The Quest To Become The Youngest Person To Visit All 417 US National Parks

Mikah Meyer

April 29th of last year was a painful day for 30-year-old Mikah Meyer. It was the 11th anniversary of his father’s death, but also a day of new starts and renewed energy and purpose. Because it was on that day that Mikah set off on the journey of a lifetime — a true adventure. It was the day he began a quest to become the youngest person to ever visit all 417 National Parks in the United States.

It’s been nearly a year since that start and Meyer is now on park 130. He’s been to the little parks that no one has ever heard of, driven more hours than a professional trucker, and gotten really used to sleeping in a van, his mode of travel and home for the trip.

It’s a journey that seems like a total dream for most nature lovers. Three years of traveling around the country seeing the most beautiful sites in America and jealousy is a pretty common emotion to feel towards someone who can travel full time. Mikah says he hears that from people all the time. But unlike many of the travelers I speak to, Meyer is really honest about the stress and challenges, he faces living this life.

“It’s more than a full-time job,” he says. “I’m not just experiencing these places for myself, I’m trying to experience them and document them in ways that I can share them with the world.” And that means no carefree wandering for Meyer or even time to process. He often only gets short highlights of the parks he goes to and in between the driving (which he has to do all himself), the time online documenting, and the constant search for funders, he’s wiped out a lot of the time.

Yet, Meyer remains grateful that he’s seeing the country. His father’s death reminded him to seize the day, and the loss inspired him to become adventurous. “It was just this idea of living for today,” Meyer says of why he decided to take on the challenge of visiting every park, “and chasing our dreams sooner rather than later because we don’t know when our last day will be.”

I was able to speak to Meyer this week, and he gave his tips on the little known National Parks everyone should go to, traveling the country when you have zero dollars in your bank account, and how to stay sane living full time on the road.

So in the 130 parks that you’ve visited so far, do you have a favorite park that no one has heard of?

Yeah, I have two of those actually, and they’re completely different which I think is a great thing. The first one is Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Where’s that?

Southwest North Dakota. So it’s the badlands, but when most people think of the badlands they think of South Dakota. North Dakota has such a hard time getting people to visit them that their tourism board has something called the “Save the Best for Last Club”, because they know so many people make it the last state they go to. And they give away free t-shirts, certificates, and pins if it’s your last state.

So with Theodore Roosevelt Park, it’s so unvisited that it still kind of feels like the Wild West. And it’s this amazingly gorgeous badlands park.

And the other park is called Buck Island Reef National Monument. It’s an island off the coast of St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands. Basically it’s a natural turtle-nesting ground, and it’s got this amazing coral reef that President Kennedy swam with his family in the 50s and loved so much that he protected in 1961. It was the first time I ever got to go snorkeling and I ended up swimming with this school of fish from coral to coral. It was just a totally surreal moment for somebody who grew up on the prairie.

Mikah Meyer

How are you funding this?

It’s funny. When I started this, it happened to be the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. I thought that tons of companies would get behind it. But I spent two years pitching them, and they all basically were like ‘It’s a great project, but you’re not famous so we don’t care.’ So it’s really been mostly individual donations. I also sing at churches every Sunday and talk about my story. So those are the two main ways I get donations. Just this month I finally got my first two sponsors, like company sponsors.

That’s great.

And one of those is Pilot Flying J, they’re going to reimburse my gas for this trip. And then the other is called, Passport to Your National Parks, and they’re an organization that tracks people who try to go to all the parks and they have a passport book that you get a stamp in every park you go to.

You said you sing at churches. How has spirituality and religion played into or helped you along with this journey?

My dad was a Lutheran campus pastor at America’s largest Lutheran campus ministry, so the church has always been a big part of my life. And essentially, I saved up as much as I could before I started this trip from working, but I started it without the money to finish it. So I joke a lot, but I’m living on faith. Faith that this whole project will work out, that I’ll raise the money, that the van will hold up etc.

So a large part of this journey is based on that faith and just praying that this is what I am supposed to do.

Can you give me a verbal tour of what your van looks like inside?

Well, thanks to Youtube, I learned how to build a van. It’s definitely a van down by the river, but it’s also sometimes by the grasslands, and sometimes by the mountains as well. It is a white windowless cargo van, which makes it hard for it to be comfortable because there’s no airflow going through there, but it means that it’s very stealth looking so it looks like any old delivery van you might see in the Wal-Mart parking lot, which means I can sleep in Wal-Mart parking lots easily for free.

I’ve got a queen size bed in the back, and then underneath that is a bunch of storage so like my clothes and food are all in just plastic tubs. And then on the roof I have five 100 watt solar panels which feed 250 pounds worth of batteries on the floor that charge an inverter and there’s a high efficiency mini-chest fridge that’s in the van as well.

And you did all that yourself?

By myself with some assistance from the maintenance staff from the boarding school I was working at before I left on this trip. It was basically that they’d come by and tell me how horribly wrong I did everything and then fix it.

Mikah Meyer

Can you talk about your connections to the LGBTQ community and why this is an important trip for you as a gay man?

That’s one of the things that I think is really cool about this journey. Half my donations more or less come from Christians and the other half come from LGBT people, which are two groups society wouldn’t think could come together.

At the beginning of this trip, I was really scared about letting it be known that I was openly gay because there are no openly gay figures in the outdoors industry. And so I thought that there’s no way that Patagonia or any other company was going to want to sponsor me because they don’t think that gay people are interested in this. But as I started, I began meeting openly gay rangers, and people would write me and tell me they were gay, and how appreciative they were that I was doing this to combat stereotypes. So I kinda said ‘fuck it’ and obviously the sponsors weren’t coming around anyway so now I’m super open about being gay and just trying to provide a new role model. One that doesn’t exist right now, so that little queer kids in Nebraska like myself who thought they could only grow up to be a drag queen can now see that they can set world records or they can do anything.

How do you keep yourself sane while driving so much?

I’m a big fan of audiobooks, so that’s been a huge help. I keep signing up for trials on Audible with different credit cards so I can get free audiobooks. I should probably write Audible and see if they want to sponsor me, that would be nice.

Where are you going next?

Well immediately, I’m in Dallas right now and I will head south to Austin so I can keep it weird, as they say. And I’ll be singing at a church down there, and then I’ll spend the rest of March in West Texas, and all of April in New Mexico before I get to the Grand Canyon at the end of May.

How do you keep costs down?

No sit-down restaurants, for sure. Always try to eat out of my fridge when possible. Basically I never go shopping. I’ve got all the clothes I need. I don’t even have space in the van to buy anything, so kind of living just a spartan lifestyle and not having anything that’s unnecessary. And usually, I write ahead, I write the parks and say, ‘Hey I’m doing this project and I don’t have money but I’m trying to do something cool.’ So sometimes I’ll get excursions donated. Like I got to go on a boat tour in Picture Rocks National Lake Shore, which is where the waves of the great lakes have eroded these huge bluffs so there’s all these canyons and caves underneath, so that was cool. And I’m always a fan of free stuff like a good hike where you have epic views or changing scenery or lots of biodiversity.

Mikah Meyer

What’s the most stunning hike you’ve been on?

Oh, hands down it’s called the Caprock-Coulee Trail. And that’s in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was like three and a half hours and I swear every 10 minutes there was a different view, like a new awesome epic view.

You’re convincing me, I’ve got to go there! I’ve been to South Dakota’s badlands, but I’ve never been to North Dakota.

Well, welcome to 95% of people who have been to the badlands!

You can follow Mikah on his blog or Instagram!

Mikah Meyer