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What I wish I knew before starting my national parks quest

Travel quests are among the most powerful ways to get yourself out more. My personal national parks quest—visiting all 417 national park units in the country—has been the driving force for the vast majority of my own travel. And it’s been one of the most impactful endeavors in my life. I firmly believe that if you not already questing, you’re missing out.

But there are a few lessons I wish I had known before I started. Here are six of them.

Be clear on what the quest entails

When I first started my national parks quest, my goal wasn’t to visit every national park unit, as it is now. When the idea first occurred to me, I limited it to just the so-called “named” National Parks. That is, the ones that end in the iconic words “National Park.” Well, I quickly realized that this is an arbitrary delineation. There are some astounding places that happen to be named “national monuments” or something else, often simply due to the happenstance of history. Indeed, many of the named national parks were first protected as national monuments. So the designation—especially after its been watered down with recent additions such as Gateway Arch—carries much less importance than commonly understood.

As a result, I ended up extending the quest to include national monuments. And then a year later, I extended it to all of the national park units. Well, all of them except national recreation areas, actually. I’m not a big fan of dammed rivers, so it seemed like national recreation areas shouldn’t be part of my quest. And, as a result, I swifted bypassed those areas, failing to stop even when I was driving right by them.

I finally came to my senses and decided I might as well hit all of the National Park units, no matter what their designation. After all, by law, the National Park Service must treat them all equally, and they’re all considered “national parks” even if their official names don’t end in the words “National Parks.” Unfortunately, that meant that I needed to do things like travel back to Montana to hit the lone park unit (a national recreation area) that I had skipped because I wasn’t clear on what the places were included in the quest.

Don’t make this same mistake—decide early on what the quest actually entails.

Think ahead and don’t “orphan” any units

The park unit in Montana that I had bypassed was named Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. And it’s a 17 hour and 48 minute drive from my home in Phoenix. That’s a long drive for a park unit I should have marked off thirteen years earlier when I drove right past it. And so, of course, I eventually had to drive that entire way just to mark off this one lonely park.

My advice is to avoid ending up with a Bighorn Canyon of your own—an orphaned unit far away that you can’t easily complete with other units as part of a larger trip.

bighorn canyon celebrations
If you do get stuck with your own “Bighorn Canyon,” I recommend bringing a friend and a beer to celebrate with once you finally get there. Because it can take a lot of time and money to visit an orphaned unit—especially one that’s several states away.

That means when you’re planning your national park trips, you should strategize about how you’ll mark off the other units in the area you’re traveling to. Sometimes you’ll realize that it makes sense to alter the trip to favor a further-flung park unit over a closer one, simply because it will be easier to get it done now than to orphan it later. Some of this is guesswork, and your plans may change in the future, but it’s important to have a strategy nonetheless.

Leave enough time to be amazed

Sometimes, you won’t expect much from a park unit, but after arriving, you just fall in love with it. Sometimes, it’s the unit itself—an incredibly moving visitor center, for instance. Other times, it might be an unexpected wildlife encounter. Or maybe even some weather, like a low cloud that poured into the battlefield, totally changing the character of your experience.

If you’re on a quest, you’ll likely be traveling fast. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan some flexibility into the trip to allow you to enjoy these pleasant surprises. I tend to purposefully overestimate how long I’ll need for smaller sites, which means that I’m routinely “ahead of schedule” during my trips. This helps offer a bit of a buffer for those times when I end up spending much more time at a place than I had anticipated.

Start a tradition—or several

One of the most fun aspects of a large quest is having a tradition. Or rather, several traditions. It’s particularly gratifying when you’re far into your quest and you have a consistent collection of photos or souvenirs from each of your destinations.

One of my favorite traditions is holding up a number indicating how many parks I’ve been to at each new park unit I visit. Unfortunately, I didn’t consider doing this until I had already been to 267 of them. So while I’m nearly up to unit 400 by now, I’m still missing 2/3rds of the shots I would have had—had I simply considered what type of traditions I should create when I first started the quest. Now maybe the idea wouldn’t have come to me at the time, but I really wish I had at least spent 10 minutes proactively thinking about it before I got started.

Here are some common national park traditions:

  • Photo of the park entrance sign
  • Getting a park passport stamp
  • Watching the park movie
  • Completing a Junior Ranger program
  • Photo of a park’s Mather plaque
  • Attending a ranger program
  • Photo of a traveling “tchotchke”
  • Taking a selfie with a park ranger
  • Mailing themselves a postcard from the park

Collect something from each park

Similar to creating special park traditions, many park questers begin collecting certain items from each park. Maybe it’s a magnet, or a pin, or a patch. Or maybe it’s a postcard with a park passport stamp on the back. Others might pick out a book, or a little trinket. And just about everyone takes home an iconic “unigrid” park brochure.

Think intentionally about what items you might want to collect. I suggest smaller items that can easily be displayed later—even when you have a large collection.

These can make for great displays memorializing your adventures in the parks. But again, my advice is to think carefully about what you want to collect before you start off on your national parks quest. When I first started out, I thought it’d be great to collect patches. And so I collected scores upon scores of them. Until, that is, I realized that it was going to be hard to ever display them in a useful way. Was I going to spend $5 on a parks patch, and do so hundreds of times over, just to have them sit in a shoebox? Because I have more than hundred that have been just sitting there ever since. Had I thought it through a bit more, I likely would have opted for something else to collect. In the end, I switched over to pins, which I have in two large display cases on my hallway wall.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but your collection shouldn’t include any park resources—leave those at the park. Yes, that includes things like pine cones, small rocks, or any other items you didn’t buy at the park bookstore or receive from a park ranger.

Keep track of the personal stories, not the park facts

Lastly, I’d recommend that if you do end up documenting your national park adventures—whether that’s in a journal entry, a blog post, or even a video—that you don’t just focus on park facts. A decade into your quest, you won’t care about that stuff, which is just a quick google search away if you need it. You probably don’t need to transcribe what type of sandstone that arch is made of. You don’t need to remember how old John F. Kennedy was when he moved away from his childhood home. The number of Japanese Americans interned at Manzanar NHS isn’t what you’ll wish you recorded in your journal, or had committed to memory.

Instead, focus on how you felt while you were in the park. What had you been most excited about before arriving, and what surprised you about the place once you got there? Did something you learn change the way you think about something else? What was it like to emerge from that dense forest onto the shore of that backcountry lake? How did it feel to stare at John Muir’s personal desk? What did you imagine when you read the stories of immigrants at Ellis Island? Who did you wish was with you to experience that sunrise on Cadillac Mountain? What memory did the smell of the creosote in Saguaro National Park immediately conjure up? How did you feel when you arrived home after the trip?

Those are the types of items to journal or blog about when you reflect on your latest national park visit. Trust me—those are the details that you’ll most appreciate looking back on decades from now.

Don’t have a travel quest yet?

You should. You’ll love it. And I promise you that it’ll be worthwhile. Read my guide to questing to get started.

If you love quests, or are thinking of getting started, check out #GoQuesting.