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Traveler's Checklist: The Well-Stocked National Park Lover's Library, National Edition


If you frequent national parks, you need a well-stocked personal library of park-related books. They're essential to plan for trips, and to place yourself in a national-park setting from the comfort of your armchair. What titles should you stock? In this checklist, the Traveler touches on a general reading list that will provide a sound backbone for your collection. Down the road we'll delve into region-specific lists.

Desert Solitaire, Ed Abbey

How better to come to understand the meaning and value of wilderness than by reading this seminal work by the late Mr. Abbey, who was inspired at the time by his time as a seasonal ranger in what was then Arches National Monument. Drifting through the pages of this book, it can be disconcerting how many of Mr. Abbey's rantings about the paving over of paradise can be justified today.

Under the desert sun, in that dogmatic clarity, the fables of theology and the myths of classical philosophy dissolve like mist. The air is clean, the rock cuts cruelly into the flesh; shatter the rock and the odor of flint rises to your nostrils, bitter and sharp. Whirlwinds dance across the salt flats, a pillar of dust by day; the thornbush breaks into flame at night. What does it mean? it means nothing. It is as it is and has no need for meaning. The desert lies beneath and soars beyond any possibly human qualification. therefore, sublime.

Preserving Nature in the National Parks, A History, Richard West Sellars

When this book first appeared in 1997, its exploration of how science is conducted in the national parks spurred the Natural Resource Challenge, a multi-year budget initiative by Congress to revitalize natural resource management and science in the national parks. Revised in 2009, the book also examines the conflicts between traditional scenery-and-tourism management and emerging ecological concepts in the national parks, spanning the period from the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 to the late 20th century. Mr. Sellars has a keen perspective for authoring this book, as he was employed by the Park Service as a historian at the time he wrote it. Its pages chronicle the management styles of the Park Service's earliest, and more recent, managers and the outcomes they precipitated.

Repairing Paradise, William R. Lowry

Though perhaps best-suited to those advocating for the national parks, this title uses four examples plucked from iconic parks -- wolves in Yellowstone, cars in Yosemite, unimpeded water flows in both Everglades and Grand Canyon -- to identify the keys to how we can restore nature in the National Park System.

... the wolf was framed as more than just a cuddly denizen of the wilderness, writes the professor. The wolf became a symbol of much larger issues, in particular the wilderness -- physical or psychological -- that remained in the United States. Between the summer of 1989 and fall of 1991, for instance, three major U.S. news magazines (Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report) published articles on the possible reintroduction, complete with eye-grabbing photos of wolves in natural settings.

Wilderness in National Parks, Playground or Preserve, John Miles

This book's arrival last summer "traces how the national park system began and what role the idea of wilderness played in that early stage,” Mr. Miles explains in this book’s introduction. “It follows the development of the idea of the national park and seeks to explain how, in the early stages, the ideas of park and wilderness were separate and then converged, at least in the minds of some park advocates.”

Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall conceived of wilderness similarly but added the idea that such land would serve a particular recreational approach -- primitive travel on foot or horseback without modern amenities. The Park Service had recognized these ideas and catered to them to some extent, but it was also engaged in what came to be called 'industrial tourism.' It would protect the wilderness as long as it could -- most Park Service people thought (and hoped) that would be a long time, perhaps forever in some places -- but if the public demand grew so as to require development even of remote places, it wished to be free to exercise its professional judgment on how that development might be done.

Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash

This takes a larger view on wilderness than does Professor Miles' book. In it Mr. Nash examines the American psyche and our thoughts on wilderness. Though the book first arrived in 1967, it's still a must-have book for any outdoors lover.

Wilderness was the basic ingredient of American culture. From the raw materials of the physical wilderness, Americans built a civilization. With the idea of wilderness they sought to give their civilization identity and meaning. The subject of this study is the changing American conception of wilderness. Wild places and wild things currently enjoy widespread popularity. Indeed, the preservation of wilderness is now threatened as much from enthusiastic visitation as from economic development. Unbelievably, wilderness is in danger of being loved to death. From the perspective of intellectual history, this appreciation is revolutionary.

National Parks: The American Experience, Third Edition, Alfred Runte

Why did the American society support the national park movement? What was the point? Mr. Runte explores this question in tracing the history of the National Park System and Americans' attitudes to these places.

As a visual experience, national parks went beyond the need for physical fitness or outdoor recreation. Indeed, the parks did not emerge merely as the end product of landscape appreciation for its own sake. Simply admiring the natural world was nothing unique to the people of the United States; the transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, themselves followed the example of the likes of Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, and Keats. The intellectual subtleties of transcendentalism, in any case, could hardly sustain the national park idea in a country as firmly committed to material progress as the United States. The decision not only to admire nature but to preserve it required stronger incentives. Specifically, the impulse to bridge the gap between appreciation and protection needed catalysts of unquestionable drama and visibility.

Adios Amigos, Tales of Sustenance and Purification in the American West, Page Stegner

Perhaps better filed under regional book lists, this title made our national reading list not only because it ranges from Oregon to Montana down to Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, but because the entertaining approach Mr. Stegner takes to running rivers will entice most readers to dip their toes into this incredible national park resource -- white water! True, it'd be more reflective of what watery resources the parks hold if it also included tales from the New, Gauley, and Big South Fork rivers, but, as the Rolling Stones told us, "you can't always get what you want ... but you need what you get."

It has taken my wife, Lynn, nine years of annually renewing herself on a National Park Service waiting list to secure a private permit to run the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, and in that time I have gone from a lean, mean, forty-seven-year-old light-heavyweight to an oleaginous fifty-six-year-old cruiser-weight with bad nerves. Although I've only had one serious wreck in fifteen years of river running (flipping on the Dolores River in the particularly poisonous and mean-spirited rapid called Snaggletooth), the Colorado has many Snaggleteeth on its menu, plus a few dozen rotten molars, and my bad dreams on the tarmac at Lee's Ferry are of maelstroms like Unkar, Hance, Sockdolager, Grapevine, Horn, Hermit, Granite, Crystal Deubendorff, and Lava. Martin Litton, the founder and former owner of Grand Canyon Dories, used to comfort anxious passengers who asked about the severity of any given rapid by rolling his eyes and intoning, "Horrible. Just terrifying."

Hey Ranger! True Tales of Humor & Misadventure from America's National Parks, Jim Burnett

Yes, we're touting one of our own, Ranger Jim, in adding this book to our national collection. Why? Because sometimes you just won't believe what actually goes on out there in the national parks, and Jim has seen almost all of it! Too, reading this might actually ensure that your national park vacation goes without a hitch and you want head home melancholy. Jim regales readers with anecdotes of park visitors and their run-ins with skunks, struggles with the seeming ease of camping, and the travails of navigating tranquil rivers. He also tosses in a few of the not-so-glorious tasks that confront rangers on a daily basis, such as fishing thousands of chickens out of the Buffalo National River. While there are plenty of books that detail the fine line between life and death in the parks, Burnett shares a glimpse of a side of life in our national parks that draws a chuckle, not a grimace. For example, here's a snippet from a couple who had a run-in with a skunk. The lessons to be learned? Don't store food in your tent, and don't bring your dog camping with you.

"A little while ago, this skunk showed up and must have wanted to get in the other end of the tent to get to the food," the camper told Burnett. "To make a long story short, the dog and the skunk got into a fight, and the dog pulled the tent down on top of himself, the skunk and us. We all ended up in a great big pile, and now we all smell like skunk."

Ed: And don't forget the sequel, Hey Ranger 2

The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges, David and Kay Scott

Another dip into our staff produced this book, which is a tremendous guide when you're trying to decide where to stay in the National Park System. The Scotts give you the lowdown on the lodges and their amenities, and toss in more than a few side notes about the ambiance you'll encounter. For instance, in the section on the Chateau at the Oregon Caves at Oregon Caves National Monument they note that, "The area offers good hiking and a tranquil setting that is ideal for individuals searching for peace and quiet. What a great place for a honeymoon! When is the last time you stayed in a lodge that had a small stream running through the dining room? The chateau does, and you can hear the water ripple through as you enjoy a meal."

In discussing the Lake Mead Resort at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, they point out that "The two corner rooms in each building have an extra window that allows for a brighter interior. A separate but nearby annex has eight larger rooms with two queen beds. When it comes to addressing the Skyland Resort at Shenandoah National Park, they tell you which rooms have views of the Shenandoah Valley, and which do not.

Submerged: Adventures of America's Most Elite Underwater Archeology Team, Dan Lenihan

The beneath-the-surface resources of the National Park System are both beautiful and incredible, and at times somber. This title opens that world to you, and leaves you with a much, much greater appreciation for what lies beneath.

Submerged is a fascinating look at a world that few inhabit. Readers accompany the team as it finds and documents ship wrecks in Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, and Isle Royale National Park. This last park presented special challenges to the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit. Mr. Lenihan documents the effects of Lake Superior's icy cold water on a diver's mental and physical abilities. He even reports slush in the mouths of divers, a fact that makes a "free flow" of air through a malfunctioning regulator a life-threatening emergency as the diver's lips are too numb to properly seat the back up regulator.

We learn of the diver's reverence for the sailors of the USS Arizona and their vow to never swim inside the ship as it is the final resting place for so many. We dive in the English Channel to document the Confederate war ship, the CSS Alabama, sunk in 1864 in an engagement that was watched by crowds from the shore. Here the strong currents in the Channel and the extreme depth of the Alabama make the reading exciting.

Be Expert With Map and Compass, The Complete Orienteering Book, Bjorn Kjellstrom, third edition by Carina Kjellstrom Elgin.

What better skill can you have when it comes to backcountry travel than knowing how to navigate not with GPS or smartphone but by map and compass? These tools will never become obsolete. And they work whether you're in the backwood tangles of Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the great expanse of Glacier National Park.

Death, Daring, & Disaster, Charles "Butch" Farabee, Jr.

Revised in 2005, this 547-page veritable search-and-rescue encyclopedia tracks more than 400 SAR missions conducted across the National Park System since Yellowstone became the world's first national park in 1872. Chronicling both missteps in the parks and incredible feats of heroism, this page turner not only presents an incredible history of SAR, but conveys the need to be prepared and watch your steps in the parks.


Don't forget "National Parks for Dummies". A great book but I can't remember the authors name...

A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold
The Wilderness Warrior, Douglas Brinkley
America's National Park System: The Critical Documents, Lary M. Dilsaver

as the Rolling Stones told us, "you can't always get what you want ... but you need what you get."

Actually it is "you can't always get what you want ... you get what you need."
Which makes more sense to my mind this morning :-)

Thanks for mentioning two of our books--Death, Daring, & Disaster and National Parks. We've just released the first new edition of National Parks in 15 years! Kurt, please contact me if you'd like a review copy.

I found Nature Noir to be a fantastic read by Jordan Fisher Smith that came out about 5 years ago.
He was a ranger in the Sierras as a California State Park Ranger (not NPS, but still good).

Sounds like a good read, Jonathan, one that perhaps we should include in our library list for the Sierras.

I also love the books Park Ranger and Park Ranger Sequel. They contain a nice variety of stories that are humerous and scary, but they really show what life is like for a law enforcement ranger.

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