The Trip that made the National Parks real to me..

The National Park System turned 100 years old a few weeks ago.  I really enjoyed reading  posts from some of you listing your top 10 National Parks or best hike in one of our parks.  This got me thinking introspectively about why I am so passionate about the National Parks.  Allow me to share some of my traveling history and life experiences that have led to where I am today.

In 1987 I joined my high school ski club for the first time.  I immediately fell in love with the sport in spite of the fact that I live in Ohio.  Our ski season is short and at best, we only have hills.  I subscribed to Ski Magazine and would read it cover-to-cover each month.  Something about the big mountains of the Western U.S. just really “called” to me.   I introduced my Dad and brother to skiing and convinced my Dad that we should go on a real ski vacation some day.  I March of 1988 we borrowed my uncle’s mini van and made the 24 hour drive across the country to Winter Park, Colorado.   The skiing was incredible.  However, we had no comprehension of how powerful the sun is at altitude and all came away with severely sunburnt faces.  My desire to ski at each of these resorts I had only read about in magazines only intensified after this trip.

For the next six years, we made our annual pilgrimage out west over Spring Break to take a big “round robin” as my Dad called them.   Our trips would never involve staying at one resort or town but rather visiting 3 or 4 resorts with lots of highway miles in between each.  Along the way, we found ourselves making detours into some of the National Parks.  At the time, this didn’t fit my agenda.   I was on vacation to ski not waste time “taking picture or videos in some park.”   We visited Death Valley, Arches, Rocky Mountain National Park and The Grand Canyon.  Our visits never involved hiking but simply a drive around, snap a few pictures and get back on the road to the next ski town.  I would get mortified when my Dad would break out our giant, shoulder-mount video camera to shoot more video of another waterfall.   In 1992, we tried to visit Yellowstone in March.   Veteran park travelers are well aware that 90% of the park is closed at this time of the year due to impassible roads unless you want to snow shoe in one some trails.    We were total rookies from Ohio and didn’t know any better.

In June of 1996 I got married and had our first daughter.   Our vacations changed from 4,000 mile driving trips out west to 800 mile trips to the Carolina coast with my wife and daughter.   In 1998 our second daughter was born and in 2003 our son was born.  Our family vacations continued to be to Hilton Head, SC or Atlantic Beach, NC.   While I enjoyed each of these trips immensely, I longed for trips back to the west.

In 2011, I had changed jobs and was working at a local university.  I had 4 weeks of vacation and my kids were all 3 finally at an age that I felt they would remember our first “round robin” out west.   I planned the trip for 6 months and arranged it so our best friends from Tulsa, OK could meet up with us in Keystone, SD and travel on with us to Montana.

We loaded up our mini van and left Ohio.   15 hours later we stopped for the night in southern Minnesota.  The next day we visited some of the places I had seen 19 years earlier; Wall Drug, Mitchell Corn Palace, Badlands National Park, Mt. Rushmore and Devil’s Tower.

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This was one of the best days of my life!  I didn’t think the trip could possibly get any better and we weren’t even to Montana yet.   We left the following day and traveled all the way to Billings, MT.  There we stayed at a hotel for the night all in anticipation of the wildness we would see in the coming week.

We arrived at our house we rented in Emigrant, MT.   The views out the front window are what I have been longing to see since my last trip to the Rockies.

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Over the next week, we whitewater rafted the Yellowstone River, attended the 4th of July rodeo in Livingston, MT and went horseback riding.

This valley outside Gardiner, MT where we went horseback riding has been permanently embedded in my mind.  I will never forget the smells, sights, the warm sun or the smiles I saw on my kid’s faces.  I have never felt more at peace…

We spent the next two days in Yellowstone; this time without all the snow of my 1992 visit.  There aren’t enough words to describe Yellowstone.  I found myself viewing this trip with older, wiser eyes than when I was a 20 year old kid.    The waterfalls, the streams, the wildlife, the odor of sulfur, the thermal pools….There is a reason this was our first National Park founded in 1872.   If you have never been to Yellowstone, move it to the top of your next vacation list.

At this point in our trip, it couldn’t possibly get any better.  I was wrong again.  I had taken up fly fishing two years before and had only been able to fish in small streams around Ohio.   I brought my fly fishing gear with me but had no idea where to fish in Yellowstone. I had so many other aspects of the trip to research, I didn’t take much time reading about fly fishing.  My son and I got up early and drove into the park.   We stopped at a few different lakes but nothing looked good.   We ended up on the Gibbon River in the most pristine grass valley my mind could ever imagine.  I was jus happy to be there fishing, I never imagined we would catch anything.   We caught two Brown Trout in 3 hours of fishing.  This was one of my top memories ever with my son and he was only 8 on this trip.

The following day we packed up and left our house to start the drive south through Yellowstone one last time.  We drove through Grand Teton but didn’t really have time to hike or do any exploration.   We will be back again for sure.

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Our final stop was in Jackson Hole, WY.  I had skied here back in 1992 and loved this town then.  My feelings hadn’t changed, this is still my favorite mountain town of all time.

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We have only visited 16 of the 59 National Parks, but Yellowstone will always hold a special place in my heart.  Hopefully the images I have posted help you understand the love I hold for my family and traveling.

Since this trip in 2011, we have visited more parks but watching the PBS video series by Ken Burns; “The National Parks – America’s Best Idea.” has made the parks come alive to me in an even richer way.   I now understand the history of each park, the people who fought for their protection and the political wrangling that led to their existence today.  My question for each of you is: What was your defining moment that sparked your passion for our parks?  What park was it that made you want to visit more of them?  I am interested in hearing your stories.

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9 thoughts on “The Trip that made the National Parks real to me..

  1. Here’s my national park story: https://wordpress.com/stats/insights/jdhatter.wordpress.com

    This is not a national park story, but my experience is very similar to yours–fell in love with skiing even though I grew up in Texas. My family took one or two trips every year to NM or Colorado. One year, my dad and his buddies took their sons on a men’s ski trip and did a tour of Colorado: a day each at Wolf Creek, Purgatory, Telluride, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, and Vail. It snowed 16 inches one night while we were in Aspen–greatest day of skiing ever! The sad part of it is, I haven’t been skiing since we moved to Denver in 2012. One reason is my daughter played HS basketball and didn’t want to hurt her knees so that limited family outings, but mainly it’s just so expensive and there’s so many other activities to fill up the weekends. Hiking on the other hand, in RMNP and the many national forests, is almost free. And, we discovered snowshoeing, which is really just the winter equivalent of summer hiking, and you don’t have to deal with the crowds.

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  2. Great post! The National Parks are truly one of America’s treasures and it’s fun to hear about how people came to love and discover them. I can relate to your description of how you felt on your trip, “I have never felt so much at peace…” I guess that’s why we all keep going back! The park that is near and dear to me is Yosemite, but I love the excitement of exploring a new NP. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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  3. I love this post and can really relate to falling in love with the parks as a parent. Like you, those “best day of my life” experiences have all occurred in the parks with my husband and kids, and I think that’s what continues to spark my passion for it. Although I grew up right next to Volcanoes Nat’l Park, I don’t think I really fell in love with the parks until my first visit to Bryce Canyon. I remember standing at the rim at sunset feeling completely choked up…in-the-moment and in-tune with something greater. It’s definitely an addicting feeling! Thanks so much for sharing this; such a great conversation.

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    1. That’s great, you were the other person I had in mind when I wrote this that would totally be able to relate. I just bought a giant US map last weekend at REI that shows all the National Parks. I am in the process of having it framed so we can put push-pins on the parks we have visited. So much fun, I love following you and everyone else traveling the parks.

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