The last day of their year-long quest to visit each of America’s 59 national parks ended last July in a more poetic way than Cole and Elizabeth (Sumner) Donelson could even have imagined. And not just because it was happening on their third wedding anniversary (July 27) in one of the most beautiful places on earth — Denali National Park in Alaska — although that certainly added to the grandeur of it.
The couple, who are both now 27, had spent several days camping in Denali and trying to catch a glimpse of its namesake, the highest mountain in North America (previously named Mount McKinley), but the weather wasn’t cooperating.
“That’s the main reason you go to the park, to see Denali, but only 30 percent of people who visit ever get to see it because it’s always so cloudy, especially in the summer when it’s the stormiest,” said Elizabeth, a 2008 graduate of Washington High School and daughter of Brian and Margarita Sumner, Washington. “So we knew we had a small chance to see it and, looking at the forecast, it was cloudy every day we were going to be there.”
The clouds were too thick on their first day of hiking and on the second day, the clouds were thin enough that they were able to get a partial view of the mountain. Knowing they were leaving the next morning, they felt lucky to have seen that much.
The next morning, when Cole woke up around 4:30 a.m. to go to the bathroom, he opened the tent and the view of the majestic mountain filled the opening. He quickly woke Elizabeth, and they celebrated the moment together in the quiet peace of the early morning.
“There was so much emotion built up because it was our last day in our last park, so that was just an awesome ending,” said Cole, pulling up photos he took on his smartphone.
“It’s one of my favorite pictures. This is called Wonder Lake, and that is one of the most popular views of the mountain when you get to see it, but most people don’t get to experience it because you have to stay in the Wonder Lake campgrounds.”
The couple had been staying in Wonder Lake campgrounds, but they had no idea that they had situated the front of their tent to face Denali perfectly, because they could never see where the mountain was in relation to their surroundings before that moment.
Seeing Denali was the perfect ending to the yearlong trip that included many amazing experiences and created even more amazing opportunities for them going forward — from winning a trip to Argentina through “The Price Is Right” TV game show to winning a scholarship for Cole to enroll in the MBA program at Washington University.
Planned for 1 1/2 Years
This time last year, The Missourian ran a feature story of the Donelsons’ plan to visit all 59 national parks in the course of 52 weeks. They had spent 1 1/2 years saving and planning for the trip, before selling nearly everything they owned and quitting their jobs (she had been a sixth-grade teacher, and he had worked for a health IT company) to embark on the journey in August 2015.
The couple worked closely with major corporations, like Garmin, L.L. Bean and ALPS in New Haven, which provided them equipment in exchange for real-world reviews of the products, which they posted on their website, www.switchbackkids.com.
The website also featured videos and blog posts about each of the parks they visited, as well as resource information, travel tips and more.
By the time they spoke with The Missourian in December 2015, the Donelsons had completed one-third of their trip and things were going well. That story, published Jan. 9-10, 2016, can be found on emissourian.com.
Highlights of the Trip
Trips to visit the national parks in Alaska were among the most expensive on the yearlong journey, but they didn’t experience any hiccups there. Everything went basically according to plan and the weather was good, which is sort of rare for Alaska in July, said Elizabeth.
“There are eight national parks in Alaska, and five of them do not have roads going in, so it’s really challenging,” said Elizabeth, noting they took ferries and flew in bush planes to reach them.
Two of the parks (Kobuk Valley National Park and Gates of the Arctic National Park) required chartering a bush plane to reach them, because there aren’t any regularly scheduled flights there. The cost was around $600 per hour, or $1,800 for the three hours they needed.
“For those, we just touched down in one park for about 30 minutes, touched down in another for about 30 minutes and then flew out,” said Cole.
“It was a really weird way to visit,” said Elizabeth. “We had spent a few days or more in every other park.”
They spent nearly a month in Alaska visiting the parks, but the couple saw very few bears (they actually saw more on the portion of their drive up through Canada), until they reached Katmai National Park.
“That place is all about bears,” said Cole. “That’s where they go to feed on the salmon run.”
“It’s the classic picture of salmon jumping out of the waterfall and the bear catching it,” said Elizabeth.
The weather in Alaska wasn’t at all what the couple had imagined. For their July visit, it wasn’t at all snowy in Kobuk Valley and the temperature was around 85 degrees.
The sun was basically always up during their visit in July. It was always twilight and never pitch black.
“It made us feel so tired all of the time,” said Elizabeth. “Even driving up we would look at the clock and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s 2 a.m.! We need to pull over and find someplace to sleep for the night.’ We didn’t realize it was so late, because there’s still sunlight.”
The beauty of the state was unlike any they had seen on their trip around the country.
“The wilderness is on another level, and the beauty, you can’t even imagine,” said Cole.
“Everything is just so big there,” added Elizabeth.
Driving home through Canada they were able to see the Northern Lights, which was a surprise. They didn’t think they were going to be able to because it was never dark enough while they were that far north. But they were able to get far south enough into Canada around sunset one day just in time to see them.
Favorite Parks of the 59
There a podcast on the Switchbackkids.com website where the Donelsons list their Top 10 favorite national parks, but when pressed to each pick one single favorite, they didn’t hesitate with their response.
Elizabeth’s favorite was Acadia National Park in Maine, with Kenai Fjords in Alaska coming in a close second.
“Acadia is a really unique national park because it has huge mountains that go right up to the coast. So it’s got beach and mountain just smashed together,” Elizabeth told The Missourian in our first interview last year. “And we went at peak fall colors, so that was just gorgeous! Best fall colors we have ever, ever, ever seen. It was even rainy and cold, and just not great weather, but the park was gorgeous and it was just so beautiful.”
At Kenai Fjords, her second favorite park, they took a boat cruise around and all the way back to one of the glaciers and they were able to see seals sitting on the icebergs, orcas, humpback whales and hundreds of little puffins everywhere.
“It was like a movie,” Elizabeth remarked.
Last year, before they had completed their tour of all 59 parks, Cole told The Missourian that his favorite up to that point had been Capitol Reef National Park in the middle of Utah.
“There are five parks in Utah, and it is the least visited, probably because it is the most remote, but we loved it because it is like a combination of all the rest of the parks in Utah,” he said. “It has natural arches, slot canyons, beautiful drives, historical villages that you can pick fruit right from the orchards that have been there for 100 years and fresh pies that they make from the fruit . . . We had some great back-country hikes.”
Now, Cole said his favorite is Olympic National Park in Washington because of its diversity.
“It’s just west of Seattle a couple of hours. It has 13,000-foot snow-capped mountains, and then it has rainforest, the only rainforest in the U.S., and then coast,” he said. “It has these sea stacks that rise up out of the ocean and the sun sets behind them, and then you get low tide and kind of leaves all the tidal pools, so that was amazing. Just so much diversity one park.”
There Were Challenges
Looking back on their year, the Donelsons admit they faced plenty of challenges, like not being able to shower whenever they wanted to, eating things they didn’t necessarily want to eat, being out in the weather when they’d rather be indoors.
There also were times that they got on each other’s nerves, but it wasn’t always easy to put any physical space between them.
“With arguments, we got really good at just solving them quickly,” said Elizabeth, noting there were times when she would just close her eyes “and just be in my own space even though I wasn’t.”
Sometimes Cole would take a solo hike and she would sit in the car for some alone time or just to read a book.
The worst park to visit was probably Everglades, because of the mosquitoes.
“They were just horrible, and you couldn’t go anywhere without them,” said Elizabeth. “We would just run from our car to the tent and zip it really fast, and use the flashlight to kill all of the mosquitoes that got in. And the ceiling of our car was covered in carcasses that we killed.”
“Cole Donelson, Come On Down!”
When the couple reached California, where there are nine national parks, they made a point of stopping in Los Angeles to make one of Cole’s lifelong dreams come true — attend a taping of “The Price Is Right.”
The real goal was not just to be in the audience, but to get called up to Contestants’ Row and then win his way up on stage to play one of the games and win big.
The Donelsons knew that the people selected from the audience to “Come on down!” to Contestants’ Row are not random at all, that the show producers are looking for people with personality and good back stories.
“They do 30-second interviews of everyone as they are waiting to get in to the taping,” said Cole. “You get put in groups of 25 with a producer, and somebody asks you almost always, ‘Where are you from and what do you do?’ So I said, ‘I’m homeless because we’re traveling the U.S. to see all of the national parks.’ ”
That helped, and so did the T-shirts Cole and Elizabeth were wearing that read “Visiting 59 National Parks . . . and ‘The Price Is Right’ in one year of crazy.”
After being called down to Contestants’ Row, Cole couldn’t believe his luck when the prize he had to bid on to win his way up on stage turned out to be a hiking package — two Camelbaks daypacks with hydration reservoirs, two pairs of Merrell hiking boots, two Fitbits and four water bottles.
Cole was very familiar with how much all of that equipment cost, but it seemed none of his competitors did. The highest bid by the time it was his turn was only $750. So Cole, the last bidder in the group, bid just $751, knowing the package was worth quite a bit more.
The actual cost of the hiking package was around $1,200, making Cole the winner and sending him up on stage.
The experience was super exciting, said Cole, noting he played up his enthusiasm, partly for the show, but also because it was just that unbelievable.
On stage, the game he was given to play is called Squeeze Play. The prize was a trip for two to the Patagonia region in Argentina.
The actual cost of the trip was five digits, but there were six on the board. Cole had to select which number to remove to match the actual price.
“Game theory told us that it’s usually one of the numbers in the middle that had to be removed,” said Cole.
“You can use game theory to increase your odds in winning all of the games,” he said, noting he found an article that outlined all of that for him.
Out in the audience, Elizabeth shouted for Cole to take out the 0, and that turned out to be correct.
“I was screaming, out in the audience just screaming,” said Elizabeth. “Everyone around me was hugging me too because we had been together all day by that point. Everyone was just so excited.”
The episode aired last May, but you can read about the experience in Cole’s words in a post on their website at http://switchbackkids.com/winning-the-price-is-right/.
The couple are in Argentina right now. They actually worked it out with “The Price Is Right” travel agents so they could stop first in Buenos Aires before flying to Patagonia.
Back to Work
Since returning to Missouri last August, the Donelsons have gotten back to work. Elizabeth is working as a substitute teacher while Cole is completing the MBA program at Washington University on a full scholarship.
He credits their year of travel with helping him win the scholarship. He wrote about it in his application for the program and it was a big part of the conversation during his interview (over Christmas 2015) to be admitted since the trip has shaped his whole outlook on so many things.
“It wasn’t just a vacation,” said Cole. “We turned it into a lot more than that. We honed our writing skills and our communication skills with the blog and website, but it developed a lot of our business skills even.”
In a lot of ways, their year of travel was like running their own business.
The MBA program at Washington University is two years and, just a few months into it, Cole said he’s already been exposed to a lot of career paths. Right now he’s considering a future in consulting, where he would be part of a consulting firm that companies hire to solve problems.
He’s looking for internships for this summer and has found one with the National Parks Service that seems like a perfect fit.
“I think this (trip) is going to influence the rest of our lives,” said Elizabeth. “It already has with him getting the scholarship. The trip was paramount in that, and I think it’s just going to keep opening other doors and opportunities for us.”
They know there are people who disagree with them, who question how wise it was for them to take a year off from their careers to travel. They did an interview with Yahoo Finance, and many of the comments from readers were less than kind.
“People were really critical of the trip: ‘Why would you take a year out of your career, lose all this time to develop skills,’ ‘No one will hire you when you’re finished,’ ‘Think about all the compounded interest of the money you could have saved’ . . . but we gained so much more from that year than we ever would have if we would have just stayed at our jobs that we weren’t super passionate about at the time,” said Elizabeth.
With Cole not having a job right now and Elizabeth working as a substitute teacher, they don’t have a large income, but they also don’t have many expenses. They are living in a family friend’s house in Kirkwood, while the family fixes it up to sell it down the road.
They have to be frugal about a lot of their purchasing choices, but it hasn’t stopped them from traveling. In fact, over spring break they have a trip planned to Belize using travel vouchers they received from an airline last year when they agreed to be bumped from a flight that had been overbooked.
“We want to keep traveling as much as we can and taking advantage of these things. You can’t win on ‘The Price Is Right’ unless you go on ‘The Price Is Right,’ which is kind of our motto for the year — If you don’t take these opportunities, if you don’t take a risk, it’s never going to happen,” said Elizabeth.
‘Ambassadors for the Parks’
Although they aren’t official spokespeople for the National Parks Service, the Donelsons said they feel it’s their duty to share the benefits and beauty of the parks with as many people as possible. They have introduced friends and family to the vacation possibilities found in the parks, and hope that their website has reached even more people.
“We kind of want to be ambassadors for the parks,” said Cole.
“Whenever I talk to any of my friends now, I feel like I have to represent the parks well, which is weird,” said Elizabeth, “but I feel like I have to make sure they understand what is there and just share the message.”
To read more about Cole and Elizabeth’s year visiting all 59 National Parks, see photos, watch videos and learn their travel tips, go to www.switchbackkids.com.