Cheers to 20: Looking Back on National Parks

Yellowstone was not my first national park, but it’s the one that I remember most vividly - the one that got me hooked.

Growing up, my dad talked about his boyhood memories of Yellowstone like it was Disneyland. Geysers and bison and hot springs and bears. It was this perfect, mythical world in his mind and so, it became one in mine as well.

We were not national park people.

We were outdoorsy people, for sure, but not national park people.

My mom hated crowds, she was claustrophobic. We’d stopped camping in designated campgrounds by the time I was 11 or 12. The line for pit toilets, other people’s children running through camp and the dreaded youth group leader with a guitar were left behind for dispersed camping. And, of course, national parks don’t allow dogs. I was raised to believe that the dog never gets left at home (while I still firmly believe dogs come first, I think it’s acceptable to leave them at home if they’ve been properly wiped out by an exciting dog-friendly adventure the day before.)

This combination resulted in very few national park visits growing up.

My first national park was probably Haleakala. Jet-lagged, we awoke before the sun and I managed not to puke on the winding roads that led magically away from the beach, away from the rainforest and up, up, up to another world where we watched the sun rise and played in black, volcanic sand.

Little Mikaela and little Gianna at Haleakala National Park.

Little Mikaela and little Gianna at Haleakala National Park.

I fell in love with national park lodges at Mt. Rainier. When my Papa, my mom’s dad, passed away, my mom, my sister and I joined my grandma Bea, my aunt and my cousins at Mt. Rainier’s Paradise Lodge in off-season for several days while my dad summited Rainier and spread Papa’s ashes. We were one of the few groups of people staying at the old lodge. We ventured out into the snow a few times, but hadn’t brought much in the way of winter clothes, so stayed in the lodge most of the trip. The rooms were miniscule, so we spent most of our time in front of the huge fireplaces in the lobby, underneath the cavernous dark wood ceilings. We bought a national parks memory game in the gift shop, and played it over and over and over again. I started dreaming of visiting all the beautiful places on the cards.

When I started dating Topher, we drove out to California to visit my mom when she lived there. We drove from Denver to the Grand Canyon in one go and made it to the rim just in time to watch the sunset over the plummeting walls. On the way home, we camped in Zion. We had Kenzie with us, and so didn’t do much but stare up at the beautiful red rock. [photos omitted due to us being cringy teenagers]

We never made it to Yellowstone as kids.

When I was 21, my dad decided we were long overdue for a daddy-daughter trip. Our last had been seventeen years earlier, just after my sister was born. We loaded up the car and headed to Wyoming. We camped outside the town of Alpine, south of Jackson. My dad brought his fishing gear and cast and cast and cast until the sun went down. No bites. We gratefully cooked up the ground beef I had insisted we buy, in case the fish for dinner idea was a bust.

The next day, we drove through Grand Teton. We stopped in Moose and ate pizza on a deck overlooking the mountains and I couldn’t stop looking at the peaks. Wildfire smoke added a hazy filter to the air as we hiked to Taggert Lake in the afternoon. It was possibly the prettiest place I’d ever seen. Back in the car, we drove to Yellowstone and kept our eyes peeled all the way to the Old Faithful Lodge for wildlife. I remember thinking I’d never seen woods so dense. There could have been a hundred wolves watching us drive in and we would have never seen them. The guy at the desk told us the wrong time for Old Faithful erupting. We had just missed it, but we didn’t know that, so we sat enrapt and totally alone on the benches as the sunset and darkness grew, waiting for the geyser.

I’d packed a box of Cheese-It’s, which my dad had scoffed at as I loaded them into the car, but we ended up eating them for dinner. We could barely see when she finally erupted, but it was just us and it was magical.

We spent the night in West Yellowstone at a hotel we’d gotten a “mystery deal” on some travel website on. It had more animals mounted on the walls than all of Yellowstone held in its borders. We searched the whole town for early morning coffee and ended up at McDonald’s. We broke the camp stove out and made coffee in a picnic area while my dad tried to fish again. We spent the day on the lookout for bears and wolves and moose. We saw bison and elk and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. That evening, we headed back to Geyser Basin and watched again, this time in the light, as Old Faithful erupted. By a stroke of luck, or maybe magic, we caught the perfect timing for Geyser Basin and wandered through in a daze as geyser after geyser erupted for us, sunset colors bouncing off the steam. A mama elk and her two calves bounded across the boardwalk in front of us.

Sunset over the Firehole River, August 2015

Sunset over the Firehole River, August 2015

On the way back to Denver, we ate candy and peanuts for breakfast. It’s still one of my all time favorite trips.

Topher brought me to Rocky Mountain for the first time shortly after. We hiked to Emerald Lake and I fell in love. It’s still probably my favorite hike, no matter the time of year. We even had our engagement photos taken there.

In the summer of 2016, we quit our jobs, let the lease go on our apartment, put our stuff in storage and took off in our ‘98 Subaru. The plan was to spend the summer exploring Canada, but after getting as far as Fort Macleod, Alberta, we realized we had made some fatal planning errors (read: didn’t plan) and changed trajectory: we would hit as many Western US parks as we could. We had already visited Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier. By the time we got to Glacier, our car had been having an overheating problem for some time. It was fine going highway speeds, but when we slowed down under 30mph, the temperature needle started to climb towards red. We chugged through the park, stopping at the pebbled shores of Lake McDonald and drove Going-To-The-Sun-Road, trying our best not to drive off the edge as we squeaked in delight as each curve revealed new mist-shrouded waterfalls.

Glacier National Park, July 2016

Glacier National Park, July 2016

We ended up replacing the radiator in Kalispell, Montana, in an O’Reilly parking lot with a $10 set of tools. Kenzie and I slept in the passenger seat as Topher tinkered under the car. Cowboy after cowboy would peer under the hood, looking back and forth between our Colorado license plate and our belongings crammed into the intrepid red hatchback. “You’re a long ways from home to have the car that disassembled,” noted a man in an ancient blue pick-up with a pair of heelers in the bed.

Topher succeeded and we limped the car across Montana, Idaho and Washington. We hiked through the rainforests of North Cascades, awed by the thick carpets of pine needles dampening every footstep and marveled at the gatorade-blue waters. We trekked up to the Olympic Peninsula and canoed on the crystal clear waters of Lake Crescent for my birthday before enjoying beers in the sun-room of the Lake Crescent Lodge.

We stopped at Crater Lake and wondered what the big deal was. We drove south to the Redwoods and stared up at the huge trees. The heat was oppressive and the car was not cured after all, so we went home.

I got to explore Joshua Tree last year with my best friend, Ben. We got insanely sunburnt.

Last year, I got a job for National Park Trips Media, a company that helps people plan national park vacations. I got sent to Colorado’s remaining three parks on a writing assignment. I peered over the edge of the Black Canyon, crawled through tiny tunnels and up ladders to see ancient cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde and watched, confounded, as Kenzie acted like a badger in the sand at one of the only dog friendly parks, Great Sand Dunes.

I finally got to see the alluring hoodoos of Bryce Canyon that had captured my attention on that game of memory so many years before. I was moved to tears by seeing El Cap in person at Yosemite and I fell in love with saguaro cacti at Saguaro in Arizona.

Sunset in Saguaro National Park, November 2018

Sunset in Saguaro National Park, November 2018

Last week, I visited my 20th national park. We just popped in to see the view at Canyonlands.

I hate that our wild places are becoming so crowded. I don’t particularly like campgrounds full of RVs that have showers and flush toilets. I don’t like circling for parking spots and sharing viewpoints with out of touch visitors who abandon their trash to the wind and, when I tell them that the critter foraging on Trail Ridge Road is a marmot, respond in a thick Texas drawl with, “I know it’s a varmint, but what kind?”

But there is an undeniable magic in national parks. National parks are the most compelling and beautiful places our country has to offer. And, they’re protected for all to see.

I love sharing a grin with a group of inner-city middle schoolers in Jordans as we take in the incredible view of Hallet Peak. I love staring into the depths of the Milky Way at 3am with a group of retirees at Zion.

There are many places where the outdoors can be divisive. Overuse leads to judgement and hostility at trailheads, shaming on social media and permit systems that pit outdoor enthusiasts against one another as soon as the window opens.

But national parks? National parks bring us together. It’s beautiful to see wheelchairs rolling down the boardwalks and climbers returning from the backcountry and hear every language conceivable all there for one sole purpose: to experience nature’s beauty.

I can’t wait to keep exploring them.