Five Takeaways from our National Parks Journey

This post first appeared on The Retirement Manifesto

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Retirement! What does that word mean to you? For us, it means freedom to do what we’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have the time. We were very fortunate to FIRE at age 53 with good health. My dad loved nature and he passed that passion to me. I managed to stoke some of that passion in my wife, a city girl who was born and raised in Manhattan. As our first “project” in retirement, we are visiting all 59 official national parks in the USA.

I travelled all over the US and the world for my job (43 weeks during my last year of work!), but traveling to a conference room was NOT visiting a place. I was always in and out because of the “next” meeting, event, etc. and trying to be home for as many weekends as possible. I got to know too many airports too well!

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The seed for the idea to visit all national parks came from the most enjoyable vacation I had, back in 2004. I was getting ready to start an international assignment, and already handed off my previous responsibility to my successor. There was a 10-day window for a vacation. Not just a vacation, but a vacation without work responsibilities. We went to Yellowstone and Grand Teton and I was awed by the beauty, the wildlife, and the solitude (once we got on a trail). No cell signal rendered my Blackberry (remember those things?) useless, it was liberating! The best part was spending quality time with our boys, 9 and 13 at the time. I loved every aspect of that vacation. The seed was planted.

That wonderful memory, and the strong desire to really see America from the ground, were in the back of my mind when I saw the National Park Passport book at the Congaree National Park bookstore in June, 2106. I was two months away from retirement and on that rainy day, my wife and I decided to see all the national parks as our first post-retirement venture. During the last 18 months, we’ve visited 40 parks. Here are our key takeaways so far:

Takeaway #1: America is truly beautiful and diverse

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America is the most beautiful country on earth! No other country has the number and variety of beautiful places. Which other country can you see all of the following: Majestic mountains, pristine and deep blue lakes, volcanic craters, giant trees, deep caves, natural arches, deserts, wetlands, sand dunes, ancient cliff dwellings, forts, coral reefs, hot springs, geothermal geysers, cliffs, dramatic sea shores, majestic rivers, glaciers, not to mention the variety of animals, birds, and fish. Countries boast when they have a few of these but no other country has all of it. Not only does America has all of it, they are among the best in each category.

From the tropics in Hawaii and American Samoa, to the frozen tundra inside the arctic circle in Alaska. From the deserts in the southwest to the wetlands in Florida. From the majestic Rocky Mountains to the corn fields of Kansas, America is diverse. We drove through switchbacks that hugged the mountains, with dramatic cliffs by the ocean. We drove through mind numbingly straight roads for hours in west Texas and the little islands stitched together with a narrow strip of road in the Florida Keys. We drove through groves of giant trees and barren mountains above the tree line. All of it beautiful and amazingly different.

The Chinese name for America: 美国 literally translates to “Beautiful Nation”. Having seen many parts of the world, the name is very fitting. America is the most beautiful nation.

Takeaway #2: Americans are diverse and kind

Americans are some of the friendliest and kindest people on earth. In the parks, on the trails, and at diners in small towns, people are friendly. We started conversations easily with strangers, and they were happy to tell us about their journey, their town, and their experiences. We met people who, like us, were visiting many national parks on a cross country trip.

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People from all over the world come to admire America’s beauty at the national parks. We met people from Australia, Germany, UK, China and many other countries. We saw the excitement of four Chinese young men breathlessly hiking up a tall sand dune at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The wait staff at the restaurant in Isle Royale National Park were guest workers from Taiwan, China, and Malaysia. Despite being “stuck” on the island for 5 months, they loved their summer experience and formed tight bonds with their American co-workers. We were there on the last day of the season and their American friends waited by the dock to see them off with hugs.

At International Falls, MN, near Voyageurs National Park, we learned about the decline of the local paper mills, and the impact it has on the town. I am sad for the town but glad to see it firsthand so I can better understand the plight of communities outside of my prosperous suburban North Carolina bubble, and why the people are angry. Reading about them does not have the same impact.

Americans are diverse, but more than ethnicity. Certainly, America is the melting pot of the world but more than that, the lifestyles of Americans are diverse. Pickup trucks dominate the Dakotas and Texas because of farming and the oil industry, while sedans and Priuses are plentiful in Silicon Valley.

Despite the differences in style, geography and ethnic background, people we met all want the same thing – to have the opportunity to earn a fair living, and hope for the future for them and their children. Americans are a hopeful and optimistic people, even today. There are far more common values that unite us than divide us, if only we are willing to keep an open mind and understand the other person’s point of view.

Takeaway #3: A national parks tour is a great way to see the country

Our trips to see the national parks took us to all regions of the continental US, except the Northwest, so far. While national parks are our destination, the little towns and big cities we pass on the way are just as interesting. We’ve touched all four sides of the continental US borders, from Voyageurs on the Canadian border, to Big Bend on the Mexican border. From Redwood and Channel Islands on the pacific coast, to Acadia and Biscayne on the Atlantic coast.

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While not exactly foodies, we love to try different kinds of food. There is a reason why certain food is famous in a region, and they are the most delicious. You just can’t replicate it elsewhere.

  • Lobster in Maine is sweet and succulent, like nowhere else
  • Barbeque ribs in Kansas City is fall off the bone tender and juicy, and the burnt ends are out of this world delicious
  • Poke is melt in your mouth fresh in Hawaii, and surprisingly, Las Vegas
  • Indian taco in South Dakota was tasty and filling
  • Ropa Veija shredded beef at Little Havana in Miami was delicious
  • Tamale and salsa in Mexico, after a two-minute rowboat ride across the Rio Grande, were super fresh

While we can read about all of these places, it cannot replace physically being there to experience the environment. It’s not just the place, but the people. Because we have the time to linger, to talk to people we meet, and to spend time observing, I understand much more why people do what they do and feel what they feel. I am more open minded than ever before.

These trips take time, and retirement gave us the time needed. We did five three-week trips in the last 15 months but stayed home during the summer to avoid the crowds. When you control your own time, you have the flexibility to avoid the crowds and travel off season!

Takeaway #4: Theme park people vs. national park people

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There are two distinctly different types of people who visit national parks:

  • Theme park people. These are the folks who ask the ranger “What can I see in 3 hours”. They are the folks who come on tour buses and stop at a few sights for 15 minutes each. They are the folks who hike the trails in flip-flops. We saw a lady as we were completing our Bright Angel trail hike in Grand Canyon, about ¼ mile from the trail head. She was wearing a flowery dress, sandals, and a huge, wide brimmed straw hat. She asked me “how far is it to the end of the trail?” (A: 9.3 miles and 4380 feet change in elevation). She perfectly represented a theme park person. They are typically seen in places like Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone. You won’t find them at Black Canyon of the Gunnison or Isle Royale. They don’t usually say hello as they pass other hikes on the trails, when they go on the trails. 90% of the visitors to Grand Canyon never go below the rim.
  • National park people. These are the folks who take full advantage of the 7 days a single entrance fee allows. They wear hiking boots, backpacks, and often have hiking poles. They ask the rangers for the latest trail conditions and where wild life was last seen. They always say hello as they pass other hikers. At Isle Royale, we met a couple of typical national park people. They carried a large back pack, wore hiking boots, had hiking poles, and just finished 3 days of camping. They smiled and said hello as we passed. We were a little lost because we missed a sign for the turn off. They told us right away that we went too far and as we doubled back, they walked with us talked about moose sightings and their camping experience until we saw the missed sign. National park people are at all the parks, typically deeper into a hiking trail.

There is nothing wrong with theme park people, but they are missing the true essence of national parks. Hopefully, their experience will convert them to national park people.

Are most of the people in the FI (financial independence) community national park people? I see a lot of parallels.

Takeaway #5: National parks are a great value

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There are many ways to visit national parks, at many expense levels. While some are expensive to reach (like Dry Tortugas, Channel Islands, Isle Royale) because they require a boat or a plane ride, most are accessible by car. If you have an RV or want to camp, it’s inexpensive to enjoy some of the best scenery and night sky anywhere.

Since my wife and camping are like oil and water. We stay at “adequate” hotels at nearby towns, typically for $60 – $120 per night, and use hotel points whenever we can. We load up on the free breakfast, and get one footlong Subway sandwich to share for lunch, usually the $6 special of the day. We get a case of water at Costco for $2.99 when we start a trip, and that usually lasts us the entire trip.

Some of the parks have fancy lodges and restaurants, like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite, where you can really splurge and spend hundreds a night. They have their charm and nostalgic value.

You can find a suitable choice for your desired expense level in lodging and food at national parks.

Park entrance fees are a great value. Some parks, like the Great Smoky, don’t charge an entrance fee at all. One entrance fee is good for 7 days for those parks that have an entrance fee, the most expensive of which is $30 for a carload of people (there is a proposal to raise it to $70 during peak season at certain parks). The best deal is the $80 ($20 for seniors, free for current military and disabled) annual pass for all sites managed by the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. If you are a senior, it’s $80 lifetime and you can bring 4 other people on the pass!! This used to be a ridiculous $10 until this year!

The best deals we’ve had during our trips:

  • $80 annual national park pass. We went to 40 parks between September, 2016 and September, 2017. That works out to $1 per park, per person!
  • $261 to rent an SUV from Enterprise for 21 days with pickup from Tucson, AZ and drop off at Medford, OR. We more than doubled the odometer during our trip.
  • $6 Subway footlong for their sub of the day, enough to feed both us for lunch. There is a is a subway everywhere, even in the smallest of towns. This was especially useful for parks without any food service.
  • $2.99 for a case of water at Costco, just enough for our three-week trips.

In Conclusion

There is a saying that national park is “America’s Best Idea”. I couldn’t agree more. The goal to visit all the national parks puts a framework in place for our desire to travel during retirement. We had high expectations and our experience so far exceeded them. As a bonus, I’m learning photography, videography, and video editing to better capture our experience. Learning is an important part of retirement and life in general. We worked hard and saved to achieve a relatively early retirement, and the reward of having the freedom to pursue our personal desires was well worth it. These national park trips are fulfilling our desire to see the country, meet diverse people, relax in nature, and most importantly, grow even closer as a couple.

Remaining: Hawaiian parks, Alaskan parks, Northwest parks, American Samoa, and Virgin Island. We can’t wait!

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