When Dan Elias got married in 2005, he had one request of his bride for their honeymoon.
“I said, ‘We are going to visit seven national park sites on four islands in Hawaii,'” he recently recalled, describing their romantic getaway.
And so they observed the contemplative silence of Pearl Harbor and roamed the pitted landscape surrounding Hawaii’s volcanoes. They hiked through mud and tangled grasses along a steep trail to Kalaupapa, a former leper colony on Molokai, where the sick were exiled until 1969.
These are among the many national parks and preserves, battlefields, historic sites and monuments that Elias, 52, has visited in the past two decades: 417, to be exact.
He has spent weekends and vacations traveling to every national park site overseen by the National Park Service. More than a few people have visited the 59 parks, and blogged and written books about it.
But only the rarest of travelers, like Elias, say they have seen all 417 sites.
“We are all a bit on the obsessive-compulsive side,” Elias said of his fellow explorers.
Some do it for bragging rights. Others just want to see all of the United States. Still others find solace in the backwoods of a southern bayou or camaraderie on a bush plane headed to a desolate glacier. They even have their own club, the National Park Travelers Club. Founded in 2004, it has more than 2,000 members.
Under the Trump administration, naturalists fear that the National Park Service, established in 1916 by President Wilson, is under attack. Fees at many national parks will go up in June. (Last year, more than 330 million people visited the sites.) Also, President Donald Trump scaled back two Utah national monuments in December.
Some national parks devotees quibble with their wandering cohort, suggesting they violate the spirit of the quest when they stop solely to get their park service passports stamped at a visitor center.
“A few years back, people were blatantly doing this,” said Letty Johnson, 77, who lives in Gibraltar, Michigan.
She pointed to Hawaii’s Honouliuli National Monument, a World War II internment and prisoner of war camp. According to the monument’s website, it is not yet open to the public, although visitors can get their passports stamped. That’s why Johnson and her husband count only 416 visited sites.
“We are purists,” she said. “We don’t say we’ve visited a site unless we’ve stepped foot in it.”
She conceded, though, that even the best intentions can fall short. The weather is particularly fickle in Alaska. That means travelers who take a bush plane to a remote place sometimes stay as little as 15 minutes.
Did You Know It Snows in Death Valley?
That was Debbie Roberts, 54, of Reno, Nevada, describing a 1997 trip she took to California’s southeastern desert, where temperatures can soar to 134 degrees during the sweltering summer. It was April 1.
“A real April Fool’s joke,” she said.
Roberts bought a sweater to guard against the chilly dry air. She also bought a blue National Park passport and had it stamped, her first “official” visit to a national park, she said.
Last year, her passport was stamped again, this time at the Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, one of the most important archaeological sites in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She held up a sign with the number “417” and celebrated her two-decade tour of the national parks and monuments with six friends.
“I will admit I don’t do a lot of research,” said Roberts, who works in a call center for American Airlines. “I don’t see myself as an adventurer.”
Oh, but she is. In 2014, she was a passenger in a bush plane that landed in a dry riverbed.
Roberts was visiting the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska, a wilderness area with no roads or trails. Another time, her plane was fitted with skis so it could land on a glacier.
“It’s not a cheap hobby,” she said, noting that it cost from $600 to $800 an hour to rent a chartered plane in Alaska. “I have been on every imaginable plane built in the 1940s and 1950s.”
Perhaps, though, Roberts’ most unusual flight was in 2015 to Ofu, one of three islands in the National Park of American Samoa. First, they were forced to leave some passengers behind because the plane could fit only 15 people because of weight restrictions.
The landing strip, too, had to be cleared of boxes and debris before their arrival. When they finally arrived, police cars pulled up to the plane and waited for the passengers to get off. Why?
“The policemen took the pilots and drove them to get something to eat,” Roberts said. “I went for a walk on the beach.”
A Fall From Devils Tower
Climbing Devils Tower National Monument isn’t for the faint of heart.
In July 2017, Jennifer Williams, 46, of Thousand Oaks, California, and a group of friends began their climb up the tower’s monolithic surface, which is marked by parallel cracks and vertical hexagonal columns. They brought rope, harnesses and other devices for the four-hour climb up the sheer face.
“Everything seemed to be going fine,” said Williams, who, after a few hours, was halfway to the top. While reaching for a rock, though, her feet slipped out from under her. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m falling!'” she recalled. “I felt the pressure on my harness.”
She stopped mid-fall, hanging in midair until she caught hold of the tower’s side. “I’d only fallen about 3 or 4 feet, although it felt like more,” she said.
Williams collected herself (“You kind of have to go for it,” she said) and climbed the rest of the way without incident. When she reached the peak, she was surprised to see lime-colored bushes and yellow grass shifting in the breeze. Below her was a vast plain dotted with pine trees, red earth and the winding Belle Fourche River.
The scare was worth it. “It was such a sight,” she said.
‘My Family Thinks It Is Neurosis’
Arthur Berman, 70, was divorced and living in Phoenix in the late 1970s when he first ventured into the southwestern desert.
“I had lots of energy and time and I was lonely,” Berman, who now lives in San Jose, California, recalled. “So I would go hiking on weekends. I mostly went by myself.”
He traversed switchbacks in the Grand Canyon and hiked Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah, where soaring cliffs shift between creamy pink and crimson as the afternoon light fades.
After five years, Berman was smitten. “They are like my children,” he said. “I can’t say which is my favorite.” So much so, he vowed then to visit every National Park Service site and more.
He stretched three-day holidays into weeklong vacations. He tacked an extra day onto business trips. When he was done touring the national sites, he visited others that were decommissioned or lost their status.
For example, Mar-a-Lago, which is owned by the Trump Organization, was once a National Historic Landmark. The former Fossil Cycad National Park in South Dakota, where Berman visited, was taken off the list in 1957 after vandals pilfered nearly all of the park’s unique plant fossils.
“Most of my family thinks it is neurosis,” the retired physicist said. “But I like to make lists of things that are difficult to do.”
Berman worries that too many sites get federal status solely for political reasons or to attract government spending. “It is fair to say that there are monuments, by modern standards, that should not be there,” he said.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a 7-mile drive from Akron, Ohio, and was created, in part, to deter urban sprawl. Berman wasn’t impressed.
“I thought it was OK,” he added. “But it wasn’t world-class.”
Acreage at other sites is shrinking, like Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which naturalists saw as a move last year by Trump to roll back environmental protections sought by President Barack Obama.
“It’s always about politics,” Berman said.
‘Like a Spiritual Experience ’
Dan Elias first visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, south of Yosemite, in the late 1990s. Then, he hiked 3 miles in Kings Canyon to an overlook hovering above the pristine valley. It was early evening; he was alone.
“I was thinking how beautiful it was, when I heard something in a hollowed out stump,” Elias said. “I looked inside and saw a rattlesnake. We stared at each other, and I backed up slowly.”
Crisis averted. That was until he heard the growl of a mountain lion. Elias made some noise, and the mountain lion scampered away.
It was his second trip, though, that proved almost transcendent. A storm moved in quickly during his hike, and rain and hail swallowed the summer sky. Elias didn’t have a coat or rain gear. He tried to run but the slippery mud gave way beneath his feet.
“A lightning bolt struck a tree about 100 feet in front of me,” he said. “I thought, ‘Whoa, I better slow down.'”
So, he stood in the rain, awe-struck, after a thunderous clap echoed against the stone walls of the canyon.
“Sometimes being out there is like a spiritual experience,” he said.
Last year, Elias visited the newly designated Freedom Riders National Monument, a former Greyhound bus depot in Anniston, Alabama. It was early Sunday morning.
“We pulled up and got out of the car to read the plaque,” he said.
A few minutes later, a woman in a car pulled up behind him. Elias approached her, hoping she would take his photograph.
“'You’re Dan, right?'” Elias recalled her saying.
It was Debbie Roberts from the National Park Travelers Club. “I joked that it must feel like I was stalking him,” she said with a laugh.