American Trails contributor Sam Demas reviews "Walks of a Lifetime in America’s National Parks" by Robert and Martha Manning
The first two books in the Robert and Martha Manning’s Walks of a Lifetime series –Walking Distance: Extraordinary Hikes for Ordinary People and Walks of a Lifetime: Extraordinary Hikes from Around the World – each describe 30 fabulous multi-day hikes around the world. This third guidebook focuses primarily on extraordinary day hikes in America’s most exceptional places: our 62 National Parks. These landscapes -- the crown jewels among the 419 units of the US National Park Service -- are held in trust for the nation, and people are visiting them in record numbers. The Mannings recommend a selection of their own favorite hikes in each national park. As is their hallmark, this invitation to walk is imbued with enthusiasm for the unique and powerful perspective that walking provides, expert advice, and a deeply informed and engaging outlook on what you are actually seeing when you walk these landscapes.
Uniquely qualified for this ambitious undertaking, Bob and Martha have been hiking together and with family and friends for many years; they take pride in providing first-hand knowledge, having personally walked all the walks described in their books. Martha is a fiber artist and an articulate advocate for walking. Bob is retired from a career as a leading academic expert on the history, philosophy and management of national parks. Over the years they have visited, and lived and worked in, many national parks. In addition to knowing the trails, they know park personnel, issues and challenges, politics and policies, and history and natural history. In presenting this carefully curated selection of walks these two indefatigable walkers have painted a rich and fascinating picture of the wonders of America’s National.
Check out the free, related webinar by Robert and Martha, Walks of a Lifetime in America’s National Parks.
As you plan a national parks trip -- armchair and/or real-life – you can first consult the book’s U.S. map and peruse the table of contents to concentrate on specific regions and parks, and then check out the Appendix Table of Trails. The heart of the book is in the 62 chapters, one for each park, each of which begins with a beautiful full-page photograph and a lucid explanation of the geological, natural history and historical, cultural and other factors and features that caused these lands to rise to the top of the list in creating “America’s best idea”. Each chapter is illustrated with 6-8 color photographs, nearly all by the authors, and spotlights a set of day hikes recommended to give the visitor a vibrant sense of the park as a whole. In these trail descriptions, rather than rehashing detailed turn-by-turn navigation and trail maps (this essential information is already easily available online, on apps, in park brochures and websites, etc.), they briefly describe the level of challenge and terrain, suggest choices where options exist to shorten or lengthen the walk, recommend scenic views, and point out features to be alert for along the way.
The audience for this book ranges from folks seeking a short walk near the visitor center/trailhead, to fitter folks seeking more challenging half or full day treks into the interior of a park. While a few classic multi-day walks are mentioned, these are not the focus of the book. Of the 223 trails listed in the Table of Trails, 82 are 3 miles or less in length, and a dozen are 12 miles or more.
Of course, some of the 62 parks do not really have trails for significant day hikes, and these chapters are short. These include: water-based parks such as Biscayne National Park, Congaree NP, Voyageurs NP, and Virgin Islands NP; some very small parks such as Hot Springs NP; and immense parks that are hard to reach and suitable primarily for backpacking and other multi-day adventures, such as Wrangell-St. Elias NP and Lake Clark NP in Alaska.
The brief Logistics section of each chapter provides practical information on seasons in which to visit, crowds, lodging options, campgrounds, visitor centers, modes of travel and opportunities for backpacking. And finally, each chapter ends with “The Last Word”. This is a brief sendoff -- or really an invitation -- highlights reasons or ways you should visit this park, what really stands out to the authors, or some unique or significant policy, ecological, or conservation aspect of the park. For example, the entry on Yellowstone NP outlines the vision and promise of landscape scale conservation, a concept animating park management and a range of conservation partnerships.
Finally, the Mannings have distilled from their years of experience walking our national parks a set of ten principles to use in planning a visit. These outline how to plan and prepare, where to stay, what to bring, how to avoid crowds, and how to minimize your ecological impact and maximize your enjoyment and contributions to these parks.
Perusing this book is a terrific way to discover lesser known and visited national parks, such as Pinnacles, Black Canyon, Capitol Reef, Great Basin, Lassen Volcanic, and Isle Royale, to name a few. As the authors say in the introduction, it is a labor of love. I’d say they have composed an elegant, inspiring, and intelligent love song to the idea and the reality of National Parks, and to some of the best hikes in the nation. The Mannings “walk the walk” and they sure can “talk the talk”, with pleasurable prose that enlivens the experience of walking.
Of the dozens of books about NP published around its 2016 Centennial, this one stands out for its effectiveness in telling the story of each national park in a way that prepares the reader for the best way to visit it: walking the trails. This guidebook is recommended for hikers interested in visiting the nation’s iconic landscapes, and should certainly be in public and academic libraries serving folks who love the outdoors.
Published November 2020