I’m a big fan of national parks and public lands—but I wasn’t always this way. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been interested in them, embarrassingly. I first became fascinated by them in the summer of 2019, and put together a trip to Acadia for the summer of 2020…and we know how that went. My son and I have learned about the national parks and monuments through the Junior Ranger program (and I’ve gotten him hooked on the national parks), and we’ve gone to different local sites in the park system.

As a single parent of a young kid, it’s not easy to get away to national parks. So, in 2019 and 2020, I started reading everything I could on their history, travel guides, books about conservation issues and National Park System history, travel memoirs, and much more.

Books about national parks and public lands are a great way to learn more and introduce someone to these gorgeous places that need to be protected. (And if you’re interested in some political aspects, I also recommend This Contested Land: The Storied Past and Uncertain Future of America’s National Monuments, by McKenzie Long).

Acadia Sunrise
Credit: Tim Peck

5 Must-Read Books About the National Parks and Public Lands

If you’re in the mood for some national park or public lands reading, check out these five fabulous books.

Leave Only Footprints review

Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park by Conor Knighton

After a broken engagement, Conor Knighton needed to escape his everyday life. While most people would simply go to the beach or have a weekend with friends, Knighton instead put together a year-long plan to visit every national park in the country. A bit overzealous? Yes. A lot of fun? Undoubtedly.

In this book, he shares the story of that unforgettable year: the people he meets, the adventures he has in each park, the issues facing them, and the effect nature has on us. While he doesn’t go into much depth (there’s a lot to cover!), the book shines when he illustrates the relationships he makes along the way or shares insights into how the trip changed him. If you’re fairly new to the national parks or have a bit of wanderlust for the summer, pick this one up.

The Hour of Land review

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams

If you’ve never read Terry Tempest Williams, this is a great place to start (and you’re in for a treat!). Even if you’ve seen a landscape a million times before, Williams is the kind of nature writer who can make it sound like a completely new place; she captures the sheer wonder and spirituality of a place while also detailing its minute physical characteristics, and balances that with insights into the history of a place or the people who inhabit it. In this book, she writes about the national parks—not just their sheer beauty, but what they inspire in us, various political issues tied into public lands, and climate change and the landscape.

Williams blends nature writing with introspective musings and personal stories, and this is a book that will renew your appreciation for “America’s best idea.”

The Adventure Gap review

The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors by James Edward Mills

This may not be the first book you think about when you think “national parks books”—it’s probably more on your radar for mountaineering/climbing books. But I still think it belongs here. In this book, Mills writes about how, while public lands and outdoor spaces ostensibly belong to everyone, many people from marginalized communities are less likely to use these spaces. He takes on this nature gap, exploring various issues within the topic, and tells the story of the first all-African-American climbing team, sponsored by NOLS, to summit Denali. He braids together the team’s stories, with how various communities see themselves in nature, and also adds his own outdoor/climbing story.

This is a highly relevant, important book about public lands, wild spaces, and accessibility, as well as an immersive adventure story set in a national park not as many people are familiar with.

The Last Season review

The Last Season by Eric Blehm

If you’re looking for an adventure/mystery story set in a national park, or are interested in park ranger life, you’ll want to check this one out. Backcountry ranger Randy Morgenson loved his work, loved the parks, and knew the High Sierra like the back of his hand. When he went missing, it was a mystery. This book takes the reader into Morgenson’s life, how he became a ranger, and the events leading up to his disappearance. Blehm breaks down the timeline and the rescue efforts, but never forgets that there’s a real person missing, and writes the book with respect and care.

It’s a book of investigative journalism, interwoven with biography and nature writing, to provide you with a captivating story that you won’t want to put down.

Path of Light review

Path of Light: A Walk Through Colliding Legacies of Glen Canyon by Morgan Sjogren

Sjogren takes on Charles Bernheimer’s 1920s expeditions through Glen Canyon and Bears Ears National Monument, writing about the history of these places, current land management and conservation issues, and the Indigenous voices not often heard. She uses trip participants’ journals and photos to retrace their steps, meeting a variety of people along the way. Combining anthropology with history, a hefty dose of nature writing, and plenty of self-reflection, this book provides a personal look at what it means to explore, what we owe public lands, and what we can learn from those native to the area. How do we explore while doing as little harm as possible to the land? What are we doing when we explore, what are our motivations, and what are the impacts?

Throughout the entire book, you can feel the passion and respect Sjogren has for these places, and this adds to the story immeasurably. It’s hard to read this without wanting to hop in the car and go west.

Want More National Parks and Public Lands Book Recommendations?

Looking for more books on national parks and public lands? Check out The Emerald Mile, by Kevin Fedarko, which details the fastest boat ride ever, down the entire length of the Colorado River, through another National Park, the Grand Canyon.