for the Appalachian Mountains and the surrounding region that the 2,185-mile path explores. But where did the mountains get their name? This is the subject of much speculation. Accounts dating back to the 1500s seem to agree that the name comes from a Native American tribe known as the Apalachi or Apalachee that lived in North Florida and the region of “Alpachen” that the tribe members described to early explorers. However, the mountains (and the trail) are many miles away from Florida. One possible reason for the geographic discrepancy is that early cartographers, confused by vague descriptions and distances, simply mislabeled their maps and marked the territory of Alpachen much further north, where the name went through adaptations—but ultimately stuck.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits, and moderates online content for NPCA.
- Acadia National Park
- Bandelier National Monument
- Dry Tortugas National Park
- Great Egg Harbor National Scenic & Recreational River
- Haleakala National Park
- Nicodemus National Historic Site
- Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
- Tuzigoot National Monument
- Wind Cave National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Devils Tower National Monument