ONE VIRGINIA TECH ALUM, 40 YEARS, 417 NATIONAL PARKS
Tom Wright ’86 stands by a float plane on Surprise Lake in Aniakchak National Monument, Alaska.
When he was growing up, Tom Wright’s father often took his family on trips across the United States.
On one such trip in 1977, the Wright family visited the Texas ranch of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Although he was bored at the time—“I thought, ‘C’mon, dad,’” he remembered—the visit became the start of an extraordinary journey for Wright ’86.
Since then, Wright has visited all of the National Park Service’s 417 units. The Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park was not the first park unit he’d visited; he can remember seeing grizzly bears walk up to the windows of his parent’s car in Yellowstone National Park in 1969.
Before going snorkeling, Wright stands by the sign at Fort Jefferson, built to protect a strategic deepwater anchorage, in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.
It wasn’t until 2008 that Wright, who works as a tire engineer for Goodyear Tires in Akron, Ohio, actively began trying to visit every park unit. That year, during a trip to Thailand, Wright realized he could visit War in the Pacific National Historical Park in nearby Guam. Once he checked off that far-flung park, he challenged himself to visit every single unit administered by the National Park Service.
That decision led Wright across the United States and throughout its territories. He’s flown to tiny lakes in Alaska’s northern reaches, as well as to American Samoa. He crossed private property (with permission) to reach Yucca House National Monument, and he visited Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument and three other units designated by President Barack Obama as national monuments in the waning hours of his presidency in 2017.
Some of Wright’s visits were made possible by his participation in the nonprofit National Park Travelers Club, which enabled him, for example, to jointly book a private flight with another member that visited the six Alaskan national parks located north of the Arctic Circle in a single day.
Here are some of Wright’s favorite parks and memories made in the 40 years between his 1977 visit to the LBJ Ranch and 2017 visit to Cumberland Island National Seashore, his final, unvisited park unit—at least until new ones are designated.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
“People have died going down to the river and back up. It’s a 2,000-foot climb down, slip-sliding all the way down on shale. About 20 years ago, I hiked down, and I barely got back out. Going down, I was saying, man, I just need to sit on my butt and slide down. I was more worried about going back up. Every time you’d take a step, the rocks would slide, and you’d almost lose a step for every one going forward.”
Wright’s family explores an underground command bunker at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
Kobuk Valley National Park
North of the Arctic Circle, Alaska
“To me, sand is supposed to be on the beaches. These dunes are 100 feet tall, and it’s 25 square miles of sand. That’s a hoot. The Park Service likes to say this place looks more like the Sahara Desert rather than being 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle.”
Hawaii’s eight national parks
“My first trip to Hawaii was in the first two weeks of October 2013. The government had shut down, so everything on Hawaii—Pearl Harbor, the parks on Maui—was closed. I thought, ‘Drat. Now I have to take a second trip back to Hawaii.’”
Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument
“All I had left was five sites in Michigan and Cumberland Island, and then Obama put more on the table. This was one of the parks that Obama added. He also added the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Alabama, and the Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, South Carolina, on the same day. I had heard of the civil rights movement from the time I can remember news. This was the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, when four African-American girls were killed back in 1963.”
Wright descends Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Tupelo National Battlefield
“I took my children to Tupelo National Battlefield. I was like, ‘Guys, the Tupelo National Battlefield site is about a half-acre in size.’ It’s actually a little less than that. It was smack dab in the middle of Tupelo—one cannon, one obelisk, a granite marker, and an information board. My daughter got out and said, ‘Dad, is that it?’ I said, ‘Yes. There are big parks and small parks. This is a small one.’”
Glacier National Park
“On the Garden Wall Trail, we stepped aside on the bottom of a snow bank to let a mountain goat pass us on the trail. We could have petted him from front to end. He eyed us all the way as he passed, but we chose not to touch him. As the trail name says, this is on a ‘wall,’ so there was no place for us to go except trying to get a bit more elevation on the slope.”
Big Hole National Battlefield
“Almost all national park units have a log book at the visitor center. When I visited there, the previous person who signed the book had been there five days earlier. I went there only because it was a national park site, and I wouldn’t go there for any other reason after seeing the place. About 100 Nez Perce were massacred there.”
Wright’s visit to Cumberland Island National Seashore completed his attempt to visit all of the National Park Service’s 417 units—at least until a president creates more new ones.
Zion National Park
“I loved hiking the Narrows section in Zion National Park. You have to hike about 3.5 miles upstream, through a canyon 20 feet wide, 2,000 feet tall on both sides. That’s probably the best image, and I’ll take it to my grave. I also hiked Angels Landing, which is a 1,400-foot climb that is rated a Class 3 on the Yosemite Decimal System, so you need to have your wits about yourself. There are a couple of portions where you have to climb steel chains. When I was coming down, there was a couple coming up, and the lady said to me, ‘Have you done anything so stupid as this in your life?’ I just chuckled.”
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park
“At Christmas I was going around and seeing some more sites, including the C&O Canal Historical Park. I told the ranger at the Great Falls Tavern visitor center that I had just finished number 417. A family came behind me, overheard, and started asking, ‘Oh sir, have you been to this? Have you been to that?’ The ranger started laughing and told them, ‘You’re just going to get yeses.’”
Wright is now working on a book, “One Hundred Parks for One Hundred Years: A National Parks Odyssey,” which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016.
In the opening section, he advises, “Get up on your feet; lace up your tennis shoes and hiking boots; grab your snorkel gear, tents, and cameras; and step out your front door into a world of adventure and education that is our National Parks. Just do it!"