Courtesy of Matthew and Renee Hahnel

Travel and adventure photographer couple Matthew and Renee Hahnel’s epic journey to 59 parks in seven months

Matthew and Renee Hahnel with Sunset Staff  – September 3, 2019 | Updated October 29, 2019

Roaming America is the story of our visit to all the U.S. national parks in one epic seven month-long road trip. We got the idea from Evolve, a previous client of ours who were launching a new product. Part of the proceeds were to be donated to the National Parks Foundation in an effort to protect our natural spaces. They suggested a collaboration where they would send us to every single national park in an effort to bring awareness to their brand and mission. We accepted and came up with a plan for how we would visit 59 parks in seven months.

Embarking in 2017 in a 1988 Westfalia Vanagon, we traveled over 25,000 miles across 39 states, to two U.S. territories, on 26 flights, and countless hiking trails. Despite all the incredible experiences we were able to have, this was ultimately a working trip for us, and those seven months turned out to be the most rewarding and exhausting days of our lives. 

As you would imagine, the special moments we experienced far outweighed the bad. We had to pinch ourselves during nights where we would fall asleep under a blanket of stars, or those times we stood on mountain summits watching a golden sunset, and every day that we had the privilege of waking up somewhere new and exciting. Living in the van taught us to get by with less. We recycled through the same outfits day in, day out, slept cramped up next to each other every night, cooked basic meals, and went without comforts like TV and a proper desk to work at. Instead, we replaced these things with new experiences, the chance to journal and reflect, to meet interesting people, and to spend quality time together as a couple. —Matthew and Renee Hahnel

Here, Sunset asked the Hahnels about how they planned and implemented their journey.

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, Courtesy of Matthew and Renee Hahnel

Intuitively, it seems like a good way to start planning a multi-park trip is to decide which parks you want to include, and then to figure out the shortest route between them. Is that the best way to go about it, or is planning the ideal itinerary more complicated than that? 

Yes, for the most part that is the best way and mostly what we did. With that being said, if it’s a long trip like ours, weather and seasonal restrictions start to become a factor and something you have to consider.

Visiting 59 parks in 7 months means only a few days in each park. How did you decide what to see and do in each one given the time limit?

We would research each park beforehand and then we would decide how long we should need to get a feel for the park. We chose to spend longer stretches in the larger parks that have more to do, and less in the smaller/less-scenic parks. In an ideal world we would have had longer to explore each of the parks, but unfortunately our time was limited to 7 months.

What resources did you use to learn about what there was to see and do in each park?

Just good old Google searches, reading blog posts, and also referring to things we had seen on Instagram and Pinterest. A good idea is to have a “saved” folder in Instagram for each park well in advance of when you plan to visit, and every time you come across a photo from a spot you would like to visit, save it to the folder so you can look back when you are trip-planning. We also used the National Park Service website, park visitor centers, and rangers to help with planning.

Was the order of park visits and the amount of time you’d spend in each one carved in stone before you set out, or did it evolve on the trip?

Nothing was ever set in stone, but we did have a rough outline of where we would spend each night of the trip right from the start. We ended up spending a day longer at a couple of parks and also cut our visit slightly shorter for a few of them. We would essentially just adjust on the fly as necessary! This trip involved a lot of going with the flow.

Did the trip ever start to feel like a chore? 

We will be honest,there were definitely mornings that we really didn’t want to get out of bed. It gets incredibly tiring getting up for almost every sunrise and staying out for most sunsets for an entire 7 months, especially during the longer summer days (it barely got dark in Alaska!). As photographers, these are the best times for photos, so when you have such a short time in each park you really want to take advantage of that good light.

Death Valley National Park, Courtesy of Matthew and Renee Hahnel

Did you ever lose your capacity for surprise? 

Yes and no. Even at the end of the trip we would still be blown away by the beauty of nature, but we definitely felt like the bar was significantly raised from the beginning of the trip. We had just seen so many epic landscapes that it meant the less dramatic ones sometimes seemed slightly lackluster. 

Did you ever feel you needed a break from constant travel? If so, did you end up taking that break or did you find some other way of coping with stress? 

We definitely felt like we needed a break at times, but we had a busy schedule to stick to and taking time off wasn’t really an option. We did take one full “day off” as Renee was desperate to visit Harry Potter World in Orlando! We also tried to have some down time in the middle of the day if we didn’t need to travel to our next park, where we would maybe read a book or take a nap.

Grand Tetons, Courtesy of Matthew and Renee Hahnel

What, for you, were the rewards of this trip? 

Getting the opportunity to visit each of the U.S. national parks was a huge reward for us. We had been frequent visitors to the national parks before this trip, so having the chance to visit every single one of them was a dream come true! Not only that, we were able to see so much of the country outside of the parks which was incredible as well. Also, it was amazing to be able to go on this trip together and be able to spend some quality time traveling as a couple.

Do you feel that it would have been possible to achieve these rewards on a trip that included more time in a smaller number of parks, or was the variety crucial? 

Honestly, we would probably recommend smaller trips with more time to spend in each park over one huge 7-month trip to all of them like we did. We aren’t upset that we did it that way, but spending many years working through the parks with more time in each one would be a better option for most people.

Do you wish you’d done anything differently?

Not really. We were honestly quite surprised with how well everything worked out. Do we wish we had longer in some parks? Sure…but that wasn’t an option due to the nature of the trip. Plus, we have already returned to so many of them and plan to keep visiting our favorites over and over again. 

 Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Courtesy of Matthew and Renee Hahnel

Which Western park intrigued you the most? Which one do you want to return to the most? 

The Western parks are definitely the most dramatic. We aren’t sure that we can pick just one as the “most intriguing” as there are just so many epic options. Aside from the parks in our home state of Washington that we visit often, the national park we want to return to the most is probably Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska. There is an insane hiking route that we didn’t get the chance to do on our road trip, so another visit is definitely on the radar!

 

Zion National Park, Courtesy of Matthew and Renee Hahnel

Which 5 or so Western Parks would you recommend to someone who wants to get a sense of the breadth of the national park system without visiting every single one?

 If we could only choose 5 out West, we would probably recommend Yosemite, Zion, Redwood, Glacier, and Kenai Fjords. These will give you a lot of variation in scenery and take you to some of the most beautiful places on the planet.