The Best Books to Read if You Love the National Parks
From a personal memoir on camping to a biography of Teddy Roosevelt, these seven new titles highlight the majesty of America's great outdoors.
1 "Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping" by Dan White
Camping is one of our country’s great pastimes, as evidenced by the fact that an estimated 50 million Americans do it every year. Dan White uses his own love for the outdoor activity—whether on a treelined traffic divider near Skykomish, Washington, on the Pacific Crest Trail, or on a beautiful bluff in Point Reyes, California—to discuss the history of camping (it began, in fact, as a Victorian passion) and how the contributions of America’s greatest nature writers—from Thoreau to Muir—have changed our relationship to wilderness. Along the way are hilarious anecdotes, like the time White, buck naked, sat on a nest of yellow jackets. As he writes, “With camping you cannot hide.”
2 "Picturing America’s National Parks" by Jamie M. Allen
The list of great photographers who have shot the national parks is too long to print here. From the stunning black-and-white landscapes by Ansel Adams and the sensual depictions of Tenaya Lake’s pines by Edward Weston to the more contemporary eye of Stephen Shore, America’s parks have proved an irresistible subject. In honor of the parks’ centennial, the Aperture Foundation joined forces with the George Eastman Museum to compile this magnificent tome showcasing the best photography of the parks over the last 100 years.
3 "Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape" by Lauret Savoy
This travelogue-meets-memoir serves as an unlikely historical examination of America’s landscape. Savoy, who is a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College (and contributed an essay about the parks to Travel + Leisure), is a deeply poetic writer. Through the lens of her own relationship to nature, she reveals larger histories and traditions, while asking questions both difficult and probing about our nation’s past. Why, for example, did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow choose to use the name Hiawatha for his 1855 epic poem about a Native American hero, when that wasn’t the name of the Ojibwa chief he was writing about? She recalls a visit to the rim of the Grand Canyon as a child, connecting the sense of amazement her family experienced with the reactions of those who visited a site a century earlier, including Clarence Edward Dutton, a contributor to the 1875 geographical survey of the Rocky Mountain region. Dutton wrote that the view was “the most sublime and awe-inspiring spectacle in the world.”
4 "Voyager: Travel Writings" by Russell Banks
In this collection of essays, one of America’s finest travel writers roams far and wide around the globe. He writes: “Since childhood, I’ve longed for escape, for rejuvenation, for wealth untold, for erotic and narcotic and sybaritic fresh starts, for high romance, mystery, and intrigue.” Along the way, Banks touches on a handful of memorable national parks, including the Everglades and the Virgin Islands. Though these visits comprise a fairly short portion of the book, his wanderlust is universal.
5 "The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, a Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History" by Darrin Lunde
The 26th president has long been credited as one of America’s first and most fervent conservationists, even getting a national park named for him—Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. This new biography by Lunde, a professional mammalogist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., uses letters, journals, and more to draw a detailed portrait of the man.
6 "Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America’s National Parks" by Mark Woods
Woods grew up, like many of us, visiting the national parks as a young boy. “More than 40 years later,” he writes, “I could close my eyes and imagine our campsite. I not only could picture the pop-up camper that we pulled behind the station wagon, I could hear it being set up—a mix of metal rails sliding, canvas popping open and dad swearing.” At 50, he is now a father, with an established career as a columnist for a respectable national newspaper. But, he admits, “I guess I had my version of a midlife crisis,” and as a result, decides to take his family and friends with him to visit the parks that so captivated his imagination as a child. Earnest and heartfelt, this book captures how one family handles the joys and sorrows of life, with American’s most beautiful landscapes standing in the background.
7 "Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human" by George Michelsen Foy
It can be difficult in today’s world for someone to truly get lost. Foy’s great-great grandfather was the captain of a Norwegian cargo ship who lost his life at sea, and in an effort to learn more about his death, Foy begins a somewhat absurd quest of recreating his ancestor’s fatal voyage once more, using only the navigational technology available at the time. Waiting to leave from Haiti on the Messager de Dieu, Foy writes, “Somehow I’m not worried. Maybe it’s because, now the waiting is done, to worry further is useless. Whatever happens, I have no choice but to deal with it.” It’s an arduous process and a well-told tale, one that makes you grateful for what we have to guide us today as well as the power of the great outdoors.