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!”