At some point in the last six months virtually every person who knows me even half-decently has mentioned that I'd be interested to know that Ken Burns' new documentary series is about the National Park Service. Indeed I am quite excited to see The National Parks: America's Best Idea. Having visited over 150 units of the National Park system (and with ready access to all things southern, I plan to work on that in the near future) I can guarantee that I'll watch every minute of the series. I am not alone in my enthusiasm – the critical anticipation and initial reviews border on fawning. Let's briefly overlook the fact that for every hit like The Civil War or Mark Twain Burns has pinched off at least as many turds (Baseball, Jazz, Lewis & Clark). This is no time to get cynical. I choose to think good thoughts about it.

That said, I'm worried. The normal person buried inside of me thinks, "Wow, this speaks directly to my interests!" The rest of me thinks, "Great, how many more assholes in SUVs is this going to bring?"

It's not a secret among people who enjoy the outdoors that several of the most well-known natural attractions in this country are very difficult to visit. Yellowstone is essentially unvisitable during warm weather. Visitors to Great Smoky Mountains or Shenandoah in any season except winter end up sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for a couple hours. Yosemite is grossly overdeveloped, with Bay Area day-trippers apparently requiring a full-sized supermarket in the valley to meet their needs. Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon are excellent places to meet every Japanese tourist or rented RV full of unhappily vacationing Midwestern families on the planet. Glacier, despite its size and remote location, is always packed. These places attract large numbers of visitors because they are spectacular, but the throngs of suburbanites who want to experience Nature through the window of their Ford Excursion are overwhelming to people who actually want to escape.

The secret, of course, is that there are secrets. Few people know of or visit Guadalupe Mountains, Pinnacles, Chiricahua, Walnut Canyon, Bent's Old Fort, Theodore Roosevelt (North Unit, thank you very much), or Craters of the Moon. Yet these are just a handful of places that are as amazing as the big names – and better, because there's no one there most of the time. We devoted fans trade tips about lesser-known places and take pains to ensure that we do it quietly. The last thing we want, of course, is for something like a popular TV series to blab all of the system's secrets. A few Ken Burns segments about Chaco Culture or Capulin Volcano will be enough to blow their cover.

I will continue looking forward to this series, but I hope it sticks to the attractions that are already badly overcrowded and most recognizable to a typical TV viewer. Like one might bake a separate birthday cake for the kids to ruin in order to protect the real one, I get the impression that the NPS has written off the Yellowstones, Yosemites, and Smokies of the system and is looking to save the rest. The big name parks are revenue makers and attention getters. They're for the casual fan, the dilettante. They are to the outdoors what Fela Kuti is to world music. While it's not my place to judge how other people prefer to enjoy a public good, I'd be more than happy to keep the RV and diesel generator crowd focused on Yellowstone and ignorant of our hidden gems.

15 thoughts on “AMERICA'S WORST IDEA”

  • This is why I love Utah. Our national parks (Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, etc.) are well-known and recognizable enough to be accessible to most people of average fitness and outdoors ability, but not so much so that I have to weave my way around some fatass from Omaha who's trying to feed a Twinkie to a squirrel when I go to see the park.

  • Granted, Baseball was deeply flawed but it did give us almost a half an hour of Buck O'Neil interview footage and is therefore indespensible. Also, it can't be stressed enough how differently baseball was perceived in 1994. Bill James was still a fringe figure, Nate Silver was a teenager and FJM wasn't even a twinkle in eye of @KenTremendous.

  • The superhyperpopular Parks subsidize the little treasures, and while that's not necessarily a good thing in every way, it's the best we've got right now. It's like putting up with college football because it pays for the swim teams, gymnastics, tennis, track, and so forth. Mostly.

    Still, even at the Parks that are becoming huge parking lots it's possible to get away from the RVs and the beer-swilling dorks by putting on some hiking boots–or some other shoes, since it doesn't take a whole new wardrobe to actually do something that barely approaches mildly strenuous–and walking a mile or three.

    As for the unhappy vacationers: yes, they show up in droves. Somehow, having a house on wheels doesn't allow everyone to get away from it all. I've always had a preference for vacations where nothing is done, so I don't do dishes, laundry, or make beds in any way other than rolling them up. Cooking is something others take great pleasure in, but I camp with nothing to cook, brew, heat, or prepare in any way other than by unwrapping. What's the point of visiting someplace if you're going to see it out your window from above your sink? May as well go vacation in a WalMart parking lot or an industrial park in New Jersey if that's the vacation.

  • One of the most amazing places we have ever been is Havasupai Canyon. It is an arm of the Grand Canyon and home to the Havasupai Indian Reservation. Gorgeous cliff walls, lush greenery and a whole series of tremendous waterfalls. The best part though is that it wasn't crowded and there were very few tourists of the type you mentioned. Why? Well you have to drive at least an hour from anything considered habitable and then hike 10 miles down into the canyon. (Your only other options are a donkey ride, which we did use for hauling our gear, and an expensive helicopter trip). In addition, reservations are required to camp down in the canyon and they do a fairly good job of keeping the flow of people to a reasonable level. It is actually a part of the reservation and hence not a National Park, but it is definitely worth checking into to truly enjoy the wonders of the Grand Canyon sans tourists.

  • I am as you are Ed, but writ on a smaller scale. My wife and I are fans of the Minnesota State Park system and we've visited all 72 at least once. The most popular are packed all summer long but that keeps the unknowing masses from my faves and subsidizes their existence. Imaging camping in a State Park with nobody else there, heaven, I tell you, heaven…

  • Yam brings up another gem – the state park systems. Here in Wisconsin there are actually some places of stunning beauty (Devils Lake, Copper Falls). These places can be busy at the wrong time of year, but the vast majority are empty for all intents and purposes 75% of the time – especially during the winter when I think they are even more spectacular!

    As for Burns' documentary drumming up business for the NPS, I have my doubts. Unless you can point to spikes in the interest levels for Jazz, Lewis and Clark, the Civil War or Baseball, I think the secrets will remain safe, even if Burns shows them off. Frankly, I think most people are too lazy to go out of their way to visit them…

  • I've been going regularly to two different favorite NJ State Parks for the past 40 years, and one of them is STILL undiscovered to this day. I don't tell a soul which one…

  • In Texas, virtually every park has campsites booked for 3 months out at a minimum, 6 months for the more popular places.

    I've taken to rogue camping on private land so that I don't have to put a tent down less than 10 feet from a pack of high school kids and half of their dad's liquor cabinet.

  • In our state (IN) there are designated nature preserves that are not on standard maps. These are amazing refuges of peace where no camping, fires or vehicles are allowed. I've visited nearly very one with friends and we have often been the only group of people in the entire reserve. Some are over 1000 acres, extremely clean, no trails and have many of the oldest trees in the state. Nature preserves are a great idea because they are normally donated and designated as such in perpetuity. I am going to donate my 58 wooded acres when I die, but for now it's my own private camping ground, year 'round.

  • Holy cow. Someone else who's been to Copper Falls.

    As long as we're talking Wisconsin, don't forget the two NPS units — Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and St Croix National Scenic River — and the USDA national forests. The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest has some astoundingly lovely areas for camping, most of which are extremely underutilized because they're "primitive," i.e., there might be a latrine and a water source, but individual campsites have no hookups.

    I have qualms about the Burns work, although from the other perspective. My fear is it's going to be way too mcuh cheerleading for the half dozen places everyone already knows about and are busy loving to death while the other 390+ units in the system are ignored, resulting in more shitloads of money being thrown at GRCA or YELL while resources at the obscure units continue to crumble.

  • Here in California, we have many many lovely places to visit. That said, I will now proceed to slag Ken Burns.
    Every 'documentary' Burns has come out with (most especially Jazz) has had the penumbra of eulogy. Everything he documents, his intent is embalming.
    I can only conclude that he believes the Uberpopular Parks have, in fact, been loved to death; now he spins his spidersilk of praise to preserve them (visually, at least), for future generations. Necrophilia as art.

  • Making my 37 look downright paltry. True, the full-blooded National Parks are a little crowded, but I'm pretty sure I was the only visitor when we went to Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial and Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. There were two other hikers at Scotts Bluff while we were there. Then you start looking at the number of Non-Southerners at the Civil War sites, and I can't help but think that getting more people to the National Park System Units is not a terrible idea. If it ends up like our trip to Rocky Mountain, the tourists won't leave Estes Park, and if they do venture into the trails, there are 2 miles that will be crowded. I'll still have peaceful rest along a mountain lake all to myself.

  • Hanauma Bay on the Hawaiian island of O'ahu is a prime example of how tourists can ruin a pristine natural environment. I visited my Mother's home island in 1987 at the age of 9. I remember huge schools of fish nipping at my legs as I snorkeled around the bay. My father was stationed on the other side of the island at Schofield barracks in the early '70s. But, he spent most of his time in the military SCUBA diving and island hopping. He has stories, slides, and videos of many of the beaches of Hawai'i. Hanauma bay, which had been sheltered for hundreds of thousands of years, was even more full of fish back then.

    Since the '60s, as many as 3 million visitors a year have visited Hanauma Bay. And, the results have been disastrous. I snorkeled there 4 years ago, and I seriously almost cried because of the state of the bay. The reef is gray. The largest groups of fish I saw were around 10 or 20. You are required to watch a video that tells you not to stand on the reef. But every 50 feet or so is another tourist standing on the reef, clearing out their mask, or blowing out their snorkeling tube.

    Everyone should have an opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty of the world. But, there has to be a way to keep idiots away from places they can do damage to.

    Everybody should

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