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Backpacker Magazine – October 2009

Watch It, Hike It: An Episode-by-Episode Guide to The National Parks: America's Best Idea by Ken Burns

Catch these highlights from The National Parks: America's Best Idea, then download maps to hike to them yourself.

by: Kelly Bastone

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Ken Burns
Ken Burns

Episode One (airs 9/27) "The Scripture of Nature" (1851-1890)
Yosemite Valley was the world's first wilderness park, entrusted to the state of California in 1867. John Muir arrived soon after and surfed avalanches, charged bears, scaled waterfalls–sans technical gear–and climbed Sierra summits with nails punched through his shoes for traction. Later, Congress saw ample reason to set aside Yellowstone, too, but made it a national park, since Wyoming hadn't yet achieved statehood.

Hike It
Admire Yosemite Valley on this eight-mile out-and-back from Rockslides trailhead to Rainbow View, a blown-open panorama of natural wonders–El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Falls–and no development.

Episode Two (9/28) "The Last Refuge" (1890-1915)
Severed buffalo heads and acres of stumps: A raw scene of destruction opens this episode, emphasizing the devastation that stirred President Theodore Roosevelt to protect more of America's wildlands. In 1903, he spent two weeks in Yellowstone, home to the last herd of wild buffalo, hiking up to 18 miles a day, lunching on hardtack and sardines. Then he hit the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, where he camped with Muir beneath the sequoias. After his return to Washington, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, empowering him to create Devils Tower, Chaco Canyon, and–despite local protest–Grand Canyon National Monuments.

Hike It
Follow a bison migration route used by the only direct descendents of America's great herds on this 21-miler across Yellowstone's Central Plateau.

Episode Three (9/29) "The Empire of Grandeur" (1915-1919)
To drum up support for parks, millionaire industrialist Stephen Mather (eventually the first director of the National Park Service) took fellow fat cats on a two-week trek through the Sierra. They dined on silver and china, slept on newly invented air mattresses, and sweated up 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney. They were so inspired that they cleaned up tin cans littering popular campsites–and supported proposals in Washington to establish Hawaii Volcanoes, Denali (then Mt. McKinley), and Grand Canyon National Parks.

Hike It
Scale the mountain that inspired more parks on the 12.4-mile Mountaineers Route.

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