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In December we introduced you to a couple who quit their jobs, loaded their possessions into an Airstream travel trailer and set off to visit every national park in the United States. Stefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish are now halfway through their all-American adventure, capturing it in real time on their Facebook page and sharing more in-depth stories and photography on their website, The Greatest American Road Trip.

Their current location: Zion National Park. We checked in with them to see how the trip is going.

grand canyon national park hiker


Independent Traveler: Six months on the road, and you both still sound so upbeat and enthusiastic! How are you faring?
Jonathan Irish:
Personally, I feel as though we are living an exclamation point. Everything seems to be punctuated with the extreme. We are so tired from the constant moving, so energized by the beauty of the parks, so grateful for the opportunity to see these beautiful places, so humbled that we are touching so many people with memories from their own park experiences as well as inspiration to get out and keep exploring. It’s everything all at once. It is definitely the best year of our lives.

Stefanie Payne: It seems like an obvious answer, but we are having the best year. We’re enjoying every minute … even when it’s tiring. To be truthful, this is a really hard project in a lot of ways. Keeping up with producing and editing content is literally a round-the-clock job. And some days you just don’t want to hike eight miles up a mountain! But the desire to make the most of this opportunity and create meaningful content that people (and we) enjoy fuels us in a way that makes fatigue fall away.

IT: Tell us about some of your favorite moments so far.
SP:
Some of the highlights for me have been the big hikes — the Subway at Zion, Grand Canyon Rim to Rim, a hike to the ancient Bristlecone Pines in Great Basin, Nevada.

JI: I love the early morning photo explorations, when the rest of the world is sleeping and the world is just coming to life. During these outings, I always find myself in beautiful locations, walking in the woods or in the mountains, the sun just starting to rise.

I also love the big hikes we’ve been doing, where we’ve challenged ourselves. The Subway hike in Zion, the Rim to Rim in Grand Canyon, the Panorama Trail in Yosemite. These are great memories for me.

big bend national park jonathan irish


IT: What has been the hardest part of this trip — something you didn’t expect to be challenging?
SP:
Just keeping up with editing. That is the monster on this project. We put out a thorough snapshot from each park, I feel, but there is so much we’re creating that we simply don’t have time to work through. For every photo, memory, idea, there seem to be 100 more unshared and unsaid.

JI: I second Stef’s answer. It’s one thing to travel to the parks, but another to put out great content that people will want to come back to. It takes a lot of creative energy, which is very hard to keep at a high level all the time. Luckily, the nature in the parks renews us every time we feel drained.

IT: And what was easier than expected?
SP:
The task of finding and making a great experience in every park. Somehow, we always seem to manage to capture a park in a way we’re satisfied with.

IT: We saw you on “Good Morning America” recently and caught a glimpse of the inside of the Airstream trailer. Is it hard living in such a small space?
SP:
We’ve been living in a small space together for many years so we didn’t expect it to be difficult. But it is helping us to improve how we communicate. Any bickering has to be pushed through pretty quickly. There just isn’t time to not get along. And we’re both pretty happy.

JI: Being a full-time RVer has been easier than I expected. We love our Airstream and have gotten very used to living in it. In many ways, it is bigger than a lot of NYC apartments! And we love the fact that we are mobile. I could get used to this RVing life!


IT: What have you learned about yourself from embarking on this road trip?
JI:
This kind of trip tests one’s resolve and energy. We’ve found that we always have more of both than we thought, which has been really satisfying.

SP: We have more energy in ourselves than we might think. The trick is to apply it to something you love doing, surrounded by those whom you love doing it with.

Check out more travel interviews!

National Park Vacations: Top Tips
6 National Parks We Want to Visit Around the World

— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

With the U.S. National Park Service celebrating its centennial this year, national parks are in the spotlight — not just here in the States but around the world. We love national parks because they protect a country’s natural scenery and unique wildlife for all of us to enjoy, whether you’re driving through in a car, hiking a trail or camping in the backcountry. Check out these six national parks we want to visit around the world.

grand teton national park


Grand Teton National Park, U.S.A., offers magnificent mountain vistas.

elephants in etosha national park


On safari in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, you’ll spy lions, elephants, zebras and much more.

waterfall lamington national park


Located in Queensland, Australia, Lamington National Park encompasses miles of lush rain forest.

horses torres del paine


Torres del Paine National Park protects some of Patagonian Chile’s most stunning landscapes.

komodo dragon


Komodo National Park in Indonesia is home to the endangered Komodo dragon, along with a variety of marine wildlife.

northeast greenland national park



Northeast Greenland National Park is the world’s biggest national park, but it’s so difficult to reach that very few people actually visit it.

For more trip ideas, see our slideshow of the 12 most beautiful national parks in the world.

Planning an African Safari
National Park Vacations

Which national park tops your must-visit list?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

stefanie payne jonathan irish bryce canyon national parkStefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish quit their jobs, rented out their condo, found temporary digs for their cats and will head out next week on an adventure years in the making.

Starting on New Year’s Day, the two Washington D.C. residents will spend a year visiting every national park in the United States. They selected 2016 for their trip partially because it’s the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

As Payne, a 36-year-old writer, and Irish, 41, a photographer, finished packing up their home, we caught up with the couple to hear more about the journey ahead.

Independent Traveler.com: Why did you decide to do this road trip?
Jonathan Irish:
Stefanie and I both grew up loving the great outdoors, and especially the beautiful nature in our U.S. national parks. The special celebration of the centennial of the National Park Service, along with our love of nature, inspired us to commit to spending the entire year adventuring and photographing in every one of the 59 parks. We can’t think of a better way to spend a year.

IT: Was it scary to quit your jobs?
JI:
While we appreciate the stability that a regular job provides, every once in a while it is good to shake things up, to see life in a different way. As hard as it was to leave jobs at organizations we love [Payne worked at NASA and Irish at the National Geographic Society], we both felt the pull to do our own project.

IT: Where do you go first?
Stefanie Payne:
We’ll start in the southeastern United States, where there are five parks — three in Florida, one in the U.S. Virgin Islands and one in South Carolina. We are going to reveal our route as we go, to keep an element of surprise.

IT: How will you be traveling?
JI:
We will be traveling in an SUV towing an Airstream travel trailer. We chose the Airstream for two reasons. First, there’s a certain nostalgia we associate with Airstream trailers that is similar to the nostalgia we feel for the national parks. It felt like the right way to do it! From a more practical standpoint, we needed to have a home office on the road. The Airstream provided us with that ability to have a consistent place to work and rest.

We are calling this a road trip, and we will drive to every park where we can in fact take the car and Airstream. But there are some parks on islands — American Samoa, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands — where we will have to fly and rent a vehicle.

IT: Which parks are you most looking forward to seeing?
SP:
I am so excited for Katmai in Alaska! Growing up in Washington state, the annual salmon run is a big part of the culture in terms of Native American history and the ecology of the region. To see its end with grizzlies catching them in the river, and to get that iconic shot, will be for me a strong personal connection.

JI: I too am excited for Alaska, and in particular some of the remote parks that a lot of visitors don’t get to, like Gates of the Arctic. I love photographing the Southwest, so am very excited for more time there. The bigger parks, like Yosemite and Yellowstone, are always amazing and so to spend some good time in them is a dream. And I am excited for the unknown, the unexpected experiences that we can’t foresee that blow us away.

SP: I also think there will be a lot of beauty found in parks that I didn’t know existed until we started researching this project.

JI: I think the road trip in itself — the trials and tribulations of living in small quarters and driving throughout the entire U.S. — will be really fun and interesting too.

IT: What kinds of activities do you plan to do in the parks?
colorado river grand canyonSP:
Jon and I love to hike and kayak, so there will be a lot of that year-round. And we got some new stand-up paddleboards, which neither of us have ever tried and can’t wait to learn.

JI: We’ve chosen to see and experience the Grand Canyon via rafting, which has always been on our to-do list. We will kayak and camp in the Everglades, hike in just about every park and of course, take lots of photos.

IT: What has been the most difficult part of the planning?
JI:
For me, it’s been the million little details that we must be on top of. We’ve been in D.C. for seven or eight years now, and in that time we’ve become quite entrenched in so many ways. I don’t think one can fully understand or see how entrenched they are until they try to pick up and leave. From finding a temporary home for our cats, to renting the condo, cutting the cable bill, packing up, getting new health insurance and a million other details, it’s incredibly hard to make a major move like this.

SP: Planning for this project has been a balancing act like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It’s an enormous amount of change to endure during a short period of time.

IT: What’s on your must-pack list, and what are some of the creature comforts of home you won’t be able to bring along?
SP:
Must pack: Outdoor gear, awesome hiking boots, books, camera gear. We’ll bring maps and obviously use iPhone maps and apps.

JI: I am packing my camera gear very carefully, as I want to be prepared for everything. We are also making sure we have the camping and backpacking gear we need in order to dig as deep into the parks as we want to. Besides a great coffee maker, I can do without most other things!

SP: We can’t imagine not having our cats with us all the time, but it’s just not that kind of trip.

IT: Can we check in with you in a few months and see how the trip is going?
SP:
So much is going to happen all the time and we are so excited to share our story this year. The story will unfold on our website and Facebook page.

Editor’s Note: Read the follow-up to this post: Catching Up with the Couple Visiting Every U.S. National Park.

Check out more travel interviews!

National Park Vacations
Less Traveled National Parks

–interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Staggering glaciers, rushing water begging for rafts, towering ice-capped mountains and a sanctuary for rare wildlife: This isn’t Alaska we’re talking about, it’s Canada. Located in the extreme southwestern corner of Yukon, Kluane National Park and Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site not found on as many travel wishlists as Denali or Glacier National Park, but just as worthy. Renowned for its icefield landscapes (mountains and glaciers constitute 82 percent of the park), it’s home to Mount Logan, the highest mountain in Canada, and close to 105 species of birds including the golden and bald eagles.

If we haven’t incited some wanderlust in you yet, check out this gorgeous 23-minute short film from Parks Canada featuring Cory Trepanier, a Canadian artist and filmmaker best known for his landscape paintings of Canadian wilderness.



“TrueWild, A Legacy for Canada’s National Parks” is a multi-year wilderness legacy project lead by Trepanier with the intent to engage the public in the beauty of Canada’s natural landscapes through fine art. The expedition in Kluane is the first of many projects Trepanier hopes to take part in, filming and painting his country’s surroundings as he goes.

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

shenandoah national park virginia autumn fallAs we enter day two of the limited U.S. government shutdown, so far travelers are mostly unaffected by the congressional deadlock. It’s business as usual at airports and border crossings, and passport applications are still being processed. However, travelers hoping to go leaf-peeping in a national park or visit the Smithsonian museums are out of luck.

All national parks, monuments, historic sites and other properties run by the National Park Service are closed (and you can’t even access their websites) during the shutdown. And this doesn’t just affect sites in the U.S. — the Normandy American Cemetery in France will also be closed for the duration of the shutdown, along with other overseas properties run by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

State parks are a good alternative to consider for those seeking hiking trails, outdoor recreation and scenic landscapes while the national parks are closed. Thrillist has put together a list of state parks near popular national properties such as Yellowstone, Zion and Acadia.

If the shutdown continues, travelers may start to see a slowdown at airports and ports as more employees may be furloughed or those who are covering for furloughed employees begin to burn out. Already, one third of the Federal Aviation Administration’s workforce has been furloughed, the (Newark) Star-Ledger reports. FAA officials said the furloughs have so far not affected daily flight operations or safety.

A spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told the Star-Ledger that staffing at airport security checkpoints will not be reduced. At cruise ports and border patrol checkpoints, U.S. Customs and Border Control will most likely be unaffected, as “they have been deemed law enforcement necessary or necessary for the safety of life and protection of property,” the CPB states on its website.

For travelers in the process of getting a passport, the longer the shutdown continues the greater the chance the passport won’t come. At the moment, passport services are functioning as normal with a processing time of up to four weeks for routine applications and two weeks for expedited service. For some people, though, actually picking up their passport could already be a problem as any passport agency located in a government building affected by the shutdown “may become unsupported,” the Department of State wrote on its website.

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The Department of State will continue to provide emergency services as necessary to U.S. citizens overseas.

Has your trip been affected by the shutdown?

— written by Dori Saltzman and Sarah Schlichter

Long shadows flickered before me as I walked through the dank, subterranean passages of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. During my recent two-hour Historic Tour, I crouched and twisted my way through the cramped alleys of Fat Man’s Misery, checked out a massive block of rock aptly dubbed Giant’s Coffin, and faced the gaping maw known as the Bottomless Pit.

mammoth cave


With more than 365 miles of discovered passageways, Mammoth Cave is the world’s largest cave system, and geologists believe there could be hundreds of miles yet to discover. Compared with caves I’d visited previously, Mammoth felt a little different — and not just because of its size. “It feels like walking through a big salt mine,” said my travel companion after we’d hiked more than an hour without seeing a single stalactite or hearing the trickle of water seeping down the limestone walls.

But this is a good thing, our National Park Service guide told us, at least for the future longevity of the cave. Mammoth does have some water-carved formations such as stalagmites and stalactites, but much of the cave system is actually sheltered from water by a “roof” of sandstone, which keeps it dry and protected.

historic entrance mammoth cave


Mammoth may not have the exquisitely colored formations that draw visitors to other caves, but it does have a fascinating history. Back in the 1800’s, African-American slaves were among Mammoth’s first tour guides and explorers. (Visit the cave’s Web site, NPS.gov/maca, to learn more.) I was particularly drawn to the story of Stephen Bishop, who began guiding visitors at age 17 and later was the first person to cross the Bottomless Pit and chart the previously undiscovered passageways beyond. After nearly two decades in the caves, Bishop was given his freedom — but he died the following year.

mammoth cave national park fall foliage trees


After you emerge, squinting, from the cool darkness underground, don’t forget to enjoy the other half of Mammoth’s ecosystem. Visitors can soak up some sun and fresh air on a network of wooded hiking trails.

The 10 Best National Parks

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last week’s Photo Friday guessing game is Yosemite Falls! At 2,425 feet, it’s the highest of the many waterfalls in California’s Yosemite National Park. It flows from approximately November through July, with its peak in May. Learn more about Yosemite (and see our other favorite parks) in our slideshow of the 10 Best National Parks.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Update, April 8, 3 p.m.: The State Department just announced on its @TravelGov Twitter account that National Passport Day has officially been canceled in light of the potential shutdown.

Update, April 8, 10 a.m.: The Washington Post reports that the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade will still take place if a government shutdown happens. The parade route will be changed as necessary so that National Park Service permits, which would not be valid in the event of a government shutdown, will not be needed.

passport The looming U.S. government shutdown, which is looking more likely by the minute, could spoil your spring travel plans.

United States lawmakers have been postponing passage of the 2011 fiscal year budget, and if Congress doesn’t pass something soon — that is, by midnight Friday — a government shutdown is expected. All “non-essential” government employees would stop working during the shutdown. But some of these employees are absolutely vital to the travel industry.

Among the affected workers would be those employed at U.S. passport agencies. National Passport Day, which was scheduled to take place on Saturday, April 9, will be canceled, and anyone waiting to receive a passport or visa may have to wait longer than expected if a shutdown comes to pass.

For travelers, it gets worse. U.S. national parks, monuments and historic sites won’t be open during a government shutdown. Visitors to Washington D.C. will face particular challenges. As government-run facilities, the Smithsonian Institution museums and the National Zoo will be shuttered. Plus, according to the National Cherry Blossom Festival Web site, a handful of festival events will be canceled or postponed in the face of a shutdown, including the annual Cherry Blossom Parade, which marches down the National Mall (managed by — you guessed it — the National Park Service).

National Park Week kicks off next weekend, from April 16 through 24, during which admission is free at more than 100 national parks. Will it be canceled? Only time will tell. No one can predict the exact length of a possible shutdown, and there’s no way to know the extent to which one’s passport application may be delayed or for how long one may need to postpone that weekend getaway to Yosemite.

Travelers planning spring getaways should prepare for the worst and keep a close eye on trusted news sources. If you’re waiting for your passport to be processed, you can contact the State Department at 1-877-487-2778 or go online to check the status of your application.

Will a potential government shutdown affect your next trip?

— written by Caroline Costello

yosemite half dome reflectionEvery Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: More than 100 of America’s national parks typically charge an entrance fee — but on select dates in 2011, visitors will get in for free. Your best chance to explore is during National Parks Week, which runs April 16 – 24 (that includes two full weekends). The other free dates are the first day of summer (June 21), Public Lands Day (September 24) and Veterans Day weekend (November 11 – 13).

Included in this deal are not only some big-name national parks — such as Acadia, Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon — but also famous battlefields like Vicksburg and Little Big Horn, and historic sites like the home of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Catch: Although most of the free days take place outside of the parks’ summer high season, you can expect this deal to draw big crowds, especially if you go on a weekend with nice weather. Arrive as early as possibly to beat the hordes.

The Competition: If you’d like to visit a few national parks in one escorted trip, this summer package from Amtrak Vacations might be right up your alley. Book early and you can save up to $400 off Amtrak’s 11-night Peaks to Pacific package, which includes accommodations, most meals, sightseeing in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and scenic train travel along the way. With the discount, the package starts at $4,489 per person.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Vacation Package Deals.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last Friday’s photo guessing game is Acadia National Park, Maine! Pictured is Jordan Pond, one of the most popular areas of the park. Hikers can walk the easy 3.2-mile loop around the pond before rewarding themselves with the famous buttery popovers at Jordan Pond House, the park’s only restaurant. Learn more about Acadia in The 10 Best National Parks.

— written by Sarah Schlichter