Ned and Nancy had no visions of green golf courses and bridge tournaments when they retired five years ago. Instead, these clients of mine wanted to see all of America’s 61 national parks.
Looking for a retirement adventure? Take the National Park Challenge!
The National Park Challenge is not for the faint of heart. Virgin Islands National Park is not only off-the-beaten path, but regularly victimized by devastating hurricanes.
Despite being the size of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Switzerland combined, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, sits in an isolated corner of southeast Alaska.
Gates of the Arctic National Park has no roads and requires taking a chartered flight above the roaming caribou.
This summer, Ned and Nancy are making their third attempt at their 58th park, Kobuk National Park. Located entirely above the Arctic Circle, Kobuc is a dunes-filled-desert. It’s like the Sahara, but with wolves. Summertime snow and sleet turned them away on their last two attempts.
Tackling a challenge like this takes an adventurous spirit and a heavy-dose of planning. My friends have hit about 12 parks each of the last five years. It’s certainly not logistically easy, or cheap. But the experience has been magical and, as Ned and Nancy, confess, it’s made the last half-decade of retirement particularly worthwhile.
Whether it’s the National Park Challenge or something else: Getting out matters
A regular rhythm of hobbies and activities is a requirement for retirement happiness. In my most recent survey of national retirement happiness, I found that the happiest retirees have 3.6 core pursuits. A trip like this checks those boxes. National Parks, by definition, are national. They’re dispersed coast to coast, across nearly 30 states and two US territories. Every stop invites visitors to bike, climb, swim, drive, play, eat, hike, camp and explore.
You can only imagine the social interactions and cultural variety offered on these trips. Ned and Nancy have no shortage of good conversation as they reflect on the people they meet and places they see. What better way to avoid a daily rut of fast food and daytime TV?
I’ve also found that the happiest group of retirees take 2.4 vacations annually versus 1.4 for their unhappy peers — nearly double! The happiest folks also prioritized vigorous exercise, travel and family time.
In a previous article, I discussed the role of an active lifestyle in a happy retirement. There, I shared that physical activity is a must — whether you’re 50 or 90. One study of nonagenarians (those aged between 90 and 99 years old) showed that 15 minutes a day of activity adds years to a lifespan. The same study extended research to women of all ages, and found that 15 to 30 minutes of daily activity brought a 20% decrease in the risk of dying at a given age versus someone who isn’t active.
A National-Park-Challenge-like adventure sets you up for all of this: travel, adventure and breaking a sweat. Just map them out and knock ‘em down!
So, what would it take to tackle this challenge yourself?
First, plan early
Traveling the country doesn’t have to break the bank, but there are definitely big line item expenses to plan for. Ned and Nancy eyed a middle-of-the-road RV and have put over 125,000 miles on it. While RVs range from around $100,000 to seven figures, a solid one can be financed and become a dependable mode of transportation for years to come. Ultimately, you may find that being a road-warrior isn’t for you. Oh well, trade it in and you’re probably only out of pocket for the cost of one big vacation.
Beyond the RV itself, expenses like park admissions, parking and campground fees can add up. Don’t sweat these or let them deter you, but do plan for them. Also, look for ways to swap expenses; trade or pause your gym membership and get your workouts in as you hoof it through nature. Pause your cable and opt for a cord-cutting option like Amazon Prime or Netflix if you need some on-the-road entertainment.
Also, check out great Senior discounts that cut down on park fees. The “America The Beautiful” Senior pass, for example, is $80 for a lifetime and unlocks admission to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. In most cases, a pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees and day-use fees. At many sites, is also provides the pass-owner a discount on Expanded Amenity Fees (such as camping, swimming, boat launching, and guided tours).
Then, learn from others
Don’t let the unknowns of RV life keep you from hitting the road. The internet is chock full of enthusiast sites and community forums with advice from other retirees that are traveling the world.
Websites like AxleAddicts have articles on everything from DIY RV air conditioner repair to how to negotiate an RV trade-in. Some articles, like this one, are a one-stop shop for planning and budgeting your first trip. Who knew there were discount camping clubs or temporary employment options (termed: “Workamping”) for RV’ers at big events like Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota or the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque?
In many cases the heavy planning lift has been done for you. One traveler, running a blog called Desk to DirtBag, offers an interactive Google Map pre-populated with all National Parks that is optimized for scenic travel. There’s really no excuse.
So what’ll be: Zion, Shenandoah or Mount Rainier? 61 of the world’s most beautiful destinations are waiting for you. Soak up an adventure, stay moving, get social and tackle a challenge like this for a lifetime of memories.