A Journey of 395 National Parks

Local residents share their experiences of visiting the nation’s parks.

Fred and Debbie Koegler at River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Monroe, Mich., the last two parks on their list of 395.
Fred and Debbie Koegler at River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Monroe, Mich., the last two parks on their list of 395.

Contributed by Fred and Debbie KOEGLER

The recent Ranger Rendezvous XXXIV in Williamsburg, Va. was the jumping off point for us to complete one of our lifetime goals: visiting all 395 National Park Service Units.

After the Rendezvous, we visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. and River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Monroe, Mich., the last two parks on our list.

It has taken almost 17 years to fulfill the quest of seeing all the parks in the system. During most of that time we were school teachers and summer seasonals, so we were limited to how much time we could travel.

River Raisin NBP was our last site and commemorates the battle of 1812. It also boasts of being in the town of Monroe where General Custer had a home and lived for a number of years before he joined the U.S. Army. Local residents have fought hard to save the land of the former county park for national recognition and there is a dedicated community partnership at work.

Arriving at the park, we were greeted by a friendly park ranger staff, a Scout troop of at least 100 boys camping on the battlefield grounds, and a local group of volunteers in period clothing giving us a glimpse of living history. It was celebratory in mood so it made it that much more special for us to end our journey here.

Our quest began on Aug. 30, 1995. One evening after work, we were sitting in the Tuolumne Meadows Ranger Station reading an article in the NPS Electric Courier written by Clay Alderson, then superintendent of Klondike Gold Rush NHP. He wrote that he met a fellow who had just touched down in a Piper Cub on a dirt airstrip in his park who announced that he had just visited every unit of the national park system. Reading this article ignited the spark in us to begin the quest.

So impressed with Alderson’s report, we copied it and thought it would be fun to do the same “someday.” We got a U.S. Park map and started to plot our plan knowing that it would take a lot of time, resources, and organized logistics to make it happen.

In 1986, the Park Service implemented the official cancellation stamp and passport book program so park visitors could document their visits. For years we had visited many NPS areas but had no accountability. Soon after embarking on our quest, we heard of a group called the “National Park Travelers Club” formed in 2003. It is dedicated to expanding the appreciation of the NPS system and aims to provide networking and recognition opportunities for visitors to America’s national parks. Started as a small online group of several people, it now has over 825 members and meets at a national park yearly for a convention. We became members in 2007 and we understand that according to the club we are numbers 20 and 21 who have visited all units of the NPS. They require proof of each cancellation stamp.

Adventures have been countless and life changing. In June, we traveled to the interior of Alaska by bush plane, visiting the last 10 parks out of the 23 there that do not have roads. It took four different trips to Alaska to cover it all.

Flying into and landing in the crater of Aniakchak NM & Preserve was a bit worrisome for us as we knew it was the most difficult of all parks to get into because of its extreme weather.

Other highlights have been meeting former President Clinton at the dedication of his boyhood home in Hope, Ark., along with the Secretary of the Interior and the NPS director last April.

Park personnel we have known and met along the way have taken us to such places as the back waterways of the Everglades, up into the Clock Tower of Independence Hall (before 9/11), into the headwaters of Lake Clark and to the highest mountain top of St Croix Salt River Bay NHP to see the site of a future visitor center and into the depths of Carlsbad Caverns. While in the national park of America Samoa, the superintendent at that time took us shopping for the local required dress called a lava-lava (a piece of fabric tied on like a skirt) which we all wore for our entire stay. Entering that culture with two teenage boys is a trip the entire family will always remember.

Many ask what has been our favorite park to visit and it is a hard question to answer. The parks are diverse and so different from one another. They cannot be compared to each other and we have no favorite as they each have something unique to offer the park visitor. That is the lure because you are never sure what awaits you at the next park.

Our national parks span every state except Delaware and most U.S. territories, so we have flown across the United States more times than we can count, not to mention traveling backcountry roads where sometimes we were totally lost.

Completing this quest is bittersweet because it has been the incredible journey along the way that is memorable and not just an exercise in “stamping” of the passport book.