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Is It "Elitist" To Try to Visit All 58 National Parks?


Is it 'elitist' to carefully plan your vacations so you can visit all 58 national parks, such as Voyageurs National Park? NPS photo of a scene in Voyageurs.

There was a disconcerting column in the Utne Reader the other day, one that dubbed those who tried to visit all 58 national parks "elitist." "Determined," is one adjective that comes immediately to mind when talk turns to visiting all 58, but "elitist"?

Under the title, Don't Be a National Park Bagger, writer Keith Goetzman claims that those who set out to visit all 58 of the "national parks" do so so fleetingly that they can't possibly come to truly, and intimately, appreciate the 58. Plus, he points out, you'd leave a huge carbon footprint with all the driving and flying necessary to accomplish the task.

"Face it", writes Mr. Goetzman, "only the wealthiest and luckiest among us has the vacation time, the money, and the means to have a chance at ticking off all 58 parks, and even announcing your achievement to the world can come perilously close to bragging about what an amazingly fortunate life you lead—not the sort of message parks advocates should be sending."

Hopefully the folks who are members of the National Park Travelers Club don't catch wind of his column. This group celebrates travelers who look at visiting as many of the 391 units of the National Park System not as something that's elitist but rather something that's both a challenge and a great way to celebrate and appreciate the national parks movement in the United States.

And really, how elitist is it? Where I live in Utah, seven national parks are within a half-day's drive. Stretch that to a full day on the road and I can add another six. With some rather typical vacation planning, anyone in the country could knock off anywhere between three and five national parks during a two-week vacation, or a series of four-day weekends scattered throughout the year. Would it really be that "elitist," if you were so determined, to visit the 58 national parks over a period of a decade or so? True, for those on the East Coast getting to Alaska could be an expensive endeavor, just as it would be for those in Alaska determined to visit Everglades or Virgin Islands national parks. But over the course of your adult lifetime, it wouldn't necessarily be impossible if you were determined to visit the parks.

Concerned about your carbon footprint? There are mass transit options that can be combined with park shuttle systems, as well as other ways to offset your carbon footprint.

The other point Mr. Goetzman raises is whether those who set out to tour the 58 could come away with more than a superficial, fawning glance.

...the “collect ’em all” mentality goes against a better, nobler impulse, which is to get to know the land intimately. Better that we should acquaint ourselves with one, two, or a few parks very well than attempt to superficially survey them all in baseball-card-collector fashion. Several years ago, I worked for the summer in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, driving a tourist shuttle van between the tiny gateway community of McCarthy and the mining relic town of Kennicott. Among my passengers I met a few park baggers, most memorably a man and his teenage son. They “explored” the park in an afternoon, which meant strolling among Kennicott’s dilapidated buildings, looking up at the stupendous glaciers around them, and then riding my van back down to resume their journey. Never mind that Wrangell-St. Elias is the nation’s largest park at 13 million acres, and that even someone who’s there for months, as I was, can barely claim to have scratched the surface of its vast wonder. The man told me that they were off next to the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, which they would fly over in a bush plane—not even setting foot on the tundra. They added both parks to their all-important list, yet they didn’t have a true wilderness experience in either place.

Indeed, if all you seek to attain is a National Park Passport stamp, then yes, "park bagging" is over-rated and denies those involved in such an endeavor a tremendous opportunity to see fantastic landscapes and get at least an introduction to different ways of life and cultures. But let's be fair to those who visit Wrangell-St. Elias. The park, spanning more than 13 million acres, has two gravel roads that make forays of a combined 101 miles into the park's 20,580 square miles. Even if you knew how to live off the land and had the available time, it likely would take more than a lifetime to "know the land intimately."

Many people do fall in love with a small handful of parks, and visit them time and time and time again, which can be a wonderfully rewarding experience. But let's not be so self-righteous as to ridicule those who want to see as many of these magnificent landscapes and soak up the rewards they offer.


Having enjoyed most of the National Parks and Monuments along with numerous State, County and Local remarkable, historical and natural wonders I have yet to purchase some book that is meant to defined my experiences to a single journal.

It is amazing having these experiences yet having to think about purchasing a book for $9 or using that same money to actually enjoy the park by offsetting my camping fee was always a quick decision. No offense to those that enjoy that experience. We all find our riches in the things we enjoy but remember that book does not define the endless amount of experiences our Nation has available to you and your family.

I encourage everyone to become an elitist and start by taking a walk around a local park then making a day hike to saving up enough money to camp outdoors for a night. You will be surprised how easy it is when you set your priorities in life and do not worry if you missed a stamp or forgot to buy a postcard. Our parks are not a shopping mall. (Although maybe one day I will spend a year and revisit all the parks to get a stamp but what will that do for me in the end?)

The idea that people don't get into nature enough or travel enough is close to my heart, so I I was disturbed by the article referenced here enough to write to Mr. Goetzman, and now we've exchanged thoughtful and enlightening emails.

If I interpret him correctly, what he wanted to express was a distaste for "collecting" the parks just to reach a number and do some chest-thumping upon attaining it. He's not denying that the educational, emotional, or perhaps spiritual value for some people may make the carbon expense worthwhile. He says everyone has to look at their activities and decide for themselves if it's worth it. I think he'd be less critical if someone was celebrating the education of the journey (ala imtnbke above) rather than the magical number of 58.

I told him I thought is was his obligation, as a skilled writer, to visit these places and tell their story. He said he always tries to tell nature's story and will continue to do so.

He also argued that despite my contention that you can visit National Parks on the cheap, American Samoa is reserved for those with a bit of extra cash. I checked plane fare, and will have to concede that point to Mr. Goetzman!

Just thought I'd share that, as we are all brutalizing him here, and he seems like a good guy whose point would have been better expressed with an extra 2,000 words in the original article.

Years ago I resolved to visit all 50 states and had visited about 45 of them by the time I graduated from college. I got to Alaska in 1995 and thereby completed the quest. I'm glad I did it. I learned a lot about the country socially (especially during thousands of miles of hitchhiking) and saw a lot of scenery. Except when hitchhiking, I stuck to two-lane roads whenever I could do so without crawling through suburbs or densely settled areas. That meant that west of, say, Ohio I was able to avoid freeways almost all the time. I still avoid them as much as time permits.

I've also been to all Canadian provinces except Prince Edward Island (which I saw from a distance across the frozen sea in the 1970s). I learned a lot about Canada too, y compris le Québec. I do need to visit the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.

Whether visiting all of the national parks is a worthwhile goal I don't know, but it sounds like it would be unless one only drove into the visitor center parking lot and then moved on.

Keith Goetzman can go suck a lemon.

When I was a kid, I loved roadtrips. Sitting up in the front seat next to dad, listening to the radio, reading the map as we went along. Always loved looking at maps...

When Reagan was president, there was some concern that the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua would welcome fleets of russian tanks, and that it was just a '4 day drive' from Nicaragua to Texas. I remember thinking "4 days from Texas to Nicaragua, huh? Cool..."

I have been to 315 of the 391 units of the National Park System. I believe that my life has been affected deeply by the experiences I've had in traveling to them, and will continue to visit units of the National Park System and also visit National Forests, National Wildlife Preserves, Bureau of Land Management areas, State Parks, and Indian lands. I also like lighthouses, museums, ghost tours, old churches, weird roadside stuff. (I'm actually going to go to the Creation Museum that Bill Maher went to in 'Religulous' in Kentucky, not far from Cincinnati. On their website they mention that they're "within a day’s drive of about two-thirds of the U.S. population.") Thats just the U.S. I've camped in and explored historic sites and national parks across Canada and Mexico. The lessons I've learned about this whole continent, land, people, history, culture, humbles me. Elitist? I feel that there's so much more to learn and see, and I will continue to explore and learn as best I can.

Tell Keith Goetzman to go pick on people who are out there trying to bag all the Hard Rock Cafe's, not people who go to our National Park System.

It's not exactly an NPS property, but rather seems to be a quasi-NPS/FS entity with a board of directors.

A nine-member board of trustees is responsible for the protection and development of the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Seven of its members are appointed by the President of the United States. In addition, the current Superintendent of nearby Bandelier National Monument and the Forest Supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forest also serve on the board

Looking at places to see in New Mexico, I came across Valles Caldera National Preserve ( ). This doesn't seem to be listed on either the NPS site or the Wikipedia site.

Planning on taking a four day trip in November in which I will be flying to Vegas. In those four days I plan on taking day trips visiting Hoover Dam, Kings Canyon and Death Valley. Guess I won't be having that "wilderness experience" but I know it will be well worth the trip.

Those are sure enough gorgeous NPS units, Marcy, but both Pictured Rocks and Sleeping Bear Dunes are designated National Lakeshore, not National Park. There are four national lakeshores in all. The other two are Indiana Dunes (at southern end of Lake Michigan) and Apostle Islands (in Wisconsin on Lake Superior).

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