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Is It "Elitist" To Try to Visit All 58 National Parks?


Is it 'elitist' to carefully plan your vacations so you can visit all 58 national parks, such as Voyageurs National Park? NPS photo of a scene in Voyageurs.

There was a disconcerting column in the Utne Reader the other day, one that dubbed those who tried to visit all 58 national parks "elitist." "Determined," is one adjective that comes immediately to mind when talk turns to visiting all 58, but "elitist"?

Under the title, Don't Be a National Park Bagger, writer Keith Goetzman claims that those who set out to visit all 58 of the "national parks" do so so fleetingly that they can't possibly come to truly, and intimately, appreciate the 58. Plus, he points out, you'd leave a huge carbon footprint with all the driving and flying necessary to accomplish the task.

"Face it", writes Mr. Goetzman, "only the wealthiest and luckiest among us has the vacation time, the money, and the means to have a chance at ticking off all 58 parks, and even announcing your achievement to the world can come perilously close to bragging about what an amazingly fortunate life you lead—not the sort of message parks advocates should be sending."

Hopefully the folks who are members of the National Park Travelers Club don't catch wind of his column. This group celebrates travelers who look at visiting as many of the 391 units of the National Park System not as something that's elitist but rather something that's both a challenge and a great way to celebrate and appreciate the national parks movement in the United States.

And really, how elitist is it? Where I live in Utah, seven national parks are within a half-day's drive. Stretch that to a full day on the road and I can add another six. With some rather typical vacation planning, anyone in the country could knock off anywhere between three and five national parks during a two-week vacation, or a series of four-day weekends scattered throughout the year. Would it really be that "elitist," if you were so determined, to visit the 58 national parks over a period of a decade or so? True, for those on the East Coast getting to Alaska could be an expensive endeavor, just as it would be for those in Alaska determined to visit Everglades or Virgin Islands national parks. But over the course of your adult lifetime, it wouldn't necessarily be impossible if you were determined to visit the parks.

Concerned about your carbon footprint? There are mass transit options that can be combined with park shuttle systems, as well as other ways to offset your carbon footprint.

The other point Mr. Goetzman raises is whether those who set out to tour the 58 could come away with more than a superficial, fawning glance.

...the “collect ’em all” mentality goes against a better, nobler impulse, which is to get to know the land intimately. Better that we should acquaint ourselves with one, two, or a few parks very well than attempt to superficially survey them all in baseball-card-collector fashion. Several years ago, I worked for the summer in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, driving a tourist shuttle van between the tiny gateway community of McCarthy and the mining relic town of Kennicott. Among my passengers I met a few park baggers, most memorably a man and his teenage son. They “explored” the park in an afternoon, which meant strolling among Kennicott’s dilapidated buildings, looking up at the stupendous glaciers around them, and then riding my van back down to resume their journey. Never mind that Wrangell-St. Elias is the nation’s largest park at 13 million acres, and that even someone who’s there for months, as I was, can barely claim to have scratched the surface of its vast wonder. The man told me that they were off next to the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, which they would fly over in a bush plane—not even setting foot on the tundra. They added both parks to their all-important list, yet they didn’t have a true wilderness experience in either place.

Indeed, if all you seek to attain is a National Park Passport stamp, then yes, "park bagging" is over-rated and denies those involved in such an endeavor a tremendous opportunity to see fantastic landscapes and get at least an introduction to different ways of life and cultures. But let's be fair to those who visit Wrangell-St. Elias. The park, spanning more than 13 million acres, has two gravel roads that make forays of a combined 101 miles into the park's 20,580 square miles. Even if you knew how to live off the land and had the available time, it likely would take more than a lifetime to "know the land intimately."

Many people do fall in love with a small handful of parks, and visit them time and time and time again, which can be a wonderfully rewarding experience. But let's not be so self-righteous as to ridicule those who want to see as many of these magnificent landscapes and soak up the rewards they offer.


I am growing weary of hearing that the things I do for fun are things that only wealthy people can do, considering my wife and I have an income that would barely be considered middle-class. Traveling can be very expensive, if that's how you choose to do it. We drove from Michigan to Olympic National Park, camping along the way, eating food we packed, refueling our rented hybrid infrequently. You'd be surprised how cheaply you can rent a Prius. It was a pretty cheap trip. Working long weeks and overtime all winter banked up some extra time off from work, and there we were - two weeks of road-trip bliss.

I've come to understand that "elitist" is a term usually slung toward any endeavor that the slinger lacks the determination or will-power to pull off...or bitterness that some people have managed to accrue wealth that allows crazy adventures. Maybe sailing a 230ft. yacht around the world is elitist - but even then, I say more power to you if you can afford that boat! Visiting 58 National Parks? Sounds more like sour-grapes envy than objective observation.

I have traditionally been offended at being called elitist for my travels and desire for solitude in areas protected from modern intrusion. But I've come to realize that the insult is so ridiculous as to be laughable, thus I laugh.

Regarding the ability to "know" the parks after a windshield visit: Of course you can't. Does that mean visiting all 58 is a waste? Hardly. On the way back to Michigan last summer we windshield-toured Badlands National Park. I certainly don't claim to have explored Badlands or to have a feel for the soul of the park, but we sure did see some awesome sites in an afternoon - with pictures and memories to prove it! One benefit of bagging a bunch of parks with quick visits is to view it as a scouting mission. A day in a park can give you an idea of which might be most suited to further exploration some day. See the sites from the road, check out the information at the visitor center, chat up a ranger or two, talk to some backpackers at trailheads. You can do all that in a leisurely day and come away with an idea of not only whether you want to come back to this park, but also what specific things you might want to do on your return.

Ignore the unenlightened and get out there!

We have 2 Jr Rangers (kids that are 9 & 10) and one of the main reasons that we try to visit as many parks as possible each vacation is for their benefit of learning history, geography, numerous branches of science and having unique experiences that only visits to the National Parks can give them. They have 22 Jr Rangers badges each. This is a sense of accomplishment for them each time we visit a new National Park when they visit with the NP Ranger that swears them in again.
We are by no means wealthy. We camp and cook at our camp to save on money. We purchase a yearly pass to help with the fees that add up with multiple park visits each year.
We believe that giving our kids the gift of the love outdoors and especially of our National Parks is one of the best things that we can for for them as parents.
All of that said, Parents - you do no have to be wealthy or make a negative impact on the environment to visit multiple parks with your children. Plan snacks and meals, use reusable water bottles, recycle items along the way, use public transit options when possible, and better yet, use your own energy (walking/biking) to propel you around the towns near the National Parks and in them as well. Get out there and enjoy our National Parks with your children! It will enrich their lives and yours.

Not only do I hope to see all 58 parks, I hope to see all 391 sites. We started visiting parks when our kids were born 17 years ago and we are at 155 sites. I plan to continue visiting this great country of ours and all of our wonderful National Parks. Kirby and Amy - I agree with you completely - keep enjoying our parks!

It's Mr. Goetzman who's being elitist, looking down his nose at people who don't "do" the parks the way he thinks they should.

"They added both parks to their all-important list, yet they didn’t have a true wilderness experience in either place."

If having "a true wilderness experience" is what it takes to visit a park properly, than I would tend to agree with those that find that it's Goetzman's attitude that's elitist. Most Americans are not in shape and lack the survival skills to hike the wilderness safely on our own. Relatively few of us can afford the guded plane excursions or other guided wilderness trips with any frequency - those really are mostly for the wealthy. I did a pack trip in the Sierras near Yosemite once and it was wonderful in many ways, but riding horseback on trails climbing a cliff and over a pass at 11,500 ft. was as queasy-making an experience as I have ever had. And we actually never got into the park, but just stayed in the Hoover Wilderness just East of the park. I'd add that with an arthritic back (and probably hips, too) sleeping on a thin pad on hard ground is not an agreeable option anymore. Although I may do another pack trip some year, or try and raft the Grand Canyon, car camping and an air matress are usually my limit nowadays.

In fact, virtually all of the parks have things that are well worth seeing and doing, and that can be seen and done without undue hazard to health and wallet. In fact, they were set up that way when they were established, with the roads usually going to the most scenic spots in the park. Someone once told me that the more national park tickets I accumulate over the course of my life the happier I would be. So far, I've been finding that to be true, even though I have not consciously made it a goal to get to all 58. (Parks so far: Everglades, Shenandoah, Rocky Mountain, Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mts., Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Lassen Volcanic, Zion, Death Valley).

Does someone have a definitive list of the 58 parks? I downloaded a file of all the sites from the NPS with their types. Of the 391 or so in that list, only 56 had National Park as its type, and that includes American Samoa. Which 2 am I missing? My wife and I are one of the couples that have a goal to see and visit all the national parks but are having a hard time finding an accurate list of them. We've been to 16 thus far and loved everyone of them! Here is the list I got from the NPS site:

2 Acadia National Park ME
24 Arches National Park UT
29 Badlands National Park SD
35 Big Bend National Park TX
41 Biscayne National Park FL
42 Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park CO
52 Bryce Canyon National Park UT
61 Canyonlands National Park UT
68 Capitol Reef National Park UT
71 Carlsbad Caverns National Park NM
82 Channel Islands National Park CA
97 Congaree National Park SC
101 Crater Lake National Park OR
106 Cuyahoga Valley National Park OH
110 Death Valley National Park CA, NV
114 Denali National Park & Preserve AK
119 Dry Tortugas National Park FL
134 Everglades National Park FL
174 Gates Of The Arctic National Park & Preserve AK
186 Glacier National Park MT
187 Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve AK
194 Grand Canyon National Park AZ
196 Grand Teton National Park WY
198 Great Basin National Park NV
201 Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve CO
202 Great Smoky Mountains National Park NC, TN
205 Guadalupe Mountains National Park TX
209 Haleakala National Park HI
215 Hawaii Volcanoes National Park HI
223 Hot Springs National Park AR
231 Isle Royale National Park MI
244 Joshua Tree National Park CA
248 Katmai National Park & Preserve AK
249 Kenai Fjords National Park AK
257 Kobuk Valley National Park AK
260 Lake Clark National Park & Preserve AK
264 Lassen Volcanic National Park CA
280 Mammoth Cave National Park KY
289 Mesa Verde National Park CO
301 Mount Rainier National Park WA
310 National Park of American Samoa AS
326 North Cascades National Park WA
333 Olympic National Park WA
349 Petrified Forest National Park AZ
373 Rocky Mountain National Park CO
380 Saguaro National Park AZ
399 Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks CA
401 Shenandoah National Park VA
416 Theodore Roosevelt National Park ND
440 Virgin Islands National Park VI
442 Voyageurs National Park MN
454 Wind Cave National Park SD
457 Wrangell - St Elias National Park & Preserve AK
460 Yellowstone National Park ID, MT, WY
463 Yosemite National Park CA
466 Zion National Park UT

Kurt and all,

Leaving aside the "elitist" argument for a moment, I have to point out that even if you bag all 58 units designated "national park" -- and if you left it at that -- you would not be getting anything close to a full picture of what the national park system is all about.

Also, just for fun, I want to point out a couple of people who are in a far different category: folks who have been to ALL the units of the system, and not just breezing through. There are two whom I know about; perhaps there are others. My understanding is that the late historian Robin Winks had not only visited every unit of the system, but was in every visitor center AND read every display in those centers. If this sounds impossibly hubristic, all I can say is that Winks was a remarkable man (and scholar) and I do not doubt the story.

But even more amazingly, at my point of last knowledge (this was back in the 1990s) a fellow named Alan Hogenauer had visited every unit of the system ... and every delisted unit of the system, such as Castle Pinckney (written about elsewhere today), Shoshone Caverns, Holy Cross, and a couple dozen even more obscure. That is a feat that I doubt anyone will replicate.

Kirby, you said it all! I so love the national parks that I pursued a profession that would require me to see more of them. To do this, I've given up far more lucrative projects in favor of a career as a fairly low-paid travel writer, with the national parks as my beat. To date, we've visited 254 since beginning our park visits in November 2000. If that's elitist or "lucky"—a category Goetzman does not define, so who knows if I qualify—then I am the poorest and most indebted member of the elite I can ever imagine! While I admit to occasionally "Griswolding" a small historic site in the 391-unit NPS system, I look for whatever ways my husband and I can spend several days, a week or longer in any of the 58 natural parks. Most recently, we spent a week at Big Bend, one of the least visited parks in the country. How bloody insulting to be categorized by someone who, frankly, sounds envious of those of us who have made seeing our nation's natural riches a lifelong priority. As Stephen Sondheim once wrote, "There's a lot I'll have missed, but I'll not have been dead when I die."

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