Visiting national parks is something most folks do while on week-long vacation. Well, Jesse Keller is not most folks. The 32-year-old Californian tossed the traditional go-to-work-five-days-a-week life for a more adventurous tour of the country that has him visiting as many national parks as possible.
He stumbled across my blog recently and got in touch to generate some envy, which he most certainly did. How did he find himself on this odyssey? That was my first question for him, and he provided an interesting answer. Read on and learn about Jesse's most wonderful adventure.
Growing up in Southern California, Jesse had ample opportunity to visit some of the West's best parks, places like Yosemite and Joshua Tree. But it was a visit to Bryce Canyon National Park during his college days that planted a seed in his mind.
"I came across a coloring book with one page for each park. I thought, well, instead of coloring them, why not VISIT each one of them," he told me via email. "So, in 2005, I quit my job with the goal of sampling each of the national parks in the U.S. I knew that I'd only be seeing a small percentage of each park, and I wanted to avoid the old slow-down-and-snap-a-picture style, my father so loved in my childhood road trips. So I came up with three requirements for having 'seen' a park:
"1. Visit the visitor center and get my 'national park passport' stamped. That way, I'd be able to meet with a ranger, and get an idea of the highlights of the park;
"2. If allowed, spend a night in the park, backpacking if possible. That way, I'd get a much more intimate view of the park.
"3. Write myself and my mom a postcard. Well, that's just for fun."
Sounds to me like Jesse is having way too much fun on this road trip. To sample his thoughts of our national park system, I posed ten questions to him. Here are his answers:
Traveler: How many parks have you visited so far?
Jesse: Counting my visit to Cuyahoga Valley today and the parks I visited before I started my blog, I have visited 24 parks. The 'scorecard' is here.
Traveler: What's been the most memorable park?
Jesse: I'd have to say Yosemite in California. I remember a time many Easters ago two buddies of mine and I attempted to winter backpack the back of Half Dome. We were granted wilderness permit #1 that year, the three of us. We started off up to Little Yosemite Valley, then up to Cloud's Rest, snowshoeing the entire way. The day before Easter the weather turned bad, and the wind was blowing hard across this one particular slope, kicking up snow and ice. I looked up the hill at my buddies, one in yellow, one in red, me in green, all decked in our winter mountaineering equipment. It was like something out of National Geographic. Either that, or a North Face ad! Anyway, we holed up for the night on the side of the mountain at the first semi-flat spot we found. Easter morning came with warmth and sunshine, revealing six inches of snow that had dropped gently on all branches. It was absolutely beautiful.
We never did make it all the way to Half Dome, but on the way back we lost the trail in the new snow. Finally, we came across the tracks of some other crazy group of people that had braved the cold weather that we followed back to the valley. It wasn't until after one or two hours of following these tracks did we realize that they were our own from two days before. The snow had changed the scenery so completely, we didn't recognize a thing! It's a story we still tell each other over campfires years later.
Traveler: What's your favorite park?
Jesse: I'm reserving judgment until I've seen all of them, but I have to say that you just can't beat Grand Canyon National Park for sheer beauty and awe. The services there are top-notch, and there are plenty of places to get lost, especially on the less-visited North Rim. Each season is different and has its own special attraction. Combined with an expedition to the Havasupi Indian Reservation on the western edge of the park, one can have enough memories to last a lifetime.
Traveler: How do you plan your travels?
Jesse: Except for a winter trip to New England to visit family, I've been following spring towards the Rockies and Alaska. Having visited most of the parks in the Southwest, I decided to head east, tackle Florida and the Smokies, then work my way north and west as the weather warms up. I am, however, saving Hawaii and American Samoa for last -- the weather is always good there!"
Traveler: In light of all the media uproar over park funding and the Management Policies, how are you finding the condition of the parks you've visited?
Jesse: In general, I've found the condition of the parks still to be pretty good. The age of the facilities is beginning to show around the edges (chipped paint, closed buildings, etc) and I am assuming the park system is deferring a lot of maintenance. Unfortunately, I think it's going to catch up with the park system pretty soon. Not only that, but the low funding means that the park system is unable to address emergencies effectively. For example, many of the facilities in the Flamingo area of Everglades National Park are still closed after Hurricane Wilma. It's disturbing that even revenue-generating facilities cannot be given the funds they need to get up and running. On the other hand, I just visited Shenandoah's brand new visitor center at Big Meadows, a very nice building that should unify a lot of the activities in the park, making the system more efficient and better able to handle tighter budgets.
Traveler: How long do you plan to be on the road?
Jesse: 'Until I run out of money or get bored' is what I'm telling everyone. I think the former is more likely to happen than the latter. Seriously, I think this trip will take me through spring of 2007. I've signed up for a trip to drive to Argentina starting in July, so that'll take some time away from visiting the parks.
Traveler: Where's the best campground?
Jesse: Far and away, the primitive camp at Dry Tortugas National Park. The campground has a dozen sites and is private: no water, composting toilets. And to get there, you have to take all your gear on a two-hour ferry ride from Key West. It is situated in the lee of imposing Fort Jefferson, sometimes called the 'Gilbraltar of the Gulf.' It also happens to be situated on one of the best snorkeling beaches in Florida. But after the ferries leave for the night and you are abandoned to deal with the huge, empty fort looming over you, a community of campers immediately forms. This is particularly due to the fact that, since it takes so much to get there, everyone is really excited about being there. But there is also a sense of self-preservation -- surrounded by open ocean, you could be the only dozen people within 70 miles. But I met some wonderful people during my one night there, including one couple that chose to get engaged while there. Oh, and the STARS! All in all, a very special place.
Traveler: Where's the best restaurant?
Jesse: So far, I'd have to vote on the Mountain Room at the Lodge at Yosemite. Very friendly. Very nice view, very tasty. Great place to bring camping-weary significant others in order to show them, 'Hey, this outdoors stuff is fun!'
Traveler: Best park lodge?
Jesse: I'm a sucker for historical structures, and I must admit that the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone is my favorite. It really captures the Golden Era of the park system. Those days, each park was a destination. People went to visit a park and all the accommodations and activities the park had to offer, the wilderness being both the backdrop and one of the many attractions. These days, out of necessity to preserve dwindling wild areas and get a better understanding of the damage park development can cause, the focus has moved to preservation. But staying in the Old Faithful Inn, I got a chance to pretend I was back in the simpler days. Global warming and deforestation weren't issues when the lodge was built.
Traveler: Best meal?
Jesse: The three of us had just packed in to Paradise Valley in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park after many hours of driving from San Diego. All of us were world weary, but spirits rose as we got closer and closer to one of the most beautiful spots in the park system. I don't remember who caught the three small fish we gutted and fried in a little butter. But sitting there on a log, chatting with old friends, Wood's Creek moving slowly by carrying all our cares away, that was easily one of the best meals I've ever had.
Easy to be envious of Jesse, don't you think? You can follow his exploits here.