After more than four months of hiking, trekking, climbing, kayaking and exploring their way around 21 national parks, Cole and Elizabeth (Sumner) Donelson this week are soaking up the sun, sand and surf in Hawaii, where they also will check off two more national parks in their goal to visit all 59 in one year’s time.
From Hawaii, the couple will head to one of the most distant national parks, American Samoa, which is located near New Zealand, before returning to their home base in Washington, Mo.
Here they will regroup and head right back out to visit national parks in the deep Southwest, then up along the West Coast and out to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, The Badlands . . . up to Voyageurs in Minnesota and Isle Royale in Michigan.
The final leg of their journey will be to Alaska, where there are eight national parks. Of all the places they have been and are headed to, Alaska intimidates them the most.
“Five of the eight parks don’t have roads (going) in,” noted Elizabeth Donelson, a 2008 graduate of Washington High School and daughter of Brian and Margarita Sumner, Washington. “We will have to take bush planes, hike or kayak.”
‘Do Something in the Transition’
After getting married in 2013, the Donelsons were living in Kansas City, where she worked as a sixth-grade language arts teacher, and he worked for a health IT company.
Life was steady and secure, but also a little boring, they admit. Outdoor adventure people by nature, they felt a little stifled by the typical 9-to-5 lifestyle they had acquired.
Knowing too they would want to start a family eventually, they realized they also would want to move to be closer to their own parents.
“We kind of knew we wanted to move back to this side of the state at some point, so we just talked about, ‘Well, if we’re going to quit our jobs anyway, we might as well do something in the transition,’ ” said Elizabeth. “We decided to take this crazy jump and do something before we settle back down here.”
It may be a crazy idea, but the Donelsons approached it methodically. They began the journey in August 2015, but they began planning for it 18 months before that.
The first thing they needed was money. They budgeted $20,000 for the year, which they raised by saving everything they could and selling their belongings.
“We are completely self-funded,” said Cole. “We were fortunate to have good jobs out of college and we didn’t spend much. We lived well below our means.”
“We are also tent camping the whole year, so our traveling is very cheap, and national parks are very cheap to visit,” said Elizabeth.
Nearly all of their travel is being done by car. Their only flights have been (will be) to national parks they couldn’t otherwise get to — in the Virgin Islands, Hawaii and American Samoa.
“Besides just saving, we did also have extra jobs,” said Cole. “She worked with refinishing furniture on the side. I drove for Uber (car service) . . . We sold a bunch of our stuff.”
“We were basically downsizing for a whole year,” said Elizabeth, noting it only made sense since they planned to move in the end anyway.
Everything they didn’t want to sell — kitchen gadgets, bedding, wedding gifts — they are storing at her parents’ home.
Other Ways to Save
The couple used free flights they had earned through their credit card to fund their flight to Hawaii. They also contacted a few companies, like Garmin and L.L. Bean, about working with them as sponsors and providing some of the gear they would need.
The Donelsons, who are blogging about their experience as they go, have a Web page, switchbackkids.com, with a section listing all of the gear they are using with reviews of the pros and cons.
When they were in Washington last week, the couple met with ALPS Mountaineering in New Haven about some of its gear.
Highlights So Far
The Donelsons left Washington on Aug. 18 for the first leg of their yearlong journey. They traveled by car through October, making a loop around the Southwest — southern Colorado, Arizona and Utah mostly, said Elizabeth. Then they came home to Washington before taking off on the second leg — Ohio, Maine and parks along the East Coast, all the way down to the tip of Florida and out to the Virgin Islands.
“Maine was the coldest nights we’ve had in our tent so far,” said Elizabeth. “It probably got down to about 30 degrees . . . by the middle of November we were in Florida, so we didn’t complain too much.”
Although seeing 59 parks in all corners of the country in just 52 weeks sounds like a hectic pace, it hasn’t been that way at all, the couple said.
“We actually have felt that we really get a good picture of every park that we’ve been to,” said Cole. “It’s about four days on average that we spend there. We camp at every one, and we try to do some kind of back-country excursion, whether that’s back-packing or a kayak trip.
“At Mammoth Cave (in Kentucky), we did the Wild Cave Tour, which is like six hours and five miles. You go into places in the cave that no one ever goes,” he said.
Elizabeth squirmed a little just remembering that cave tour. At some parts of the cave the group had to crawl through, which left Elizabeth feeling a little claustrophobic.
That wasn’t the only time the couple found themselves in an unpleasant situation or questioning their decision to hike through all of these parks.
“At Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado, the big thing is a canyon, but it’s super steep,” said Cole. “You can hike down there if you are ambitious, and there are routes, not full-fledged trails, but routes that you can pick . . . we were heading down that and basically slipping at every step we took and then about tumbled down the mountain . . . and then got lost coming back because the trail isn’t marked.”
And although they have already hiked through bear country and kayaked with alligators in the Everglades (with inflatable kayaks, no less), the worst run-in they have had with another living creature has been mosquitoes.
So far, Elizabeth’s favorite park they have visited has been Acadia in Maine.
“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,” she said. “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.”
Cole’s favorite park so far has 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.”
You can read more about the couple’s experience at each park on their website, switchbackkids.com. They have a blog post and video for each park and also a photo gallery of what they’ve seen.
Beyond that, the website includes an abundance of information for anyone looking to follow in their footsteps, even if it’s just to go to one or two parks. There is a list of all 59 national parks, the route they followed, how they planned their trip, the gear they have used and more.
A Lot of One-Pot Meals
For food, the couple takes along a small cooler with ice to keep any meats and cheeses they bring along cold.
“We are almost always around grocery stores,” Elizabeth noted. “We are really in a lot of cities, more than you would think. There is usually at least a small town outside of the parks. So we get some fresh meat and produce and cheese and make do with what we have. We have a little cook set, camping stove, that we can even backpack with.”
They make things like soups, chilis, potatoes and sausage, tacos, eggs, a lot of one-pot meals. And when they are on the road in between parks, the couple stop at places to eat.
On the road in between parks out West, the couple had made a habit of hitting up area buffets. It was a great way to fill up after burning so many calories on their strenuous hikes and back-country experiences.
That had to end when they traveled down the East Coast, where the hiking was more easygoing for them.
Learning About the Country, Resetting Their Lives
Although they are just one-third of the way through their year’s journey, the Donelsons said their travels have been amazing.
“It’s been a lot of what we expected. Our planning really paid off,” said Elizabeth. “We haven’t had too many crazy surprises. A few things have gone wrong, like our air pad that we sleep on was leaking for like a month, so we didn’t get very good sleep, but overall it’s been pretty smooth.”
Along their way to visiting all 59 national parks, the couple also is trying to see as many National Park Service sites as possible. These include national monuments, national historic sites, battlefields, prairies, preserves, seashores . . . there are 409 total.
Learning more about their country was one of many reasons why the Donelsons took on this challenge.
“There was so much about our own country that we didn’t know and hadn’t experienced,” said Cole.
“We tossed around some ideas of other things we could have done,” said Elizabeth. “We could have backpacked through Europe for three months, we could have hiked the Appalachian Trail for four or five months, but we really wanted to see a lot and we wanted to see it cheaply, and we wanted to see what is in our own backyard, most importantly.
“We could have also just gone around the U.S. wandering too, but we wanted a sense of purpose and accountability, and not just for it to be a personal adventure, but for us to share our experiences with people and have some good come of that, like the appreciation of national parks, especially during the centennial,” she said.
The couple also had personal reasons for wanting to make this trip around the country. They were interested in resetting their lives, said Cole, and this seemed like an excellent way to find out more about themselves.
“When we come back we might be pivoting in our careers. Elizabeth might not go back to teaching; I might not go back to the healthcare IT field I was in. I actually might be going to get my MBA at Washington University,” he said.
“Once you strip everything away, and you don’t have any comforts that you’re used to — even a refrigerator with ice — you really get to know what’s important and what you want, and I think we’ve learned a lot about what we want in the future,” said Elizabeth.
“We like those comforts, and we like having a home base, but I think whatever jobs we get we’ll make time to travel too, more than most people probably,” she said.
The couple has learned a lot about each other in these last few months too. Married now just 2 1/2 years, they said they went from spending real time with each other only in the evenings after work and on the weekends to practically never being apart.
“We calculated that in the first two months of this we were apart for just six hours total,” said Cole. “And we had taken just 11 showers total in those first two months. It was 55 days and 11 showers.”
National parks do not have showers, Elizabeth noted with a smile.