This Thanksgiving weekend I celebrate our national parks and other gems administered for us by the U.S. National Park Service. One thing that I want to do before my life ends is visit all the national parks. So far, I have visited 26 of those 58 parks These parks have been especially set aside for a reason, and each one I have visited makes that reason unequivocally clear. And if you are at least 62 years old, like I am, and have purchased a Senior Pass, that could be the financial deal of your life!

But let me ask a question that probably only a few of you will be able to answer. Which national park is closest to us here in Orange County? No, it is not Death Valley, Yosemite, Sequoia, or Kings Canyon. It is the Channel Islands National Park. This is a wonderful place to explore on a sea kayak, with lots of sea caves and a few tunnels, and a place where bird and sea life are in abundance. Commercial boats can take you there from both Oxnard and Ventura harbors, and I strongly recommend a visit.

As you probably know, the first of our country's national parks was Yellowstone. It was founded by an act of Congress in 1872, and the park was officially set aside as a "pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people in order to protect for all time this outstanding natural area."

If you get the chance, stay at the Old Faithful Inn, which was completed in 1904 and is probably the world's largest log cabin. When you take a tour of the Inn, be sure to see the room where Teddy Roosevelt stayed on one of his visits. It is one of the few rooms where you can view the eruption of Old Faithful from one of the inn's windows.

The National Park Service today administers 393 individual locations covering more than 83 million acres in the United States, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. These include national parks, battlefields, historical parks, cemeteries, monuments, heritage areas, preserves, sites, trails, parkways, seashores, and recreational areas. Information about each site can be found online in the 131-page 2009-2011 National Parks Index.

The park service also administers one international historic site, at Saint Croix Island in Maine. This was the first stopping point for French settlers in the New World, and the place where 35 of the 79 men who stayed there in 1605 did not survive the winter. The following spring, the survivors moved on to found the first permanent French site in the Western Hemisphere at Point Royal in Nova Scotia.

As of 2008, the top ten most visited national parks, in order, were the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina; Grand Canyon in Arizona; Yosemite here in California; Olympic in Washington; Yellowstone in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho; Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio; Rocky Mountains in Colorado; Zion in Utah; Grand Tetons in Wyoming; and Acadia in Maine.

California and Alaska have the largest number of national parks with eight apiece, followed by Utah with five, and Colorado with four. The largest of the parks is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska, which covers 13.2 million acres, and the smallest place administered by the service is Ford's Theater National Historic Site in Washington D.C., where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. (If you have the opportunity, try to attend any show at the Ford Theater. The experience of sitting there with the omnipresent flag-draped presidential box presiding over the theater is not to be forgotten.)

Yosemite Valley is God's gift to mankind. Actually I believe that if I were to find people who did not believe in God, all I would have to do is take them to Yosemite Valley and that in itself would change their minds. And, although it is much too expensive, one of the great things a person can do in Yosemite is to attend a Bracebridge Dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel during the Christmas season. We did it once, which was enough, but we were lucky that it also happened to snow that evening. The next morning with the fresh snowfall all over the cliffs, trees, and grounds, Yosemite Valley was the most beautiful site I had ever seen.

But don't just stay in the valley. If you get lucky in the annual lottery, go to the camps in the high country of Yosemite. There are about five semi-permanent camps up in the mountains with tents on cement slabs, cots with feather comforters, and wood-burning stoves. In addition, the staff greets you with fresh lemonade when you arrive, prepares nice hot dinners and breakfasts for you while you are there, and also sells picnic lunches that you can take with you as you hike or horseback ride the nine to 12 miles to the next camp.

Another of my favorite trips was in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Voyageurs National Park, which are between the Minnesota and Canadian border. In the canoe area you can only use non-mechanized transportation, and, yes, you do have to sleep on the ground, but what a remarkable place! It has not changed at all from the days of the French-Canadian fur-trading Voyageurs of the 18th Century.

Acadia National Park on the Atlantic coast is also a real gem. But the whole time I was there I kept thinking that, yes, this is wonderful territory, but it really does not have the rugged beauty of Big Sur in Central California. Why Big Sur is not a national park I really don't have a clue.

But aren't we fortunate that people like John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and other advanced thinkers acted to set aside these natural pieces of heaven? We have many things for which to be thankful on this Thanksgiving weekend, but one of the big ones is the purple mountains' majesty and other places of nature and history that have been set aside for us all. God has indeed shed His grace upon our America, and has crowned our country with that grace from sea to shining sea. Let us all remember to appreciate what we have – and give thanks!

James P. Gray is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the high school musical revue "Americans All" (Heuer Publishers), and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or through his website at http://www.JudgeJimGray.com.