The best National Park books

2 authors have picked their favorite books about National Parks and why they recommend each book.

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Leave Only Footprints

By Conor Knighton,

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

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. 


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.

Off the Wall

By Michael P. Ghiglieri, Charles R. Farabee, Jim Myers (illustrator)

Book cover of Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite

This book is an incredibly detailed look at the many fatalities that have occurred throughout history at Yosemite National Park. Organized into categories and then covered chronologically, you’ll be stunned by the kinds of trouble people can get themselves into. The book can get a little overwhelming at points, but the authors do a good job of keeping the stories moving. It is a good overview of the history of the park and our interactions with it. I’d also say it’s an effective warning to watch your step so you don’t become an entry in future editions. 


Who am I?

I am endlessly inspired by the beauty and majesty of our national parks. As a former seasonal ranger at Mount Rainier National Park and Oregon’s Silver Falls State Park, I was frequently surprised by the incredible scrapes that visitors could get themselves into. Of course, I wasn’t immune, and I experienced a few misadventures of my own. These books are great reminders to always respect your limits and be aware of your surroundings. Since I now write novels set in our national parks, I enjoy reading some of these real adventures—it provides great fodder for the imagination. 


I wrote...

Ever Faithful: A Vintage National Parks Novel

By Karen Barnett,

Book cover of Ever Faithful: A Vintage National Parks Novel

What is my book about?

A man who can't read will never amount to anything–or so Nate Webber believes. But he takes a chance to help his family by signing up for the new Civilian Conservation Corps. Nate exchanges the harsh Brooklyn streets for the wilds of Yellowstone National Park, curious if the Eden-like wonderland can transform him as well.

Elsie Brookes was proud to grow up as a ranger's daughter, but she longs for a future of her own. When she discovers Nate's secret, it puts his job as camp foreman in jeopardy. Tutoring leads to friendship and romance, until a string of suspicious fires casts a dark shadow over their relationship. Can they find answers before all of their dreams go up in smoke?

Imposing Wilderness

By Roderick P. Neumann,

Book cover of Imposing Wilderness: Struggles over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa

National parks have long been the bedrock of nature conservation efforts. For most Westerners, their vision of Africa is built on images from iconic parks like Tanzania’s Serengeti or Kenya’s Masai Mara. Those parks, however, were imposed on the African landscape with lasting and often devastating consequences, among them the pernicious notion that Africans themselves are little more than part of the fauna and are an impediment to conservation efforts that can be swept aside. Roderick Neuman reveals that far from a simple means to protect nature, parks are a complicated intersection of ecological, economic, political, and cultural issues. His analysis of Arusha National Park in Tanzania, not far from Mount Kilimanjaro, melds careful scholarship with passionate and vivid writing and is an essential text for understanding the promise and limitations of long-established conservation practices. 


Who am I?

I have been writing about nature and nature conservation for nearly 35 years. I have seen it from all angles—government, non-government, private, local—in the US, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. I have written five books about how we can do better at both saving wild places and wild creatures, while also understanding how those efforts must also account for the human communities that depend on those places for their lives and livelihoods. Over the decades I have seen enormous and promising shifts in conservation practices, and although we are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis that is entirely of our own making, we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of our past. 


I wrote...

Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature

By Mark R. Tercek, Jonathan S. Adams,

Book cover of Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature

What is my book about?

Nature is not only the foundation of human well-being, but also the smartest commercial investment any business or government can make. The forests, floodplains, and oyster reefs often seen simply as raw materials or as obstacles to be cleared in the name of progress are, in fact as important to our future prosperity as technology or law, or business innovation.

When is protecting nature a good investment? With stories from the South Pacific to the California coast, from the Andes to the Gulf of Mexico, Nature's Fortune shows how viewing nature as green infrastructure allows for breakthroughs not only in conservation -- protecting freshwater; enhancing fisheries; making cities more livable; and dealing with unavoidable climate change -- but in economic progress, as well.

Our National Parks

By John Muir,

Book cover of Our National Parks

We love this book for its breadth and its moral and environmental urgency. Muir writes eloquently [in an admittedly heightened and romantic prose] about the beauties of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Sequoia National Parks, the only ones in existence at the time. Muir is of interest to Roosevelt because of his understanding of how important it is for wilderness to be preserved for all time not by state governments—as was the case in his time—but by the federal government. This of course was one of TR’s central personal beliefs and was to be, especially after his two-night camping trip in Yosemite with Muir in 1903, a central and guiding policy of his Presidency. For an elegant essay, readers might want to spend time with Muir’s chapter, “The Wild Gardens of Yosemite Park.”


Who are we?

We live in the countryside of southwest Michigan in a farmhouse dating back to the 1830s on land once owned by James Fenimore Cooper. The land itself has stories to tell that intrigue us as readers and writers ourselves. Katherine’s passion for the writings of Jane Addams and Edith Wharton led her to Theodore Roosevelt, a kindred male voice in American literature at the turn of the twentieth century. Tom’s passion for environmental writers and activism led him to the books and essays of the 26th President, who believed that good writing sometimes leads to good laws! As professors and writing partners, we are delighted every time we can introduce readers to the literary Theodore Roosevelt.


We wrote...

Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life

By Thomas Bailey & Katherine Joslin,

Book cover of Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life

What is our book about?

We tell the story of Theodore Roosevelt as a writer and a reader, literary activities he pursued relentlessly from the time he could read and hold a pencil until the day before he died, when he wrote his last review for The New York Times. During his not very long but intensely lived life, he read untold thousands of books, wrote 47 of them, thousands and thousands of letters, scores of speeches, articles, and reviews. Some say he read a book and dozens of newspapers and magazines a day even while he was in the White House. We review and assess this life in language, painting a complex and somewhat demythologizing portrait of a fascinating, heralded, and often written about American man of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Dispossessing the Wilderness

By Mark David Spence,

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

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.


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.

Crimes Against Nature

By Karl Jacoby,

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

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.


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.

Into the Mist

By David Brill,

Book cover of Into the Mist: Tales of Death and Disaster, Mishaps and Misdeeds, Misfortune and Mayhem in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

David Brill is a wonderful storyteller. He spins each true account of Smoky Mountain mishaps into a spellbinding tale. Written with great sensitivity toward the families involved, the author carefully analyzes the choices that led visitors to walk (or drive, swim, etc) into disaster. Unlike some of the “Death in ___” books, Into the Mist provides sound learning opportunities on how to avoid similar mistakes. Each chapter is a complete story and describes either a fatality or a heroic rescue.


Who am I?

I am endlessly inspired by the beauty and majesty of our national parks. As a former seasonal ranger at Mount Rainier National Park and Oregon’s Silver Falls State Park, I was frequently surprised by the incredible scrapes that visitors could get themselves into. Of course, I wasn’t immune, and I experienced a few misadventures of my own. These books are great reminders to always respect your limits and be aware of your surroundings. Since I now write novels set in our national parks, I enjoy reading some of these real adventures—it provides great fodder for the imagination. 


I wrote...

Ever Faithful: A Vintage National Parks Novel

By Karen Barnett,

Book cover of Ever Faithful: A Vintage National Parks Novel

What is my book about?

A man who can't read will never amount to anything–or so Nate Webber believes. But he takes a chance to help his family by signing up for the new Civilian Conservation Corps. Nate exchanges the harsh Brooklyn streets for the wilds of Yellowstone National Park, curious if the Eden-like wonderland can transform him as well.

Elsie Brookes was proud to grow up as a ranger's daughter, but she longs for a future of her own. When she discovers Nate's secret, it puts his job as camp foreman in jeopardy. Tutoring leads to friendship and romance, until a string of suspicious fires casts a dark shadow over their relationship. Can they find answers before all of their dreams go up in smoke?

So Big! Yosemite

By Melissa Iwai (illustrator),

Book cover of So Big! Yosemite

So Big! Yosemite was the first board book I had read that is sold by Yosemite Conservancy. I thought, “I wish I had written this book” because it perfectly captures what small children feel when they visit Yosemite National Park. It features a black bear throughout the story, with a repeating question, “How big is so big!” From black bears to El Capitan to Tuolumne Meadows, everything in Yosemite National Park is “so big!” to little ones.


Who am I?

I’m the author of 25 children’s books, and I recently moved to a small mountain town that has come to co-exist with wild black bears by learning how to properly store and dispose of our food (rather than the alternative, which was to eliminate the bears!). Ever since I’ve lived there, I’ve been fascinated by human-bear interactions, having a few of my own now! When Yosemite Conservancy put out a call for children’s stories, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about—how people can help keep bears safe and wild through proper food storage. I’m a huge advocate for bears and all wildlife!


I wrote...

Eat Up, Bear!

By Terry Pierce, Nadja Sarell (illustrator),

Book cover of Eat Up, Bear!

What is my book about?

Curious, hungry black bears just want to eat! Juicy berries, tender grubs, sticky honey—that’s good bear food. But if little adventurers and their families don’t watch out, their food will be bear food, too! The rhyming text and vibrant pictures in this board book show how people of all ages can help keep bears safe and thriving. Perfect for first-time and seasoned campers alike.

Years ago, a bear stole all my food on a backpacking trip, despite tying the food in a tall pine tree (bears are persistent when they know food is at hand—or should I say “paw”!). This book is written to teach toddlers and their families about food storage so this doesn’t happen to them, and helps keep bears wild.

Posters for the People

By Ennis Carter,

Book cover of Posters for the People: The Art of the WPA

If you want to learn about the New Deal’s contributions to the arts, there’s no better place to begin than with the art itself. This lavish book—I keep it displayed on my coffee table—collects hundreds of color posters created by the WPA’s Federal Art Project, which put unemployed artists and designers to work during the Depression. It’s no wonder that many of these posters, mostly silkscreen, have been cherished by collectors for years: they’re beautifully designed, often quite striking, and sometimes funny. And like most of the WPA’s cultural endeavors, they were meant to serve the public good. Flip through this book and you’ll find advertisements for national parks, a reminder to brush your teeth, and a warning to always report dog bites!  


Who am I?

My great uncle was an eccentric book collector who lived in an old, rambling house stuffed floor-to-ceiling with thousands and thousands of books. After he died, I inherited a tiny portion of his collection: a set of state guidebooks from the 1930s and 40s. These were the American Guides created by the Federal Writers’ Project, the New Deal program that put jobless writers to work during the Great Depression. I dipped into these weird, rich, fascinating books, and I was hooked immediately. Some years later, I quit my job in publishing to research and write my own account of the FWP’s unlikely rise and lamentable fall, Republic of Detours


I wrote...

Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America

By Scott Borchert,

Book cover of Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America

What is my book about?

Republic of Detours tells the remarkable story of the Federal Writers’ Project, a division of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration founded in 1935 to employ jobless writers during the Great Depression. The FWP took up the lofty goal of rediscovering America in words and soon found itself embroiled in the day’s most heated arguments regarding radical politics, racial inclusion, and the purpose of writing—forcing it to reckon with the promises and failures of both the New Deal and the American experiment itself. Borchert delves into the experiences of the federal writers as they compiled state guidebooks, oral histories, and more, and traces the FWP from its optimistic early days to its dismemberment by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. 

The Hour of Land

By Terry Tempest Williams,

Book cover of The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks

No one writes better about landscapes, including national parks, than Terry Tempest Williams. To celebrate—and interrogate—the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, she published The Hour of Land, a breathtaking personal, political, and literary engagement with American national parks and the histories, landscapes, and people they represent. They are, as she shows, both scarred and sacred, and that makes parks so meaningful. Again and again, her words and ideas jump off the page and expressed things I’ve long believed but never articulated like, when she suggests parks might be “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.”


Who am I?

I started studying public lands by accident in the 1990s for a class project before I really knew what they even were. Since then, I've published hundreds of thousands of words about them, including my latest book Making America’s Public Lands where I’ve brought together much of what I’ve learned. I’m convinced the national forests, parks, rangelands, and refuges are among the most interesting and important experiments in democracy we have. I'm a writer, historian, and former college professor who now calls the Skagit Valley of Washington home. As much as I enjoy studying the public lands, I've appreciated hiking, sleeping, teaching, and noticing things in them even more.


I wrote...

Making America's Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands

By Adam M. Sowards,

Book cover of Making America's Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands

What is my book about?

The federal government controls roughly 640 million acres in national forests, parks, rangelands, and wildlife refuges. Managing these lands has been an ongoing—and noisy—experiment in democracy and conservation. Making America’s Public Lands tells this history from the earliest years of the nation to recent controversies, along the way providing guideposts and explanations to help us understand the public’s land. The book shows the increasingly complex task land managers have faced as the public demanded more and more from the lands, from timber and beef to inspiration and ecosystem services. Meanwhile, the politics of it all has become ever more complicated as a more diverse set of constituents demanded their rightful seat at the table. 

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