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Mike Ryan at Acadia National Park/Photo courtesy of Gaze at the National Parks

Out of the Closet and Into the Parks

We are Dustin Ballard and Michael Ryan, friends, co-creators, and co-hosts of Gaze at the National Parks, the Podcast, where we hike the trails of America’s national parks, one trail in one national park, one park at a time. And we couldn’t be more excited about being Hello Ranger Ambassadors, especially for the LGBTQ+ community. As members of this community and the outdoors community, we look forward to exploring the intersection of LGBTQ+ heritage and culture with our national parks and public lands. 

Dustin Ballard and Michael Ryan hiking the Mt. Cammerer Trail at Great Smoky Mountains National Park/Photo courtesy of Gaze at the National Parks

As we like to say, we have been friends for over a thousand years, but our journey began in 2012 when OkCupid brought us together and we quickly realized we had each met a lifelong friend. We discovered a shared love of long meandering walks through cities, which soon turned into marathon-length adventures. These long walks gave us more time to explore and discuss a whole manner of things including our different art forms (Mike’s in visual art and Dusty’s in theatre), travel, games, and being queer in today’s world. Eventually, we took our friendship and love of long walks on the road in 2016 and have been traveling and hiking the National Parks System ever since.

View from Mt. LeConte Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park/Photo courtesy of Gaze at the National Parks

This led to the creation of our podcast, Gaze at the National Parks, pun intended. Originally, the name of our shared Instagram account, we decided to transition into the audio world in September of 2018. We love trails, and we are always curious about them. It was alway easy to find out the logistical information about trails on the various park websites and in published guidebooks, and while the comments section in the AllTrails app was certainly helpful, we wanted to know what someone actually experienced on the trail. Our favorite way to do this was to chat with someone who had hiked it, usually a park ranger or a fellow hiker. We wanted to recreate this experience on an audio platform to share what each trail has to offer. 

Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall Trail, Yosemite National Park/Photo courtesy of Gaze at the National Parks

Each full-length episode of our podcast features one trail in one national park. Our episodes include park history, travel info, trail games, and everything you need to know about that one trail. We also invent a new drag queen every episode, because that’s something we do on the trails constantly (seriously, we have a shared iPhone note with over 1,000 names). Our short-form “Trail Mix” episodes come out between our full-length episodes, allowing us to dive deeper into a particular subject related to national parks in more detail. 

Dustin Ballard on Mesa Verde National Park’s Petroglyph Point Trail/Photo courtesy of Gaze at the National Parks

Not only do we hike trails, we also proudly acknowledge and explore the double entendre of our show’s title. For example, in June of each year, our “Trail Mix” episodes become “Pride Mix” episodes where we explore queer culture and the work the NPS is doing to preserve queer spaces. Last year, one of our “Pride Mixes” was about the NPS LGBTQ Heritage Study, an initiative that began during the Obama administration to research, discover, and preserve sites that are significant to queer history and culture in America. As the LGBTQ+ Hello Ranger Ambassadors, we look forward to highlighting these preserved spaces and uncovering more of the intersection of queer culture and outdoor culture. 

We’re here, we’re queer, come hike with us.

Header photo: Michael Ryan at Acadia National Park/Courtesy of Gaze at the National Parks

Dustin Ballard and Michael Ryan are the co-hosts and co-creators of Gaze at the National Parks, the Podcast, a show that features one hiking trail in one national park, one park at a time.

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