Today we’re sharing another post in our 2019 “Park Chaser Profiles” series. Each Q & A interview features the story of a national park traveler. 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. Check out today’s post with Dustin and Mike, co-hosts of the Gaze at the National Parks podcast!
Meet Dustin & Mike from @gazeatthenationalparks
Park Chaser Profile: Dustin Ballard & Michael Ryan from the Gaze at the National Parks podcast
Total Park Count: We have been to 23 of the 61 national parks together (Mike has done two additional Parks before we started traveling together). While we have also visited a handful of National Historic Sites and National Monuments, the National Parks are our main focus.
Most Recent Park: Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala National Park in Hawaii.
Where can we find you online?
As of right now our online presence consists of:
- Instagram: @gazeatthenationalparks
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GazeAtTheNationalParks/
- Our podcast can be found on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, and everywhere podcasts are available. : https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/gaze-at-the-national-parks/id1436269131
What Dustin & Mike Love Most About National Parks
How did your interest in the national parks get started?
After Mike had ventured to Mt. Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park solo, and after we had traveled together on several longer trips, we were excited to tackle more travel together. The National Parks seemed like a natural fit for the both of us as we were interested in adventuring outdoors more and like the appeal of being able to see more of the country and what it had to offer.
What was your first visit to a national park like?
Our first National Park that we visited together was Zion National Park which was incredible. We definitely were blown away by the views and the landscape and were surprised by the amount of visitorship and terrified by some of the hikes. This first trip really taught us to be flexible and to know that learning as you go is totally okay.
What are your favorite things to do when you visit a national park? Do you camp, hike, bike, or take part in- ranger-led activities?
Typically, hiking is the main thing on our agenda but exploring more of the history of the park and any historical portions are also something we both find interest in. Mike’s favorite thing is to make it to the end of the trail as fast as possible (so that we can see so much!) while Dusty finds joy in the museums and what t-shirts the gift shops have to offer. In reality, we are up for most things and just recently tried snowshoeing for the first time. Ultimately, the beauty of the park, the stillness found in its environment, and the fun we have along the trails are high on our list of favorite things.
Do you collect anything or have any special traditions you do for each park?
When we first started in Zion we decided that no matter how many parks we ended up seeing, that we wanted to collect a momento from each. So we decided that a Park badge/patch from each Park was a great way to commemorate our journey there. Dusty has a great frame set up for all of these patches while Mike has yet to create his “patch holder.”
About the Podcast
We first discovered Dustin and Mike’s national park travels via the podcast. We’d been listening for a few months before featuring them in our list of “Best National Park Podcasts to Listen to in 2019”.
Gaze at the National Parks has also been recently featured on several lists of national park podcasts including the KOA blog, 16 Awesome Podcasts for Your Next Road Trip and Feedspot Blog Top 10 National Park Audio Podcasts & Radio You Must Subscribe and Listen to in 2019.
When did you decide to start sharing your national park interest in a podcast?
In June of 2018, after visiting Acadia National Park (our 15th Park), we started a joint Instagram titled Gaze at the National Parks in order to share photos in one place that we were often sharing separately on our personal Instagrams. This helped us to better communicate our journeys to friends and family members who were often curious about how they could visit the National Parks.
After this, many people in our lives wanted to know more about the National Parks (and so many of them knew so little) and since we had been itching to creatively collaborate for a long time, the podcast was born with a mission to connect listeners to the National Parks. And since we are both
We can imagine you have a pretty broad audience, not just the ‘parkchaser’ type. How would you describe them and what you hope they learn from the podcast?
Since starting the podcast in September of 2018, we have heard from a wide range of listeners whether on Instagram or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. While many of our listeners would probably identify as the Parkchaser type, we have found that most are in the early stages of their relationship with the National Parks, or are simply curious about knowing more. While many listen every week with every new episode, we have found that the majority of listeners jump around and listen to episodes when they are curious about a specific park.
We hope that anyone who listens to any given episode feels like they can glean an understanding of the park based on our
We LOVE the format of your episodes. It’s a good balance of travel info without feeling like a ‘knowledge dump’ – How did you decide to structure the episodes? How has it changed over time?
We are very aware that the information in any given episode could absolutely feel like a ‘knowledge dump’ so from the beginning we wanted to make sure that there was a healthy balance. We both love games, especially “Jeopardy” (which we have written several full games together) and we love Drag Queens and coming up with Drag names.
The format of the episode came directly from the format of any given hike that we take. We make a plan, we follow the map, we play games, invent games, and write drag names along the way. The format has essentially remained the same since we began. However, we did find that we wanted to have more space to discuss other topics and shed light on other areas connected to the National Park Service, react to current events, and have more opportunities to intersect the show’s queerness, and that is when Trail Mix was born.
Any favorite episodes?
10 – Angels Landing: Zion National Park – This is one of the scariest hikes in all of the National Parks, and this episode highlights how different the two of us experienced the same trail.
Trail Mix: Joshua Tree Problem – We never thought we would need to create a Trail Mix like this, but when the government shutdown happened earlier this year, the National Parks were some of the most affected spaces, particularly Joshua Tree and it was a chance to highlight the helpers.
5 – LIVE! from the Smoky Mountains: Mount Camerer – This was our first LIVE from the Trail episodes. We have done another in Rocky Mountain and another one from Black Canyon of the Gunnison is forthcoming. But, recording audio on the Trail was exciting and fun to integrate into our format.
Pride Mix: The NPS LGBTQ Heritage Theme Study – This was such a great moment to firmly intersect the outdoors and the queer experience in one place. This NPS LGBTQ Heritage Theme Study is such a treasure trove and we feel everyone should read it.
Trail Mix: Car Etiquette – This was our first Trail Mix episode and we loved breaking down exactly how we make long car travel work well. In short, roll the window down and bring trivia books. 1 – Yosemite Falls: Yosemite National Park – This is our first episode. It was a huge learning curve for the both of us as far as sound quality, but you can hear us figuring out the show in real time.
What are your future plans for the podcast? Things we can look forward to?
Soon, we will have a fully functioning website that will contain more content about our adventure in the parks. We will complete the 2019 production year with 10 parks, and we are excited about the parks that we will cover in next year’s episodes, some of which include: Hawaii Volcanoes, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Shenandoah, Joshua Tree, Channel Islands, Black Canyon of the Gunnison and more!
Park Chasing & Travel Advice from Gaze at the National Parks
How do you decide where to travel next?
We both have limited windows of time when we can travel together, so we try to make the most out of every travel adventure. So we often try to visit an area that has a multitude of National Parks within a few hours drive from one another (i.e. Central California, Utah, Colorado). This has been working well for us, but eventually as we make our way through the parks we are going to start traveling to few parks for longer periods of time, but that is also an exciting endeavor.
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?
We both research separately and come up with several hikes and points of interest that pique our interest. After comparing them, we come up with a loose plan, we always chat with a park ranger about what they recommend. Then we set out with all of this info and allow the park to reveal itself to us.
Neither of us
What are your go-to resources you use when planning national park trips?
The NPS websites for each park are always our first stop. Then we tend to look at All Trails. We will also look at social media to see what people have recently hiked in the area to see what they recommend. We will often call the Visitor Center well before a trip to get a sense of weather and gauge hiking options prior to arriving.
What’s the biggest barrier you find to national park travel? What are good strategies you’ve found to work through those barriers?
Money. Travel is expensive. Having a friend to travel with and split costs has been frankly one of the only ways we have been able to see as much as we have. So, finding a true salt-of-the-earth friend who can be very honest about how they are feeling at the end of a trail, and also be honest about how they care to spend their money can be the most helpful. After all, the National Parks are here to bring us together, so experiencing them with others is, we feel, part of their purpose.
The other barrier is education. Many people simply do not know about National Parks and how they can visit them. A lot of people assume that National Parks are for extreme climbers or pickaxe hiking when in reality, everyone can access and enjoy them in a variety of ways and that they are as exciting and equally as magical as any Theme Park experience (and we would say more so.)
We were not taught about them in school and so it stands to reason that many people don’t know about them in any kind of depth or the stories they have to offer.
Some people find tackling big vacations and road trips are challenging to the point it becomes overwhelming and too much to handle. What would you say to help someone feeling overwhelmed by trip planning?
There really is a lot to see and it can feel so overwhelming if you are someone who wants to see everything. Traveling can already be a tricky thing, and then mix in friends, family or children and these all now become components to navigate. We have found that people get the most stressed during travel when they feel like they have to please everyone who is traveling. Managing expectations from the beginning
If you are traveling with your family to Zion National Park, then perhaps plan ONE thing to do together, like a guided ranger tour, take the rest in stride. The fewer items on the checklist the better. Travel can be a rejuvenating experience if we let nature do
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?
Being the ‘Parkchaser’ type can take up a lot of time and can be costly. Here are a few tips that have helped us make the most of our time while spending the least amount of dollars:
- Booking airfare way in advance = cheaper airfare
- Flying in and out of the same city tends to be cheaper for airfare and car rental return.
- When renting a car, you will always have to pay for an additional driver fee (BUT NOT IN CALIFORNIA! Or if you book through Costco or some other membership).
- Renting Hybrid Cars saves SO much money on gas.
AirBnBfor life! It’s always cheaper than hotels, and locals always have the best advice on where to eat, what to see, and what to hike.
- Eating: Quick breakfast (booking a place that provides breakfast is always a goal of ours), Trail Snack all day in lieu of lunch, and sit down dinner at an endless salad bar always saves on money and fills you up. Also, if you are both eating a salad bar situation for dinner and are still hungry, splitting an entree is a great way to save.
- The Annual Park Pass pays for itself in like two visits. This is so worth it.
- You can see around five or six parks in a week in one area as long as you are willing to hike early, drive often, and keep moving.
Final Thoughts from Dustin and Mike:
What tips would you give to someone who is just starting their parkchasing list? Anything you wish you would have known from the beginning?
- It’s very easy to fall in love with the National Parks. It is like the National Park Service was created for those who love the outdoors and love learning, so be prepared for a long love affair.
- Have a solid bug spray solution. There are bugs, but it’s all manageable and the CDC just said that Lemon Eucalyptus Oil is AS effective as Deet when staving off gnats.
- We are visitors to a natural habitat for plants and animals. “Leave no trace” and “Stay on the Trails” should be taken very seriously. Some vegetation takes hundreds of years to grow and can be killed by simply stepping on it. And animals are so beautiful, but one should absolutely not approach a wild animal.
- Some hikes are difficult and scary, and not doing them doesn’t mean that you are getting less out of your time in that park. Go at your own pace. Let the Park take you where it wants to take you.
- And finally…What are you waiting for? Just go. Even if you have no idea. Just go. The National Parks are always worth it, every single time. Just go.
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