Over the past few of years I’ve watched a few episodes of Ken Burns’ epic documentary National Parks: America’s Best Idea. In preparing for a trip to several of the National Parks in Arizona and Utah, I had a hankering to revisit the series and found this handy episode guide that describes the themes of each episode and which parks are featured. You can learn a lot about the history and the parks themselves from even just part of an episode.
I especially enjoyed Episode 4, which features the story of a married couple who traveled to almost all of the National Parks in existence during their lifetime together. Through a detailed journal and scrapbook, the wife documented their trips and expresses her awe and happiness she feels while traveling. I began to feel a real bond with this woman who died about 30 years before I was born. Traveling to new places, especially in nature, is often when I feel the most alive and happy, the most excited yet at peace. And traveling with a loved one, sharing hikes and the experience of the parks together, creates a special memory that exists outside of the sometimes monotonous routine of everyday life.
Catch ’em All!
One thing that hasn’t changed in all these years is the collector mentality of trying to visit all of the parks. In their day, the husband and wife could collect a sticker at each park and display them on their car. Today, you can buy a National Park passport and get cancellations (stamps) and stickers inside just as you would when visiting another country. Naturally, I had to get my own book and start my collection!
A side effect of researching the passport was learning just how many National Parks there are – 59, in fact. I had only heard of twenty or so, and visited a handful. I’ve decided to make it a life goal to visit all 59. And what fun – in addition to the passport, there is also a poster you can buy and fill in each park as you visit it:
Of course, The National Parks aren’t the end-all be-all of the most beautiful and scenic places you can go in a lifetime, but it’s quite a start. Even visiting a dozen or so of the parks provides a striking picture of the varied and wild landscape in which we live. One has to admit that we Americans are truly lucky to live in a country with so many natural wonders, climates, and landscapes.
At What Cost
The Parks themselves are important for protecting and educating us about the wilderness, but they also raise interesting questions about how accessible the wilderness should really be. In my obsessive preparedness for canyon country, I also read Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. Abbey spent some of his younger years as a park ranger in Arches when it was a National Monument and not yet a Park and wrote the essays that became Desert Solitaire.
Abbey shares some rather radical views that I didn’t always agree with – for example, that parks shouldn’t bother making the wilderness accessible to the infirm, elderly, or small children. However, he also postulates that the wilderness should be wild and not easy to access for the casual, car-driving American. By making the parks so car-friendly, he argues, it actually takes away from what people seek when they visit a park – an escape from parking lots, noise, pollution, and crowded roadways. The parks have made a good attempt at avoiding this by providing shuttles (at Bryce, Grand Canyon, and Zion), but even so, I can see how the perfectly pristine paved trails and dozens of maintained overlooks almost make it too easy to ignore the actual trails used to really experience these areas. Not only that, but they can give a wild, unpredictable environment a kind of museum-like atmosphere that may invite people to simply photograph instead of experience. These are things I pondered as we hiked the parks, and am still thinking over now. There must be a fine line between making the parks available to us while preserving their untamed nature.
“A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.”
– Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
I will share more about the canyon country parks we visited in subsequent posts, but as of now my Park tally is as follows:
- Bryce Canyon*
- Capitol Reef*
- Grand Canyon*
- Grand Teton
- Great Smoky Mountains
*Parks we visited during our recent southwest trip.
And here is my must-visit list, the parks I am most excited to someday explore:
- Great Basin
- Crater Lake
- Mammoth Cave
If you want a super quick video overview of each National Park without watching the 12-hour (!) Ken Burns documentary, I found a series called America’s 58 National Parks (I suppose one more was created since it came out). It’s available to stream if you have Amazon Prime. There’s about 5 minutes on each park, with some exceptions like Grand Canyon which get a 20- or 30-minute treatment.