Ken Burns’ new series, The National Parks, America’s Best Idea, began Sunday night on PBS stations, and is slated to run for six nights. (If you missed the first part, don’t worry. There are ways to catch up online and on TV.) The photography is amazing, as is the poetry used to describe the scenery, and you’d be forgiven for sitting gape-mouthed, as I did, through the majestic tour and sweep of the parks’ landscapes and history.
The U.S. National Park System is truly a treasure, with more than 84 million acres in 400 parks around the country, most of them quite majestic and full of fun things to do and see and ways to relax amid impossibly picturesque nature.
The National Park System began 150 years ago, spurred on both by the glory of California’s Yosemite Valley, and the specter of Niagara Falls, on the U.S./Canadian border, which at that early date had already had many of its scenic overlooks privatized by people charging tourists for the famous views.
It was John Conness, the junior senator from California, who introduced a revolutionary bill that proposed setting aside a large tract of natural land for the future enjoyment of everyone.
In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the law to preserve an area he had never even seen. California took over more than 60 square miles of federal land, on the condition that the land would forever be preserved for “public use, resort, and recreation.” In years and decades to come, John Muir and then Theodore Roosevelt would champion the National Parks, further embedding them in Americans’ psyches and popularizing their use.
The PBS National Parks web site is extremely rich with pictures, history and maps, so you can learn more and get out and explore a national park. The U.S. National Park Service web site is another great place to discover a park near you. It offers a great activity search tool, so you can also find some fun things to do once you get there.
Photos: Acadia National Park, ME (two photos); Muir Woods, CA; Grand Canyon, AZ; Acadia National Park (a great, somewhat challenging, very rewarding bike loop, in addition to hiking); Grand Canyon (lots of good hiking trails in addition to the world-famous view); Muir Woods (on the recent National Day of Service.)