by Nanci Hellmich
The national parks are national treasures, so it’s no wonder that some park enthusiasts are determined to explore as many of them as they can.
That’s true for John and Betty Callender of Daniels, West Virginia, who have been to 20 of the country’s 59 national parks and have plans to see more.
The couple’s passion for the parks began in 2011 with a trip to Glacier National Park in Montana, Yellowstone and Grand Teton in Wyoming, and Arches and Canyonlands in Utah. “That got us hooked. We loved Glacier so much,” says John, 69, a retired lobbyist.
Avid kayakers and occasional hikers, they have rafted in Denali National Park in Alaska and kayaked in the Everglades in Florida, where it “was just us and a few alligators,” John says. “It was challenging but also so peaceful and serene.”
In 2016, the National Park Service set a record, with almost 331 million visits to the more than 400 sites overseen by the service.
Next year, they may rent or buy a small recreational vehicle and drive down the West Coast, stopping at parks along the way, says Betty, 63, a retired nurse. Overall, touring the national parks is a pretty reasonably priced vacation, she says.
She loves researching the local history, taking photos, and seeing the variety of wildlife including buffalo, elk, coyotes, wild horses, caribou, grizzly bears, and wild sheep. “I have yet to see a moose. My husband has to keep taking me to parks until I see a moose. I even have my grandkids laughing at that one.”
The Callenders would like to explore all the parks, but they know they won’t make it to them all, including the National Park of American Samoa in the South Pacific, which is one of the 59.
A Wide Range of Natural Wonders
Many people enjoy the country’s parkland. In 2016, the National Park Service set a record, with almost 331 million visits to the more than 400 sites overseen by the service, which include the national parks, monuments, battlefields, historic sites, seashores, and recreation areas.
Motivations vary for people attempting to see as many national parks as possible, but the underlying fact is that the journeys give travelers joy, says travel writer Michael Joseph Oswald, 37, author of Your Guide to the National Parks. So far, he has explored 50 of the 59. “To me, the infinite range of beauty is one of the most appealing things about our national parks,” he says.
The vast majority of parks are easily accessed by motorists, but a few can only be reached by boat or plane. Some of the parks are remote, so park enthusiasts sometimes have to use a significant portion of their vacation time each year traveling to them.
The amount of planning enthusiasts put into their trips varies. Some plan every detail; others wing it. Those who want to secure a campsite or room at the more popular parks during peak season—typically summer— need to book early, often when rooms and campsites first become available, Oswald says.
On his last trip, he knew the route he wanted to take, but beyond that he kept things flexible. “A handful of times I was driving around after dark scrambling for a campsite. But overall it worked out great because it allowed me to work around a few wildfires and unexpected events.”
Early on in his explorations, Oswald thought he’d be most impressed by the spectacular landscapes, but he found much more to appreciate. There’s a vast array of flora and fauna living within the boundaries that’s equally incredible. “Not in my wildest dreams did I think three of my favorite things would be trees—the redwoods and sequoias at their namesake parks in California and the bristlecone pines found at Great Basin in Nevada. They’re amazing. I wish they could tell their stories.”
“Like they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he says, “but I feel strongly that there’s a little bit of beauty to be enjoyed for anyone who’s privileged enough to set foot in these exceptional parks.”
Road Trip of a Lifetime
For some people, visiting the parks is more than exploring nature; it’s a journey of self-discovery. In May, Christine Rabaja, 45, a retired Marine living in Orlando, Florida, bought a used recreational vehicle and a truck and mapped out her plan to go to the 47 national parks in the continental U.S. in 47 weeks. Her goal was to enjoy the experience while she decided her next career move. “I wanted to take a breath, reflect, and discover what it was I would enjoy doing the most.”
She did the trip on a budget, living on her pension, and trying not to dip into her savings. That meant eating simple meals—trail mix, nuts, protein shakes, salads, fish, and vegetables—and occasionally splurging on some local cuisine.
Some days she walked five to 10 miles in the parks, often stopping to enjoy a beautiful waterfall or serene lake. One time she sat near a babbling brook for hours, not realizing how much time had passed. “I was just listening and watching the water and staying present in the moment,” Rabaja says. “Water makes such a lovely sound, and watching it is very cathartic.”
The entire experience has lowered her stress level and made her realize the wisdom of naturalist John Muir’s quote: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
One Step at a Time
Travelers often feel so enriched by their experiences that they wish they had started sooner. Over the past 10 years, Deb and Bruce Potts, both 63, have visited nine national parks as well as national battlefields, historical sites, and state and city parks in 27 states and Washington, D.C.
The couple from Rochester, Michigan, has seen waterfalls, wildflowers, wildlife, and magnificent vistas. They watched a mother grizzly bear and her cubs grazing in a field at Yellowstone. They caught a sunrise at Acadia National Park in Maine. They marveled at the beauty of the mountains in Grand Teton.
Their adventure began in 2006, when the couple and her sister and brother-in-law decided to try to walk 10 miles at a beautiful place in all 50 states. At first, their motivation was to become more active to stave off dementia, but it’s grown into something bigger, leading them to learn more about themselves and each other.
The best part of the experience is seeing “the amazing creation that God has given us and seeing the vast variety of geography and beauty of the parks,” says Deb, a motivational speaker and author of Making Peace with Prickly People. “When you are out in the wilderness, you feel like you have it all to yourself.”
Bruce, the chief executive officer of a robotics company, agrees. “The views, nature, and being in God’s creation—there’s no substitute for that. It’s gorgeous.”
Hiking makes the experience more memorable than simply driving through them, but there are pitfalls. Take the time Deb stepped in buffalo dung in Yellowstone. “That was really back to nature,” she says. She wiped off her hiking boots in the grass and kept on going.
They’re keeping a spreadsheet to track their travels, logging the places they’ve been and the steps they’ve taken. “Our goal of 10 miles in each state translates into one million steps across America. We have already logged over 700,000 steps in 27 states,” Deb says.
So far, their only regret is not launching into this when they were younger. They’ve had to schedule their trips around surgeries, job changes, and their responsibilities with aging parents. Plus, they have had to stay in shape to do the rigorous 10-mile hikes.
“We wish we had started this before we were 50, because it’s really challenging,” Deb says. “We are bound and determined to finish it—even if we have to finish it in wheelchairs.”
Seriously, she says, after they’ve been to all 50 states, they may visit other places in Canada and Europe. “The sky is the limit. We are optimists.”