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The National Parks Passport is My Healthiest Obsession

In 2017, my relationship with America’s national parks went from fascination and curiosity to full-blown obsession, and I’ve got a little passport book to thank for it. While vacationing with family in Wyoming that summer, hiking and paddling our way through Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, my brother introduced me to a passport book in one of the visitor centers. The Passport to Your National Parks, in all its simplicity, represents the ultimate American bucket list for adventurers and nature-lovers, and it’s shocking this thing isn’t more ubiquitous than it is. My brother and I each snagged passports for ourselves and marked the regional page with an inaugural Grand Teton stamp. Little did we know this was the start of a new level of infatuation.

These wildly underrated books are available for purchase at any visitor center in any national park. The books, which look so similar to actual passports that I routinely need to triple-check that I’m bringing the right one with me when I’m heading to the airport, are divvied into sections by region of the U.S., with categories like “North Atlantic Parks,” “Southeast Parks,” “Rocky Mountain Parks,” and “Pacific Northwest and Alaska Parks.” In addition to a historical overview of the National Park Service, maps, vibrant photos, and tutorials on how to maximize your book, the bulk of the passport is reserved for stamps and stickers of all national park units, from the big iconic spots to lesser-known monuments, recreation areas, memorials, and military parks.

Our friend Elena Kherson got in on the passport fun at Rocky Mountain National Park!/Photo by Matt Kirouac

The book covers everything from Acadia in Maine to Hawaii Volcanoes, and everything in between. Stamps can be done at DIY stamp stations in any visitor center, where colorful markers display the name of the park and the date. Supplemental stickers, bedecked with illustrious imagery of the park in question, can adjoin the stamps, and are available for a small fee. The format is brilliant; not only do the passports provide insight and history, but it turns the country’s most prized assets into collectible fanfare. In my case, it’s become the healthiest obsession I’ve ever had.

With passport in tow, and stamps for both Grand Teton and Yellowstone marked on the same page in the “Rocky Mountain Region” section of my book, my enthusiasm for the parks had evolved into a newfound priority. Prior to learning about the passport, I had been loosely enforcing a personal goal of visiting three new parks per year, which I’d been steadily achieving only since 2016 with Badlands, Big Bend, and Carlsbad Caverns, followed by Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain in 2017. Fast-forward to today and it’s safe to say that I’ve utterly molded my life around national parks, moving into an RV full-time to visit as many as possible, pivoting my freelance writing to primarily cover the parks, and hosting two podcasts on the subject, one with iHeartRadio called Parklandia and a personal passion project called Hello Ranger, which transcends audio to serve as a full-fledged social community site and app for national parks-lovers like myself.

And I have this book to thank for encouraging me to explore places I surely would not have even known about pre-passport. For instance, the first park I ever visited by myself, and made the effort of renting a car to drive to, was Great Basin National Park in Eastern Nevada, one of the most remote and least visited parks. Stamp and sticker affixed, I went on a tour of Lehman Caves, marveled at the vista in Pole Canyon, and hiked six miles of the lung-crushing and increasingly snowy Baker Creek Trail. Far removed from urban hustle and bustle, in a serene part of the country where the notion of WiFi is hilariously far-fetched, it was a therapeutic experience spurred by a humble little book I’d only recently discovered.

Great Basin National Park/Photo by Matt Kirouac

Similar to Great Basin, the passport does a particularly good job highlighting other under-the-radar parks, providing incentive to check out regions that are less crowded but no less beautiful. I’m still champing at the bit to visit Isle Royale off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, and of course, everything in Alaska.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that only a few years ago virtually all my travel was centered around cities. Nowadays, after a few formative trips to national parks and a life-changing passport book, I’m well on my way to whittling down the ultimate all-American bucket list, and I highly recommend others do the same.

Header photo: Courtesy of Passport To Your National Parks/Facebook

Matt Kirouac has been writing about food and travel since 2008, for outlets like Travel + Leisure, TripSavvy, DiningOut magazines, Plate Magazine, KOA, Culture Trip, Zagat, and Food Fanatics magazine. He fell in love with national parks while on a trip to South Dakota, where Badlands National Park stole his heart…and has been holding it ransom ever since.

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