Visiting Every National Park In Retirement

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What are your dreams for retirement?  How about visiting every one of the National Parks in retirement.  I know a guy who’s doing just that after his early retirement at Age 53.  Even better, the guy is capturing his visits to each National Park in his new blog Journey 2 All 59 National Parks.  He’s also a reader of The Retirement Manifesto, and we’ve had fun chatting as he goes about the task of visiting every National Park.

Visiting Every USA National Park In Retirement? This guy's doing it, and today he tells us what he's learned. Click To Tweet

He’s living it, he’s doing it, and today he’s sharing it via a Guest Post on what he’s learned from his journeys.  To give you a sense of where he’s been, check out this cool “Journey Map” which he maintains here:

I’m happy to present lessons learned from this recent retiree as he works toward his goal of visiting every National Park in retirement! He’s made it to 40 of the 59 National parks thus far, and I encourage you to join him vicariously as he completes his “project” and documents his journeys on his website.


Five Takeaways from our National Parks Journey

Retirement!  What does that word mean to you?  For us, it means freedom to do what we’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have the time.  We were very fortunate to FIRE at age 53 with good health.  My dad loved nature and he passed that passion to me.  I managed to stoke some of that passion in my wife, a city girl who was born and raised in Manhattan.  As our first “project” in retirement, we are visiting all 59 official national parks in the USA.  

I traveled all over the US and the world for my job (43 weeks during my last year of work!), but traveling to a conference room all over the world is NOT visiting a place. I was always in and out because of the “next” meeting, event, etc. and trying to be home for as many weekends as possible. I got to know too many airports too well!

Yellowstone National Park (All pics courtesy of Journey To All 59 National Parks)

The seed for the idea to visit all national parks came from the most enjoyable vacation I had, back in 2004.  I was getting ready to start an international assignment, and already handed off my previous responsibility to my successor.  There was a 10-day window for a vacation.  Not just a vacation, but a vacation without work responsibilities.  We went to Yellowstone and Grand Teton and I was awed by the beauty, the wildlife, and the solitude (once we got on a trail).  No cell signal rendered my Blackberry (remember those things?) useless, it was liberating!  The best part was spending quality time with our boys, 9 and 13 at the time.  I loved every aspect of that vacation.  The seed was planted.

That wonderful memory, and the strong desire to really see America from the ground, were in the back of my mind when I saw the National Park Passport book at the Congaree National Park bookstore in June, 2106.  I was two months away from retirement and on that rainy day, my wife and I decided to see all the national parks as our first post-retirement venture.  During the last 18 months, we’ve visited 40 parks.  Here are our key takeaways so far:


Takeaway #1: America is truly beautiful and diverse

America is the most beautiful country on earth!  No other country has the number and variety of beautiful places.  Which other country can you see all of the following: Majestic mountains, pristine and deep blue lakes, volcanic craters, giant trees, deep caves, natural arches, deserts, wetlands, sand dunes, ancient cliff dwellings, forts, coral reefs, hot springs, geothermal geysers, cliffs, dramatic sea shores, majestic rivers, glaciers, not to mention the variety of animals, birds, and fish.  Countries boast when they have a few of these but no other country has all of it.  Not only does America has all of it, they are among the best in each category.

Crater Lake National Park, OR

From the tropics in Hawaii and American Samoa, to the frozen tundra inside the arctic circle in Alaska.  From the deserts in the southwest to the wetlands in Florida.  From the majestic Rocky Mountains to the corn fields of Kansas, America is diverse.  We drove through switchbacks that hugged the mountains, with dramatic cliffs by the ocean.  We drove through mind numbingly straight roads for hours in west Texas and the little islands stitched together with a narrow strip of road in the Florida Keys.  We drove through groves of giant trees and barren mountains above the tree line.  All of it beautiful and amazingly different.

The Chinese name for America: 美国 literally translates to “Beautiful Nation”.  Having seen many parts of the world, the name is very fitting.  America is a beautiful nation.

Isle Royale National Park, MI 

Takeaway #2: Americans are diverse and kind

Americans are some of the friendliest and kindest people on earth.  In the parks, on the trails, and at diners in small towns, people are friendly.  We started conversations easily with strangers, and they were happy to tell us about their journey, their town, and their experiences.  We met people who, like us, are visiting many national parks on a cross country trip.  

People from all over the world come to admire America’s beauty at the national parks.  We met people from Australia, Germany, UK, China and many other countries.  We saw the excitement of four Chinese young men breathlessly hiking up a tall sand dune at the Great Sand Dunes National Park.  The wait staff at the restaurant in Isle Royale National Park were guest workers from Taiwan, China, and Malaysia.  Despite being “stuck” on the island for 5 months, they loved their summer experience and formed tight bonds with their American co-workers.  We were there on the last day of the season and their American friends waited by the dock to see them off with hugs.  

Voyageurs National Park – MN

At International Falls, MN, near Voyageurs National Park, we learned about the decline of the local paper mills, and the impact it has on the town.  I am sad for the town but glad to see it firsthand so I can better understand the plight of communities outside of my prosperous suburban North Carolina bubble, and why the people are angry.  Reading about them does not have the same impact.

Americans are diverse, but more than ethnicity.  Certainly, America is the melting pot of the world but more than that, the lifestyles of Americans are diverse.  Pickup trucks dominate the Dakotas and Texas because of farming and the oil industry, while sedans and Priuses are plentiful in Silicon Valley.  

Despite the differences in style, geography and ethnic background, people we met all want the same thing – to have the opportunity to earn a fair living, and hope for the future for them and their children.  Americans are a hopeful and optimistic people, even today.  There are far more common values that unite us than divide us, if only we are willing to keep an open mind and understand the other person’s point of view.

Channel Islands National Park, CA

Takeaway #3: A national parks tour is a great way to see the country

Our trips to see the national parks took us to all regions of the continental US, except the Northwest, so far.  While national parks are our destination, the little towns and big cities we pass on the way are just as interesting.  We’ve touched all four sides of the continental US borders, from Voyageurs on the Canadian border, to Big Bend on the Mexican border.  From Redwood and Channel Islands on the pacific coast, to Acadia and Biscayne on the Atlantic coast.

While not exactly foodies, we love to try different kinds of food.  

Lobster in Acadia National Park

There is a reason why certain food is famous in a region, and they are the most delicious.  You just can’t replicate it elsewhere.

  • Lobster in Maine is sweet and succulent, like nowhere else
  • Barbeque ribs in Kansas City is fall off the bone tender and juicy, and the burnt ends are out of this world delicious
  • Poke is melt in your mouth fresh in Hawaii, and surprisingly, Las Vegas
  • Indian taco in South Dakota was tasty and filling
  • Ropa Veija shredded beef at Little Havana in Miami was delicious
  • Tamale and salsa in Mexico, after a two-minute rowboat ride across the Rio Grande, were super fresh

While we can read about all of these places, it cannot replace physically being there to experience the environment.  It’s not just the place, but the people.  Because we have the time to linger, to talk to people we meet, and to spend time observing, I understand much more why people do what they do and feel what they feel.  I am more open minded than ever before.

These trips take time, and retirement gave us the time needed.  We did five three-week trips in the last 15 months but stayed home during the summer to avoid the crowds.  When you control your own time, you have the flexibility to avoid the crowds and travel off season!

Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA

Takeaway #4: Theme park people vs. national park people

There are two distinctly different types of people who visit national parks:

Theme park people.  

These are the folks who ask the ranger “What can I see in 3 hours”.  They are the folks who come on tour buses and stop at a few sights for 15 minutes each.  They are the folks who hike the trails in flip-flops.  We saw a lady as we were completing our Bright Angel trail hike in Grand Canyon, about ¼ mile from the trail head.  She was wearing a flowery dress, sandals, and a huge, wide brimmed straw hat.  She asked me “how far is it to the end of the trail?” (A: 9.3 miles and 4380 feet change in elevation).  She perfectly represented a theme park person.  They are typically seen in places like Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone.  You won’t find them at Black Canyon of the Gunnison or Isle Royale.  They don’t usually say hello as they pass other hikes on the trails, when they go on the trails.  90% of the visitors to Grand Canyon never go below the rim.

National park people.  

These are the folks who take full advantage of the 7 days a single entrance fee allows.  They wear hiking boots, backpacks, and often have hiking poles.  They ask the rangers for the latest trail conditions and where wild life was last seen.  They always say hello as they pass other hikers.  At Isle Royale, we met a couple of typical national park people.  They carried a large back pack, wore hiking boots, had hiking poles, and just finished 3 days of camping. They smiled and said hello as we passed.  We were a little lost because we missed a sign for the turn off.  They told us right away that we went too far and as we doubled back, they walked with us talked about moose sightings and their camping experience until we saw the missed sign.  National park people are at all the parks, typically deeper into a hiking trail.

There is nothing wrong with theme park people, but they are missing the true essence of national parks.  Hopefully, their experience will convert them to national park people.

Are most of the people in the FI (financial independence) community national park people?  I see a lot of parallels.

Yosemite National Park, CA

Takeaway #5: National parks are a great value

There are many ways to visit national parks, at many expense levels.  While some are expensive to reach (like Dry Tortugas, Channel Islands, Isle Royale) because they require a boat or a plane ride, most are accessible by car.  If you have an RV or want to camp, it’s inexpensive to enjoy some of the best scenery and night sky anywhere.  

Since my wife and camping are like oil and water,  we stay at “adequate” hotels at nearby towns, typically for $60 – $120 per night, and use hotel points whenever we can.  We load up on the free breakfast, and get one foot-long Subway sandwich to share for lunch, usually the $6 special of the day.  We get a case of water at Costco for $2.99 when we start a trip, and that usually lasts us the entire trip.

Some of the parks have fancy lodges and restaurants, like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite, where you can really splurge and spend hundreds a night.  They have their charm and nostalgic value.

You can find a suitable choice for your desired expense level in lodging and food at national parks.

Park entrance fees are a great value.  Some parks, like the Great Smoky, don’t charge an entrance fee at all.  One entrance fee is good for 7 days for those parks that have an entrance fee, the most expensive of which is $30 for a carload of people (there is a proposal to raise it to $70 during peak season at certain parks).  The best deal is the $80 ($20 for seniors, free for current military and disabled) annual pass for all sites managed by the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.  If you are a senior, it’s $80 lifetime and you can bring 4 other people on the pass!!  This used to be a ridiculous $10 until this year!

The best deals we’ve had during our trips:

  • $80 annual national park pass.  We went to 40 parks between September, 2016 and September, 2017.  That works out to $1 per park, per person!
  • $261 to rent an SUV from Enterprise for 21 days with pickup from Tucson, AZ and drop off at Medford, OR.  We more than doubled the odometer during our trip.
  • $6 Subway footlong for their sub of the day, enough to feed both us for lunch.  There is a is a subway everywhere, even in the smallest of towns.  This was especially useful for parks without any food service.
  • $2.99 for a case of water at Costco, just enough for our three-week trips.

In Conclusion

There is a saying that the National Park is “America’s Best Idea”.  I couldn’t agree more.  The goal to visit all the National Parks puts a framework in place for our desire to travel during retirement.  We had high expectations and our experience so far exceeded them.  

As a bonus, I’m learning photography, videography, and video editing to better capture our experience.  Learning is an important part of retirement and life in general.  We worked hard and saved to achieve a relatively early retirement, and the reward of having the freedom to pursue our personal desires was well worth it.  These national park trips are fulfilling our desire to see the country, meet diverse people, relax in nature, and most importantly, grow even closer as a couple.

Remaining: Hawaiian parks, Alaskan parks, Northwest parks, American Samoa, and Virgin Island.  We can’t wait!

 

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46 comments

  1. This brings back good memories, been to about 25 of the national parks in the USA, has been a blast every single time! Agree that the national park pass is the best investment (idea) ever 🙂

  2. I’ve always said libraries are America’s second greatest value. America’s greatest value is hands down its national parks. Thanks for sharing your national park adventure to date. I am following a similar journey and have experienced the exact same epiphany. The more I see of America, the more I marvel at its beauty and people. America is truly a kick-ass country. Cheers, my friend.

    P.S. Just wait until you visit Glacier National Park. It’s going to blow you away.

    1. Couldn’t agree more on Glacier NP! I’ve been to a bunch of the NP’s (even worked in Yellowstone & Glacier Bay during college summers), Glacier is absolutely one of the top parks in the country. Gorgeous place! Glad you were able to visit a few months ago!

    2. Glacier is beautiful…but, I am going to open a can of worms. Possibly, my most beautiful park I want to share with your readers is Banff National Park, located about 50 km NW of Calgary Canada. The lakes are the color of the Carribean sea, so gorgeous you can stare for awhile and not tire. Great trails to hike near Lake Louise. Google the photos folks, you won’t be disappointed! I realize this is about America’s national parks, but wanted to motivate readers to visit Banff. God bless America and all of you….

      1. I wouldn’t disagree with Banff OR Jasper. My wife and I have been to both, and they are truly magnificent displays of nature. I’d put them both up there with Glacier as “Must Sees”. Thx for expanding the discussion beyond our Northern Border, I agree there’s a lot “Up There” there shouldn’t overlooked with an exclusive focus on the USA. Nice addition.

    3. I can’t wait either, and it’s in the plans! We are planning to do Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Great Basin Sept of 2018, after the crowds leave but before the roads close for snow. Amazingly, hotel rooms inside the park are almost all booked! Better hurry.

      I’ve heard so much about Glacier. It’s many people’s favorite park. Better to see it before the glaciers disappear (projected 2030), but I heard it’s got lots more to offer than the glaciers.

      1. You won’t be disappointed in Glacier. A truly phenomenal park. Your loop sounds AMAZING….it’ll take some time to swing from Glacier to the Great Basin, but it’ll be an adventure you’ll remember. Good thing you’ve already FIRE’d, and will have the time! Envious in Georgia….

  3. Sure beats hanging out in a cubicle all day.

    I hope to do something almost exactly like THIS when the bell rings for me. Wonderful post. Sometimes I forget about all the amazing places right in our own backyard. Rick Steves can wait until I’m a bit older for more Euro-trash. (Sorry, Cheesy!) 🙂

    1. “Sounds like a great way to spend retirement.” It does, indeed! We’re going to be spending a lot of time in NP’s after we retire, looks like we won’t be the only ones! Journey 2 All 59 National Parks is a great resource for anyone heading to a National Park, definitely worth checking out!

  4. Great post! We love the National Parks as well. Have been to about 14 so far with plans to visit more this year. There were times when we did not get to explore the parks like we wanted due to time constraints. The downside of not being retired. One of our goals was to expose our children to the parks and the outdoors. Our plan is to explore many more and return to our favorites once we reach FI in a class B RV. Nice and slow…

    1. RV! 2017 is on track to be the best selling RV year in 40 years! They take you to places, inside the parks, where you have the best scenery and especially dark skies for star gazing. Comfortable bed, especially important for people like me who are getting older :-). But I have to convince my wife first, who hates driving anything bigger than a minivan.

  5. Wow, that would be amazing to see all of those National Parks. They are all so unique. By being spread out as they are, a traveler would get to experience everything that this beautiful country has to offer.

    1. Agree totally! There are many parks I’ve never heard of before we started this journey, and every one of them have something to offer. Traveling to them is half the fun and we learned so much about our amazing country.

  6. We do so much traveling. And we typically look abroad. We’ve actually talked about doung a lot of domestic travel, once/if our family expands and we’re a little more limited on the travel side. So I think this is a great way to go.

    Pretty cool and jealous as I sit here at my desk.

  7. Given the unlimited options of what one could do in retirement, the abundance of choices can be paralyzing for some. I like the clarity of their goal “visiting all 59 national parks.” The lesson is to pick something of interest, develop a specific goal, and do it. I heard of a couple that set a goal of biking rails-to-trails in each state. Or visit an outstanding state park in each state (some state parks rival the national parks and they are less crowded). A tour of great museums. Turn whatever your interests are into a goal. This isn’t work so it doesn’t matter if you complete the goal, it’s just something to get you started.

    1. I agree on your “lesson” of setting a goal, and doing it. Also a good point about State Parks. We really enjoy State Park camping, and are considering setting a retirement goal of visiting every State Park in Georgia. Goals definitely help in “getting you started”.

    2. Some state parks do indeed rival some national parks, and many national parks have state parks adjacent to them. Example would be Custer State Park, next to Wind Cave (South Dakota). It was actually more interesting than Wind Cave.

      For sure, some parks are more “interesting” than others, but by having the goal to visit all, it “forces” us to go to the lesser known parks. Every one of the lesser known parks have something surprising to offer and we learned just as much at those parks. An example is Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Hard to get to but so much history there.

  8. That’s really rad. I’ve visited my shares of US national parks and each one has their charms. Visiting national parks sure beats sitting in the cubical all day long. 🙂

  9. Wow – great post about a great plan! I love this idea. When we get to FIRE, I would love to take some time over several years and enjoy this very adventure with my dear wife.

    Especially if I do not need to camp! 🙂

  10. This is a wonderful post.

    The magic of our doorstep. Although we are big fans of traveling beyond our shores, the beauty here is why we love this country so much. Could not imagine leaving to live elsewhere, to be honest.

    Our favorite National Park areas so far are Tetons (winter skiing) and Acadia (summer). So much more to discover and we’ll soon have more time, won’t we…. :>)

    1. While some national parks in the US are “overcrowded” like Zion and Yosemite, the definition of “overcrowded” is different. I’ve visited some beautiful places in China, but oh the number of people!! You literally line up to go on a hike, or have a line of 150 people lined up waiting to climb a stream. We are very blessed with the beauty and the space we have in USA. Even in the most crowded parks, once you get a mile of two onto a trail, it’s rarely crowded. We’ve done hikes of 4 miles and seen only two other couples!

  11. Oh man oh man…where do I sign up. This looks awesome and definitely on my bucket list. Can I still where my sun dress though…with my hiking boots!

    We have always loved the people we meet hiking and camping. It is such a great experience and couldn’t agree more that this country is amazing and beautiful.

  12. Great guest post, Fritz! I’ve only recently gotten into the national park scene and I can’t think of many better frugal family activities to do. I remember once talking about taking a trip to Iceland or Norway to see the Northern Lights and a friend asked me “why not Alaska?”. Why not indeed.

    Since then, we’ve significantly reduced international travel and are more focused on enjoying our beautiful country. I don’t want to have any regrets if we decide to live elsewhere when we properly retire.

    1. We missed the northern lights at Voyageurs in Sept by a day. The ranger that did our boat tour showed us pictures of northern lights the night before. We didn’t know to look for it because we thought it was only in the winter time and probably more north than where we were. We looked for it that night but it was cloudy. Northern lights is one of the things on my list!

  13. We picked up our passbook earlier this year and although not yet retired, we are happy we’ve already added 4 stamps to it! Looking forward to filling it out in pre and post-retirement. We absolutely plan to hit as many as possible in all the states possible. Great summary and we’ll refer back to this article in the future.

    I guess we consider ourselves National Park people as opposed to Theme Park people, too! I also have to say that the National Park staff and volunteers are very knowledgeable and we always engage them in a few minutes of conversation to get their tips for our visit. They are awesome!

  14. My wife and I have done three cross country trips to see national parks and could not agree more. We actually pull a small 1964 popup camper with a Prius and take our dog as well. We work at a High School and have two months off every summer. I am so looking forward to hitting those parks in the shoulder season when we retire! Awesome article. You are getting me excited to go again this summer!

  15. National park staff at less crowded are often very happy to engage and exchange stories. Most of them look like the would not want to be anywhere else. Volunteers at the most crowded parks are often better than rangers because they seem less harried and willing to spend more time talking to you.

  16. I’m sure I have seen some statistic that says 90% of visitors never venture more than 1/4 mile from the parking lot. Crazy!
    In Yellowstone we walked only 1/2 mile from a really busy spot in August and spent lunch by a deserted lake. Magical!

  17. A physician at my previous place of employment retired not long ago, and he has been traveling all over with his wife and sharing the journey in pictures on Facebook. Your post photos remind me of them to some degree. It’s pretty neat to “experience” the travel along with them, along with some of his good humor.

  18. I don’t ever want to retire. I want to enjoy my work so much that I won’t want to fully retire. Maybe tone down the intensity one day, but definitely not completely retire. A lot of people enter post-retirement depression because they feel cut off from the world.

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