The ROUTE 66 Blog

  • Published on Dec 03, 2015
    59 Parks in 52 Weeks


    Did you know that there are 59 National Parks in the United States and surrounding territories? Neither did Cole and Elizabeth Donelson when they first got married in 2013. Flash forward 2 years, now these Switchback Kids are not only aware of the 59 parks, but are currently 4 months into their 12 month tour of each park. Theirs is a story of experience, exploration, and an insatiable hunger for adventure.


    How It All Started

    Cole and Elizabeth met the first day of their freshman year at Missouri University in Columbia. “Cross pollination” is how Cole described the happenstance that his friends happened to live on her floor in her dormitory, and vice versa. It didn’t take long before the two found themselves running in similar friend groups and developing a friendship of their own. It wasn’t until two years later, however, that Cole and Elizabeth began dating. After graduation, they each took jobs in Kansas City, MO and got married a year later.


    A Shared Love

    It was no surprise that Cole and Elizabeth found a mutual love for Mother Nature. The two explained that they both grew up in families who loved being outside. Naturally, the two found themselves outside for much of their dating relationship. “When we were thinking of what we should do for dates and what not, we would go on a bike ride or a hike. We even went on a biking and camping trip to celebrate our dating anniversary” Cole said. He went on to explain that right before the two got married, they traveled to Colorado and hiked a 14K Mountain. How’s that for a pre-wedding fitness regime? It was during this trip that the two traveled to each of the National Parks in Colorado and the wheels began to spin.

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    The Dreaming Stage

    Cole explained that the birth of this dream was quite simple: “One Spring weekend we were going for a hike and started talking about bucket lists and day dreaming. I mentioned that going to all the National Parks was on my bucket list-- our family vacations to parks had always been so fun. Elizabeth said she would love to do that too. That idea kind of caught on.” Yes, it certainly did. The Donelsons are now affectionately referred to as the Switchback Kids and have accumulated quite a following as they set out to visit each of the 59 parks in 52 weeks. “Usually it’s just fun to talk about something like this. But the idea stuck in the back of our minds and we started talking about it more and realized that if we didn’t make a real effort it wouldn’t ever happen. It would just stay in that dream realm” Cole said. But instead of keeping this idea in that dream realm, they started to consider what it could look like. They asked themselves what it would look like if they quit their jobs, took off, and visited each park all in a single year. The dream seemed far-fetched for this newly wed couple, but they figured if they were ever going to do something like this, there’s no better time than the present.


    From there the couple started doing research. First, they needed to know how many parks there were and where they were, then they needed to see if it was even feasible to do this in a year, and if anyone had done it before. There was no shortage of things to research as they continued to let the thought evolve. Though still in the beginning stages of a thought at that time, it became a dream they kept revisiting and found themselves getting excited about it. And as simply as he could put it, Cole said: “We realized this was something we had to do or we would regret it.” And so the dream started to become a reality.

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    Dreaming Meets Reality

    From the time the seed was planted to when the couple actually left, 18 months elapsed. That was plenty of time for the Switchback Kids to research and prepare. First, they had to decide if they would actually do it. Cole explained that they had to ask themselves the following questions: “Would we love to do this? Is this just something we are really interested in?” Eventually, they had this nice long list of pros and cons, and the question then became, “Is this enough of a priority to spend the money and used the time to do this?” They decided it was. Once those questions were answered, they had to transition from dreaming to reality. “There was a point where we made the decision and after this point we are going for it full force. We made that and started moving forward” Cole said. Having a singular focus was very helpful for the couple; they still had jobs, but all the decisions and actions were focused to getting to the goal of being able to travel for a year and visit all of the Parks. The two did a ton of research to prepare for their excursion. They had to decide how long they would spend in each park, what their route should be in anticipation of weather changes, in addition to about a hundred additional decisions to be made and thoughts to be considered.

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    Preparing For Takeoff

    After researching, the couple had to start saving. It was no small endeavor to create a budget for the following year, while including their then current expenses. They had to predict all of their expenses for the trip and budget accordingly so that they would be able to save enough. “So many factors to take in!” Cole said laughingly. They are aiming for maximum adventure on a minimum budget for their year-long excursion. And Cole would tell you they have learned a lot about balancing between making sure they’re getting the full experience at a given park, while also making sure they’re pinching pennies to make ensure that they get through the entire year.


    The next step in the preparation process was to collect all the gear. Cole confessed, “We had more camping gear than the average young married couple, but not nearly enough to spend an entire year outside.” They had to go to REI garage sales and search for deals from L.L. Bean, anywhere they went, they were looking for a deal. In addition to searching online sales and hitting garage sale after garage sale, the couple talked to the National Parks Service and other private companies to see if anyone would be interested in working with them on this trip. Quite a few companies were eager to jump on board and help support the couple as they set out on this adventure including: Garmin, Fits Socks, Paleonola, Eno Hammocks, Purple Moose Basics, Happy People Hike, and many more! Even USAOpoly donated games for the couple to play on their campsites! These companies are helping the Switchback Kids hit the parks and in return the couple will promote their gear through social media. Eventually, with the help from companies and their personal belongings, the couple managed to collect the things they needed to live outside for an entire year.


    Obviously, a huge factor in this adventure would be the actual route. Cole loved figuring out the route. He explained, “You have to take into account weather. We had to plan to be south for most of the winter.” It should be noted that they do not have an RV, they are camping in actual tents while at these parks. “There were wrenches thrown in there,” Cole said, “like weddings. We have to come back down from Seattle to Kansas City for a wedding that Elizabeth is in, and then turn right around and go back up to Alaska.” They also needed to figure out creative ways to get airline tickets as cheaply as possible. Cole said he researched several travel packing blogs and realized, once he started reading about it, that they could travel for free based on credit card bonuses and mistake fares. He spent those 18 months of preparation trying to earn enough travel point millage to cover the cost for their flights. He managed to cover the flights for Hawaii but not for American Simoa, which is about a 2-3 hour flight east of New Zealand. Who knew the American National Parks included the American Territories, too? They learned and planned accordingly.


    The next major hurdle to tackle was packing. Packing is a woman’s job after all, right? Since Elizabeth is a teacher, she primarily helped execute the plans in the final stretch, specifically with packing. Can you imagine packing—camp friendly-- clothing for an entire year? clothing for every season, but not so much that it can’t fit into a backpack. This was no small feat for Elizabeth as she had to account for the heat of August, which was when they left, as well as the chill of winter, which would inevitably come. Since the parks are spread throughout virtually every climate in the states and surrounding territories, the two had to prepare for any and everything. To help fund the trip, and purchase the necessary items, the couple tried to sell everything they could, keeping only the sentimental pieces, and purchased whatever they still needed.


    As they approached the 30 days to launch mark, Cole found that he was most excited about being able to share the trip with people. Up until this point, he had to keep things quiet since he hadn’t told his workplace yet. But come the beginning of July 2015, things were both official and public as they couple counted down from 30 days. “The last few months were a blur” The couple explained. Before they knew it, the launch day had arrived and they set off for a year-long adventure to visit each of the 59 National Parks in 52 weeks’ time.

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    A Day in the Life of the Switchback Kids

    Cole says that they stay in each Park for about 4 days. Once they get in, they make their way to the visitor center and get park passport stamped. After that, they watch the Park’s introductory video and try to get a vision for what the park looks like and what they can explore while they are there. Next they talk to the Park Ranger-- they want to make sure they are up to speed on what’s happening in that specific park, there might be new reports that Cole and Elizabeth couldn’t have researched beforehand. “Elizabeth did a great job planning our first leg of the trip in the south parts.” Cole explained. “In the second leg we’ve relaxed that a little bit. Stuff really does happen between when you planned it and when you’re there. Floods for instance, the weather etc. Now we usually go to the Visitor Center with ideas, and then figure out the specifics for the next couple days, availability of permits, getting a backcountry permit to stay overnight and so on...” After stopping at the Visitor Center, they go on to do a lot of hiking, as in a multiple-trails-a-day kind of “a lot” of hiking. They also try to do some sort of backcountry overnight camping excursion while they are on site. Cole noted that backcountry camping was really great when they were in the Southwest. “That’s one way to get a really good feel for the Park.” He went on to say that they had to make sure they would have access to water or would have to bring water and food that they would need. Backcountry trips can range from just going in the afternoon for a half day to a 4 day-3 night ordeal like when they were at the Grand Canyon. However, if they opt not to do a backcountry trip, they set up camp in one of the campgrounds. “Backcountry is usually a lot cheaper” Cole said. “We try to do as many ranger programs as we can, too. They are interesting, and provide a good perspective in the park—like there’s this rare animal here, or there’s this ecosystem that’s unique to this Park. It adds good color to the visit.” The rest of the time is spent leisurely cooking and enjoying the surroundings and each other. The couple usually cooks on their little one pot stove, one pot meals. Potatoes, beef, pasta, rice etc. they purchase a nearby grocery store after leaving one park and before going to the next.


    In addition to shopping while transitioning out of one park and into another, the couple spends a day setting up a different type of camp in local coffee where they write and publish blog posts and get in touch with friends and family. If possible, they try to connect with family and friends along their route-- ideally family and friends who can welcome them in. “Sleeping in an actual bed is so nice before going into another park” Cole said.  


    Flash Forward

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    When I spoke with the couple they were preparing fly out to the US Virgin Islands to visit a park in that region. Sounds like a rough gig, huh? But first, they would venture onto the Everglades, which would carry them through Thanksgiving. Biscayne would follow, and then they would venture into the Virgin Islands in December. After a quick island escape, the couple will fly back to Florida to pick up their car and drive home for Christmas, stopping in Kentucky to visit Mammoth Cave on the way. Then, after a little holiday break, they’re off to Hawaii to visit the parks in the Pacific Islands.


    Why Do This?

    The Switchback Kids would tell you that they want to bring the parks to people. Cole said, “They are so diverse and open to everybody. We are so lucky in the United States to have that type of opportunity at our fingertips. Sure, everyone wants to backpack through Europe or go to the beach, and those are great, but there’s stuff in our own back yard that’s great too! That’s why we chose national parks because we feel like it’s something worth promoting and celebrating. That’s been really fun to get in on the Centennial year where they are doing a lot of events until the 100 year National Parks Service’s birthday in August.” If you would like to keep up with Cole and Elizabeth as the continue to explore the National Parks, following along by reading their blog: The Switchback Kids


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