Cardinal Dave completed his #parkchasing journey in 2017. His new book captures the story of what it’s like to visit every unit in the National Park Service.
Today we’re sharing the final segment in our 2019 “Park Chaser Profiles” series. This summer we’ve showcased Q & A interviews with some fellow national park travelers. Whether you are visiting your first park or your 400th, we hope the travel tips and shared experience helps inspire your next national park adventure. Today we’re honored to host the legendary David Kroese, otherwise known as Cardinal Dave, author of The Centennial: A Journey Through America’s National Park System.
Meet Cardinal Dave
Park Chaser Profile: David Kroese, known by many in the national park community as “Cardinal Dave.”
Total Park Count: I’ve visited all 419 units in our National Park System. I completed the original goal on my 47th birthday weekend in December 2017 at Reconstruction Era National Monument, when there were 417 NPS units.
Most Recent Park: I’ve been returning to parks regularly to move the centennial and Find Your Park lapel pin exhibit, now in its third year on tour in the parks, to research my next book, and to speak about both the exhibit and The Centennial. As of this writing, the last park I visited is Gateway Arch National Park, for research into my next book.
Next Park Planning to Visit: I’ll be visiting Cape Cod NS to pick up the exhibit and transfer it to Vanderbilt Mansion NHS. While in the beautiful Hudson River Valley, I’ll be revisiting the area’s parks to donate a copy of the book to each unit. Since the book’s January 2019 release, I’ve made it to
Where can we find you online:
Here you can read short summaries of the projects originating out of 2016 and why I pursued them.
I’ve been steadily adding pictorial tours of NPS units as I get back to them to supplement over 30,000 pictures I took while exploring the parks in 2016-2017.
What Dave Loves Most About National Parks
How did your interest in the national parks get started?
My parents introduced me to history at an early age and collected countless books. I also grew fascinated with maps and geography. As a child, I would study US and World maps in detail and try to understand areas based on the cartography. We visited new locations as a family when we could, but my initial interest in our park system grew out of my lifelong passion for seeing historical sites and exploring new places.
What was your first visit to a national park like?
I share this story in the introduction to The Centennial. Though we had visited other NPS units, our first targeted visit to a national park was to Rocky Mountain National Park. Looking back, I fell in love with our parks at first sight.
As you went to all 400+ parks, what were your favorite things to do?
I love to hike, but thus far I’ve steadfastly maintained the indulgence of returning to running water and a bed with a mattress, so I’ve been strictly a day-hiker, covering up to twenty miles a day, though a more typical day includes 9-12 miles of walking.
Which parks have you liked the most? Do you have a favorite among the 419?
Everybody asks this question, even rangers and hardcore park enthusiasts. I answer by saying Yellowstone is in a class all by itself. It’s so unique.
But excepting that, I love old growth trees, and Redwood National and State Parks bring that out in full. I also love the rare and unique beauty at Death Valley. The places that are equally seared into my brain are the surprises I didn’t see coming, hidden gems like Chiricahua National Monument, Colorado National Monument, and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
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?
There are so many, and that made writing the book a joy. The one people most remember is about my face-to-face encounter with a mountain lion at Great Basin National Park. It was such a beautiful animal, but I was very lucky to get out of that situation unharmed.
Cardinal Dave’s Pin Collection
We ask this of every Park Chaser profile, but we know you have a special story. Tell us about what you collect at each park?
When I made the parks a serious goal, I used the National Park passport stamps as a guide to explore. I liked the challenge of finding all of a large park’s stamps, or those along a trail or in a heritage area.
Lapel pins also intrigued me, and that led to one of the major centennial projects. Over time, increasing the depth of experience in each park as I return to them has been the primary goal. These places are truly an endless series of wonders.
Tell us about the lapel pin exhibit.
In 2015, I decided to create something tangible for the parks, to say ‘thank you’ to all the park personnel across the country who helped and encouraged me. When the centennial and Find Your Park lapel pin sets came out in August 2015, I decided to collect complete sets of each pin style, have them professionally framed, and give them back to the parks for a tour through the system before becoming a permanent gift to the park service. I knew the NPS would never have such a collection unless somebody created and donated it.
There are nearly 500 pins in the two sets, representing 248 NPS locations across 46 states and territories. It took twenty months to complete and frame the collections. They are the only complete sets of these pins known to exist. The National Park Service, Eastern National, Western National, and Hogeye, the pin supplier, all contributed invaluable assistance to help complete the project. Mike Locke of Hogeye, in
The collections are in their third year on tour in the park system, and by the time this is shared, will be at their thirteenth park host, Vanderbilt Mansion NHS in Hyde Park, NY, through October. Homestead National Monument of America started the touring exhibit, hosting the collections from April 2017 through October 2017. I created another lapel pin collection, based on EN’s America’s Parks series and the standard park lapel pins for WNPA, Alaska Geographic and Pacific National Parks Association, that’s now on display at Homestead.
When did you decide that your story should be captured in a book?
During the NPS centennial, I set out to do two things: visit as many parks as possible and complete the pin project I had started in August 2015. As the year progressed, I learned many friends and family members were following me with some amazement as I chronicled the year on social media.
By June 2016, several suggested I ought to share this story, but I didn’t internalize the idea until my then-72-year old mother told me, after I returned from Alaska, “You need to write this story!” After realizing she was asking, “Can I see these places through your journey?’ on behalf of herself and everyone else who can’t visit all these locations, I promised her I would try. No one had published a story inclusive of the whole park system. I felt honor-bound and uniquely blessed to fill this gap in American literature.
What’s it like summarizing all of those different visits and experiences into one cohesive format?
The Centennial posed an enormous challenge for a first book. Since publication, many people have expressed surprise I completed it in two years. But a deep passion for the parks, and the promise I made to my mother, drove me. I hoped to share the essence and some of the more fascinating aspects of each park. Each park has been the subject of anywhere from dozens to thousands of books. Think of the tower of Lincoln books at the Peterson House! The goal with The Centennial was to lead the reader on a literary trip through the entire park system. Taken collectively, themes emerged. The parks are places of change, with moving stories that often blend natural beauty, tragedy and heroism into the same setting. Inspiring stories abound in our park system.
All I knew when I started visiting parks is that these places made me happy. They seemed to bring out my best and the best in others. I didn’t understand, until near the end, that what I had been searching for was the fascinated little boy seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time. There’s a little piece of every NPS unit in my heart. I stretched my mental and physical limits in 2016, only to discover it was a passage back to the person I wanted to be. I didn’t realize how deeply these places had impacted me until I completed my next to last region in 2016, at Cumberland Gap. As I walked through the woods on my final hike in the Lower 48, I finished the walk in tears, totally unprepared for such an involuntary reaction. The parks enveloped me and became a fundamental part of my identity. Despite the journey’s fatigue, I wanted to stay in the parks indefinitely. I tried to read that passage to a ranger once and lost my voice. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’ve never met anyone else so moved by the parks. Glad to know I’m not the only one. It’s okay. I understand.”
Any favorite chapters or stories from the book?
When I committed to write the centennial story, friends asked me if I would take author’s license. I always gave the same answer, “The parks need no embellishment, only an honest description. And the experiences, if I can retell them coherently, stand on their own merit. I couldn’t have made up a story more interesting that what actually happened.”
One of my favorites is Chapter 33: Tarantulas and the Texas State Patrol. The events in that chapter all fit the last description. I couldn’t believe most of it as it unfolded. Perhaps my favorite stories are those that share my sense of humor. I don’t take myself too seriously and am a social creature, in parks especially. That made for some humorous moments.
When Kareen and I toured Alcatraz together in 2016, we volunteered, with a few other brave souls, to be locked in one of the cells in the hole. When the ranger slammed the heavy metal door shut and we were cast into complete darkness, all the chatter and carefree laughter ceased. Our group went deathly quiet. After about fifteen seconds, I broke the silence by yelling, “But I’m innocent!” Everybody laughed, including the ranger out in the corridor. Then Kareen whispered in my ear, “It was only a matter of time before the park service locked you up.”
Any future plans for other national park book projects?
I enjoyed sharing unique aspects of the parks in The Centennial, but having to cover over 500 hundred entities, with the national trails, affiliated sites and NHAs thrown in, left me with too little space to share in great depth. Covering all 400+ parks in detail would have resulted in a five-volume set of 600-page books. The next book will tell stories from the fifty Midwestern parks, and explore them from unique perspectives. Two other projects I would very much enjoy tackling are a book on our national heritage areas, all 54, and, though Kareen insists I’ll certainly be eaten, a book like The Centennial about Parks Canada.
Park Chasing and Travel Advice from Cardinal Dave
How do you decide where to travel next?
I always considered my initial visits, no matter how thorough, to be a sort of scouting expedition. Along the way, I created a Word document titled, “Unfinished Parks Business.” My wife asked me to list all the places I wanted to revisit, and things I wanted to do but didn’t get the chance. She would choose among those she wanted to join, and those she would defer to my solo explorations. After whittling about a dozen items off the list, I added new items almost as fast. I think there are 33 bullets on the current list.
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?
For individual parks, our current trips list an area and leave time for adjustments. For example, when we revisited Yellowstone over eight days last year, I had a day reserved for each geyser basin, days for the canyon and Mammoth Springs, and areas we hadn’t seen like Bechler, and we continued from there as far as our legs would carry us.
What are your go-to resources you use when planning national park trips?
I start with a nearly complete set of NPS brochures I’ve collected over time, and review these before we visit, supplemented by a library of park reference books. What revolutionized my park visits over the long term was joining the National Park Travelers Club, at www.parkstamps.org . There aren’t many park questions the members can’t answer, and getting to know these people with a strong shared passion has been a treasure.
Some people find tackling big vacations and road trips is challenging to the point it becomes overwhelming and too much to handle. What advice do you have to new travelers?
You’ve got to break it down into manageable pieces. Remember the Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And there are many resources that can help. There’s even a popular guidebook at Yellowstone called Yellowstone in a Day, though the idea seems absurd. But if you’ve only got one day there, they offer a plan. When in doubt, start with your personal interests and expand from there. For me, having a goal to see all the parks revealed the unexpected and surprising, and much more.
What’s the biggest barrier you find to national park travel? What are good strategies you’ve found to work through those barriers?
Challenges vary for each person. Knowing how much is out there and balancing the desire to see it with other goals, such as writing, is the hardest part. There’s not enough time in a single human life to do it all. Instead of focusing on what we can’t do, I believe we should start by focusing on what we can do. With those who can’t travel in mind, I hoped that putting my journey in print might allow them to have their own park experience.
What advice do you have for friends, family, and members of your audience who ask about the amount of time and money it takes to travel so much?
There are many ways to enjoy the park system economically. Start with the places close to home. Many sites are free, and for those that aren’t, the annual public lands pass pays for itself if you can visit a few fee parks during the year. I wrote The Centennial so people could experience the parks on their couch for $30 or check it out from their local library for free. The travel cost for the two years covered in the book exceeded $50,000.
Any tips would you give to someone who is just starting their parkchasing list? Anything you wish you would have known from the beginning?
Yes. I wish I had joined the NPTC at the start and had a narrative to introduce the park system like The Centennial. That would have saved me a lot of uncertainty in planning and the range of experiences, like whether I was eaten by the mountain lion. I’ve always had a philosophy about gift giving. Buy something for someone that you would like to have if you were that person. I wrote The Centennial in that spirit. There are many guidebooks that are excellent references, especially for the 61 national parks as designated by Congress. I wasn’t trying to write a guidebook. It really bothered me that most authors and reference books seemed to ignore most of the 419 sites in our National Park System.
The Centennial introduces each park to the reader by opening the door to these fascinating places. It’s left to each individual when and where to enter. When I struggled or despaired at the challenges inherit in the centennial projects, Kareen put it all in perspective with her keen intellect by reminding me, “The parks bring you so much joy and you want to share that joy with others.” That is the most concise and accurate description of all that came out of 2016, and the central mission of the recrafted life I now lead.