The park has a long history and was one of the first areas to be explored in the city. The land was originally used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years before British Columbia was colonized by the British during the 1858 Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. For many years after colonization, the future park with its abundant resources would also be home to Non-Indigenous settlers. The land was later turned into Vancouver's first park when the city incorporated in 1886. It was named after Lord Stanley, 16th Earl of Derby, a British politician who had recently been appointed Governor General. It was originally known as Coal Peninsula and was set aside for military fortifications to guard the entrance to Vancouver harbour. In 1886 Vancouver city council successfully sought a lease of the park which was granted for $1 per year. In September 1888 Lord Stanley opened the park in his name.:254
Unlike other large urban parks, Stanley Park is not the creation of a landscape architect, but rather the evolution of a forest and urban space over many years. Most of the manmade structures present in the park were built between 1911 and 1937 under the influence of then superintendent W.S. Rawlings. Additional attractions, such as a polar bear exhibit, aquarium, and miniature train, were added in the post-war period.
Much of the park remains as densely forested as it was in the late 1800s, with about a half million trees, some of which stand as tall as 76 metres (249 ft) and are hundreds of years old. Thousands of trees were lost (and many replanted) after three major windstorms that took place in the past 100 years, the last in 2006.