National Parks: An Obsession Begins
America’s National Parks are as vast and varied as the Nation itself. From the endless sea of grass found in the Everglades of South Florida, to the arid and frozen Gates of the Arctic north of northernmost Alaska, every bit of this nation’s natural wonders are on display and preserved it’s National Parks. Due to forward thinking Americans of previous generations, and the continued efforts of the National Parks Service and it’s legions of Park Rangers, our National Parks are available to all who seek them out — now and for the future.
My own personal journey to explore them started rather unintentionally on a long weekend during a work trip, but now the drive to explore them all has become a passion. I’ve found that the National Parks are not places that can be over-hyped or that you will end up driving away from disappointed because your expectations were too high. You may go into one with the belief that you will see something beautiful, or experience the profound, but they carry depths you know not of. They will wow you, move you, and leave you wanting more — every time. As I begin to write about the ones that I have explored (none to the level that I want to as of yet), I have been to 14 of the 63 current Parks, and none have left me with anything other than a desire to experience another. Before we jump into the Parks, let me tell you how the journey began.
Once Upon a Time…
In the late Spring of 2021, a work trip to a new location loomed: Rapid City, South Dakota. This would mark my first trip to the upper mid-west, a region I knew little about, in addition to a chance to cross off a huge chunk of the remaining States I had yet to visit. As the trip grew near, my buddy Paul and I realized that not only would we be there over Memorial Day weekend, but the place we would be working was shut down for a four-day weekend — the world was ours to explore. Two guys, a rental car with unlimited mileage, four days free, and a western frontier opened wider than the Montana skies to us.
When You Can Go Anywhere, Where Do You Go?
Exploring Apple Maps, I noticed that Yellowstone National Park was less than an inch and a half from our hotel. It was only after I zoomed in and read the legend that I realized that an inch and a half translated into an eight and a half hour drive; who knew? But again, two men on their own, with all the time in the world — this sounded like an amazing idea.
Flashes of Yesteryear…
Just over a decade ago, I was helping a born-and-raised Florida friend, John, move from Tampa to Seattle in the month of March. Enjoying our balmy Florida Spring days of 80° every day, we set off in a two-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee pulling a U-haul trailer expecting a smooth but long drive. After a couple of uneventful days, we found ourselves in Southern Wyoming and noticed that Yellowstone National Park was also just a few inches away on the map and thought it would be a grand little pitstop on our way through the Northwest. About 4 hours later, crossing the Continental Divide after dark, in a blizzard, we decided we should abandon the Yellowstone trip…
For some reason, I didn’t bother to mention my last attempt to get to Yellowstone, and pitched the idea to Paul as though it were our destiny foretold by prophecy. In true ride-or-die Paul fashion, he accepted the idea with all the flourish of a Knight accepting Arthur’s invitation to seek the Holy Grail. A short bit later, we had our hotel booked in Jackson, Wyoming, and started scoping out stops along the route.
A Journey of 541 Miles Begins With Coffee
That first week of work in Rapid City felt like it was moving as fast as a two-ton bison who isn’t concerned about cars or blocking roads or people who need to pee. When the long weekend finally arrived, we set off with visions of geysers and mountains and…well, we didn’t quite know what. A big part of the adventure of it all was truly not knowing what we would find once we got there. The first part of the journey takes you around the Black Hills (a strange and mysterious mini-mountain range in the middle of the Great Plains — more on that in another post), and through the town of Sturgis (famous for motorcycles, bars, and more black leather than…let’s bail on this analogy for now). We stopped at Sturgis Coffee (an absolute must visit anytime of the year) and then took the 30 second drive down Main Street wondering why this place is a motorcycle mecca — granted, I’m sure a Friday morning in late May is not peak Sturgis time.
Mid Wyoming (You Only Thought You Knew Boring)
Again, we didn’t truly know what to expect on this journey, but I can truthfully say that neither one of us were ready for the vast nothingness that is central Wyoming. Our adventure (geez that’s a strong word for this) into Wyoming started with true western wow at Devil’s Tower (apparently in the olden days you just attached Devil to places you didn’t understand because who else could have caused such things? — note this was before Elon Musk came on the scene).
Leaving Devil’s Tower however…we both took turns searching Apple Maps, Yelp, and eventually as our desperation grew, sites like Geocities and Ask Jeeves trying to find the next thing of note that would appear during the 400 miles before we reached Yellowstone. Outside of a McDonalds with an “acceptably not too disgusting bathroom” with 3.5 stars, the landscape and cellular reception sync’d up perfectly. But thanks okay, we were on our way to wonder…we hoped. Just so I don’t get cease and desist letters from the Central Wyoming Board of Tourism, I’ll say that it’s not as bad as I’ve waxed on about. If you’re the type of person that loves black rocks, dust, and the occasional brown rock, Central Wyoming is your Disney World — book your stay at the Motel 4 today!
Fast Forward Two Naps, One Long Audiobook, Three Podcasts, and Six Hours Later…
Mountains! Real still-snow-covered mountains! After countless hours (it might have been months-time moves differently in Central Wyoming), the landscape begin to drastically change. From the rocky dusty fields (I swear I’m done ragging on Wyoming), we began to steadily climb upwards. Strange new signs with mountain goats started to sprout along the roadside, and the air had this (what I learned later) mountainous feel to it. Despite it being the end of May, I learned the mountains really don’t care what time of the year it is, there was fresh, clean, beautifully white snow covering the mountains as we drove on, exciting both of us Florida boys to no end. Stopping for gas, we noticed that the station was selling small bottles of oxygen, which instantly made me wonder if I had made a mistake, or if I was somehow in the movie Spaceballs. Something strange, mysterious, and altogether wondrous was brewing with every mile of elevation we gained — yet we truly didn’t know the half of it.
Nothing Can Prepare You for the Grand Tetons
I know, I get it, you’ve seen mountains before. Let me guess: they are big, rocky, maybe a little snow here and there? Sure sure, sounds nice. But there is something else to be said about the first time you see the Grand Tetons come into view.
They are so much more raw and massive than you’re prepared for (reminds me of that that adage: picture a fox — no, it’s smaller than that). Looking at the map, we knew that on our way to Jackson, we would pass near Grand Teton National Park, a sister park of Yellowstone, but I had no idea what to expect, or what they even were to be honest. Several times, I saw a mountain within the mountains we were in, and wondered but quickly dismissed that they could be the Tetons. Something told me that no matter how big a mountain appeared, that I was searching for something else. Something “Grander.”Something that was worthy to be called a National Park...
Something Worthy to be Called a National Park
A year later, I’ve visited more than a dozen National Parks, and all of them have that special…substance about them. They all carry this weightiness, this magic, this wow. When you’re there, you realize that you’re in the presence of (the divine. A place that the Creator (however you define or describe that) decided to show off.
In the coming articles, I plan on spending time sharing about each Park I visit in hopes to inspire a bit of wanderlust in your heart. To describe feelings, sights, smells; that will cause you to want to experience them yourself. I full on know that the wonders of this world are not confined to places that carry the National Park label (and some of the National Parks don’t really deserve such a label — looking at you Gateway Arch), but I also recognize the efforts by previous generations to set aside such wonders of this nation. Not all of you may find yourself near a National Park (we East Coasters do not have the same benefits that those West of the Mississippi have), but all of us have some that are within our reach, and worthy of our efforts to get there. Others of you may have been to a few, perhaps as a child, and may find that you are looking for others to explore. I promise to be honest with you, and hope that your hearts are open to what the world can show you, who that seek out it’s wonders.