Seeing the country, one park at a time

Pictured, from left, are Susan and Will Harbaugh on their most recent park visit at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan this past September. (submitted photo)

There are 59 national parks in the United States, each one as unique as the next. Some are famous for their trees, others for their water and even a few include volcanoes. What makes them the same is that each one offers a different aspect of nature.

Of these 59 parks, Will and Susan Harbaugh of Red Bud have visited 51 and counting. Since the couple have been married, they’ve been tallying up parks year by year.

“This was not a mission we set out on,” Susan told the Republic-Times.

It may not have originally been a mission, but with only eight more parks to go, it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t become one.

The Harbaughs’ journey began almost 30 years ago.

“I think technically, we started on our honeymoon,” Susan said. “The first ones that we visited were in 1987. They were Haleakaia and the Hawaii volcanoes.”

That vacation is what started their quest to exploring the protected parks across America. Like Susan said, they never intended to keep checking each park off their list. They just love nature and hiking.

“That’s the thing. A lot of folks want to get all 59 checked off the list. We didn’t want to get so list-focused. We’re like, ‘Let’s go to the ones that we want to go to.’ Quite frankly, that is the bulk of them,” Susan said. “I think what we’ve got for a goal is to hit all of them in the lower 48 states, and to make sure we do all of those. Ironically so, we only have one of those left.”

And that one — Arkansas’ Hot Springs — will be marked off their list soon. That’s the next park they have left to visit, and it is the closest one to them.

When planning the excursions, the Harbaughs try to stay in a cabin or hotel in the park or as close as possible.

“That can be a little more expensive,” Susan said. “Generally we fly to a destination. That involves booking a flight, renting a car and then packing the appropriate things. Usually, we’ve got a cabin or a hotel room, but there are still some basics you want to take along.”

One of the best places they stayed was in a cabin at Crater Lake, right outside the park. It was built by the CCC workers for themselves in 1933, according to Will.

“It was kind of updated in 1950, so the doors didn’t close, but the windows didn’t open,” Will said. “The carpet looked like someone’s brown and white shepherd dog had died and they used the skin. It was brown and white shag carpet. It was kind of neat because there was a stream outside the door, by about three or so steps from the door, that was about 15 feet wide that just roared. You couldn’t even hear a truck go by on the highway. That was probably one of the neater places we stayed.”

For both of them, they really don’t have one specific park that is designated as a favorite.

“We hate that question,” Susan said. “That is incredibly hard. For me, I’ve only got a couple that I would rank lower than all the rest of them.”

For Will, he said each park has its own little niche. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.

“The Redwoods are great because of the big trees. Then you go up to Crater Lake and the water there is so blue,” Will said. “You go to Yellowstone, and it’s the falls and the color of the rocks. Everything is just different. The Grand Canyon, from the north rim to the south rim, is a different perspective, too. Probably the only one we didn’t like was Cuyahoga Valley in Cleveland — it was kind of like Forest Park only with businesses stuck in it.”

Both agreed that they gauge how good a park is by how many animals they see.

Susan’s favorite part about any trip is the secludedness of the park. It lets them be with nature.

“I guess there is one overall theme that I do like,” Susan said. “It’s when you have to pass through the gate to the designated area and enter this world only you and your park friends are in. There’s not like a highway blasting through it, which is what happens sometimes, but you’re really in the environment with other people that want to be also. Then, another bonus, if there is a little village where we are staying in the park, that’s just, to me, that’s the best.”

Recently, the Harbaughs were featured in a National Park Foundation mailing, which Susan thought was cool to be a part of.

“I didn’t realize it was for so many people until I asked her, ‘Well, how many households does this go to?’” Susan said. “(The writer) said about 20,000 households and I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’”

Their park visits have added more than just memories to their lives.

“We’ve met a lot of nice, crazy people in the parks, who we’re still in contact with after years,” Will said. “So, we’ve made some new friends by visiting the parks.”

The parks also have ended up becoming a fixture inside their home.

“Also, what (Will) does, is take a lot of pictures,” Susan said. “So, what I do, is decorate the house with them. I do digital albums, so it’s like when we get home, the vacation continues.”

With eight more parks to go, they may very well end up checking off each one from their list.

On to park No. 52.

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