In August 2015, Elizabeth and Cole Donelson hit the pause button on their careers in teaching and health care IT to do something you could look at as either wildly impractical or insanely fun—or both. They left their home in Kansas City, Missouri, with a plan to hit every national park in the country, including those in Alaska, Hawaii, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, within a year.
Before they left, the couple pored over online user recommendations and trail accounts, and viewed park descriptions on the National Park Service’s website. They leafed through maps and books and kept spreadsheets on activities and optimal times to visit parks. Factoring in the weather, they mapped out a series of loops and traded in their aging car for a newer Ford Escape to get them from Point A to Point B (they flew to the overseas parks).
Even after a year and a half of saving money and researching, the Donelsons, both 27, still had no idea of the challenges ahead—unseasonably cold nights in the Rocky Mountains that forced them to sleep in their clothes and the inconvenience of living without a fridge, to name a couple. But they also couldn’t have conceived of the beauty and surprises in store in the country’s most prestigious protected lands.
So far, they’ve crawled through a cave in Mammoth Cave National Park, backpacked rim to rim in the Grand Canyon, kayaked with alligators in the Everglades, and danced with a local family in the National Park of American Samoa. As of July 1, they’re working on their last eight parks, all of them in Alaska. As their journey wraps up this August, just in time for the National Park Service’s hundredth birthday, we asked the duo for tips on how to do the classic national park road trip right, whether you’re going to one or all 59. Here are their tips.
Don’t skip the visitors center—and then get far, far away.
We're never too good to stop at the visitors center and talk with a ranger. They usually have great exhibits, movies, and info on the park, so you can have a greater appreciation and context for the place you're exploring. Try to mix front-country highlights with backcountry secrets. Do the former on less crowded weekdays and the latter on weekends.
We know what you’re thinking, but do the ranger programs.
Every once in a while the ranger programs are cheesy. Sometimes they are something you already know. But overwhelmingly, ranger programs are well worth the time and effort. We've kayaked through mangroves with alligators, snowshoed at Crater Lake, hunted fossils at Cuyahoga Valley, chased wildflowers during the superbloom at Death Valley, and even taken photo lessons. The stuff we've learned is better than any year of school we’ve had for sure.
Go out of your way to snag a great campsite.
Getting there early definitely helps. Many times we fail at that. We’ve learned firsthand how stressful a campsite goose chase can be, so if you’re going to popular parks on peak weekends, reserve campsites ahead of time. (Each park is different, but if you can reserve online, it's usually at recreation.gov.) Finding secret and remote spots is clutch. At Canyonlands we found out about one backcountry spot all by itself on the rim of the canyon that no one seemed to know about.
Then make a comfy home away from home.
One thing that revolutionized our tent sleeping was switching from our expensive backpacking sleeping pads that leaked to an $8 Walmart air mattress for the 90 percent of nights we camp near our car. It is much more comfortable to sleep as a couple and faster to set up. Also, a hammock can be a huge comfort after a long day of hiking.
Whatever you do, don’t forget the snacks.
Nothing can derail fun like someone getting hangry. Don’t underestimate the importance of always having a few snack options on hand.
Allow yourself simple luxuries.
We are traveling on a really tight budget because we want to see as much as we can. But no matter what budget you’re on, it’s important to have a few luxuries on long trips. We go to buffets after certain parks, if we really feel like we earned it. And we love ice cream. Sometimes we get a whole carton of ice cream—not just a pint, but a half gallon—and we eat it all in one sitting. It makes us really happy.
You don’t need the fanciest gear, but you do need these two things.
If we could give our August 2015 selves one piece of advice, it would be this: Invest in a better cooler. We get kind of sick of eating bananas and cans of beans every day!
Another thing we couldn’t do without is our GPS. It is the most useful thing we have because you don’t have cell service in a lot of these remote areas. It also saves the hassle of someone being the navigator and having fights over directions. (Disclaimer: We got our Garmin GPS for free and they are a gear sponsor.)
Cultivate the right attitude.
Going to this many national parks and camping every night, we know we’re going to be uncomfortable sometimes. People think you have to be really tough to do this kind of thing, but it’s more of an attitude than a personality. You have to be open to all sorts of different things that are going to happen. It’s going to rain sometimes, but you’re also going to sit on beaches watching the sunset and hike to the top of mountains in total solitude.
Respect your partner’s travel style.
We've definitely learned that we have very different travel styles. We used to do everything together. In the first two months we were apart for just six hours total. Now we've learned that it's OK if we split up to enjoy different things. Also, stay true to your vision for the trip and don't worry about or compare yourselves to other travelers.