New national parks book a solid guide, but leaves plenty up for debate

April 23, 2011

We love to travel. We love our national parks. And we love a good argument.

So there's a lot to embrace in the new book National Geographic's "The 10 Best of Everything: National Parks." But there's some stuff to pick at, too.

For example, seeing Acadia top the list of best places to watch sunrise and sunset made me smile. But after leafing through the book, I was disappointed that my favorite Revolutionary War battlefield — Cowpens — didn't make the cut.

But Bob Howells seems pleased by both reactions. As a contributing editor, it was his job to cast a keen eye on public lands and help decide which spots were tops in each of 80 categories.

"We expect it and we welcome it," he said of questions about what made the book and what didn't.

Debates abound when personal beliefs are tested. Washington or Lincoln? Williams or DiMaggio? Harry Potter or Frodo? Ginger or Mary Ann?

Surprisingly, while debate among the six contributors was "spirited" it never deteriorated into a get-down-on-the-ground-and-roll-around melee as the cuts were made, Howells said.

The result is a book families can reference to chart a vacation, couples can use to help plan a wedding or hobbyists of all kinds can rely on to tailor a visit to their liking.

Yes, one of the nearly 400 parks was teacher's pet.

"Yellowstone," said Howells. "No surprise."

The park was No. 1 in seven categories, ranging from fly fishing and nature sounds to horseback riding and "charismatic megafauna" (think moose, elk, bison, bear). It made the Top 10 on 14 other lists. Howells said the writers finally agreed to give Yellowstone a rest and let the other kids play, too.

"There are so many categories we could have put Yellowstone in and we didn't," he said. "You can't go wrong with Yellowstone."

Or, it seems, Yosemite, which led four lists (waterfalls, epic hikes, rock climbing and short backpacking trips) and was included on 15 others.

But the Middle Atlantic national parks weren't too shabby.

Assateague was rated No. 1 for its beach, beating Cape Cod, Virgin Islands and Cape Lookout. The 37-mile-long barrier island also got high marks for hiking trails, nature exploration and campgrounds for tents and RVs.

The 184.5- mile C&O Canal towpath made the epic hikes list for its history and beauty. Harpers Ferry is cited for its white-water thrills. Delaware Water Gap is noted for its flat-water paddling opportunities. Big Rock Falls, just a 3-mile hike from Shenandoah's Byrd Visitor Center, gets a thumbs-up as a great swimming hole.

Somewhat surprisingly when it comes to fall foliage, the Blue Ridge Parkway beats Maine's Acadia National Park, the aspens in the Rockies and Utah's Zion, with its golden cottonwoods looming over the Virgin River. The Parkway also scored with the grits at the Mabry Mill Restaurant.

Fort McHenry gets a mention, but where the region really shines is in its Civil War battlefields, with Gettysburg and Antietam listed 1-2 and Gettysburg getting an additional nod for its ranger-led programs.

Sadly, the authors gave away one of my favorite hidden gems: the 1930s-era cabins at Catoctin's Camp Misty Mount. While they aren't for every camper, they are a wonderful throwback.

Howells said there were some categories that had to be dropped — pets, for one — because the authors couldn't come up with 10 candidates. On the other hand, some categories made a case for themselves. One of his favorites (and mine) is the 10 best parks for night skies.

"The National Park Service recognizes night skies as a natural resource and an endangered resource. We felt it appropriate to tell readers about the beauty and wonder of the skies above," he said. "You not only see the Milky Way in all its wonder, but you can stand in some parks and Venus and Jupiter will cast your shadow on the ground."

The East Coast, with its carpet of light pollution along the I-95 corridor, isn't much of a player except for Acadia, an island surrounded by small communities that don't find the need to illuminate every nook and cranny.

Utah grabbed the top two spots — Bryce Canyon and Natural Bridges National Monument.

Howells said the latter is rated a 2 on the nine-step Bortle Dark-Sky Scale; a 1 is equivalent to "what the sky looked like before the invention of the light bulb."

But where's Cowpens, not only a smashing victory for the Yanks over the Brits, but a terrific management lesson for matching manpower to the challenge?

With nearly 400 national parks, to each his own, Howells said.

"Sometimes," he said, "the geography or the buildings might not be what makes the impression. Sometimes it's the story or the ghosts that are present and speak to you that make a park memorable and remarkable."

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