Sometime in 2018, Steven and I began to ache for adventure.
We’d been working full time at high-stress jobs for a few years, and we were ready for something…different. Thinking back on it, we’re not really sure whose idea it was, but we decided on a cross-country road trip to visit every National Park in the United States. (Yes, even the hard-to-reach parkland in Alaska and on far-flung islands, like those in Hawaii and American Samoa.) And so began our journey of discovering our favorite national parks.
**All text and photos provided by Lauren and Steven Keys of Trip of a Lifestyle**
We figured out a timeframe: seven months starting in January 2019. We figured out a mode of transportation: a Nissan NV200. And we figured out a rough take on our route: heading southwest from Florida to California to stay in warmer weather during the winter, working our way north and back east as the land thawed and turned into summer.
While we couldn’t have picked a better van, and seven months on the road was just right for our trip — we completely failed on the whole avoiding winter weather thing.
I guess that’s what we get for being naive Floridians. One night in February, we tried to open our van doors, and they were literally frozen shut. That was a first for sure. But there were plenty of really good firsts too. The first time we woke up nestled in nature. The first time we watched the sun set over the mountains. And the first time we could see every star in the darkest sky above.
Over the course of our journey, we grew closer together, became better artists, launched our blog, and saw every single National Park. In some parks, we spent days exploring…in others, we didn’t necessarily need even a full day. After each visit, we’d add it to our “done” list, ranking each National Park along the way, and these are some of our absolute favorite ones.
One of the earlier parks we visited was Death Valley, and it did not disappoint. There’s a lot of interesting driving to get to and from the park (it’s basically in the middle of nowhere), with plenty to experience in the park too.
Because it’s situated in the California desert, it can get really hot in the summer (like triple-digits Fahrenheit), so it’s best to visit this park in the winter to catch more comfortable temperatures (although nighttime will get pretty cold). In fact, Death Valley is one of the driest and hottest places on the planet!
We highly recommend staying at the park until after sundown for stargazing — it’s a designated Dark Sky Park, after all.
Yosemite is one of the most striking parks because it fires on all cylinders. You’ve got breathtaking views, lots of accessible (and difficult) hiking trails, activities for visitors of all ages, and more. The only thing that may give you pause is its crowds.
With so much to offer, Yosemite is a highly frequented destination. Try to go when seasons are changing so you can visit during the off-peak time.
While you can’t drive your van to the Big Island to visit it, Hawai’i Volcanoes still ranks high on our list. There’s just something special about Hawai’i, with its flowing lava in the south, its rolling farmland in the north, its colorful snorkeling in the west, and its lush rainforests in the east. We actually used to live on Hawai’i, so we may be a little biased.
The park itself protects the active volcanoes in the southern part of the island, and you can actually drive all the way to the coast where lava often flows into the ocean.
We like to think Yellowstone serves as the quintessential National Park. There are ample herds of wildlife, dense forests, strange geothermal features, rushing waterfalls — basically something for everyone.
Yellowstone has a lot to explore, so take your time. We spent a couple of days in the park and still didn’t see everything (to be fair, it did hail on us one of those days).
If you take the distance from California to Hawai’i and double it, you’ll reach American Samoa in the South Pacific. Despite being pretty difficult to get to (again without our van), American Samoa is such a unique place. While it’s technically a United States territory, it still feels totally foreign. Almost everyone on the island is native, so there’s a lot of interesting history and culture they can share with you.
The National Park of American Samoa is pretty wild, which means you’ll need to be prepared for mostly unmaintained trails. It’s worth it though.
After going to all the cave-based parks, none came close to being as cool as Carlsbad Caverns. But that’s not the only reason we were so awe-struck with Carlsbad Caverns. It was actually the first cave we went to on our trip, and it completely took our breath away. It is, by far, one of our favorite national parks.
Once you make your way from the Natural Entrance to the Great Room, it just opens up into a huge space with miles of walking trails through the stalagmite. You literally feel like you’re in the Cave of Wonders from Aladdin (minus all the treasure).
We actually have a pretty unpopular opinion on Canyonlands: it’s better than the Grand Canyon. Canyonlands is just as impressive, but it feels a little more intimate. When we visited this park, its roads were only recently plowed, so it was definitely an off-peak visit (which might have added more to the feeling of having the whole park to ourselves).
The canyon just stretches out as far as you can see with mountain peaks out on the horizon. It was just so vast and beautiful, even compared to the Grand Canyon and other Utah National Parks.
Because our biggest goal was to visit all the parks, we ended up spending more time, money, and effort to check each one off our list. We did some math on the costs for visiting every National Park, including everything from food and gas to health insurance and cell phones (and even factored in the full price of our van and its conversion). What we found was that if you just stick to the 50 parks in the lower 48 states, you’d pay 41% less — about $2k/person per month — for a really similar adventure. We weren’t as frugal as we could have been about it, so I’m sure there’s room to bring that number down even further.
The good news is that there are all kinds of different ways to live the vanlife, make money on the road, and enjoy the wonders off the beaten path. You just gotta get out there.
— Lauren Keys, Trip Of A Lifestyle
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