How do you eat an elephant? The same way you tackle America’s national parks, a little at a time.
For the Goldstein family of Charlotte, North Carolina, it started with a 2009 trip to Yosemite.
“It was just gorgeous … overwhelming,” dad Bill recalled. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I want to see more of that.’ ”
Many travelers have toyed with the idea of visiting each national park, but the Goldsteins made it a reality before their two kids, Luke and Winston, turned 18.
“At first, I thought the whole idea was a little out there,” said Luke, who was 11 when the family got started. Back then there were only 59 national parks, as opposed to today’s 63, but it was still daunting, as their family shares in their new book and website, “59 Before 18.”
Here’s how they visited every national park in America and how others can too:
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Is it possible to visit all the national parks?
Yes, but it takes time and money. It took the Goldsteins six years.
“Literally every break, during their school, we would try to see another park,” Bill explained. “The whole quest was about pulling it off without going broke and, of course, not messing up our family.”
“Spent a lot of time with these three people, a little bit too much time,” Luke joked while looking at his brother and parents. “But it got us to grow our bond together and become a really tight family.”
Bill credits his wife, Alisa, with budgeting carefully and keeping expenses down, especially with lodging and meals. Their son Winston, who was 10 when they got started, vividly recalls his friends living it up on summer breaks.
“I’m out there eating granola bars and ham and bread out of a cooler in our trunk that was our refrigerator for weeks,” recalled the now 23-year-old. He also lamented driving his mom’s old car, plastered in national park bumper stickers, to school. “I would always get there early, park where no one would see me leave that car. It took a little time to realize that thing was cool.”
“You know, versus having a nice car, we went to the Virgin Islands (National Park),” Bill chimed in.
“We did make some sacrifices,” Alisa laughed.
How do I start visiting national parks?
“I would recommend parks closest to your area first,” Alisa suggested, encouraging travelers to venture further out as they grow more comfortable.
You can visit several parks in one trip if you have the time. The Goldsteins, who Bill likened to “modern-day Griswalds,” road-tripped to 11 parks the summer after their first trip to Yosemite.
“Doesn’t have to be with your family,” Winston noted. “It could just be close friends.”
What you need for national parks
You don’t need a bunch of fancy gear.
The National Park Service has put together a list of 10 essentials, including sun protection, first aid and water.
“Probably the most dangerous thing that I’ve experienced on our hikes was actually dehydration,” said Luke, recalling a time they ran out of water miles before the end of a hike at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. “There was a lot of praying and faith and patience to get back. We finally made it and soaked ourselves with ice-cold water.”
His top two priorities are water and good hiking boots “because your feet are important when you’re on these hikes too.”
What are the tips to remember when you are in national parks?
Alisa may have been the family planner, but she knows the importance of being able to react in real time. She got caught in an undertow while swimming at the National Park of American Samoa.
“All of a sudden, I saw the reef go fast under me. I panicked out there, and I couldn’t get back,” she said. Thankfully, her family and locals came to her rescue. “You never really know what kind of situation you might get in … so be aware and be prepared.”
Bill also encourages visitors to be flexible when things don’t go as planned. “It will never be perfect,” he said.
You may not make it up a mountain before it gets too dark to safely go back down, or you may get there but discover your camera is all gunked up with a banana you had in your bag. Both have happened to him, at Haleakalā and Arches, respectively. He admits he’s lost his temper, but he’s also laughed and grown.
Winston reminds people to enjoy the journey. “Make yourselves happy,” he said. “Just take a deep breath when you’re out seeing this majestic beauty … and thank the Lord that you’re here today.”
“And if you do ever go to these parks, just make sure to leave no trace behind,” he added.
What is there for kids to do?
Alisa is a big fan of the Junior Ranger program available at nearly every park. Kids are invited to complete a list of educational activities to earn a junior ranger badge.
“It helps the kids interact and understand the park … gets them excited,” she said, chuckling as she remembered doing it all with the kids. “I was this adult trying to get sworn in as a junior ranger.”
Kids of all ages are welcome to participate in the Junior Ranger program. They can also collect stamps for national park passports.
“Our goal was just to connect with our kids and have them disconnect from other things,” Alisa said.
At the time, Luke thought not having phone service and being away from his friends was the worst. “I was a stubborn kid, always had a bad attitude. I would complain on strenuous hikes,” he confessed. “If I could go back in time, I would tell myself this quest that we did, 59 before 18, it made me who I am today. It made me responsible, made me strategic, made me appreciate nature, as well as my family … So I’d tell myself, ‘Go climb up that peak; go experience that again.’ “
“I wish I could do it all over again,” Alisa echoed. They have gone back to some parks, including her favorite, Yellowstone. “We see the park in a different way every time we go back. The wildlife there and the geysers, it’s just beautiful. I recommend that to a lot of people who are wanting to go to their first park. You can see everything.”
And there are always the four other national parks that have been added since the Goldsteins’ quest ended.
“Me and Luke had matching tattoos that we got, 59 before 18. I might need to get that updated to 63,” Winston smiled.
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