Every time we talk to national parks people — rangers, travelers, and enthusiasts — we have to clarify that we visited all of the 59 “capitol-P” parks, not all of the 413 national park units.

It’s necessary to be specific about these things, as certain people loved to remind us. It became an automatic disclosure we included in our elevator pitch.

Here’s the short version: There are 413 NPS units (parks, monuments, historic sites, battlefields, lakeshores, etc.) which are all referred to as “parks” by rangers, media, and national park publications. But 59 of these are designated national parks. And those are the ones we visited last year.

But it’s more complicated than that, because in between visiting the parks, we tried to stop by as many other park units as possible. Our final tally was about 125, including the 59 parks we focused on.

Today we’re going to start breaking down our experiences at these park units, one trip leg at a time.

In Leg 1 (Kansas, Southern Colorado, Northern Arizona, Southern Utah), we visited 11 parks, but we also got to see 10 park units. Here are our experiences:

Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site

Our very first NPS stop on our entire trip was in Topeka, Kansas. It honors the Brown vs. Board court ruling that ended segregation in U.S. public schools. We didn’t have too much time here, but we were able to skim over the beautiful exhibits. This site definitely set a high bar for the rest of our trip.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

To this date, Tallgrass Prairie is one of our favorite sites — it will surely make the Top 10 when we record a podcast about this topic 🙂 We had spoken to rangers at Tallgrass Prairie before arriving, and they rolled out the red carpet for us. After speaking to several helpful rangers, we hiked along the Scenic Overlook Trail until we were stopped by the infamous bison herd. Thankfully Ranger Alex gave us a ride to the highest point in the park.

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Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Canyon de Chelly was a great appetizer for the Grand Canyon. It was beautiful, uncrowded, and rich in history. Our time here was made more memorable by meeting with and speaking to Ranger William Yazzie, and then hiking the 2.5-mile White House Trail into the canyon. We wrote all about our visit to Canyon de Chelly HERE.

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

Only about 30 minutes from Canyon de Chelly is a second site that tells the story of Navajo history in northern Arizona. We took a short visit here, but it didn’t take long to appreciate the significance of the Trading Post in the native american struggle to come back from their horrible exile from the area.

Walnut Canyon National Monument

In just a short loop trail around this NPS site, dozens of ancient cliff dwellings can be seen and even walked through. This site is located just outside of Flagstaff, one of our favorite outdoorsy cities we visited last year.

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Wupatki National Monument

Wupatki National Monument, also located right outside of Flagstaff, is all about pueblos and pinyon pines — two of northern Arizona’s icons. Short trails will guide you through several ancient pueblos, making this park a perfect half-day stop on your way to or from the Grand Canyon.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

If you still have time around Flagstaff, this third national monument was our favorite of the three. Here, we hiked up to the foot of a mountain of volcanic ash from a 900-year old eruption that dramatically changed the surrounding area. This park is more or less connected to Wupatki, and it’s really easy to combine the two parks.

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Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

There’s so much more to Glen Canyon that we wish we could have seen! We had just crawled out of our rim-to-rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon and were sleeping at a friend’s house in St. George, Utah, so the only stop we had time for was Horseshoe Bend. This was one of the craziest experiences of the trip, as there must have been hundreds of people surrounding the overlook that evening. Insanely crowded, but definitely worth the quick view.

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Along with Tallgrass Prairie, we consider Cedar Breaks one of our favorite NPS sites as well. We spent one night camping here, and it turned out to be one of our favorite evenings of the first leg. (Maybe this had to do with the free campground showers?) We took the Spectra Point & Rampart Overlook Trail, which gave us a perfect sample of the park.

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Colorado National Monument

After making our way through southern Utah, we stopped by Colorado National Monument on our way to Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The park was gorgeous and our experience would have been amazing if we hadn’t camped next to our worst neighbors of the entire trip.


Six weeks and 21 national park sites made up the first leg of our trip. We got a good idea of what the rest of our trip would be like, and we really saw what high quality parks the NPS has created. In the next 44 weeks or so, this fact would be more and more solidified.

It’s funny to think about future road trips and vacations, because we automatically look for additional NPS sites we can stop and see. I think this will be a lifelong trend.

Thank you, parks, for making such easy and quality road trip stops!

Coming up next:

  • Parks that aren’t “parks” – Part II (the east)
  • Parks that aren’t “parks” – Part III (Hawaii and the Southwest)
  • Parks that aren’t “parks” – Part IV (Pacific coast)
  • Parks that aren’t “parks” – Part V (the Rocky Mountains & Alaska)

 

 

Written by Elizabeth