• Abby Voce

5 Life Lessons Learned on the Road to 51 National Parks in 6 Months

A Journey of Epic Proportions Leads To Epic Personal Growth


a golden sunset bursting through dark ominous clouds over snowy Yosemite National Park in California

Sunset at Yosemite National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Abby Voce


 

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As my internship at Pathloom comes to a close, I have been thinking about the trip that inspired me to reach out to Pathloom a few months ago. My spontaneous road trip to all of the National Parks in the contiguous 48 states in 2021 deepened my love for the outdoors, and inspired me to write about some of my experiences to share with those who share that same passion.


A combination of timing and COVID restrictions pushed me to explore the natural beauty within the States, rather than heading abroad to new countries to get my travel fix. We often forget how much geological diversity there is within the vast landscapes of the United States - from sand dunes to reefs, mountain ranges to islands, swamps to badlands. The ability to conquer all of these landscapes and meet people from every corner of the country was truly incredible. But rather than the accomplishment of hitting 51 National Parks in under 6 months, I am most proud of what I learned about myself along the journey.


A white SUV stands in the foreground with a backdrop of an orange glow over the Pacific Ocean, indicating the sun is setting across the California coastline

California Coastline - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



#1: With Freedom, Comes Personal Responsibility


With the unwavering freedom of solo traveling comes the responsibility of taking care of yourself, car and plans. You are in the driver's seat of your life (literally), and in a position to make all of your own decisions. Everyday I practiced making smart decisions - such as storing food properly, making meals, finding a sleeping location, being responsible with my equipment and not taking any unnecessary risks.


When I was in Sequoia National Park, I was planning to go to Yosemite the next day - but a huge snow storm was coming into the Sierra Nevada mountain range region. Reluctantly, I decided to avoid the weather and head almost 6 hours out of my way to the coast of California for a few days before going to Yosemite, which delayed my itinerary for nearly 3 days. As I arrived back on the east side of California and headed into a campground just outside of Yosemite, there was too much snow. I almost got my car stuck because the campground was unplowed. After calling the local plow service, I took their suggestion to return to a nearby town to purchase snow chains, find a new campground for the night and try again tomorrow.


Sunset beams under a rocky red arch in Canyonlands National Park in Utah

Sunset at Canyonlands National Park, UT - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



#2: Appreciate The Little Things


Find happiness in the simplest of things. Sunrises and sunsets were my favorite events of the day - and they are free! Some memorable sunset locations: Flathead Lake, MT, Page, AZ, White Sands National Park, NM, Destin, FL, Petrified Forest National Park, AZ, Lake Mead, NV, Voyageurs National Park, MI and just about anywhere on the West Coast. The most memorable sunrise of the trip was at Canyonlands National Park (where I snapped one of my favorite photos of the entire trip, see above).


A simple campfire has always been one of my childhood favorite activities, but this trip changed the meaning of them to me. They became the signal of calm - the day was done, I am safely in a campground and there is an epic plan for tomorrow. As I was camping in Cuyahoga Valley National Park at Army Camp Road campground, the group in the site next to me was playing the guitar and singing each evening. I first thought it was a speaker, but I heard laughs and realized they were signing. I simply rolled down my window and listened to the incredible music as I fell asleep.


Appreciating the small, trivial things each day made my journey so much sweeter and taught me to not take things for granted - even something as seemingly insignificant as a shower!


The view from Angel's Landing in Zion National Park in Utah is astounding. Striated red rocks, lush forest below... and Abby is missing all of this by facing the wrong way while posing for a photo.

Abby at Angel's Landing: Zion National Park, UT - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



#3: Trust in Humanity


The solitude I found in the wilderness throughout my trip helped me reflect upon myself, but just about every person I met on the road reassured my belief that most people have good intentions. Each person I met along the way added a unique memory to my park experiences that I will hold in my heart forever.


Bill, from the Grand Canyon who had been hiking there for decades, taught me about every small species in the canyon. I met Debi at Faria Campground outside of a full campground in Ventura, CA, and she let me pull my car into her camping spot for the night. Nick from Redwood National Park, chatted with me for hours on a hike about college, breaking norms, and exploring the West Coast. Lisa and Gordon, who I met on Angels Landing in Zion (a MUST do!), took photos and shared stories of their epic hiking experiences with me. I met Carla, another female solo traveler, in Colorado and we camped together for multiple nights in Rocky Mountain National Park, sharing college stories and future career goals. I met the sweetest old couple from Nevada in Theodore Roosevelt National Park that told me to “save for the future, but live for the present.”


Everyone's story, big or small, made me look at my life from a new perspective. The people I met on my trip taught me to be kind, ask for help, always be willing to offer assistance, and to look at life as one big opportunity to do the simple things that make us happy.


You can feel the briskness in the air of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado just by looking at this photo. Vibrant blue sky over vibrant evergreens, hell even the rocky crags look a bit vibrant too, why not

Bear Lake Area Loop: Rocky Mountain National Park, CO - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



#4: How To Deal With The Unexpected… alone


I ran into many problems over the course of this journey. My car was hit in a Buffalo Wild Wings parking lot, my camera lens shattered in Joshua Tree National Park, I was towed up a mountain by a sheriff on my way to Grand Teton National Park, due to snow, I needed 4 new tires in Wyoming, and my car got aggressively inspected by an overzealous ranger at the Hoover Dam security checkpoint - just to name a few.


Looking back, my most evident unexpected challenge was while I was hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. The night before my hike I specifically chose a popular, but difficult hike called the Best of Bear Lake Area Loop and Emerald Lake. The trail head parking lot fills almost every morning by 8am and I assumed, since this was such a popular loop, that I wouldn't need my Garmin GPS device or bear spray. Turns out… soon into the hike I found myself alone, 4 miles into the middle of black bear country. The trail was snow covered, and I spent so much time constantly trying to decipher between backcountry ski tracks and hiking tracks. I lost the trail too many times to count. Eventually I found myself on the wrong side of a slippery iced over cliff, where I was sure I would have to make it up and over the 300 ft rock face above me to find the trail again. I could hear coyotes howling on the ridge above, but I had no choice but to backtrack and find the trail that led to the top of the rock face. I then ran for the remaining 2 miles of snowy trail until I saw another hiker.


The most personal growth happens when you are forced into challenging situations where you need to make decisions, trust your gut and - not to be dramatic - survive.


A  brilliant explosion of pastel hues - purple, pink, blue, orange - highlight the sunrise over Hazel Mountain Overlook in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Hazel Mountain Overlook: Shenandoah National Park, VA - Photo Credit: Chris Blake



#5: Just Keep Moving


One of the most important lessons I learned came from the second night on the road. That morning, I drove to Shenandoah National Park and conquered my first epic 12 mile hike - Old Rag. I pulled away from the park and settled for the night in a Walmart parking lot in Charlottesville, VA. I was scared of the parking lot, I had no idea how to cook dinner, I was hungry, I was thirsty, and I was fatigued from the hike and a poor sleep the night before. I broke down on the phone to pretty much any person who would answer my call. Friends told me I was only 6 hours from home and I should just turn around. My parents told me to go find a hotel and come home the next day. Maybe it was the fact I refused to fail, or the fact I had told everyone I had talked to in the past year that I was going to complete this epic trip that kept me going.


Looking back now, refusing the opportunity to go home that night absolutely changed the course of my life. Sometimes your best option is to just move forward. I slept off my anxiety and drove to the next location in the morning, and it became addicting to just keep moving and putting more and more miles on the road. Just keep moving.

 

A cold, wet, somewhat miserable rainy night in a tent in Everglades National Park in Florida. As bad as the night gets, trying to dry out your gear in the morning is often even worse

Wet Tent at Everglades National Park, FL - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



Honorable Mentions


Nothing is worse than a wet tent


Everglades National Park brought me my first rain storm while camping in my tent. I can assure you that there is nothing worse than having a wet tent when you are living out of your car. Drying out and storing wet gear is bad for your gear… and just plain gross.



Car camping can get cold… very cold.


I woke up one 10 degree morning in the Grand Canyon to a frozen water bottle next to me. Soon after telling this story to my mother, she forced me to purchase a 12 volt car electric blanket - it might have been the best “gear” investment of my entire trip!


The sun setting over the dunes of White Sands National Park. It's beautiful, but as far as desert sunsets go this one seems relatively tame

Sunset at White Sands National Park, NM - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



The desert is cold!


When the sun sets in White Sands National Park, the sand becomes absolutely freezing. I left my shoes in my car and I regretted it deeply on my 10 minute walk through the dunes, with the feeling of pins and needles all through my feet.



Check on your crampons

I was hiking the Mist Trail in Yosemite in March when I got to the top and realized that I lost the trail - and one of my crampons as well! I had climbed a steep sheet of ice on the way up, so there was no way I could make it down without it. I had to backtrack for an hour or so looking in the snow for my crampon, which I eventually found!

 

Using crampons to navigate a cliffside on a cold icy trail trail in Yosemite National Park, California

Icy Mist Trail: Yosemite National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



Overall, realizing we are all such a small part of a big world might have been the most humbling and significant lesson of the entire trip. The achievement of visiting so many National Parks in such a short time itself didn't change my life, but the memories from overcoming every single challenge (alone!) on the way to the achievement certainly did. If I can offer one piece of advice, I urge you to seize every opportunity to explore in the wild - you really never know what you might find out about yourself. I am certainly thankful I did!


 

Get exclusive stories, trail reports, National Park alternatives, recipes, and more delivered directly to your inbox from our growing team of experienced thru-hikers, former National Park employees, and fellow adventure lovers.



 

Check out these other articles by Pathloom which you may enjoy:


Trip Report: Teton Crest Trail

The Glory of Yosemite

Very Superstitious: Phoenix In The Fall

The Resilience of the Redwoods: Big Basin’s Rise from the Ashes

Leave No Trace Principles

Types of Camping

Where the West Begins



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