In case you haven’t heard, the National Park Service (NPS) is celebrating 100 years of national parks this year. And while the landscapes have been around for a tiny bit longer (science tells us the Grand Canyon formed 17 million years ago, give or take), the NPS is promoting free admission to all the parks in honor of National Park Week, which takes place from April 16-24, 2016.

To learn more about the parks we interviewed an avid national park explorer, Nick Schatko.

Photos courtesy of Nick Schatko

Rocky Mountains National Park

How many National Parks have you been to? 

Nick: I have been to 20+ National Park Service parks, monuments, and lakeshores. The big ones that I have been to are Acadia (ME), Grand Teton (WY), Yellowstone (WY), Yosemite (CA), Joshua Tree (CA), Rocky Mountain (CO), and Sequoia (CA). I also have been to both civil war military parks Gettysburg (PA) and Shiloh (TN), and Pearl Harbor (HI). Recently, I got the chance to visit Þingvellir national park in Iceland. Very cool to add a national park out of the country.

What first piqued you interest in the national parks?

Nick: Growing up, I loved being outdoors. But it was not until my trip to Yellowstone as a Boy Scout when I was 16 that I understood what a true wilderness experience could be. It could be more than being in the woods by my house in Northern Indiana, and I loved it.

The trip was to drive from Indiana to Yellowstone and back again. I was not allowed to drive so I got to spend the whole time in the back seat watching as we drove through 8 states. I will never forget all of the memories that we made and all of the amazing places and landscapes that I was able to see during that time. Seeing something first hand is so much more meaningful than seeing something in a textbook. We were able to see Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse (not a national park service property) and drive through Badlands National Park all in one trip. We ended up driving close to 4,000 miles. It was one of the greatest summers of my life.

I was hooked after that, I had to see more national parks. I wanted to get out and live in the mountains and explore. There is no better place in this world than a trail in one of our national parks!

Favorite park?

Nick: There are so many parks and that it’s hard for me to find just one that is my favorite. However, Yosemite has some of the most stunning features. Many of the greatest rock faces to climb in the USA are in a little valley there called Yosemite Valley.

The valley is only a few miles long and it is lined with iconic rock faces. It’s hard to find such a concentration of amazing sites. There is so much to the park, but that little spot is a magical place. People often forget about the other 99% of the park.

Yosemite National Park

Do you typically camp at the parks?

Nick: Always. I try and spend at least one night camping when I go to a park. There are great options near many of the parks to stay in cabins but I prefer a tent. When I travel with others, I try and mix things up for the sake of balancing access to a shower and indoor plumbing. When I can, I try and head to the backcountry.

That is my favorite part of any national park. Being away from cell service, modern conveniences, and being able to enjoy nature is a humbling experience. It is why I go; it really makes you feel great knowing that it is just you and the wilderness.

Do you have any advice for first-timers?

Nick: There are three things that I like to tell people for any trip to the parks:

  1. Research it — Work on knowing and understanding what you would like out of your visit to the park. Many of these parks are huge! While in Yellowstone I learned very quickly how big the park was. We wanted to take a “quick” trip to see the geysers. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived in the parking lot for the geyser area — that was the closest thing to our campsite! Research what to do and know how to get there. Also, the park service does a great job with programs for visitors. There are also tour groups that can take you to the parks and tell you more about what you are looking at. These tend to be very touristy.  For me, I enjoy taking a map, daypack with food and water, and some boots and hitting the trails.
  2. Grab a map — Many of the parks are big enough that cell service can get spotty. They offer a map of the roads in the park at the gate when you pay to enter; be sure to grab it!
  3. Remember, you’re in nature — These parks are wild places where humans get to hang out. Many of the problems that the NPS have in national parks are caused by people not understanding where they are and what or what not to do. The animals that you see are wild and the NPS works to keep it that way. The parks work to maintain a balance between nature and millions of people visiting each year. It is important to notice warning signs about animal life in the parks. One other thing to watch our for is the weather. The weather can be wild but it can also be amazingly nice.

Three things you would never forget when packing for a trip?

Nick: Well, I would never forget to pack the things that are on my three lists of 10 things that I never forget.  But seriously, map, compass, pocketknife, matches, and a water bottle. Those are a must. There is nothing else that you would need to make it off of a trail safely after a day hike. I do have some other things that I take with me when I travel — a hat, sunglasses, and my lightweight rain jacket. Sun and rain will be the big problems that you have to contend with in the wilds of the many of the national parks. Changing temperature, wind, and weather patterns are the norm in many of these large swatches of land. A camera and a journal are big parts of a packing list, too.

 Joshua Tree National Park

What is the most interesting thing you’ve ever witnessed at a national park?

Nick: The most amazing “Instagram-worthy” moments in the parks are the sunrises. The most unique thing that I have ever seen would be the hot springs and geysers in Yellowstone. But the most interesting thing that I have ever seen are the nights in the national parks.

The night sky will surprise you when there are no other lights around to block the stars. They are silent too. You almost get addicted to waking up or lying in your tent at night and not hearing anything but nature.

This year the national parks turn 100 years old. Do you have any upcoming trips planned?

Nick: Yes, my wife and I are making a trip to California to see Yosemite. It will be her first trip to that park.

Thanks to Nick for the insight. Now hit the trails.