This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, and it just so happened to be the year I spontaneously decided to just start driving out west. Naturally, I hit quite a few National Parks, and it completely changed my perspective on The United States, traveling, and life in general. I could go on for days about the things I learned and the new perspectives I’ve gained, but I’ll focus on the traveling aspect.
It’s a common misconception among the travelers and backpackers around my age that if you aren’t leaving the United States, you’re not really traveling. I’m going to be honest, I kind of had that mentality, too. Having spent the last six years of my life in the boring midwest state of Missouri, you start to get the idea that good ol’ America does not have the adventure you seek. It doesn’t have the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Pyramids, or a Great Wall (unless Donald Trump becomes president).
Never have I been more wrong. Bored out of my mind after about three days at home, I hit up an old friend of mine who motorcycled his way from the east coast all the way out west and back in a span of six weeks. He had done a lot of planning and had a route mapped out, but I had about ten days before I planned on getting up and going. I used none of those ten days to plan. On the morning of July 20th, after packing up my final college abode and dumping it all at my parents’ house, I waved adieu to my dog yet again and texted a friend in Denver.
“Hey, I might be in Denver tonight, you work there right?” which in bro-speak translates to “yo I need a place to crash.” As bros often do, they pull through and I had a roof over my head that night.
With no planning, no itinerary, and no restrictions, my hopelessly unprepared yet fearlessly optimistic self was off on an adventure. The next night was spent at Rocky Mountain National Park, where I cluelessly spoke to a park ranger who somehow decided that I was totally knowledgeable and prepared enough to get a backcountry permit. Having never camped before, I didn’t even know what this meant, but as I would come to find out, it means roughin’ it. No cushy campsite with bathrooms and generators. No RVs everywhere you turn to remind you that civilization still exists. Just me, my hammock, and the stars.
The term hopelessly unprepared is going to be a recurring theme here. Did you know camping out in a hammock in the freakin’ Rocky Mountains can get cold? I sure didn’t, but hey, it was pitch black and I was 4 miles deep in the forest already so what can ya do? I didn’t sleep that night. It was so cold, and the warmest clothing I had was a hoodie and some leggings I impulsively bought since Sports Authority was going out of business and they were super cheap and I don’t know, okay? I’m just trying to justify why I bought leggings. I didn’t think to bring a blanket or warmer clothing, instead opting to bring a six-pack of beer. What was going through my mind at that moment? Probably nothing. Definitely nothing.
I got up at about 5 AM and just started hiking at the first signs of sunlight. 100% of the reason I did that was because I thought my toes were seconds away from frostbite and I needed to do anything I could to just get moving. The hike was painful, the pointy rocks were plentiful, and the views were priceless. 18 miles later (I definitely got lost somewhere along the way because it said 12 mile round trip) I was back in my car and had “survived” my first night of camping.
I had crossed off my first ever National Park, and despite everything I did wrong, I loved it. The next few weeks were basically the same as those first two nights, either stay with a friend or rough it out in some unwelcoming terrain, so I’ll spare you the details. Having lived on the east coast for 12 years and in Missouri for another 6 years, there were very few things that I could compare to what I would see in the coming weeks. From the mind-blowing rock formations at Arches National Park to the towering canyons at Zion, every park offered something new and breathtaking.
Wading through the Narrows at Zion, trudging through the desert to get to Horseshoe Bend, and even just staring at the vast expanses of the Grand Canyon are memories that I will never forget. From feeling tiny in the presence of Yosemite’s massive mountains and cliffs to just plopping down in my hammock and reading a book with the Grand Tetons as the scenic backdrop, each park offers an experience that you will always remember.
No, we may not have Eiffel Towers or Colosseums or Christ the Redeemers, but what other country can offer anything close to the National Parks that America has? I went to Norway and was absolutely giddy when I was on a tiny boat on a fjord surrounded by massive mountains and cliffs. I made up my mind then that Norway was the most beautiful place on Earth, with everywhere you look being worthy of awe. Sorry Norway, but America the Beautiful wins. It’s not just how beautiful America is, it’s the diversity in views and scenery that America offers that nowhere else really can. Arches National Park and Zion National Park may only be a few hours away, but they are completely different worlds. Yellowstone has so many things that made me question whether or not I was still even on this planet, let alone America.
I didn’t mean to call you out, Norway, but what I’m trying to say is: Americans, if you’re looking for a vacation, look no further. Yes, America is massive. I’m not trying to suggest that flying from New York to California to see some National Parks is cheap and the perfect vacation for everyone, but for the millions of Americans who seek out adventure, it is one of the most accessible, yet overlooked options. America’s National Parks and National Park Service set the gold standard for natural attractions and monuments, and I do believe that they are more than worthy of being a top destination for American travelers. Not only are they likely more affordable than flying across one of the oceans to a new country, each one is also an experience of a lifetime.
Despite hopping to two or three national parks a week, not once did they lose their luster. I was asked, “after a while, doesn’t it get old?” Truthfully, no. After your third day at the same national park, you might stop oohing and aahing at every mountain or geyser, but hopping to the next one is nothing short of exhilarating. Yes, I know many of you must be thinking, “uhm, you’re a bit late to this” and yes, I know I am. I never got to go camping as a kid or even visit a single national park, and I know millions of others have never experienced the national parks either.While so many of my friends and fellow travel bloggers are eager to hop on the next flight to France or Italy, these national treasures go underappreciated. They are loads of fun, absolutely breathtaking, and an incredible adventure for people of any age to experience.
Happy 100th anniversary to the National Park Service, and thank you for some of the best few weeks of traveling I have ever experienced!