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Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation on The Humans Outside Podcast.
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Before Humans Outside or even before I considered myself a nature lover, America’s national parks captured my imagination. What has, I think, accurately been called “America’s best idea” took a hold of my heart and soul. I wanted to see and experience the places in nature that we as a people consider the most worth not just protecting, but protecting in such a way that also makes them available for everyone to see and experience. Even as I say this, that very idea and the places I’ve seen in the parks are giving me goosebumps. I’m remembering the time I stood in Yellowstone on the very field where the idea for the National Parks was born, knowing that I was there because one group of guys felt the same way about those views in that spot and wanted to make sure they could be shared. And they have been shared. Today there are 424 National Park sites in the US, 63 of them with the highest quote unquote National Park designation and 361 as 19 other types of public land sites, including national battlefields, memorials, monuments, parkways and preserves. There’s something for and near everyone across the 50 states, the District and all of the US territories. April 17th to 25th marks National Park Week, and ahead of that we’re just here to talk about all things national parks and share the love. Linda Mohammad emigrated from Malaysia to the US as a teen to go to college, stayed for a job and has since become a leading US National Parks enthusiast. She has visited 62 of the 63 National Parks, the US added one in December of 2020. And she hasn’t visited that one yet. And that’s a really big deal because some of them, especially in Alaska, are super hard to get to and include things like private flights. She volunteers with multiple park organizations. And she’s joining us today to share her National Park love, geek out with me, and offer some tips for visiting some of these amazing spots. Linda, welcome to Humans Outside.
Thank you, Amy. I’m happy to be here.
So excited to nerd out today. Man, we were talking before we started recording about the parks and yeah, I just I’m like big old closet nerd – literally in my podcast closet. Okay, so we start all of our conversations on this podcast hearing about our guest’s favorite outdoor space. So tell us as if we were hanging out with you there chatting today. Where are we with you?
So this is not a secret, but we are in a national park somewhere.
No shocker. Okay. Which one? You got so many to choose from.
That’s right. So let’s say we’re in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Yeah, man. It’s beautiful. Okay, good spot. Love it. So how did you become someone who likes to go outside? And then tell us how did you become a national park lover? What’s your story?
Sure, it all started with purchasing a Camelbak on Black Friday in 2015. It’s like a gateway drug. It was my first pack. And a month later, I was at a doctor’s office and flipping through Visit California Magazine. And it says — oh, we’re on the website too. So check us out. And that’s exactly what I did. And they have a list of 10 California National Parks. And me being a type A person — I’m like, let me check this out. So that was the beginning of it. But earlier in 2015 I started becoming more physically active. And I told myself I don’t want to spend a lot of time in the gym. I want to be outside and you know, between the Camelbak and you know the desire to go hiking to stay physically active, that started that national park craze thanks to that list on Visit California. So it didn’t take long. April 2016 – that’s when I branched out on my very first like, California National Park bucket list. I went to Death Valley, which is memorable because it was really hot. It was 80 degrees. Oh, they say it was 80 degrees, but on the floor, it ended up being 100 degrees. And yeah, that’s how it started.
I grew up in California, and I have never been to most of the National Parks there. Can you believe it?
Shame, it is hard to believe.
We just didn’t do it. I have a lot of brothers and sisters, and we just didn’t do a lot of exploration. You know, we went to Yosemite when my cousins came to visit one time. And was sort of that was it, you know, after that. But you know, the other thing was that it’s like – if you live on the beach, and people ask what your favorite beaches are — like this one. I live here. And we lived on the beach and why, you know, it’s kind of like — Alright, we’ve got this going on. Why bother traveling? It’s right there, you know, and so that I think that was part of the problem. Anyway, you’ve visited all – well, it’s not, unfortunately, all 62 National Parks. Slash fortunately, you had visited all the national parks, and then they added one in late 2020. So you visited 62 of the 63. How many of the other sites have you visited? Because like I said, in the intro, there’s a lot of them.
Yeah, it’s funny, because I actually, I used to be really good at keeping track of it in my first year. Because I started with wanting to see all the 27 California National Parks in 2016, which I did. But yeah, recently, I did the inventory total out of the 400. Plus I visited 171. So if you take the 62 big parks, that will be 109 small parks across the country.
Yeah. And there’s a lot of them. Especially if you live on the East Coast, the national battlefields alone can be a full time job.
Yeah, and I’m jealous of my friends who live on the East Coast because they get to visit all the small parts like really quickly just you know, just go for a weekend and you get five parks.
Yeah, no, it’s so true. We would drive from where I lived in Tennessee and go check off battlefields you know, because they’re all over the place. And it was super easy to do that. And then talk to us about the 63rd National Park a little bit, since we’ve mentioned that a couple of times.
So New River Gorge National Park – National Recreation Area it was – is in West Virginia. It looks like an amazing park for the summer and has a lot of activities. It has whitewater rafting starting in spring all the way through fall. So I have been planning to visit for the last couple of weeks, looking at what I can do because I really want to try whitewater rafting and seeing that bridge, not just from an overlook point, but also from you know, between the gorge and getting that perspective. It looks like it’s a pretty well spread out Park takes two hours for you to get from one visitor center to the other. So I’m really excited to spend two to three days exploring the park.
So you bring up a really good point, which is about visiting versus visiting, because it’s super easy to drive to a park and be like — box checked! You saw the park, but you’re talking about visiting slash experiencing, which is just an entirely different level of investment. Um, is that how you approach all the parks you’ve been to?
Absolutely, very intentional. Because being in the community, I know of people who visit, just drive through and get a passport stamp, get souvenirs and call it done. Which, it’s respectable in that sense sometimes that’s all the time that people have. Personally for me, with the exception of Alaska national parks – that is the hardest one to visit and the most expensive to visit. Most of the parks, I try to allocate the entire day and do as much as I can. Or if I do have the time, I love doing, you know, two, three different experiences. For example, Grand Canyon, you know, you hike along the rim, you hike down to a viewpoint. But a couple of years ago, I was fortunate to join a whitewater rafting trip and we raft 188 miles of the Colorado River. And seeing the canyon from underneath was so life changing. And I know that not a lot of people get to experience that. So those are some of the memories that I cherish at our national parks.
And in case anybody is thinking — Oh, I would love to do that. You have to get permits ahead of time. It’s a lottery system. It’s a big, like, lots of planning goes into that way ahead of time. It’s pretty exciting, though, that you got to do that. And then you mentioned the two most expensive parks. I’m going to take a guess. Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic?
Yeah. Ding, ding, ding.
And those are super expensive, because, and I think I alluded to this in the intro as well, because they’re hard to get to. Like you have to get a private plane, and then there’s only the one lodge and if the weather’s craptastic you don’t want to camp and yeah, and all that stuff.
Yeah. And Kobuk Valley National Park is listed as the least visited National Park in America for that very reason.
Yeah, I’ve looked at going there. I couldn’t, it was so expensive. And I live here already.
Yeah. And I’m happy to share that I got to keep all my kidneys and body parts!
Yeah, it’s just something like I felt like — Okay, this is not something I can just decide to do today, in a couple of weeks. This is something I need to plan out a year in advance. That’s, that’s kind of how it felt when I was when I was looking at it.
Yeah, definitely. And, and one suggestion for that, too. It’s, you know, the more people you know, in the National Park community that have the same goal, it does help to plan with them also, to share the plane and all the cost for all of that.
I’m really excited to hear some of your tips and insight here in a little bit. But first, we need some additional basics. What is your favorite park? And why?
This is a favorite question for me and my answer usually threw people off because people are like, really? My favorite National Park is the petrified forests in Arizona. And let me defend it before you judge.
I can totally see it. I mean, I haven’t been there. So I haven’t actually seen it, but I get it. Anyway, go ahead.
I love geology, which is one reason why I enjoy national parks. And I love pretty colors. And that’s exactly what petrified forests give me if you drive in from the north side, you’re welcomed by the Painted Desert, the colorful red orange basin and miles and miles and it was just like — I want to stop at every pull off because it is just that beautiful. And then you continue driving past I-40 under the bridge and you get to the Petrified Forest section of it. So there’s a lot of colorful woods that are mineralized from 225 million years ago and those are some of the prettiest rocks I’ve seen. Then you could just hike short trails, one to two miles and get to see all this beauty. People see it as a small park, drive through, not a lot to see. But if you really pay attention and spend some time, it’s a wonderful park. I don’t mind that people don’t spend too much time there because it’s just more time for me.
I love it. I think it’s great and you have such a specific reason for loving it. You know, like there’s 63 of these suckers to choose from right so of course you are only gonna pick one for your favorite. And I love that you have a great reason for it.
Yeah, of course it is. It should be. That’s what the national parks are right? Okay, but not to be a hater. If you have a favorite, you have a least favorite. Yeah, which is it?
Oh, my goodness, I’m gonna catch the most heat for this. Because it’s one of the local parks here in California. I actually have two least favorites, but let me go and get over this one first. So Yosemite is not my favorite. And the way I rank my favorite parks, it’s based on the holistic experience of it. And the park has gorgeous views, amazing views and geology associated with it. But the crowd experience over the years, it definitely kind of took away from some of that enjoyment. So if I do go to Yosemite, I won’t be spending too much time in the valley and spend it in the High Sierra section of it. But yeah, it’s the one park that I will go with my friends who want to go but if it’s just me by myself, I’m like — I’ll go to Sequoia. It is closer, and I love it more. And another park that ranks really low, but I would love to return and maybe correct that experience a little bit as Isle Royale in Michigan, mainly because you know, I did a day trip. And the whole experience just wasn’t as enjoyable in terms of the boat ride to get there. And then once we got there, I just didn’t have a good experience that I was expecting from you know, from a Ranger. And also I was expecting to see a moose because they have like 1000+ and I never found one. But that isn’t the park’s fault. So I do want to go back and you know, backpack and traverse the island and spend more intimate time there. Hopefully in the next year or two.
That’s one of the harder to get to ones as well, because the whole boat situation – because it is so far up there in Michigan.
Yeah, it is.
Well, I mean, you’re at the end of Michigan, and now you’re on a boat going even further. And it is super far. My husband is from Ohio and we had looked at dropping my kids off in Ohio and driving up to Michigan, going to Isle Royale and it was a 12 hour drive, which is really saying something because those places are kind of close, like Ohio and Michigan are right there. And I just felt like it would be closer and it was just such a haul. I hadn’t even gotten on the ferry yet at that point, you know. Okay, first of all, my least favorite – because people are gonna want to know – is Hot Springs. And, guys, if you haven’t been to Hot Springs National Park, I want to temper your expectations. I just don’t understand. I don’t understand why it’s a national park. I don’t understand what I was supposed to expect from there. I don’t understand why their campground was so small and the people who camped next to me were so incredibly loud at one in the morning. Linda, we pulled into the campground and there’s like a lot of motorcycles there. There’s a motorcycle rally. The guy in the campsite next to us announced as we pulled in that he was going to have friends over and they were going to be loud. And if we didn’t like that, we better not camp there and then he left. Okay, so he’s like he clears out. And this other super loud family moved in and it just wasn’t a great experience. This probably wasn’t Hot Springs National Park’s fault. Yeah.
Yeah, it is definitely unconventional and you’re right, like some of the parks I might not fully understand. At the end of the day, I just tried to soak it in and yeah, and just appreciative that hey, there’s one more National Park to visit.
Yeah, don’t judge. I feel judgy about Hot Springs I just, I don’t know. But you, you volunteer quite a bit with Channel Islands, which is also one of the harder to get to parks. Despite the fact that it seems like it should be easy because it’s right there off the coast of California. But you I mean, it’s got a ferry situation again. And once you get out there, there’s foxes with hands, human hand foxes that break into your bag. Yeah, take your stuff. So I had all these dreams about Channel Islands National Park, because my favorite book is Island of the Blue Dolphins. I have read this book 11 bajillion times. As a kid, as a teen, I all but have this sucker memorized. And it is set on one of the islands in the park, not necessarily the one you visit when you go out there. So I just had like this, like magical imagination situation. It was not the island’s fault that I got seasick on the way out. But it definitely colored my experience. And then we did a kayak tour the next day, and I was still seasick from the day before and that wasn’t great. But again, not the island’s fault that I can’t hang on a boat. Okay, so what makes it special? How do you suggest people visit that one? If they’re going to go out there, and how much Dramamine should they take on the boat?
There’s a lot of stories out there about the seasickness, so don’t feel bad at all that you can’t hang. So one of the one of the ways to visit it is to find what is the season that the water won’t swell as much which usually will be summer and fall time. So that’s a good place to start if you’re planning. So Channel Islands National Park is interesting because the visitor center is located in Ventura. There’s brown signs all over highway 101 pointing out Channel Island National Park. But a lot of people in California or people who live in that region or in LA did not realize that they have a national park in their backyard, you know that it’s just another brown sign. But for me what’s special about Channel Island, it’s kind of hard to get to. So you don’t have that crowded experience. But at the same time, not only that it protects things above the ground, such as the native plant species and the birds. But the kelp forests underneath the water, which I personally haven’t experienced, because I’m not a strong swimmer. So hopefully, someday I’ll be able to snorkel – that’s still on my bucket list. But even when you’re visiting the island and you’re only staying above ground, you could still see the kelp forest, because the water out there is so pristine. But what also makes it special is going to the island itself as a treat. So depending on which island you go to, for example, we’re at Anacapa and Santa Cruz Island because those are easy to visit as a day trip. And you leave from Ventura harbor or Oxnard harbor for Anacapa. On the way to get to the island, you have the chance to see scores of dolphins, they’ll be chasing the waves and those are always exciting for folks. But also depending on what season you go, you might actually get to see whales swimming across the channel. So it’s like a whole experience that getting there is not just a boat, right? It’s actually a sightseeing tour that you get for free trying to get to the island. So yeah, I’ve been lucky to see quite a lot of whales.
Oh, so cool. Um, I want to make a confession about the foxes.
So if you’ve never been there, you do not know that the Channel Islands have their own special Fox. It’s only found on the island, right? And they are famous for getting in your stuff. They can unzip things. And it’s like it’s almost like sitting there watching something that you cannot believe is happening before your eyes. So because here comes this cute little fox, it’s fine. It’s all fine and the next thing you know brosky is reaching his hot little fox hands in your bag, stealing your chemical hand warmers Okay, and running off and you’re thinking – I have just broken the top rule which was to not let the foxes steal your stuff. And then the second top rule which was don’t litter. This is we’re going to solve a mystery if someone found a suspiciously dead fox. On the way back the next day – we camped out there – my husband and I were walking. I looked down. I was like — oh there’s some trash, let’s pick it up. And as I’m picking it up, I realized this is an empty chemical handwarmer. So my handwarmer is missing the chemical components of it and is now littering the park. I’m thinking — oh my gosh, like we’ve like there’s a fox with a very warm inside. Not the first time I’ve ever talked about this, but I will share a picture with the show notes of you watching this fox steal my stuff.
Yeah, if you do camp in Santa Cruz, to all of y’all listening out there, they do have a bear box, except for it is for the foxes. And yes, I have watched those foxes still saltine crackers that were placed in the box, but it wasn’t shut all the way in. And a second tip, if you come out, keep your tent zipped up instead of zipped down because those little cuties know how to open your tent, and they will pee in it, because they’re being territorial. And I did, thankfully, I did not learn this firsthand. But those are the stories I heard.
I had not read about the foxes peeing in your tent. I knew they might come in and steal your stuff. But that’s funny that that’s what they meant by that. And we were sitting right there eating dinner when this box attacked my handwarmer stash – rude.
Okay, give us some tips. What’s the biggest mistake people make when visiting a national park that you’ve seen?
So this is a tough one, because I guess it varies too, based on what’s your experience before visiting or the lack of. So I would say between lack of preparations on what to expect and not understanding or respecting why this place is protected as national parks. So behavior such as throwing trash on the trails, or a campsite, or lookout points, disturbing the natural habitats. And, you know, when we’re stepping away from designated trail, when we change the natural beauty of the scenery by drawing gravity, those are some of the ways I think it’s a mistake. And some people did not respect that this is not a playground. This is, in ways, it is sacred land for people who used to live there. So yeah, not knowing what to expect and how to help protect these parks are some of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen firsthand.
Yeah. So you mentioned kind of respecting it as an outdoor sacred space. How can we be good citizen advocates for the National Parks?
So in relation to that, there’s three ways I think about this. One is respecting the land and the people who live there. I’m talking about the indigenous people. Learn their story and how they’re connected to this land. And honor, because this was ancestral land before we made it a protected public land. So there’s a lot of history there that might not be told and also understand why something in the park means so much to them when you see that I forgot a technical term of it. But when you see the indentation on a rock, and that’s where indigenous people, or grinding corn and whatnot is not just like a pothole on a rock. So understanding that story. Secondly, this sounds kind of silly, but pay your fees associated with your visit, you know, if you go there, there’s an entrance fee. Understand that parks have minimal budget, and the fee that we pay to enter it does help in sustaining and maintaining the park. And lastly, this is a little bit biased, because it is my experience. But I suggest that if you have the capacity, give back to the parks, whether it’s you know, in terms of your time volunteering, or making donations to the park, something as simple as joining the National Park, nonprofit friend organization and pay an annual fee as little as $20 for the year, and then that helps support the park in that way. Or if you purchase stuff from the bookstore inside the visitor center, that also help. aAll those fees go to the nonprofit and then goes back to the park. So yeah, personally for me, like the reason why I volunteer with National Park services, after my first year of visiting all the California sites, I feel like I gained so much of richness in my life in that experience spending time outside, it literally changed me for the better, like I now have a healthy outlet to to go somewhere when I’m stressed or feeling anxious and also something to look forward to at the end of the work week. So I feel like I owe it to the park to get some of my time, which is you know, sometimes it’s actually more valuable than money because your time is invaluable. So, yeah, that first year of visiting the park, it really got me hooked and giving back to the parks and in terms of being a volunteer.
So you talked earlier about how your gateway drug was buying that Camelbak and then wanting to get outside and get healthy that way. What place do those national parks and public lands have in helping us build an outdoor habit? How do you see the connection there?
For me, our public lands, it offers us that open space to connect with the land and having these places protected from future development. It helps to give us an intimate experience in nature where we’re able to really hear the birds chirping instead of hearing the airplane flying on top of our head, or car engines running or honking. So I value it as a place to disconnect from the fast pace, hustle and bustle and then get in tune with my thoughts without having to you know, put a plug on and trying to zone out or meditate. So it’s like real life meditation space.
Yeah, yeah, I just love the public lands for that so much. So what’s your best advice to someone who wants to make visiting all the parks part of their own bucket list now that you’ve done it yourself?
The secret is in the logistics plan. I like to look at the map of the area so when it comes to the National Park, I always look at the US map and where all of the spots are located. And now that I’m trying to visit the smaller parks, I will look at the state map and look at where all the parks are situated. So start with a map and start figuring out what all the parks that I can visit all in one trip and after that, figure out how much time is needed to see all of that. But most importantly, which, you know, some people might disagree with me because we have different priorities. But personally, I would say you have to make the time to visit the parks, you’re not at, like the time is not just magically appearing, you have an extra day. It’s very intentional. And it might not be your priority now, for various reasons, which I do understand. But at the end of the day, you do have to make the time for things that you desire to do. And that’s why, you know, this whole bucket list mentality, it’s like, you have to do it, because you don’t know when you got to kick the bucket.
Right? Oh, it’s so true. Make a list. Although you and I are both type A, so that’s easy for us.
Yeah. Once you plan where to go, it’s so much easier to kind of like figure out the cost and start saving for the trip and also start accumulating the hours or planning, you know, setting a goal. This is the date that we’re going to do it. So it’s part of that making that time and you know, you are intentional about it.
Yeah. And I think if you make that plan, you’re going to enjoy the park more once you get there, it won’t just be something that you slid by. I visited the park in Hawaii a couple of weeks ago, I was there to sit on a beach and my husband wanted to go to the National Park, which obviously I’m all about going to national parks, but it had not been something that I had considered when I booked the trip. It just wasn’t the thing that I was there to do. And so I did not do a lot of research, I let him take care of that. I’m in Hawaii to be warm. We get up there and it’s really cold. And we had our little kids with us. I hadn’t planned to do big hikes. We didn’t do that. And I do feel like I missed out on the park. I feel like I, you know, missed a chance to go experience one of the national parks. I also was a little bummed about the visitor centers being closed. Yeah, kind of rained on my parade a little bit because that’s where I lean on those, you know, without doing my own research, right, to get information, then they weren’t there. And that was that was a little disappointing. In that vein, though, give us some ideas for visiting while we’re still in a time set, things aren’t open when they usually are.
Alright, um, first I would say find beauty in the small and local parks you might have been there a dozen times. But you know, you can hike different trails or go at a different time, sunrise, lunchtime, sunset, or season just to have different experiences. And I will say sometimes you’ll be surprised. For me living in Bakersfield, Sequoia National Park is two hours drive away to the south entrance and, and I visited at different times of the year and every single one of them gives a different experience. And that would be you know, while we’re still going through this COVID time, I suggest visiting parts with scenic byways. You spend less time on the trail but more time on pull offs and less crowds and take the time to soak in and take pictures. So yeah, a little less hiking but you still get to experience the park in a different way. And so instead of just trying to get to a trailhead at a certain time before the parking lot is full and trying to hike and worry about your breath and cardio and everything. So it’s a different perspective of experiencing the park. And finally, if you’re out there visiting the parks, and you know it sounds like a broken record, but wear your mask. It gets crowded sometimes and trails can be like a foot wide; you can’t help passing people so I think keeping that mask on at least when you’re passing people. That’s a good way to still be safe while we’re out there exploring.
Yeah, awesome. Okay, Linda, you and I could talk all day about the national parks and maybe we should do that, but not make people listen to us. Okay, so we’re going to wrap up this episode of Humans Outside the way we usually do with our guests which is hearing about your favorite and most essential gear. I want to know what is it that you take to the parks and can’t live without.
So this is not a promotion at all, but I love my Hydroflask water bottle. Because if I go on a short trail a mile or two miles, I usually don’t like to carry my entire backpack. So I love just having that on one hand and the other, my phone to take pictures of all the trees and rocks. I have a 40 ounce bottle that I bought back in 2016 and I still take it to the parks and I absolutely love it. That’s the one that I love. I fill it up and almost always have it on my trips.
Do you sticker it up?
Yes, it’s all stickers.
That’s how we roll. I have a Denali road path sticker on mine. For those who don’t know, it’s that we talked earlier about the permit for the Grand Canyon. Same concept for driving the road through Denali. You can get a permit. They only offer them for two weeks or something like that a year. You got to get lucky. And yeah, it’s a lottery, you know, and then you show up in your private vehicle and drive the road and they give you a sticker.
Yeah, it’s still on my bucket list, because I only did the bus tour when I was there.
So everyone else has to ride a bus, which takes a really long time and makes stops and it’s just, it’s not the best experience you could possibly have. So there you go. Okay. Um, talk to us about your favorite outdoor moment. So we like to close our podcast episode just sort of walking out with you, imagining ourselves with you in the best outdoor moment you’ve had. So like, if you were gonna close your eyes, and just envision your favorite outdoor moment, where are you? What are you doing? Take us there.
This is so tough, because I’ve had so many beautiful moments, especially in the national parks. But I’ll share one from my early days. It was in Kings Canyon National Park at the Zumwalt Meadow, which is only open in the summer. I walked down this boardwalk into the meadow. There was a big, grand night dome ahead of me and all the meadow on the right hand side. On the left is the river flowing. And that was the moment that I literally had tears in my eyes, looking at the beauty appreciative of everything. And it was such an intimate moment that when I think about it, it just brings so much emotion, the beauty, appreciation of the national parks and also the ability for me to find my way there and enjoy that.
Oh, so I can envision it and I got goosebumps for you. So thank you so much for being on Humans Outside today. I really appreciate your time.
You’re so welcome. And thank you for having me. I love this. We should talk more about national parks.