Happy 99th Birthday to the National Park Service!: 6 Books about America’s National Parks

Yosemite National Park
Photo courtesy Johan Viirok from Wikipedia under CC License.

Happy 99th Birthday to the National Park Service! The National Park Service was established in 1916 to care for the National Parks all across America. With over 400 parks encompassing over 84 million acres of America’s most beautiful and iconic landscapes, the National Parks are one of our nation’s greatest treasures. The books below share some of the history of the National Parks as well as exploring the stories of the people, both real and imagined, who experience these amazing places.

Track of the Cat book coverTrack of the Cat by Nevada Barr

The memory of violence and loss drove Anna Pigeon from the city to seek peace in the Southwestern wilderness. Now a ranger in America’s national parks, Anna is at one with nature and its serene, unspoiled majesty. But the brutal death of a fellow ranger in the remote West Texas back country, presumably by mountain lion attack, looks suspiciously like murder to Anna. And her unauthorized investigation into the tragedy is placing her squarely in harm’s way. For a trail with few leads winds through dangerous territory — where Anna must confront the dark side of the desert … and the human heart. All of Barr’s books about Anna Pigeon are set in different National Parks all over the country.

The Wild Inside book coverThe Wild Inside by Christine Carbo

It was a clear night in Glacier National Park. Fourteen-year-old Ted Systead and his father were camping beneath the rugged peaks and starlit skies when something unimaginable happened: a grizzly bear attacked Ted’s father and dragged him to his death. Now, twenty years later, as Special Agent for the Department of the Interior, Ted gets called back to investigate a crime that mirrors the horror of that night. Except this time, the victim was tied to a tree before the mauling. Ted teams up with one of the park officers—a man named Monty, whose pleasant exterior masks an all-too-vivid knowledge of the hazardous terrain surrounding them. As the case progresses with no clear answers, more than human life is at stake—including that of the majestic creature responsible for the attack. Ted’s search for the truth ends up leading him deeper into the wilderness than he ever imagined, on the trail of a killer, until he reaches a shocking and unexpectedly personal conclusion.

The National Parks book coverThe National Parks: America’s Best Idea by Dayton Duncan

America’s national parks spring from an idea as radical as the Declaration of Independence: that the nation’s most magnificent and sacred places should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone. In this evocative and lavishly illustrated narrative, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan delve into the history of the park idea, from the first sighting by white men in 1851 of the valley that would become Yosemite and the creation of the world’s first national park at Yellowstone in 1872, through the most recent additions to a system that now encompasses nearly four hundred sites and 84 million acres. The authors recount the adventures, mythmaking, and intense political battles behind the evolution of the park system, and the enduring ideals that fostered its growth.

The Big Burn book coverThe Big Burn by Timothy Egan

On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho, Montana, whipping the hundreds of small blazes burning across the forest floor into a roaring inferno that jumped from treetop to ridge as it raged, destroying towns and timber in an eyeblink. No living person had seen anything like those flames, and neither the rangers nor anyone else knew how to subdue them. Egan narrates the struggles of the overmatched rangers against the implacable fire with unstoppable dramatic force, through the eyes of the people who lived it. Equally dramatic, though, is the larger story he tells of outsized president Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester Gifford Pinchot. Pioneering the notion of conservation, Roosevelt and Pinchot did nothing less than create the idea of public land as our national treasure, owned by every citizen. The robber barons fought him and the rangers charged with protecting the reserves, but even as TR’s national forests were smoldering they were saved: The heroism shown by those same rangers turned public opinion permanently in favor of the forests, though it changed the mission of the forest service with consequences felt in the fires of today.

Ranger Confidential book coverRanger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks by Andrea Lankford

For twelve years, Andrea Lankford lived in the biggest, most impressive national parks in the world, working a job she loved. She chaperoned baby sea turtles on their journey to sea. She pursued bad guys on her galloping patrol horse. She jumped into rescue helicopters bound for the heart of the Grand Canyon. She won arguments with bears. She slept with a few too many rattlesnakes. In this graphic and yet surprisingly funny account of her and others’ extraordinary careers, Lankford unveils a world in which park rangers struggle to maintain their idealism in the face of death, disillusionment, and the loss of a comrade killed while holding that thin green line between protecting the park from the people, the people from the park, and the people from each other.

Letters from Yellowstone book coverLetters from Yellowstone by Diane Smith

Set in the late nineteenth century against the backdrop of one of America’s most famous wild places, Diane Smith’s debut novel tells of a young woman’s dramatic journey to a greater understanding of her place in the world. A. E. (Alexandria) Bartram is a high-spirited medical student from the East whose real passion is botany. In the spring of 1898, she is invited to join a field study in Yellowstone National Park when its leader, Howard Merriam, a mild-mannered professor from Montana, mistakenly assumes she is a man. Once the scientists get over the shock of having a woman on their team, we follow their experiences over the course of a summer of adventure and collecting as they move from Mammoth Hot Springs to a camp high in the back country. From the group’s human dilemmas emerge clashing concepts of science, nature, and economics. As the summer draws to a close, everything the team has accomplished is threatened, forcing them to change their perceptions of themselves and each other.