Hot Springs National Park
Helen stopped us to talk as we were walking down Bathhouse Row. She’s one of those people who will share with anyone. She is a local of Hot Springs who has lived in the downtown apartment building Aristocrat for the last 3 years. Her place is right across from the bathhouses and she comes over to fill up on the springs water every day. I hope the legendary waters give her a long and healthy life.
Big Bend National Park
At the top of Lost Mine Trail I climbed up to a huge rock to take in the view. Derek came along and asked to take my picture because I looked so cool :P. He was visiting Big Bend for a few days along with 7 friends from Austin. I recognized they were the same big group at the center of our campground. They are all working in the photography and film industry, which explains why they all had really fancy looking cameras and really knew what they were doing (as opposed to me).
We also ran into John from Pennsylvania and enjoyed repeatedly running into him as we drove the same course along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. He takes off for a few weeks every so often to travel the country. He sleeps in his van, drives his motorcycle around the parks and boats wherever he can. He gave us a great tip to kayak up and back Santa Elena canyon and we are so glad he did. The view of the towering walls and lazy Rio Grande from the water level was absolutely stunning.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
I was just waking up in my tent when I heard someone ask “so how can all you young people manage to be here in the middle of the week.” Somebody responded, “we actually quit our jobs and are traveling to National Parks for a year.” What?! When I got out of my tent I made sure to introduce myself to that voice. It was Eva. Eva and Jordan are a young couple who left their homes in Austin, TX in October to visit all 47 National Parks on the U.S. mainland. Their friend Jake was joining them for this park too. I think it was around #15. We had actually chatted briefly through Instagram when we discovered them and unsuccessfully tried to arrange a meet up in South Florida. But somehow we randomly picked a campsite next to them in Guadalupe Mountains and overheard their mission! We stopped by their next backcountry campsite later that day on the way down from Guadalupe Peak and had plenty to chat about. They even gave me a new Qalo ring (their sponsor), since I was procrastinating on replacing my last one since it fell off snorkeling at USVI. It was so awesome to meet another pair of marathon park travelers and compare notes.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
We had just finished our King’s Palace tour and had sat down at a table in the rest area at the bottom of the caverns to eat lunch when we saw a familiar face. At the table right beside us was our friend John from Big Bend! We were so surprised to randomly run into him again because he hadn’t mentioned Carlsbad on the itinerary of his next few weeks. Apparently he had taken his RV to Guadalupe Mountains to stope for a few days and met new friend Paul and Mario. Paul had left around November from Des Moines to take a circuitous route on his move to Portland where he would continue his filmmaking career. Mario was from Quebec on a huge US road trip and hoping to keep warm for the winter. After completing our own self-guided tours we found them again and walked out of the cavern together. It was such a great surprise to see John again!
Saguaro National Park
The last thing we did in Saguaro was to join a Ranger-led car tour through the scenic loop drive of the East district. It was a really unique and relaxed activity that was super informational at the same time. The best part was maybe that there were only 5 of us on the tour and we all got to share our stories. Bob and Darlene were visiting from Canada on a big road trip. Claire had lived in Tucson for the past several years and even had a house with 2 saguaros in the yard. Ranger Jeff was one of two full-time rangers at East Saguaro and had worked there for the last 23 years. Plus he has visited 376 of the 410 National Park Service sites! We have some catching up to do, haha.
We ran into Mike and Sarah on the short 1-mile Ryan Ranch trail. We stopped to chat for a while and they told us they were down in California all the way from Michigan to toque a few weeks to explore this corner of the country. Mike was fascinated with our trip and especially the details of how we will tackle the Alaskan parks because he shared that his lifetime goal is to also visit all 59 National Parks. Then thy told us they were both retired and new grandparents at 51 and 52. I was shocked. I sure hope we can retire that early and look that good when we’re grandparents! They both really love traveling and echoed something we’ve heard again and again from all the supportive people we’ve met… Don’t wait, get out, see the world and have adventures while you’re young. Well, that’s the plan, but I also hope we’ll still be out on the trail when we’re grandparents.
Death Valley National Park
We were just packing our car to leave the campground for a day in Death Valley, when our neighbors Debbie and her son Bennett came by to introduce themselves. They had seen our Switchback Kids car magnet and wanted to hear about our journey. Later that day we ran into the two on a hike in Golden Canyon and joined them to wind through the canyon and climb the badlands. Then that evening when we were still hiking a huge wind storm came through the campground and Bennett saved our tent from getting shredded to pieces. We owe home big time. Bennett is in high school and is an aspiring photographer – so cool. I kept telling him that I wish I had been interested in photography at an earlier age so I could’ve been somewhat prepared for this trip. And Debbie is starting her own travel blog called ROAM! They live in Ventura, CA and travel love traveling every weekend they can. They even said that lately they’ve gotten more interested in visiting National Parks. Love it! Fast forward a week and we are actually in Ventura because that’s where the ferry to Channel Islands leaves from. We loved having the chance to catch up with Debbie over lunch.
Channel Islands National Park
As our ferry to Channel Islands motored away from the mainland, another couple came over to our seats on the top deck to ask “Are you the Switchback Kids?” It was so crazy to be recognized! We learned that we had encountered Matt and Ashley briefly in Capitol Reef National Park. Then they saw our same car 6 months later in the Ventura Harbor parking lot. #SmallWorld. The two left their jobs last June and are in the middle of a massive 3-year expedition across the U.S. They plan to hit all the continental National Parks (and eventually all 59 over their lifetime) and plenty of other destinations as they jump from one home base to another in their retro-fitted RV and zip around the parks on their motorcycle. Once at Santa Cruz island, we hopped on a skiff together to get from the ferry to the beach and then parted ways. They were just staying for the day on the island so they hit the trails as we went to set up camp. But from their latest posts it certainly looks like they packed a ton into their day on the island. You should definitely check out their adventures at adventure-some.com.
Pinnacles National Park
Paul was a super friendly character who we met during the 9-mile loop hike we did on our last day at Pinnacles. I stopped him to ask about that tree behind him- a gnarled, sprawling thing covered in Spanish moss. He told us it was an oak and seemed to know a ton about the plants of the area. He was actually there walking around with two woman who kept asking him to photograph different, unique wildflowers they saw (he joked that this was just to give him something to do as a distraction). Paul was originally from New York, but moved to California over 40 years ago (before we were born he noted ;)). With the incredibly diverse beauty we’re seeing all across the state, I can see why he’s stuck around.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park
We were just sitting in our car preparing a care package to mail to our American Samoa NP host family, when we were surprised by a tap on the window. When I looked up to see a Ranger, I was a little worried we were getting in trouble (not that that’s ever happened before!). But Ranger Valerie’s huge smile quickly betrayed her friendly intentions. When we got out of the car, she said “I was just reading about you! You’re the Switchback Kids!” Apparently the Sequoia/Kings Canyon publicity director had seen our posts saying we were in the parks and told her about our trip. Ranger Valerie had started to read a little of our blog that day, but it was a total coincidence that she recognized our car in the parking lot. It’s not that we enjoy being recognized (which admittedly is kinda cool), but her enthusiasm was infectious and we got a boost in morale that we really needed after days of cold camping and limited park access. She wanted to be a park ranger ever since she visited Glacier National Park as a teenager. Many years later, she is as happy as ever that she followed that dream. She told us if you ever want an interesting conversation ask a Ranger how they decided on their job, because everyone has an interesting different story. As she joked and bantered with the postman we also met (who’s been at the park post office a few decades himself!) was obvious that she enjoyed how her story turned out.
Yosemite National Park
If you’re ever lonely in a National Park, Ranger Programs are a great way to make new friends. We met Phillip and Dianne on our snowshoe walk at the Badger Pass Ski Area in Yosemite. They are from Martinez, CA and it was their first time to the ski area. They were a lot of fun as some of the most talkative and jovial of the group. After the walk we went back to the ski lounge together and chatted about our various travels. I’m sure we could’ve talked forever, but we saw the snow start coming down hard outside and abruptly hurried for our cars to beat the storm down the mountain.
We had just finished climbing a grueling trail past Upper Yosemite Fall to Yosemite Point and were admiring the gorgeous view, when a solo hiker joined us at the railing. We talked about how it was our first times to Yosemite and there was nothing like this in our home states. It turned out Ben was from Outer Banks, North Carolina, one of Elizabeth’s favorite family vacation spots. He had outfitted his camper van and taken 4 weeks to travel entirely across the country. He had stopped to meet some friends for a little bouldering before his final destination at Yosemite. Ben, like us, was camping at the famous climbers spot of Camp 4. Unfortunately we were leaving that night or we would have taken him up on his offer to drop by his campfire that night.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Jeff was our guide for the snowshoe walk ranger program we attended at Lassen. We were amazed by the 12-foot tall mountains of snow we saw surrounding the visitors center. But Jeff -who was a park volunteer completing his internship for a Parks and Rec degree – been there all winter and watched the walls grow from the ground up. He led us on a mile long trail through the snowy forest and explained how the plants and animals adapt to the harsh winter. He was a great guide and you could tell he really enjoyed his job and working with the other Rangers. We found out it was the last Sunday they were offering the snowshoe walk as well as the last day of Jeff’s internship. So our timing was perfect!
Redwood National Park
For two nights in a row we had one of our favorite campgrounds of the trip so far all to ourselves. But on night three we were happy to share. After breaking camp the next morning, we exchanged good mornings with the other campers who were making coffee. We started to chat and they asked if we were the people going to all the National Parks. It turned out Carmen and Patrick have had quite the adventures themselves. They’ve lived all over the west in awesome places like Hawai’i. Patrick was also in the Coast Guard and at one point he was in charge of all the California lighthouses north of San Fransisco, including the one we visited at Point Reyes National Seashore. They’ve settled in Northern California for now and love taking their young daughter and son to explore the area. We met 11-year old Noah and Carmen joked that the teenager was still sleeping in. They gave us some great tips for our final day about how to explore the tide pools of Enderts Beach. They said they share that favorite spot with everyone they can. We love seeing families out in the parks. It reminds me of my favorite family vacations and gives us an idea of what our future family could have in store.
Crater Lake National Park
We had just struggled to right ourselves again after another fall within five minutes of putting on our first cross-country skis, when another young group came cruising onto the trail. Two were experienced cross-country skiers and their friend was a newbie like us. But they reassured us when they said even they were having some trouble with the up and down, uneven trail that wound sharply through the trees. They said the trail seemed very technical and normal, well-groomed ski trails usually make for a much more enjoyable and less frustrating time. The problem was that the snow plows had already begun clearing the rim road that serves as the ski trail and the trail was forced on top of the mound of snow and wound in strategically through the tree line for the first mile. Unfortunately when they confirmed our suspicions that braking and steering on cross-country skis is not really a thing, it was not as reassuring. So we got to struggle along with their group for a while and stopped at the same amazing view to eat lunch and took turns taking each other’s pictures. The two women were friends from Bend, OR on a first visit to Crater Lake and the guy was joining them from Portland. Once we finally made it to the established trail on the snow-covered road section their experience quickly showed as we dropped behind and out of sight, haha.
North Cascades National Park
There’s a group of parks people we haven’t shared about yet. Their names are everywhere, but we often forget the impact they had on the land. Native American peoples inhabited the land of basically every park long before the NPS existed. In North Cascades it was the Skagit people. Their ancestors moved up the Skagit River Valley and into the land of the park around 8-10,000 years ago after the last Ice Age. When white explorers first entered the park area in the late 1700s, at least 1,000 Skagits lived there. They lived in the North Cascades mainly during the summer months as they fished and hunted the rivers by canoe and resided in temporary, modest homes. By 1910, only an estimated 56 Skagits remained because of diseases brought by white men, but the population has since grown back. We were not privileged to meet any Skagit people, but exploring their beautiful homeland made us feel a connection nonetheless.
Mount Rainier National Park
We saw Ron and his family, his wife and two young kids running around in the snow, as we were wondering around the closed Paradise Visitor Center parking lot taking in the hulking Mount Rainier. We happily took their picture when he asked. He looked like any other tourist… until we started talking. Ron had basically lived at Mount Rainier for 23 years of his life. For 17 years he was a guide for the park’s mountaineering guide service that led people to the summit (including 6 winter seasons). He was entranced from the very first time he came to the mountain. He pestered the guide service for 8 months (the last 3 of which he camped outside the park and pestered in person every day) before they consented to train him for 3 years for the job. In all those years he climbed the 14,409-foot mountain a ridiculous 197 times. He has lost 4 guide friends on the mountain and had his own brush with death where he was air evac’d out after spending an unplanned night on the mountain with only a daypack. Now, although he admits his back, knees and ankles are all shot, he still returns to the mountain with watery eyes and a heart full of memories. Ron currently lives outside North Cascades National Park in Marblemount, WA where he is on the committee seeking to expand the park. As we parted, he told me his 16-year-old daughter recently said she was eyeing a career as a Rainier guide. He has his reservations for her safety, but sure doesn’t blame her for falling under the trance.
We were excited out of our minds when we met our pilot, Jeff. Earlier in the week we connected with the Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce and they had surprised us by arranging a scenic flight tour of Olympic. It was the first time we’d ever seen a park from the air! Jeff is the owner and one of the pilots for Rite Brothers Aviation. It’s a small operation in Port Angeles, Gateway to the Olympic, with 4 planes. They not only do scenic tours, but all types of flights like taking commuters across the strait to Canada or surveying clam diggers for the government. Jeff himself was an amazing guy. He had originally planned to be a doctor, but had put himself through flying lessons and found his true love. He flew in the Air Force before taking over Rite Brothers Aviation in 1998. He has explored plenty of Olympic on the ground too. He has climbed up glaciers to Mt Olympus, water skied on Lake Crescent and doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. During our flight he pointed out every nook and cranny of the park through our headsets. As we watched the lush valleys, gleaming glaciers and endless peaks of Olympic go by I was convinced the only way to appreciate the park’s full scope is from the air. And we are so grateful to Jeff for that opportunity!
In August 2015 we left our jobs and our home to go on a tour of all 59 National Parks across the US during the NPS Centennial year. We spent a year immersing ourselves for about 5 days in each park as we tent camped, hiked, biked, backpacked, kayaked, and climbed our way through the challenge and adventure of our lifetime.
We are Cole and Elizabeth, twenty-something Missourians turned National Parks explorers - constantly seeking to find new adventure and ourselves. Follow our journey for pictures, videos, park tips, and stories - because after all, the Parks are for sharing.