13 user 6 critic

The National Parks: America's Best Idea 

0:49 | Clip

Watch Now

With Prime Video

The history of the U.S. National Parks system, including the initial ideas which led to the world's first national parks and the expansion of the system over 150 years.




Won 2 Primetime Emmys. Another 5 nominations. See more awards »



Learn more

More Like This 

The Dust Bowl (TV Mini-Series 2012)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.2/10 X  

A documentary about the 1930s drought of North American prairie farm land, and its consequences during the great depression.

Stars: Dorothy Williamson, Donald Worster, Timothy Egan
Baseball (1994–2010)
Documentary | History | Sport
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 9.2/10 X  

A documentary on the history of the sport with major topics including Afro-American players, player/team owner relations and the resilience of the game.

Stars: John Chancellor, Daniel Okrent, Ossie Davis
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (TV Mini-Series 2014)
Documentary | Biography | History
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.8/10 X  

A documentary that weaves together the stories of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, three members of one of the most prominent and influential families in American politics.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Edward Herrmann, George Will
Documentary | Adventure | Biography
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.6/10 X  

The story of the most important American exploration expedition in American history and the participants in it.

Director: Ken Burns
Stars: Hal Holbrook, Adam Arkin, John Logan Allen
Prohibition (TV Mini-Series 2011)
Documentary | History
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.2/10 X  

The story of the American activist struggle against the influence of alcohol, climaxing in the failed early 20th century nationwide era when it was banned.

Stars: Peter Coyote, Pete Hamill, Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Jazz (2001)
Documentary | History | Music
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.6/10 X  

A survey of the musical form's history and major talents.

Stars: Keith David, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet
Documentary | Biography | History
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.8/10 X  

A biography of the life and work of the American architect.

Directors: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick
Stars: Edward Herrmann, Philip Bosco, Julie Harris
Documentary | Adventure | History
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8/10 X  

The saga of Horatio Nelson Jackson, the first man to cross the United States by automobile--in 1903!

Director: Ken Burns
Stars: Keith David, Tom Hanks, Adam Arkin
The West (TV Series 1996)
Documentary | History | War
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.4/10 X  

Stephen Ives' "The West" is a PBS 4-Video Series co-produced by Ken Burns: - "Death Runs Riot" 85 min. - "Fight No More Forever" 85 min. - "Ghost Dance" 58 min. - "The People" 82 min.

Stars: Peter Coyote, N. Scott Momaday, Murphy Guyer
Mark Twain (TV Movie 2001)
Documentary | Biography
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.4/10 X  

A biographical film about the acclaimed American humourist and author.

Director: Ken Burns
Stars: Keith David, Kevin Conway, Philip Bosco
Documentary | Biography | Sport
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.3/10 X  

The story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American Heavyweight boxing champion.

Director: Ken Burns
Stars: Jack Johnson, Keith David, Samuel L. Jackson
The War (2007)
Documentary | History | War
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 9.1/10 X  

A seven-part series focusing on the many ways in which the Second World War impacted the lives of American families.

Stars: Keith David, Katharine Phillips, Tom Hanks


Series cast summary:
Peter Coyote ...  Himself - Narrator 6 episodes, 2009
William Cronon William Cronon ...  Himself - Historian 6 episodes, 2009
Dayton Duncan Dayton Duncan ...  Himself - Writer 6 episodes, 2009
Shelton Johnson Shelton Johnson ...  Himself - Park Ranger 6 episodes, 2009
Alfred Runte Alfred Runte ...  Himself - Historian 6 episodes, 2009
Paul Schullery Paul Schullery ...  Himself - Writer 5 episodes, 2009
Carl Pope Carl Pope ...  Himself - Sierra Club 5 episodes, 2009
Terry Tempest Williams Terry Tempest Williams ...  Herself - Writer 5 episodes, 2009
Murphy Guyer Murphy Guyer ...  Reader 5 episodes, 2009
Philip Bosco ...  Reader 5 episodes, 2009
Kevin Conway ...  Reader 5 episodes, 2009
Tom Hanks ...  Reader 5 episodes, 2009
Kim Heacox Kim Heacox ...  Himself - Writer 4 episodes, 2009
Adam Arkin ...  Reader 4 episodes, 2009
Lee Stetson Lee Stetson ...  Himself - Muir Historian / ... 4 episodes, 2009
Amy Madigan ...  Reader 4 episodes, 2009
Lee Whittlesey Lee Whittlesey ...  Himself - Historian 3 episodes, 2009
Nevada Barr Nevada Barr ...  Herself - Former Ranger 3 episodes, 2009
Juanita Greene Juanita Greene ...  Herself - Journalist 3 episodes, 2009
Gerard Baker Gerard Baker ...  Himself - Park Superintendent 3 episodes, 2009
Carolyn McCormick ...  Reader 3 episodes, 2009
Tim Clark Tim Clark ...  Reader 3 episodes, 2009
Derek Jacobi ...  Reader 3 episodes, 2009
Josh Lucas ...  Reader 3 episodes, 2009
Gene Jones ...  Reader 3 episodes, 2009
Eli Wallach ...  Reader 3 episodes, 2009


The history of the U.S. National Parks system, including the initial ideas which led to the world's first national parks and the expansion of the system over 150 years.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis







Release Date:

27 September 2009 (USA) See more »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Florentine Films,WETA See more »
Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


(6 episodes)

Sound Mix:




Aspect Ratio:

1.78 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


Featured in Ken Burns: America's Storyteller (2017) See more »

Frequently Asked Questions

This FAQ is empty. Add the first question.

User Reviews

Beautiful but boring and philosophically objectionable
4 October 2009 | by buzzerbillSee all my reviews

I want to like Ken Burns' films. I really, really want to like Ken Burns's films. And yet—overall, National Parks: America's Best Idea showcases some of the best things about Burns—but alas more of the bad things.

Let's start with the good. The park photography is splendid. Burns is as ever a master of the use of panned still images—a technique he pioneered, and which now appears to be in the visual vocabulary of every documentary director. There is quite a lot of interesting information scattered over the 12 hours of this documentary.

But: Burns' most consistently interesting work—Empire of the Air, Horatio's Drive, The Shakers—has been in shorter films. The multi-episode long form brings out stretches of tedium and long and pointless digressions. To name several in National Parks—the Marion Anderson and Martin Luther King segments (justified by the happenstance that the Park Service manages the Lincoln Memorial); the segment about the couple who visited many different parks; and a great many of the "witnesses" or talking heads.

There is however a much deeper problem than discursiveness or peripheral topics. When I was at Harvard Business School in the early 1980s, one of my good friends was a post-doctoral student in earth sciences across the river. One evening, he told me "You are not going to believe this. The other day, I was at a faculty cocktail party—and overheard one faculty member say 'Don't you think that we have lost so much in going beyond the hunter-gatherer phase?'" In a nutshell, that is a splendid indicator of the mentality of Burns' core audience—a varying mix of snobbishness, neo-primitivism, nature worship, and general left-wing politics. Left-wing politics, you say? The enviro-version--"corporate greed". If that weren't a worn out theme--particularly to anyone with a shred of economic understanding.

The intellectual underpinning of Natural Parks fits with much of this complex of ideas. The presiding genius, the core thinker behind the film is John Muir, the naturalist who was largely responsible for the creation of Yosemite Natural Park. One becomes terribly tired of Muir. From Thoreau, he inherits the philosophic error—one might say curse—of solipsism. He couples that with a kind of Transcendental nature worship—for Muir, to say that Yosemite was a cathedral was not a metaphor, it was a statement of fact. Burns takes that point of view and never questions its validity.

We do have discussions of the two points of view around which national park policy revolves—on the one hand, accessibility and use by the American public, and, on the other, the wilderness, don't touch it at all, Thoreau-Muir-Sierra Club-Wilderness Society philosophy. There ought to be a healthy tension between the two—and yet Burns unquestioningly gravitate towards the latter. There is something deeply anti-democratic about this position—only the chosen few willing to abase themselves may be permitted a view of the wonders of these areas.

In fact, National Parks very neatly shows that a religious point of view has nothing to do with organized religion. In the film, a nature-worship reverence is posited as the "real" experience of the parks—or what should be the experience of the parts. Speaking personally, I have visited some 16 major parks and national monuments, and had a variety of reactions—aesthetic delight, scientific curiosity, scientific insight—but never nature worship reverence. And I daresay that I am not alone. And I daresay that my reaction is not invalid.

In a very real sense, National Parks is a polemic for the nature worship that begins with Thoreau and Muir—neither of them first rate philosophers, and neither of them first rate scientists beyond the descriptive and observational. This, perhaps, is what I dislike the most about this film. (Disclaimer: I was trained as a physicist.) A few other cavils—was it really necessary for virtually all of the male talking heads to wear flannel shirts and be bearded up to the eyebrows—a la Muir? And who are these "historians" and "writers"? You could have sliced out a good deal of the commentary and had a much better 8 hours film.

If you like this sort of a thing—well, that is the sort of thing you like. But I grow increasingly weary of literal pieties wrapped in pretty pictures—which seems to be Burns' inevitable direction. National Parks is a beautiful slide show with a tenth rate narration.

9 of 41 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you? | Report this
Review this title | See all 13 user reviews »

Contribute to This Page

Stream Trending TV Series With Prime Video

Explore popular and recently added TV series available to stream now with Prime Video.

Start your free trial

Recently Viewed