I’m sitting here in my nice comfy bed in a house with electricity, having just eaten a dinner cooked in an oven and taken a long relaxing bath with soap and it’s hard to believe that just three months ago, Cole and I were living such a different life.

For a year, we relaxed by lounging not in a bed, but in a tent. (And I wouldn’t really call it lounging, either, since both of us could barely sit up in the thing.) We definitely would not have just bathed. And we cooked a one-pot meal like chili on our teensy backpacking stove. We had to think about how charged our phones were and if we had any storage on our computer to save a video. The rain and wind and humidity — it all directly affected our lives.

But man, we did a lot of cool stuff in the national parks!

It’s fun to think back to the extreme things we were able to do last year. The superlatives of our trip. I know we have talked about most of these moments in posts or in person, but I’m pretty sure that we haven’t laid them all out one after another.

Warning — this list is going to make us look way cooler than we actually are. Okay let’s go.

Switchback Kids Hall of Fame

It’s not easy to just scribble down the best of the best. Some of the smallest, subtlest moments were some of our favorite moments. But it’s not time for that right now. Right now is for the biggest, best things we crossed off our bucket lists (and hopefully passed on to yours).

In no particular order, I present some of our favorite adventures in the national parks… at least in our first lap 🙂

Hiking Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon – By far our longest hike at about 52 miles, we knocked this baby out only about two weeks in to our year-long trip. I heard recently some popular national park travelers refer to their Grand Canyon hike from the South Rim down to the river and back up to the South Rim (a 15-ish mile hike) as a “rim-to-rim” and I almost threw up on my computer. Climbing out of the Grand Canyon twice is not easy. But it sure is worth the views. It is impossible to comprehend the Grand Canyon from either rim, and sleeping inside it is a very special experience that will always be a part of this trip.


Mammoth Cave Wild Cave Tour – I did not think this would be in our hall of fame when Cole signed us up for it a month prior to visiting Mammoth Cave. He has a tendency to pull me out of my comfort zone and this tour was not an exception: 6 hours, 5 miles, 1/4-mile of belly-crawling through water, and lots of squeezing later, we finally emerged from the depths of the longest cave system in the world. We were dirty and wet and I vowed to never go into a cave again. (Then we bought tickets for another guided tour where you stand up the whole time and there are lights and I liked caves again).


Camping at Wonder Lake + Waking up to Denali – Park 59/59 was dramatic for us. The forecast for Denali called for 6 days of clouds and rain, but we had already reserved a campsite for Wonder Lake for the first two days of our stay in the park. We rode the camper bus to the back of the park, happy to have accomplished our goal of visiting all the parks, but bummed that we probably wouldn’t get to see Denali while we were there. But the morning we were supposed to leave Wonder Lake, she showed herself. I a HUGE way. Cole woke up at 4:30 to go to the bathroom and of course it’s Alaska so it’s light out already and so we hopped out of bed tent and ran to get some amazing views of Wonder Lake with Denali in the background. For a couple of iPhones, we were so happy. It was the perfect end to our trip.

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The Subway – Although a lot of people make this trek, Zion issues a limited number of permits per day for this 9-ish mile round-trip hike from the “bottom up” to The Subway. It’s an aptly named open-topped canyon in Zion with aqua green pools and a hidden waterfall. It was amazingly beautiful, a photographer’s dream, and well worth the hike.


Haleakala Crater – We slept in a volcano. Need I say more? At Haleakala National Park in Hawaii, it’s popular to camp in the three cabins located in the crater, but these are expensive and fill up a year in advance. You can also pitch a tent 🙂 We stayed just one night, hiking about 20 miles total in two days.


Scenic Flight Over Olympic – Because we visited Olympic in early May, most of the park was still under snow. We were able to drive up to Hurricane Ridge, explore the Sol Duc Falls area, hike in the Hoh Rainforest, and backpack along the coast, but we still felt like we were missing out on the fabulous Olympic mountain range… until we were offered a flightseeing tour by the city of Port Angeles (one of our favorite gateway cities!). We flew straight into the mountains and I had hardly ever seen anything so beautiful. It’s such a unique perspective, and one we’ll never forget.


Kayaking with Whales – It was a crummy, cloudy, wet day in Glacier Bay when we set out in our double kayak rented at the Glacier Bay Lodge. We began paddling around the Beardslee Islands and started hearing what sounded like thunder. I was getting cranky. But then we saw the most incredible wildlife show we had ever seen in person: humpback whales jumping clear out of the water and slamming back down, only a few hundred yards from our kayak. We saw it once and thought we had gotten so lucky, but then we saw about a dozen more full breaches. And later, we were joined by playful sea otters, harbor seals, and many bald eagles. By far the best wildlife we saw in our year.


Death Valley’s Superbloom – I’ll be the first to admit that this event was actually a bit underwhelming, but we do feel so lucky to witness this once-in-ten-years phenomenon at Death Valley. We arrived a bit after peak bloom, but the yellow colors blanketing the desert were so interesting. I’d say it falls in our hall of fame for its rarity and good timing alone.


Cadillac Mountain Sunrise – There’s something about waiting in the freeeeezing cold in the earrrrrrly morning at Cadillac in Acadia National Park that makes the moment of sunrise — the first bit of light in the United States for most of the year — even more impactful. The view is crowded. It is not comfortable. But when that teensy little dot of the sun begins to creep up and over the horizon: goosebumps. And warmth. And amazement that this daily occurrence can be so magical.


Traveling all the way to American Samoa – St. Louis, Missouri to American Samoa is almost 6,500 miles. We flew so far to get to the most remote and hard to reach U.S. national park. The park blends in with other parks we visited last year, but it shouldn’t. The country is truly a whole other world, and our trip would have been different had we not been introduced to Samoan culture. For our week on the island, we were so welcomed — by our host family in Vatia, by the village, and by strangers on the street. It’s definitely not a tourist destination, but if parks are on your list, you won’t be complaining that you have to stay on the island for at least 4 days until there is another flight 🙂


Honorable Mention (Outside of the Parks):

  • Doing the tourist thang at Niagara Falls (first timers!)
  • Seeing the Northern Lights while driving home from Alaska

Aaaand there you have it! Our very coolest-of-the-cool in the national parks.


Written by Elizabeth

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