Each Q & A interview in our Park Chaser Profile series features the story of national park travelers like Matt and Bradley. Whether you are visiting your first park or your 400th, we hope the travel tips and shared experience in these interviews helps inspire your next national park adventure!
Hello Ranger is a national parks community social application, podcast, and blog, with the overarching goal of showcasing a kaleidoscope of communities within the national parks, and how these places unite us together. The community is full of families, van-lifers, full-timers, retired travelers, educators, artists, diverse groups, solo travelers, couples, pet-owners, and so much more, all with a shared love of national parks. We’re currently working with Matt and Bradley as the Midwest Ambassadors for the Hello Ranger Community.
Meet Hello Ranger
Matt and Brad Kirouac
NEXT PARK UP
Our travel plans are up in the air right now, but likely candidates include Petroglyph National Monument, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Joshua Tree National Park, Petrified Forest National Park, and Grand Canyon National Park.
HOW DID YOUR INTEREST IN NATIONAL PARKS GET STARTED?
For Matt, it was on a work trip to western South Dakota, when he visited Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore (among other places). He was captivated by the beauty and history of these places, and instantly became interested in exploring more parks across the country.
For Brad, his big experience was at Yellowstone, when he was visiting the park with his former boss while he was working for a maple farm and setting up events and farmers markets across the country. He had a few summer days to immerse himself in the iconic park, and it triggered the idea to buy an RV and live on the road full-time.
HOW DID HELLO RANGER GET STARTED?
Matt’s a travel writer, so he started writing about national parks after visiting Badlands. This was during a phase of his career when he was shifting away from food writing to focus more on travel writing, with a particular interest in nature and the outdoors.
Shortly after moving into our RV full-time in 2018, we started talking about the idea of doing a podcast focused on national parks, since it was something we were prioritizing in our travels, and we thought it would be a great fit for our new lifestyle. We conceptualized the podcast idea late-2018, and developed it in spring of 2019, before launching in August.
WHERE CAN WE FIND YOU ONLINE?
Matt’s writing can be found on the KOA blog, TripSavvy, and other freelance outlets like Travel + Leisure. At all of these, his writing focuses on national parks, with stories and topics ranging from backgrounds and guides to national parks to seasonal roundups of parks to visit during certain times of year or for certain topics.
Readers can find the bulk of our work on our website for Hello Ranger (https://hellorangercommunity.com), where we feature guides, stories, roundups, and blog posts all about national parks from different perspectives within the national parks community. We have a crew of ambassadors representing different regions, lifestyles, and topics, contributing their national parks experiences from their own vantage points.
We also have a corresponding national parks podcast of the same name, Hello Ranger, and a forthcoming social community app, due late-2020.
What Brad & Matt Love About the National Parks
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE THINGS TO DO WHEN YOU VISIT A NATIONAL PARK?
Matt’s an obsessive hiker, so his favorite thing to do is find the nice long trails to explore. The more strenuous the better. Brad loves kayaking and visiting museums and visitor centers, learning more about the history and culture of a place. He also likes hikes where he can bring along his hammock.
WHICH PARKS HAVE YOU LOVED THE MOST?
Matt’s favorites are parks like Big Bend, Badlands, and Carlsbad Caverns, for the simple reason that these were the first three parks he visited as an adult, and they all contributed to his fascination. They’re also all completely breathtaking and unique, with tons of outdoor activities to do, and otherworldly settings to explore. Carlsbad in particular is his most-visited national park (four times), so it’s the one he’s most familiar with and clearly obsessed with.
As far as least favorite, he’s less a fan of the historical parks that are more museum-centric. For instance, Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is fascinating and enlightening, and we learned a lot, but it’s just not my cup of tea.
For Brad, Mesa Verde National Park has to be at least top three. Mostly due to the energy you feel when you’re visiting these cultural places. It’s always safe to say Yellowstone is a fantastic place because no matter how many times you go in your lifetime, there is more to explore there. He doesn’t have a least favorite park (which irritates a lot of people for some reason), because each park unit has its own meaning, no matter how big or how small.
DO YOU COLLECT ANYTHING OR HAVE ANY SPECIAL TRADITIONS?
The main thing is collecting stamps for Matt’s national parks passport book, which he’s been filling up for the past few years. We also always make sure we collect a visitor guide for each park.
When we lived in Chicago, we had a designated national parks wall in our loft, where we would hang art prints for each park, along with visitor guides and other trinket’s we’d collect from park visitor centers. Whenever we settle down someplace again, we look forward to reviving the national parks wall, and making it even bigger and better!
For Brad, he really enjoys collecting the unigrids at each national park. They bring so much joy to him as he realizes the places you can go.
ANY FAVORITE STORIES?
The park experience that’s been etched into our memory the deepest is probably our trip to Cumberland Island National Seashore, for the mere fact that it holds the distinction of being the only park where we’ve ever called 911… to no avail. We were hiking on the island and had just made our way to the beach on the eastern side when dark clouds started rolling in quickly. Lighting and thunder weren’t in the forecast for the day, but it became immediately clear that we needed to hoof it back towards the dock. The only problem was that we were still a few miles away, all by ourselves on this totally exposed beach. Torrential rain began to fall, followed quickly by thunder and lighting, which was getting closer and closer, louder and louder. It got to the point where lightning strikes were so close that the ground around us was vibrating. Eventually, amidst panic, we huddled underneath one of our soaking towels to try and call 911, but service was unsurprisingly non-existent. We really had no choice or option but to keep speed-walking through the storm, and just hope that we didn’t get struck by lighting. Thankfully, the storm passed just as quickly as it came through in the first place, and we were able to make it back to the dock and catch an early ferry back to the mainland. After the trauma wore off, we immediately knew it would make for an epic story. Plus, despite everything, Cumberland Island National Seashore is a beautiful place.
#Parkchasing & Travel Advice
HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHERE TO TRAVEL NEXT?
For most of our time in our RV, our travel schedule was oriented around Brad’s work schedule, as he was working at events and markets all across the country for his previous role as events manager for Burton’s Maplewood Farm. This took us to places like Disney World, Jackson Hole, Cheyenne, Albuquerque, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Richmond, Philadelphia, D.C., and beyond.
We always make sure to map things out and see which parks are either nearby our destinations, or along our route. Even if it entails a substantial detour, we’ve been able to carve out time to visit parks like Hot Springs, Petrified Forest, Canaveral National Seashore, Arches, Tallgrass Prairie, and Congaree. Matt is a big planner. He prefers to have at least a few options and trails and activities prepared before arriving. He does extensive research on park websites and in guidebooks to get a sense of what the “must-do” activities are for each park, and then plan accordingly. He also relies on his Alltrails app to plan hikes and trails.
WHAT RESOURCES DO YOU USE WHEN YOU'RE PLANNING TRIPS?
First and foremost, we rely on the park’s official web site. We’ve also found that social media is a good resource for current conditions, especially when traveling in the winter. We also read other blogs and ask friends for recommendations.
WHAT TIPS WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO IS JUST STARTING OUT ON THEIR #PARKCHASING LIST?
Start by looking in your own backyard! The major thing we didn’t realize when we were starting this journey was how widespread the National Park Service is across the entire country. Everyone knows about the iconic biggies like Yellowstone, Everglades, and Grand Canyon, but if you dig into the greater 419 units, you’ll find that there are park units all around you, from historic battlefields and lakeshores to pristine preserves and memorials. Each place is totally unique, and has the potential to emotionally connect and resonate with you. Oftentimes, they have the added bonus of being less busy than these other big spots that everyone knows about. This perspective also helps remove the intimidation factor of national parks travel, as a lot of people tend to view these places as far away, rural, and difficult to get to, which is not necessarily the case at all. Many parks are literally in big cities, or right outside of them. It’s far easier to “find your park” than you might think.
WHAT DO YOU TELL PEOPLE ABOUT THE AMOUNT OF TIME AND MONEY IT TAKES TO TRAVEL SO MUCH?
The big thing we try to communicate is that it doesn’t have to be expensive. Especially when visiting national parks, these have the potential to be some of the most affordable trips you can take, as many parks have no entry fee (or negligible fees) and a lot of activities are free. These are places where it’s very feasible to budget and plan affordable vacations, though of course you can make them as lavish as you want if you prefer to glamp or stay in ornate lodges, and so forth.
For us in our RV, we’ve gotten into a good rhythm of budgeting and traveling affordably. We do this by opting to stay at RV parks for extended periods of time (like a month or more), as this is far cheaper than paying by the night or week. It also allows us to cut back on gas, which is by far the biggest expense of RV living. Compared to when we were living in Chicago, the RV lifestyle is far more economic than paying a mortgage, HOA fees, and the slew of taxes and bills that come with city living.