We’re going to take a quick break from national park trip reports, since we’ve hit a milestone—Congaree National Park, which I talked in detail about two weeks ago, was my tenth national park! I thought it would be fun to do a quick overview of my first ten national park visits in chronological order all in one place. It’s been an interesting journey thus far, and I’m hoping you lovely readers might enjoy an honest recap.
Without further ado, I give you my first 10 national parks:
1. Petrified Forest National Park, July 2007
When a cousin of mine got married in Texas in the summer of 2007, my mom decided that it was time to take that all-American family road trip to the Grand Canyon. One of my favorite things about planning trips is solving the puzzle that is travel logistics, and this trip must have been a big one. We flew into Amarillo, drove from Amarillo to the Grand Canyon, and then flew home, all with a family of five. Looking back with the experience I have now, I see how big of a headache this could have possibly given my mom, but we still made it happen.
Per usual road trips along the iconic Route 66, we took a stop at Petrified Forest National Park. We spent maybe a few hours there and took a short hike around to see some of the petrified wood. At the time, my knowledge of the word “petrified” began and ended with the Harry Potter spell, and even now I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around the phenomenon. Is it a plant? Is it a rock?? Are all the adults just lying to me?! I guess I’ll have to go back and find out.
2. Grand Canyon National Park, July 2007
We finally made it to the Grand Canyon, which is a park that had no Harry Potter connotations, a bit of a letdown for this 13 year old. I definitely didn’t appreciate the Grand Canyon as a kid, and it is a park that I will absolutely return to, hopefully soon! Now that I have expanded my knowledge of the national parks and America’s icons, I have added a rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon to my bucket list!
It’s also worth noting that my brother and I filmed a now infamous-within-our-family-and-friends video that we called “The Nature Know Show” while floating on the Colorado River on a family-friendly route down the Grand Canyon. Perhaps I should consider that film as my very first foray into travel “blogging,” and my brother’s rad geological facts as his intro to science. Look at us now!
3. Death Valley National Park, October 2016
Fast-forward 9 years to a birthday trip to Las Vegas, Nevada. This was a surprise trip for me, so I didn’t have a lot to do with the planning. We had four days, and had reserved a rental car for one of those days without a specific plan. After doing some very minor research the day before we picked up the car, we birthed the plan to go see Death Valley! And you guys, when I say “minor research,” I mean that we looked at how long it would take us to get there. That’s it.
Luckily, it turns out that Death Valley is a great park to visit without a plan. We had only a few hours, which was enough to drive around to some of the popular sights, including Zabriskie Point, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin, and Artist’s Drive. I was extremely excited to be there, and said, “this is my first national park!” on at least two occasions. *Donald Trump voice* WRONG! How in the world did I not think that the Grand Canyon was a national park?! And it was only in the past two years that I learned that that road trip stop that we took on the way to the Grand Canyon…you know, the one with the petrified wood? That’s a national park, too. Oh, young Michelle, how naïve you were.
4. Rocky Mountain National Park, March 2017
And speaking of naivety, let’s talk about Rocky Mountain! The visit to Death Valley really ignited a spark within me, and this was when I began to plan trips with national parks in mind, but hadn’t quite gone that special type of national-park-crazy yet (don’t worry, we’ll get there). It was yet another weekend trip to a city (Denver), where we rented a car for a day.
Shout out to the park rangers at Death Valley who pointed us in all the right directions for our stop there. You guys were the best, but I also blame you for giving me false expectations! I had never been to the Rockies before, so I didn’t realize that spring in the Rocky Mountains looks veeeery different than spring in Atlanta, or the amount of planning required by an off-season visit! I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into with our partial-day trip to Rocky Mountain… most of Trail Ridge Road was still covered in multiple feet of snow, even some of the lower-elevation hiking was still covered in snow, and on top of all that, my boyfriend-at-the-time had a really negative reaction to the elevation that we gained when driving up to the mountains. (Or was he actually just tired of being in the car with me? The world may never know). And on top of ALL that, we didn’t bring any food with us!
By most standards, this visit was a total failure. We did maybe a mile or two of hiking and then called it quits and drove back to the city. Even still, my counterparts’ ailments and general sour demeanor didn’t stop me from making him pull over every five seconds so I could take a photo of the mountains! Seriously, the mountains were insane. I would love to come back and visit Rocky Mountain in the summer in order to do more hiking, but I may make another more prepared winter visit. I couldn’t get enough of those snowy mountains!
5. Mount Rainier National Park, May 2017
After my experience having nothing to eat for my whole day in Rocky Mountain, I made sure to stock up before the drive up to Mount Rainier. My best friend from college had temporarily moved to Portland, Oregon and when I flew out to visit her, we took a road trip to Seattle for the weekend. While I had learned from one of my mistakes and over-packed food, it seems like that was the only one. We arrived with only a few hours to spend in the park and no plan, and I foolishly found myself visiting yet another mountain park in the off-season. Once again, we did probably less than three miles of hiking. Once again, I was trying to fit a national park visit into a trip that revolved around city travel, and didn’t give the park room to breathe. I was strangling it with my strictly limited itinerary, and was unable to really get a feel for Mount Rainier because of this.
We drove into the southwestern entrance and were able to take the road up to Paradise, with towering walls of snow on either side of us. The weather was overcast and snowy so we didn’t get to see the mountain herself, but I was still awed by the ethereal world of white we had entered, and we did have a great time appreciating the incredible forest at lower elevation. Oh, and we had a rocking picnic!
6. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, October 2017
Alright team, this is where I started to jump in with both feet. Still feeling fresh off of a heartbreak (even though it had been 6 months), stressed from the pressure of my brand new job, and shocked by the sudden loss of a friend, I was feeling like I needed an escape. I also had started to slowly make a turn toward solo adventuring, having finally done some solo day hikes around my home state of Georgia. So I took the plunge. I decided to go to Great Smoky Mountains National Park by myself.
Being a short three hours from Atlanta, the Smokies seemed like a great place for my first solo overnight, and I did a bunch of research on trails before the trip. I had a little bit of uneasiness throughout the trip since I had never traveled solo before, but I feel like the pre-planning I had done opened my eyes to a whole new world! Three days gave me plenty of time to actually get out on a few trails and actually see the park in a way that I hadn’t experienced in Rocky Mountain or Mount Rainier. The Smokies are beautiful in an unassuming kind of way, and made for a perfect, not-too-overwhelming jump into the world of solo travel.
7. Everglades National Park, March 2018
I think I have labeled my trip to southern Florida as my first solo trip in the past. I don’t know why I didn’t want to give the Smokies the credit they deserve, but whatever. While Florida wasn’t my very first solo trip, it was the longest I had ever traveled on my own (a week) and considerably further away than the Smokies.
I spent one night camping in the Everglades, and most of the next day “hiking” around on the many boardwalks between the eastern entrance and Flamingo. I visited shortly after Hurricane Irma blew through the southeast, so many ranger programs were not up and running, and there wasn’t much of an opportunity to get out onto the water inside the park. I didn’t worry about that too much (I had more adventures planned for later in the week that would get me into and onto water), and I basked in the glory of being in a place that I grew up hearing about.
I also had a really intimate moment with a manatee in Flamingo, and if I had to rank my national park wildlife encounters to date, this one might be number one.
8. Dry Tortugas National Park, March 2018
Besides having been to the Grand Canyon as a kid, Dry Tortugas National Park was my first big “bucket list” visit, at least for me. But like, if the Dry Tortugas isn’t already on your personal bucket list, add it now and thank me later. I spent a day in Key West after the Everglades, and then hopped on a boat for Dry Tortugas, where, once again, I camped for a night. The weather was super stormy and then super windy (but sunny!), and somehow none of that put a damper on my mood.
I don’t really have much to say besides that it was incredibly magical, and really empowering to know that I was doing one of those things that I had been dreaming about. Totally surreal.
9. Biscayne National Park, March 2018
I had been going at a very fast pace for my week in Florida and was pretty tired by the time I got to Biscayne National Park. So tired, in fact, that I opted to stay at a hostel that night instead of camping on the hostel’s grounds as I had originally planned (it was a price difference of $15, which I was willing to pay in order to not pitch my tent). I remember stopping at the park sign here and thinking “I can’t believe I’m in another national park!” It’s a thought I have each time I pass a new one, but this was the first time I had visited three parks in one week. Three!
It turned out that the reservation I had made ahead of time for a guided day trip with the Biscayne National Park Institute not only pushed me to keep adventuring when I was feeling a little bit sunbaked and weary, but it also was freaking awesome. I sometimes use the phrase “communing with nature” when a normal person would say “going outside,” but I think that is the best way to describe my day at Biscayne. Stingrays, sea sponges, blue herons, mangroves, sea cucumbers, upside-down jellyfish, roseate spoonbills, coral, all kinds of fish, sharks….SHARKS! If you learn one thing about me from this whole reflection, it should be that sharks make my heart flutter the way I imagine one might fan-girl over a pop singer. And I was seeing all of these animals in their natural habitat! From paddling through mangroves to trying not to panic while learning to snorkel in the middle of the ocean, my day in Biscayne National Park was near perfect.
10. Congaree National Park, April 2018
And finally, we have arrived at the little-known South Carolina swamp that has just recently become Congaree National Park. Home to some significantly old trees, I had been trying to put together a weekend of camping and kayaking with my brother and his girlfriend for about a year by the time we made it to the park.
Even with my growing knowledge of logistical planning in order to reap the most rewards from a weekend in a national park, getting all the puzzle pieces to fit together for this one was a bit of a nightmare. Congaree does not host any outfitters within the park, so we drove into the nearest town to pick up some kayaks in order to paddle in the park. (We brought one boat and two cars, and then picked up two more boats…but could only strap one to each roof at a time. Not kidding about the puzzle.) And with that, I’m still a novice when it comes to planning float trips. It’s a logistical skill that I’m actively working on!
We finally were able to have a successful morning of paddling on Earth Day, and I still can’t think of a better way to spend the holiday.
To me, this feels like a really impressive list of parks, but I have a sneaking suspicion that any random 10 parks would seem impressive. I have been really refining my ability to not only plan an outdoor expedition, but to also execute it successfully. Not only has my knowledge grown so much over the course of visiting these first ten parks, but my confidence has also grown. I am constantly learning more about myself and what I am capable of, and this journey toward all of the national parks has been very empowering and motivating.
If you are out there reading this, I would highly encourage you to allow yourself to follow that line of thought that has been at the back of your mind. Give it space and allow it to manifest—I bet it will make a world of difference.
On to the next park!