My National Park Challenge

A couple of weeks ago a friend told me that she wanted to take her kids to as many National Parks as possible over the next few years, before sending them off to college. At the time I figured that I had seen most of the National Parks and had made photos at many of them. I wanted to know which ones to put on my “have yet to see” list and so I googled “list of all National Parks in the US”. I came up with 58 National Parks at first, which I later amended to 59 (Pinnacles in California had recently been upgraded).

The National Park Service will celebrate its 100th anniversary this August. This is the perfect time to ponder and appreciate this amazing accomplishment since the creation of the very first park in 1916. It all started with three men’s obsession for natural landscapes and conservation. John Muir had been exploring and writing about California’s untouched areas for years and felt so strongly about preserving them that he petitioned Congress to create the National Park Bill. At around the same time Theodore Roosevelt become another influential champion of the great outdoors. After seeing the Badlands region of South Dakota, Roosevelt became concerned with the preservation of wildlife and the surrounding areas. When he was elected president, he founded the United States Forest Service and the Federal Bird Reserve. All in all, during his presidency, he managed to put nearly 230 million acres of public land under protected status. Finally, in 1916, industrialist and conservationist Stephen Mather campaigned to create a unified agency, which would manage all National Parks.

Besides the 59 National Parks, there are 122 National Monuments, and a number of Historic Sites, Lakeshores, Preserves, Scenic Drives, etc. for a total of 407 designated areas.

The following is an alphabetic order of parks split in three groups: Continental US, Greater US, and Other Territories. The ones I’ve visited are in teal, and include the year (in bold after switching to digital SLRs).

Acadia National Park, ME (Aug 2006)
Arches National Park, UT (Oct 2011)
Badlands National Park, SD (2014)
Big Bend National Park, TX
Biscayne National Park, FL (2012)
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO
Bryce Canyon National Park, UT (1993, 2011, 2014)
Canyonlands National Park, UT (2011)
Capitol Reef National Park, UT (2011)
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM (1997)
Channel Islands National Park, CA (1995)
Congaree National Park, SC (2017)
Crater Lake National Park, OR
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OH (2017)
Death Valley National Park, CA (1981, 2000, 2002, 2016)
Dry Tortugas National Park, FL
Everglades National Park, FL (1980, 1995, 2012-16)
Glacier National Park, MT (2014)
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ (1982, 2000, 2011, 2012, 2014)
Grand Teton National Park, WY (1984, 2014)
Great Basin National Park, NV
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, CO (2014)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC/TN (2015)
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX
Hot Springs National Park, AR
Isle Royale National Park, MI
Joshua Tree National Park, CA (2014, 2016)
Kings Canyon National Park, CA
Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA (2001)
Mammoth Cave National Park, KY (2017)
Mesa Verde National Park, CO (1999, 2011)
Mount Rainier National Park, WA (1999, 2007, 2014)
North Cascades National Park, WA
Olympic National Park, WA (2007, 2014)
Pinnacles National Park, CA
Petrified Forest National Park, AZ (1984, 1999, 2011, 2016)
Redwood National Park, CA (1982, 2014)
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO (2014)
Saguaro National Park, AZ (2001, 2016)
Sequoia National Park, CA (1982, 2014)
Shenandoah National Park, VA (2015)
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND
Voyageurs National Park, MN
Wind Cave National Park, SD
Yellowstone National Park, WY (1984, 2014)
Yosemite National Park, CA (~1999)
Zion National Park, UT (2016)

Denali National Park & Preserve, AK
Gates of the Arctic National Park, AK
Glacier Bay National Park, AK
Haleakala National Park, HI-Maui (1990, 1995, 2001, 2014, 2015)
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI-Big Island (1990, 1991, 1996, 2014)
Katmai National Park and Preserve, AK
Kenai Fjords National Park, AK (2008)
Kobuk Valley National Park, AK
Lake Clark National Park, AK
Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Preserve, AK

National Park of American Samoa (1998)
Virgin Islands National Park (2010)

It looks like I’ve been to 35 out of 59 parks. That was a surprise, I really thought it would be more. So I need to see 24 more parks and, to take it a step further, there are seven I’d really like to revisit, either because I didn’t spend that much time (e.g. Samoa) or because it has simply been too long since I have been there (Channel Islands, Carlsbad Caverns).

I’m not really sure how long this will take me but to give myself at least one deadline, I decided to get all the National Parks in the continental US done in the next two years. The parks in Alaska will be next and the one in Samoa – well, who knows. Let’s just say, it’ll be last on the list. When I was in Samoa, I had just spent a week in Fiji and three days in Western Samoa. I flew into American Samoa one day before being due to board the R/V Roger Revelle, a Scripps research vessel, that would take us to the Manihiki Plateau to do marine geology surveys and then on to Honolulu. So really, it was more of a coincidental drive-by rather than a planned visit.

Looking at my previous park history, a few things are note-worthy and some came unexpected. The park I know best is Everglades National Park, simply because I’ve lived about an hour away for the past five years. I’ve been conducting photo tours there for the past three years.

I also wasn’t aware that I had visited Haleakala National Park as many times as I had been to the Grand Canyon. I’ve been to both five times and while I can say I have a pretty good feel for Haleakala and its trails this isn’t at all true for the park of all parks, Grand Canyon National Park… there are so many more stops and sights around the park, away from the regular south rim route, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do them all. At the top of my list is Havasupai, for sure – no I’ve not made it there, yet. Also, Toroweap, where I got stuck in the mud half way there last time, and definitely a rafting trip to see it all from the bottom. I’m not sure I want to do another flyover. I did one in 1982, as a kid with my parents. We left from Las Vegas on a six-seater and when we got to the canyon the little plane would dive in and then shoot straight up and out again and I remember whooping, I had such a blast, it was almost like a scenic rollercoaster. Anyhow, my mom got pretty sick but more importantly, it really disturbs the peace of the park and in retrospect, I am very glad that those kinds of flights aren’t allowed anymore.

Death Valley and Petrified Forest are my most visited National Parks after that. Actually, I just recently re-visited Death Valley but in a more structured way. This May, after a 2-day stop in the Alabama Hills, I drove east and explored Death Valley for several days, instead of spending just one long day. I still only saw about half of what I wanted to see but next time I’ll have to come back earlier in the season. The thermometer at Furnace Creek was already at 112°F and while it helped to be in very dry heat, at some point it just doesn’t matter any more. I was getting parched too quickly. You can read more about my Death Valley experience here.

The reason I’ve been to Petrified Forest NP four times is simply because it is on the main route from Albuquerque to Flagstaff. I seem to drive past it almost once a year and I guess I stop every once in a while. This year was the first time I did some of the more extensive hikes. Again, I didn’t know how much more there is to this park than the main road that goes through it. There are some phenomenal trails inside the park that are worth exploring for the amazing rock formations that are not visible from the road. It’s definitely on my re-visit list.

I’m not sure which park will be next. Probably Everglades, just because I go there all the time, but I am definitely thinking about some of the parks I haven’t been to, that are in the eastern half of the US. Stay tuned for more.


30 August 2017: visited Congaree, Cuyahoga, and Mammoth Cave NP this summer. That’s 38 out of 59 parks, 21 more to explore…

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About the author

Hi, I’m Carmen “Mica” Alex and this is my blog about science, traveling, life and anything else that’s interesting or beautiful.

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