I was in San Francisco to run a 200-mile relay with a handful of friends. I arrived in the city a few days early, to acclimate and explore, and went with my friend Tara to visit Alcatraz Island. It was my second visit to America’s most infamous prison and her first.
In the gift shop, I bought a National Parks Passport, a small booklet with information on America’s National Parks with room for commemorative collector stamps and cancellations, which are just stamps with the site name and date. I got my first cancellation at Alcatraz and that’s probably where it started.
“I think I want to try and visit all 59 National Parks,” I said to Tara as I made my way to the cash register, National Parks Passport in hand.
For a few years, that goal, to see America’s 59 National Parks seemed sufficient. Until it didn’t.
Now, there 60 national parks administered by the National Park Service that are called “National Parks.” There are 417 national parks in total that are administered by the National Park Service, but they go by a lot of different names. They’re called “National Monuments” and “National Battlefields” and “National Seashores” and “National Historic Sites” and there’s even one “National Park for the Performing Arts.” They’re called a lot of different things, but they’re all part of America’s Best Idea, all part of the National Park Service.
At some point I decided that just seeing the sites designated as a “National Park” wasn’t enough. I wanted to see them all, all 417 glorious, varied and scattered sites.
I’m still at the beginning of my quest, still just 68 parks into this adventure, but it’s created a fire in me. When I travel, I want to see these sites. I want to go to these places that America picked to protect and save and commemorate, for whatever reason, whether it’s a battlefield, a stunning and unique landscape or the home of one of America’s most famous figures.
Sometimes people ask me why I’m doing such a thing, why I want to visit these 417 sites, and it’s a thing I couldn’t really articulate in the beginning.
“Because why not?” I’d exclaim. “Because it sounds like a great adventure!”
It makes more sense now, now that I’m in the thick of the thing.
I’m doing it because I love this country. It’s not always perfect, this land of ours. We’ve made mistakes in our short history and we’re still figuring ourselves out, still forging our own identify, but I love it, flaws and all. It’s why I raised my right hand and swore allegiance to protect and defend it more than 15 years ago and it’s a big part of why I want to see all these parks, to spend more time with America, the land that I love.
I’m doing it because I love learning. This quest has taken me to the place where George Washington was born, to the site of hundreds-year-old ruins in New Mexico and Arizona and to a spot in Washington, D.C. that served as a headquarters for the fight for women’s suffrage. There’s the battlefields, too, and, of course, places like the Grand Canyon or the Great Smoky Mountains that preserve magical landscapes unique and special to America. There are lessons there too, about the way the land was formed and, often, about the people who called it home hundreds or thousands of years ago.
I’m doing it because it’s a long-term commitment. I’m not in a hurry. I’ve talked to a lot of park rangers and volunteers about the people who pop into a park, stamp their passport, purchase a patch and head out without learning a single thing or even beginning to explore what the park has to offer. I don’t want to do that. I want to earn each and every stamp and I want to remember each visit, each adventure. So, when I tell people I’m on a quest to visit all the parks, all 417 of them, I’m quick to say it’s a long-term goal, that I’m on a slow path of discovery.
I’m doing it because I enjoy it. That’s a simple reason, I know, but I love the feeling of pulling up to a new park. I love planning trips to visit parks, whether they’re local or on the other side of the country. I love talking to park rangers and volunteers, picking their brains about why they love the park, how long they’ve been there, their favorite thing about the place. I love the way it feels to step out onto a new trail, to wander through history or encounter beautiful and breathtaking views that are uniquely ours.
To me, the parks really are America’s Best Idea. I love that we’ve set these places aside, that we’ve protected them and, in doing so, recognized their value.
These 417 sites are part of our heritage, part of the American story. They all have value, each one of these places. The canyons and waterfalls and painted deserts. The historic homes and battlefields, the monuments to our freedom. They’re all special, all part of what makes us American.
Parks pictured, from top to bottom: 1. Shenandoah National Park in Virginia; 2. Alcatraz Island, part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, in San Francisco; 3. Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico; 4. Saguaro National Park in Arizona; 5. Fort McHenry Monument & Historic Shrine in Maryland; 6. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in Virginia; and 7. Great Falls Park in Virginia.