The Ultimate National Park Travel Guide

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” 
― John Muir

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Living in the West — Colorado in particular — sometimes makes me feel like everyone is a master outdoors-person. That everyone has been to more National Parks than me (and I’ve been to 47 on my own just in the US!), everyone has an SUV crammed with gear, and everyone is on top of some mountain right at this moment, probably looking down at me and laughing. But, alas, apparently that is not so. 

While National Parks visitors have generally increased each year (318 million in 2018!) they are still mostly concentrated in the top 5 parks, with the bottom 5 only receiving between 10-20,000 visitors a year.

For comparison sake (and math!) Disneyworld averages over 52 million visitors a year — nearly five times the number of visitors of the most visited National Park — Great Smoky Mountains — which sees just over 11 million. The second-most visited park — Grand Canyon — only had 6.3 million visitors last year.

So, while social media may make it seem like everyone already knows everything about National Parks — don’t worry, they don’t. With the start of National Park Week (and a fee free day April 20) and summer vacation season gearing up, hopefully you are planning a trip to one or two of America’s best idea. To assuage any anxiety you may have, here are my answers to the most common questions I get about National Park Travel:

Planning

which parks should i visit

This is the by far the question I get asked the most! Which parks are “the best” or my favorite. Well, here’s the thing, it doesn’t really matter what my favorites are — because my motivations for visiting might be different than yours or your family’s.

I always tell people to consider their motivations when planning a National Park trip. What do you want to do while you’re there? Because while you may think a parks trip is all hiking and wildlife — there is so much more to do at many (most, even) of the parks.

Some parks are great for a drive (with lots of photo worthy overlooks), some parks are great to bike in, some parks are on water or have a lot of water inside, some parks are better for families, and some parks have entire towns inside. The point: understand your motivation for the trip and how it matches up to where you are going. 

If you want to stay in a cool lodge and play mini-golf in the afternoons — don’t go to the Petrified Forest. On the flip side, if you want to hike in solitude (you know, become one with nature, kumbaya, namaste) then maybe don’t hit the South Rim of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Village. 

There are a lot of different atmospheres within parks, and also outside of them. Big parks generally have towns outside that cater to tourists and families (Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain) while other parks are literally in the middle of nowhere (Guadalupe Mountains, Pinnacles, Theodore Roosevelt) and some are nearby to medium to large cities (Channel Islands, Saguaro). 

It’s important to take all of this into account and also to understand what you/your friends/family actually like to do. If you only want to walk 3/4 of a mile (or less) to see some natural wonders — that’s awesome and totally possible. Don’t try to backpack for three days just because you think that’s the thing to do.

when is the best time to visit

Again, the “best” time might be different for everyone. I go to a lot of parks in the off or shoulder season to get away from crowds (and it’s cheaper), but I also miss some things that way. That being said, there are some “rules” to consider when planning a trip.

If you aren’t from a mountainous or higher elevation place, you may not realize how long “winter” lasts. Rocky Mountain National Park, Glacier, North Cascades, Mt. Rainier, and Crater Lake are just a handful of parks that will have snow well into Spring. In many cases the roads won’t even all be open until much later than you might expect. So unless your motivation is to see the snow, check each park individually to see when roads will be open and when you can expect the snow to be melted.

Similarly, there are a few parks that you really don’t want to be in after the spring. Death Valley, Saguaro, and Joshua Tree all have extremely high, uncomfortable, and even dangerous heat in the summer months.

Other things to consider: is there a certain ecological event you’d like to witness? Many parks are known for spring blooms and fall foliage. While the parks will be more crowded during those times, it is for good reason, and might be worth the trip.

Bugs/Wildlife: There are definitely certain seasons that are better for seeing wildlife and worse for certain bugs. If these things concern you, look up that park specifically.

where do i stay?

Not to sound like a broken record here but, this depends on what you want/like to do. You don’t have to camp! But if you want to, that’s definitely the best option in my opinion. Many times any other lodging options are 1+ hour away, which takes time away from your experience in the park.

There are also beautiful lodges in many parks. These are often booked well in advance, so if this is the route you want to go — book early.

Gateway towns often have chain hotels, but I find that they are often overpriced for what you get. If I’m not camping I generally will spring for an Airbnb. There are almost always an abundance of interesting Airbnb listings near the larger and more remote parks.

how do i plan my route?

When visiting a National Park, you’re going to need a car. While there are shuttle buses within many parks (and I recommend using them!), the parks themselves are generally remote. Luckily, a lot of National Parks are (relatively) close to other parks — especially in the West. And remember, they’re also mostly all in the middle of nowhere anyways, so if you’re going to spend the time to drive to one, you might as well add in another one. Or four (looking at you California). 

I’ve taken advantage of proximity on most trips. Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are obvious groupings, but Theodore Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain National Park aren’t too far from them either. Wind Cave and Badlands are near each other, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, and Black  Canyon of the Gunnison are all within somewhat short distances of each other, and I even went to Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, and Big Bend all in one big loop. 

Then of course there are the obvious: California, Washington, and Utah are all packed with National Parks — it would be a crime against Ken Burns to only visit one. 

what do i pack?

National Parks are great because they cater to all sorts of people. You can hike the back-country for days and climb a 14er, or you can stay in a luxurious lodge in a park with it’s own grocery store. There are certain things you need, sure, but if you plan on doing the normal things, no need to spend your entire vacation budget at REI. 

That being said, there are some things I have with me no matter what:

Water — in a water bottle and a gallon or two in my trunk (although many parks have water stations for fill ups)
Sunscreen -- even though I always forget to put it on (just having it makes me feel mature and prepared haha)
Snacks — usually mixed nuts and dried fruit (no melted mess)
Book -- (related to the place I am in if possible! - check the visitors center)
Camera — DSLR or just iPhone (make sure they are charged!)
Hat
Tevas
America the Beautiful Pass - $80 to get into all the parks for a year, as well as tons of other National Park sites (GREAT DEAL I use it all the time)
Pepper spray/knife -- cause hey, I'm alone (and I guess the type of badass who carries a knife) 

and…. that’s it. That’s really all you need. Probably more than what you need, actually. I have other boots, backpack, first aid, poncho, hiking poles etc, but generally use those mostly at non-National Parks.

what do i wear

Again, this isn’t as complicated as you might think. What would you wear to go to a park in your town? You can probably wear that. I usually wear leggings, Tevas, and some kind of t-shirt or tank. If it’s hot I’ll wear some denim or athletic shorts. I usually keep a flannel nearby if it get’s cold.

Think about breathable fabrics, layers, and comfortable shoes. You’d be shocked at how many people try to hike down into the Grand Canyon in totally inappropriate dress shoes and even heels.

Just use common sense :)

In the Park

what do i do there

Again, this depends on what you like to do. There is no “right way” to visit or experience a National Park. But, if you have no idea or are looking for new experiences I always recommend visiting the visitors center first. And don’t just walk in and out. Talk to the Rangers! Get specific! They want to help you have the best experience. I say some version of this: “I like to _______, I have ______ time, I’d like to see _______, what do you recommend?” Always works. They know the secret spots. 

And then let go of any expectation. You’re there to enjoy yourself, so if you get sidetracked and miss a spot or two on your list — it’s okay.

what if its crowded

If you’re visiting some of the more well-known parks in season, they’re going to be crowded. It’s just the way it is. And in many ways it’s great to see the parks being appreciated. But, if you’re like me, the crowds can make the experience a little… annoying. Luckily, I’ve spent enough time in the popular parks to come up with a game plan for crowds.

Get there early. Always. The early mornings are always going to be less crowded. Parking lots may not be full yet, popular trails aren’t congested, and you also get the best views.

Venture off the main “attractions”. While I would never say to skip something like Old Faithful or the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone (they’re worth fighting a crowd) remember that there is SO MUCH more to do and see at Yellowstone. And this is true for all of the parks. If you’re not sure where to find a hidden gem, ask a ranger, but then also ask someone else. I usually ask a gift shop or restaurant worker. Maybe someone you met in town. The key is to find someone who lives and works in the area — they know the spots.

Another option is to travel in the off season. When I post pictures in a park I always get comments that I went at the wrong time, or should really come back for ______ season. But, like I’ve said about 50 times, my motivations are different than theirs, so I might be perfectly fine missing that season or event in a park in exchange for less people overall. You might be too.

what if i dont want to hike

Then don’t! Like I mentioned above, there are so many options in each park. You can bike, drive, boat, swim, canoe, snorkel, and all kinds of other activities depending on where you go. Think about that before you plan your trip so you’re not stuck doing something you’re not interested in.

what if i'm tired

Then take a break! Seriously, don’t burn yourself out. That is definitely not the point of a vacation. I see so many people at parks who seem totally beat down from trying to see and do it all. Families are bickering and no one seems to be having any fun.

I spend a lot of time relaxing. Sitting on a rock somewhere and reading a book. Or just sitting. Listening. Meditating. Taking a nap. Allow yourself to do the things that make you feel good. That give you energy and fill you with joy. If that’s going hard for 12 straight hours, that’s great. If it’s sitting at a lookout for 12 straight hours, also great. It doesn’t make your experience any more or less.

am i safe

One of the reasons I started traveling to National Parks was because they felt safe. I wanted to spend time outdoors, but wasn’t ready to go off the grid completely. While National Parks are often very large and remote, they are also generally full of people — and park rangers!

If you’re concerned about safety camping, or encountering wildlife, stop by the visitors center and talk to a ranger. Maybe even go on a guided hike. Remember that you are surrounded by like-minded people — who would help you if you needed.

how do i care for environment

This might seem obvious, but according to what I’ve seen at parks apparently it isn’t. There might be a few areas for trash in some parks, but they are few and far between. Anything you bring in, you need to take out. Park rangers are not custodians, and more importantly — there are bears hanging around! Wildlife does not need your skittles wrapper/you are actually endangering people on top of ruining the very thing you are here to see. 

Actually, aim to leave a place even better than you found it! If you see some trash, pick it up. 

And it should go without saying, but don’t write on, deface, carve etc anything into anything (yes, people still do this)

For more information, check out the Leave No Trace Seven Principles.

what's trail etiquette?

If you don’t spend a lot of time on trails, you may not know trail etiquette is even a thing. So here’s a quick rundown (of the stuff that bothers me):

Right of way - The hiker going uphill has the right of way. It takes more energy and flow to ascend so the hiker going down should step to the side. 

Noise - Keep it down. I've actually been on many hikes where someone was playing music loudly from their iPhone. No earbuds. That is NOT why people go into nature. Keep it to yourself. 

Groups - Hike single-file unless you are truly the only people on the trail and can see ahead/hear behind! Sorry, but you can still talk that way. At least stay on the right half of trail space, and stay on the actual trail. 

Don’t take it with you - Don't take the rocks/branches/whatever. Leave it for others to look at. :)

Traveling Alone

As much as I’d like to think that traveling alone isn’t any different than in a group — it is. Especially as a woman. So while all of the above information still applies, there are some special concerns I’ll try to address here. For more information on solo travel and safety check out my posts here, here, and here.

what if i'm scared

Fear is a natural emotion. It makes sense to be afraid of something when you don’t know what to expect/haven’t experienced it before. But you can’t let the fear stop you. Real courage is acknowledging fear and continuing. Easier said than done though right?

Here are some things that can help to face fears:

 Gradual exposure – Identify your fears and then gradually expose yourself to them. If the idea of going on a week long off the grid hike is scary – start with a solo hike on a busy trail for a couple of hours. Work your way up to the thing you are afraid of. Practice is key – the more you expose yourself to the source of your fear the less of a hold it will have on you.

Acknowledge and accept – There’s always a point at the beginning of a trip where my mind is working overtime with fear. Did I remember to turn off the oven, did I pack my phone charger, what if the Airbnb is sketchy, what if what if what if. I have learned to acknowledge my fears and then accept that I can’t do anything more. I feel the fear and let it pass. This is a practice of mindfulness. Imagine you are watching cars drive by on a street. You acknowledge they are there and let them pass. Do this with your fear – acknowledge it and let the thoughts pass.

Think positively – A generally positive attitude is key. Assume things will go well. Assume it will all work out. Look to the past and remember the times when your fears were unfounded and assume they will be again.

Practical Tips: I always carry a pocket knife, pepper spray (or bear spray), and when staying in a hotel or Airbnb I have a doorstop alarm and/or an add a lock. Much more here.

how do i get photos?

Every day people ask me how I get photos of myself if I am traveling alone. Some people seem to think that I am lying, and have some secret boyfriend or photographer in tow. But, nope, 99% of my photos I take on my iPhone with the camera timer. The other 1% are taken by strangers I ask to take a photo of me if I’m in a crowded area. For many years I just set my phone up on a ledge, wall, or ground, but now I use this inexpensive tripod that fits in my day pack.

Here are a few tips:

Basics: Set the timer on your phone camera to 10 seconds and either set up the tripod or find something to prop your phone up against. It could be a wall, a fence, your water bottle – I’ve found some crazy stuff that works.

If you can help it, don’t use the selfie camera – you won’t be able to see yourself but the quality of the photo is much better.

Set your phone up as high as you can. Sometimes a pic from the ground can look cool but generally closer to eye level makes a better photo.

If you have an Apple Watch - set your phone somewhere farther away and use the watch to cue the photo — or use a remote (most tripods will include one)

Camera timers are the secret to the cartwheel/active shots – the timer takes a burst of photos so you have a few to choose from.

Take a bunch! Haha but seriously – take one, look at it, and then make adjustments as necessary.

And then post them all over the internet. (duh)

how do i let people know where i am

I tell at least one or two people what my hiking area is, and I share my location from my phone with my parents and two of my friends. I don’t know how that works when you don’t have service, but it makes me feel better that if they don’t hear from me, they can see my location. It’s also important to check in with others when you have service.

On the other side of that, it’s important not to post where you are! I’ve seen people post photos of their exact campsite while they are at it — not a good idea.

I still have questions!

You’re going to be okay! At some point you have to stop planning and start doing. Just go. Talk to rangers. Make friends with others in the park. Learn by doing. You’re going to have a great time :)

If you have specific questions about any of the parks I’ve been to, leave me a comment below!

To Venture

“So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?” 
― Hunter S. Thompson

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School is back in session, so unfortunately my summer of near constant travel is over. I spent my last few free days camping in Aspen — one of my absolute favorite places. Before I left town I visited a hot springs right off the road on a river outside town. I love hot springs of all kinds, but natural and primitive are the best. Usually.

Some couples came and went and then others came. We had great conversation and it was a beautiful day. When one couple was about to leave a man I had seen earlier in the bushes came out of nowhere. He sat right behind me, with a big jug of something and just a creepy vibe. I've been trying lately not to think someone is "creepy" just because they're alone — I'm always alone. Or "creepy" if they seem to live in their car/a tent — I'm sleeping in a car too after all. 

But I've also been making an effort to listen to my body. When something doesn't feel right. Trusting my infamous women's intuition. So I got out of that hot spring, no goodbye to my new Polish friends, ran up to my car shaking in my bikini, and headed straight home. I was seriously scared. Literally shaking.

I do a lot of things alone and generally feel very safe and capable and all of those things, but I’ve realized there's a difference between doing things you're afraid of and doing things you should be afraid of.

But my problem is how do I know the difference? And how can I keep a situation like that from scaring me away from future awesome riverside hot springs? I don't have any answers, but I have some ideas.

aspen ghost town

I've been lucky. I travel alone way more than the average person and yet I haven’t had too many scary experiences on the road (thankfully), but there have been a few similar to the hot springs. And they all have one thing in common — they are not in National Parks. Or State Parks. Or hiking trails. 

I have a theory for why this is true -- and it starts with Donald Duck (doesn't everything though?)

You know those adults who are obsessed with Disney? They go to the parks for every vacation, without a care to the haters who wonder why. But I think I get it — National Parks/public lands are just Disneyworld for outdoorsy people. Hear me out. 

Disney is a bubble. It’s an escape from reality, where everything is spotless, commercialized, immersive, and characters will never break. It’s all carefully curated to take you to another place. Where all you have to worry about is wait times and where you’re getting your next overpriced meal. Everyone is there for the same reason.

National Parks/Public Lands are really similar in some important ways -- everyone who is there wants to be there. They’ve all spent considerable time and effort to trek to some huge swath of land because they love nature. They are my people. No need to be scared. 

Even though I’m alone in a park, I want to share my experience. Be alone together. That's why one of the things I always make time for in a park visit (even if I've been there multiple times) is to visit the lodges and visitors centers -- to be alone together. To get the high that comes from being surrounded by likeminded people. 

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I was talking to a friend the other day about my persona of solo female adventurer yada yada. He pointed out that visiting National Parks solo isn’t actually that adventurous — and he’s right! 

That’s kinda the point — it’s Disneyworld. It's an escape. I don't have to worry about being followed downtown and forced to literally run away in broad daylight trying to look at some street art (looking at you Rapid City, SD) or being terrified and pushed out of a roadside hot spring by an aggressive guy. And that's important to me. 

But I'm sure you're all wondering, what's the instagram connection (ha yikes). I’ve recently changed my Instagram handle (big news I know) and am in the process of changing my website over to a new moniker — emilyventures. I’ve ruminated for an embarrassingly long time over this — but words are important, remember. 

Venture is defined as “a risky or daring journey or undertaking” — and I feel like that ties my ambitions together in a way that my clumsy words never could. I want to lean in to uncertainty and I want to take risks. I want to do things that are daring — just not blindly dangerous. 

National Parks — and the outdoors in general — are a great way to do that. 

If you need more proof than Donald Duck can provide, well, there isn’t a lot. Information on crime in the outdoors or National Parks in particular is sparse— because there really isn’t much. Backpacker magazine says that despite 46% of men and 56% of women agreeing that its riskier for women to hike or backpack alone, “Your risk of being a victim of a violent crime (murder, rape, or aggravated assault) is thousands of times lower in a national park than in the country as a whole.”

That’s right — thousands of times lower. I’ve always felt safer, but even I was totally shocked by that statistic. Seriously, look at this graph.

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People ask me all the time how to hike alone, or how to visit a park alone — but you guys, it’s really not that brave. You're way safer there than you are almost anywhere else. That’s why the outdoors are so freeing — it’s an escape from a world full of real and perceived danger. 

So venture. Be smart, but trust yourself. If something doesn't feel right -- leave. But don't let it stop you from going in the first place. 

Questing

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Annie Dillard

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Quest: (according to dictionary.com) a search or pursuit made in order to find or obtain something. Medieval Romance - an adventurous expedition undertaken by a knight or knights to secure or achieve something.

My definition: finding purpose through the pursuit of big goals and seeking adventure.

What do you find purpose in? If you’re like me, probably a myriad of things bring purpose to your life. I find purpose in my work, my service, and my family - but I need something more. I need a quest - and I’d argue that we all do.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that, “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

To me, the pursuit of happiness is within the pursuit itself. The big, overarching goal or project that keeps me up at night. Right now, that goal is to visit all 59 US National Parks by 2025. A big goal to be sure, but that’s the beauty of it! Let me explain..

As part of another quest - last year’s 52 book reading challenge - I read the book “The Happiness of Pursuit” by Chris Guillebeau. He spent a decade visiting every country in the world and wrote this guide to help others on their quests - big or small.

He has some ground rules for quests that I applied to mine as well:

It must be a challenge

There are currently 59 National Parks. I have visited 19 as of this writing, and as a frequent park visitor have met many people on the same quest as I am. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

While a great deal of the National Parks are in the West, many are difficult to reach. Alaska boasts eight parks, including three (Gates of the Arctic, Kobuk Valley and Glacier Bay) that have no roads and can only be entered by boat, plane, or foot. There are two in Hawaii, one in the US Virgin Islands, one in American Samoa (the only park south of the equator) and three within the lower 48 accessible only by boat or plane (Isle Royale, Channel Islands, and Dry Tortugas). Even the parks that are “easier” to travel to are almost always in remote locations that requires a car, time, and considerable effort to get to.

It must require sacrifice

A quest can and should be something fun and enjoyable, but if it’s too easy it’s just a hobby. A quest is an adventure, an honorable pursuit leading to a worthy achievement - it’s going to take some sacrifice. Before pursuing a quest, it’s essential that you understand the sacrifices that will be involved. Time and money are the obvious sacrifices that are generally underestimated. I think of it as the “What am I not doing because of this?” question. If you aren’t okay with the trade-offs, don’t pursue it.

Personally, I’m okay with the trade-offs. I am gone on most long weekends and for several weeks in the summer, so I’ve missed trips with friends or events at home because I’m driving somewhere in the middle of a desert. Additionally, I’ve spent almost all my extra money on this pursuit. I have a National Parks Annual Pass ($80) which is a great deal, but there are a lot of extra costs. The obvious: gas, plane tickets, lodging, souvenirs, food - and the not so obvious: cell phone reception booster, special gear, ferries to the island parks, etc.

It must require considerable effort and persistence

Again, if it’s easy everyone would do it. If everyone did it then it wouldn’t be special. It wouldn’t be adventurous. It wouldn’t be a quest. Persistence has always been one of my greatest (and maybe worst) qualities. If I want to do something, I do it no matter what. If your quest isn’t something that inspires persistence, then it’s probably not the right one for you.

It must be clearly defined

This seems like such an obvious one, but also something that I don’t think a lot of us do. Just like any goal, it must be specific, otherwise when will you know you’ve met it? What motivation will you have to keep going? If my goal was to “visit as many National Parks as possible” well then, I’ve already done that - 19 is far more than most people I know. But then what? I’m just done? No way! I want to go to them all, and I want to do it by 2025. The time element is important to me. It’s long enough to be realistic, but still short enough to be challenging. I can’t sit around for years wishing or planning - I have to do it now.

Challenges

While a quest should be challenging in itself, there are other challenges that you have to consider before undertaking one. Along with the aforementioned cost and time, there is also the element of risk. Everyone has their own risk tolerance - mine is actually fairly low - and a quest, like anything in life, is going to stretch it.

Another challenge is other people’s opinions. In fact, this is probably the most challenging part for many people. I mean, we know what opinions are like.. and everybody's got one. A quest, long term goal, pursuit, adventure, project - whatever you want to call it - is a very personal thing. I’m sure there are some people reading this who have no desire to visit even a few National Parks and think it’s a self indulgent waste of time. To that I say - ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  You don’t have to. But I do.

Chris Guillebeau writes in his book that, “There’s an obsession factor with many quests. When you wake up at night consumed by an idea, that’s when you’ve found a quest.” That’s just how mine started. I visited several National Parks before it became “my thing” which later became a quest. (hence why I never started getting Park Passport stamps - don’t make the same mistake!) As I visited more, it became more important, then an obsession. I literally stay awake at night and get up early in the morning to plan trips, book airbnbs, and read travel forums. Remember, the happiness is in the pursuit.

There’s also some argument that pursuits like mine are somehow elitist - and I get it. Actually, I kind of agree. I’m very lucky to be in a position where I have money and time to do this when for many people that is not the case. Until our basic needs are met - and beyond - it isn’t necessarily realistic or worthy to gallivant around the nation looking for bison and WPA postcards. But while it’s important to be aware of privilege, I think, for a lot of people a quest is fully within their reach - it's just not a priority in their lives. Just like any other habit, we pursue the things that are a priority. And like Abraham Lincoln said, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

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Then What?

What happens when you achieve what you set out to do? Well, I haven’t yet so I can’t say for sure, but the obvious first step is - get a new goal! Find another quest - maybe it’s an extension of your last or maybe it’s something totally different. But don’t become stagnant. Life is a journey after all, not a destination. If you allow yourself to spend too much time celebrating your success it may actually have the opposite effect and leave you feeling empty.

Why?

Joseph Campbell said, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.” We want to experience life as fully as possible, with as much joy as possible. Through a quest we find purpose through achievement, but also gain so many other tangible and intangible things. For me, I’ve gained all kinds of skills and expanded my worldview, but the two most important results I’ve seen so far are greater confidence and empathy. Confidence from doing it all on my own, and empathy from spending time all over the country with people I'd never encounter otherwise.

I’ve also gained a lot from sharing my experiences. One of the core values I try to cultivate in my life is leadership, and I believe that I am able to sharpen those skills through this quest. John Quincy Adams said that, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” I’m inspired every day by others who are on the same and different quests - by their photos online, their blogs, and their words - and hope to inspire others in some way.

So what are you waiting for? Maybe you're already on a quest - make it public, share your experiences, heck - overshare (I certainly do). If you're not - start brainstorming. Make a list that seems totally unrealistic then ask yourself why. Why do I want to do this? Why do I think it's unrealistic? What could I change in my life and priorities to make this happen? and do I want to do that? Then get started! As Albert Einstein said, “The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all of our lives.” So pursue your truth. Get a little obsessive if necessary, but make progress! That's where the happiness lies. 

“'The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.' So, too, for a quest. The most important thing is continuing to make progress.” - Chris Guillebeau

Friday Five - 2.24.17

“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you.” 
― Neil deGrasse Tyson

 

None of these things are like the other. Enjoy :) 

Bryce Tweet


More National Park Twitter controversy. Bryce Canyon National Park sent a tweet out the day after the Bears Ears National Monument was designated congratulating it – along with a picture of a mail slot bearing their name. In response, Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz (who opposed the monument) has filed a letter probing whether or not Bryce had advance notice of the designation. Some memorable quotes from the letter: “when was a Bears Ears map slot created in the Bryce Canyon National Park’s front desk national parks and monuments map area?” and “the message created the appearance that officials at Bryce Canyon coordinated with the White House prior to this most recent designation.” Umm.. don't you have anything else to worry about (mail slots - really?? sore loser much?) But, good excuse to look at some pictures of the beautiful Bryce Canyon 


Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Motivation


I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation. As a teacher, we talk a lot about building intrinsic motivation, but does it even exist? I’m not so sure. Stay with me here.


Steven Reiss, a psychology professor at OSU doesn’t think so. His book, "Myths of Intrinsic Motivation" , posits that there are actually 16 basic desires that motivate and guide our behaviors – not just 2 types. He says that there are many different things that work to motivate people and make them happy – to judge that one (intrinsic) is better than another (extrinsic) is a value judgement. 


There is also a problem with the definition of intrinsic motivation itself.  Generally, intrinsic motivation is supposed to be an internal motivating force. I do this thing because I want to do it, not because of what I am receiving as a result - externally or materially. The often cited example is learning. A child (ideally) should grow from extrinsic motivations (working for rewards and punishments) to a self-actualized love of learning that they are invested in. But the means and ends will differ. It may look as though a student is doing their best work because they love learning for its own sake, but they have actually been conditioned to expect the praise and reward of being a motivated student – so the external forces are still the motivator. 


An article I read in Psychology Today said that motivators are only labeled as intrinsic simply because we cannot identify the reinforcing consequence. A reinforcing consequence can be positive or negative – this happens as a result of this. When we see a child reading a book we assume it is because they love to read. But again, we may not see or understand the reinforcing consequences that exist – that their parent’s value achievement, they are motivated by grades, they like the praise they receive, they want to get a pizza in Book It (does that still exist??) etc.  


As for adults, Erving Goffman wrote extensively about losing/saving face – the mask that we wear in social situations to keep us from embarrassing or painful stigma. Saving face is a motivator – but it is intrinsic? If I’m acting a certain way because I simply want to save face is that an intrinsic motivator? I don’t think so. I go to work each day because I get paid (external motivation). I do a good job because I want to be seen as competent (external). Even this blog is not simply because I love research and writing – I want to practice these things in order to be more successful in other areas (external) and I want to be a well-rounded interesting person (external). 


The literature on rewards is also not always clear-cut. Some meta-analyses have found that rewards actually don’t squash motivation as we have been lead to believe – except when linked to performance levels. 


External or internal, to me, the real question is – does it even matter? If one student is motivated by grades and another by some magic love of learning for its own sake shouldn’t we just be concerned that they are in fact learning? What do you think?


Longcuts


I was listening to a podcast a month or so ago, I don’t even remember which one, but Seth Godin was the guest and he was talking about “longcuts”. A longcut is basically the opposite of a shortcut. Since I heard the term I have been kind of obsessed with it. I think so often - especially now in our tech obsessed world - we try to do everything faster, but that doesn’t always make for a better result.


I read a study about literal shortcuts – the kind you take to avoid traffic on the way home from work. It said that often shortcuts become the longcut because everyone is in a hurry to take the shortcut that it is no longer shorter. I think this is true in so many things. If you want to save time painting a wall so you skip the primer – the paint ends up needing several more coats, which takes more time, money etc. I think this is all intuitive and we are aware of it even when we are taking the shorter, “easier” way out – but it doesn’t stop us from doing it. 


There is an efficiency paranoia that has led to all kinds of “hacks” online – ways to do things possibly faster - but inelegantly. Often these hacks require more time to learn than it would have taken to just do the thing the normal way.  So, before you take a shortcut or attempt a “life hack” remember the long cut. The long cut is often more worthwhile. Speed doesn’t trump quality and while outcomes are important – so is the process! 


Year of Without


I’m finishing up my month without coffee and…. It was kinda easy. Like I’ve written before, I have drank at least 2-3 cups of black coffee every day for over ten years - so I thought this would be really difficult. I still drank tea so I’m not totally caffeine free or anything, but I am still surprised at how easy it has been. 


I’m learning through this process of restriction that I actually already have a great deal of willpower – in fact, people who know me well might say too much (that can sometimes become purposeless stubbornness if I’m not careful). I just have to set the standard for myself. That is the key. Once I tell myself I am or am not doing something I will always follow through – it’s the initial decision that gets me. So while the restriction itself has not been hard, it has been super enlightening to understand my own behaviors and emotions. 


What have you restricted yourself from? What did you learn?


Private Prisons


In the last month there have been so many news stories that are shocking and quite frankly absurd that it can sometimes be hard to keep up. This is one that I hope doesn’t get lost in the news cycle. Prison reform is something I am deeply passionate about and there have been two possibly huge impact rollbacks of positive policy changes just in the last couple of days. 


One – Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced yesterday that the administration would rollback the policy Obama announced last summer to stop contracting with private prisons. This is deeply disturbing. While federal prisons only account for a small fraction of privately housed inmates, the private prison system is a disgrace to our democracy. The two largest prison corporations have funneled millions of dollars to candidates and spent even more lobbying for their cause – more people in prison for longer sentences to make more money. They now have profits of over 3.3 billion annually while the private prison population doubled in just 10 years. Private prison contracts have occupancy quotas (some of 100%) that, obviously, require more arrests and imprisonment to keep up with. 


More people in prison only lead to more problems. Prisonization makes acclimating back to society difficult for many reasons, and many prisoners have no resources or skills to help them. Adequate housing and a job after release are two of the major factors that reduce recidivism but they are hard to come by when many former inmates are rejected from jobs, housing, food programs and educational support. The Bureau of Prisons educational and vocational programs have shrunk to half the size they were 10 years ago and we know that lower educational attainment increases the odds of incarceration on the front end. 


I could go on and on but the bottom line is, “With the growing influence of the prison lobby, the nation is, in effect, commoditizing human bodies for an industry in militant pursuit of profit.” 


Read more here and here


Two – Prison phone calls. This hasn’t happened yet, but this article is reporting that the regulations on cost for phone calls from prison will likely be one the first things on the chopping block after Trump appoints two new members to the FCC. Some rates have been as high as $14 per minute. Per. Minute. This is super important. Whether you care about a prisoner’s ability to call home or not – think about their families. Think about the fact that strong connections and social bonds are a great predictor of reduction in recidivism. Reduction in recidivism = less prisoners = less of your taxes = happier families = on and on and on. It’s all connected. It affects us all. Be aware. 


Read more here and here

Happy Friday :)
 

Best of 2016

"In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As 2016 comes to a close I have spent a lot of time reflecting. Reflecting is something that is so important but often gets pushed aside in a busy life. John Dewey famously said that "We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience" and I couldn't agree more. It's important to look at our year and identify what worked, what didn't, and what we can learn to move forward.

I'm so grateful for the year I have had and the people I have shared it with. I love reading all the years in review around this time on social media so, with that in mind, here are some of the highlights of 2016 for me:

Reading Challenge

I set a goal to read 52 books this year - and I hit the goal! I'm super proud of myself and plan to set a similar goal for next year. Reading is such an easy way to learn new things, open your mind to other perspectives, and to sometimes just be entertained. Here are my top picks:

Non-Fiction: Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari

Fiction: Tenth of December by George Saunders

Personal Growth: You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero

A photo posted by Emily Hart (@emhart11) on

National Parks

I visited 11 National Parks this year! I loved every visit but I definitely had some favorites:

Overall: Grand Tetons

Classic: Yellowstone

Best Hiking: Zion

Interesting Abodes

I stayed in a lot of interesting places this year. I really enjoy spending a relaxing night in an architecturally interesting place - drinking wine, reading books, and just being. Here are some of the most memorable:

Most unique: Arcosanti

Best vibe: Taos Vintage Trailer

Best View: Torrey, Utah

Dresses

If you follow me on social media - or have read this post - you know I made up a holiday and wear whimsical outfits (mostly dresses) every Tuesday. It's been an important and fun part of my life that really brings me joy. Here are some of my favorites:

Overall: Dinosaurs!

Classic: Space!

Best Print: Mountains! 

A photo posted by Emily Hart (@emhart11) on

Trips

I went on a lot of trips this year - mostly road trips (and put over 30,000 miles on my car!) Looking back - while I always enjoy a road trip - there are a couple that really stand out:

Best trip (by far): Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana loop

Runner Up: Aspen

Most Surprising (in a good way!): South Dakota

So there ya have it - some of the best parts of 2016. This year had so many ups and downs. There have been countless times when I literally thought I was living in the twilight zone - what more could go wrong - but looking back at all these memories puts the down times into perspective.

I love scrolling through my instagram feed when I need a pick me up or looking back at blog posts when I need inspiration. Sure social media is a curated collection of your greatest moments but, shouldn't it be? Shouldn't we be emotionally intelligent enough to know that a person's life exists between filtered frames? I think so. So I will keep sharing the moments I love in 2017 - the things I want to look back on and that give me joy. I hope you will do the same! 

Happy New Year! :)