About this time last year, I had made up my mind, with the help of Ken Burns, to visit the National Parks. After a lifetime spent indoors with my books and my poetry to protect me, I bought a car and headed into the wild. At first the wild was a cheap hotel room outside of Joshua Tree.
I had in my mind that I loved to travel alone, but on that first night, I realized I’d only traveled alone once and I was scared. I also had no idea what I wanted to do in the National Parks. I hadn’t figured anything out beyond be there, but I trusted that I would figure it out.
After Joshua Tree, I purchased some hiking boots and went to Death Valley. Then Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Pinnacles, Channel Islands, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Saguaro, Yosemite, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, Redwood, Crater Lake, and Kings Canyon. I returned to several parks throughout the year to see them again.
Hiking is the primary activity in most of the parks and I quickly discovered that I loved it. By the time I made it to Utah in April to see Bryce Canyon and Zion, hiking was all that I wanted to do. When I couldn’t travel, I hiked the trail near home as often as possible, keeping my pale skin tan and my calf muscles in knots.
In March, I saw my first bear. I don’t believe in signs, but if I did, that sign would be a bear. I turned around and walked back the way I came, looking over my shoulder often enough to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Seven months later, when faced with another bear, this time, I hid.
I purchased a tent in May, but didn’t have the guts to use it until July. Under the stars at Crater Lake, I read by head lamp.
Separate to all of this, I became happier than ever. The only major thing that changed in my life was that I started going outside and walking up mountains, but I didn’t make the connection, and even though it might make for a good story, I can’t make it now either.
If nature has influenced my baseline feelings, then it has done so in mysterious ways. I didn’t let go of anything in nature and I didn’t find myself there. I experienced zero epiphanies, no breakdowns, and never felt compelled to shout into the void. I do not have enough evidence to attribute this clarity of mind or happiness to the National Parks, but neither do I have enough to rule it out.
The only guidebook I ever needed was Your Guide To The National Parks. It is missing Pinnacles, since it was published before Pinnacles was promoted from a National Monument, but is otherwise complete and very helpful.
My favorite park(s), if I can cheat: Sequoia and Kings Canyon. They are right next to each other, and despite being as beautiful as Yosemite, they are not nearly as crowded. You can find my heart somewhere in the Sierra Nevada.
The most surprising thing was Utah. I have never been anywhere so beautiful. I visited all five National Parks there, and they were all stunning. I can’t wait to go back.
My lowest moment was trying not to throw up off the side of a boat full of teenagers while being swarmed by flies at Channel Islands. My highest moment was hiking to Angels Landing in Zion.
The most underrated park I visited was Capitol Reef. I nearly had the place to myself and it was beautiful.
I never expected to love Death Valley, but I love Death Valley.
There are certainly parks more interesting and beautiful than Grand Canyon, but you have to see Grand Canyon.
The most unbelievable park is Zion. Depending on the day you ask, I might say this is my favorite National Park. It is otherworldly. It is also the park I’d recommend if you’re looking for a good place to go with family or friends, because there’s a cute town right outside the gates, shuttles to take you everywhere, adventurous hikes, and the beauty extends outside the borders, so even when you’re outside the park, you still feel like you’re in it.
If you visit more than a few parks in a year, the $80 Interagency Annual Pass pays for itself very quickly. It gets you (and everyone in your car) into every National Park and many other cool places. Plus, it gets you discounts on camp reservations at many locations.
The phrase I used too often was, “middle of nowhere.” When you’re outside the range of cell coverage and can’t believe you’re going the right direction, drive another 50 miles down that strange road and you’ll find your National Park.
I will continue to visit National Parks in 2015, mostly returning to those I have already visited. I am not in a hurry to see them all, especially since Alaska makes that such a challenge, but that is my long-term goal.