A Pilgrimage to Every National Park—in 1 Year

  • March 20, 2017
  • by Conor Knighton

Editor’s Recommendation

Why America's National Parks Need Help

by Don Belt

Winter 2017

National Parks

(Efrain Robles)

I knew Yellowstone would be cold in the winter. Just how cold was a bit of a surprise. It was 34 degrees below zero when I was there in December. But a smile would’ve been frozen on my face no matter what.

My visit to America’s first national park was my last stop on a quest to visit every national park in one year—all 59 of them.

It’s a journey that began with a hike in the dark. On Jan. 1, 2016, I joined a small group of strangers on top of Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park in Maine. On New Year’s Day, it’s where the first rays of sun hit the contiguous United States.

I wanted to get a head start on 2016, the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. I knew I had a lot of ground to cover.

Soon, I was underground at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky; then, underwater at Biscayne in Florida. I traveled across sand and soil, from the lowest point in the United States at Death Valley National Park to the base of our highest peak, in Denali National Park. One week, I was marveling at lava in Hawaii. The next, I was in awe of a glacier in Alaska.

Setting aside these majestic places for the enjoyment of all was a prescient American idea, and I’ve never felt prouder to be an American. The 59 parks are just a small slice of the over 400 units managed by the National Park Service, a collection that includes monuments, seashores, and battlefields that all work together to tell our nation’s story.

It was certainly an illuminating year to be criss-crossing America and I found that our nation’s natural beauty is as diverse as the people who live in it. I spent plenty of time in red states and in blue states. At Big Bend National Park in Texas, I saw a 1,500-foot-high canyon wall that already exists on the Mexican border. I watched a presidential debate at my hotel in American Samoa, where the people aren’t able to vote for the U.S. president.

Much has been made about how divided we are as a country. But somehow, you don’t really feel that in the national parks. They’re places where red and blue can come together, sometimes in the same vista.

Naturalist John Muir once wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of natural cathedrals on our public lands.

I spent New Year’s Eve at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. On Dec. 31, it’s where the sun sets last in the Lower 48. I wanted to have the longest year possible. I loved every second of it.