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Top 10 Guidebooks to National Parks

Every major travel publisher (Fodors, Moon, Lonely Planet) has a guidebook to America’s National Parks, which all say the same things about where to go.  We recently published our first book to offer alternatives for those readers seeking to have unique National Park adventures.  You might guess where that one ended up on our Top 10 list, but we also recommend the following guidebooks. 

10. Wildlife Watching in America’s National Parks: A Seasonal Guide by Gary W. Vequist & Daniel S. Licht (2013)

Tips abound in 12 chapters that cover the best spot to see wildlife each month of the year with excellent color photos.

9. 10 Best of Everything: National Parks: 800 Top Picks From Parks Coast to Coast by National Geographic (2011)

Brief descriptions of parks in a variety of categories introduce readers to units in the National Park Service (NPS) system beyond the 61 National Parks.

8. 50 Great American Places: Essential Historic Sites Across the U.S. by Brent D. Glass (2016)

A historian chooses his top 50 iconic American spots to visit, many of which are in the NPS system.

7. Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges into National Parks by Toney Allman, Jahnna Beecham, et al. (2007)

Beyond the funny stories, this book is actually full of interesting tidbits of information on National Parks that you might not learn anywhere else.

6. Ancient America: Fifty Archaeological Sites to See for Yourself by Kenneth L.  Feder (2016)

Many NPS units focus on archaeology and this succinct guide provides a solid background on many of the best sites spread across the country.

5. The West Less Traveled: The Best and Lesser Known Parks, Monuments, and Natural Areas by Jan Bannan (1996)

Out-of-print guide focused not solely on units in the NPS system that contains good detail on geology and ecology.

4. Guide to the National Park Areas: Eastern States by David L. Scott & Kay W. Scott (2004)

Out-of-print two-volume set includes all NPS units at the time, with great information for RV campers.

3. Your Guide to the National Parks: The Complete Guide to all 59 National Parks by Michael Joseph Oswald (2017)

An ambitious and in-depth exploration of the National Parks, including great detail on hiking trails and full-color maps.

2. Complete National Parks of the United States by National Geographic (2016)

Provides a brief description of all 400+ units in the NPS system, plus some of the affiliated sites.

1. A Park To Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks by Scott Sink & Tiff Sink (2019)

As far as we know, our guidebook is the first one to include Indiana Dunes National Park, established February 15, 2019.

Honorable Mentions

National Parks: A Kids Guide to America’s Parks, Monuments, and Landmarks by Erin McHugh (2012)

This full-color, graphic-oriented children’s book is perfect for anyone collecting the 56 quarters in the U.S. Mint’s America the Beautiful collection.

Guide to the National Parks of the USA by National Geographic (2016)

Of the major publishers, National Geographic does the best job of summarizing each park, plus they include color photographs.

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Sample Chapter from Our New Guidebook

We wanted to demonstrate how our new guidebook (A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks) is different from this website, so we are providing a sample chapter for Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  Here is a link to the Raven About The Parks blog post on the park.

The holidays are coming up, so order A Park to Yourself now on Amazon!

39. Rocky Mountain National Park


265,795 acres

Established 1915

4,590,493 visitors in 2018


This truly is a National Park for all seasons.  In the summer, it is worth the extra time it takes to drive 11 miles up the unpaved curves of one-way Old Fall River Road to Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet, then back down Trail Ridge Road.  Elk bulls spar and bugle in the autumn, when aspen trees briefly turn the mountainsides gold.  Winter is a wonderful time for outdoor recreation here if you are prepared for the icy conditions, even on a short 1.6-mile trip up to Gem Lake just outside of Estes Park, Colorado.

Peak Visitation Months

July (20%) August (18%) June (16%) September (15%)

Busiest Spots

Bear Lake Trailhead, Alluvial Fan, Alpine Visitor Center, Longs Peak

Worth The Crowds

Bear Lake Trailhead is the busiest area in the park.  Its huge parking lot fills up early year round, but a hiker shuttle is available during the summer.  While the trail starts above 9,000 feet elevation, it is only 1.1 miles with a steady ascent up to stunning Dream Lake ringed by jagged peaks.  From there, you can continue on to Emerald Lake or take the long loop around to Lake Haiyaha and Alberta Falls.  Even in the winter, these trails are generally packed enough that snowshoes are not required.

A Park To Yourself

The western side of the park is generally less busy throughout the year, but even less so in the winter when it is cut off after Trail Ridge Road closes each October.  Snowshoeing past Adams Falls up the East Inlet valley is breathtaking when the snow sparkles in the sun and the river gurgles deep under foot.  There are majestic mountain views once the forest opens up into a spectacular meadow.  Better yet, there is never a fee required to park at the East Inlet or North Inlet Trailheads. 

Iconic Photograph

Around Memorial Day each year, all 48 miles of Trail Ridge Road open to vehicles.  Its high point is at 12,183 feet, the highest elevation reached by a fully-paved road in the United States.  For much of its length, jagged black mountaintops lined in pure white snow surround the visitor on all sides.  Our favorite view is looking southwest towards the Gorge Lakes and Mount Ida from the overlooks at Rock Cut or Forest Canyon parking areas.

Scott’s Favorite Trail

Starting at the small parking lot at Poudre Lake, it is a steady climb five miles one-way to Mount Ida at 12,880 feet.  After a mile, it is less a trail and more following cairns along the Continental Divide.  Needless to say, above timberline there are first-class views of surrounding mountains.  Elk and bighorn sheep are commonly spotted on the route.  From the top you look down on the colorful Gorge Lakes and far across to Trail Ridge Road.

Tiff’s Favorite Trail

The Dunraven Trailhead is in Roosevelt National Forest, northeast of Estes Park.  From there a trail drops to the canyon bottom then follows the North Fork of the Big Thompson River 4.4 miles before it enters the National Park, and backpack camping is allowed without a permit along this length.  The views open up on the Mummy Range before the trail ends around Lost Lake.  You can continue to explore the other lakes past there, but overnight stays in this area require a permit from the National Park Service.

Bonus Winter Trail

In the winter months, the road off Highway 7 to Wild Basin shuts down, but it is still plowed for those entering on foot.  Adding the two mile road length to any hiking distance makes it about eight miles roundtrip to Calypso Cascades, which continues to flow beneath the snow and ice.  Snowshoes are recommended as this trail sees much less use than those around Bear Lake.


There are multiple campgrounds within the park, but only Glacier Basin is open year round.  Several National Forests surround the park and provide opportunities for dispersed camping, although near Grand Lake it does get crowded during the summer.


Backpacking permits are required and designated sites are reservable, including on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.  You must still pay the National Park entry fee, but there is no additional charge to get a permit to park at the Bowen/Baker Trailhead and camp in the Never Summer Wilderness outside the park boundaries.

Getting Around

Most of the park roads are paved and the two-mile long dirt road to Wild Basin Trailhead is well-maintained.  A hiker shuttle operates from Beaver Meadows Visitor Center in the summer.  Old Fall River Road typically does not open until July, but this 11-mile long one-way dirt road makes a great loop when connected with Trail Ridge Road (open late-May to October). 

Nearby Public Lands

There are no National Park Service units near this park, but it does border Arapaho National Recreation Area on the west side.  If you are flying in or out of Denver International Airport, a short detour from Interstate 70 takes you to Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, which contains bison, white-tailed deer, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and other animals.

Insider Tip

Estes Park is the gateway town to the eastern portion of the park.  There are often elk grazing in its neighborhoods and golf courses.  While there, we recommend the ghost tour of the Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s The Shining.


In the summer, most of the elk herds head to high elevation, but other times of year they walk through the town of Estes Park and congregate near the eastern entrance stations.  Rock Cut is a great spot to watch the spastic wanderings of yellow-bellied marmots and American pikas.  Mule deer are found throughout the park, but moose are more common on the west side.  We commonly see bighorn sheep on Highway 34 through Big Thompson Canyon, but have never spotted one within the park, even at Sheep Lakes where they come to lick salt.

Journal Entry

March 2013

We never thought we would have an entire National Park campground to ourselves, but that is exactly what we found at Timber Creek one beautiful March weekend.  The ranger could not recall the last campers they had stayed there and it took some work to excavate a site from almost three feet of snow, but it was worth it.  Sitting around the campfire that night, the silence was palpable until abruptly pierced by the eerie cries of coyotes that echoed up the valley.  Snow camping is not for the faint of heart, but with proper planning we were well prepared for the 15°F temperatures that met us in the morning.  On a clear day, the winter scenery in the Rocky Mountains is unsurpassed. 

If you enjoyed reading this chapter, you can find all 50 chapters in our first National Parks guidebook!

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Introduction to Our National Park Guidebook

Since we published our first guidebook to the National Parks today (available on Amazon), we wanted to share the Introduction we wrote to explain why we took on this project.  A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks contains 155 black-and-white photographs, but not all of our favorites made it into the book so we included the best excluded photos, too.

American pika in Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)

Introduction to A Park to Yourself

Purpose of this Guidebook

Our goal is to inspire great adventures for every type of visitor to America’s National Parks.  These wild places were set aside to be shared, and we believe in the importance of introducing them to a new generation of National Park enthusiasts.  This guidebook is for everyone from families with small children to thrill-seekers.  Even if you have been to every National Park or none at all, in these pages are new ideas for first-timers and frequent visitors to each site.  So, whether you want to go hiking, driving, camping, selfie snapping, or backpacking, we have your options covered. 

Every visitor is looking for different experiences in National Parks and we aim to cover the diversity of opportunities each park has to offer.  Even Florida’s tiny Dry Tortugas (at 40 acres the smallest park by landmass in this book) can provide a variety of experiences: learning history on a ranger-led tour of a coastal fort, sunbathing on a white-sand beach, taking incredible photographs, snorkeling a coral reef, birdwatching unique species, camping on a remote island, visiting lighthouses, or hiking on a paved seawall surrounded by turquoise water.  That list does not even include the biggest adventure, which is getting to the park’s islands by ferry boat or floatplane.  

Some experiences in National Parks are enhanced by sharing the wonders with a large gathering of people, like the evening bat flight at Carlsbad Caverns, eruptions of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, or glacier calving in Kenai Fjords and Glacier Bay.  We also recognize the desire to seek solitude in National Parks and have a personal experience with the natural world.  Information on where to expect crowds is lacking in other guidebooks and it is one of the main reasons we wrote A Park to Yourself.  While you must anticipate that you will see plenty of people in Yosemite Valley, there are other corners of that park you do not have to share with others. 

Even though public lands are owned by everyone, there are admission fees for nearly every National Park in this book (with Great Smoky Mountains providing one notable exception).  We believe all the parks offer a good value for their price.  To save some money, check the National Park Service website (www.nps.gov) for the cost of annual passes, plus see if you qualify for discounted senior, access, and military cards that provide free entry and half-off on all tours and campsites.

Tiff walking across the Racetrack in Death Valley National Park (California)

About the Authors

We love the National Parks of America.  Some of our happiest memories together have been made in these special places set aside for the enjoyment of all.  Early in our relationship, we took a weeklong camping trip through Utah’s National Parks (shown in the cover photo) and we have been traveling together ever since.  In National Parks we have been awed by breaching whales, inspired by rushing waterfalls, engulfed in the warm sulphur steam of a fumarole, buried in a tent under a fresh layer of snow, overwhelmed by the roar of a calving glacier, awed by cave decorations, surrounded by a herd of bison, and submerged in the healing waters of a hot spring.  Where else can you have this variety of life-changing experiences? 

As of October 2019, there are 61 National Parks named among the 419 units in the National Park Service (NPS) system.  Of the top 150 most visited NPS sites, 46 National Parks are ranked.  Clearly, we are not the only ones who love visiting the National Parks, and you must be, too, since you are reading this book.  However, we do not want to sit in traffic or follow a line of noisy day hikers when we are trying to commune with nature.  Personally, we do not think that is why conservationists protected these unique landmarks and it is the main reason we wrote this guidebook.  In these pages we cover all 61 National Parks, with an in-depth focus on the 50 most developed, including Indiana Dunes National Park, established in February 2019.

We have spent at least two days in each of the 50 highlighted National Parks and several weeks in places like Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains.  If you try to see all of Grand Canyon, Glacier, or other large National Parks in one trip it is possible to feel overwhelmed, so you may not fully appreciate each overlook and hiking trail.  To avoid burnout, it is important that you either plan rest days or plan to return.  We have revisited most of the selected 50 National Parks on multiple occasions.  We recommend that our readers do so, too.  Each time is special, especially when you arrive at different times of the year. 

We enjoy hiking, backpacking, kayaking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and photography.  However, you do not have to buy specialized gear to follow the recommendations within the guidebook.  A sense of adventure and a good pair of hiking boots are the only equipment required.  We know not everyone wants to go camping in a National Park, and there are always lodging options within and nearby for those who prefer to take day trips.  We have found that you do not have to backpack dozens of miles to savor solitude on America’s public lands.  To reach many of the most spectacular views in National Parks often requires only a short walk.  Even in the most heavily-visited National Parks, it is possible to have a unique and personal experience if you just get out there.

Humpback whale diving in Kenai Fjords National Park (Alaska)

How to Use this Guidebook

The purpose of this guidebook is to help you, the reader, enjoy not just the popular spots in America’s National Parks, but also to have a unique, personalized experience.  This book is a starting place with suggestions, but the real fun is in finding your own adventure.  It may be a little harder to see a park this way, but it is definitely worth the effort.  The following is a breakdown of each section we cover for the 50 highlighted National Parks. 


We give some basic background information you will want to know before visiting each park.  In the section above this one, we provide the most recent annual visitation numbers, total acreage, and the year each area was officially designated a National Park.

Peak Visitation Months

Based on an average of data from the most recent years, we provide a ranking of the four busiest months with the percentage of annual visitors that arrive during that month.  Some National Parks, such as Crater Lake and Glacier Bay, have short summer windows for visitation, while places like Joshua Tree and Haleakalā have evenly distributed numbers.

Busiest Spots

The busiest spots in each park are where you are most likely to encounter crowds.  They are typically crowded for good reason, for example at an incredible waterfall or amazing overlook.

Worth The Crowds

Our choice for the one place you must visit in each National Park, regardless of how difficult it is to find a parking space. 

A Park To Yourself

Sometimes it is nice to feel like you have an entire National Park all to yourself (or your small group of loved ones).  It is easy to say, “Avoid crowds by going in the off season or at odd hours.”  That is good advice, but not always practical.  We try to balance the allure of a place with the feasibility of getting there.

Iconic Photograph

In this book we use black-and-white photography in homage to Ansel Adams, who did so much to popularize Yosemite and other parks with his stunning imagery.  In this age of photo filters and picture enhancing software, there is something honest about a black-and-white photograph.

Inspiration Point on East Anacapa Island in Channel Islands National Park (California)

Favorite Trails

We share our two favorite trails (or tours in the caves) for each National Park, providing one that will likely be busy and one with less hikers.  Typically, even the largest crowds will thin out within the first mile of a trail. 


We provide information on whether you can find RV hookups in the NPS campgrounds or if you need to seek accommodations outside the park, as well as what seasons they take reservations.  We also enjoy primitive camping on back roads managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, and give specifics on those options when possible.


We have backpack camped in many National Parks, so we offer our recommendations on places to go, in addition to information on the logistics of getting permits at each park.

Getting Around

Not all roads in National Parks are paved, so we explain which ones actually require a high-clearance vehicle and should be avoided by RVs.  We also cover seasonal road closures and whether a park offers shuttle buses for accessing trailheads and overlooks.

Nearby Public Lands

If you are like us, you are interested in other units within the NPS system, as well as National Forests, Wildlife Refuges, and State Parks.  In this section, we offer a few recommendations for public lands to visit near the highlighted National Park.

Insider Tip

There is always something unique about each National Park that does not fit in any category, so we use this spot for those tidbits of information that are often left out of other guidebooks.


Many people visit National Parks specifically to watch and photograph wildlife.  These are by no means exhaustive lists of all the species found in each park, but a good idea of what animals you can expect to see while touring.  Oftentimes your car provides the best place to watch wildlife, as animals are used to vehicles and are not stressed by their presence, which may not be the case if you step out of your car. 

Journal Entry

A first person account of an experience we had in a specific National Park.  We try to match the photograph below with the event described.


Scott has created graphics for each of the 50 highlighted National Parks, which we sell on a variety of products through our travel website Raven About The Parks (www.ravenabouttheparks.com).

Mountain goat kids in Glacier National Park (Montana)
Tiff at the entrance to a talus cave in Pinnacles National Park (California)
Balanced Rock in Big Bend National Park (Texas)
Tiff in the Giant Forest at Sequoia National Park (California)
Ravens at Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado)
Our first guidebook is available for sale on Amazon

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

We Published Our First Guidebook!

We are proud to announce the publication of our first guidebook to the National Parks (available on Amazon).

A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks covers all 61 National Parks, with an in-depth focus on the 50 most developed, including Indiana Dunes National Park, established in February 2019. 

The goal of the book is to inspire great adventures for every type of visitor to America’s National Parks: first-timers and frequent travelers, RVers and tent campers, families and solo trekkers, backpackers and daytrippers, thrill-seekers and photographers, and everyone in between.

The guidebook includes detailed descriptions of the best places to hike, take photos, and see wildlife.  If you are camping in a tent, RV, or prefer not to camp at all, we include the logistics you need to know.  We identify the peak months of visitation and the busiest places in each park, whether you are attracted to those spots or want to avoid them altogether.  Seeking solitude?  We provide ideas of where to find it in A Park to Yourself.

So get out there and start your own National Park adventure!

Read the entire Introduction to the guidebook here.

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Top 10 National Park Logos

We have now created black-and-white designs for 50 National Parks, which are for sale on T-shirts and a variety of other products through Amazon and Café Press.  Each of the logos is special to us, but we wanted to share the ones we liked best (check out our other Top 10 Lists).  On our Café Press page, our original designs can be printed on mugs, pillows, stickers, and clothing.  With the holidays coming up, they might make the perfect gift for the National Park fan in your life.

10. Yosemite National Park (California) depicts the view of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point

9. Big Bend National Park (Texas) depicts a javelina in front of Balanced Rock

8. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve (Alaska) depicts mountains looming above Lamplugh Glacier

7. Sequoia National Park (California) depicts a sequoia tree grove in the Giant Forest

6. Great Basin National Park (Nevada) depicts a bristlecone pine tree snag in front of Wheeler Peak

5. Zion National Park (Utah) depicts the view of the Virgin River valley from atop Angels Landing

4. Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Texas) depicts a mountain lion lying on Guadalupe Peak overlooking El Capitan

3. Isle Royale National Park (Michigan) depicts Lake Superior near Scoville Point

2. Channel Islands National Park (California) depicts Inspiration Point on East Anacapa Island

…and finally the #1 logo we have designed for a National Park!

1. Glacier National Park (Montana) depicts an hoary marmot at Hidden Lake Overlook near Logan Pass

Honorable Mentions

Canyonlands National Park (Utah) depicts Chesler Park in the Needles District

Joshua Tree National Park (California) depicts a Joshua tree growing in Hidden Valley Campground

Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado) depicts Long House on Wetherill Mesa

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.