“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.

Comments

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?

GIVE IT TO 'EM THE MAGAZINE USED TO BE A COLLECTORS ITEM ---- NOW YOU CANNOT GIVE THEM AWAY
I HAD 50 + YEARS OF THEM AND HAULED THEM TO THE DUMP WHEN I SOLD MY HOUSE ----- NO ONE WANTED THEM.
----- SEEMS THAT THEY HAVE LOST SOMETHING !!!!!!!!

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.

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My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com

Bob,

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.

Sabattis, this is what I said in the original version of the article:

My criteria say that Santa Fe National Historic Trail shouldn’t even have been made a national park, for crying out loud, much less given a place among the ten best.

So you see, I did originally give SAFE credit for being a national park in that go-around.

As to whether it's OK to call SAFE an "entity," well, I just used the term to denote something having a "distinct and separate existence." You might prefer something else, and that's fine by me. Not the hill I want to die on.

Bob, if you go by the codes, then SEKI is just one unit - back to the issue at hand: I don't know many of the recommended parks, but my guess is, they put diversity on their list over excellence. They spread their 10 parks of choice all over the country, they put in the traditional well known parks into it, mixed in a few historical issues, stirred and let it fry. But in the end the result is ridiculous and not up to the standard we are used by the National Geographic, which is sad.

Sorry, MRC, but saying "if you go by the codes" is a non-starter. The codes are dismayingly unreliable indicators of national park status. There are at least eight instances in which the Park Service has given the same code to two different National Park System units. You've mentioned SEKI, and to that we can add DENA, CRMO, GRSA, LACL, NATR, WRST, and GLBA. Like SEKI, each of those codes is shared by two units of the National Park System, which is to say two different national parks. (I might have missed some examples, in which case we'll probably be hearing from Sabattis.) The Park Service has also given NPS codes to some entities that are not even national parks. The Santa Fe Historic Trail, for example, is not a unit of the National Park System, but has been given the NPS code SAFE. (It is therefore unsafe to assume that SAFE is a national park. How ironic is that?!) The main lesson to take away is this: you can't count national parks by counting codes.

As a former employee of the National Geographic Society, I feel i should point out a few issues that may or may not be at work here:

1) This was a National Geographic book, and while everything NGS puts their name/brand on should really be treated the same, I can tell you they are not. The Book division hurts for money more than any other division at NGS, and I'm guessing that their editorial standards might not be as strict or go through as many levels as it would on the magazine.

2) These days NGS, especially the book division since it's hurting for cash, has a high need to make money. (Most of NGS is considered a non-profit organization, and the magazines and books fall under the non-profit area. Their for-profit divisions include things like the NG Channel and their web site. There's a joke at NGS that the only the non-profit part of the company makes money, and I'm sure it's still true.) As someone said above, I'm guessing that they chose the "parks" they did for this article because they wanted to appeal to as wide of a range as possible. If they picked all parks in Alaska, the Rockies and Pacific Northwest, then they would feel that 75% of the country's population wouldn't be interested because they aren't in their backyard.

3) How they could put a list together of 10 Best National Parks and NOT include Yellowstone is beyond me. Yes, everyone says it's the best. Yes, it's ridiculously crowded on the roads in the Summer. Yes, Old Faithful is a been there, done that phenomenon that is getting old. But I just described less than 1% of the park. Yellowstone is easily one of the most amazing place's on the earth, and its exclusion here shows that the writers/editors were just trying to throw some stuff on a page and get a book published as quick as possible with as little thought as possible.

Sounds like they did a bang up job.

Mookie, if even half of what you say about National Geographic operations is true (and I have no reason to doubt it), we should be including National Geographic in our nightly prayers. That noble institution has gotten itself into a deep hole and is still furiously digging.

For U.S. travelers, looking north reveals many more great national parks, some worthy of this Top 10 list. Consider the Canadian National Parks of Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, Yoho, Kootenay, and Cape Breton, to name just a few.

Now you're talking. I've had the pleasure to sample Yoho and, I think, Kootenay. Definitely need to head that way soon for a longer stay.

"10 best" lists are pointless and ridiculous because each park has its own virtues, purposes and meaning to different people. Sure, you can compile a list of the best national parks based on the quality and diversity of the resources, accesibility to different groups of people, or quality of management, etc., but to do that, you'd quite nearly have to visit and study all 391 NPS units, or at least each of the 58 national parks. How many people have done that? How can you judge if Yosemite is somehow "better" than Yellowstone or other far-flung national parks? Apples and oranges, really. Have you been to American Samoa lately? I hear the local national park there is quite grand, but I have no way to know if it's "better" than, say, Congaree. It's just as difficult to get to American Samoa as it is to get to Kobuk Valley, and it's quite likely that anyone compiling "10 best" lists has been to neither. It seems most "10 best" lists are compiled to boost book sales, magazine circulation and tourism revenue. So, to indulge a bit of futility here, I've compiled my "10 best" NPS units list. It's guaranteed to be different from yours and, like any compiled in any book or blog, have little relevance to anything but my own self-gratification:
10) Natural Bridges National Monument
9) Grand Canyon National Park
8) Great Basin National Park
7) Rocky Mountain National Park
6) Death Valley National Park
5) Colorado National Monument
4) Capitol Reef National Park
3) Arches National Park
2) Great Smoky Mountains National Park
1) Canyonlands National Park

There are some major parks you missed big time:

1) Yellowstone
2) Yosemite
3) Sequoia
4) Redwoods
5) Zion

My list would be:

1. Yosemite NP
2. Yellowstone NP
3. Zion NP
4. Bryce Canyon NP
5. Grand Canyon NP
6. Glacier NP
7. Rocky Mountain NP
8. Olympic NP
9. Sequoia NP
10. Muir Woods NM

It's hard to argue with a list like that, Bob, but perhaps a quibble is warranted. I think your choices for 9 and 10 are a bit redundant, since either would nicely take care of the "big trees" theme. Why not pick one or the other and make room for another of your favorites?

All lists like this are subjective, but I wonder about the credibility of one that doesn't include Yellowstone but does include New Orleans Jazz Park. I agree with the above posts that Rocky Mountain National Park should always been under consideration for inclusion on a ten best parks list.

Shhh! Don't want more visitors spoiling the best of the best, do we? Just a little sarcasm to say you're spot on except I would replace Great Basin with Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

I agree with Bob's list above, only I'd replace Muir Woods with Mt. Rainer National Park. I'd also replace Rocky Mountain NP with the North Cascades. The list would then be:

1. Yosemite NP
2. Yellowstone NP
3. Zion NP
4. Bryce Canyon NP
5. Grand Canyon NP
6. Glacier NP
7. North Cascades NP
8. Olympic NP
9. Sequoia/KingsCanyon NP
10. Mt. Rainer NP

Somewhere, however, I feel obligated to try to squeeze in Crater Lake NP (a great national park, grossly under-appreciated by short-term, stop and go tourists). Of course the same might be said of Rocky Mountain NP as well as many others.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Subjective is right. Look at the last few lists - nearly all in the Western states. I agree that all the parks mentioned are spectacular, but I personally love Shenandoah and Smoky Mountain too. I DO think NG tried to spread them out. How can you choose just 10? This is an incredibly beautiful country and we are so lucky to be able to argue over all the gorgeous places we can go. I visited the Statue of Liberty for the first time 2 months ago and while I did not do any climbing, I talked to Aussies who had just returned from a hike up all those steps; they made a reservation months in advance, they said. (BTW - Statue of Liberty has awful signage getting there - highway exit sign northbound I-95, but not southbound, with a route down an alley back behind warehouses and postage stamp size directional signs - can't someone fix that?)