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Last year, already popular national parks saw a surge of visitors looking to get outside. But as seasoned and new outdoor explorers took to the hiking trails, rivers, lakes, and forests of our national park system, not everyone planned their trip as responsibly and respectfully as the parks and the surrounding communities deserve. To help you plan a trip this summer that keeps you away from overcrowded park sites and drives you deeper into local rural communities, we’ve tapped two experts who know their way around national parks in this week’s special Women Who Travel episode, presented by Travel Wyoming. Joined by Traveler contributor Emily Pennington, who has visited 61 of the U.S.’ 63 national parks, and Diane Shober, executive director of Wyoming Office of Tourism, we chat through how to plan wisely (and far enough in advance) to enjoy the best of the National Park Service—and how to look beyond those 63 parks that can sometimes get too much love.
Thanks to Diane and Emily for joining us and thanks, as always, to Brett Fuchs for engineering and mixing this episode. As a reminder, you can listen to new episodes of Women Who Travel on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts, every Wednesday.
Read a full transcription below.
Meredith Carey: Hi everyone and welcome to a bonus Friday episode of Women Who Travel, a podcast from Condé Nast Traveler. I’m Meredith Carey and with me as always is my co-host, Lale Arikoglu.
MC: Last summer travelers flocked to national parks to varying levels of success, with some parks facing overcrowding concerns while playing host to irresponsible visitors. This year, with travel across the U.S. opening up, even more travelers are expected to head out to some of America’s most beautiful natural destinations. To help prepare you for a national parks trip and ensure you’re visiting both your park of choice and its surrounding community responsibly, we’re joined by Diane Shober, executive director of Wyoming Office of Tourism, and Traveler contributor Emily Pennington, who has visited 61 of the U.S.’ 63 national parks. Thank you both for joining us.
Emily Pennington: Good, thanks for having us. I’m stoked to be here.
Diane Shober: Me too. Thanks.
LA: To start things off, I’m interested to know how both of you developed your own relationship with the outdoors and, also, what were some of your own learning curves as you had more and more adventures?
DS: Well, I was born and raised in the great outdoors. [I’m] from Wyoming and Wyoming is the least populated state in the nation, so certainly a lot of wide open space here. [I was] raised on a family ranch and went to college at the University of Wyoming. I’ve lived my life in this great wide open space and I took 10 years and lived in Chicago. But right back here in Wyoming is where I am now. And every day is an adventure in the great outdoors. I think one of the most interesting things about living in the American West is you do have these beautiful wide open spaces. And so it can be a weekend, a day trip, or a week-long vacation right here in our own backyard. And we have these great experiences that you just get to enjoy and they’re breathtaking and inspiring—all in the same package.
LA: Diane, you mentioned that you had lived in Chicago for 10 years before you went back to these wide open spaces. Do you think you were conscious of craving that sort of space and being out in the outdoors when you were surrounded by the concrete of a city?
DS: Absolutely. I used to drive to work going down Lake Shore Drive and I would look at all the high rises, which I loved—I loved that city, I still love that city—but I would think, okay, those are the Tetons. Lake Michigan could be Yellowstone Lake or Jackson Lake. I would just always envision what would be my view or what would be the skyline if I were back in Wyoming? And so it did, definitely I craved it.
MC: And Emily, what was your experience like developing your relationship with the outdoors when you were younger and through now?
EP: I feel like mine is so different from Diane’s. I did not grow up in an outdoorsy family. I actually got really into the outdoors in my late twenties when a boyfriend who was an Eagle Scout took me on my first backpacking trip to Sequoia National Park. And I just fell in love with going on these grand adventures, especially in the backcountry where you’re really far away from other people and really having to rely on literally what you can carry on your own back. And it’s funny because once that relationship ended, I found myself returning to these same wild spaces over and over again to find kind of transformational healing. It’s kind of funny that someone who introduced me to the outdoors actually also introduced me to something that would heal me from the breakup itself. I’ve had this very kind of personal and emotional connection to the outdoors as I’ve been in my late twenties, early thirties.
LA: And just to kind of stick with that second part of the question, kind of the learning curves when you were getting out in the outdoors. Emily, you said that you didn’t grow up in an outdoorsy family. What were some of the rookie mistakes you were making?
EP: Oh goodness. Overestimating how many miles I could do in a day. Underestimating how hot 80 degrees is when it’s sunny. What else? My first backpacking trip, I think I brought a leather jacket and a child’s sleeping bag and we tried to cram two people into a one person tent, which is not a good idea. You will be sleeping on top of each other in a pile. Lots of mistakes like that. I bonked a lot. I think figuring out nutrition was a journey for me in the outdoors—and also figuring out a layering strategy for winter sports or for colder hikes. The three-layering strategy, I would highly recommend it to anyone, but it took me at least a year to figure that out.
MC: When you guys both look at how many people have been exploring the outdoors in the last year and a half, new people, people returning to the outdoors, people who’ve always been in the outdoors, what advice do you have for them going out into national parks, state parks, open spaces this summer specifically, whether they’re RVing or camping or just taking a day trip?
EP: I feel like this summer, especially with the National Park Service expecting literally the busiest year in the history of the National Park Service, I think that it’s more important than ever to plan ahead, especially the top 10 parks. Parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite and Acadia. Those campgrounds become available four to six months in advance and they book up almost immediately. Planning ahead, making sure you have your lodging booked so that you’re not scrambling the week before is going to be really essential. I think utilizing tools like Hipcamp and even Outdoorsy for campsites and van and RV rentals are also going to be really crucial because a lot of the more traditional avenues are being taken up by more experienced campers, unfortunately. And so, so much of what the national parks have to offer is already booked.
But then I would also suggest looking at a map, taking out a map of where all the national parks are in the country or even the state parks and seeing what’s close to you that maybe you haven’t heard of and Googling a few photos because there are so many hundreds of National Parks Service sites within the country. And we tend to focus on the 63 main national parks, but the truth is there’s probably something much closer to you and you can probably get that nature dose much easier in a much less crowded place if you just do a little research.
DS: Emily, you are a perfect spokesperson for that. As you said so well, Emily, there’s not an infinite supply of developed camping or even hotels wherever you are. And so not only know before you go, but book before you go. It’s such an important part of the overall equation. And here in Wyoming, 51 percent of our state is on public lands. When we think about traveling to the great outdoors, we often think of national parks because they’re sort of these icons of nature. And who doesn’t want to go see Yellowstone or sit at the base of the Grand Tetons, looking up at that beautiful skyline? But adjacent to all of these national parks, predominantly are National Forest Service lands and all of those camping spots are done through rec.gov. Our state parks—as Emily so well said—offer up some beautiful outdoor recreation areas, especially if you’re interested in watersports or water recreation. A lot of our state parks are next to beautiful reservoirs and have a lot of great outdoor water recreation.
I just think knowing before you go—and understanding that different places mean different things. Some maybe more primitive campsites, some may offer electricity. There may be places that don’t have regular bathrooms, but you’re using outdoor toilets. You need to be prepared to take out everything that you bring in. And the saying of, “Take only pictures and leave only footprints,” that really is what we want folks to do. I think it’s just such an important part of understanding where you go so you really can be one with these great outdoors and engage in the healing principles that being alone in the wilderness can bring to someone. But yeah, we want visitors and residents to take up that promise to let’s keep these wild places wild.
MC: Usually it goes without saying, but a really helpful addition to that mantra would be, leave only footprints on paths, because yeah, only footprints on the places where you’re supposed to walk.
DS: Yeah, that are set for you. You’re exactly right.
MC: Exactly. We might all need that reminder this year.
LA: Well, this might be an obvious question, but for people who truly aren’t familiar with the outdoors, why should you stick to the trails and to the designated paths? Why is that important both for the park itself and for the communities that you’re entering into?
DS: They’re such fragile ecosystems. And if you think of this beautiful place like Yellowstone National Park, which to me is if you could go beneath the crust of the earth, that’s what you would see. But a place like Yellowstone brings all of that right to the surface. And you have the largest collection and concentration of geysers, active geysers, and geothermal features and even flora and fauna, plants and wildlife and all of these things. And it’s just this delicate balance of nature. And one little mar can affect so many things. It has the ripple effect.
And when you go there and you see them, you’re so inspired by what you see and you’re sometimes overwhelmed by, wow, look at the color of this boiling water. Or if you’re there in winter and you’re seeing bubbling mud next to a snowdrift, you just really want to keep all of that intact. And that’s really what I think all of us who want to be in the great outdoors, we want to be able to preserve it for ourselves and other generations and other visitors. Folks before us have done so and we need to continue to do the same thing.
EP: Yeah, I was going to add to that and say that a really great example is in Moab, which many people consider to be a desert environment and it’s obviously surrounded by both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, they have this saying that’s, “Don’t crack the crust,” which means don’t walk off-trail. And I believe they’re called cryptobiotics. They have this cryptobiotic soil that takes centuries for these little microscopic organisms to build up in. And so literally any one footprint outside of a path near Moab or in one of those national parks could be damaging an ecosystem that maybe you can’t see with your naked eye, but it’s there and it’s really essential for the plants and animals that call that place home.
MC: We’re talking about negative ripple effects, but I feel like there are positive ripple effects to be had in visiting these areas. And I think, a lot of people when they plan a trip to the outdoors, it’s usually part of a road trip or a weekend, a quick weekend away. A lot of the times you’re planning to pop in and out of these places as a quick stopover, hit the main sites, and then head on to the next location. But you can have a really positive effect on the community if you are a responsible, respectful visitor who is spending money in the right places. What choices can we make when we travel to make sure we’re investing in the local communities that are set up around these natural destinations and state and national parks?
DS: I think it’s like anytime we travel, everyone’s like, what’s local? What’s the best place? Where’s the best restaurant? Where do you go? And that really can be in communities all around, adjacent to national parks, or on your way to and from, depending on what your final destination is, just really to enjoy the journey and to embrace it at every step because you don’t ever know what really wonderful unexpected experiences could be right there before you. I’m sure that all of us have had that when we’ve been traveling, that those are the things that we really remember the most is what is unexpected.
And I just think that engaging with people and learning about them in their own natural setting and being open to these different environments and cultures, and it’s just really, really important. And quite honestly, tourism and travel is such a large economy for our country and for the world. And in the American West where we have so many small towns, even if you’re stopping for lunch or a tank of gas or maybe you’re spending the afternoon, that’s contributing to the wellbeing of those local communities. It just is important to take it all in and enjoy that journey.
EP: Yeah. I was going to say on my journey to going to most of the national parks last year, there are gateway communities outside pretty much every single national park. And if you can remember to try to hit up the local diner or brewery, instead of going to McDonald’s or something, things like that can be really invaluable ways to help the local communities there and help make sure that you’re not only supporting the parks, but supporting the people who live near them.
LA: I feel like we maybe touched on this ever so slightly earlier, but overtourism is a major issue that isn’t just affecting national parks and other outdoor spaces, but also small towns that haven’t had the investment or the infrastructure to support tons of visitors suddenly flocking in, especially in summers like this, when people are so much more engaged with the outdoors and desperate for those spaces. How do we go about preventing that overcrowding? And how do both of you plan visits or encourage people to plan visits that make sure that you’re seeing highlights but also finding lesser known paths at the same time?
EP: One thing that I always tell friends of mine or people who ask me a similar question is that I feel like national park rangers are one of the most under utilized resources, especially in the internet age. I think that often we’re so afraid to pick up the phone or to walk up to an information desk, we’re so much quicker to Google something on our phones, but honestly, some of the best and least crowded, more off-the-beaten path trails and hikes that I’ve found have been through just going up to rangers and asking them, “Hey, I wanted to see these three really popular things, but I have time to do a four-mile hike later today. What would you recommend?” And so often they’re going to give you a gem that is just as beautiful as the top sites, but it’s not going to be Instagram famous. And so you might only see two or three other people while you’re out there.
DS: It’s interesting in such a popular park like Yellowstone, really only about 20 percent of the visitors actually get off the main roads and go into the backcountry. And the back country is very accessible. I am not an avid… I’m not going to scale the Grand in my next adventure, but I do like to get out and hike and you can do that at any variety of levels. And I think we touched on it a little bit before about knowing before you go, but then also planning ahead. Maybe think about a shoulder season. Should I go earlier in the summer in the spring? Or should I wait until fall? Maybe I’ll go earlier in the morning rather than the middle of the day. You can really start to plan around some of these impacts.
And I think it’s fun to be a solo traveler, but if you can travel with others where you’re reducing even the number of automobiles to go to a trailhead or you rely on some kind of group transportation once you get there. There’s a variety of things that you can do to avoid that overcrowding.
And then plan your trip so that maybe there’s something that’s equally as spectacular through a national forest that you wouldn’t have to go into a more well-known area. And there are certainly through the Forest Service websites, through [Bureau of Land Management], through tourism information offices, before you get there, that you can do this planning and see. And then when you’re on the ground, stay connected to the extent that you can. Some of these places you don’t have cell service so you really do, it’s important that you understand what you’re doing ahead of time.
EP: Yeah. And just to piggyback on what Diane said, I’m someone who’s done both Old Faithful and Half Dome at sunrise and it is incredible because you get the best photos with the soft light. And literally just an hour later, it was so much more crowded. But if you can really grit your teeth and set an alarm before the sun rises, when it’s still dark outside and drink some coffee, you’ll definitely be rewarded with way fewer crowds. And also I’d like to plug the fact that the National Park Service just launched a new app, which has a lot of downloads. You can download trail maps or you could download activities that you want to do. You can create little bullet point lists for yourself within your phone and you could download them for offline use. That’s another great tool that people can be utilizing this year as they venture into the parks, but maybe won’t have cell service when they get there.
LA: Staying on the subject of overcrowding just a little bit longer, Diane, from a kind of an industry perspective, how is Wyoming preparing for the summer crowds now that we’ve passed Memorial Day?
DS: Well, the good part about Wyoming is that we’ve always had these wide open spaces and there were certainly volumes of visitors with us last year and we’re expecting and looking forward to welcoming a lot of visitors again this summer. But I think where we will find that there may be fewer impacts than what we would be anticipating is A, we started out the summer and even through the summer, not everything was ever fully open—to the extent that Yellowstone National Park or Grand Teton National Park, they were open, but they didn’t have all of their lodging facilities open or many of the service providers, if you wanted to go whitewater rafting or if you wanted to go fly fishing, a lot of those providers were operated on limited hours. And so you’ll start to see some of that being relieved because you can have others help you with it.
Also in the summer of 2020, Wyoming was one of the few places that didn’t ever really shut down. And so, we saw a lot of people coming here because they knew that we had wide open spaces and that they could come and travel here. But I think this year, what’s beautiful about the summer of ‘21 is places like Wyoming will still be high on someone’s list because of our natural outdoors and the beautiful scenic vistas that we offer. But throughout the United States, there’s going to be a lot of other places where people can go and enjoy. I think there’s 439 actual units in the National Park Service, be it national monuments or parks or national historic sites, all beautiful pieces there. And to the big 63 parks that Emily mentioned, maybe those might be higher on the attention of some, but there’s really so many great places that you can see.
MC: We’ve been talking a lot about summer travel, but you mentioned shoulder season earlier, Diane. Can you talk to us a little bit about Wyoming’s shoulder season and then Emily, were there any parks that you went to last year during what would have been their or in the past, what would have been their off-season, and what were your favorites to discover during that time?
DS: We often joke in Wyoming that we have two seasons, warm and cold. But really the shoulder seasons would be May, end of April, May and then certainly I think October, even now sort of falls as that extension of summer into the fall, through November. Not everything is open. A lot of the activities just because they’re outdoor-related activities. Obviously whitewater rafting and you can’t always fish in certain times of the year. You have to be cognizant of wildlife and what’s happening. But the summer months are June, July, and August are really the prime visitation months. There’s so many great places to visit, even when there’s not full service there, to have some of these areas by yourself is spectacular. And I would just push hard for winter. A lot of people don’t think about it, when you live in these environments so many times you want to go somewhere warm when it’s winter, but if you will lean in, one of the most spectacular views—Emily mentioned taking a picture of Old Faithful early in the morning. I’ve been to Yellowstone National Park, numerous winters. I usually I try to go at least once a year into Yellowstone, but when Old Faithful erupts and it’s freezing cold, all of the moisture just crystallizes and you’re getting these little crystals raining down around you. And you may have 10 other people standing on the boardwalk at that time. And the sounds of the geysers and the animals and the swooshing of the wind in the pines, all of that is so much more magnified in these shoulder seasons. And you still can come fairly self-contained with service providers and others. You just have to be ready for that kind of adventure. And once you do it, you’ll never forget it. And you’ll be ready to say, “I want to explore some of these again and keep looking for them.”
EP: Yeah. A couple of parks came to mind when you first asked your question, Meredith. The first two that I thought of were Carlsbad Caverns and Big Bend in February, kind of going into that lean into winter idea. I would say that in most of the cave national parks in general, the caves stay at a firm temperature year round. Even if above ground is freezing or maybe raining, the cave is going to be a relatively pleasant place to be with a light jacket on. Those national parks are pretty perennial or evergreen or however you want to say it.
When I was in Big Bend in February, I had amazing temperatures. I had many days of sunshine. I did a canoe trip and I was asking one of the river guides why it was so uncrowded. And he was saying, “Oh, just wait till March. It’s going to get spring break crazy around here.” But apparently in February, there’s this beautiful window where the temperatures are almost exactly the same, but you’re not getting inundated with all of those crowds looking for something to do with the kids over spring break.
And then lastly, I would say that July, I believe, is the most popular travel month for Alaska and I purposely went in August and early September to try to avoid some of those crowds. And also the nights start to get a little bit longer so you can kind of kill two birds with one stone and hopefully also see the Northern Lights if you can go with the very end of August, beginning of September and wake up early in the morning. That’s a fun little pro tip. If you want to escape crowds in Gates of the Arctic or Denali or something.
MC: I feel like I need to learn your early morning wake up ways, Emily because we’re going to have to do an entire new podcast just about how to wake up early to explore, because that is not my forte at all.
DS: Meredith, you can find equally as interesting things as you get closer to dusk. If morning’s not your timeframe, there are some beautiful things that happen as dusk comes upon us too.
LA: Alright, love this approach.
MC: Speaking my language, exactly. At the very beginning we were talking about—and it’s kind of been brought up throughout the whole episode—but we’re talking about national forests, state parks, that kind of thing when you want to go somewhere that isn’t necessarily a Yellowstone or a Moab or something like that. What are some of your favorite non-national parks to shout out that you think people haven’t seen and that they must?
EP: I think Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada is a really spectacular one. This is cheating, but the Redwood state parks that border the national park, frankly, I think are better than the national park.
MC: Hot take.
EP: There’s two or three of them that form a tapestry around actual Redwood National Park. But those, I would highly recommend as well. Don’t just go to the national park if you’re going to go up there. And I believe in Oregon, Mount Hood is a state park as well. It’s definitely not a national park, those would probably be my picks.
DS: I do have some in some other states, I love Custer State Park near Custer, South Dakota just really nestled right there in the Black Hills. But just not far from Custer State Park is an area where I grew up. This is part of what we were talking about the outdoor experience and enjoying it, is Keyhole State Park. And it’s in a beautiful little loop through the Black Hills National Forest. It’s 20 miles from Devil’s Tower National Monument. The Belle Fourche River runs through there, the geology and the color of the earth with these red iron rich walls that run along the banks of the Belle Fourche River are just spectacular. And so that’s one of my most favorite places in Wyoming, sentimental and gorgeous.
But then another area that is just, it really is a little gem in the center of Wyoming is Hot Spring State Park, a natural thermal hot springs with healing waters and just a beautiful, beautiful area with lots to see and do in and around. This is in a town called Thermopolis, Wyoming, which is a gateway to a gateway. Thermopolis is a gateway to Cody, Wyoming, which is a gateway into Yellowstone. But just a great place to experience the thermal features, the natural hot springs and a town with only one stoplight. a great place to visit.
MC: I love a name like Thermopolis with thermal pools. That is just chef’s kiss.
LA: Also, just having been trapped in a city for over a year, the sound of a town with only one stoplight just sounds absolutely heavenly.
EP: Diane just reminded me of one of my other favorite national forest areas. Not technically a state park, but the Eastern Sierras—and Lone Pine is literally a one light town, so you could get your fix. The Eastern Sierras are on the opposite side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Park, which obviously get very crowded because they’re very famous. But there are so many amazing trail heads and alpine lakes you can hike to and adorable little Wild West towns and things to do on the opposite edge of the same mountain range.
MC: The list of things I must do this summer and next summer and this fall and next fall and winter just keep growing.
DS: It’s the beauty of travel. You get excited about listening to others. I’m excited too about this.
LA: It is like peeling an onion. Because as soon as you ask for one recommendation, five more sprout out of it. Okay so our final question for the two of you is we’d love to know what other women are doing incredible work in the outdoors to promote responsible exploring and a more inclusive environment?
EP: I would say there are a few people that I follow on Instagram who I know are really promoting and doing great work regarding inclusivity in the outdoors. I would highly recommend following @IntersectionalEnvironmentalist. Also, @IrietoAurora, she is working on increasing diversity within the van life movement. And @NoelRuss as well, she is an excellent writer and she also is constantly posting about more inclusive efforts. And lastly, @AgnesVianzon, she founded this remarkable organization called the Eastern Sierra Conservation Corps, which specifically tries to take women of color from urban communities and put them on trail crews so they spend an entire summer in the backcountry working on trails and getting to have these amazing transformational, natural experiences that maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise had growing up.
MC: Diane, who do you want to shout out?
DS: Well, there’s I could take up another hour of our time together, shouting out to so many great Wyoming women. I first of all, want to just applaud all of the women who work in ranching and agriculture. They are the utmost in conservation. They understand the land and that we need to sustain these habitats for wildlife as well as for ranching. But there’s a couple of women that I’ve gotten to know over the last few years that I think have really and continue to do really exceptional work. One is a mother, she’s a young woman who lives in Laramie, Wyoming, which is the home of the University of Wyoming. Her name is Rebecca Walsh and she has an organization called Hike Like a Woman. And she brings women in from all over the world, essentially. And they’ll hike through the Medicine Bow, through the encampment wilderness, the Continental Divide Trail. And they’re just enjoying the great outdoors. And it is a time of community where these women maybe they’re suffering and they need a place to come and heal and they want the community of women to be together or it’s moms who just want to get away and have a break. But she’s really utilizing her opportunity to bring women together in a way that puts them out of, many times, their natural environment and then just embrace them. And so I really think that she’s doing some really, really good work.
And then there’s another young woman, Jessie Allen, her dad, her parents own the Allen’s Diamond Four Guest Ranch. It’s outside of Lander, Wyoming, up in the beautiful Wind River Mountain Range, up above 9,000 feet. This is at a high, high elevation. And Jessie is a young woman who’s now their ranch manager. She graduated college from the University of Wyoming. She was Miss Wyoming in 2014, I believe. But she’s back and she leads all women yoga retreats back up into the Wind River Mountains. She’s a hunting guide and she’s an outfitter and leading this. She’s just a woman who is really, really embracing her Wyoming roots and introducing the great outdoors and wilderness to others. She also does some work and is part time faculty with the National Outdoor Leadership School, NOLS, well-renowned NOLS in Lander, Wyoming. Those are just two of a mile-long list of people that I would call out. But I think their home is here in Wyoming so I’m going to give them a shout out for special attention for women who are doing some great work.
MC: Amazing. Well, if people want to keep up with the work that you two are doing, where can they find you on the internet, Emily?
EP: I am pretty much everywhere @brazenbackpacker. I’m a contributor to Condé Nast Traveler. And I also have a column about the national parks on Outside online.
MC: Amazing. And Diane, where can people keep up with you and Wyoming?
DS: Well, they can follow us at travelwyoming.com or Visit Wyoming through Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter. We’re there for all of it. All of the things where we can try to bring our message and these inspiring, beautiful, wild places to the attention of others and at the same time, encourage mindful travel so that we can keep Wyoming safe and wild.
MC: Amazing. You can find me @ohheytheremere.
LA: And me @lalehannah and hopefully in one of these parks very soon.
MC: Very soon. Be sure to follow Women Who Travel on Instagram and subscribe to our newsletter. Links to both of those things and all of the things discussed today, including the social media mentioned, will be linked in the show notes so be sure to check it out and thank you again both for joining us and we’ll talk to everyone else next week.
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