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Short summary

The history of the U.S. National Parks system, including the initial ideas which led to the world's first national parks and the expansion of the system over 150 years.
The history of the U.S. National Parks system, including the initial ideas which led to the world's first national parks and the expansion of the system over 150 years.

Trailers "The National Parks: America's Best Idea "

User reviews


  • comment
    • Author: Tygralbine
    I just finished watching Ken Burn's The National Parks: America's Best Idea, and it's fabulous -- it far far far exceeded any expectations I may have had.

    The series is fascinating, surprising, intriguing, unexpected, and well narrated and voiced and commentated. The visuals are a combination of historical works (photos, footage, articles, etc.), lovely paintings and photos, and of course glorious beautiful high-definition cinematography. The narration (which is so interesting you don't even need to watch the images -- as I learned when I had to eat dinner during part of it -- but who can resist!) is done by Peter Coyote, and the voices of the historical letter-writers, authors, journalists, and so forth is by various luminaries from Eli Wallach, Derek Jacobi, John Lithgow, Adam Arkin, Tom Hanks, and dozens of others. And there are the occasional live comments from historians and other experts from various walks of life.

    It's exquisitely put together and organized, never leaving the viewer bored; stories flow into and out of one another, or end only to be unexpectedly picked up again in a later hour or episode. The story of the parks is told not only through the stories of the politicians and naturalists involved, but also through the lives of everyday people and of artists and photographers (such as Ansel Adams) who loved the wilderness locales. There is a perfect mix of history, nature, beauty, drama, suspense, victories, defeats, and human interest. I was in tears at a few points.

    Although a small handful of the names important to the natural park system are familiar (John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, etc.), the stories involving even those few are quite unexpected and fascinating. The vast majority of the true movers and shakers in the development of the natural parks are, however, gloriously unsung -- and thus doubly interesting because their outsized stories, which affected the country so greatly, are not nationally famous.

    If you wish to purchase the DVD set, it's cheapest on Amazon, and the shipping is free.

    If you watch the series on TV reruns if it ever returns, make sure you do it in order. It starts in 1851:

    1851-1890: The Scripture of Nature

    1890-1915: The Last Refuge

    1915-1919: The Empire of Grandeur

    1920-1933: Going Home

    1933-1945: Great Nature

    1946-1980: The Morning of Creation
  • comment
    • Author: Malakelv
    I knew very little about our National Parks, but Ken Burns has really opened my eyes. This was a spectacular piece of art. I started watching this because there was nothing else on. By the end of the week I couldn't wait to watch the next episode. The program inspired me to look more into the life of John Muir and I even joined the Sierra Club. The National Parks have a vivid history that can only be explained as intriguing and inspirational. The people that worked so hard to give America these beautiful places should be role models for all Americans. There are places I want to go around the world. Because of this program I now know that the world has some wonderful places to see, but America does also and I can't wait to see them. Good job Mr. Burns.
  • comment
    • Author: Nirn
    I am watching this series and am currently viewing part 5. I have been transfixed by the film. I am not a new immigrant, having come here back in 1964, but I have only visited two Parks in all that time I am disgusted to report. I have seen the Redwoods and Crater Lake, but now I want to see much more before it is too late. I just have not paid any attention to the Parks in my backyard it seems. Now I will.

    I would quibble about the frequent references to religion but I understand it because most of the US was religious to some sort of degree. For instance, I did not feel the presence of some supernatural being standing among the redwoods or gazing at Crater Lake. I was impressed for sure but not awed.

    I am mindful of the constant struggle to maintain the Parks and think schools should show major portions of this series in their classrooms. Young people need to be aware of what a valuable and irreplaceable resource we all share. I am sure, given the history of the Park system, that greedy people will continue to try to eat away at it. Vigilance is needed for now and forever. Once this country becomes so crowded it will be most difficult to maintain these Parks. As in the Hetch Hetchy dam the question will always be: What is more important, some scenery or the rights of multitudes who need the resources contained within the Parks? I fear the answer will be the needs of people.

    I appreciate being able to see these videos and have my eyes opened, and tearing at times, many times. Thanks to Ken Burns for making this series.
  • comment
    • Author: Darksinger
    If you can only see one National Park, make it The Grand Canyon. It really is another world. Then buy this 6 DVD set. This is documentary at it's finest. Ken Burns does this extremely well. It kept me enthralled through all 6 episodes. The cinematography is stunning. The history telling is inspiring and spiritual, yet accurate. I discovered some new heroes watching this. This mini-series embodies what democracy is all about. It started with the first National Park and it was an original American idea. That's right, we did it first. This is the kind of pride that shows in this production. This is an excellent addition to anyone's collection, for entertainment and value of American tradition to pass on to upcoming generations.
  • comment
    • Author: watchman
    I absolutely love it! Extraordinary human stories behind the extraordinary beauty. Couldn't help watching it twice every night this week, thanks to WCMU, who broadcast each episode twice. Think I might catch it the third time in this weekend's marathon rerun!

    What more can I add? I would love to hear Garrison Keillor's voice as he would be the best narrator for our national treasures (of which he is one himself).

    Indeed, our National Parks are a place of love, as one commentator said so movingly in the film.

    The history of our National Parks has enriched my appreciation of great nature with humanity... Enough talking, let's go to our National Parks now.
  • comment
    • Author: Blackseeker
    It is another example of what Ken Burns does so well. It is a film that brings a well known but little understood aspect of American history to life. The broad scope of the film is monumental. It covers, in fair detail, the creation of all the major National Parks while delving into the people, the politics, the conflicts, and the personal stories behind the scenes. As with other of Ken's work, you begin to feel that the people in the story are family friends or people you have known for years. You understand how personalities shape events and move American custom and law. You are left with an appreciation of American democracy and freedom and the unruly way Americans sometimes resolve internal conflict…how popularity and simply "the right thing" can win the day after a good fight.

    The film is interspersed with glimpses of typical Americans and reveals their most delicate feelings in experiencing the National Parks. It is very effective at illustrating the transformative power of natural beauty, its healing and empowering effects on the soul, and our deep connections to nature and wildlife and our deep needs for it. The film is as much about the why humans seek to preserve natural beauty as it is a history of it.

    It all works. It is a masterful piece of art and you will enjoy and be moved by it.
  • comment
    • Author: terostr
    The good: The historical information about the early years, about John Muir, Mather, Rockefeller and the railroads. Coverage of the tension between nature-use or "sanctuary vs. tourist resort". The fights to save various areas and their incorporation into the parks, to prevent spoilage of the parks, and the move to save predators, such as the reintroduction of wolves. The beautiful nature photography, and the historical photos.

    The bad: Too many talking heads, such as creepy William Cronon. Peter Coyote has been overused as a narrator, and his voice here is too pretentious and sanctimonious. Too many tedious descriptions of traveler impressions of parks. Too many statements about values of wildness which say or imply they can only be found in national parks.

    The ugly: The violins and weepy sentimentality. Break out the Kleenex! The phony religious and patriotic sentiment, such as the early parts about how the parks are primarily a place to worship a god. Later this becomes a claim it's the patriotic way to be part of America. Too much use of the Lincoln Memorial. Later for example, we get "We tend to put our highest ideals, our highest dreams in our national parks, therefore they function like consciences" - they improve your relation with your fellow man. Gimme a break!

    I love the National Parks. I really like several of Burn's productions, but was bored by "The War". This is almost that bad.

    Here is an example of a great presentation on the same subject, in a specific place: http://www.bigcypressswamp.org/bcs/home.html Elam Stoltzfus knows how to do it right.
  • comment
    • Author: Faegal
    I watched this series because I have very much enjoyed other of Burns' documentary series (The War, Baseball, The Civil War), and because I have some interest in the beauty of some of our National Parks in the West.

    If you appreciate the beauty of nature, you will love this series. The cinematography is uniformly magnificent. The pictures and film of the great western parks most impressed me, but Burns and his crew took wonderful footage of all the parks they surveyed.

    The "storyline" for me was more of a mixed bag. Whereas in The War, The Civil War, and Baseball I thought Burns did a great job of telling a chronological story, here I found that the story of the National Parks took a back seat to a too-large collection of how various average Americans have interacted with the parks. I understand that that is very central to the idea behind this series: that the parks are very closely linked to the average American. I think that point is someone exaggerated, frankly, but it's his point of view. The problem for me, especially in the later episodes, was that the various stories of how Americans have interacted with the parks, what the parks have meant to them, just didn't hold me. That's not a fault of the series. It's just that parts of it didn't coincide with my own interests, perhaps because I have not interacted with the parks as closely. Whereas I felt Burns did a great job, in The Civil War and The War (less so in Baseball), of integrating personal stories into the historical narrative - it is, perhaps, one of his greatest contributions to the art of the historical documentary - here I found that too often it did not work, or at least did not hold me.

    Still, the nature photography is magnificent, and I recommend viewing the series.
  • comment
    • Author: Freighton
    I can't remember a Ken Burns film i have not thoroughly enjoyed. Until this one. I'm also a huge fan of the parks, so i trudged through every episode of this series. But the political and philosophical aspects were nauseating.
  • comment
    • Author: Flarik
    The scenery on a big HD TV rates a "7", but the horrendous talking heads and the complete one-sidedness (John Muir is a God, Pinchot is the Devil) viewpoint of the program rates a "1".

    The pacing was just awful. Realizing that Yosemite and Yellowstone are, arguably, the most important National Parks, way too much time and footage was spent on these two spots and far too little was spent on parks such as Isle Royale and the Florida Everglades, to name two of many parks that were given the short shrift.

    Further, it was jarring to switch from the beautiful scenery to the awful, pedantic and hard to watch commentators. Particularly annoying was talking bobble head William Cronon, who's constant head shaking was reminiscent of the girl in the clip from Gumnaam that's at the beginning of Ghost World (check it out on youtube). Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, with his grating voice, did nothing to further his organization's cause. Revenge of the Nerds came to mind in watching these commentators.

    Also, the overly dramatic, painfully slow reading of many boring letters did little to help the narrative.

    I really wanted to like this. I believe that the National Parks are very important, but this dreadful waste of 12 hours did nothing for this viewer.
  • comment
    • Author: Ariurin
    I want to like Ken Burns' films. I really, really want to like Ken Burns's films. And yet—overall, National Parks: America's Best Idea showcases some of the best things about Burns—but alas more of the bad things.

    Let's start with the good. The park photography is splendid. Burns is as ever a master of the use of panned still images—a technique he pioneered, and which now appears to be in the visual vocabulary of every documentary director. There is quite a lot of interesting information scattered over the 12 hours of this documentary.

    But: Burns' most consistently interesting work—Empire of the Air, Horatio's Drive, The Shakers—has been in shorter films. The multi-episode long form brings out stretches of tedium and long and pointless digressions. To name several in National Parks—the Marion Anderson and Martin Luther King segments (justified by the happenstance that the Park Service manages the Lincoln Memorial); the segment about the couple who visited many different parks; and a great many of the "witnesses" or talking heads.

    There is however a much deeper problem than discursiveness or peripheral topics. When I was at Harvard Business School in the early 1980s, one of my good friends was a post-doctoral student in earth sciences across the river. One evening, he told me "You are not going to believe this. The other day, I was at a faculty cocktail party—and overheard one faculty member say 'Don't you think that we have lost so much in going beyond the hunter-gatherer phase?'" In a nutshell, that is a splendid indicator of the mentality of Burns' core audience—a varying mix of snobbishness, neo-primitivism, nature worship, and general left-wing politics. Left-wing politics, you say? The enviro-version--"corporate greed". If that weren't a worn out theme--particularly to anyone with a shred of economic understanding.

    The intellectual underpinning of Natural Parks fits with much of this complex of ideas. The presiding genius, the core thinker behind the film is John Muir, the naturalist who was largely responsible for the creation of Yosemite Natural Park. One becomes terribly tired of Muir. From Thoreau, he inherits the philosophic error—one might say curse—of solipsism. He couples that with a kind of Transcendental nature worship—for Muir, to say that Yosemite was a cathedral was not a metaphor, it was a statement of fact. Burns takes that point of view and never questions its validity.

    We do have discussions of the two points of view around which national park policy revolves—on the one hand, accessibility and use by the American public, and, on the other, the wilderness, don't touch it at all, Thoreau-Muir-Sierra Club-Wilderness Society philosophy. There ought to be a healthy tension between the two—and yet Burns unquestioningly gravitate towards the latter. There is something deeply anti-democratic about this position—only the chosen few willing to abase themselves may be permitted a view of the wonders of these areas.

    In fact, National Parks very neatly shows that a religious point of view has nothing to do with organized religion. In the film, a nature-worship reverence is posited as the "real" experience of the parks—or what should be the experience of the parts. Speaking personally, I have visited some 16 major parks and national monuments, and had a variety of reactions—aesthetic delight, scientific curiosity, scientific insight—but never nature worship reverence. And I daresay that I am not alone. And I daresay that my reaction is not invalid.

    In a very real sense, National Parks is a polemic for the nature worship that begins with Thoreau and Muir—neither of them first rate philosophers, and neither of them first rate scientists beyond the descriptive and observational. This, perhaps, is what I dislike the most about this film. (Disclaimer: I was trained as a physicist.) A few other cavils—was it really necessary for virtually all of the male talking heads to wear flannel shirts and be bearded up to the eyebrows—a la Muir? And who are these "historians" and "writers"? You could have sliced out a good deal of the commentary and had a much better 8 hours film.

    If you like this sort of a thing—well, that is the sort of thing you like. But I grow increasingly weary of literal pieties wrapped in pretty pictures—which seems to be Burns' inevitable direction. National Parks is a beautiful slide show with a tenth rate narration.
  • comment
    • Author: Mr_Jeйson
    "The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her."

    -A quote of Ralph Waldo Emerson in the movie

    While there is no comparison to actually being in nature, the ideas that are presented in this masterpiece of a documentary are so new and refreshingly different to the common non-nature-goer that it can't help but bring the viewer, thankfully, away from their usual rat race-like trance and rhythm to a realization of a greater good and majestic context of reality.

    What a beautiful and powerful reminder of what belongs to all us and what all of us, in turn, belong to!
  • comment
    • Author: Zetadda
    I had no desire to return to the US until I saw this documentary. Whilst I loathe what most of America stands for, (money, guns, greed and religious fervour.....yes, I'm generalising), I do say I admire the appreciation and position National Parks hold in the American psyche. This documentary is a reflection of that position and is beautifully told.

    I am a fan of the way Burn's tells his stories. I find them simple, poignant and seamlessly told. Burns is a master craftsman and while many may criticise his condemnation of American action at times, I feel he is trying to say - let's not repeat the mistakes of our forefathers by forgetting what has gone before.

    As for John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt and Co., their contributions should, and have been celebrated appropriately.

    I have since returned to the US and been to three National Parks. And to Ken Burns, I am grateful for the fact I did.
  • comment
    • Author: snowball
    While not a travelogue, it nonetheless contains many stunningly beautiful images. And Buzz-kill from Atlanta, put away your thesaurus. We are not impressed. I guess all us hicks that didn't go to Harvard, (funny how everyone who went there or to Yale never fail to mention it within a couple of paragraphs as though that gives their opinions extra credibility), just don't know what to enjoy without being told. Fact is those of us who have visited several of our national treasures can appreciate them for what they are, just that, and glad that the people responsible had the foresight to set them aside before it was too late. As far as I'm concerned, this was a well made documentary and inspires me to visit some of the parks I never thought of prior to watching it. Maybe Buzz-kill should get outside more often.
  • Series cast summary:
    Peter Coyote Peter Coyote - Himself - Narrator 6 episodes, 2009
    William Cronon William Cronon - Himself - Historian 6 episodes, 2009
    Dayton Duncan Dayton Duncan - Himself - Writer 6 episodes, 2009
    Shelton Johnson Shelton Johnson - Himself - Park Ranger 6 episodes, 2009
    Alfred Runte Alfred Runte - Himself - Historian 6 episodes, 2009
    Paul Schullery Paul Schullery - Himself - Writer 5 episodes, 2009
    Carl Pope Carl Pope - Himself - Sierra Club 5 episodes, 2009
    Terry Tempest Williams Terry Tempest Williams - Herself - Writer 5 episodes, 2009
    Murphy Guyer Murphy Guyer - Reader 5 episodes, 2009
    Philip Bosco Philip Bosco - Reader 5 episodes, 2009
    Kevin Conway Kevin Conway - Reader 5 episodes, 2009
    Tom Hanks Tom Hanks - Reader 5 episodes, 2009
    Kim Heacox Kim Heacox - Himself - Writer 4 episodes, 2009
    Adam Arkin Adam Arkin - Reader 4 episodes, 2009
    Lee Stetson Lee Stetson - Himself - Muir Historian / - 4 episodes, 2009
    Amy Madigan Amy Madigan - Reader 4 episodes, 2009
    Lee Whittlesey Lee Whittlesey - Himself - Historian 3 episodes, 2009
    Nevada Barr Nevada Barr - Herself - Former Ranger 3 episodes, 2009
    Juanita Greene Juanita Greene - Herself - Journalist 3 episodes, 2009
    Gerard Baker Gerard Baker - Himself - Park Superintendent 3 episodes, 2009
    Carolyn McCormick Carolyn McCormick - Reader 3 episodes, 2009
    Tim Clark Tim Clark - Reader 3 episodes, 2009
    Derek Jacobi Derek Jacobi - Reader 3 episodes, 2009
    Josh Lucas Josh Lucas - Reader 3 episodes, 2009
    Gene Jones Gene Jones - Reader 3 episodes, 2009
    Eli Wallach Eli Wallach - Reader 3 episodes, 2009
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