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How we got started – The ultimate bucket list – Visiting all 63 National Parks

How a bucket list starts

Catching the bug to start a bucket list of any type usually has roots in something you experience and enjoy. For us the quest to visit all the National Parks didn’t really form until we were about 15 parks into the journey and well versed on outdoor activities like camping, backpacking, and hiking

How we got started

We live in the Washington DC area now, but we grew up, met, and lived the first few years of our married life in the Central Virginia city of Lynchburg VA. While there is certainly a lot more to do in Washington DC we made the most of the best attractions available to us when living in Central Virginia which were all nature related.

  • The Appalachian trail, which has an NPS designation has the most miles in the state of Virginia and we quickly learned to enjoy this free activity and started to go in day hikes, and eventually backpacking trips.
  • VA State Parks are somewhat plentiful and underutilized in this area allowing us to have spontaneous camping trips in places close by like Smith Mountain Lake SP, and James River SP, and Holliday Lake SP.
  • The Blue Ridge Parkway, also managed by the NPS is the most visited park unit in the country and stretches over 400 miles through VA and NC. A large portion of this scenic parkway winds it’s way around the area we called home and constantly intersects the Appalachian Trail. We have many favorite spots along this parkway and it made a lasting impact on our appreciation of how the NPS manages our public lands to create something of a sterile bubble of accessible nature without the constant advertisements and man-made distractions you get just beyond the entrances.
Appalachian Trail Near Lynchburg, VA
Blue Ridge Parkway Near Lynchburg, VA
Appalachian Trail Backpacking Near Lynchburg, VA

Expanding the interest

After having a basic inspiration of enjoying NPS managed lands we soon started to incorporate them into our annual vacations. We visited places like Great Smokey Mountains NP, Shenandoah NP, going on a cruise and stopping by Everglades NP while in the area, and some of the NPS operated park unit’s nearby those locations. As we eventually left the Lynchburg VA area and moved to Washington DC we slowly gained a bit more vacation time and most of all access to reasonably priced transportation. We started trying to travel as much and as far as we could to unique places for as cheaply as possible.

Inadvertently starting a bucket list

I think a turning point to starting this bucket list was a series of trips we made where we were chasing cheap airfare, and rental cars to places near National Parks. We made a quick and very chilly long weekend trip on New Years Eve to Louisville KY to visit Mammoth Cave and some surrounding attractions. Later that year we made another 4 day trip when I snagged a $25.00, yes, twenty-five dollar, airfare to Minneapolis from Dulles airport to make the 10 hour or so drive over to the NPS managed Mt. Rushmore, Wind Cave NP, Jewell Cave NP, and Black Hills area. These trips solidified how much we enjoyed visiting not only the parks but the awesome gateway towns nearby, NPS sites of the area’s and quirky roadside attractions that only tended to present themselves as we stumbled on them.

Mammoth Cave NP Entrance
Mt. Rushmore
Badlands NP in SD Entrance

Realizing what we had done! The Ah-Ha moment!

In 2015 we shifted to churning credit cards for points to obtain cheap travel and learned to pack our camping gear in a way that did not require excess baggage fees. In the summer of 2015 we made the biggest leap toward our NPS adventures by booking a 2 week trip to Alaska where we would be camping about 70% of the time to make it both economical and enjoy the parks from within for a longer duration.

We spent 2 cold and icy nights in Denali National Park in a campground about 70 miles into the park called Wonder Lake near the base of Denali mountain. The only way to get there was a park operated bus on a dirt road that was an awesome adventure and quite the story to tell after we got about 12 inches of snow on the drive out. We then spent a few nights in Talkeetna, which was a delightful place we would not have known about had we not went to Denali on our way to Kenai Fjords NP. In Kenai Fjords we wanted to get the most our of the park and the way to do that is going out on an NPS concessioner operated boat to view the glacier’s and ice fields. After we finished at Kenai Fjords, and the fun gateway town of Seward (and a quick sighting of former President Obama that happened to be there that day) we were off to Anchorage for a quick overnight to catch a flight to Katmai NP the next morning.

Eilson Summit. Denali NP
Wonder Lake Campground – Denali NP
Kenai Fjords NP Glacier Tour

All of the Alaska detail I just talked about culminated to this grand adventure and where we had our ah-ha moment to begin this bucket list. We boarded a plane to King Salmon which is landlocked by roads on the Kenai Peninsula then transferred to a 10 person float plane to take us to Katmai NP where we would camp for 4 nights. At the park, you can easily co-exist with bears, hike an active volcano, enjoy walks on the beach, and listen to some of the best NPS ranger talks we’ve had in the park system.

There was a moment where we were resting form a strenuous hike in the group shelter at the campground eating our freeze dried food we brought home talking to a stranger from Sacramento CA. He advised us of his bucket list to visit all the parks and was about 70% or so completed in his journey, it sounded fantastic as he was talking about his good, bad, unique, and odd experiences the trips had taken him on and the strategies around it. When we shared some of the remote places we had visited in the Dakota’s, east coast, and the very remote trip we were currently on in Alaska he mentioned we should do it too. Amy and I kind of brushed it off initially but that moment kept coming back to us over the weeks and months and it sounded like a great idea to actually try to complete the list. To this day I do not know the name of the stranger we met, but I am confident that his stories were inspirational enough to set us on a course to meaningfully attempt to visit all the National Parks.

Katmai Air at Brooks Camp, Katmai NP
This is the shelter in Katmai where the bucket list idea was born
Amy pointing to a bear in Katmai NP

Is the rest history?

I would love to be writing this blog and say, on this day we completed the bucket list but I cannot, not yet. What I can write about is how much we thoroughly love slow travelling, camping, and experiencing everything that the NPS system has to offer. We have visited so many places we never knew about because of this, how many folks can say they have been to American Samoa because there is a National Park there, well we can!

Okay, how many have you visited?

Between the two of us we have visited 40 or the 63 National Parks, together we have visited 37 of 63. We have no signs of slowing down or stopping the journey, but we do want to recount our most memorable experiences and help others plan through this blog by detailing some of these past trips, lessons learned, and future trips here.

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