Backpacking beneath tongues of ice at Glacier National Park. Paddling the café au lait-colored water of the Rio Grande through Big Bend National Park. Watching a herd of elk wade across a river at Yellowstone National Park.
Our national parks serve up some of our country’s most amazing outdoor experiences, and a new book by Jon Waterman wraps them up into a 432-page compilation of photos, maps, informational graphics and well-researched text.
“Atlas of the National Parks: An Inside Look at the Beauty That Drives More than 330 Million Visitors to America’s Parks Each Year” covers a bit of general history, geology and changing climate before taking a deep dive into 32 of our country’s most unique national parks. The other 29 get more abbreviated treatment, but the result is a book that’ll push you to make your own tally of which ones you’ve already visited and which you still want to see next.
It also does something infinitely more important – it recognizes the importance of the country’s remaining wild places, and reminds you why we need to do everything we can to protect them.
“It was a massive research project,” Waterman says of the year and a half he spent working on the atlas. He didn’t visit every park before finishing – that would have taken half a dozen years, he says – but he has visited most of them. He also worked as a back country ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park and as a mountaineering ranger at Denali. Today he lives in Carbondale, Colo.
“Nothing like this has ever been done before,” Waterman says of the book, which reflects the close relationship between the National Park Service and National Geographic. “In the early days, National Geographic was a huge advocate for the creation of national parks and repeatedly would issue special editions of the magazine in order to get members of Congress to vote in new ones.”
This time around, National Geographic worked closely with the park service to create new maps and gather some of the best photographs ever taken of them for Waterman’s atlas, an over-sized, glossy-paged hulk of a book.
“It’s filled with more than 200 maps and 300 photographs,” he says. “The maps are styled with the National Geographic flourish and it would be hard to pull together a better collection of images.”
He points to the section about Yellowstone National Park, which includes a stunning aerial shot of Grand Prismatic Spring, and, on the opposite page, a graphic cutaway of beneath-the-ground features of the caldera.
“We took great trouble to use all the tools available to show the yin and yang of these parks, from mountaintop to thousands of feet under the ground,” Waterman says.
The book is organized by region, and includes information about each park’s wildlife, climate, culture, archeology and recreational offerings. It’s packed with cool factoids, too, like which park is the oldest – Yellowstone, created in 1872 – and which has the deepest lake – Crater Lake. The most visited of the 61 national parks? Great Smoky Mountains, which saw 11.4 million visitors in 2018. The one with the most endangered species? Haleakala in Hawaii.
The two parks that top Waterman’s “want to visit” list are familiar to many Texas residents – Guadalupe Mountains National Park, one of the least-visited parks in the system, and Big Bend National Park, the sprawling, 1,252-square-mile behemoth in Far West Texas.
“I’m curious about the Rio Grande,” Waterman says. “I’d like to paddle it through the national park, and I love the idea of a park that comprises an international border.”
Besides the national parks, the atlas lists every national park unit, from battlefield to lakeshore, preserve, monument, river, trail and more. That list stretches five pages and hundreds of entries.
Taken as a whole, the book will make you want to pack your tent, ice down the cooler and point yourself toward the nearest national park.
“Now more than ever before, as the world becomes smaller and smaller, these parks are islands of refuge for any number of species that are crushed by a lack of habitat,” Waterman says. “We need these parks because they protect the flora and fauna and give us the opportunity to connect with wildness, and those opportunities are fading fast.”
It’ll also make you want to fight for their survival.
“I think there’s a higher ideal expressed by national parks, it’s an ideal about our democracy. We created these parks to preserve them and the resources and scenery and waterscapes for eternity, but at the same time to leave them open for all. That’s part of the paradox. Many of these parks are so popular it’s hard to control the crowds. The way we move with these parks in future tells a lot about us as a nation.”
The book, which costs $65, is available for pre-order here. It hits book stores on Nov. 19.