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The story of my epic quest to visit all 419 National Park units

Here’s the story of my epic quest to visit all 419 National Park units.

  • how this huge endeavor actually unfolded
  • the twists and turns of the journey—and why I nearly abandoned it halfway thru
  • the surprising lesson I learned at the end

Get comfortable, because this is going to be a long-ass thread. But it’s required for the story of how this all progressed from its inception to the finish line.

When you’re done reading, you’ll have a better insight into what a big quest like this really looks like.

The idea for a parks quest probably got started in 1998 after a backpacking trip to Sequoia/Kings Canyon.

My girlfriend Kim and I were in college at the time, so a national park camping trip was really the only vacation we could afford. We already enjoyed hiking & camping…

…so visiting a famous national park—or many of them—seemed like a great idea.

After a Yosemite trip in 1999, we sorta adopted the quest, limiting it to the “named” National Parks (was it 54?) at the time.

By then, I had been to 16 park units, nearly all of which were in AZ.


The Yosemite trip was our anniversary gift to each other. We wanted a trip but couldn’t afford both that + gifts.

This started a sacred annual tradition—national park trips for our anniversary—that continued thru out our relationship, and became an important aspect of the quest.

We did a cheap road trip in 2001 to Petrified Forest and added on some nearby park units—El Morro & El Malpais—in large part because we could camp there.

It was the first trip I took to national park units I hadn’t heard of before. It’d end up being the first of many such trips.

My initial progress was pretty slow, and by 2003, my total stood at only 43. But I had already visited some notable parks, like Yosemite, Zion, Bryce, Rainier, Olympic, Death Valley & J-Tree, along with other park units in adjacent states.

They were all cheap camping road trips.


It was sometime around this period that the quest goal changed.

Originally, it was all the named National Parks. Then I added National Monuments. A little while later, it became ALL the NPS units, except for NRAs—which I considered “just damned rivers” (sic).

2004 was my first big parks year, hitting 16 units. It was punctuated by an anniversary road trip to Yellowstone (where I proposed to Kim), which got us 14 units alone.

We also did an Arches trip with friends that fall, and hit White Sands in conjunction with an ASU bowl game.


I hit another dozen or so units in 2005, mostly because I added on some vacation time to a work trip I took to DC.

If you visit DC and don’t come away with far more park unit visits than seems possible, you’re doing something wrong—the city is simply littered with them! 😂


2006 was another solid year of park questing, though this time, I didn’t get ANY new DC units. 🤦‍♂️

But we organized trips up the CA/OR coast and one following several NPS Historic Trails that marked off a lot. By this point, every family visit included a park visit along the way.

By the end of 2006, we were at 84, which seemed damn impressive to us. All of our out-of-state trips were national park trips. We didn’t have any specific completion goals, but just kept trying to see more and more parks. We figured we’d finish at some point in retirement, maybe.

2007 featured 2 big parks trips. First was Kim’s 30th bday, which was a surprise trip to DC. We did all the things. More importantly we did a 10-year anniversary road trip, which is among my best trips ever. It was 8700 miles & 36 parks!

Our final tally: a whopping 45(!!) parks.

We got married in Yosemite, but our honeymoon plans in Canadian Rockies got crunked last minute. So instead we drove east to hit parks in AR, MS, AL, GA, SC, NC, KY, MO—planning as we went. Here’s the 1st digital map of my progress, updated after the 2008 “post-wedding roadtrip.”


Prior to this, we had just kept a text list of completed parks. We didn’t even list the ones we still needed; that was too long of a list. But after marking off 45 parks in 2007 and another 45 in 2008…well, things had shifted. We were—somehow—nearing halfway done. Holy shit!

Our map was looking impressive.

And now, we started circling possible trips in the blank spots of the map.

And started considering trips without a big “anchor” park—the must-see park unit that we centered our excitement around.

And strategized about how to “finish” regions.

Funny side note: because I had specifically NOT included NRAs in my quest (damned river), we drove to—but skipped—Bighorn Canyon in WY/MT, orphaning the unit.

I’d later very much regret that, as it took a “cannonball run” road trip from PHX a decade later to finally mark it off.


The quest became an increasingly important & central thing to us around this time. We were already known as the couple who had this big goal to visit all the parks, and it was how people introduced us to new people.

Sharing this quest was an important part of our relationship.

And then, the unimaginable happened: we split up the next year. 😱

It nearly ended my national parks quest.

I mean, how could I continue on by myself? It seemed unthinkable. No way. It would never be the same. Game over.

I started dating someone the next year, and we took a road trip to some national parks—not for my quest, but because we wanted to hike there together. To the chagrin of both her and my ex-wife, I weaseled in some new park units. 😬

Hmm. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it either.

The next year, I decided to reclaim the quest as solely my own. I scheduled my first significant solo national parks trip, flying into Charleston and working my way down to Florida. I was apprehensive about whether it’d ever really be *mine* or not.

But the trip was a blast.


So it WAS mine!

The next few yrs were a mix of solo national park trips and ones I’d take with a girlfriend. In 2012, I flew into KC for a family reunion in CO so I could drive across KS for parks, and later tackled MI/MN/WI with a gf. In 2013, I did the VA/SC/NC + OH parks solo


On that Ohio trip, I arrived before First Ladies NHS opened, and decided to count up all the park units I had visited thus far.

I decided to hold up a sign indicating which park number I was on—a tradition I’d continue at each subsequent park.

Wish I’d started prior to 268! 🤦‍♂️


At this point, my parks quest was something I was going to actually complete! I wasn’t sure when that would be, but finishing was no longer a distant “maybe.”

But, I got heavily involved in a local backpacking group—and suddenly all my time off went towards that, not new parks.


That was an amazing time for me, and I wouldn’t trade those trips or friends for anything. I was also in midst of a big stressful transition in my career that required me to radically cut expenses & forgo a salary for 9 mos.

Which meant an incredible drought for my parks quest.


TWO parks?!! That’s it? Just two? Two new parks in two full years?! WTF…

And the start of 2016 wasn’t looking any better.

In March I decided to take a bad-for-the-checkbook trip to the Deep South so I could visit at least SOME parks that year. Broke, I slept in my rental car.

Jen and I had been dating for three months now. She posed a question to me: would I go on a surprise trip, where I didn’t know the destination? I said sure.

This is a GREAT story, but I’ll skip retelling it here. But we ended up in Puerto Rico & USVI, marking off more parks.

And then, we got word that Jen would have a month-long work detail in DC. We hadn’t been dating long, so she offered to come back to visit me. But I had a better idea: why don’t I go with you instead?

We scheduled a weekend in Boston to do some parks before her detail started…

…with the idea that I’d join her in DC and start looking for a (much needed) new job while there, taking advantage of the free hotel room. When I needed to interview, I’d simply call the trip done and fly home. And we’d do some fun East coast city stuff on weekends until then.

Well, I applied for a job or two—and waited perhaps a day—before bailing to rent a car and do a few days away hitting some parks in western PA 😂🤷‍♂️

I quickly landed an intriguing consulting job (no interview needed) that week, but told them I needed some time before I started.

So, for her entire work detail, I spent the weekends hitting parks with her in Boston, NYC, & Philly—and spending the weekdays camping in a rental car, voraciously visiting parks on my own.

I was planning each day as I went, and started calling it #MyNationalParksMonth.

I did stay in town on her bday week, meeting her at a new brewery after each workday and enjoying the weekend together in Shenandoah & Harpers Ferry.

But for a trip that was originally supposed to be about not being apart too long, that was all we saw of each other. Whoopsie! 🤣

We joke about that now, but Jen was tremendously supportive throughout this epic trip.

As someone with her own big quest, she also understood this unique moment: how often would the stars in my life align like this again?

The opportunity was just too good to pass up. Carpe diem!

Her detail was ending, but…I decided I wasn’t done yet. She flew home, and I postponed that new gig even longer so I could stay 3 more weeks to finish all the Eastern parks

It was a terrible financial decision, but a great life decision! A bold move, but one I’m grateful for.

On the flight home, I added up all the new parks. I was at 94 for the year—a year I had originally worried might be zero.

And it was the 100th anniversary of the NPS. I needed to visit only a handful of more parks to have visited 100 parks in 100 days to celebrate 100 years!

And so I made return visits that week to the AZ parks that had helped inspire my quest, completing #100parksin100days!

I was on the home stretch. Sure, I had some REALLY expensive and difficult parks left—but I was now marking the *few* areas of the map I still needed.



It was at this point that Jen—who had insisted that she would NOT adopt the quest—decided to count up her own visits. She was at 101.

Ok, well, maaaybe she should at least start keeping track…

Ok, fine, she wants in! But her first quest goal was just reaching 200 total parks.

Part of the reason she adopted it was because we already had a number of other trips planned that year, which often included park units she hadn’t been to that I wanted her to see.

“Oh, you haven’t been to Arches? Well, let’s go there on that long weekend we’ll have in October.”

So she upped the anty: her goal was now >200 parks, incl everything west of the Mississippi.

We also started sketching out trips to the harder parks: Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Alaska. And took trips back to completed areas where a new park unit had just been designated.


With me nearing the finish line, it was clear that she was going to tag along to the most difficult parks to visit. And many other parks would naturally be on our itinerary for other trips.

So, like myself, she eventually expanded the quest to include all of the park units.


A little bit surprisingly, most of our travel now shifted to visiting parks for HER. Sure, we did a trip to Guam, one to WA, and another to FL so I could #Finishthe48.

But for every new park I visited, she marked off at least FOUR. Jen was—very quickly—a highly motivated quester


Completing the Contiguous US seemed like an important milestone, and we expected it to take years and years to finish the remote parks in Alaska & American Samoa, plus any unexpected new ones.

So I had a little celebration with friends, not knowing how many more years I had left

Of course, one sign stuck out… 🤣

Our initial plan was hoping to tackle Alaska in 3 summer trips. If we got lucky on good weather for the required bush flights, we could finish the state in 3 yrs.

We’d need another year for American Samoa, and who-knows-what for any new ones.


We got **very lucky** on our first Alaska trip in 2018, and were able to do ALL of flights into the Western Arctic parks on schedule—which meant we were suddenly half done!

We managed to sneak in an American Samoa trip that winter, putting us waaay over our annual travel budget.

I also did that cannonball run up to Bighorn Canyon to mark off that orphaned unit.

Looking at the map now, I pushed for us to shoot for completing Alaska in just one more trip, not the two we had planned. We’d need more good luck, but it seemed well worth the attempt in my mind

I didn’t know, but Jen had already been working with a number of friends (and even my ex-wife Kim!) to surprise me at my last park unit in Alaska. #shesakeeper

The problem was she had given them 3 yrs to plan, not the 2 that I was now pushing. So accelerating it mucked things up

But with Aniakchak—the hardest park unit to visit—still on our itinerary, it might take a third trip. I won’t recount the story of how we *finally* made it there, but the short of it is: we did. Barely.

Which meant I’d finish the quest on the trip. Which is *A BIG FUCKING DEAL*

Some friends were able to make the trip anyway and joined me at my last park unit: Glacier Bay National Park. With shirts!

What a journey, right?! It’s not every day that you accomplish such a major life goal, one that defined so much of your life.


So you’d think I’d be on top of the world. And in many ways, I was!

But it’s also weird to “finish” something like this.

It’s more interesting to be doing something, than it is to have done something. Being 36% done can be better than 100%. The fun really is in the journey. Huh


That was one of the big lessons for me. And it’s why I encourage people to adopt the BIG quest, the one that seems too daunting.

Because it doesn’t actually matter if you ever finish or not. The benefits are nearly all in the process of working towards the goal, not finishing it

What do you do when you’ve finished a big quest like going to all the National Park units?

Well, you start a new quest, of course. And so that’s what I did, several times over, many of which I began years before finishing the parks.

Because it’s all about the journey.


My parks journey did a few things for me:

  • Helped shape my priorities in life
  • Inspired countless adventures + memories
  • Made me focus on prioritizing experiences over things
  • Provided structure + motivation to see new places
  • Gave me an interesting education on America

Choosing to adopt and pursue this crazy quest has been one of the best decisions of my life, and it’s of course been one of the most treasured and impactful endeavors of my life, too.

I’ll write more about these things in the future. And maybe add more to this thread later.

If you’ve somehow made it this far in the thread, you’re 100% remarkable. So go adopt a remarkable quest!

  • Check out for ideas
  • Connect with fellow questers
  • Ping me if I can be helpful
  • Inspire others with your adventures
  • Enjoy the journey