Jack Steward loves US National Parks. Ever since he was a kid, he’s been enraptured by the adventures they offer up and the transformative experiences they’ve given him. It’s a passion that he’s turned into a career — first as a host for Rock The Park on ABC (currently airing on YouTube) and now as one half of “Road Trips With Meaning,” a #vanlife tour led in collaboration with podcaster Mike Schibel’s Travel With Meaning initiative.
With 2021 National Park Week in full swing, we talked to Steward about the parks he loves best, the hidden gems of the National Park System, and what to expect from the first “Road Trips with Meaning” tours. Check our interview below.
Let’s start by talking about Rock the Park — which aired on ABC, won a Daytime Emmy, and is now streaming on YouTube — how did you get your start in travel and how did that show come about?
I was fortunate to have parents who love to travel, who did so together before I was born, and then really prioritized travel, and showing us new places when we were kids. And so I was lucky enough to get to take trips to Ireland, Costa Rica, and all over the country. And they especially loved National Parks and nature. So when I was, I want to say seven years old, my parents took me out to see Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons for the first time. I just remember seeing the mountains — we actually drove into Jackson Hole at night, so I woke up the next day, the next morning, in our condo and looking out the window — and just being struck with what I now know is this overwhelming sense of awe and wonder. And it was on from there.
I was transformed by the power of travel and seeing new places. It sent me on a path to go to school out in Montana, out in the mountains, where I was working on storytelling, photojournalism… stuff like that. And that turned into doing so for a television show that I created called Rock The Park. Basically, that’s been my mission ever since, is to show people places, and show them how they can go out and have adventures of their own, and really be transformed by stepping out of their comfort zones.
This is running for National Park Week, talk about your love for America’s National Parks. Why is zeroing in on nationally managed wild spaces so important to you?
I love national parks because they’re otherworldly. When you step into a national park, you’re easily overtaken by the beauty of where you’re at. And I think they’re very conducive to not only having fun going on adventures but creating memories with the people you’re visiting them with. The memories I have with my parents and my brother and sister growing up, going to these places, I’ll cherish them forever.
Then that translated into creating amazing memories with my friends and now my girlfriend. I think when you go to these places, you bond with them, and you bond with the people you’re with.
Aside from that, there are so many beautiful places in this country. I think it’s important for people to know that these National Parks are here, and you can have incredible experiences that will give you a thrill, or terrify you, or make you feel small or connected or inspired. They really offer the whole package. So right now, while travel is still difficult — at least when it comes to getting out internationally — these places are here, and they’re a great way to be able to travel and do so safely, and social distance.
The very nature of a National Park is being socially distant. So I think it’s the right time to celebrate them.
What are some of your favorite National Parks? What are some National Parks that you wish got a little more shine?
I definitely pick my favorites based on the memories and feelings that I have in these places. So what I love, other people might not love as much. Right now, my favorite park is Death Valley — right here in California. It’s gorgeous, but it’s also just so vast and expansive and mind-boggling. I love that. But then also I love Glacier National Park, up in Montana. I love Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park…
I also love Zion National Park! I think any park that really delivers you an experience of just being so humbled by the scenery, that’s something that I really connect with.
There are hidden gems all over the place that a lot of people don’t know about. Some of those are right here, even in California, like the Mojave National Preserve, which is sandwiched in between Death Valley and Joshua Tree. Mojave Preserve is definitely one of the more beautiful National Park Units that I’ve seen.
Also, up in Alaska, there are so many National Park Units. We went to one called Aniakchak National Monument, and — oh my gosh! I mean, the scenery there was not only as good as any other park but there were places in this park that we don’t even know if human beings have stood yet. So I guess I would say the ones that should get a little more traffic, hopefully, are… well, that’s the good news. They’re everywhere.
National Parks have felt very cloistered in the past. Dominated by people who grew up in outdoor communities and knew how to game the reservation system. Now that’s starting to evolve. The conversation around who utilizes America’s “best idea” is shifting and reservations have become more egalitarian. People from the city are getting curious and there are some cool accessibility movements happening.
What are things that you hope that people who start looking into National Parks as a means of travel — especially this summer, coming out of the pandemic — consider as they go visit these places?
I love that we’re talking about diversifying the visitors to National Parks and wild places and I think there are a lot of ways that we can help to do that. One is education. And I think what we do with Rock The Park is a great way to educate people — because you don’t know what you’re missing until you’re exposed to it. Being able to show people that there are these places out there, and show them how they can experience them safely and responsibly, is a way to get new people out into the parks who might not have been raised going to them.
But I also think we need opportunities and to help people have these experiences in nature in a way that’s safe and responsible. So guided experiences, like what I’m doing with Travel With Meaning, is a great way to be able to help people learn about the outdoors, how they can experience the outdoors on their own, and teach them to be able to do that themselves.
So why don’t you talk a little bit about that initiative… You’ve teamed up with Mike Schibel — whose podcast we love and used to run his game show, called “Where Is This?”, on our IG — to take travelers out to Joshua Tree in vans, right? Talk about this trip and how you guys are planning it. What was the thought process is behind it?
Mike and I created this idea of taking people on “road trips with meaning,” essentially as a means to get people out, to experience the beauty of nature, the healing power of nature, but also just the fun of being in National Parks. When we were talking about it, we wanted it to absolutely have an emphasis on adventure, of helping people push out of their comfort zones, but at the same time doing so in their personal lives and journies, as well.
What these trips are going to do is really give people a comfortable way to experience nature and America’s National Parks while learning about themselves, learning how to connect deeper with their communities, with strangers, and with themselves.
We were affected by the pandemic, like everyone, so we wanted to find a way to create a sense of community, safely. And one of the ways we’ve been able to do that is by taking people out in a van life caravan, where you get to have your own vehicle, you get to have your own space that’s sanitized, but then you can also come together safely, socially distance around the fire pit every night, and talk and meet new people, and grow and connect that way.
And so that’s what road Trips With Meaning are all about. They’re just about getting out, learning something new about nature, about yourself, and connecting with other people along the way.
What do you know about the itinerary, or what can you say about what you guys are doing, what adventures you’re embarking on?
So the first trip we’re doing is to Joshua Tree National Park, and we wanted to give people an overview of what Joshua Tree is all about. We’re going to be hiking to an oasis, which is incredibly beautiful and fascinating. You’re just hiking through the dry desert, then you come up over a hill, and you see this area that is filled with lush vegetation and palm trees, actually the only native palm trees to California.
Then we’re also going to take people into this labyrinth of rocks and almost cave-like formations, where you’re really put to the test of not just scrambling over rocks, but having to squeeze through some tight spaces, one of which is called The Birth Canal, which really, really challenges people who have a fear of tight spaces. So that is definitely one of the more fun, in my view, adventures that we embark upon.
But also we take you through various different ecosystems in the park, from the desert to the mountains, and everything in between. Then every single night, we will be having really healthy, hearty, gourmet meals together, and diving into discovery programs that are really designed to bring us all together. And those range from either talking about happiness and how to obtain happiness or finding stability in times of change, which is really relevant right now, or cultivating a sense of vulnerability.
Wow. Those are heady topics. And it seems perfect for people who are coming out of the pandemic in a transformative headspace. Especially people who are in a self-discovery mode after a year cooped up. What would you say to young travelers as the pandemic starts to wind down, as they start to feel a little more comfortable, as things start to open up, what message do you have for them?
I know that’s vague but… I’d invite you to share why you feel like travel has meaning, go wherever you’d like with it.
To me, the power of travel is to really feel a sense of freedom to connect with yourself and learn more about who you are, while also learning more about the world and the people around you. And so I think as we’ve taken time to put a hold on that and to stay home, I think everyone is itching to get back out and to really sink their teeth into life again.
I think my main message to people is: “Get out and really travel with an open mind and an intention. Learn something about nature and about someone else.” When I travel, the goal is to get out and to learn more about people who are different from me, in the hopes of understanding and being able to empathize deeper with different people. And I hope other people do the same.