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Q&A with Karen Berger, the author of Hiking America’s National Parks

What is one of your favorite national parks?

It’s hard to pick a favorite because they are all so different, but I have to say that Yosemite was one of the parks that had an immediate and intense effect on me. The high country is wild and beautiful, and of course, for backpackers, the John Muir Trail is a bucket-

list adventure. But I also love the more popular Yosemite Valley. Everywhere there, I was reminded of Ansel Adams’ beloved photos, come to life full-sized and in full color. And I feel this is a park that has something for everyone: short trails, long trails, easy trails, hard trails and everything in between.

Which park is under-rated, but well worth visiting?

Virgin Islands National Park is one of the least visited in the system, but it has a great deal of variety. Once owned by the Rockefeller family, almost the entire island of St. John’s is now mostly part of the national park, and includes historic trails, rainforest trails and coral reefs.

What makes the US park system so unique?

I think that the national parks were conceived at a time when life in America was becoming more and more industrial and frenzied. Benton McKaye, who conceived of the Appalachian Trail, referred to the East Coast metropolis as smoky beehive cities that people need to escape from. I think the Covid-19 years really showed us the value of these wild, protected places, as Americans flooded into the parks to find respite from the pandemic. Hiking and being in nature were perceived as safe, and when schools and workplaces and extra-curricular activities were all shut down we finally had time to slow down and feel the healing power of nature. So I think we have rediscovered the parks, and the value of wild, protected places.

Any tips for hiking in a national park?

Always check updated regulations and permit requirements. A lot of national park visitors are used to needing permits for multi-day backcountry treks, but the increasing visitor use means that some parks are now using management strategies such as timed entry, advance reservations, and mass transit to limit traffic and usage. Rules change from year to year, and also vary from park to park regarding permits on popular day-hiking trails, pets on trails, fires, campsites and the disposal of human waste.

Any tips for people who have never visited a national park?

Check in with the rangers for advice. In some parks, rangers will direct you to trails that would best suit your group’s goals. Or they might be able to direct you to less crowded, but equally beautiful trails. They can give you valuable safety information regarding everything from animal encounters to water sources to trail conditions and difficulty.

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