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Wonders of the National Parks: A Geology of North America

Wonders of the National Parks: A Geology of North America

Ford Cochran,
Geologist and Program Director, National Geographic

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Welcome Sierra Readers

Wonders of the National Parks: A Geology of North America

In partnership with
Ford Cochran,
Geologist and Program Director, National Geographic
Share This Course
Course No. 1707
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What Will You Learn?

  • Discover how glaciers form and their historical advance and retreats. Also, learn how a glacier is like a candy bar!
  • Chart the geology of Appalachian Trail and journey to a continental collision that raised mountains.
  • Learn the story of the Grand Canyon - a geological saga of deposition and erosion that started 1.7 billion years ago.
  • Use fossilized flora and fauna to open a window on ancient ecosystems, extinct species, and the history of life on Earth.
  • Learn how more than 2,000 natural arches formed in the Arches region.

Course Overview

In 1872, a wondrous region called Yellowstone was set aside as the world’s first national park, giving adventurous travelers access to a geologist’s paradise that seethes with pent-up volcanic forces. As more and more national parks were created—not just in the United States but also in Canada and Mexico—geologists were revolutionizing their field, piecing together a detailed understanding of how the world works. National parks have made these magnificent reminders of the awe-inspiring power of our planet accessible to everyone. Today, there is no better education in the remarkable forces that formed our world than a tour of the national parks of North America. These parks capture a special place in our hearts and draw millions of tourists each year.

From Yellowstone’s bubbling, steaming landscape to the great slabs of granite along Acadia’s shores, each park contributes its own chapter to the story of Earth. Most visitors get only a superficial view of these sites, guided by the informational signposts or tour books, but there is so much more to be discovered. Our national parks offer profound lessons for anyone who loves history, geology, and nature. This course provides in-depth insights, intriguing perspectives, and riveting little-known facts about these treasured places that you won’t find simply by driving through them. And the next time you do drive or hike through a national park, you’ll have a deeper appreciation for the forces—geological, historical, and otherwise—that shaped it.

You will learn how our majestic parks provide dramatic evidence of geological processes such as:

  • Colliding continents: From Maine’s Acadia National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, the rolling Appalachians are the eroded remnants of once-mighty peaks formed in the collision of ancient continents.
  • Glaciation: The magnificent valley that welcomes visitors to Yosemite National Park is the work of vanished glaciers that were nearly a mile thick. Glaciers sculpted this region and much of North America in a succession of pulses during Earth’s latest ice age.
  • Uplift and erosion: Imagine a board lifting into a buzz saw. A similar phenomenon produced the Grand Canyon and other breathtaking chasms in the American West, as the Colorado Plateau rose and fast-flowing rivers sliced through the land.
  • Volcanic Hotspots: Deep beneath Yellowstone National Park is a huge magma chamber that erupted as a supervolcano 640,000 years ago and will explode again. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park hides a tamer, fiery hotspot.

Formed just 16 years after Yellowstone was dedicated as a park, the National Geographic Society has led the way in securing protection for America’s most important natural wonders. With a connection to the national parks that stretches back all the way to the 1800s, the National Geographic Society has maintained an abiding interest in their creation and preservation, sponsoring scientific and exploratory expeditions; featuring the parks in scores of magazine articles, books, and films; and working to raise awareness and support for national parks at home and abroad. Apart from the National Park Service itself, no other organization has compiled as impressive an archive of maps and images, assembled as knowledgeable a staff, or been as committed to educating the public on the subject of these national treasures.

We are proud to join forces with this extraordinary institution to present Wonders of the National Parks: A Geology of North America, a fascinating introduction to geology that forged North America’s national parks. Beautifully illustrated, these 36 half-hour lectures take you to more than a hundred spectacular sites guided by geologist and former college professor Ford Cochran, who is currently the Director of Programming for National Geographic Expeditions. He is a storyteller and an explorer at heart who specializes in interpreting landscapes for a variety of audiences.

No previous background in geology or science is needed to experience the thrill that these lectures offer, just a sense of curiosity as you unravel the mysteries of some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet.

Learn about Every National Park…and More

The scope of this course is truly astonishing. Professor Cochran covers every national park in the United States, together with exceptional state parks, national monuments, historical parks, marine sanctuaries, and other preserves, plus a number of outstanding parks in Canada, Mexico, and beyond. Anyone planning a trip to one or more of these sites, whether a weekend outing or a transcontinental expedition, will find their experiences immeasurably enriched by Professor Cochran’s insightful and entertaining presentation. And just staying at home watching the series is an adventure itself!

As a special bonus, three of National Geographic’s top experts appear in interview segments following many of the lectures. Photojournalist Chris Johns was the first journalist onto Mount Saint Helens after it erupted in 1980, and he recently stepped up from Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic magazine to oversee all editorial content creation at National Geographic. Biologist and wildlife documentary producer John Francis is currently National Geographic’s Vice President for Research, Conservation, and Exploration. And Kaitlin Yarnall is one of the gifted cartographers behind National Geographic’s famous maps, now serving as Executive Editor for Cartography, Art, and Graphics at National Geographic magazine as well as Director of Cartography for the Society. These three creative professionals add their fascinating perspectives to Wonders of the National Parks, rounding out the experience to provide truly enriching lessons.

The Greatest Spectacle on Earth

Many visitors to national parks never go beyond the most accessible sites, but this course shows how to experience the breathtaking diversity of these places in depth. You learn how each park fits into the geological epic of North America—a story of mountain ranges created by the collision of tectonic plates, of oceans rising and drowning the lowlands, of volcanoes raining ash and liquid fire, of glaciers growing to towering heights and scouring the terrain down to the bedrock, of desert sands burying entire regions, of earthquakes transforming the land in an instant, and of the tenacious, erosive power of flowing water. If it sounds like the greatest spectacle on Earth, it is!

Drawing on his wide experience as a field geologist and National Geographic expedition lecturer, Professor Cochran has plenty of recommendations for must-see attractions and activities. Here are just a few:

  • Driving: A National Geographic staffer once told Professor Cochran that Canada’s Icefields Parkway was “the most spectacular drive anywhere.” He took the trip and discovered why. The largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains, it stretches from Banff National Park to Jasper National Park along the Continental Divide.
  • Hiking: Among the many hikes suggested by Professor Cochran, he especially loves the West Rim Trail at Zion National Park. The awe-inspiring views of the sandstone canyons carved by the North Fork of the Virgin River are well worth the walk.
  • For the more adventurous:
  • Canoeing and kayaking: A tranquil river trip takes you through the dramatic badlands of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, retracing a portion of Lewis and Clark’s epic voyage.
  • Rock climbing: One of the oldest rivers on the continent, paradoxically called the New River, has worn a gorge into a uniquely hard form of sandstone that is a nearly perfect rock for climbers, who flock to New River Gorge National River to test their skills.

Remind Yourself: “This Is Real!”

In addition to geology, Wonders of the National Parks also touches on botany, zoology, atmospheric science, and other disciplines as they relate to specific protected areas. The course also explores the role that humans have played in these distinctive landscapes. For example:

  • Gettysburg: Gettysburg National Military Park provides a geology lesson wrapped up in a history lesson. Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge, and other key sites in the three-day battle owe their existence to the rifting that opened the Atlantic when the supercontinent Pangaea split apart.
  • Gold rush: Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve includes gold formations mined during Alaska’s great gold rush. Just as in California’s gold fields, seafloor subduction and other tectonic forces created the right conditions to concentrate the glittering element in rocks near the surface.
  • John Wesley Powell: One of the founders of the National Geographic Society was John Wesley Powell, who led the first expeditions through the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau, including the Grand Canyon. His vivid reports brought these future parklands to public attention.
  • Ansel Adams: The world’s most revered nature photographer did his most famous work in the parks of the American West. Professor Cochran takes Adams’s classic view of Yosemite Valley and reads it like a book, pointing out the riveting geological story it tells.

With a career at National Geographic spanning more than 20 years, plus his professional training in geology, Professor Cochran is the ideal lecturer for this course: a deeply knowledgeable scientist, an experienced and enthusiastic traveler, and a consummate storyteller who lives and breathes the Society’s mission to “inspire, illuminate, teach.”

You may even be able to detect Professor Cochran’s background in English literature, which he pursued as an undergraduate before falling in love with geology. He often peppers his lessons with quotes and stories, adding an additional dimension of elucidation. For example, in his lectures on Yosemite, he quotes the great author and naturalist John Muir, whose eloquence helped preserve Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in the 1890s. Professor Cochran has a similar way with words, describing one of the Yosemite hikes as follows: “The soaring scale and beauty of the granite landscape from this portion of the John Muir Trail are so extraordinary that, though you’re there and seeing it—actually seeing it—you still have to remind yourself: This is real!”

Hide Full Description
36 lectures
 |  31 minutes each
Year Released: 2015
  • 1
    Yellowstone: Microcosm of the National Parks
    Start your tour of the geological wonders of North America's national parks with Yellowstone, where the breathtaking landscape inspired the idea of a national park. Focus on the processes that produce Yellowstone's many geothermal formations, particularly its geysers. x
  • 2
    Yellowstone's Cataclysmic Origins and Future
    Read the evidence in the rocks to discover Yellowstone's bigger story: the massive volcanic eruptions that created the region and will one day destroy it, the glaciers that shaped the terrain, and the meltwater floods that carved the impressive Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. x
  • 3
    Grand Teton and Jackson Hole
    At Grand Teton National Park south of Yellowstone, an active fault lifts some of North America's oldest rocks to the summits of some of the continent's youngest mountains. Explore these glacier-sculpted peaks, and learn the origin of the broad valley, called Jackson Hole, at the base of the Teton Range. x
  • 4
    Hawaii Volcanoes: Earth's Largest Mountains
    Compare the lessons of hotspot volcanism at Yellowstone with the very different landscape at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which is also stoked by upwelling magma from Earth's mantle. Professor Cochran describes rivers of fire on the Big Island of Hawaii and suggests distinctive lava formations to visit. x
  • 5
    The Hawaiian Islands and Maui's Haleakala
    How does a barren volcanic landscape become a tropical paradise? Study the speed with which volcanic islands erode, leaving rich soil behind. Watch these processes at work on the Big Island of Hawaii, at Haleakala National Park on Maui, and also in the National Park of American Samoa. x
  • 6
    Mount Saint Helens, Lassen Volcanic, Rainier
    Tour Mount Rainier National Park and Lassen Volcanic National Park in the Pacific Northwest, which are part of the Cascade Range of active volcanoes that include Mount Saint Helens. Then visit a group of similarly cataclysmic volcanoes in national parks in central Mexico. x
  • 7
    Crater Lake, Olympic, North Cascades
    Learn how seafloor subduction raised a lofty volcano only to obliterate it in a colossal eruption that created Crater Lake in Oregon. Hundreds of miles to the north, tectonic forces upended the imposing mountains of Olympic National Park and formed the high jagged peaks at North Cascades National Park. x
  • 8
    Volcanoes of Alaska: Katmai and Lake Clark
    Travel to Alaska to explore the vast national parks at Katmai and Lake Clark. Katmai was the site of the 20th century's largest volcanic eruption, while Lake Clark is unusual among national parks for having no roads and being accessible only by boat or small plane. x
  • 9
    Alaska's Glacier Bay and Kenai Fjords
    Continue your tour of the largest state with stops at two spectacular parks that are popular destinations for cruise ships: Glacier Bay and Kenai Fjords. Discover how glaciers form and examine their historical advance and retreat in this region. Also, learn how a glacier is like a candy bar! x
  • 10
    Yosemite: Nature's Cathedral
    Survey the most beautiful valley on Earth: Yosemite. Even for those who have not yet visited, its views are iconic thanks to stunning photos by Ansel Adams and others. Investigate the geological history of the park, focusing on its most distinctive rock type - granite. x
  • 11
    Redwoods, Sequoias, and the Sierra Nevada
    Dig deeper into the geology of Yosemite, charting the role of glaciers in shaping the terrain. Also, learn the origin of California's famous gold deposits. Then study the special conditions that promote the growth of giant sequoias, and visit the national parks that preserve these towering trees for posterity. x
  • 12
    Pinnacles to Joshua Tree: The San Andreas
    Trace the earth-shaking San Andreas fault through a series of national parks and recreation areas - from Point Reyes, Golden Gate, and Pinnacles in the north to the Santa Monica Mountains, Channel Islands, Joshua Tree, and Mexico's Sierra de San Pedro Martir in the south. x
  • 13
    Denali to Gates of the Arctic
    The story of the tectonic train wreck that built Alaska is written all over the three largest national parks in the U.S.: Wrangell-St. Elias, Gates of the Arctic, and Denali. These remote preserves encompass America's tallest mountains, all built by subduction zone processes. x
  • 14
    Death Valley and Great Basin: The Rift Zone
    Continental rifting has caused huge blocks of land to sink between high mountain belts, producing Death Valley, the lowest, hottest, driest place in North America. Explore this and other national parks and monuments in the Great Basin region. x
  • 15
    Shenandoah: The Collision of Old Continents
    A hike along the Appalachian Trail is a journey back in time to a continental collision that raised mountains rivalling the Himalayas - now eroded into the Appalachians. Chart the geology of this ancient chain from Shenandoah National Park to Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland. x
  • 16
    Great Smoky Mountains and Hot Springs
    Survey some of the attractions that make the Great Smoky Mountains America's most visited national park. Investigate a related geological structure in the famous Hot Springs National Park, discovering why there are hot springs so far from volcanic activity. x
  • 17
    National Rivers: Gorges, Falls, and Meanders
    Rivers are an important clue to the geology of a region and also offer superb possibilities for recreation. Journey to some of America's national rivers, wild and scenic rivers, water trails, and other river parks, including the Upper Missouri River Breaks, the New River Gorge, and Niagara Falls. x
  • 18
    Great Dune Fields of North America
    Sand dunes aren't usually pictured in a setting of alpine peaks, but that's precisely the scene at Great Sand Dunes National Park in the Colorado Rockies. Study the conditions that create sprawling dune fields here as well as in Kobuk Valley, White Sands, Death Valley, and Nebraska's Sand Hills. x
  • 19
    National Seashores and Lakeshores
    Get your feet wet at America's coastal national parks, where dunes, salt marshes, ponds, and lagoons characterize shorelines. Investigate the myriad dynamic processes at Cape Hatteras, Cape Cod, and Assateague National Seashores, and at Sleeping Bear Dunes, Indiana Dunes, Pictured Rocks, and Apostle Islands National Lakeshores. x
  • 20
    Reefs: Virgin Islands, Florida, Texas
    Turn to a trio of national parks where corals and other reef creatures are helping create new carbonate rock. Then encounter a massive reef from our planet's past, raised to towering heights at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. x
  • 21
    National Marine Sanctuaries and Monuments
    Continue your underwater adventures by touring America's national marine sanctuaries and monuments, spread over more than a dozen locations up and down the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, plus the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, Hawaii, and beyond. x
  • 22
    Acadia's Highlands and Islands
    The rocks of coastal Maine reveal a gripping legacy of lost oceans, colliding continents, epic mountains, furious volcanoes, and massive glaciers. Acadia National Park records evidence of all this, etched into its granite summits and boulder-strewn shores. x
  • 23
    The Dakota Badlands
    Visit Theodore Roosevelt, Badlands, and Mount Rushmore National Parks in the Dakotas, beholding the landscape that inspired Theodore Roosevelt to become an ardent conservationist. Learn how the fantastic forms of the badlands are the product of deposition, uplift, and erosion. x
  • 24
    The Grand Canyon's 2-Billion-Year Staircase
    Descend into the Grand Canyon, recording the full sequence of strata from top to bottom - a story that takes you from 270-million-year-old limestone formed in a shallow sea to basement rocks that record a mountain-building saga from 1.7 billion years ago. x
  • 25
    Carving the Grand Canyon
    What did it take to carve the Grand Canyon? Explore theories on how this remarkable chasm came to be. Then take a boat trip through the park, from the Colorado River's access point at Lee's Ferry, down fearsome rapids and into a majestic wonderland. Also, study how humans have changed the river. x
  • 26
    Petrified Forest and Other Fossil Parks
    See Petrified Forest National Park, a colorful landscape littered with fossil trees that shaded Earth's earliest dinosaurs. Here and in other parks in the U.S. and Canada, fossilized flora and fauna open a window on ancient ecosystems, extinct species, and the history of life on Earth. x
  • 27
    Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches
    Nowhere is nature's artistry more exquisite than in the intricately eroded parks of the Colorado Plateau - from Bryce Canyon, to Arches National Park, to Canyonlands National Park. Seek answers to these strange, sculpted landforms, asking questions such as: How did more than 2,000 natural arches form in the Arches region? x
  • 28
    Zion, Gunnison's Black Canyon, Capitol Reef
    Witness other wonders of canyon erosion on the Colorado Plateau, including the deep and narrow Black Canyon of the Gunnison, as well as The Narrows, a dramatic slot canyon in Zion National Park. x
  • 29
    Mesa Verde and Ancient Settlements
    Explore parks where geology supported the settlement of people in North America. Begin at the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, cleverly engineered to exploit natural shelter and rock seeps. Then survey other cliff dwellings and pueblos in the Southwest. x
  • 30
    The Colorado Rocky Mountains
    Ascend the heights of the Rocky Mountains, asking how tectonic processes nearly a thousand miles away could possibly have raised this extensive range. Venture to Rocky Mountain National Park, Red Rocks, the Garden of the Gods, the Maroon Bells, and the Canadian Rockies. x
  • 31
    Montana's Glacier and the Canadian Rockies
    Journey to Glacier National Park, where the glaciers may be disappearing, but the impressive glacier-sculpted terrain remains. x
  • 32
    Big Bend on the Rio Grande and Saguaro
    Investigate the multitude of geological processes on view at Big Bend National Park in Texas. Here you find signs of continental collisions, volcanic eruptions, dramatic erosion, and other breathtaking events. Then survey another geologist's paradise - Saguaro National Park. x
  • 33
    Mammoth Cave, Wind Cave, Carlsbad Caverns
    Visit underground parks, exploring a tiny portion of the hundreds of miles of mapped passages in Mammoth Cave, Wind Cave, and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks. Consider the similarities and differences between these caves - two carved by mildly acidic rainwater, the other by dilute sulfuric acid! x
  • 34
    The Everglades and the Congaree Bottomland
    Florida is a limestone-dominated piece of proto-Africa that got stuck to North America. Also study similar terrain at Congaree National Park and Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. x
  • 35
    Voyageurs, Isle Royale, the Canadian Shield
    Explore the ancient heart of North America - the Canadian Shield - heading north from Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota to Northeast Greenland National Park, the largest, most northerly national park in the world. En route, stop off at parks on Isle Royale, Baffin Island, and Ellesmere Island. x
  • 36
    Assembling North America, Park by Park
    Conclude by surveying national parks not yet visited in the course, traversing North America on a grand expedition. Along the way, assess the geology of this spectacularly diverse continent. From the Appalachians to the Aleutians, the national parks and other protected lands tell a dramatic and unforgettable story. x

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Your professor

Ford Cochran

About Your Professor

Ford Cochran
Geologist and Program Director, National Geographic
Geologist, journalist, and educator Ford Cochran is Director of Programming for National Geographic Expeditions, where he selects and manages the expert scholars, writers, photographers, explorers, and scientists sent on educational expeditions for travelers to destinations around the world. As an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary, he studied English literature. He then took graduate courses in Earth Science at...
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Reviews

Rated 3.9 out of 5 by 18 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by North America's Geological History in Plain Sight I have read the reviews before mine and once again one's opinion often depends on one's expectations. I think this should be mandatory viewing for all high school students in America. (Not going to happen a bit too long.) I "saw America first" as a railroad barren and Lady Bird Johnson suggested. I have visited some of these parks. The only thing this course did was make me want to sell my house, buy a 4X4 camper, and go visit them all !!! I understand the complaints of some of the previous reviewers. But I loved this course !! Highly recommended. I, also, found myself "rewinding" but did not find that objectionable. I wanted to absorb it all. I agree the teachers presentation style was not the best but I found that a minor annoyance . Once again I must agree the guide books should have a complete glossary. Yes, I know that is a lot of work for someone at the GC; but, so beneficial to the "student". January 23, 2016
Rated 3 out of 5 by Could Be So Much Better I've watched five episodes so far. The course has potential however sorely lacks visuals. A picture is worth a thousand words and telling me at length about a stunning feature or making comparatives to other locations doesn't work in the absence of an image. Maps should be used at the start of the episode to indicate all the locations to be covered and as new areas are discussed the map should pop up to show where we are now. The maps that are used could really use some arrows or indicators showing what is being referred to. Less screen time for the presenter and more visuals would make this much better than an okay course. February 21, 2016
Rated 3 out of 5 by Doesn't Take Advantage of Video Format I checked this course out of the local public library, and am very glad I had the chance to do that. I was not expecting a travelogue, as some reviewers have mentioned, as it was clear that the course focuses on geological process, using the National Parks as examples. I am fortunate to have visited many of the Parks featured in the course. The general content of the lectures is good (though I noticed a variety of minor mistakes in the narrative and even some illustrations). However, my main critique is with the method of the presentation. Seeing that this course is a collaborative project with National Geographic, and takes advantage of interest in the National Park Service's centennial, I anticipated stunning visuals and audio, perhaps from NatGeo's exclusive catalogue and access. However, the majority of the video is of Mr. Cochran speaking, mostly illustrated with some still photos and animated graphics. He often speaks of the excitement he experienced visiting or studying a geological feature in a park, or hearing the underwater sounds of calving glaciers or bubbling mudpots. What a great opportunity to share that excitement of visitors, or the sounds one might hear, with viewers, but alas, there is little to no sharing! When he describes a tilting or contorted rock layer (eg. Signal Mountain in Teton Valley) that is evidence of a subsiding valley or metamorphic pressure, it would be terrific to show a video clip or at least a photo, but too often there isn't any. Even when he displays samples of the types of rocks he is talking about, the video shot is not always clear or zoomed in enough for a viewer to see the difference between various grain sizes, minerals, etc. In the sequence on Yosemite landforms, there is even a photo of a group of people leaping off a cliff, apparently base jumping, which is illegal, controversial and sometimes fatal to participants. Instead of watching Mr. Cochran talk about it, wouldn't it have been more exciting for the viewer to see a video clip of climbers (legally) using the fractures in the rock for handholds, or see/hear the water rushing over Vernal Falls in a video of what a hiker might experience? Perhaps we could be treated to videos or short interviews of geologists collecting data or interpreting features in the field, instead of in the studio. So, though I can say I learned from watching, the presentation would be much more exciting (I dozed off occasionally) and inspire more interest in geology and National Parks if it took full advantage of all of the options video offers as an education medium. As it is, the presentation could just as easily be presented in an illustrated paper or e-book. For geology buffs, a book in the "Roadside Geology of..." series would be as good or better as a guide to visiting one of these parks. Based on this, I would not recommend purchasing this course. February 13, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Wonders of the National Parks a Geological History This was on of the best of the 114 Great Courses that I own. The presenter, Mr. Cochran, was outstanding, as was the course content. We plan to take this course with us when we and our friends attend Yosemite and the Grand Canyon this year. The Great Courses always meets or exceed our expectations. Thank you. February 9, 2016
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