Today we’re posting the second profile in our “Park Chasers Profiles” series. Each Q & A interview features the story of a national park traveler (check out our first post with the National Parks Patch Lady, Sandra Ramos. Whether you are visiting your first park or your 400th, we hope the travel tips help inspire your next national park adventure. Today our post features Sonja Saxe, also known as The National Parks Girl.
Park Chaser Profile:
Sonja Saxe, aka The National Parks Girl
Tell us where to find you online and what readers can find there.
What is the most recent park you’ve visited and the next park on your list?
Most recent = Olympic National Park in Washington
Next park = Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska
What Sonja Loves About the Parks
Tell us about your favorite things to do when you visit a national park? (camp, hike, bike, ranger activities etc.)
I love to head out into the backcountry of each park (where it’s allowed, of course)! Getting off the beaten path and away from the crowds that congregate around the popular viewpoints allows me to get a more intimate understanding of the park. I am able to disconnect and experience nature fully without any other distractions. It’s almost a form of therapy for me. I also enjoy night photography and there is no better place for it than in the far reaches of a national park’s wilderness!
Do you have a favorite national park?
It’s so tough to pick a favorite because I think all the parks are beautiful and worthy of a visit in their own unique way. However, I’d be hard pressed to find a park more beautiful and wild than Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and that is what makes it stand out at the top of the pack for me.
Wrangell-St. Elias is not only beautiful it is also big. In fact, at 13.2 million acres it is the largest national park and a majority of that land is trail-less wilderness. I spent a week in the summer of 2017 hiking through an infinitesimal fraction of the park but that glimpse was more than enough to make me fall in love with it.
My group trudged across five rugged glaciers, forded icy rivers, and explored a magical ice cave we stumbled upon. And despite the amount of time we were out there we saw only one other group. This remoteness combined with its grand scale and unparalleled beauty makes Wrangell-St. Elias the perfect place for a backcountry lover like me!
Everyone that travels to a national park has a favorite story or two they like to tell about a trip. What’s one that you’d like to share with us?
One of my favorite national park experiences was an impromptu visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park.
In March of 2016 my fiancé and I had planned a long weekend in Rocky Mountain National Park. We had hoped to go on some winter hikes since we had only ever visited the park during the summer. However, after only one day in Rocky Mountain a massive snowstorm swept in and we had no choice but to find somewhere else to escape to, or hunker down in a hotel for the remainder of a trip. Not favoring the latter option we pulled out our phones and started scanning the map for nearby places.
We considered Yellowstone but realized that was too far of a drive. We also considered skiing at one of the local resorts but that was too expensive. Then we noticed Great Sand Dunes National Park. It would be a long, 5 hour drive to the park but the weather in the region looked favorable so we decided it was the best option. The next morning we woke up at 4am to start the drive.
We arrived at the park, picked up our free backcountry permits to camp in the dune field, and just like that we were hiking out into the dunes, nary another human in sight. The park absolutely blew us away with its beauty. Expansive, sinuous dunes that looked like undulating waves reached for the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance. Not only was it a sight to behold, the dune field was also fun! It was like a giant sandbox that was ours and ours alone to play in.
Our early start granted us the entire afternoon to explore the landscape. We laid our packs down and climbed the ridges unweighted. We ran down the faces of the dunes only to turn around and watch the wind erase the footprints we just left. It definitely was not the trip we had planned but it turned out to be one of my favorite national park experiences ever!
Travel Advice from The National Parks Girl
How do you decide where to travel to next? How do you plan your itinerary when you pick a park? Do you like to have a set plan for the entire visit or like to decide when you get there?
I am constantly researching! Over time I have created quite a large spreadsheet that details the number 1 day hike and number 1 backcountry trip I would like to do in each national park. Whenever I have a few days off or a long holiday weekend is approaching I consult that document and pick the trip that makes the most sense for the time of year I am traveling and the amount of time I have available to travel. I always have a fully planned itinerary, however, I also have plenty of backup options at the ready because I know how often plans can change. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had a trip go 100% according to plan so I regularly have to resort to Plan B, Plan C and once we even made it to Plan F!
What other resources do you use when planning national park trips?