For a long time I’ve had a life goal to visit all the National Parks… but lately that’s come to seem a bit shallow. For what profits a woman if she gains the whole National Parks list and loses sight of its soul? So this year I wanted to focus less on quantity and more on expanding the quality of outdoor experiences on my park visits… although ironically quantity increased substantially too.

Through 20% good planning and 80% dumb luck, I got to spend a whole month roaming around to national parks in the southernmost tier of the US, mostly just off Interstate 10. And due to the unusually cold rainy spring of 2010, all of these notoriously heatstroke-inducing spots were on the (relatively) cool side when I visited. I even saw a small patch of snow on the ground at one!

My warmup trip in early April was Death Valley. I’m not gonna lie: I’ve been there several times before, but like most visitors I was driving to Las Vegas and barely got out of the car. And let’s face it, it’s one of the least inviting parks of all time: huge, broiling hot or rainy all the time, strange, and just hard to wrap your head around.

But due to El Niño, spring was late and full of wildflowers this year in Death Valley. My mom and octagenarian aunt packed up some Korean rice cakes and Auntie’s Golden Age Pass and we actually managed a short but intense hike this time. I had been skeptical that a flat two-mile out-and-back would feel worthwhile, but the heat and frequent sandstorms in those canyons are no joke! It also makes me a tiny bit nervous to stand around in what is obviously a flash-flood path, which always makes me step a bit more lively.

Then in mid-April I took a road-trip across the nation via Interstate 10, giving me the opportunity to visit Saguaro, Everglades, and Biscayne National Parks. They’re very different from each other, and from the Pacific coast parks that I grew up with — Sonoran desert, river of sawgrass, shallow marine — but what they have in common is unrelenting heat and lack of hiking… you never really touch the ground in any of them.

Saguaro, in my opinion, does not meet the standard for a National Park and frankly smells like a John McCain boondoggle. It is not unique at all, and its functions seem to have been met perfectly well already by the state parks and Desert Museum next door. That said, the Sonoran desert was amazingly full of life, with the saguaro cactus blossoms just on the point of bursting open and being pollinated by bats. Everglades irresistibly reminded me of a giant coffee filter through which all of South Florida drains… after driving through the whole state to get there, one can’t imagine how polluted and foul the surrounding bays would be without the Everglades. Biscayne, unique in being almost entirely water-based, is pretty hard to visit if you get seasick (note to self: the middle of a bay in a 2-person kayak riding VERY low in the water is probably not the optimal time to find out your paddling buddy can’t swim). Do I love these parks and itch to return? Nope, can’t say that I do… but I’m glad I got the opportunity to see them.

Troutgirl National Parks Month was capped off by a Mother’s Day trip to Grand Canyon NP with my family. This was the very first national park we’d ever visited, when I was age 4; but I’d never returned as an adult, frankly because I thought the Grand Canyon was the most overrated, overexposed, cliched, touristy hellhole in the entire system. Luckily my parents had somehow conceived a desire to take the famous mule trek to the bottom of the canyon, giving their offspring the opportunity to tag along. My plan was basically to pick the most difficult major hiking trail and go until my shaky ankles gave out; then attend as many lectures and exhibits about geology as possible — sort of a Rocks for Jocks weekend. Not only did that turn out to be an eminently sensible plan, but there really is no better way to learn about rocks than walking through layers of them… it’s much easier to “read” them underfoot (“those light-colored rocks with the lizards”) than on the page (“Paleozoic limestone”).

I was so intimidated by all the warnings of DEATH, INJURY, and HUMILIATION scattered everywhere in Grand Canyon NP, that I grossly overprepared for what amounted to a fast, hard dayhike. My family relentlessly mocked my special snacks (Tanka bars, made by Native Americans from bison!), my six-packs of Gatorade, my hideously unflattering wicking baselayers (although in my defense I’m wearing a couple layers under there so it’s not ALL pudge), and of course my iPood hand-trowel. They pretty much showed up with a bag of flaming hot Cheetos, some gorp, and a liter of water apiece… but let’s just say that in the end she who has wet-naps on the trail wins all arguments.

Ever since getting back from Grand Canyon, I read books about southwest geology at bedtime and drift off to sleep dreaming of ancient seabeds. Along with Crater Lake and Redwood, which I visited last year, I’m now up to 17 national parks on my life list. But more importantly, I really ENJOYED my outdoor adventures and pushed myself a little past my comfort zone in terms of appreciating the beauty of a park… and that’s what Troutgirl National Parks Month is all about.