Yosemite National Park | Photo by Macie J Bledow

Get Out and Explore

The National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday.

National Parks call out to millions of Americans every year for a multitude of reasons: natural beauty, wide-open spaces, wildlife viewing, scenic trails, escape from the chaos that consumes our everyday life. The parks are truly our national treasure, and visiting them is somewhat of a religious experience, imparting a sense of connection to mankind’s place in the universe and deep appreciation for the wonders of nature.

That’s what Cole and Elizabeth Donelson, twenty-something millennials from St. Louis, are experiencing during this year’s centennial anniversary of the National Park Service. They quit their jobs and made it their mission to spend a few days camping in all 59 national parks, ending with the park service’s birthday in August.

“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”—Conservationist John Muir, July 1888

It was on their bucket list, and they figure there’s no better time to cross it off than now. The outdoor enthusiasts also want to let their tech-saturated generation know there’s more to adventure than a weekend in Vegas (though they’ve done that, too).

To that end, they set up a website, SwitchbackKids.com, to document their once-in-a lifetime journey with photos, blogs, maps, guides and travel tips.

“The biggest advice we give anyone is not to wait to follow their dreams,” Cole tells Vegas Seven. “Make it your singular goal and pursue it with a passion. Don’t let money be an obstacle, but instead make it work for you to let you follow your dream.”

Preserving Culture and History

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that established the National Park Service, a federal bureau under the U.S. Department of Interior responsible for protecting 35 existing national parks and monuments and the 24 that came after. We can thank early leaders such as President Theodore Roosevelt, conservationist John Muir, known as the “father of national parks,” and Stephen Mather, first director of the park service, for their visionary efforts.

“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness,” Muir writes in a letter to his wife, Louie, in July 1888. “All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”

Death Valley National Park.Julian Kilker

Death Valley National Park.

The National Park Service is one of the leading agencies for preserving U.S. history and culture, both within park boundaries and beyond. The agency manages a range of cultural sites, including monuments, battlefields, cemeteries and recreation areas.

A record 307 million people visited national parks in 2015 and spent about $16.9 billion in gateway regions across the country, according to a report from the Department of Interior. That supported more than 295,000 jobs and generated $32 billion in economic output.

The Donelsons were inspired to visit the parks by outdoor family vacations they remembered from childhood. They spent a year and a half preparing for the trip and saving enough money for the flights and ferries they would need to access remote areas. Their biggest challenge is Alaska, where five of the state’s eight national parks are without roads and can only be reached by bush planes or ferries.

The couple have been everywhere from Maine to the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa, and their list of favorite national parks is constantly changing.

“Acadia in Maine had insane fall colors. Big Bend had breathtaking panoramas. Capitol Reef combined all our favorite features of the other four Utah parks with a fraction of the crowds,” Cole says. “One thing we love about the parks is the incredible diversity we’ve seen. Red rocks, mountains, canyons, swamps, mangroves, rain forests, hardwood forests, islands, desert … it’s all so beautiful in different ways.”

Nevada’s National Park

Great Basin National Park, the only one in Nevada, makes the Donelsons’ top five. East of Ely on U.S. Highway 50, it features Mt. Wheeler, the second-highest peak in Nevada at 13,063 feet, and the Lehman Caves.

“It was such a hidden gem with huge mountains, ancient bristlecone and beautiful alpine lakes,” Cole says. “The night sky was the best I’ve seen, and we loved being there at the same time as their annual astronomy festival. By the way, we got to visit Vegas for a day between parks and loved exploring the Strip and some of the sights.”

Great Basin is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, notes Bethany Drysdale, director of public relations for Travel Nevada in Carson City. The bristlecone pine trees at the park are believed to be the oldest living trees on earth, more than 4,000 years old, and are accessible by a moderate hiking trail.

Great Basin National Park’s Lehman Caves.Irina K.

Great Basin National Park’s Lehman Caves.

“That trail is actually my favorite hike in Nevada,” Drysdale says. “It’s about 5 miles roundtrip, and the views of the valley below are absolutely stunning. The payoff, of course, is being able to see and touch trees that are thousands of years old.”

Lehman Caves is another great attraction at Great Basin National Park. Along with stalagmites, stalactites and helictites, the cave has more than 300 rare shield formations and fascinating “cave popcorn,” and is still considered a “living” cave. It was discovered by Absalom Lehman in the 1880s and declared a national monument by President Warren G. Harding in 1922.

“What’s so interesting about the cave is the recent history that is evident there,” Drysdale says. “Traces of this human history are evident in the form of candle-soot graffiti and damaged formations. It tells the story of how people interacted with the cave over the years.”

In addition to Great Basin, Nevada also claims a corner of Death Valley National Park, and sends thousands of tour groups from Las Vegas to Grand Canyon National Park. “We are a gateway to the parks in Utah, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley and Yosemite,” Drysdale says. “International travelers in particular are fascinated by our national parks, and having such a concentration of them in and near Nevada is a great selling point for us.”

Building a Beautiful Legacy

A major selling point for Nevada is the lack of crowds, not only on the national park level—Great Basin saw 116,113 visitors in 2015, compared to Great Smoky Mountains, which tops the list with 10.7 million—but also at the state parks. You can go to Cathedral Gorge State Park, which boasts topographical formations similar to Bryce Canyon in Utah, and have it all to yourself, Drysdale says.

“Nevada’s state parks are a natural alternative for those who want that type of beauty, but don’t want the crowds.”—Bethany Drysdale, Travel Nevada

Valley of Fire State Park “easily rivals Moab or Arches [in Utah],” but it’s only an hour from Las Vegas and not nearly as crowded, she says. “You can hike and explore without standing in lines or accidentally getting in someone’s photo op. We understand that visitors want to see the famous parks, but Nevada’s state parks are a natural alternative for those who want that type of beauty, but don’t want the crowds.”

Another favorite getaway for locals is Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which isn’t among the 59 national parks, but is one of 410 areas managed by the National Park Service. Lake Mead saw 7 million visitors last year, who took advantage of myriad recreational activities such as boating, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and cycling.

Rafting trips down the Colorado River through Black Canyon and hiking the Historic Railroad Trail and River Mountains Loop are also popular activities, says Lizette Richardson, superintendent of Lake Mead.

“To preserve our historical resources, we’re looking to connect with the next generation of park advocates,” Richardson says. “Now we’re really trying to engage the next generation and leave a legacy for our children who come behind us. They’re the next folks to come forward and make sure these places are protected.”

The Landscape of Dreams

Jonathan Irish, a professional photographer from Washington, D.C., recently visited Joshua Tree National Park in California as part of his and travel partner Stefanie Payne’s tour of all 59 national parks in 52 weeks. As of March 24, they have traveled more than 10,700 miles, visited 16 parks and shot 66,911 photographs. (You can follow their adventures at TheGreatestRoadTrip.com.) Irish says it’s tough to choose the best park for photography.

“I hate to play favorites because they really are special. Of the ones we’ve visited thus far, Death Valley stole my heart,” Irish says. “The incredible variety of landscapes—from huge dunes to mountains, salt flats and amazing eroded formations in the desert, it was just so fun to photograph. But again, they are all beautiful and amazing in their own way.”

Joshua Tree National Park.Nickolay Stanev

Joshua Tree National Park.

The Donelsons were most recently in Olympic National Park near Seattle, the 42nd park they’ve visited, and they’ll be hitting some of the most famous parks in the Rocky Mountains, Dakotas and Great Lakes area before ending up in Alaska for the National Park Service’s centennial.

“We decided it’d be pretty hard to do it throughout our lifetime, but visiting the parks in one crazy year of adventure would be more efficient and exciting,” Cole says. “We have visited so many areas of the U.S. we’ve never been to before and seen our country’s most beautiful and diverse spots. We also felt we should really know and appreciate our own country before exploring places abroad because we have so much incredible landscapes right at home.”

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