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“10 Best National Parks”? National Geographic, You Have Got to be Kidding!


Nancy Reagan waves from the crown, where visitors can't go anymore. Wikipedia Commons photo.

Please understand two things right off the bat. First, this is not a book review. It is a commentary on a section of a book, and that is a very different sort of thing.

Secondly, you shouldn’t read any further if you really, really adore National Geographic and think NG can do no wrong. You won’t like what follows.

Back in March, National Geographic published a book by Nathaniel Lande and Andrew Lande titled The 10 Best of Everything, Second Edition: An Ultimate Guide for Travelers.

The book includes “ten best” lists for a lot of things, including beaches, islands, climbs, walk and hiking tours, gardens, hideaway & inns, cruises, drives, vistas, delis, patisseries, chocolates, and much more. There is a “10 Best National Parks” list in there too (on pages 64-70), and that’s all I’m dealing with here. For all I know, those other lists are just fine.

But the part of the book dealing with national parks is not just fine. Not by a very long shot.

The authors put these parks (well, nearly all of them are parks) on their “10 Best National Parks” list:

Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks (California)
Yosemite National Park (California)
Gettysburg National Military Park (Pennsylvania)
Alagnak Wild River (King Salmon, Alaska)
Santa Fe National Historic Trail (CO, KS, MO, NM, and OK)
Statue of Liberty National Monument (New York)
Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina and Virginia)
New Orleans Jazz Historical Park (New Orleans)
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii)
Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

How do you come up with a list like this? Well, the authors present their compilation with these words: “Here are what we feel are the ten best of the system.” (Italics are mine.)

So, the authors have got some sort of national park "feel-o-meter"? How do we ordinary folk get one of those? Lord help me, all I’ve got working for me is criteria.

Let me tell you a little bit about my criteria. My criteria put Yellowstone National Park and and Glacier National Park and Acadia National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a whole bunch of other fine parks a damn sight higher on the ‘ol pecking order than, say, Alagnak Wild River. (Not to say that the Alagnak isn't a fine river, but it isn't even the best of the National Park System's river units in Alaska.)

My criteria say that a park is one park. That's one, as in O-N-E. When you say "Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks" you are referring to two national parks. That's two, as in T-W-O. We've been given a "10 best national parks" list with 11 parks on it. Hmmmmmm.

Wait a minute. Sabattis has just reminded me that only national parks should be on a list of best national parks. Good criterion, that one. Santa Fe National Historic Trail is not a national park, just an entity that the Park Service helps to administer in partnership with federal agencies, state and local governments, organizations, tribes, and private individuals. So the count is back to 10. That's better.

My criteria say that a national park unit should be referred to by its proper name. The "10 best" list in the book includes something called "Alagnak Wild and Scenic River," but there's no such unit in the National Park System. Hmmmmmm. We've got one called Alagnak Wild River, and that's pretty close, so I suppose that's the one that you mean. Anyway, that's the one I included with the others in the main list.

My criteria say that you should know the meaning of basic geographic terms if you are going to use them to specify location. This goes doubly for an organization that proudly carries the geography banner into the battle against ignorance. Take a look at this statement accompanying the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park listing (on page 70):

When Congress passed legislation that created the park in 1994, the intention was “to preserve the origins, early history, development, and progression of jazz. And what better place to do this than New Orleans, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, where the uniquely American art form was born.”

Say WHAT?! By specifying Mississippi Delta, a geographic term that’s about as neatly defined and unambiguous as New England, the authors have managed to move New Orleans hundreds of miles north and into the state of Mississippi. Better tell New Orleans residents that they can stop paying Louisiana taxes. Better tell the people in the Delta that they invented jazz, because they still think they gave birth to the blues. What are they doing here, working on a script for Dumb and Dumber III?

My criteria say that somebody who includes a landscape photograph that doesn’t match any of the ten parks on the list, and which is not even captioned or identified, has a considerable regard for aesthetics but no regard for readers.

My criteria tell me that I ought to be mighty leery about taking advice from somebody who doesn’t know the difference between people and their culture. Consider the following hilarious statement that the authors included in their paragraph-long Blue Ridge Parkway Parkway narrative: “Plenty of remnants of the region’s mountain people who once lived here exist along the way.” Yup, but you have to dig up graves to see them, and I’m not into that myself. (I do think it’s neat that there are numerous relics of the mountain people’s culture that can be seen along the parkway.)

My criteria say that somebody who urges Statue of Liberty visitors to climb up to the crown of the statue – something the National Park Service banned after September 11, 2001, and will not resume until 2009 at the earliest – doesn't even know what the hell is going on at the parks whose virtues he’s extolling. BTW, visitors currently are not permitted above the pedestal level, which is where the statue's toes are.

My criteria say that people who don’t know how many national park units there are (391, not just “more than 370,” which is the tally that existed more than a decade ago) ought not to be telling other people what parks are best.

National Geographic, you should be embarrassed for publishing piffle like this “10 Best National Parks” list. I say this as one who has been a professional geographer for 44 years, and who has loved National Geographic magazine since I first learned to read.

Shame on you. Your editor was out to lunch, to put it kindly, when he reviewed this list and the narrative that went with it. Next time, choose an editor who knows something about the national parks and is not too lazy to check the facts. The final check should be done by a pro who respects National Geographic, his profession, and his readers.

Your proofreader was asleep at the switch, too. Hint: If you are going to capitalize National Park System, do it every time, not just some of the time.

National Geographic, you are an American institution. What an incredible franchise you have! Common sense says that you should take great care to ensure the quality of your product and protect your good name. When you get careless and start putting your imprimatur on shoddy work like this “10 Best National Parks” thing, you don’t just disappoint your fans, you also violate the public trust.

All of us who have come to trust you will expect better from you in the future.

Oh, and by the way; we'll be publishing a Traveler top 10 list of national parks -- or rather, a top ten list for each of several categories of national park units. And by golly, we'll even share our criteria.


That's the ticket. Take on the institution. Stick it to the "man". I have been reading your articles for some time now and have always found them informative and educational. I will take the word of a 44 year pro as to where I should visit. It feels wonderful to vent doesn't it?


I haven't seen the article myself, but if what you say is true, and they made a Top Ten list without any published criteria, then shame on them.

People look for different things in the parks. Some look for convenience with majesty, others look for remoteness & untouched nature. I'm a day hiker and casual nature enthusiast, my criteria for a Top Ten list would differ greatly from a wilderness camper/fly fisher. I have a fondness for history, and Harper's Ferry is one of my own favorite NPS sites. Someone who isn't in to such things, it would assuredly be on the bottom of the list.

It might be interesting for us to post our own Top Tens, with criteria. I'm sure you'd get a dozen different lists.


My travels through the National Park System:


1) you are right about the "Alagnak Wild River," but I regret to say that the National Park Service is partly responsible for perpetuating this problem.

Some rivers are designated Wild in one place, and Scenic or Recreational, in another. This confuses the poor dears, too. But the main thing is the people who run this program don't really know much about national parks. These guys are into recreation, not park management.

The NPS program is called the "National Wild & Scenic Rivers Program" and for administrative purposes those people like to name ALL the rivers -- which are actually designed "Wild" or "Scenic" or "Recreational" rivers by the law -- in the same catch-all "wild & scenic" name. NPS is also making the same mistake with some of the parks and preserves in Alaska. For example, they call it "Wrangel-St. Elias National Park & Preserve" when IN FACT congress designed the "National Preserve" separately from the "National Park." Each is a separate unit. They are more enchanted with the manager who administers the combined areas. Right now, there is an effort underway to name the collection of separate national park system areas in San Francisco "Golden Gate National ParkS" to enhance the prestige of the superintendent.

2. I've been on the Alagnak, and it's a nice river. But if you want to go to Alaska and see one national wild river, try the "Noatak National Wild River."

I think I'd put the Noatak on the top of my list among Alaskan rivers, but I don't know anyone who has canoed or kayaked them all. Maybe Pat Pourchot. It is hard to fathom why anyone would put the Alagnak at the top, not to speak ill of a great resource.

How come Rocky Mountain National Park never gets the credit it deserves? I'm a guide at Grand Canyon but I'd take RMNP any day over GCNP. I realize I'm in the minority here, but still...

Great post, Bob. Once upon a time, the National Geographic Society had a missions "to increase and diffuse geographical knowledge." Unfortunately, as almost any editor these days can tell you - making a "list" or a "rankings" is a quick-and-easy way to generate copy. And it looks like National Geographic has decided to go the quick-and-easy-route. Alagnak Wild River????? I am not even sure that Alagnak Wild River is one of the "10 Best National Parks in *Alaska*", let alone in the United States.

And of course, I can't help but chuckle and note that they really did end up with 10 National Parks on their list. As you point out, they included both Sequoia and Kings Canyon, which are two Parks, but also the Santa Fe National Historic Trail (which is not.)

So I'll close with one thought to ponder. If National Geographic had included Denali National Park & Preserve on their list of "10 Best Parks" - should National Geographic have been dinged for actually having 11 Parks? After all, the National Park Service inexplicably counts a remote corner of Denali National Park & Preserve as somehow being a separate Unit of the System.....

Sabattis, thanks for the reminder about Santa Fe National Historic Trail. My weaselspeak excuse is that I was lulled by the fact that the trail has a code (SAFE) like a regular national park does. Thank goodness you were not similarly stupefied. If you will look at the article again, you'll note that I went back in and revised it to take care of that little problem with the trail. You'll also note that I gave you credit. As for that quick-and-easy gambit, my guess is that an NG higher up would direct one of the organization's spokesweasels to tell us that the list in the book is not an "official" NG list, and that we should aim our criticism at the book's authors. But, just for the record, I don't intend to play whack-a-mole with National Geographic. Your DENA comment is interesting. Counting national parks (or dealing with their names/designations) is like falling into quicksand; the harder you struggle, the deeper you sink and the more hopeless you feel.

Interesting.... I could swear that you had also pointed out that Santa Fe NHT is not a "Park" in the original post - you just put it further down your list of critiques. Oh well, not a big deal. If we want to quibble, though, I think that I might give the Santa Fe NHT - and the other Long-Distance Trails that are not "Units" of the National Park System - a little more credit than being just an "entity." Once completd, I think that the National Park Service will establish a continuous "route" for each Trail, which is saying something, even if most of the sites along the route will be administered by "partners", rather than the National Park Service itself.

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