national park service

Our 2016 National Parks Wishlist


This year we were lucky enough to visit three spectacular National Parks: Badlands National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park. After getting our greedy little hands on an America the Beautiful National Parks pass, we’re more eager than ever to check some more parks off our list!

So that got us thinking: Which parks do we want to check out in 2016? When we checked out the list of all 59 National Parks, we learned some interesting facts before making my wish list.

  • There are national parks in 27 states and the territories of American Samoa and the US Virgin Islands.
  • California has the most (nine), followed by Alaska (eight), Utah (five), and Colorado (four).
  • The largest national park, at over eight million acres, is Wrangell–St. Elias in Alaska. It’s larger than nine US states.  (The smallest is Hot Springs, Arkansas.)
  • National parks protect a total area of approximately 51.9 million acres.
  • The most-visited national park is Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee (over ten million visitors in 2014), followed by Arizona’s Grand Canyon.

So, without further ado … here’s our National Parks Wish List for 2016!


Grand Canyon National Park

This spring we’re visiting Arizona, home to three awesome national parks. I’m crossing my fingers that we’ll be able to see all of them, but at the top of our list is the Grand Canyon. We’ve heard it’s a view that takes your breath away, and we can’t wait to see it!


Zion National Park

Zion National Park in Utah features massive pink and red sandstone cliffs against brilliant blue sky. It’s famous for its hiking trails – like the 16-mile Narrows hike where you wade through a riverbed canyon through a gorge with walls a thousand feet tall and the river sometimes just twenty to thirty feet wide. Zion also features some really fantastic natural arches, the most famous of which are Crawford Arch and Kolob Arch. It’s a little out of our way, but I’m crossing my fingers that we make it to Zion National Park during our southwest travels this winter.


Hot Springs National Park

We’ll be making our way through Arkansas when we return east this spring, and I’m pretty excited to check out Hot Springs National Park. It’s pretty cool that at Hot Springs, unlike at Yellowstone, the thermal waters aren’t death traps.Nicknamed “The American Spa,” this may be the most luxurious of the National Parks, featuring gorgeous historic and modern bath houses where you can still test out the thermal waters!


Shenandoah National Park

It’s a little embarrassing to me to say we’ve never visited Shenandoah National Park, considering that we lived in Virginia for ten years! Shenandoah is famous for its cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, and quiet wooded hollows. There’s also some fantastic hiking — and I’m thinking this might be a good place for us to start doing some backcountry camping, as well.


Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Cuyahoga Valley is less than five hours from our home base in Virginia, and we’d love to make a weekend trip there this summer. I love rail-to-trail paths, and the Ohio & Erie Towpath is the major trail through Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I also get super excited about trains, and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad looks like the perfect way to spend an afternoon. Cuyahoga Valley is also home to Brandywine Falls, 65-foot high falls complete with a 1.5-mile gorge trail hike.


Acadia National Park

We’ve been to Acadia National Park before (most recently, a week-long camping trip in 2014) but we love it so much, we had to include it again! One Acadia highlight is Cadillac Mountain, the highest mountain on the East Coast — where you can see the sunrise before anyone else! Whether you like mountains or ocean, Acadia offers the best of both worlds: unparalleled hiking and gorgeous coastal views. We’re hoping to spend some time here in August and September.

Which National Parks are on your 2016 wish list?

Old Faithful & the Grand Tetons (Day 15)

The next day dawned rainy and dismal. We’d had a better night’s sleep than the night before, but our moods were dampened by the cold rain. We had planned another day exploring Yellowstone, but wouldn’t be returning to that campground, so we were forced to pack up our tent and other gear while it was still soaking wet. For the first time in our trip, it felt like our enthusiasm was flagging; Ryan was fighting a head cold after our chilly night, and the gloomy day was definitely affecting both our moods.

We had just two stops planned for the day: Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful. Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the United States, and the third largest in the world, but I was mostly interested in it because of the beautiful rainbow of colors it displays.

Well, I was in for a disappointment; it was about 45 degrees out and the warm water (160 degrees) meeting the cool air left the springs clouded in steam.



Next stop: Old Faithful — and our timing couldn’t have been better. It erupts every 35 to 125 minutes, and we weren’t excited about the possibility of waiting in the rain, but it went off just 2 or 3 minutes after we arrived. Maybe it was the dreary day affecting our mood, but we just weren’t that impressed.


Directly south of Yellowstone National Park is Grand Teton National Park — directly between us and our next stopping point in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. By the time we arrived at the border of Grand Teton, the unpleasant weather was beginning to evaporate and we were treated to some tremendous views of the incredible Teton mountain range.

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You might be able to tell that by this point we were kind of ready for a break from camping. Hotels in Jackson Hole were, as we expected, pretty pricey. So instead we reserved a “kamping kabin” at the Jackson Hole / Snake River KOA. This one-room cabin had a double bed and a pair of bunk beds — and Ryan even scored us a cabin with an amazing riverfront view!

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After cooking dinner at our campground, we headed into town to check out Jackson Hole — a charming, upscale town nestled in the base of the mountains. We enjoyed homemade ice cream at Moo’s Gourmet Ice Cream, spent some time browsing the local bookstore, and wandered in and out of the shops. I can only imagine how cozy the town would be in the winter when the resort ski season begins!

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Exploring Yellowstone (Day 14)

We woke up the next morning undeterred by a terrible night’s sleep. The KOA encouraged late check-ins, and we had neighbors in the tent village arrive at around midnight and make all kinds of racket setting up their site. In addition, the temperatures plummeted in the night, dropping to around 24 degrees — definitely at the low end of what our gear was rated for.

But we were excited to see Yellowstone and fortified ourselves with a big breakfast. (Another plus of the tent village: the counter area, which allowed me to easily set up and plug in my griddle to make bacon and eggs! Truly luxurious camping!)

Our main destination for the day was Mammoth Hot Springs, but with the whole day ahead of us we were ready to see as many sights as possible. We knew from our previous day’s drive that it would be a real challenge not to stop every five minutes to take pictures of the beautiful views!

Our first stop was at Gibbon Falls, a beautiful waterfall with a drop of about 84 feet.

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Next detour: the Artist Paint Pots. We primarily stopped because we were intrigued by the name, and learned it was a short hike through a small geothermal basin. The hot water bubbled up through multicolored clay, making it look for all the world like an artist’s palette!

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We saw more buffalo, elk, and pronghorns as we drove through the park, but a new exciting wildlife moment was when we spotted a black bear and her roly-poly cub! The bear herself was so small, we thought she might be a baby until we saw the cub tucked in the underbrush beside a log. Sadly, my hopes of seeing a grizzly bear (a very far away grizzly bear) never materialized.

The elk were very pretty though.
The elk were very pretty though.

Next we made a stop at Mammoth Hot Springs, a large complex of hot springs on a hill of travertine. Thermal activity here has created a series of terraces that the warm bubbling water flows over. The hot springs were interesting to look at, but they smelled terrible! They reminded me of a very dirty version of the lovely hot springs in Pamukkale, Turkey.

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Our final stop — the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone — proved to be one of the most beautiful wonders we’d see that day.  We hiked from out to a point overlooking the canyon from up high, then hiked down to an overlook just above the lower falls. (Our glutes were feeling that burn for days!)

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Our day of exploring Yellowstone had worn us both out, so we returned to the campground ready for a quiet evening relaxing and reading by the fire.  We had seen much of the northern part of the park; we planned to see the park’s southern sights the next day.

A Full Day at Rushmore & Crazy Horse (Day 10)

Today was one of our busiest days yet! We had two major stops planned for the day: Mount Rushmore Nation Memorial and the Crazy Horse Memorial.

It was another bright and sunny day and we kept getting excited at glimpses of Mount Rushmore through the trees as we traveled the windy road from Custer State Park to the national park. Parking at Rushmore was $11 — sadly, a “concession fee” not covered by our shiny new America the Beautiful annual pass.

For some reason we had both been keeping our expectations low about visiting Mount Rushmore. It seemed like the kind of attraction that could easily turn cheesy or tourist trap-y. But we were both totally in awe. It felt so surreal to look up at a mountain with the incredibly life-like faces of great Americans carved in the side of it.

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We spent the better part of the morning strolling the walkway that runs under Rushmore, exploring the exhibit hall, and enjoying lunch at Carver’s Cafe on a patio overlooking the monument.

Our next stop was the Crazy Horse Memorial about 25 minutes away. This was a destination high on Ryan’s list, but one I didn’t know anything at all about. The Crazy Horse Memorial is a mountain monument still under construction depicting Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. Only his head of the monument is totally finished, standing at 87 feet high (compared to the 60-foot heads on Mount Rushmore). The rest of the statue, which will be 563 feet tall, has been in progress since 1948.

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Visiting Crazy Horse was a very different experience from Rushmore. It was much more expensive to get in — $11/person, plus $4/person for the bus ride to the base — but we were interested to learn that Crazy Horse is a privately-operated project that doesn’t accept federal or state funding, and is financed by admissions fees and private contributions. (The foundation also operates the Indian University of North America, as well as a museum, educational, and cultural center.)

We were eager to visit the top of the statue — there’s a road to the top, out to the extended arm — but quickly changed our minds when we heard the per-person cost: $150. The bus driver overheard us discussing our disappointment with some other passengers, and told us that the very next day there was a hiking event that would allow you to walk a 10K path to the top for just $3/person (plus a donation of three cans of food for a local food pantry). We immediately decided to come back the following day.

We took the scenic route back to our campground in Custer State Park along the Needles Highway — 14 miles of sharp turns, low narrow tunnels, and impressive granite spires.

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After a quick dinner in the campground, we headed right back out to Mount Rushmore. That morning we’d heard they hold a lighting ceremony each evening and we thought that sounded too cool to pass up. The twisting mountain road that had offered such tremendous views that morning were a little terrifying in the dark, but we made it back to Rushmore in time to grab ice cream from Carver’s Cafe, listen to a presentation from Ranger Carly, and watch the faces on the mountain light up to the sound of the Star Spangled Banner.

Picture borrowed from Wiki because mine came out reeeaaaally badly.
Picture borrowed from Wiki because mine came out reeeaaaally badly.

Our First “Real” Road Trip Day (Day 7)

Today was the first day it really felt like we were on a road trip. Now that we were away from friends, away from family, and far away from the East Coast in new, very western, territory, it finally felt like our adventure had started. We were on a road trip!

Rebecca started the day with an early-morning run back by the falls downtown, and once she was back and we were cleaned up and ready to go, we started west. The sights were very new, at least to me, and everything was intoxicating — I probably was not the safest driver as I had my head on swivel all day at all the new sights.

We made a pit stop after about two hours, and learned what would become one of the most important lessons we learned on the trip: Talk to the locals!

Rest stops look pretty cool out west.
Rest stops look pretty cool out west.

The place we stopped was a South Dakota welcome center, and when I went over to chat with one of the nice older ladies working there, she immediately pulled out a huge map of the state, and began pointing out and circling attractions and must-do activities, almost none of which had been on our original plan. We took many of her recommendations, and are so glad we did.

That said, the two things we took her advice on that day had wildly different results. The first recommendations she gave us was to stop at the 1880s town right off of the highway a few hundred miles west of the welcome center, so we stopped there early afternoon — whaaaaaat a mistake.

Not creepy, right? Wrong.
Not creepy, right? WRONG.

This was hands-down the creepiest place either of us had ever been.

The main building was basically a shrine to the movie “Dances with Wolves,” and out back was an 1880s town assembled from dilapidated old buildings they’d shipped in from around the state. There were no live workers in any of the buildings, just desiccated mannequins in period dress, populating buildings on the edge of ruin. I’m sure the creepy music playing over the loudspeaker didn’t help our impressions, but either way, we did not linger long.

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Can you blame us?

HOWEVER, the second recommendation the helpful welcome-center lady made was pure gold. She had pointed out a scenic bypass route through the Badlands, and it has been the best advice anyone has yet given us on the trip. It took us past a Minuteman Missile museum, which we enjoyed visiting, and it also sent us past a “prairie dog town,” where we got to feed peanuts to some seriously chubby prairie dogs.

seriously, so chubby.
Seriously, so chubby.

Immediately after leaving the prairie dog town, we entered Badlands National Park, and the scenery immediately went from so-so to stunning. For a couple of East Coast kids, it was unreal.


(As a side note, we made another good decision here that really paid off, and bought the America the Beautiful annual national parks pass, which paid for itself within a week.)

We took our time as we drove, stopping at almost every overlook to take way too many pictures. We had been planning to get in a few more miles that day, but given the beauty of what we saw, we decided to stay the night and explore further.

We reserved what would be our first campsite of the trip, at Cedar Pass Campground, and the scenery was stunning.

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All our new gear worked perfectly, and we spent a very comfortable night in the shadows of the Badlands.