Picks and Pans Review: Touring America's National Parks

updated 08/27/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Billed as a "journey through 20 of the country's greatest treasures," this 65-minute overview, in its second edition, inspires and informs. Detail-filled narration notes, for instance, that Yellowstone, which in 1872 became the world's first national park, is the most expensive park system in the world and contains "half of the world's geysers." We are told that Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee is "covered with more types of trees than all of Europe." The tape also includes clips of magnificent cliffs and wondrous canyons and other examples of Mother Nature's bewitching artistry found in such parks as Zion, Bryce, Arches, the Olympic and Carlsbad Caverns. It's enough to make you tie the luggage to the car roof and start out cross-country, Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's Vacation notwithstanding. (Questar Video, Inc., $29.95; 800-544-8422)

YOSEMITE—THE FIRST 100 YEARS

Despite the fact that this 60-minute tape is produced by the Yosemite Park & Curry Company—the park's major concessionaire—this video still does Yosemite proud without seeming like one long commercial.

The tape begins with the valley's history and its discovery by gold rushers in the mid-19th century. Native Americans—the Miwoks—had lived there until they were forced out by the settlers. (The Miwoks called the valley Ahwahnee, meaning gaping mouth, which it resembles. The white settlers derived "Yosemite" from the Indian word for grizzly bear.)

It didn't take long for tourists to arrive, "trekking in over dim trails eager to see if the reported cliffs and waterfalls were as sky reaching as rumored," we're told by an unidentified narrator. But it wasn't until Oct. 1, 1890, that the valley was declared a national park, thanks to the efforts of naturalist John Muir.

There are majestic shots of the waterfalls and giant sequoias. There are also clips from the '20s and '30s showing that the park has, gratifyingly, changed very little.

There's no information on where to stay or how to get there. Still, this video is informative and would be an ideal keepsake for those enthralled by the park, which must include everyone who has ever been there. (Panorama International Productions, $16.95; 209-372-1227)

THE GREAT SMOKIES—A WILDLANDS SANCTUARY

While Yosemite rivals Yellowstone for the title of most spectacular national park, neither is the most popular. That distinction belongs to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which attracts 10 million visitors a year to its 17,014 acres. This probably has more to do with the park's proximity to major population areas than anything else—not that the range isn't magnificent, as this well-made video shows.

The Smokies are "the crown jewel of the Appalachians." narrator Telly Savalas tells us. While Savalas is a curious choice for host, he is, as it turns out, a good one. He tells us that the first settlers arrived in the early 1800s and that a century later much of the Smokies was destroyed by lumbering. With the help of John D. Rockefeller Jr., outraged citizens were able to buy out the land for what became, on June 15, 1934, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This video, originally seen on cable's Discovery Channel, offers a fresh feel for what it's like to visit the park—following hikers, for instance, along the Appalachian trail, almost half of which is in the Smokies.

There's pertinent information too, such as how the mountains got their name: from the near-constant haze in the region, caused by humidity and abundant greenery, combined now with air pollution. Savalas notes that "in the last 35 years visibility has declined by about 30 percent."

While at 90 minutes the tape goes on too long, with all its pictorial pleasures of waterfalls, wildlife and lush landscapes, it's enough to make you want to wax poetic.

Hmmmmm, what might Kojak say? "The vistas, the valleys, it beats chasing crooks down alleys. Hey, Smoky, who loves ya, baby?" (Panorama, $29.95; 615-436-7318)

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