There are more than 4,000 stories in the Adventure Journal archive. Here’s a favorite from 2014 that we wanted to dust off and put back on the homepage to allow new readers to enjoy. -Ed. 

When Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan titled their 2009 documentary and book project “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” it was pretty hard to argue. I mean, yes, there’s the internet and the bacon cheeseburger, but come on – Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Glacier, et cetera, et cetera? They were definitely a pretty damn good idea.

Here’s why we think so:


1. The Superlatives
The highest point in North America (Denali), the lowest point in North America (Badwater Basin in Death Valley), the highest peak in the Lower 48 (Whitney), the tallest tree in the world (Hyperion), are all in U.S. national parks.

2. Getting Away And Not Getting Away
Yes, national parks can be crowded with cars and tourists, but most of us understand that getting a mile or two from the trailhead usually ditches the crowds. No park illustrates this better than Yellowstone, famous for its traffic and crowds of hundreds watching Old Faithful erupt, but also containing the most remote (furthest from a road) spot in the Lower 48.

Yellowstone. Photo: Yannick Menard

3. The Facilities
Because if you’re gonna put some buildings in a wild place, you might as well be able to buy a beer at the bottom of the Grand Canyon (Phantom Ranch) or sleep in a bunkhouse at the foot of the Tetons (Grand Teton Climbers’ Ranch), or order a cup of coffee at 11,796 feet (Rocky Mountain National Park Alpine Visitors Center).

4. A Little Help
Ed Abbey would probably scoff at the chains (and the paved trail) going up Angels Landing in Zion National Park, and the cables on Half Dome, but for thousands of people who would never have otherwise had the experience of climbing to those places, those amenities are pretty great. But let’s stop short of the proposed Grand Canyon tramway, shall we?

5. The Entertainment
You can stand in El Cap Meadow scanning the sea of granite for climbers, or shoot photos of grizzly bears or moose from the bus in Denali National Park, or watch the herds of elk in Rocky Mountain National Park. But do not feed the squirrels. Anywhere. Thanks.

6. The Diversity
Ocean cliffs in Maine, 750-foot-tall sand dunes in Colorado, 20,000-foot peaks in Alaska, tropical wetlands in Florida, the busy highway running through America’s busiest national park (Great Smoky Mountains) to the completely roadless, trailless Gates of the Arctic National Park, the spectrum of landscapes in the U.S. national park system is quite amazing.

7. Those Old WPA Posters
Of Grand Teton NP, Yellowstone, Glacier-the originals. And some of the re-creations, too.


8. Free Maps!
They’re not a hell of a lot of good for hiking, but it’s hard to unfold a national park map and not wish you had more vacation time.

9. They Show Off Utah
We’re pretty big fans of Utah’s desert. Included in Utah’s National Parks: The steep soaring sandstone walls of Zion canyon (Zion NP), the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, the world’s highest concentration of sandstone arches (Arches NP), and the striped needles of Canyonlands National Park. And Capitol Reef isn’t too bad either.

10. Alaska Too
No offense to the other states, but Alaska has eight national parks. Eight.

11. Free Entrance Days
Of which there are five in 2020, and four remaining: April 18 (first day of National Park Week), August 25 (NPS birthday), September 26 (National Public Lands Day), and November 11 (Veterans Day).

12. We Invented the Idea
Fact: Yellowstone National Park, in 1872, was the world’s first national park. The concept has since caught on.

Photo by Aiddy/Flickr.

Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.

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