'America's Great Hiking Trails' is a beautiful book with great tips

Chicago Tribune

"America's Great Hiking Trails"

Rizzoli, $50

What makes a hiking trail "great?" What makes it iconic? Author Karen Berger explores America's great hiking trails in this photo-rich coffee-table book. The United States has 11 national scenic trails that range in length from short (the 215-mile New England Trail) to very long (the 4,600-mile North Country Trail) and stretch through 32 states and Washington, D.C.; in sum, a total of about 60,000 miles. "Each trail has its qualities, some of them similar and some of them unique," Berger writes.

In 1968, the National Trails System Act was established (it was amended in 2009). Its purpose is simple: to provide for the needs of an "expanding population" but also to "promote the preservation of, public access to, travel within and enjoyment and appreciation of the open air."

With so many choices, how do you know which trail to choose? Weekend backpacking trip (which Berger calls "a big adventure")? Two-week hiking vacation ("a very big deal")? Two-month summer hike ("a major luxury")? Or a six-month hike ("an almost unimaginable dream")?

"America's Great Hiking Trails" should help readers plan the hike that works best for them. Individual chapters describe the essence of what makes each national scenic trail unique. The last chapter examines additional trails, from the Allegheny Trail to the Cumberland Trail to the John Muir Trail to the Lost Coast Trail to the Kalalau Trail.

Berger begins with the Appalachian Trail, which she describes as "the outdoorsperson's Holy Grail." Along with the Himalayas or Mount Kilimanjaro, Berger notes, the Appalachian Trail, which starts in Maine and ends in Georgia, is on many hikers' bucket lists even though it is rarely more than a two- or three-hour drive from major cities; it is hardly the most dramatic of the national trails, nor is it the toughest. And yet the allure endures. Why? Berger suggests that the Appalachian Trail is more than the sum of its parts. Its lasting appeal lies with its contradictions, between "humans and wilderness, towns and trails, solitude and community."

In addition to the Appalachian Trail, Berger describes the Pacific Crest Trail ("the Everest of hiking trails"), which runs from the tip of Mexico to the tip of Canada; the Continental Divide ("the wild child"), also from the Mexican to the Canadian borders; the North Country Trail ("it defies being neatly labeled and put into a box") from New York to North Dakota; the Ice Age Trail ("the only national scenic trail dedicated to a geological event") from Green Bay to the Wisconsin-Minnesota border; the Potomac Heritage Trail ("quintessentially Washingtonian") from Virginia to Pennsylvania; the Florida Trail ("defined by water") from Big Cypress National Preserve to Fort Pickens; the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail ("a scenic parkway") from Tennessee to Mississippi; the Arizona Trail ("heat and sun") from Coronado National Memorial to the Utah border; the Pacific Northwest Trail ("ancient forests") from Montana to Washington; and the New England Trail ("contained and civilized landscapes") from Long Island Sound to the New Hampshire border.

The book features excellent writing, with gorgeous photography by Bart Smith. The foreword is by environmentalist Bill McKibben.

"The Unofficial Guide to Disney Cruise Line"

Keen Communications, $17.99

The latest edition of "The Unofficial Guide to Disney Cruise Line" examines the Disney cruise experience, from top to bottom, with independent reviews and ratings supplied by authors Len Testa, Erin Foster and Laurel Stewart. "If a ship serves mediocre food or has subpar entertainment, we say so."

They offer recommendations on every Disney Cruise Line ship, including staterooms, restaurants, entertainment and night life, recreation, and shopping and port adventures. In addition, they include nuts-and-bolts information, such as how to plan your cruise or get your sea legs.

In keeping with their general modus operandi, they say straight-up that if you are not "at least mildly fond of Mickey and the gang," don't even consider taking a Disney cruise because the ships' decor and entertainment are based "almost entirely" on Disney films and characters.

ctc-travel@tribune.com

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