Have you been watching the Ken Burns documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea? Ken Burns is one of those artists who can't be denied. His style is so distinctive that it's easily parodied, but each film is fascinating and entertaining. I think my favorite is the one on the Brooklyn Bridge, but so far The National Parks has been breathtaking.
It's made me feel very grateful for the parks — grateful that I've been able to visit so many, but also eager to visit all the ones I haven't. (I do not own, but would love to have, a copy of Passport to Your National Parks, which lets you collect stamps from every park you visit. I might ask Santa for one.)
Anyway, these are five national parks I especially love. Leave your own recommendations in the comments section.
1. Colonial National Historical Park, Jamestown/Williamsburg/Yorktown, VA. An easy and frequent field trip for anyone who grew up in Tidewater Virginia. We went about once a year, alternating among Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. Jamestown and Williamsburg have guides who dress in period clothing and speak in character as people of their time. That must be hideously uncomfortable in summer.
2. Fort Sumter National Monument, South Carolina. Fort Sumter is an island in the middle of Charleston Harbor, and was the target of the first shot fired in the Civil War. The National Monument includes Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, as well. My mother's family, who came from Charleston, used to spend summers on Sullivan's Island; my mother had early memories of seeing German prisoners-of-war sunbathing on the grassy lawns inside Fort Moultrie's walls. Fort Moultrie is accessible by car, but you have to take a ferry to Fort Sumter. The boat ride to Fort Sumter was always a highlight of any visit to my grandparents.
3. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. Mesa Verde has to be seen to be believed: a city built into a series of cliffs, which housed a bustling community for more than 700 years (550 AD to 1300 AD). It's an unforgiving structure built into an unforgiving landscape. Ladders and steep stairs take you from one level of the city to another, temperatures range from the teens in winter to the 90s in summer, and the mesa stands at an elevation of 7,000 feet. But the views are spectacular, which was the point; the city was a natural defense against all enemies. Dried beans found in one of the dwellings were germinated after hundreds of years; you can order Anasazi beans descended from that discovery for your own dinner.
4. Yosemite National Park, California. An obvious choice, but pictures don't do justice to the scale and beauty of this park, which seems to distill everything good about the pioneer spirit. The sky goes on forever, over mountains and meadows and forests. In November 2001, still reeling from the events of September 11, a group of my friends and relatives rented a cabin in Yosemite for Thanksgiving weekend. We brought our own food and drink -- ridiculous quantities of both -- went hiking every day, looked at the stars every night, and were profoundly, deeply thankful for each other and the American dream. And then we did it all again two years later. I recommend it.
5. Zion National Park, Utah. The single most beautiful place I've ever seen, a combination of sandstone cliffs and forest that can be hot and cold, sunny and rainy and even snowy at the same time. Zion celebrates its 100th anniversary as a national park this year. It is a reasonable driving distance from Las Vegas (150 miles) and St. George, UT (46 miles). It is a place everyone needs to see, and a place I need to go back to.