The best books on America’s National Parks

Who am I?

I grew up in Colorado and visited national parks all over the country on summer vacations with my family. Now I write about U.S. Western history while living outside Boston, Massachusetts. My most recent book, The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West (Scribner 2020) was a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in History. I have written about the Civil War and the U.S. West for The New York TimesWashington PostThe Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, and Civil War Monitor. Scribner will publish my next book, Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America, on March 1, 2022. 


I wrote...

Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America

By Megan Kate Nelson,

Book cover of Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America

What is my book about?

In late July 1871, the geologist-explorer Ferdinand Hayden led a team of scientists into Yellowstone Basin, entering one of the last unmapped places in the country. The survey’s discoveries led to the passage of the Yellowstone Act in 1872, which created the first national park in the world.

Saving Yellowstone follows Hayden as well as Sitting Bull, a Lakota leader who asserted his peoples’ sovereignty in their homelands, and financier Jay Cooke, who wanted to build the Northern Pacific Railroad through the Great Northwest. Saving Yellowstone reveals that Hayden, Cooke, and Sitting Bull staked their claims to Yellowstone at a critical moment in Reconstruction, when the Grant Administration and the 42nd Congress were testing the reach and the purpose of federal power across the nation.

The books I picked & why

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Our National Parks

By John Muir,

Book cover of Our National Parks

Why this book?

A classic of nature writing thick with patriotic romanticism, Muir’s book is a collection of essays originally published in Atlantic Monthly in 1901. Muir was the dominant voice advocating for wilderness preservation in the Gilded Age, and his book came out on the cusp of a surge in national park creation. After an introduction to the nation’s parks and forest reserves in the West (there were only a handful at that time), Muir takes readers to Yellowstone—“where the air is electric and...the scenery is wild enough to waken the dead”—and then on to Yosemite and Sequoia. You may find yourself yearning, like I do whenever I read Muir’s enthusiastic prose, to climb mountains and “spend the night among the stars.” 


Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History

By Richard West Sellars,

Book cover of Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History

Why this book?

Sellars’ book is a detailed history of national park management, which you might think would be dry and boring. But this fast-paced account of the evolving tension between aesthetic/touristic development and ecological preservation in the park system is fascinating. Along the way, Preserving Nature in the National Parks makes a ground-breaking argument about how declining interest in biological science shaped the Park Service’s long-term approach to administration. This book, like Muir’s, had an impact on the park system itself. Since its publication, the Park Service has been reevaluating its attention to science and ecological preservation and working to change its conservation policies. 


Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks

By Mark David Spence,

Book cover of Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks

Why this book?

Neither Muir nor Sellars pay much attention to Indigenous communities living in or near national parks—Dispossessing the Wilderness puts the lie to the claim that Native peoples were afraid of or have vanished from these places. Spence examines the Indigenous histories of Yellowstone, Glacier, and Yosemite, and concludes that while white federal officials expended a tremendous amount of energy promoting the myth that the nation’s national parks are “uninhabited wildernesses,” Indigenous communities have continued to claim them in various ways. Compelling and wide-ranging in its analysis, this is a must-read for fans of the national park system.


Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation

By Karl Jacoby,

Book cover of Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation

Why this book?

Indigenous communities and land dispossession are the subjects of Crimes Against Nature, although Jacoby also brings white transgressors of federal policy into his book about the dark history of the American conservation movement. The rural communities he describes engaged in survival practices that quickly became defined and punished as crimes: hunting, fishing, tree-cutting, and foraging. Jacoby includes eastern parks in his assessment, writing about the Adirondacks before turning to Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. At the heart of this beautifully written book is the tension between what constitutes private and public space in American history, and how rural white and Indigenous Americans have often lived in the borderlands between them.


Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-To-Zion Journey Through Every National Park

By Conor Knighton,

Book cover of Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-To-Zion Journey Through Every National Park

Why this book?

I’m not usually a fan of memoir, but Knighton’s book about his visits to each of the nation’s 63 national parks in the wake of a cancelled wedding has it all: history, environmental science, and witty takes. In each chapter, he brings several parks together in a consideration of a single theme: “Water” (Arkansas Hot Springs, Biscayne), for example, and “Mystery” (Crater Lake, Congaree). It’s an effective structure that highlights how national parks can surprise you with the meanings they embody, and the connections they have to one another. This is a book for readers who want to get a look at all of America’s national parks, through a modern lens. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in National Parks, nature conservation, and Yellowstone?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about National Parks, nature conservation, and Yellowstone.

National Parks Explore 16 books about National Parks
Nature Conservation Explore 23 books about nature conservation
Yellowstone Explore 11 books about Yellowstone

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Jungle, The House of Mirth, and Up From Slavery if you like this list.