Made for Each Other

Inside the national parks you’ll find natural—and man-made—wonders

Like millions of other people, I spent a big chunk of the fall watching Ken Burns' epic PBS documentary about our national parks. Much of it was familiar—a grizzly here, a geyser there, plunging canyons, towering trees, purple mountain majesties, etc., etc.—but heart-stoppingly beautiful just the same. Still, after seeing the same view of Yosemite Falls for the umpteenth time (Here it is in sepia! Here it is in glorious color!) I found myself thinking, OK, very nice—but when do we get to the buildings?

Don't get me wrong: I'm a big fan of scenery. Having grown up on the Plains, I am blown away by rugged mountains, deep forests, and blue lakes. When I'm driving through a stretch of pretty country, I have to fight the urge to stick my head out the window and try to lap it all up like a big, dumb golden retriever. I'm grateful that visionaries like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt and Stephen Mather worked so hard to keep so many incredible places from being plowed under or paved over. But while we're celebrating the accomplishments of these great nature-lovers, let's not forget that the national parks embrace a host of man-made wonders too. Sure, "the best idea America ever had" protects a stunning array of sweeping vistas—but there's lots of bricks and mortar (not to mention wood and concrete and steel) in the parks.

Historic sites in the National Park Service's care range from Alcatraz to Independence Hall, with everything from Mesa Verde to Abraham Lincoln's home and the shimmering Gateway Arch in between. Even the parks that are best known for their natural beauty boast plenty of historic structures—like the delightfully rustic El Tovar Hotel on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, the simple farmsteads at Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains, the huge mining structures at Wrangell-St. Elias, the slightly wacko Scotty's Castle in Death Valley, or any of the thousands of cabins and lookout towers and bathhouses erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the New Deal era.

All told, the nearly 400 units in the national park system incorporate a mind-boggling 27,000 significant structures. These places link us with everyone from original inhabitants and pioneer settlers to 20th-century park planners and vacationers. Modest or monumental, they represent important chapters in our nation's story, which is a lofty way of saying that they're worth hanging on to. And that's why we've included several park structures on our "11 Most Endangered" list over the years, and why Save America's Treasures has raised millions of dollars to help preserve them, and why everyone who loves the parks ought to take a minute to celebrate the buildings that dot—and often enrich—the landscape.

I found a photo taken in Grand Teton National Park. In the background loom the Tetons themselves—a stunning wall of jagged peaks splotched with snow, rising straight up from the valley floor to the stratosphere, looking more like fantasy than geology. In the foreground is a barn, weathered and well used, looking pretty much like a million other barns, except that here, its steeply pitched roof precisely mimics the shape of the mountain behind it. Seen together, mountain and barn say something important and meaningful about the American West, about the glories it offers and challenges it poses, about the way people have responded to both. Happily, the whole scene—mountains and barn and everything else in sight—belongs to all of us. That's good news, because that mountain and that barn were made for each other.

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