Trailblazing alumnus visits every national park, hoping to break a record and inspire others
“Our national parks are guardians of America’s lands and history,” said Tom Wright. “It is our responsibility to be mindful stewards of these treasures, or they will be lost and forgotten myriad generations in the future.”
Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve in Alaska is one of the least-visited places in the National Park System. Tom Wright, a 1986 graduate from the Virginia Tech College of Engineering, said the beauty of the caldera rim, or large volcanic crater, is “beyond compare.”
“The blue-green colored Surprise Lake surrounded by a 2,000- to 4,400-foot-tall caldera rim at 6 miles in diameter is something that would give pause to even our greatest writers,” said Wright. “It is a shame the park is so remote that only a few people get to experience its grandeur.”
Aniakchak is one of the 425 national parks across the United States that Wright visited this year. From an early age, national parks were part of Wright's family vacations. In the more than 40 years that followed, he set a goal to visit every national park and monument in America. By 2017, he had done just that. Years later, Wright was on a mission to not only visit each park, but to do so in one calendar year.
In January 2023, Wright embarked on a quest to set a record for the fastest time to visit every park. Based on Wright's research, a fellow member of the National Parks Travelers Club visited 419 parks in 2019 over a span of 363 days. This record wasn't recorded by Guinness Book of World Records, but Wright used the time as a bar.
He meticulously planned each stop, incorporating new experiences and the latest addition to the national parks system, the Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley National Monument that was added in July of this year. Wright thought finding something new in each park would be a challenge, but with research, he discovered opportunities he missed during previous visits.
“Fairy Falls in Yellowstone National Park was unknown to me. The 5-mile roundtrip hike to a 200-foot-tall waterfall is one of the most spectacular in Yellowstone,” said Wright. “Of course, I made sure to watch Old Faithful Geyser spout its water and steam, something everyone must do in a visit to this park.”
Wright divided the country into 19 “loops” and focused on the parks within each one. He charted this odyssey on his website, ANationalParksQuest.com, which features daily trip reports and a blog. These entries do more than catalogue each visit. Wright’s words and photos share the natural beauty and rich history visitors can find in each location.
“I was with one man who said he was in awe to stand in Independence Hall at Independence National Historical Park, in the same room where our founding fathers debated and forged a new country,” said Wright. “I agree. That should bring tingles to every citizen.”
Wright strolled battlefields and war memorials, contemplating the formation of the country and the sacrifices military members make to preserve U.S. freedoms. He visited parks dedicated to civil rights and said they “show the strength of our people, forging bonds to move toward a common goal, that of equality for all in the face of prejudice, persecution, and hatred.” History classes offer highlights of our nation’s heritage, Wright said. national parks will allow you to experience this history in a meaningful way.
“Talking to Native Americans and veterans, standing in fortifications and missions, walking along Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg, and touring Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park are a few examples of the experiences that have altered my views on America’s history, something that just reading history books cannot impart,” Wright said.
Visiting 425 national parks in one year was a huge undertaking, and many people Wright spoke with didn’t believe it could be done. On Nov. 19, he proved them wrong as he made his last stop on at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park in Hodgenville, Kentucky.
Wright was greeted by fellow members of the National Park Travelers Club to celebrate the milestone.
“I learned I can tackle something of such large breadth and depth and make the finish line,” Wright said.
Setting a record, however, was not Wright’s primary goal and it is not certain that Guinness will recognize the accomplishment. Wright's mission was to “inspire others to experience the splendor of America’s lands and heritage” while raising “awareness to supporting the work of non-profit National Parks organizations.”
As Wright traveled, he wore a quest T-shirt that read “One Year, One Quest” hoping people would ask him about his mission. His idea worked.
“I hope those encounters energized thousands of people to experience more parks than what they had previously considered, and beyond just the 63 ‘big’ parks,” Wright said.
One big take-away from Wright’s trek through the national parks and monuments is that people should go visit them while they are still able.
“I have met people who are now not able to enjoy the parks which require physical ability, regretting they had not known about the myriad opportunities when they were younger,” said Wright. “Start earlier in your days rather than later in life.”
Plan your own trip
Wright offers these suggestions for folks ready to plan a trip:
- Choose a park based on your own personality and interests.
- “I am not a beach and sand person. I like mountains. Therefore, my visits to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve have been basically a couple of hours. In contrast, I have spent multiple days at a time in Arches and Glacier National Parks. The hiking is beyond compare.”
- Don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone.
- “Climbing to the top of Lassen Peak in Lassen Volcanic National Park in the face of 50 mph winds, sub-freezing temperature, and an icy trail was quite the trek. Climbing down, then back up, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison reinforced that if I set my mind to a task, I can accomplish it.”
- Avoid the high season for an area if you can.
- “If you can go in May or September, that should be more relaxing than July and August.”
- Make lodging reservations well in advance.
- “Yellowstone lodges can sell out in one day when the reservation window opens.”
- Plan, plan, plan
Wright’s website offers additional resources to help guide the planning process and spark inspiration. More than a vacation planning resource, Wright also details how to support the parks, something he feels is every American’s duty.
“Our national parks are guardians of America’s lands and history,” said Wright. “It is our responsibility to be mindful stewards of these treasures, or they will be lost and forgotten myriad generations in the future.”