There are many more miles to travel, many more national parks to visit, before Phil and Judy Goneau’s bucket list is completed.
But for now, they can take pride in the fact that they have seen backroads in America as few others have witnessed.
Traveling with their good friends, Phil and Candy Reed, they have made one long marathon across the county on their touring motorcycles. They set out with a single goal: to visit each of the lower 48 states. That mission has been met.
But along the way, a second goal developed — to visit as many national park as possible. Today, a large map hanging in Phil’s den in the couple’s home in Kansas City North indicates that their travels have brought them through 29 of the U.S.’s 59 national parks.
And that total would be even higher if it weren’t from some unusual circumstances.
“We got to entrance of Redwood National Park (in California), but a lady at the booth said there were way too many bears in the park for motorcyclists to be safe,” said Phil, 71. “She said she wouldn’t recommend it. We followed her advice.”
But that’s one of the few detours the Goneaus have run into as they have toured America’s brightest jewels, its national parks. They and the Reeds could be poster couples for the virtues of the parks that preserve some of the country’s most beautiful spots.
They have cycled to mountain peaks where they marveled at the snow-capped mountains in Glacier National Park. They hiked to beautiful waterfalls and along creeks in national parks such as Yellowstone. And they have taken in the rugged beauty of the landscape at parks such as the Badlands and the Grand Canyon.
“In the first 18 years of my life, all I saw was four states,” said Judy Goneau, 69. “But since then, I’ve made up for it.
“I’ve been to 50 states and I’ve seen some of America’s most beautiful places. I feel very fortunate.
“These national parks are special places that Phil and I hold dear to our hearts.”
A following of millions
The Goneaus aren’t alone in their love of America’s national treasures.
The national park system, which includes historic sites, monuments, battlefields, recreational areas, and wild and scenic rivers, attracted more than 292 million recreation visits in 2014. That was a record; a sign that even in these fast-paced days, Americans still treasure nature and the solitude it brings.
Camping, hiking, fishing, wildlife watching, mountain biking, motorcycle and automobile touring —they all can be found at the national parks.
“We save what we value,” said Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service. “These national parks are expressions of who we are.
“They are a mosaic of our core beliefs. It’s pretty hard not to feel a rush of pride when you stand on a cliff overlooking a place like the Grand Canyon.
“This is America.”
The national park system includes 408 areas covering more than 84 million acres. Every state is represented. In Missouri, the highlight is the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. In Kansas, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve tops the list.
Some of the national parks are wildly popular. Consider Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, which led the nation in attendance last year after attracting more than 10 million visitors.
On a recent weekday, the park provided a vivid contrast between big-city life and nature. Bumper-to-bumper traffic formed on a 10-mile loop around Cade’s Cove, an automobile tour that provides beautiful vistas and a chance to view wildlife.
Vehicles filled with tourists inched along as visitors strained to spot some of the park’s bears and deer. When wildlife was spotted, dozens of vehicles pulled off the gravel road, and tourists with binoculars tried to get a glimpse of the park’s wild residents.
Some worry that some of the national parks are being loved to death. They point to air pollution which has diminished views, dangerous conflicts between camera-carrying tourists and wildlife, and littering.
Jarvis acknowledges the management challenges that crowding brings. But he added, “I’ll take that over apathy any day.”
For national-park visitors such as the Goneaus, there are always more miles to be traveled.
The Kansas City retirees doubt they are up to the marathon trips they took with the Reeds in 1994 and 1995. The first year, the two couples traveled through the West for 6,232 miles in 21 days. The next year, they crisscrossed the northeast for 5,711 miles, again in three weeks.
But they still have some traveling left in them. They want to see Everglades National Park in Florida and Big Bend National Park in Texas. Whatever other national parks lie in their path to and from those areas also will be explored.
“We’re not done,” Phil said with a smile.
As the National Park System prepares for its 100th anniversary in 2016, officials hope to develop a new generation of visitors with the same love of the national parks that the Goneaus show.
Surveys indicate that three-quarters of the visitors to the national parks are white and more than 40 years old. Jarvis believes it’s essential that the parks appeal to a more diverse base of potential users.
“We have a whole new generation of Americans who haven’t been introduced to the outdoors,” he said. “We’ve skipped a generation.
“We have to appeal to the millenials and show them the value of the places we treasure.”
America’s jewels: the national parks
▪ FIRST: Yellowstone National Park was the first, established by a declaration in 1872.
▪ BIGGEST: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska at 13.2 million acres.
▪ HIGHEST VISITATION (2014): 1. Great Smoky Mountain, 10.1 million; 2. Grand Canyon, 4.7 million; 3. Yosemite, 3.8 million; 4. Yellowstone, 3.5 million; 5. Rocky Mountain, 3.43 million.
▪ BIGGEST SUPPORTER: President Theodore Roosevelt brought the national parks to the forefront. During his time as president from 1901 to 1909, he created five national parks, doubling the previous number. He also signed the Antiquities Act and used provisions to create 18 national monuments. The National Park Service says there are more units dedicated to Roosevelt’s life than any other American.