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Big Ticket Bucket List: 25 National Parks x 25 Years Old

Updated: May 1, 2022

[from the Archives]

At 23 years old I proudly accomplished one of my "big ticket bucket list" items - seeing 25 National Parks before I turned 25 - a goal of mine that I had only set my sights on at the age of 20 after my first National Park experience at Yosemite National Park. Having the opportunity to see 25 (technically 26) National Parks in 2.5 years was an unreal and extraordinary experience that I carry with me everywhere I go. There are not enough words to describe how absolutely surreal this planet is and how grateful I am to have witnessed so many moments that took my breath away and humbled me to my core.

While I recommend getting outside and seeing nature, especially at our National Parks, to everyone that I meet, I also recognize how privileged and lucky I am to have had the opportunities that I've had (especially in such a short period of time). A lot of what has made this possible is sheer luck and strategic planning: I was attending college in California at the time of 99% of these travels which acted as a perfect launch spot to the Western part of the country. I had my car with me as a result of an internship that required me to be mobile and with that, unlocked an entire new realm of possibilities. As I neared senior year I had even begun planning my class and work schedule around long weekends that would enable my gallivanting (and make for some very busy Tuesdays-Thursdays) and a National Park pass as a Christmas gift for my Grandma that covered the cost of park entries (plus a Costco membership that helped with gas costs, thanks Mom). Combine all of that with a cross country move after graduation and I had it locked. Of course it would be irresponsible of me not to address the expense of it all - thankfully, I had an on-campus job and also worked as a marketing contractor throughout all of this, planned in advance to keep costs low and bucketed parks into a few "big trips" with lots of time in between to save up. I'd also be lying if I didn't use a couple of spreadsheets to organize it all like the Type-A gem that I am (attached below). That being said, anything is possible when you put your mind to it and are intentional with your steps (but being young and having little to no living expenses or responsibilities certainly helped).

Now getting to the point, I often get asked about my "favorite" park or the "best trip" and it's incredibly difficult to answer in the same way that I imagine a parent being asked "who is your favorite child" is. The parks themself are MASSIVE and I typically only got to see small snippets of the total landscape so that in itself would make it irresponsible of me to claim favorites. Instead, I'll use this space (and some supplemental posts) to outline my personal experiences, timeline and road trip itineraries to inspire others to create their own paths and form their own favorites!

The following list is in chronological order of my National Park visits:

1) Yosemite National Park

I know I said no favorites but this one really is a top contender. Yosemite is the type of place that truly takes your breath away - it makes you feel teeny tiny while also hugely significant at the same time. I first went with a friend of mine for Easter Weekend in 2017 (free park entry!) and fell in love despite the hoards of crowds that weekend and have been two times since with a third trip coming up in May 2021. Each season of the year brings about different things to love here and you can't go wrong (though I'd recommend trying to go before the waterfalls dry up on your first trip to Yosemite so you can soak in all of their beauty and splendor). The park is massive with some of the main viewpoints off of a looped drive that allows you to go about your travels here any which way - no matter which route you take I swear by stopping at Tunnel View for sweeping views of the entire valley.

2) Big Trip 1: Yosemite, Big Pine, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, San Diego + Catalina Island

My college was on quarter system meaning we started in mid-September and ran until mid-June (as opposed to semester system August-May) which also meant that I often had a few weeks to kill after all of my friends had gone back to school, making for the perfect time to travel.

The summer going into my senior year I connected with my preschool best friend who attended school in San Diego and we mapped out a legendary road trip. We started off at San Jose airport where I picked her up and we immediately headed to Yosemite. After driving through Yosemite (see list item #1), we checked out Mono Lake and saw some hot springs (or rather drove around aimlessly and never actually found them) and into the Inyo National Forest.

The next day we hiked 13 miles round trip to lakes 1 + 2 at Big Pine Lakes - not a National Park but absolutely worth a visit if you can manage the hike (spoiler alert, I almost couldn't). It was absolutely surreal to say the least and worthy of National Park honor if it were up to me. After a lovely night of suffering altitude sickness at our Motel 6 and googling my own death, we were meant to drive 5 hours straight to Joshua Tree National Park in the morning, but with death on my mind an idea was inspired in me.

After a quick deliberation, my friend and I decided to take a 2 hour detour on our way to Joshua Tree to stop at Death Valley National Park. Death Valley was levels of hot that I never knew existed (it hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit the day we visited) and we were so paranoid about running out of gas or the car breaking down with no service that we were counting the miles between road phones in case of emergency. Aside from that, the sand dunes, painted canyons and salt flats were absolutely gorgeous and made for fun pictures!

Finally, we headed to Joshua Tree National Park and after getting lost in the dark on our way to our Airbnb yurt, we made it and were rewarded with a milky way star spectacular. It was an absolute blast climbing the rocks, arches and exploring the famed Joshua Trees the next day and I'd absolutely recommend to anyone looking for a beautiful desert experience.

Following our day at Joshua Tree, we rounded out the trip with a few days exploring San Diego until I headed back to San Jose all on my lonesome - but not without another quick detour to the famous and absolutely sensational Catalina Island. Not a National Park but an absolutely gorgeous island with a ton of history and unique culture, and I even got the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a blue whale fully breach the water on my ferry ride over. 10/10 would recommend this trip or some rendition of it to anyone needing a little adventure in their life.

3) Pinnacles National Park

About 1.5 hour from my alma-mater you can find Pinnacles National Park - one of the newest, and dare I say it, most underrated of the bunch. My mom and I went in February 2019 and were both blown away by the outrageous mountainous views, wildlife and rock faces that we traversed around on our hike. It reminded me of a smaller version of Zion National Park in many ways and I can't believe how overlooked this park can be.

4) Big Trip 2: Channel Islands, Kings Canyon, Sequoia National Park

I graduated from college a quarter early, allowing time for me between March and formal graduation in June to see as much as I could (as well as drain my bank account to levels that I would not recommend to anyone - including a trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park that I had to cancel due to insufficient funds). After a couple of weeks backpacking around Europe, I embarked on a trip to Palm Springs for Coachella and made it into a mini-National Park exploration (April 2019).

I was meeting my friends in Palm Springs so drove down ~8 hours from San Jose myself, making a day stop at Channel Islands National Park. I didn't get to see nearly as much as I would've liked to - only really getting to see the visitor center (you have to take a boat over/book a tour to see the main park) so for that reason I often don't include this in my total park tally. Regardless, the visitor center and views from it were beautiful and informative and I got to explore during the heart of wildflower season with poppies in full bloom!

After a long weekend in Palm Springs I drove back to San Jose with a full detour, including a few hours of being lost and panicked through Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. The two parks are VERY close together and make for an easy win-win when checking off parks from a bucket list. Unfortunately due to it being overcast and snow flurries it was difficult to see these parks to their full extent, but I had a wonderful time exploring the colossal trees and meeting General Sherman the largest known living single-stem tree (by volume) on Earth and look forward to revisiting some time in the future.

5) Big Trip 3: Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend + Antelope Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Grand Teton, Yellowstone National Parks (May 2019)

The next of my big trips was one I'd been dying to go on for awhile. I sometimes refer to this as the vertical trip because we drove vertically up the United States. Of all of the multi-trip ventures I've been on, I recommend this one the most because you get every type of landscape in one trip, the driving is broken up nicely and it is truly some of the most legendary sights and views you could ever lay your eyes on. I ventured back out West after visiting family in my hometown in New Jersey, where I swooped up one of my longtime friends to come with me. We landed at PHX about 4 hours late following a medical emergency landing in Chicago which caused us to lose time from our trip to the Grand Canyon.

Nonetheless, we took off to the Grand Canyon where we were TRULY blown away. It goes without saying that this is one of the most known and visited National Parks in the world which made me [foolishly] question if it would be overrated or not - let me get ahead of this by saying that the Grand Canyon is every bit as magical and breathtaking as you could ever possibly imagine. The canyons are just INSANE and because of our lost time we got the special pleasure of watching an outrageous sunset as we made our way out of the park and into Page, AZ - a moment that I think about and wish I could relive at least twice a day. Be warned that if you stay to see sunset in the canyon and then drive 2 hours to Page, it will be a very very dark and poorly lit drive that combined with a flight delay and lack of daylight savings time (Arizona) will make you question everything.

The next day we drove off to see Horseshoe Bend (I recommend going earlier in the day for less issues finding parking) and then to our scheduled tour of Antelope Canyon - while I absolutely recommend a trip to both for the sheer beauty of the landscapes, I will say that the volume of crowds and commercialization of both (especially Antelope Canyon) were a bit overwhelming but having that expectation ahead of time helps!

The next day brought another 2 hour drive to Zion National Park, but wowweee were we rewarded. Zion is the type of place that has you holding your breath and amazed at every new turn and corner. It is absolutely grand and sensational in every which way and one of the more modernized parks that I've visited. Modernized is a rough word to use here - what I mean by that is that the park has a shuttle system to take you around as well as a restaurant and other amenities within the park that you don't always come across at some of the smaller parks.

Following Zion, we took a short excursion to Bryce Canyon and were absolutely taken aback. I had zero expectations going into this park as I'd hardly heard anything about it and knew it was much smaller than others, especially Zion where we had just come from. I'm not sure if it was the park itself or my low expectations that helped Bryce have such a lasting impression on me but it's easily in my top 5, if not top 3. The hoodoos were legendary to see up close and we had the unique pleasure of snow capped mountains in the background as we took in Inspiration Point. In case I hadn't already made it clear, I REALLY recommend a trip here, especially if visiting the surrounding areas.

We headed to Grand Teton National Park next - it's about a 9 hour drive from Bryce Canyon so we broke it up by stopping at a La Quinta in Logan, Utah for the night (~5 hours), and then drove to Jackson Hole, WY the next day. Our original plans were laid out a bit differently but we learned that the road connecting Grand Teton and Yellowstone (Highway 191) would be opening a day later than we would have originally been there so we rearranged plans to take advantage of it and save ourselves over 8 hours of driving, as well as get to enjoy a bit of Jackson Hole (loved it there!). Grand Teton was sooo beautiful. I loved the mountains and reflective lake scenery. We stopped at a restaurant on the outskirts and enjoyed pizzas and beers to top off our perfect day exploring. Grand Teton is an absolute must if you're in the area!

Finally, we zipped on over to Yellowstone (~45 minute drive on 191) for a few days where we tried to explore every nook and cranny we could find. Yellowstone is every bit as cool, breathtaking and show stopping as you might imagine. We got to experience some of the most majestic wildlife including bear, moose, sheep, deer, elk and buffalo. We explored canyons, geysers, hot springs, valleys and were in complete and total awe the entire time. Yellowstone is an absolute must-see for every bucket list and travel itinerary and is absolutely in my all-time top favorites. After our long and adventurous week we parted ways at Bozeman, MT airport and reflected on just how special the trip was that we just experienced.

6) Big Trip 4: Cross Country Roadtrip: (June 2019)

After formal graduation in mid-June, my family and I drove down to SoCal to celebrate graduation and my brother's 25th birthday before my dad and I embarked on an 8 day trip across the country, hitting 8 National Parks and countless states. This trip deserves a post of its own so I'll follow up in greater detail separately but I cannot say enough good things about the experience. My dad was extremely resistant to going at first but thankfully, he has a hard time saying no to me, and now reflects back on our trip as one of the greatest of his life. We hit many landmarks on our journey including national monuments, cities and state parks in addition to National Parks. The National Parks that we visited in order are:

  • Capitol Reef National Park

  • Arches National Park

  • Canyonlands National Park

  • Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Wind Cave National Park

  • Badlands National Park

  • Indiana Dunes National Park

  • Cuyahoga Valley National Park

6) Shenandoah National Park

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do any hiking at Shenandoah National Park, but I was able to convince my parents to take an 1.5 hour detour through Skyline Drive on our way home to New Jersey after visiting my brother in North Carolina. It was so beautiful driving through the winding blue ridge mountains and through the clouds. I am looking forward to making another trip back in the near future to explore in greater detail but for our [relatively tame] East Coast parks, this one really leaves a strong impression!

7) Acadia National Park

Following our successful cross country road trip, it was very easy to convince my dad to see more of America's National Parks so he gave very little resistance when I asked about driving out to Acadia National Park in Maine to catch an early glimpse of Fall leaves in September 2019. I REALLY liked Acadia. No, better yet, I LOVED Acadia. It has so much charm, beauty, fresh air, and lobster! We did a few great hikes, got to take in some insane views, listen to sounds of nature and have some great meals in Bar Harbor. I can't believe this little gem of a park exists on the East Coast and I feel so lucky to have gotten to experience all of its beauty. What could be better than mountains, beaches, horseback riding, lighthouses, wildflowers - all of that small town charm with big nature sprinkled throughout? LOVE LOVE LOVE, absolutely recommend.

8) Big Trip 5: North Cascades, Mount Rainier, Olympic National Parks

After Acadia, there was a long hiatus in my travels as a result of Covid-19. Finally, in September 2020, both New York and Washington's numbers were at an all time low and tests were easily accessible so a friend and I booked a trip to the Pacific Northwest to complete my 25x25 bucket list item following a round of negative tests and purchasing of PPE. Washington being home to three parks was the perfect ending that I needed to close out my bucket list and at one point I had even considered extending the trip to Glacier National Park (Montana) and over into Banff and Jasper National Parks (Canada) but unfortunately didn't have the time off to take from work. Instead, we stuck to the original plan and landed in Seattle around 10am, picked up our rental car and headed to Pike Place for some good ol' fashion tourist ventures. We had the whole day to venture around the streets of Seattle until eventually driving 1.5 hours to our La Quinta in Burlington, WA for the night.

Burlington was the perfect launching place for us to get an early start to North Cascades National Park in the morning. Of all three of Washington's National Parks, we had the lowest expectations for North Cascades because it's very rarely talked about (in comparison) and is a drive-in drive-out type of park but MAN, did we underestimate this place. North Cascades was filled with mountainous views and turquoise blue glacial waters. It was considerably less crowded than the other parks and allowed for easy parking as we pulled out to hike different trails and take in some of the most outrageous views we had ever seen. Both of us agreed that we LOVED and were SO impressed by North Cascades and I strongly urge those reading this to consider it as part of your Washington state adventures (only two hours from city center).