Cuyahoga Valley National Park

We met Rangers Josh A and Josh B during the Saturday Fossil Hunting program we went to. Josh A was spending his first season in Cuyahoga and came from Washington state. Josh B lived in the Cleveland area and had enjoyed the hobby of fossil hunting from youth. We spent an hour and a half walking through a creek bed together, turning over rocks and asking about our unique finds. Where we grew up in Missouri there were dozens of creeks that looked just like where we hunted. But I always took the small fossils there for granted. With the Josh Rangers there help us interpret what we found and answer our questions, the fossils took on new meaning. Their enthusiasm was infectious and their teacher’s heart was obvious.



We also had provincial encounter at Bridal Veil Falls with a family who had seen our Switchback Kids car magnet in the parking lot. We shared with them about our adventure and before we knew it they had invited us to join them for their family pizza night and even offered a soft bed. Since we had just enjoyed a 31* night and the dreary day had been sleeting off and on we didn’t need to think long about taking them up on it. So we are so thankful to our gracious hosts Paul and Melissa, their kids Maddie and Lucas and Paul’s parents Barb and Luke.


Acadia National Park

We ran into this fun group of fellow Millennials were exploring a coast-side cave near Schooner Head on our first day at Acadia. After they asked me to tale a group picture we started talking and I found out they were up for the weekend from New York for their second annual Acadia getaway. But this time was a little different because they were also celebrating the engagement of Annie and Ryan (right of the group)! The couple had come up from their new home in Chicago a week beforehand to join in Annie’s family’s annual Acadia vacation. Ryan popped the question during sunrise on top of Cadillac Mountain. I’m sure this trip to Acadia is Annie’s most memorable yet.



Shenandoah National Park

We were really excited to have my (Cole’s) parents (Jan and Tammy) and sister (Tara) coming over from Louisville to join us for our visit to Shenandoah. My first introduction to the National Parks was when my family went to Yellowstone on a family vacation. After that it seemed like all our vacations centered around parks (Glacier, Arches, Everglades, Grand Tetons, etc.) We had a blast doing all sorts of hikes, cooking s’mores on the campfire and just sharing our park life with them. My parents actually hadn’t camped in their “modern” tent since our trip to the Grand Canyon in 2009 (our family hobby is reenactments, so we have a canvas tent and all our camping is “primitive”). So of course when they dusted it off for this trip it promptly stormed big time our first night at camp. In the morning when we saw the puddles that soaked their sleeping bags throughout the night, we all agreed a room at the lodge was in order for the second night. Family trips are always an adventure!

Donelson fam at Hawksbill in Shen


Great Smoky Mountains National Park

During our little 2-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail we stayed the night at one of the shelters they have an average of every 8 miles along the trail. There were 12 others (all guys) packed in their with us and I started up a conversation with 3 guys who were “thru hikers” on their way to Georgia from Maine. The two guys in the picture are Stank and Quite Erp. On the AT they go by trail names that are given to them along the way for who-knows-why (although I can probably guess how Stank got his name). They started in northern Maine around June and plan to end in the middle of November. They have hiked a mind-bending 1,950 miles and only had around 200 more to go. Compared to them, our 23-mile overnight hike was child’s play (or probably more like infant’s play). I loved hearing their stories trail stories. Quite Erp said your body gets used to the physical challenge after a few days, but the mental challenge of keeping yourself entertained while doing the same activity every day was definitely the toughest. Cheers to you guys for a truly incredible feat. I hope you ate your hearts out at that Shoney’s buffet in Gatlinburg you kept talking about!



Congaree National Park

I can count the number of people we talked to in Congaree on one hand (and it’s almost the same as the number of people at Congaree during our 4 day stay). There was the unsuccessful butterfly collector, the sweet local volunteer, the KC roadtripping couple and the very helpful Ranger Mike who encouraged us to get out on the water anyway and just launch our kayak from the flooded boardwalk. But the most intimate encounters we had were with the bugs. Mostly mosquitoes. But we met our friend Lola (below) on the short bit of the boardwalk trail that was open. I think she’s a stinkbug? She was scuttling to and fro all across the handrail, so I assume she was very busy.



Dry Tortugas National Park

We met Ranger Michael before we had even stepped onto land at Dry Tortugas. He met the four of us campers arriving on that day’s ferry to explain the unique considerations of camping on a 42-acre island in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Later, we chatted as we filled out a boating permit to in hopes of exploring the surrounding waters with our kayak when the winds calmed down (they finally did our last day). Michael first worked as a ranger at Everglades and was introduced to Dry Tortugas when he visited to help with a historic canon restoration at the park’s Fort Jefferson. He fell in love with the park and vowed to do whatever it took to work there. His background in aquatic biology made him a perfect fit for the job. A year and a half later he still thinks it’s the most beautiful place in the world. That’s saying something since he’s visited over 30 countries, mostly while serving in the military. As we rode the ferry back to Key West, I was surprised to see Michael catching the ride with us. Apparently he finished his 10-day shift on island and now has four days off. Michael, I hope you’re enjoying the R&R from your rough 9-5 in island paradise! 😉



Everglades National Park

We met friends Julian and Connor when they stopped us at our car after walking the Anhinga Trail. They said they saw our sign and did a double take. They just left about 9 weeks ago on their own yearlong trip to 45 National Parks in the contiguous United States! The amazing thing is that they just graduated from high school and are taking a “gap year” before college. Plus, they had packed everything into a sedan! Much like our experience, they said their parents were questioning at first, but when they saw how much the two had planned and prepared they were fully supportive and a good bit jealous. Also like us (probably much more so), they are on a shoestring budget and pinching pennies with free camping and PB&Js. They are now traveling to Hot Springs before taking a month off for Christmas in Massachusetts. We hope to cross paths with them again as we both travel west. But this time it won’t need to be such a crazy coincidence!



Biscayne National Park

Very similar to Everglades, Michael parked next to us in the Biscayne Visitors Center lot and noticed our sign. He introduced himself and told us that he had been going all over the country visiting dozens of National Park sites whenever he could. Then he admitted the real purpose of his extensive traveling was because he is on an incredible awesome mission to ride every roller coaster in the U.S. and the parks are just a bonus. After years of riding 100s of coasters he is now just 6 coasters away! He said he is planning to finish out the list by the end of the year to become the first person ever known to ride all the roller coasters (even though he was by far the youngest in the race). His interest in coasters started young and only grew when he got his first job at Six Flags St. Louis (our hometown amusement park). Now he is director of an amusement park in Oklahoma City called Frontier City. We’ve met a lot of unbelievable people with crazy stories and mission and Michael was definitely one of the most interesting of the trip.



Virgin Islands National Park

Bill and John were volunteers at the park and we met them when we stopped at the Annaberg Sugar Plantation ruins. Like many people living on St. John (the island with Virgin Islands National Park),  they were transplants from the states who fell in love with the island and have now made it their home for years. Bill was from as far north as Massachussetts and, with his accent, he couldn’t hide that fact if he tried. We chatted with the two amiable, relaxed volunteers as they stood to greet and educate visitors to the ruins and they told us all about the old terrace fields of sugar cane that used to cover the island, the caterpillars that stripped down some unlucky trees once or twice a year and their favorite snorkeling reefs in the water below us. Also, the two are members of the popular Friends of Virgin Islands National Park organization. With dedicated friends like them, I think the park is in good hands!



Mammoth Cave National Park

Greg, Matt, Jeremy and John were on the Wild Cave Tour with us. Along with my family who had come down from Louisville to join Elizabeth and I, we made up 9 of the 14 people on the tour. Since we spent a full day with them army crawling and climbing over 5 miles of Mammoth Cave passages we had plenty of time to get to know each other! The guys were high school seniors from Dayton, Ohio. Because they went to a huge school with lots of course options, they were all taking a unique-sounding Environmental Literature class. For that class they read a book about a teacher who overcame a crippling claustrophobia in order to take her class on a cave field trip. With that interesting inspiration, they immediately began searching for a caving adventure of their own. I’d say they picked the right cave and right tour for their adventure!