The National Parks: America’s Best Idea — A New Series from Ken Burns and PBS

Through this stunning new television series you can discover the captivating and unique wonders of our national parks, plus the passionate people who have shaped the history of America’s national parks system — the first of its kind in the world.

| September 25, 2009

  • Mount Rainier National Park
    Mount Rainier National Park in Washington is just one of the many breathtaking destinations you’ll travel to in the new national parks series from PBS and Ken Burns. You can see more elegant national park photos at www.pbs.org/nationalparks.
    CRAIG MELLISH/FLORENTINE FILMS
  • Yosemite National Park
    Yosemite Valley in winter, Yosemite National Park. See more photos at www.pbs.org/nationalparks.
    QT LUONG/TERRAGALLERIA.COM
  • Grand Canyon National Park
    Rainbow from South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park. See more photos at www.pbs.org/nationalparks.
    CRAIG MELLISH/FLORENTINE FILMS
  • Olympic National Park
    Sunset on the Pacific, Olympic National Park. See more photos at www.pbs.org/nationalparks.
    CRAIG MELLISH/FLORENTINE FILMS
  • Katmai National Park
    Grizzly bear fishing for salmon, Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park. See more photos at www.pbs.org/nationalparks.
    CRAIG MELLISH/FLORENTINE FILMS
  • Wind Cave buffalo
    Herd of buffalo, Wind Cave National Park. See more photos at www.pbs.org/nationalparks.
    HARPERS FERRY CENTER/NPS HISTORIC PHOTO COLLECTION
  • Old Faithful
    Tourists at an erupting Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, 1884. See more photos at www.pbs.org/nationalparks.
    HAYNES FOUNDATION COLLECTION/MONTANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
  • John Muir
    John Muir in Yosemite National Park, c. 1902. See more photos at www.pbs.org/nationalparks.
    JOHN MUIR PAPERS/UNIVERSITY OF THE PACIFIC LIBRARY
  • Glacier Point
    Tourist at Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, c. 1902. See more photos at www.pbs.org/nationalparks.
    LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION
  • Great Smoky Mountains
    George Masa photograph of Great Smoky Mountains. See more photos at www.pbs.org/nationalparks.
    CHANDLER GORDON/THE CAPTAIN’S BOOKSHELF INC., ASHEVILLE, N.C.
  • Klapatche Park
    Klapatche Park, Mount Rainier National Park. See more photos at www.pbs.org/nationalparks.
    NATIONAL ARCHIVES & RECORDS ADMINISTRATION/PHOTO BY BOB & IRA SPRING
  • Grand Tetons
    The Snake River at Deadman’s Bar, Grand Teton National Park, June 13, 1941. See more photos at www.pbs.org/nationalparks.
    HARPERS FERRY CENTER/NPS HISTORIC PHOTO COLLECTION/PHOTO BY GEORGE GRANT

  • Mount Rainier National Park
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Grand Canyon National Park
  • Olympic National Park
  • Katmai National Park
  • Wind Cave buffalo
  • Old Faithful
  • John Muir
  • Glacier Point
  • Great Smoky Mountains
  • Klapatche Park
  • Grand Tetons

Where can you find trees that existed before the Egyptians built the first pyramids, rocks that are more than 1.7 billion years old, the world’s greatest collection of geysers and more, all in 84 million acres of breathtaking scenery? Right here, in our national parks — that “treasure house of nature’s superlatives,” which belongs not to rich aristocrats or high-ranking government officials, but to you and every other American citizen. 

To honor these national nature treasures and the history of our parks, PBS and renowned filmmaker Ken Burns spent six years creating The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a six-part series that premiers Sunday, Sept. 27.

The series is packed with interesting history, inspiring personal stories and — it can’t be emphasized enough — awe-inspiring footage of the most beautiful places in the United States. We’ve watched all six episodes and have written short synopses of each to give you a taste of what you’ll see. It’s rough work, we know, but that’s what we’ll do for our readers. In all seriousness, though, this series is stunning; we guarantee it’ll stir your soul. So set your DVR or VCR; schedule some family time to watch it; save those errands for another week — whatever you’ve got to do, don’t miss this.

Part 1: “Our Best Selves”

In the first episode of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, we witness the birth of our national parks system. A few notable points:



  • President Lincoln turns his attention away from the ongoing Civil War to sign into law a bill to protect the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, entreating them to the protection of the state of California.

  • John Muir, the Scottish-born son of a minister, arrives at Yosemite in 1869 to run a lumber mill. He goes on to become one of the greatest wilderness ambassadors of all time.

  • Early descriptions of Yellowstone liken the area to Hell, with its steaming, explosive geysers and boiling mud that smells of sulfur. Two park visitors are killed when the war between the U.S. Army and Nez Perce Indian Tribe enters the park’s boundaries.

As of 1890, the United States has successfully set aside four national parks: Yellowstone, Yosemite, General Grant and Sequoia. But there’s no time to celebrate, as a new challenge presents itself — in the struggle to preserve the integrity of our new parks from commercialization, and destruction by poachers, loggers and scavengers.

Alison Rogers

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