I’m a book junkie; I read all the time. (In fact, I often read when I should instead be working on NPMaps!) I especially enjoy reading books about national parks, which probably comes as no shock considering I built this website. Here I wanted a page to share with you some of my favorite national park books. I know this selection is small and doesn’t cover many parks, but I’m only listing books that I have personally read and enjoyed.
Arches | Canyonlands | Death Valley | Grand Canyon | Kings Canyon | Rocky Mountain | Sequoia | Yosemite
Arches National Park /
Canyonlands National Park
If this isn’t my all-time favorite book, it’s definitely near the top. I open up Desert Solitaire at least once a year, and pack it with me for every visit to southern Utah. With Moab’s heavy tourism today, it’s hard to imagine life in 1968 when Ed Abbey wrote this as a park ranger at Arches National Monument. In here you’ll find poetic musings on desert life and legendary rants about tourism. This is as close as we can come to stepping into a time machine to experience the southern Utah of yesterday.
I absolutely love this series. But I’m recommending Roadside Geology of Utah with a caveat – only buy this if you’re doing more in Utah than just Arches or Canyonlands. This book explains the incredible Utah geology based on what you see from along the road. If you’re just making a quick visit to a park and leaving the state right away, this won’t get a lot of use. But if your vacation covers several Utah parks and you want to know what you’re seeing as you drive, get this book.
Canyonlands National Park: Favorite Jeep Roads and Hiking Trails is my favorite guidebook to Canyonlands. I’ve read a number of books covering this area, but the detail in this book is what sets it apart. Trail descriptions include details such as where to find pictographs, ruins, and old cowboy camps. I especially appreciate that the author has opinions – each trail is given a star rating describing how enjoyable it is. Much better than guidebooks where every trail sounds equally amazing!
Death Valley National Park
My favorite hiking guide for just about any national park, Hiking Death Valley just has a ridiculous amount of information for all kinds of hikes in the park. It doesn’t just describe routes, but provides background and history about each one. And it contains both maintained trails as well as cross-country routes. I couldn’t possibly ask for more! I own the first edition, but have linked to the brand new second edition here. (You can read reviews of the first edition here.)
I’m a huge geology dork, so Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Owens Valley is one of my favorite guidebooks I own, period. Eastern California’s geology is pretty fantastic, and this book does a great job of taking you on geologic field trips to experience the geology up close. Best of all, most of the geologic sites you can reach by car and a short walk, so you don’t need to be a hardcore hiker to get a lot out of this one. This is the best geology book for one of the best geologic national parks.
Grand Canyon National Park
This book won’t help you in the slightest with figuring out what to do on your visit to Grand Canyon National Park. That’s not what it’s for. Rather, Down the Great Unknown is an incredible book that recounts John Wesley Powell’s 1869 boat trip down the Green and Colorado River. At the time, southern Utah and northern Arizona was a blank spot on the map. This river trip set out to map the unknown. You won’t look at the Grand Canyon or Colorado River the same way after this read.
National parks like Grand Canyon have a long history of tourism; over the years, some Grand Canyon National Park visitors haven’t made it back home again. Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon provides narratives of each incident, reflecting on each death with lessons learned. It’s tempting to feel invincible when visiting a park (“Oh, if this was unsafe they wouldn’t let me do it.”), but this powerful read taught me not to underestimate the power of the canyon.
Rocky Mountain National Park
There are hiking guides to just about every national park that exists. But I don’t know that I’ve ever found one quite as comprehensive as Rocky Mountain National Park: The Complete Hiking Guide. (Emphasis on the complete!) Although I’m not a huge fan of the book layout – it seems like I’m constantly flipping back and forth between maps and hikes – the sheer number of included adventures will last you a lifetime. It includes off-trail routes, too!
Sequoia National Park /
Kings Canyon National Park
This isn’t a guidebook at all, but The Last Season is one of my favorites of any national park book. It tells the story of Randy Morgenson, a backcountry ranger for Sequoia and Kings Canyon who one day disappeared while on the job. Where did he go? This book narrates the search for the missing ranger and explores theories as to what happened. I challenge you to read this without wanting to get out there and see Bench Lake, Arrow Peak, and the Kings Canyon high country.
Sierra South: Backcountry Trips in California’s Sierra Nevada was one of the first hiking guides I ever purchased. It kind of blew my mind. To me, I always thought that Yosemite National Park was the pinnacle of backpacking in California. But this book first introduced me to the incredible wilderness of Sequoia and Kings Canyon, with peaks, meadows, lakes, and valleys that put Yosemite to shame. (There’s a companion book, Sierra North, but I don’t think it’s nearly as good.)
Although most visitors think of Sequoia National Park as a place to see trees – and Kings Canyon as a nice granite-walled valley – The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, Trails reveals the true nature of these parks: incredible mountain peaks. This comprehensive book describes summit ascents from just about every major mountain peak in the range, from Sequoia to Yosemite. I’ve spent many hours with this book, plotting possible backpacking trips and dreaming.
OK, I’m cheating: A Guide to the Sequoia Groves of California covers much more ground than just Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. What I love about this is how it isn’t just a guide on what to see in the popular, easy-to-reach groves; for that, you can pick up any guidebook. This book rather gives a peek into every sequoia grove in California – even the ones that have no road (or trail!) to reach. I learned more about sequoia groves from this book than anything else I’ve read.
Yosemite National Park
No one disputes that Yosemite has incredible geology that you can see from any road or viewpoint. What I love so much about Geology Underfoot in Yosemite National Park is that takes you off the beaten path a bit to find amazing geology that most visitors don’t get to see. And you know it’s accurate – one of the book coauthors is National Park Service geologist Greg Stock. It’s great to learn geology straight from the experts!
A lot of guidebooks are so general they end up not being too useful to get actual good information about anything other than logistics. Trails and Tales of Yosemite and the Central Sierra is one of my favorite guidebooks specifically because it has such a narrow focus: it describes a number of hiking routes chosen not necessarily for their popularity or scenic beauty, but for the history they uncover. History buffs will love this book; it’s worth a purchase even if you don’t actually hike the hikes.
If you’re looking for a book that will last you for a lifetime of visits to Yosemite and the other Sierra Nevada parks, The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, Trails should be right at the top of your list. The catch? You need to be into summiting mountain peaks. But you don’t have to necessarily be a rock climber – there are all kinds of routes that will put you on summits with no ropes or climbing needed. If you crave those mountaintop views, this book should last you forever.
For a single comprehensive book that covers a huge variety of hiking trails in Yosemite, Top Trails: Yosemite is easily your best bet. You’ll find a lot of great hikes in this book that I haven’t seen mentioned in other guidebooks; this is one Yosemite trails book to rule them all. Note: take some of the author’s geological comments with a grain of salt, as there were a few times I paused and thought, “Ehhh, that’s not quite right.” Nevertheless, his trail choices and descriptions are excellent.
A book about all the ways people have died in Yosemite? Although this might seem a bit morbid, Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite is highly recommended reading. In here you’ll find narratives all the deaths that occurred in the park before the book was published in 2007. What’s the point of reading? By the time I finished the book, I was more aware than ever about how to stay safe in the park. What better way to learn safety than to learn what not to do? Stay away from those rivers, folks.