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Ken Burns' The National Parks: America's Best Idea

An episode guide


Ken Burns' The National Parks: America's Best Idea

A view of Mount Rainier National Park.

© Craig Mellish, Florentine Films

The National Parks: America's Best Idea is a six-episode series directed by Ken Burns and written and co-produced by Dayton Duncan. Taking more than six years to shoot, the documentary showcases the country's most spectacular landmarks. The audience takes a historical journey through the national parks system – from Acadia to Yellowstone, the Everglades to the Grand Canyon, and more.

The series differs from other national park documentaries as Burns focuses more on the people than the lands themselves. The parks system was created by bold individuals – leaders understood the importance of preservation and conservation. Burns introduces people from every conceivable background – rich, poor; presidents, soldiers, scientists, natives, artists and entrepreneurs – those who were willing to devote their lives to leaving portions of our lands completely untouched.

The National Parks: America's Best Idea is an engaging, educational, and moving tribute to our parks. If you missed the series, which was aired on PBS in association with National Parks Week NYC, you may view full episodes online. A summary of each episode is listed below.

Episode One: "The Scripture of Nature"

Travel from 1851–1890, viewers learn how the amazing geysers of Yellowstone give birth to the radical idea of creating national parks. John Muir is introduced and takes his place as the parks defender.

Episode Two: "The Last Refuge"

In this episode (1890–1915), President Theodore Roosevelt becomes one of the national parks' greatest supporters. Also showcased is Yellowstone National Park and a species rescued from extinction. In Yosemite, John Muir fights the battle of his life to save a stunning valley.

Episode Three: "The Empire of Grandeur"

With the absence of John Muir, the years of 1915-1919 bring forth a new leader in preserving our lands. A new federal agency is created to protect the parks. And in Arizona, a fight breaks out over the fate of the grandest canyon known in America.

Episode Four: "Going Home"

While America enjoys the automobile (1920–1933), this episode explores a couple seeking fame and adventure in the Grand Canyon. Also highlighted is the race to save the Great Smoky Mountains whose fate laid in the hands of lumbermen. And the story of a Nebraska housewife is told as she searches for peace in park after park.

Episode Five: "Great Nature"

1933–1945 brought economic catastrophe and a world war, and the national parks provided a source of much-needed jobs. While the park idea evolves to include new places and new ways of thinking, battle lines are drawn along the Teton Range in Wyoming.

Episode Six: "The Morning of Creation"

The series finale explores the years from 1946-1980 bringing heartfelt human stories. The audience meets a stubborn individual fighting a lonely battle on behalf of a species nearly everyone hates. Also, America's "Last Frontier" influences the future of the park idea. Lastly, see how American families created unforgettable memories and passed on a love of the parks to the next generation.

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