A few years ago, public television in the United States aired a marvelous, six-episode Ken Burns documentary called The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The doc didn’t get as much media attention — or draw as many viewers — as some of Burns’ other enormously popular endeavors (The Civil War, Baseball, The War) but it was still an entertaining and, not surprisingly, highly informative take on the creation and evolution of America’s spectacular national parks system.
Perhaps the most notable achievement of the entire project, however, is that with three words, the title of the series managed to articulate a fundamental, unassailable truth: the parks system really is “America’s best idea.”
After all, while America is known as the birthplace of countless innovations, it didn’t invent, say, democracy, so there’s no laying claim to that. And while Americans surely invented jazz and baseball — and, even more importantly, rotisserie baseball — those are not really ideas, per se. The parks system, on the other hand, grew out of a wholly American idea — a national philosophy — summed up quite perfectly by a national treasure of another sort, the one and only Woody Guthrie: This land is your land, this land is my land …
Of all the national parks, the one that most immediately and enduringly commands awe is, of course, Grand Canyon. As LIFE wrote in a feature story on the canyon in its Sept. 8, 1947, issue:
Theodore Roosevelt once said of the Grand Canyon, “It is beyond comparison — beyond description — the one great sight which every American should see” …. Gouged out of the high tablelands of Arizona by the ceaseless erosion of wind, rain and the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon is a titanic trough 217 miles long, averaging a mile deep and 4 to 18 miles wide. In its gorge, like the ribs of some vast vertebrate animal, are hundreds of mountain peaks, most of which are taller than any mountains east of the Rockies, yet all are below the level of a tourist standing on the canyon’s rim.