This designer drew the internet’s worst reviews of national parks

Amber Share made a book out of people saying ‘meh’ to stunning vistas

A new book by Amber Share captures the strange world of online national park reviews. (Courtesy Amber Share/Plume)
A new book by Amber Share captures the strange world of online national park reviews. (Courtesy Amber Share/Plume)
Posted July 14, 2021 at 6:00am

For millions of tourists who visit each year, the Statue of Liberty is a beacon of hope and a reminder of the immigrants who sailed toward Ellis Island and a new life in America. 

But at least one online reviewer saw something very different: “A big green statue and that’s it.” 

That critique of the iconic national monument is part of a collection of colorful prints — and their corresponding one-star online reviews written in cheerful handmade fonts — by illustrator and graphic designer Amber Share.

Share’s new book, “Subpar Parks,” highlights more than 75 sites overseen by the National Park Service and musings from some of the nonplussed travelers who visited them.  

“I thought the review was really funny, because I don’t know what else you expected it to be,” Share said of the Statue of Liberty review in an interview with CQ Roll Call.

She initially discovered the one-star national park posts on the website Reddit, and “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” she writes in the book. “I couldn’t understand how someone could look at the same wonders of nature as I and feel so underwhelmed.”

The water in Maine never promised to be anything but. (Courtesy Amber Share/Plume)

The National Park System consists of 423 sites, many established by acts of Congress, including recreation areas, lakeshores and seashores, memorials, preserves and the 63 places that actually have the phrase “national park” in the title.  

“Mist obscured the views,” one reviewer wrote of New River Gorge in West Virginia, the nation’s newest national park, which got a boost from its former “national river” status when Congress passed a massive funding package in December. But even the most revered parks earned bad reviews, like Yellowstone (“I’ve seen better”), Glacier (“Too cold for me”) and the Grand Canyon (“A hole. A very, very large hole”). 

An enthusiastic hiker and backpacker, Share spent hours reading reviews, keeping them straight in a master spreadsheet. She would scroll and skim until she stumbled on ones that seemed juicy.  

“After a while you just kind of get a feel for which ones are going to have something really hilarious,” she said.

“I guess we’re calling the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi ‘nothing‘ now,” writes Share. (Courtesy Amber Share/Plume)

The project began in December 2019 as an Instagram account, @subparparks, which quickly grew to more than 350,000 followers. Her book published Tuesday, during a busy summer season as travel rebounds from the pandemic. National parks saw roughly 237 million visitors in 2020 among closures and restrictions, a drop of more than a quarter from the previous year.  

Reading all those negative reviews, Share said she herself doesn’t believe in giving one-star reviews for businesses. If she had to pan a park, it would be the recently renamed Gateway Arch National Park in Missouri — not because there’s something wrong with it, but because it seemed “perfectly fine as a national memorial.”

After living in Washington, D.C., for a few years, she “came to loathe the entire National Mall just because it’s so very crowded on an average day,” but she can still poke fun at the online reviewer who called the Lincoln Memorial “not as cool as I thought.” 

More to her taste is Rock Creek Park, a green oasis in the city. Established by Congress in 1890, it’s the oldest natural urban park in the national system — even if one cranky visitor was “not impressed.” 

Now based in North Carolina, Share said she tried to steer clear of reviews that complained about park management or hot topics around land use, like hunting or motorized vehicles.

“There’s a lot of reviews about the cleanliness of bathrooms,” she said

“Another day, another sunrise on top of a volcano ten thousand feet up,” writes Share. (Courtesy Amber Share/Plume)

Instead, she focused on the comments that shrugged at awe-inspiring vistas, yawned at majestic wildlife or simply stated the obvious.   

“Just a big rock,” someone proclaimed after visiting the soaring rock formation Devils Tower, which indigenous people know as Bear Lodge. President Teddy Roosevelt made it the first national monument in 1906, using a newly granted presidential power under the Antiquities Act of the same year.

Some people just don’t realize that going to a national park is not like going to Six Flags, Share said.

“It’s not really about it being a curated experience for you. It’s about preserving the way the land naturally was before we started developing everything,” she said. 

If any unimpressed reviewers have recognized their words in her art, she hasn’t heard from them. She kept everything anonymous, and some might not remember writing those things in the first place.

And maybe that’s the point. Share hopes readers of her book can learn to turn around and laugh at the critics in their own life because it's kind of all ridiculous. 

“If a national park can’t please everyone, neither can you,” she said.

“If over one thousand glaciers ... don’t make Glacier Bay great, I really don’t know what will,” writes Share. (Courtesy Amber Share/Plume)