Ken Burns surveys splendor of our 'National Parks' for PBS

Summer may be a fading memory by now, but Americans planning vacation trips can find year-round pleasure at some of the country's crown jewels: its national parks.

Documentarian Ken Burns chronicles the sprawling, often politically charged history of how those preservation areas came into being in "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," a stunning six-part, 12-hour documentary miniseries airing Sunday through Friday, Sept. 27-Oct. 2, on PBS (check local listings).

Directed by Burns and co-produced with longtime colleague Dayton Duncan, who wrote the script, "The National Parks" was filmed in high definition over more than six years in breathtaking natural locales ranging from the Florida Everglades to the Gates of the Arctic park in Alaska, with ample time devoted to tourist magnets such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.

Much more than an expensive travelogue, however, the miniseries sheds new light on the often dicey and emotion-packed wrangling that went into preserving these lands, which was a radical notion in the early stages.

"When Teddy Roosevelt in 1903 wanted the Grand Canyon, the most self-evident national park you could ever imagine, it had been proposed as a national park in 1882," Duncan explains. "Congress was unwilling to do it because of local and political opposition to it. So using the tools of the Antiquities Act, (Roosevelt) made it the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. Eleven years after that, it finally became a national park.

"From 1882 to 1919 – it took that long, that much of a fight, for the grandest canyon on Earth to become a national park. That tells you that … saving a place like that is never easy. And it also tells you that there are people with perseverance who will keep at it until they finally succeed."

The only agenda the filmmakers have, however, is to boost attendance at the parks, Burns says.

"We hope more than anything else … that every park superintendent will be angry at us (because) there are traffic jams in Yellowstone and Yosemite and the Grand Canyon," he says.