Mountains Without Handrails

Reflections on the National Parks
With a New Foreword by Holly Doremus
Joseph L. Sax
Proposes a novel scheme for the protection and management of America's national parks


Beloved by academic and general readers alike, Mountains Without Handrails, Joseph L. Sax’s thought-provoking treatise on America’s national parks, remains as relevant today as when first published in 1980. Focusing on the long-standing and bitter battles over recreational use of our parklands, Sax proposes a novel scheme for the protection and management of America's national parks. Drawing upon still controversial disputes—Yosemite National Park, the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, and the Disney plan for California's Mineral King Valley—Sax boldly unites the rich and diverse tradition of nature writing into a coherent thesis that speaks directly to the dilemma of the parks.

In a new foreword, environmental law scholar Holly Doremus articulates this book’s enduring importance and reflects on what Sax, her former teacher, might have thought about the encroachment of technology into natural spaces, the impact of social media, and growing threats from climate change. At this moment of great uncertainty for the national parks, Mountains Without Handrails should be read (and re-read) by anyone with a stake in America’s natural spaces.

“An American classic. For eight years this book informed and guided my oversight of our National Park system.”
—Bruce Babbitt, United States Secretary of the Interior, 1993–2001
“Over my 40 years with the National Park Service rising from ranger to director, Mountains Without Handrails had a reserved space on my bookshelf. Faced daily with the dilemma and decisions of the dual mandate, I often thought what would Joe do? As our nation’s parks face new challenges, his counsel remains relevant and wise.”
—Jonathan B. Jarvis, National Parks Service Director, 2009–2017
“Joseph Sax’s gem of a book offers a compelling—even transformative—vision for our national parks, one calculated to ensure these extraordinary places endure and inspire for generations to come. Read it, enjoy it, and then visit America’s wonders with new understanding and appreciation.”
—Robert B. Keiter, Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Utah; author, To Conserve Unimpaired: The Evolution of the National Park Idea
“Rarely in academia, and almost never in the leisure field, is such a fine mind so engagingly and systematically turned to such an invigorating discussion. . . Sax has advanced and clarified preservationist thought by articulating a philosophy that provides both a set of goals and a guide to reasonable compromises.”
Environmental Affairs

“The book is an intense, richly documented piece that can stand on its own as a comprehensive, imaginative thesis of resource philosophy. . . There are powerful ideas in this book.”
Environmental Law
“. . . a well integrated source which defies categorization. . . This easy to read, reflective work is essential for classes on outdoor recreation, recreation planners, and for anyone concerned about the future of the American National Parks regardless of their preconceived views.”
Annals of Tourism Research
Mountains Without Handrails is well worth reading. Professor Sax has written an elegant, concise, well-researched, and tightly reasoned argument in favor of severely limiting park access and development. . . Mountains Without Handrails surpasses much of the previous preservation literature by its candid admissions of elitism and its willingness to grapple with the hard questions that lie beneath the surface of the traditional pro-preservation arguments. . . Mountains Without Handrails is an important contribution to the public lands literature and deserves to be widely read and debated.”
Stanford Law Review
“Sax’s long overdue argument makes it clear that ‘nature’s peace’ is human character. Mountains Without Handrails is a rich resource, not just for park managers and wilderness enthusaists, but for anybody who cares about American character and the subtle relationships between environment and human outlook.”
Michigan Law Review, March 1981
 “Joseph Sax’s Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks deserves more serious scrutiny than does the typical pro-wilderness treatise about the optimum future of our nation’s public lands. That is because beneath its elegant form lies a unique argument.”
Michigan Law Review, May 1981
“Sax’s argument is made with subtlety and conviction; his book is both erudite and humane . . . I would join Sax, who has written a fine book, in hoping that before long the preservation ethic once again will be taken seriously by the Park Service.”
The Yale Law Journal
“The Park Service has a surplus of advice; what it needs is more meaningful help. Fortunately, Mountains Without Handrails could be a catalyst of sorts as a primer for the general environmental reader who needs to know more about the special problems and challenges facing the national parks.”
Environmental Review: ER
“The author of this brief but thoughtful essay, though a professor of law, examines not the obvious influence of statutes and politics but the idea of wilderness in the minds of both those who would preserve it and those who would use it for recreation.”
Journal of Forest History
Mountains Without Handrails is the first clear statement of the preservationist position and comes at a crucial time in the history of the National Parks in the United States.”
Mountain Research and Development

Joseph L. Sax was a Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. Previously, he was the counselor to the Secretary of the Interior and Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School.
Holly Doremus is Professor of Environmental Regulation and Co-faculty Director of the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

Praise / Awards

  • "Exceptionally well informed and informative, "Mountains Without Handrails" is an extraordinarily thoughtful and thought-provoking read throughout."
    --Midwest Book Review

Look Inside


Introduction     1

1. Quiet Genesis     5
2. An Ideal in Search of Itself      17
3. The Ideal in Practice     27
4. Making a Choice     47
5. The Compromise Called For     61
6. The Parks as They Ought to Be     79
7. "At the Core of All This Wilderness and Luxury"     91
8. Conclusion     103

Appendix: A Policy Statement: The Meaning of National Parks Today     111

Notes     115

Bibliographic Notes     139

Index     149

Product Details

  • 184 pages.
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  • 2018
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  • 978-0-472-12372-8

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