Before I go to a National Park I spend quite a bit of time preparing. I want to know what there is to see and do at the park and how much time I should allot to each park. As a general rule, one can never spend too much time in a National Park, but on vacation there are many things to see and I have to ration out the time. Even when I can spend several days at one park, there are always too many trails to hike, and I have to decide which ones to take. I have many reference sources, and here I will share the best ones with you. Some of the photos below are not the current edition, and I make no claims that all these books are still available.
NPS Web site
This is the obvious first source, and it's free. I used to have to mail away for brochures, but the web has eliminated that need. Now I can just go to www.nps.gov and find out all the general information I need. I consider this source to be an orientation to the park with the details to be filled in with other publications. The map is especially valuable. The best thing about this site is that one can find all the nearby NPS units by looking at the state maps.
Guide to the National Parks of the United States (National Geographic)
This is the best book for giving an overview of what to see at the park. It is written mainly from the viewpoint of someone driving through the park. Even an avid day hiker like me wants to stop and see the scenic highlights of the park. This book's strength is in telling you what you should see. It is fairly weak in talking about facilities and hiking.
The Complete Guide to the National Parks of the West (Fodor’s)
This book covers almost every aspect of a park visit with reasonable detail. It tells you what to see, where to hike, where to eat, and almost anything else you can think of. This plus the National Geographic book is a killer combination.
National Parks of the American West (Frommer’s)
This is quite similar to the Fodor's book in the information it contains, but where the Fodor's book pretty much gets down to business, this book has a longer, more narrative style. One nice feature is that there is a ranger's opinion on what to see for each park.
Day-Hiking California’s National Parks by Ann Marie Brown
I totally love this book. It is the best hiking book I own, but of course it is only good for California. Her hike descriptions are very good and she gives her opinion on which hikes to take. Each chapter has a list of all hikes, a list of the don't-miss day hikes, and the best hikes if you only have one day. I like a hiking book author who is not afraid to give her opinion on the hikes. As an added bonus, I have always found her opinions to be sound.
Hiking the National Parks (Falcon)
This is a series of books that includes many of the National Parks. The hike descriptions are quite detailed including data, but depending on the author can be a bit dry. Some authors rate the hikes, and some don't. These books tend to be complete, containing every trail in the park. They are mainly aimed at backpackers, though I find them useful for day hiking.
Best Easy Day Hikes (Falcon)
These books are often based on the larger book above, but as the title implies, they contain just the day hikes. The hikes are often ranked. I find these books to be quite useful, especially when you just need a short hike to fill up the rest of the day.
National Parks Guides (Frommer’s)
These books have much the same flavor as the big Frommer's book above, but they go into excruciating detail about one park. The hiking sections are particularly good because they describe only the most interesting hikes. I often find my hikes here and then look at the Falcon guide for more detail.
What can I say? Moon books are the finest guide books available. In the last few years they have come out with guides for some individual National Parks, and they are excellent. They tell you everything in great detail, and they are so well written that you can just sit down and read them like a novel. If you buy one guidebook for your park, make it Moon.
These books are pretty much worthless for giving park information, but if you want to stay in a motel you need this book. I usually stay in a motel outside of the park, and I stay only in motels that are approved by AAA. Sometimes I want or have to stay in the park lodge, and these are often not in the AAA book. I have generally found them to be fine, though. Otherwise it's only AAA approved for me.