When most of us think “national park” we think Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades. But as National Parks Week NYC kicked off on Monday, the U.S. National Park Service wants Americans to remember that “experiential epiphanies” can be experienced at smaller, more obscure and urban (150 national parks are in urban areas) park locations.

The Frederick Law Olmstead-coined sensation of an “experiential epiphany” is what the NPS believes makes national parks different from other parks. Each NPS site comes equipped with a sense of history and an engaging story to tell that, in turn, leaves each visitor with a singular impression that stays with them. Moving forward, Alexander Brash, senior director of the Northeast Region for the National Parks Conservation Association, believes that the expansion of NPS-governed sites, particularly urban ones, is crucial and that “more and more stories need to be collected.”

In celebration of National Parks Week NYC, MNN was treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of a trio of hidden National Park gems in the Big Apple -- places that we either didn’t know existed, places we didn’t know were actually national parks and places that aren’t the Statue of Liberty. We enjoyed each site -- the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, the African Burial Ground and the Hamilton Grange -- but more so than any kind of “experiential epiphany” we were left with a newfound respect for the rangers at each of the three park sites. More than just simple wardens, these NPS rangers are educators, historians, performers, conservationists and neighborhood institutions.

Below is a quick look at the three NPS sites we visited. And if you’re in New York this week, be sure to check out all the National Parks Week NYC events, including the big soiree, Feel Free: A National Parks Celebration in Central Park. The celebration will include musical performances from Eric Benet, Gavin DeGraw, Carole King, Alison Krauss and others, along with a screening of highlights from the new Ken Burns six-part documentary series for PBS, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.

The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace

28 East 20th St., New York, N.Y.

Brownstones on busy residential/commercial streets in Manhattan are national parks? You betcha. This National Historic Site is kind of like a dusty, slightly raggedy old museum but it’s also a fascinating look at the life of Teddy Roosevelt, revered president, consummate outdoorsman and early Abercrombie and Fitch model. Most associate TR as an untamable, rough-ridin’ man of the wild but he was born (a sickly) child into money and privilege in this recreated 19th century home. Save for the AC units, each room in the brownstone is filled with TR memorabilia (including a dashing Brooks Brothers safari suit -- pictured right -- and a fair amount of antique taxidermy) and original and replica furnishings. Appropriately, ranger Mike D’Amato is a walking encyclopedia or everything and anything Teddy Roosevelt.


The Hamilton Grange

St. Nicholas Park at 141st St., New York, N.Y.

The Hamilton Grange, which was recently moved (very, very carefully) for the third time from Harlem’s Convent Avenue to nearby St. Nicholas Park, is closed to the public until late 2010 while it’s being renovated. The Grange is the name of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton’s summer home that he lived in from 1802 until 1804 when he was killed in a duel by Vice President Aaron Burr. It’s a beautiful home, designed by the same architect as Gracie Mansion, but the story of the man behind it is even more fascinating. Burr, an under-credited, underdog of American politics was an illegitimate child who later went on become the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, co-writer of the Federalist Papers and founder of The New York Post … not a shabby CV. While the Grange is being worked on (MNN got a special hardhat tour) try to catch NPS ranger and certified Hamilton buff Ed Mucci (pictured above) around the neighborhood.


The African Burial Ground Memorial

26 Federal Plaza, New York, N.Y.

Situated in Lower Manhattan’s administrative district below glass and steel towers that house acronym-centric government agencies like the EPA, FBI and FEMA, the African Burial Ground Memorial is one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spots. This small but thoughtfully designed national monument -- proclaimed one in 2006 -- and adjacent visitor center is a moving tribute to the thousands of freed and enslaved Africans that were interred in a 6.6-acre burial ground Lower Manhattan during the 17th and 18th centuries. Ranger Doug Massenburg (pictured right) gives dramatic, interpretive tours of the memorial that’s part performance art, part somber history lesson, making this one of America’s more emotionally charged national park sites.


Want more about our national parks? Check out this stunning new coffee table book and watch an interview with Ken Burns about his new documentary.

MNN homepage photo: Un-sung/Flickr

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

A walk in the national park
Did you know it's National Parks Week in New York City? MNN got a behind-the-scenes tour of three sites people don't usually think of when they hear national pa