Below Expectations: Amber Share of Subpar Parks

The Raleigh creative who launched an online phenomenon offers a tongue-in-cheek look at our National Parks.
by Addie Ladner | photography by Eamon Queeney

“I don’t claim to be from anywhere,” says Amber Share. The daughter of a Navy chief, Share and her family spent much of her childhood on the move. By the time she entered high school, Share had lived in Italy and five different states, and family trips took her all over the country. In Hawaii, she explored the lava-laced shores of the Ala Kahakai Trail; in Florida, she trekked through the Everglades with manatee and alli- gator sightings. A road trip across the southwestern United States brought her through the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

For Share, these national parks became home. They were timeless, everlasting, grounding experiences to her. “Parks solidified a vacation in my mind,” she says.

Those experiences have stayed with her since, etched in her mind and soul. “Even as an adult living in Washington, D.C., a bustling city, I would go to Rock Creek Park for reprieve,” she says. “Or I would drive to Shenandoah. Anytime I want a break in my life, I wind up in a park.”

Share studied graphic design and fine art at the University of Nebraska. After graduation, she landed a job working full-time in Raleigh at a design agency. But she began to crave a creative project of her own. “As a professional designer, you don’t get to draw. I wanted a side project that was a creative outlet for me and pertained to my interest.” She thought about all those national parks she visited over her lifetime and started sketching them on her iPad.

Soon, she had retro illustrations of places like Joshua Tree National Park’s desert landscape and the Grand Canyon’s rocky ochre horizon. But she wanted text on her illustrations, something to identify them, something other than the park name. “Drawing the parks proved to be a nice capsule project,” says Share. “But I wanted something more unique.”

She stumbled across a perplexing one-star review of a national park on Reddit that had her laughing out loud. “Save yourself some money. Boil some water at home,” said one visitor to Yellowstone — a landmark that spans three states and is home to the world’s tallest active geyser. That became her a-ha moment. “This review was too good not to do anything with,” she thought. Soon, she found other strange, yet hilarious, reviews. “The only thing to do here is walk around the desert,” said a guest of Joshua Tree National Park. Another griped that the Grand Canyon is just “a hole. A very, very large hole.”

These one-star reviews were the perfect amount of words to add to the bottom of her illustrations. “You might not notice the words at first, it’s just a beautiful landscape,” Share says. And she chose the reviews strategically: “My focus was reviews that have to do with the experience of nature. I’m not here to make a statement about how well or not well the parks are managed. It’s more about people being underwhelmed by nature. Most people just find it hilarious.”

And indeed, they do: in December of 2019 she shared her illustrations on Instagram with the handle @subparparks — and they went viral. By spring of 2020, sites like Reddit, BuzzFeed, Boston Globe, and Insider found the juxtaposition between these natural wonders and under-enthused reviewers as hysterical as she did.

Soon, people wanted her illustrations to hang on their walls and send to their friends. So she created an online shop with things like stationery and posters. After that came more illustrations around the great outdoors; and products like planners, too. “It’s funny because when I started it didn’t occur to me that anyone would want it as a sticker or postcard,” she says.

Share left her full-time job in March of 2020 and has since focused solely on the Subpar Parks project and other creative gigs. Her book, America’s Most Extraordinary National Parks and Their Least Impressed Visitors, debuts this month. It holds all her most popular illustrations, plus new parks for which Share has unearthed one-star reviews. Landmarks and national monuments, like Cape Hatteras and the Blue Ridge Mountains, also make an appearance. It shows her illustrations of 63 national parks with 13 additional national monuments, seashores, lakes, and national recreation areas, many of which haven’t yet appeared on her Instagram. “It’s more than 200 pages with half of it, new content,” Share says.

As a nod to her resident state’s diverse and awe-inspiring state parks resting on mountains, sand dunes, and dense forests, Share illustrated a North Carolina series of Subpar Parks, exclusively for WALTER. For example: along the Outer Banks in Nags Head rests Jockey’s Ridge State Park. It’s a vast rolling dune — the largest dune system in the eastern United States — with vantage points as far as the eye can see. But to one visitor, it’s “sand but nothing else.” At Hanging Rock State Park, a mountainous region known for its waterfalls and spring rhododendrons, another visitor found that “trees obscure the view.”

Share’s illustrations are a reminder of how lucky we are to be surrounded by incredible state parks and recreation areas in North Carolina that encompass mountain balds, waterfalls, massive dunes, and lush forests. Use them as inspiration to get outside this summer and reconnect with nature.  

This story originally appeared in our July 2021 issue.