In 1983, author, historian and environmentalist Wallace Stegner called our country’s national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best…” Filmmaker extraordinaire Ken Burns immortalized Stegner’s quote in the title of his classic six-part documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” in 2009.
Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, the first national park in the United States or anywhere in the world. Maine’s own Acadia National Park began as Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916, and three years later it became Lafayette National Park, the 14th national park in the U.S. The named was changed to Acadia in 1929.
Today, the National Park Service manages 63 national parks (plus 361 other units of various designations) with annual visitation of close to 300 million. Somewhere around 4 million people recreated in Acadia last year, so if such numbers are any indication, a lot of people from across the country and around the globe clearly think our parks are a great idea.
Getting the utmost out of your park visit is the idea behind “Your Guide to the National Parks” (Stone Road Press, 2022) by intrepid explorer Mike Oswald. The beautiful bucket list book, packed with 724 pages of exhaustively researched and well-presented information for park enthusiasts of all types, is both an outstanding planning resource and good travel companion.
Each of the book’s 63 sections begins with a colorful park overview, essential facts and figures, when to go and how to get there, and a park map. Camping and lodging options plus driving routes are next, then the many and varied outdoor activity possibilities are featured. Flora and fauna, pets and accessibility, tips and recommendations, and weather follow.
Hikers and backpackers especially will enjoy the guide’s listing of the best hiking trails at each park, from short walks and moderate hikes to multi-day backpacking trips. At a glance you’ll get a good look at what’s available (the location, length and difficulty rating), while the text provides plenty more detail on must-see sites along the selected trails.
Truly a labor of love, “Your Guide to the National Parks” took four years to produce, with Oswald doing all the research, writing, photography, design and publishing. “I spent two years going from park to park, and another two years seated at my computer,” he said. “Subsequent editions (this is the third) have taken roughly a year of serious work.”
Wisconsin-based Oswald found his inspiration for developing his book while visiting Acadia National Park. His primary tool for park exploring at the time was National Geographic’s “Guide to National Parks of the United States.” “It’s a fine book,” he noted, “but it doesn’t go too far off the road, and that’s where most of the fun begins.”
In Bar Harbor, Oswald discovered James Kaiser’s best-selling book, “Acadia: The Complete Guide,” which is geared more toward the active traveler and chock full of info on outdoor adventures. That got him thinking about a different type of all-parks book that would combine the National Geographic and Kaiser formats, and the rest, well, is history.
Oswald’s guide organizes the parks from east to west across the U.S., then Alaska and the remote islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Before you delve in, however, check out the Best of the Parks subsection, which showcases the author’s choices for Best Parks (Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite and Acadia are his top-four picks), Best Trails, Best for Wildlife and so forth.
“Vacation time is a valuable commodity, and they can be quite expensive, so put some effort into laying out your trip.” Take advantage of the book’s planning tips and suggested itineraries and you’ll have a big leg up on maximizing your enjoyment. “Slow down, wake up early, stay out late, stay in the park. And think about the light” for best scenery viewing.
In Oswald’s view, “the U.S. is home to some of Mother Nature’s finest works of art, and her landscapes are worthy of our admiration, contemplation and preservation.” Agreed wholeheartedly. Full-on winter may be upon us, but the summer travel season isn’t far off. Best to get dreaming and scheming now with “Your Guide to the National Parks.”
Carey Kish of Mount Desert Island is an award winning member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. His new book, “Beer Hiking New England,” will be out in print in March. Follow more of Carey’s adventures on Facebook and Instagram @careykish