Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Five Favorite National Parks

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.


Karen Olson said...

I totally agree that Zion is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

We spent a few days at Yosemite a couple of years back. Stunning. As long as you stay away from the crowds.

I would also include Joshua Tree and the Canyon de Chelly on my own personal list.

AnswerGirl said...

Joshua Tree is also stunning, but I haven't spent enough time there. I'd like to go back. I'd also like to see the Canyon de Chelly, and the Petrified Forest.

If my list ran to ten parks, the next five would be Saguaro National Park, Arizona; Ellis Island, New York; Appomattox Court House, Virginia; Fort Smith National Historic Site, Arkansas; and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York.

Acadia, here, is also beautiful, but I've only been there once, in the company of someone who could not have been less the outdoors type. I hope I can get back within the next month, before the snow falls.

Anonymous said...

In my youth, my dad used to get the Golden Eagle pass when we took family trips in a car with pop-up camper. My memories are of the scenery but now how I absorbed it all. I have had a long relatioship with Acadia, but otherwise, as an Adult, I have only visited Crater Lake, Mt Ranier, and the Everglades. All Different, all facinating


AnswerGirl said...

I have seen Mt. Rainier only from a distance, and visited the Everglades only briefly. Crater Lake is on the short list of places I'd like to see, along with Glacier National Park -- and what I'd really like to do is take a summer to follow the Lewis & Clark trail.

Anonymous said...

When I lived in the southwest we took lots of road trips - and I'm lucky to have been to Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon and White Sands, which is amazing. Your eyes tell your brain you're looking at snow. Then your brain catches up and reminds you you're looking at sand in a desert. Our National Parks make me proud to be an American. That may sound corny, but so be it.

AnswerGirl said...

I don't think that's corny at all; I think that's the point of this documentary.

Anonymous said...

I loved visiting the forts of Charleston too! Especially before they were cleaned up and renovated. The National seashore of Cape Cod is definitely on my list of favorites!


Art said...

I like the Badlands for their general badness. Yellowstone for its beauty, its fauna and the otherworldliness of its thermal areas. And I'm a sucker for the Great Smoky Mountains, my ancestral home.