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Duluth author chronicles '100 Great American Parks'

A new National Geographic book by Stephanie Pearson is rooted in her childhood exploring Duluth's Hartley Park.

Book: 100 Great American Parks
The cover of Stephanie Pearson's new book, "100 Great American Parks,'' features Delicate Arch in Utah's Arches National Park.
Contributed / Mark Brodkin Photography
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DULUTH — Stephanie Pearson could have picked any one of dozens of parks or wilderness areas to start her new book, “100 Great American Parks,’’ from Alaska’s Denali to Maine’s Acadia, or Isle Royale or Voyageurs in between.

Instead, she started her book’s introduction writing about Hartley Park in Duluth. The mostly undeveloped city park didn’t make her top 100 list. But it may be the place that’s had the biggest impact on her outdoor-writing career and her love of undeveloped spaces.

Stephanie Pearson author photo.
Stephanie Pearson
Contributed / National Geographic

“The park of my childhood was 660 acres of wild space that began at the end of the street where I grew up in Duluth, Minnesota," Pearson said in the first sentence of the book. “With dense forests, swamps and even a small 'mountain' with views to the passing ships on Lake Superior, it was like my own kid-sized personal wilderness.”

Pearson said she and her siblings were outdoors almost all the time, in Duluth or on family North Shore hiking excursions or at their family’s island cabin on Lake Vermilion.

“I really had kind of a feral childhood,” Pearson told the News Tribune, noting her experiences at a young age helped her realize that undeveloped space, and time outdoors in it, is critical to the human soul.

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“We all need a space to feel free,’’ Pearson notes in the book’s introduction.

Pearson, 51, grew up in Duluth’s Hunters Park neighborhood and has roamed the globe as an award-winning freelance writer and editor focusing on outdoor and adventure travel. She graduated from Duluth East High School in 1988. Her father was a Lutheran pastor and her mother worked in marketing for Spirit Mountain.

Indiana Dunes National Park
Sunset over the Mount Baldy dune at Indiana Dunes National Park on Lake Michigan.
Contributed / Rafi Wilkinson

She is probably among those most responsible for Duluth’s appearance in 2014 on the list of “Best Towns Ever,” eventually ranked No. 1 by readers of Outside magazine, where Pearson worked full time from 1995 to 2008 and where she continues to write as a contributing editor.

The new book is the culmination of more than a year’s research and writing that started just as COVID-19 was exploding onto the scene in 2020. She was approached by National Geographic to write a book about internationally renowned parks. But the pandemic’s shutdown of international travel shifted the focus to U.S. parks.

“It was the perfect project to be working on during the pandemic," said Pearson, who's now living back in Duluth between assignments.

Mt. Rainier National park
Wildflowers bloom in the grassy meadows at the foot of snow-capped Mount Rainier in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, one of the 100 parks highlighted in Duluthian Stephanie Pearson's new book, "100 Great American Parks."
Contributed / Colin Brynn, Robert Harding

The hefty, coffee table-style book is an illustrated collection of the nation’s most breathtaking natural landscapes. Dozens of photographers contributed stunning work, and Pearson filled the pages with not just her own insights and observations, but the wisdom of local experts and history from each park.

“I think what struck me most is how the national parks tell the story of the history of this country," Pearson said. “Researching this book was like taking an American history course in college.”

National Geographic wanted all 63 major national parks in the U.S included, but Pearson got to pick the rest. She included at least one park — city, state or national — from each state and territory in the union. It will serve as not only an escape for readers, but also a travelogue for trip ideas.

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Pearson includes the natural beauty of every park, of course, but also the warts that mark their social history — from land being stolen from American Indians to the overcrowding many parks are seeing today. In 2019, 327.5 million people visited national parks, an increase of nearly 3% from previous years, and that number is expected to rise as Americans continue to dive into camping and outdoor travel opportunities in the wake of the pandemic.

The Northland is well-represented, with chapters on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Isle Royale National Park and Voyageurs National Park. Other Midwest sites featured include Theodore Wirth Regional Park in Minneapolis; Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota; Wind Cave and Badlands national parks in South Dakota; and Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa.

Among all 100, Pearson has personally visited many, and has a few favorites.

“Big Bend (National Park) in Texas was the first real national park I visited. … I was a freshman in college and we took a field trip there and I was just in awe of the mountains and the vistas there. I still am. It was so different from what I was used to growing up in Minnesota,” she said. "And I love all of the Alaska parks. They’re just so big, so expansive, they take your breath away.”

Biscayne Bay National Park, Florida
Fish swim just off shore in Biscayne Bay National Park in Florida, one of the parks featured in Duluthian Stephanie Pearson's new book, "100 Great American Parks,'' published by National Geographic.
Contributed / National Park Service, Shaun Wolfe

The book is a companion to the 10-part documentary television series "America's National Parks" from National Geographic. Narrated by country music singer Garth Brooks (who also wrote the forward to Pearson’s book) each episode will highlight stunning landscapes and give glimpses into the lives of the charismatic and intriguing animals that inhabit major American national parks.

“This project is both a celebration and an invitation,” notes Brooks within the book’s foreword. “Every entry will inspire and encourage you to get out and explore, to experience places you’ve never been, and to look with fresh eyes at our blessed United States of America.”

Buy the book

“100 Great American Parks,’’ hardcover, $35, 400 pages, including hundreds of color photographs, is published by National Geographic and will be available online and at bookstores May 10.

Meet the author

Duluthian Stephanie Pearson will be at Zenith Book Store, 318 N. Central Ave., Duluth, on Thursday, May 12, from 7-8:30 p.m., to discuss and sign copies of her new book, “100 Great American Parks.”

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Admission is free. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required to attend this event, as is the wearing of face masks over nose and mouth.

For more information, go to zenithbookstore.com/events or call 218-606-1777.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jmyers@duluthnews.com .

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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