When it comes to America’s national parks, James Kaiser is known as “the man in the know.” An outdoorsman, an author of a number of books on the national parks, and an award winning photographer (as you’ll see below), James is certainly an interesting guy to talk to – he’s been hiking in the parks since he was six!
What parks are the best? What experiences are to die for? The expert reveals all…
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you became “the man in the know” about America’s national parks?
I grew up in Maine, and I spent my summers hiking, biking, and exploring Acadia National Park on the coast. When I was older, I worked summer jobs in Bar Harbor, which is right outside the park. The more time I spent in Acadia, the more I realized that there were no decent guidebooks to the park. So when I graduated from college in 1999, I went back to Acadia and wrote and self-published my own guidebook to Acadia. The response was overwhelming. At book signings people came up to me with dog-eared copies of my book, telling me it was the only guide they used. Realizing I might have a knack for this kind of thing, I decided to move to California and write guidebooks to other national parks. Since then I’ve written guides to Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. And last year three of my guidebooks—Acadia, Joshua Tree, Yosemite—were the bestselling guidebooks to their respective national parks.
Travelers around the world have a fascination with national parks – almost every country in the world has one. What drives us to such fascination about these protected outdoor locations?
I think as human beings we’re inherently drawn to natural places. We evolved in natural places, so it’s in our DNA. America was the first country to establish a national park system, and since then the concept has spread around the world, which is amazing. These days, national parks are more important than ever, because the world is becoming much more urbanized. More and more people are living in cities, which is fine, but unfortunately many city-dwellers are losing their bond with natural world. National Parks help us reconnect with nature at its finest, which helps us reconnect with a vital part of what it means to be human.
What are your top national park experiences? Everyone knows about the famous parks, but what experiences are worth schelpping the family cross-country for?
My top national park experiences are always A) challenging, and B) shared. It’s one thing to visit Yosemite Valley and take in the pretty views. It’s another to hike 4,000 vertical feet to the top of Half Dome with your friends by your side. I remember the first time I hiked Half Dome. It was me and two friends, and we hiked it in a single day. We started at 6am and finished at 6pm. It was brutal. But I’ll never forget how happy we were when we reached the top, and the sense of accomplishment we all shared that night around the campfire. For me, that’s a big part of what makes national parks so special. They offer so many ways to challenge yourself, which leads to such memorable experiences.
What’s been your most inspirational travel experience?
The first rafting trip I took down the Grand Canyon was one of the most incredible travel experiences I’ve ever had. It was a three week trip, during which time I completely disconnected from the modern world. No TV, no phones, no internet. Just me, my raft-mates, and the Canyon. It was the first time in my life I had ever really unplugged, and it was incredible. Camping out on the banks of the Colorado River each night, a mile deep, billions of stars blazing overhead. Just spectacular. I returned from that trip so refreshed and revitalized, and with such a deeper connection to the natural world. It was an eye-opening experience. I mean, you hear stories of people traveling to India to disconnect from the modern world and gain inspiration. I guess that also happened to me. It just happened at the bottom of Grand Canyon!
What’s at the top of your bucket list in terms of must-do national park experiences? Anything you think will just be breathtaking?
I still haven’t climbed Mt. Whitney in Sequoia National Park. It’s the highest point in the continental U.S., and—more importantly to me—the highest point in the Sierra Nevada Range. I hear the views from the top are incredible. I can’t wait!
Incredible, James. Just incredible. Thank you for sharing your experiences and reminding us all to visit a national park soon! Don’t forget about our travel concierge service if need help piecing together that road trip.
(The incredibly beautiful) photographs courtesy of James Kaiser.