Subpar Parks turns bad national park reviews into beautiful art

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Even the most majestic national parks have their critics, like the person who saw the nation’s first national park, Yellowstone, and said: “Save yourself some money. Boil some water at home.”

When graphic designer Amber Share came across similar one-star reviews on Reddit, she told USA TODAY she immediately wondered, “Wait, are there these for every park?” 

That spark and her longtime desire to create a collection around national parks formed the foundation of her popular Instagram account, Subpar Parks, which has over 350,000 followers. Share was able to translate her passion and popularity into the best-selling book, “Subpar Parks: America’s Most Extraordinary National Parks and Their Least Impressed Visitors,” which debuted on the USA TODAY Best-Selling Books list based on its first week in sales.

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When people miss the point

Both the book and Instagram account pair Share’s idyllic landscape drawings of national parks and other outdoor destinations with strangers’ snarky reviews.

“Sometimes it’s one that just immediately makes me laugh out loud,” the author and illustrator said. “I tend to really love the ones where it feels like the whole point of the experience was totally lost on the person.”

Other times, Share selects reviews from sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp and even Facebook based on images they spark in her head. 

“For Biscayne National Park, which I want to say is 95% underwater – it’s a very water-heavy park – as soon as I saw the review about not having cell service, I thought that that would be hilarious because I would draw an underwater scene,” she said.

Even the South Florida park’s website describes it as a “watery wonderland” with “more than 250 miles of sparkling waters” housing coral reefs, mangrove forests and rich marine life.

“My favorite is definitely the Grand Canyon,” Share said. “There’s so much down in that big ‘hole’ to learn about and experience that it’s so funny to me that that’s how someone summarized their experience there.”

Aside from being a natural wonder and the historic homeland of the Havasupai Native American tribe, the Grand Canyon’s 1,904 square miles make it bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island and one of America’s most popular national parks with roughly 5.9 million visitors each year, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Share chuckled over the Joshua Tree review: “The only thing to do is walk around the desert.”

“First of all, there are other things to do in Joshua Tree,” Share said. “But also yeah, that’s kind of why people go there.”

Beyond hiking, Joshua Tree National Park visitors can enjoy birding, biking, rock climbing, horse-back riding, camping, stargazing and more.

Setting expectations

“I think a lot of these reviews would have been avoided if people had done a little more research to make sure they understood where they were going and what they could expect because parks aren’t like Disneyland,” she said. “They’re not a curated experience that is always going to be the same and always going to be perfect.”

Share sometimes adds her own insights and research on the destinations to her posts.

For an illustration of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument on the northern edge of Arizona near Utah, she pointed out that many of its stunning rock formations are fragile sandstone that “took millions of years to form, and can be destroyed in an instant,” urging visitors to be careful, among other tips.

“It just feels like a nice way to further put a spin on the negativity, to use it to help people learn about these places,” Share said.

A good laugh

Of course, she still enjoys making people laugh.

Share said she’s received messages like: “I saw your project and then today at work I had this person who was super angry, and it was so frustrating dealing with them, but after they left, I just kind of laughed it off.”

“That, to me, is so cool,” the Subpar Parks creator said.

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