California: Reviews of Travel Books and Maps

Who knew that there could be waterfalls in a place like this?  But with some research, we managed to find one in Death Valley National Park
The purpose of this page is to reveal to you the resources that we have used both prior to and during our trips throughout California. We have reviewed such resources so we can convey to you which ones we thought were most useful as well as those we didn't find useful. Hopefully, this may better direct your information gathering efforts for your own trip...

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California Waterfalls (Foghorn Outdoors) [Overall Rating: 5/5]:
For Julie and I, this was the book that started it all. It was the source we used to hunt down waterfalls locally in Southern California before expanding to other parts of the state. It became the primary guidebook for our spontaneous local trips on the weekends, and it didn't take long before the book became quite wrinkled and dog-eared from extensive use. Needless to say, we have to credit author Ann Marie Brown with jump starting our obsession for waterfalls around the world.

This thick nearly 500-page book (we have the second edition and only got the fourth edition in 2014) covers most of the accessible waterfalls throughout California. Although it's in lackluster black and white and not all chapters have waterfall photos in the second edition, Brown's descriptions have spunk and her maps are adequate to get oriented (though you'll still want to supplement them with topographic maps).

She divides the books into regional chunks of the state. Obviously, we focused more towards the back end of the book which was concentrating on Southern California. However, we also used the book for most of our Southern and Central Sierras excursions as well as for those in the Big Sur area and Bay Area as well. For each of the waterfall writeups, she had quick summaries containing at-a-glance ratings, access & difficulties, elevation, and best season. Then, she went right into the descriptions along with select photos. In other words, the book had all the relevant information we needed to seek out our own waterfalling adventures in the state.

In the latest edition of the book that we have, it looked like they took out the ratings (maybe because it's so subjective and prone to controversy), but I personally appreciated the fact that she made her opinion known based on her own experiences. In any case, there were a few more waterfalls in there that weren't in the second edition, but I could see they really tried to keep the production costs down by really tightening all the writeups together and limiting the amount of whitespace. So it was possible to have one waterfall writeup end and the next one begin on the same page. Otherwise, most of the descriptions looked pretty much the same as the 2nd edition.

All in all, we continue to use this resource, especially when seeking out new unfamiliar waterfalls. Admittedly, we've covered most of the higher rated ones locally, but that doesn't mean we can't be surprised with previously overlooked ones as well. In fact, she catalogs more than 200 of them so there's plenty of room to discover more. And despite some of its shortcomings (we did spot a few incorrect directions or trail advice; e.g. her Cedar Creek Falls writeup near Ramona advocated going to its top instead of a safer path to its base), we still view this book both with sentiment as well as with practicality. Therefore, I had no trouble giving this book our maximum score.

The Definitive Guide to the Waterfalls of Southern and Central California [Overall Rating: 2/5]:
We picked up this book because it promised to reveal other waterfalls that our second edition of Ann Marie Brown's book didn't have. However, this book mainly focused on the central and southern parts of the state. Nonetheless, we intended to use this book as an alternate source, especially if we were in the mood for something different than what was revealed in the Brown book.

The book was also in full color as well as contained lots of photos, which made it a little livelier. However, once we started using the book in the field, that was when we noticed many problems. Among them were the lack of useful maps, bad directions, and the tendency for the book to devote whole chapters to waterfalls that I'd argue don't even count as waterfalls. So we not only had to flip through a lot of pages that we knew we wouldn't even entertain visiting, but we were led to a few wild goose chases concerning some of the other waterfall writeups in the book.

Then, as our mood started to sour on this book, we started to notice other things that annoyed us. One was that this book seemed to try to be like the Ann Marie Brown book but better as opposed to having its own fresh approach and voice. It was almost as if it was reproducing Brown's work or that it tried very hard to show much many more "waterfalls" she missed. There was also this attitude throughout the book as if it was ok to bushwhack and blaze your own trails towards waterfalls (e.g. the Salmon Creek Falls writeup near Kern River and the Three Chutes Falls in Tenaya Canyon writeup come to mind). Not only was this hazardous (and something we really had to watch out for when following the book or else risk injuring ourselves), but it essentially encouraged people to degrade Nature in the name of the thrill of bagging a previously "undiscovered" waterfall.

To its credit, we did visit Tahquitz Falls as a result of this book as well as referenced it to find the Pywiack Cascade in Yosemite. But other than that, the Brown book was way better at being that reliable guide we could count on. So it pretty much was relegated to the role of the alternate guide only when the Brown book didn't cover particular waterfalls or provide pictures. But even then, we had to be real cautious about following Schaffer's directions.

Day Hiking California's National Parks (Foghorn Outdoors) [Overall Rating: 4/5]:
This was another one of Ann Marie Brown's books that we had bought. The difference with this book versus the waterfall book was that instead of focusing on waterfalls, it focused on reasonable day hikes (where Ann Marie Brown says you get "more smiles per mile" than overnight backpackers). We've used this book to try out some non-waterfall hikes in places like Joshua Tree National Park, Yosemite National Park, Death Valley National Park, and even Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.

It was written in the same style as the waterfall book along with a star rating (out of a maximum of 5 instead of 10) and boom boxes summarizing the difficulty and approximate location before delving into the words eye description of the hike. Like with the waterfall book, I consulted it for ideas on possible hikes to do when planning a visit to a national park.

Out of curiosity, I did check out the descriptions of some of the waterfall hikes that happened to be in this book. Not surprisingly, there were some recycled material in there. That said, this book was supposed to cater to a different market perhaps (not ones focused on just waterfalls), and to that end, we found this book to be pretty useful since waterfalls don't always flow year round.

These days, it looked like this book is no longer in print as it's a pretty competitive market for hiking guides focused just on national parks (seems like Falcon Guides have cornered this market). Nonetheless, we're not giving up this book as there's plenty of excursions to do in a national park (especially Yosemite, which also seemed to be one of Ann Marie Brown's favorite places as it is ours), and we'll continue to wear out its bindings, pages, and covers as long as we find it both useful and a good read...

Day Trips with a Splash: The Swimming Holes of California [Overall Rating: 3/5]:
This was one of the overlooked books in our library resulting from Ann Marie Brown having seemingly struck a chord with us with her waterfalls book thereby relegating the rest of the local books to pretty much second opinions or supplementary resources to cover the holes that might have been left behind by the Brown book.

That said, as I was giving this book a second look, I realized that the emphasis of this book (as the title suggested) was to explore swimming holes. Julie and I normally don't visit waterfalls to go swimming, but as visitors to our website increasingly asked for waterfalls that they could swim in, I came to realize that perhaps this would be the perfect book for such an objective. In fact, in the book's beginning, author Pancho Doll went so far as to say that the swimming aspect at swimming holes or at waterfalls where one could swim were in fact the "complete experience" that was even more fun and immersive than doing as John Muir would do and just revere the Nature you're in.

Like the other waterfall books we owned, this book was divided into chapters where each one focused on a particular waterfall excursion. Each chapter contained a zoomed in blow-up of a topographic map of the area annotated with GPS coordinates and captions. The maps themselves were a little hard to read as I'd imagine the Topo California product (which I'll review later, but it seemed to be the source of the maps) weren't really well suited to a black-and-white publication like this one.

That said, each chapter also contained some verbage from author Pancho Doll concerning how to get to the falls as well as what the falls were like. However, unlike the other books such as Brown or Schaffer or Schad, this one didn't contain an at-a-glance summary or boom box of the degree of difficulty, approximate location or reserve, distance, or even a subjective rating. This was key because I saw some of the more hidden corners of the state being written about and was a little surprised to see that he actually advocated some climbing gear in order to access. So that kind of started raising some alarm bells in terms of ethical exploring as well as the degree of danger in partaking in some of the excursions advocated therein.

Nonetheless, I anticipate using this book a little more on future local visits or longer intrastate trips, and in the mean time, I'll leave a place-holder score until we can put this book more through its paces.

Topo! California (National Geographic) [Overall Rating: 3.5/5]:
I bought this product way back in the early 2000s not long after Julie and I decided that waterfalling would be our thing when it came to going on adventures and excursions in the state.

Back then, it seemed like this was the only map product of its kind that let us look at California with such detail at an incredible 1:24k scale with raster-based superpositions of scanned maps put together and digitized into this software. In other words, we were able to see down to the level of walking trails, campsites, bathrooms, and even specific buildings. And this level of detail was for the entire state, which I guess would justify the $100 price tag. So needless to say, we used this product extensively for both trip planning before our trips as well as trip logging both during and after our outings.

We used this map for almost all of our local excursions in the Southern California area, but we also found use for it regarding the state's National Reserves like Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Death Valley, Point Reyes, and more. We also found use for it for places like the more remote parts of our National Forests. In one instance, it even made me realize that I had failed to make it all the way to Waterwheel Falls during a Glen Aulin backpacking trip as the map had indicated that I had only made it to LeConte Falls! It was that precise!

So to make a long story short, this was our de facto map resource as it had probably gained the most use of all of our map products that we own.

But with all the benefits that we were getting from this map product, there were also plenty of drawbacks. The most glaring one was the really kludgy interface that made it a real chore to try to use our GPS for real-time tracking, or even try to annotate the map for figuring out routes and marking them before even going on the excursion itself. They had follow-up products for purchase to try to address this, but they turned out to be buggy and not very reliable (thereby a waste of time and money). So as it was, the map's functionality was frustrating at best, especially when the more functional Garmin MapSource products started becoming more prevalent later in the decade.

There were also smaller faults like a mistake in identifying Tueeulala Falls in Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite, but those were really few and far between.

The bottom line is that this map product was excellent for hiking and backpacking (or at least planning for them), but was terrible for in-the-field navigation or track and waypoint management. We didn't have much to go on besides this product at the time, but as the years went by, I can see we might just ditch this product and go for the Garmin Mapsource product of the Western US down the road (especially if they contain just as much info as this Topo! product itself, which I'd imagine would be derived from USGS Surveys)...

Garmin MapSource Topo! US 24k West Topographic Coverage for Washington, Oregon, California, and Nevada [Overall Rating: 5/5]:
After getting over the wastefulness of buying quite a few states of the National Geographic Topo! CD-ROMs and then going out and getting this product, it didn't take long before I realized just what I was missing from those older maps that we had bought. Not only did it contain a similar level of detail (though I'm not sure if it had all the place names that the NatGeo Topos had or if they were just as many but in different places), but it also had that full functionality of trip logging and planning that I came to appreciate about the MapSource softwares that the NatGeo products had seriously lacked.

I was especially impressed to see the level of detail that included default waypoints for pretty obscure places such as the Bunnell Cascade in Yosemite, specific forks of rivers or creeks, and of course peaks or other landmarks. Even the diving board atop Half Dome was waypointed as well as spring locations. Just the fact that these points were clearly waypointed meant that if I searched for them, I'd find them. That was a bit of a roll of the dice with the NatGeo software.

So even in an age of GoogleMaps where there might be plenty of disjointed waypoints and tracks from random bloggers, hiking clubs, business, and general info providers, this map is still necessary to get the rest of the USGS info that otherwise wouldn't find its way onto Google. And for that reason alone, that makes this product very valuable. I know that little by little, these map products are being phased out, but I really hope that they stick around for a little while longer so I can buy up the other regions of the USA (or other countries for that matter) before such info is lost for good.

I know from seeing Amazon reviews that quite a few people have trouble with getting the product installed or used, but I can't say I've had terrible difficulty in getting up and running with each MapSource product I have. Perhaps what's more annoying is having to enter serial numbers or license info and connecting with there server, where I fear one day I might get stuck having to re-install it only to find out that I can't communicate with their server anymore (thereby rendering the product useless even though I bought it).

I noticed on the US 24k West product, even though it had a sticker with the serial number on it, I was never prompted at the install. So perhaps that already did away with this? I don't know. But nonetheless, until the product is rendered useless, I still contend this is the most useful map product out there and only lags behind GoogleMaps in that the place name search may not be as extensive, flexible, nor up-to-date...

Hiking Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (Falcon Guide) [Overall Rating: 3/5]:
I have a fairly sizable collection of Falcon Guides concerning mostly the National Parks west of the Rockies. This book happened to be one of the books that concerned Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, which I tended to think of going to when I wondered about alternatives to the incomparable Yosemite Valley.

It turned out that like the other Falcon Guides, it provided a non-nonsense approach of accompanying each hike writeup with at least one simplified trail map, a boom box containing important summaries of the entire hike in a nutshell (like elevation profile, highlights, milestones and landmarks, best months, difficulty, trail length, etc.). Then after getting through that wealth of information, it then delved into a straightforward description of the hike.

Truthfully, most of the short day hikes were either covered in the Ann Marie Brown Day Hiking book or they were straightforward enough to just follow the signs at the National Parks along with free literature that also contained short trail descriptions and maps. Thus, the real value to a book like this would be the more involved long distance treks and overnight backpacks. And that was where I either would read about those descriptions to brainstorm or even fantasize about dream backpacks "one of these days" or retrospectively read about such a backcountry adventure that we have done just to see if we properly did it or if might have missed out on something.

So given its limited usefulness for someone like us who don't normally do long treks like this as a family, I had to give it an average rating until we put this book more to use in the field. That said, there are opportunities to do so such as a Mt Whitney Summit, which is very popular, or the Evolution Valley/Goddard Canyon backpack that I've always been wanting to do but realize it's very long and demanding and may not be feasible as my body continues to age.

So in summary, author Laurel Scheidt has done some pretty extensive trip logging and research, and there's no doubt that she knows what she's talking about. Chances are that if I ever do go on any of the long hikes or off-the-beaten path trails that aren't in our existing library of books, then I'll definitely go back to this guide...

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As opposed to trip planning resources or field guides where I have reviewed resources that can help with planning out an itinerary or managing through an excursion, the following writeups pertain to resources that are more of educational value.

Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape [Overall Rating: 4/5]:
Way back in the mid-2000s, I had an interest in improving the photographs that I was taking on our excursions. A co-worker (who was very capable with his SLR camera) recommended this book, and after having gotten and read this book, I credit it with putting me in the correct mindset for making my photos a little more interesting than those that I had taken previously up to this point.

Basically, this book consists of a series of large photos accompanied with personal stories of how author Galen Rowerll got each of the shots presented in this book. Interwoven in these accounts were lessons learned and photographic concepts embodied in these examples. So instead of being a didactic teacher, Rowell opted to impart his knowledge to the reader through these dramatic examples. The book itself was divided into larger sections that encapsulated groups of these photos and writeups. Each section focused on particular concepts of landscape photography from understanding the "magic hour" to understanding backlight to being selective when choosing photographic subjects.

Anyways, I recalled one reviewer had said this book was a "classy" how-to guide to landscape photography, and I guess it couldn't be better stated than that.

In addition to the learning aspect of photography, the large-format book could also serve as kind of a coffee table book as well. Each photo was dramatic, moody, and interesting enough to gawk at. If not for the paperback cover, I probably would have kept it in the living room as a coffee table book just for the odd moment of inspiration.

All in all, I liked this book. And as I continue to try to apply landscape photography principles, I'm sure I'll be refering back to this book every now and again to be reminded of how I should be taking my landscape photographs effectively.

Challenge of the Big Trees [Overall Rating: 3.5/5]:
Long before I watched the Ken Burns documentary on National Parks (see review below), I was made aware of the struggle for the conservation of California's giant sequoia trees through this no-nonsense book. I had bought it along with other books and maps from the Sequoia Natural History Association way back in the early 2000s, but it looks like it's now available on Amazon.

This is really more of an educational book that is rich in text with a few black and white photos and map illustrations sprinkled throughout that are relevant to the text. It began with the natural history of what would ultimately be Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks before delving into Native American habitation. Then, the rest of the book chronicled the ups and many downs of American exploitation since the Gold Rush era up to the present day.

I realized that it might take a little bit of interest and persistence to make it through this book, but I eventually got into a rhythm where it was almost as if I was reading a drama in which the trees were the protagonists and the forces of destruction and exploitation were the antagonists. So with that bit of drama established, then the book became a reasonably quick read.

It was only after reading through this book did I really appreciate the ongoing efforts that were necessary to not only enact legislation to protect the giant sequoia and its habitat, but how much more effort it would take to ensure their conservation was assured. So in a nutshell, this book is indeed a very informative and fact-driven historical narrative of the plight of the giant sequoia, and I'm sure it could supplement any other historical text about this part of California's history or the history of the US in general.

The National Parks: America's Best Idea [Overall Rating: 4.5/5]:
I watched this documentary when it was first shown on PBS, and then I watched it again on Amazon Prime. I came to realize from watching some of Ken Burn's other documentaries that his works have a certain nostalgic quality about them. And in this hefty series chronicling the first governmental act of setting aside land for public recreational use back in 1864 to the state of the National Parks System to this day, Burns definitely delivers on not only the nostalgic front but the historical and educational fronts as well.

Indeed, I found myself being very educated regarding other things besides the obvious beauty that National Parks possess. So I came to learn about and appreciate the principles behind the National Parks as well as how much of a struggle it was to even define what the National Park idea means as it has evolved through the years. I also learned about the historical context behind each environmental struggle (from the post-Civil War attitudes of government to the impact of the Great Depression as well as the world wars) and how it took heroic acts of everyday people to save such places from exploitation or even to be reminded of some of America's shameful aspects of its history.

I think Burns really struck a chord with the humanity aspect of National Parks from the anecdotal stories told by the guests to the acted voices of historical figures based on historical manuscripts and accounts. In fact, I think it was this humanitarian angle that differentiated this documentary from most other Nature documentaries that tended to focus on the science or act more like a park brochure.

And to further belabor the history aspect of this documentary, I also came to appreciate that this history lesson was done in a way that really personalizes the history and relating it to our everyday experience. It almost forced me the viewer to really empathize with the people at the time and do a self-evaluation in terms of asking the question, "What would I have done when faced with similar circumstances?"

Anyways, I'm including this product in the product reviews of this page because they do cover the happenings in California (especially Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon) though the work also talks about National Parks throughout the country. But sometimes you have to look at the whole to better appreciate what's going on locally, and I truly think that's where this documentary excels.

As for the cons, there were quite a bit of recycled visuals. And I could see why some people were upset at this documentary as it did appear to be a somewhat lopsided indictment against those in favor of exploitation (though you could argue that an economy whose rules reward exploitation over conservation is the real culprit). But all in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary and would highly recommend it to anyone who cares about our National Parks, and especially how they came to be.

The Story of Devils Postpile [Overall Rating: 3.5/5]:
This was a very informative book about how the Devils Postpile came to be both concerning its geologic history as well as its current status as a national monument. I don't recall what compelled me to purchase this book (more like a booklet), but I did recall going on a little buying binge as I had bought up a series of educational books and booklets from the Sequoia Natural History Association many years ago (possibly in the mid-2000s). I guess I had enough literature on Yosemite but not a whole lot on the other national reserves in the Sierras.

In any case, I was glad to have learned some little known facts about the Devils Postpile National Monument from this book. For example, I didn't realize that it was once part of the original Yosemite National Park before mining interests successfully pried it away from protection. Moreover, I didn't realize that it was re-established as a national monument after a worker discovered that there were plans to blast the postpile formations to dam the San Joaquin River!

I also gained a better appreciation for the volcanic nature of the Mammoth Lakes area, which helped to explain the presence of the nearby Hot Creek as well as the volcanic nature of the basalt columns of the postpile formations themselves. Who knew that the whole area was part of the Long Valley Caldera (in much the same way that Yellowstone sat atop the caldera of a supervolcano)? Anyways, little nuggets of information like these accompanied with helpful photos, illustrations, and maps were what made me appreciate this work, and I'd recommend it to anyone wishing to gain a deeper understanding of this quirky yet beautiful spot in an area better known as a ski resort.

A Place for Wonder: The Story of the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park [Overall Rating: 3/5]:
I really wasn't sure what compelled me to buy this book from the Sequoia Natural History Association, but it turned out to be a spontaneous purchase for something that was really nothing more than a short book (even brochure-like) about the history of Sequoia National Park's main area - the Giant Forest.

This book was really more of a short historical narrative about the importance and history of the place that was very much in line with the Ken Burns documentary "National Parks" America's Best Idea" regarding the struggle between conservation and human use or exploitation. It also provided a short blurb about where sequoias like to grow and in what elevation.

So from the standpoint of being informational to better appreciate a visit to the area, this was a pretty informative book. Though the book was thin enough to almost qualify it as a pamphlet or booklet. Therefore, it might have value to keep an inquisitive child busy or educated while actually touring the very place he/she would be reading about.

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