The best books about trail building and traildogs

Sean Prentiss Author Of Crosscut: Poems
By Sean Prentiss

Who am I?

In 1997, I was hired by the Northwest Youth Corps as a trail crew leader. That season, and across five more seasons, I built trails across the Pacific Northwest and Desert Southwest, including in many national parks. Since then, I have been in love with backpacking trails (including hiking the Long Trail and Colorado Trail), building trails, and writing about trails (Crosscut: Poems). I now live in Vermont with my wife and daughter. We have a trail we built that weaves through our woods.

I wrote...

Crosscut: Poems

By Sean Prentiss,

Book cover of Crosscut: Poems

What is my book about?

Sean Prentiss takes readers into what it means to be a rookie trail crew leader guiding a motley collection of at-risk teens for five months of backbreaking work in the Pacific Northwest. It is a world where the sounds of trail tools—Pulaskis, McLeods, and hazel hoes—filter into dreams and set the rhythm of each day. In this memoir-in-poems, Prentiss shares a music most of us will never experience, set to tools swung and sharpened, backdropped by rain and snow and sun, as individuals transform into crew.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems

Why did I love this book?

There are so few books available about trail building. Riprap might be the oldest and one of the most beautiful. Riprap poetically describes Snyder’s summer trail-building job in 1955 in Yosemite National Park. These poems not only sing about the beauty and physicality of trail building but also echo back on the ancient Chinese poets who Snyder was studying during that time. In the end, Riprap shows us trail building but also illuminates how wildness can infuse the human spirit.

By Gary Snyder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

By any measure, Gary Snyder is one of the greatest poets in America in the last century. From his first book of poems to his latest collection of essays, his work and his example, standing between Tu Fu and Thoreau, have been influential all over the world. Riprap, his first book of poems, was published in Japan in 1959 by Origin Press, and it is the fiftieth anniversary of that groundbreaking book we celebrate with this edition. A small press reprint of that book included Snyder's translations of Han Shan's Cold Mountain Poems, perhaps the finest translations of that remarkable…

Book cover of Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods

Why did I love this book?

Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods is a memoir about Byl’s experience as a trail builder in Glacier National Park and Cordova and Denali, Alaska. All too often, books about physical labor highlight a male perspective. It is wonderful to have Byl’s perspective on her life as a trail builder. Byl so stunningly weaves vignettes about a life working in the woods. Her stories teach us about physical and intellectual labor and do so beautifully.

By Christine Byl,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dirt Work as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A lively and lyrical account of one woman’s unlikely apprenticeship on a national park trail crew—and what she discovers about nature, gender, and the value of hard work
Christine Byl first encountered the national parks the way most of us do: on vacation. But after she graduated from college, broke and ready for a new challenge, she joined a Glacier National Park trail crew as a seasonal “traildog” maintaining mountain trails for the millions of visitors Glacier draws every year. Byl first thought of the job as a paycheck, a summer diversion, a welcome break from “the real world” before…

Book cover of On Trails: An Exploration

Why did I love this book?

On Trails: An Exploration is a completely different style of book. Rather than exploring trails through the lens of trail building, Moor, an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, examines trails from a variety of angles. In a book that spans from the beginning of animal life to today’s digital age, Moor examines the world’s oldest trail, learns how to build trails, and even thinks about roads and the internet. 

By Robert Moor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On Trails as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

New York Times Bestseller • Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award • Winner of the Saroyan International Prize for Writing • Winner of the Pacific Northwest Book Award • “The best outdoors book of the year.” —Sierra Club

From a talent who’s been compared to Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, David Quammen, and Jared Diamond, On Trails is a wondrous exploration of how trails help us understand the world—from invisible ant trails to hiking paths that span continents, from interstate highways to the Internet.

While thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Robert Moor began to wonder about the paths that lie beneath…

Book cover of Steel on Stone: Living and Working in the Grand Canyon

Why did I love this book?

Nathaniel Farrell Brodie’s Steel on Stone takes readers into Grand Canyon National Park. Here, Brodie worked on trails for eight seasons during brutal summer heat and cold winters. Brodie explores not just the national park in its beauty and danger but also the park’s history, tales from the park, and other adventures. In the end, Steel on Stone beautifully ruminates on home and on Brodie’s love of this landscape.

By Nathaniel Farrell Brodie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Steel on Stone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Grand Canyon National Park has been called many things, but home isn't often one of them. Yet after years of traveling the globe, Nathaniel Brodie found his home there.

Steel on Stone is Brodie's account of living in the canyon during the eight years he worked on a National Park Service trail crew, navigating a vast and unforgiving land. Embedded alongside Brodie and his crew, readers experience precipitous climbs to build trails, dangerous search-and-rescue missions, rockslides, spelunking expeditions, and rafting trips through the canyon on the Colorado River. From Brodie's chronicles of tracking cougars and dodging rampaging pack mules…

The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain

By Red Pine (translator),

Book cover of The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain

Why did I love this book?

While I could list many great books on backpacking and hiking trails, there are few books devoted to trail building. I’ll leave behind trail building and focus on a poet, Cold Mountain, who, like those of us who were trail builders, lived in the woods. Cold Mountain, an ancient Chinese poet, wrote his poems on rocks and bark and scattered them across his Tiantai Mountains. These poems are beautiful meditations on landscapes, wildness, Taoism/Buddhism, and politics.

By Red Pine (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This authoritative, bilingual edition represents the first time the entirety of Cold Mountain's poetry has been translated into English.

These translations were originally published by Copper Canyon Press nearly twenty years ago. Now, significantly revised and expanded, the collection also includes a new preface by the translator, Red Pine, whose accompanying notes are at once scholarly, accessible, and entertaining. Also included for the first time are poems by two of Cold Mountain's colleagues.

Legendary for his clarity, directness, and lack of pretension, the eight-century hermit-poet Cold Mountain (Han Shan) is a major figure in the history of Chinese literature and…

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