Close-up of the National Park passport. All images credited to author
In 2017, my relationship with America’s National Parks went from fascination and appreciation to full-blown obsession, and I’ve got a little-known passport book to thank for it. While vacationing with family in Wyoming last summer, hiking and paddling our way through Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, my brother introduced me to a passport book in one of the visitor centers. The Passport to Your National Parks, in all its modesty and simplicity, represents the ultimate American bucket list for adventurers and nature-lovers, and it’s shocking this thing isn’t more ubiquitous than it is. My brother and I each snagged passports for ourselves and marked the regional page with an inaugural Grand Teton stamp. Little did we know this was the start of a new level of infatuation.
These wildly underrated and largely un-marketed books are available for purchase at any visitor center in any National Park. The books, which look so similar to actual passports that I routinely need to triple-check that I’m bringing the right one with me when I’m heading to the airport, are divvied into sections by region of the U.S., with categories like “North Atlantic Parks,” “Southeast Parks,” “Rocky Mountain Parks” and “Pacific Northwest and Alaska Parks.” In addition to a historical overview of the National Park Service, maps, vibrant photos and tutorials on how to maximize your book, the bulk of the passport is reserved for stamps and stickers of all 59 parks, plus national monuments, forests and wilderness areas. The book covers everything from Acadia in Maine to Hawaii Volcanoes, and everything in between. Stamps can be done at free DIY stamp stations in any visitor center, where colorful markers display the name of the park and the date. Supplemental stickers, bedecked with illustrious imagery of the park in question, are meant to adjoin the stamps, and are available for a minimal fee. The format is brilliant; not only do the passports provide insight and history, but it turns the country’s most prized assets into collectible fanfare. In my case, it’s become the healthiest obsession I’ve ever had.
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park
With passport in tow and stamps for both Grand Teton and Yellowstone marked on the same page in the “Rocky Mountain Region” section of my book, my enthusiasm for the parks had evolved into a newfound priority. Prior to learning about the passport, I had been loosely enforcing a personal goal of visiting three new parks per year, which I’d been steadily achieving only since 2016 with the Badlands, Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns, followed by Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain in 2017. Fast-forward to today, and while 2018 is still young, I’ve already clocked five new National Parks this year, largely thanks to the habit-forming passport inspiring me to pivot my travel plans towards destinations where National Parks are either the tentpole, or at least accessible for day trips.
I have this book to thank for encouraging personal exploration and adventure well beyond the boundaries of places I would have visited pre-passport. In January, after spending a few days in Park City, Utah, I added on a couple extra free days so that I could rent a car and drive four hours Southwest to Great Basin National Park in Eastern Nevada. One of the most remote and least visited parks, I was excited to make it the first park I’ve ever visited solo. Stamp and sticker affixed, I went on a tour of Lehman Caves, marveled at the vista in Pole Canyon and hiked six miles of the lung-crushing and increasingly snowy Baker Creek Trail. Far removed from urban hustle and bustle, in a serene part of the country where the notion of WiFi is hilariously far-fetched, it was a therapeutic experience spurred by a humble little book I’d only recently discovered.
Olympic National Park
Saguaro National Park
From Great Basin, I drove back to the Salt Lake City airport and flew to Seattle. Undoubtedly, knowing the Emerald City is within a few hours of three different National Parks was a big reason for agreeing to another work trip there. After a few days in the city, it was off to traipse through lush rainforests and slip on sea logs in Olympic National Park. A month later, I found myself criss-crossing Arizona to visit Saguaro and Petrified Forest National Parks, basking in the glory of the world’s largest cactus and the world’s largest collection of petrified wood. As my passport filled up with stamps and commemorative stickers, I was on a roll, and soon on a road trip to Arkansas’ glorious Hot Springs National Park, where I traversed Hot Springs Mountain and drank beer in Superior Bathhouse Brewery—the only brewery in a National Park.
Similar to Great Basin, the passport does a particularly good job highlighting the lesser-known parks, providing incentive to check out regions that are much less crowded and no less beautiful. I’m already champing at the bit to visit Isle Royale off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Guadalupe Mountains in West Texas and the floodplains of South Carolina’s Congaree.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that only a few years ago virtually all my travel was centered on cities. Nowadays, after a few formative trips to National Parks and a priority-altering passport book, I’m well on my way to whittling down the ultimate all-American bucket list, and I highly recommend others do the same.