This morning you likely woke up to the sound of an alarm, chugged some coffee in a paper cup, and headed into an office.
Cole and Elizabeth Donelson boarded a ferry, crossed Lake Superior and made their way to Isle Royale National Park, a remote woodland area located off the northern tip of Michigan. This is the 51st National Park they’ve visited in 10 months, and the couple plans to visit all 59 US National Parks by the time the summer is over.
For the Donelson’s, their trip wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. It started back in 2014, when the Kansas couple took a look at their lives and felt something missing.
“We had these normal jobs and we felt like we were headed towards a rut,” says Elizabeth. “We had graduated two years earlier and had already fallen into a predictable routine.”
During one of their typical hikes, the couple, both 26, started discussing their bucket lists. The US National Parks were something they both wanted to see, but they realized it would take a lifetime to actually make all the trips happen. That’s when Elizabeth threw out a crazy idea of quitting their jobs and visiting every park in one year.
Cole was on board.
But quitting your jobs to travel for a year is certainly easier said than done, and the couple had to formulate an elaborate plan in order to make their dream a reality. They sketched out all of the expenses they would have for the next year, including insurance, car maintenance, their cell phone bill, camping fees, and plane tickets.
Cole took the lead on the budget, and calculated the most efficient driving route to all of the National Parks, ultimately budgeting $2,778 for gasoline. Their $4,380 food budget was based on spending $12 a day, and they budgeted $2,950 for a weekly hotel stay to get out of the elements. After meticulous calculations, the couple figured they’d need to save approximately $20,000 to finance their adventure. They decided to save an extra $5,000 as a buffer for when they returned home.
To reach their savings goal, the Donelsons each worked a side job for the year leading up to their trip. Elizabeth worked her regular job as a teacher, but on the weekends and evenings she earned extra money by selling home goods on Etsy and painting furniture for local fairs. Cole, who worked in healthcare IT, drove for Uber in Kansas City, which earned him an extra $500 a month.
“Our goal was to only spend $1,900 a month and save the rest,” says Cole. “We’ve never been big spenders, but having a such a specific goal made us focus our efforts.”
As their trip drew closer, they rented the extra room in their house to a student working at a summer internship and sold nearly everything they owed to minimize what they would have to put in storage while they were traveling. While they raised all of the money themselves, Cole did reach out to a few brands which provided them with camping gear, hiking socks and trail food.
On Aug. 18, 2015, Cole and Elizabeth set out for their first National Park — Great Sand Dunes in Colorado. Since then they have hiked the Grand Canyon, kayaked in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, and watched the sunset over silhouetted sea stacks in Olympic National Park in Washington. They spend an average of 6 days in each park.
— Switchback Kids (@switchbackkids) September 15, 2015
For Elizabeth, one of the best parts of their adventure has been the handful of parks that surprised her with their beauty. “Acadia National Park in Maine is gorgeous because the mountains lead right up to the ocean,” she says. “We went in October when the fall leaves were changing color, and it was unlike anything we have ever seen.”
The couple has also had to deal with a few surprises when it comes to their budget. Food turned out to be a bigger expense than they originally thought, and it’s been hard to stick to their $12 a day plan. They’ve also had some setbacks when it comes to camping. “I don’t know what fantasy land I was living in when I thought we’d average just $7 per night camping,” Cole wrote on their blog. Their original budget was $2,200 for campsites, but Cole thinks they’ll end up spending $3,353 when all is said and done.
One area where they have saved money is with their hotel budget. So far they’ve only spent 8 nights in a hotel, opting instead to use Coachsurfing.com and stay with friends and family along the way. “It’s free and we get to see relatives across the country that we’d never see otherwise,” says Cole.
Flights are always a big expense, and Cole was nervous about budget-breaking visits to parks in the US Virgin Islands (1 park), Hawaii (2 parks) and American Samoa (1 park). After researching flights online, Cole decided to travel hack the situation, using credit card sign-up bonuses to earn miles toward free flights. He signed up for the cards in January 2015 and was able to reach the spending requirements by the time they needed to purchase tickets. Originally, flights were going to cost them $4,240, but Cole was able to get that down to $2,020.
“These hacks allowed us to fly to Hawaii for free and three inter-island flights for free,” says Cole. “We went to the US Virgin Islands for half off, and our flights in Alaska will be free too!”
Those free flights to Alaska in July will launch the last leg of their year-long journey. Their final stop will be Denali National Park on August 2, home to Mt. McKinley, North America’s tallest peak.
When all’s said and done, the couple will be debt-free. They’ll stay with Elizabeth’s parents in St. Louis for a few months while they transition back into everyday life and Cole will start his masters at Washington University (where he got a full ride). Elizabeth will likely switch gears and pursue graphic design.
Fittingly enough, the Donelson’s epic adventure has taken place during the US National Park Service Centennial year, which President Obama was promoting last week during a family visit to California’s Yosemite National Park.
Even though they’ll soon return to a life of work and routine, Elizabeth and Cole say their adventure is one that will provide memories for a lifetime. They also hope their journey will inspire others to take a risk and get outdoors.
“We don’t feel like we’re on a year-long vacation, we see it has a project or a mission,” says Cole. “We just want to promote the parks and remind people of the diverse places they can visit in America.”
Follow the rest of their journey on the blog Switchback Kids.