Collecting National Park T-Shirts: The Passion and the Pain

This is one of my favorites. How could I ever kill it?

“Ernie, you are my best friend in this world, and I will gladly give you the shirt off my back – unless, of course, it happens to be a national park tee.”

When I enter a national park visitor center, my feet automatically take me to the gift shop or bookstore. That’s where the national park T-shirts are. I simply cannot resist buying national park tees. I wear them as often as I can, too. It’s an addiction. There, I’ve admitted it. I’m feeling better already.

National park T-shirts aren’t like those other park souvenirs gathering dust on the shelf or stowed away in some forgotten shoebox. You wear them, and that makes all the difference. When you put on a national park tee, it doesn’t just trigger fond memories. It helps you relate to the world. Wear one on the trail, in the mall, or at the cookout and it tells others where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and what sort of person you are. Total strangers become new friends as they tell you their “I’ve been there too” stories.

I have a great big dresser drawer chock-full of neatly folded national park tees. This is my working inventory. There are more national park tees in my closet, at least one or two in the trunk of my car, and some others in the barracks bag I tote along on hunting trips. Out in the garage is a rag bag holding the remains of tees too ratty to wear.

Don’t look for national park tees in my laundry. Washing fades them, so I avoid that as much as possible. I’ve learned that a tee can be worn for at least three days before it ripens. (Since I sometimes lose the count, you might want to stand upwind from me like my friends and relatives do.) A tee that isn’t washed too often should last for years and years.

This brings me to the issue at hand. Summer is over here in the South Carolina, and so is the T-shirt season. We’ve had our first frost, and as winter draws near I can no longer ignore the fact that it’s time to clean out my T-shirt drawer. That space is needed for the lightweight sweaters and sweatshirts one must wear during the Palmetto state’s sissy winter. The tees will have to be moved to storage and rested until next April.

Alas, not all of my tees will get a well deserved rest. Some will have to be culled. Just as the clock ticks down for thee and me from the day we are born, a tee gets closer to the rag bag every day from the time it is made. Even tees that haven’t been foolishly washed too often will eventually fade from exposure to sunlight and the elements. Even venerable tees that have provided many years of faithful service, never complaining and never fading, eventually become unserviceable. Mine, for example, tend to rot out in the armpits.

A tidal wave of indecision has been eating at my innards. Which tees should I kill this year? Some of my old friends are looking pretty bedraggled. I suspect that several already know they will not be there next April to greet the warming sun and have already said their goodbyes.

Postscript: I’ve considered collecting national park sweatshirts too, but have you seen what they’re charging for those darn things? I’m a thrifty guy (not “cheap,” as my wife insists), so I’ll stick with the tees until I win the lottery.


I myself am a NP T-shirtaholic. I will buy 2 or three if I can't decide which one I want more. Unlike you my shirts don't get a rest, even though I live in NE Ohio, I wear my shirts year around. In the fall and winter I will wear them over a thermal T, and under a sweater or fleece pullover. Just having them near has a calming effect. I probably don't have nearly as many as you so I keep them hanging in my closet and will eventually pack them away in a storage container as they start to wear too thin, tear, or rot. I don't look forward to the day that I have to set my first T-shirt aside. It will be a solemn occasion filled with reminiscing of the good times and maybe even a few tears. I am glad you have given me the opportunity to share my obsession for NP T-shirts with you. I love your site, please keep up the wonderful work that you do with it.

We took several years buying tee shirts for the express purpose of turning them into a quilt. My wife did this and it's always on our bed.

What about the HATS?

@ Djjeffrey100; Thank you for confessing your NP tee obsession. It takes courage to admit that you are a shirtaholic, and I respect you for that. Perhaps testimony like yours will help others to confront this disease head-on and learn to deal with it. @ Anon; What are you THINKING, man?! Please tell me that you are making this up. I can't rest easy knowing that anybody would sacrifice wearable tees to make a quilt. If you insist on making quilts out of national park tees, I will be glad to send you my unserviceable ones. Never have counted them, but there's got to be at least 30 in the rag bag out there in the garage. (You might need to air them out for a while before working with them.) @WayneK; If you mean baseball-style caps, the only park-themed one I've got is an olive drab one with VOLUNTEER stitched at the top of the NPS arrowhead. I left it on the rear window ledge of my car for two summers, and as expected, the sun faded it just the "I've been around" color that I was looking for. If you are into cap- collecting, I'd like to hear more about it.

If you turn them inside out to wash them in cold water with Cheer Free or Dreft (costs more) and no fabric softener, then hang dry them, the precious things won't fade. I have many as well, as does my hubby (a major-league sweat machine), and the way I wash them keeps them looking great. I launder all t-shirts with logos or patterns this way. They still look new, and people can stand next to you when you wear one.

Hat's are the way to go, professor. They're much more durable than Tees. One of my favs bears the logo of the "Old Harbor U.S. Life Saving Service." Maybe we could use that as a Mystery Photo? Another, from Natural Bridges, reflects how hot it gets there in the summer -- it's a lightweight, buff-colored ballcap that won't toast your head during the high heat of July and August. Another from the Glacier Fund is much heavier, perfect for those not-too-terribly-cold ski days here in the Rockies.

As for Tees, my favorite has to be from Death Valley, as well. It bears a smilin', stridin' skeleton with the words, "Hike or Die!"

Broadcast the answer to a Mystery Photo quiz before you publish the quiz? That's great thinking, Kurt. No wonder you are a chief and I am still just an Indian. BTW, I think I'm beginning to warm to the idea of collecting caps. Please send me four or five of yours. Wash them first.

Thanks for the feedback, Jane. I did not get past the part of your comment that included the words "costs more," but perhaps others will be interested in your suggestions.

The first park-related t shirt that I remember was the ubiquitous "Go Climb a Rock" shirt peddled by the old Yosemite Park and Curry Co. It spawned a host of copy cat shirts like "Go hike a Canyon". My most prized park-related t shirt, no longer wearable, was created by the opposition forces to the creation of the new Alaska national monuments in the late 70's by President Carter, a step toward the new parks and preserves created by ANILCA. The shirt features a sled dog, lifting its leg and taking a leak on a sign reading "National Monuments." Priceless!

Rick Smith

Everything has a price, Rick. How much will you take for that sled dog shirt?

I first started collecting t-shirts from parks we visited. But I'm a runner and already had a ton of shirts from races. So then I went to coffee mugs. But it filled up our cabinets and I later gave up coffee. After that I went to caps and now have a closet full. So now I don't collect anything. I still have a few of my favorite shirts and caps that I wear occasionally.

You've given up collecting?! Robert, I suggest that you seek professional help right away. It may not be too late.

Lapel pins! They are cheap and take up very little room. Put up a big bulliten board, stick your pins in it and you're set!

On the note of t-shirts... any ideas where to get Joshua Tree shirts or Channel Island shirts? We visited both parks, they had no shirts, went to the stores in the towns and found none there as well. So, our t-shirt collection is lacking...

I collect the walking stick medallions. I always buy 2 of each... One for my walking stick, and one for a driftwood tree trunk I found in Earthquake Lake, Montana. I have it standing in the livingroom as a medal display.

Anon, the Western National Parks Association Store is a good online source of T-shirts and other Channel Islands National Park souvenirs. You'll find the WNPA store at this site. I agree that lapel pins are nice collectibles, but they can't keep the sun off your back.

If the Traveler gave out prizes -- and it's something that's crossed our minds -- Dan would win hands down, I think. Using a driftwood trunk to display those park walking stick medallions is, as they say in those Guinness commercials, Brilliant! Just Brilliant!.

Fire us off a photo Dan and we'll see if we can post it. Rather than getting the whole log in the shot, since it would likely be too small to discern much on the Traveler, focus on one section with lots of medallions.

Collecting hiking stick medallions is fun, though space limiting. I'm on my second. Hats are great too. I have three racks displaying my collection by the front door. I'm closing in on 40 ballcaps from parks and other fun places.

I have collected NP caps for over 20 years. I have them hanging from the rafters in my garage. Most of them I have worn only a few times. If I need to wash them I just put them in the dishwasher!

I admit that I'm a gift shop junkie. Not just National Parks, but museums also [here in Seattle we have the Museum of Flight, the Burke, the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum, and more]. Seems that if we can't get out to a park we do get to a museum.

I do baseball caps, tshirts, and coffee mugs. I have way too many of each and can't stop myself from getting more. Life is quite rich.

I also do the lapel pins. Started doing the t-shirt thing but living in an RV stopped that one. I then tried the medallions but found very few parks that have them. I'm now on the lapel pins and am fairly obsessed. I just don't know how to display them. Aren't there books with felt pages to put them in? I can't seem to find any.

Ranger Holly

I collected posters.

Specifically, Charley Harper posters.

At parks. $7-10. No ordering from GPO.

At one time I could identify each species represented in the desert poster.

I only had 6 of the posters when he died. [There are 11 that I know of if you count the Santa Rosa San Jacinto NM poster.]

I second the quilt idea! I had one made from my sons' baby clothes but people make them from t-shirts from rock shows and college sports, etc. too. Though you'll want to wash them first. ;)

Holly,10 year ago when I retired we started our national park travels.I collect hats,t shirts,the stamps for my nationlal park book.We have made all 58 of the majors ones.
But this is what I do with the pins,I pin them on a banner that some parks sell like at Yellowstone,I look at it everyday and think about how blessed we were to make it to Gods creations.If you send me your email I'll send you a picture it.People ask which one is our favorite, my anwser is all of them.

I stick with the passport stamps and stamping and a postcard and mailing it home to myself. Much cheaper then buying t-shirts but no less addictive.

We started collecting lapel pins in the past two years. We've been visiting state and national parks in California and Oregon. We hope to explore other states in the near future.

We have a piece of felt hanging in our van. We attach the pins there. Soon, we'll need a bigger piece of felt!

We have been disappointed, on several occasions, to be unable to find lapel pins for some of the places we've visited. Some places don't have gift shops, being more rustic sorts of places. Searching the internet has been frustrating. Does anyone have any suggestions on where to find these sorts of lapel pins? Thanks!

I'm in it for the embroidered patches, myself. Have a box of about 60 of them sitting beside me right now. I just haven't had the inspiration to figure out how to display them. I could see myself as an old man wearing a vest covered in gaudy patches...but at 36, I'd like to put off dressing like that for a few years. Dan's idea with the medallions is truly inspired, but wouldn't work as well with the patches. I must schedule some time to ponder this problem.

When we went cavorting through Canada last summer, I walked into the gift shop at the VC in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland and was informed they had had patches last year, but "didn't make any for this year." I must have looked angry, despondent, or confused, because she repeated herself in French. And just to put an even worse ending on this story, I got home and checked EBay. A Gros Morne patch had been up for sale and went for pennies two weeks earlier.

There was also the time I contemplated breaking into the VC at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park in Washington an hour before they opened because I thought I saw a rack of patches inside and we had to hit the road. I would have left money on the counter, but I think it's still considered "breaking and entering", so I left it alone.