A check off the bucket list: Altoona woman visits all 59 national parks

Growing up in Altoona, Mary Anne Lepore frequently hung out with friends at Colerain Picnic Area near Spruce Creek, hiking the woods and enjoying the great outdoors. In the last decade, the financial adviser took her love of nature to a level many only dream about.

When Lepore traveled 7,000 miles to the National Park of American Samoa last month, she completed her quest of visiting all 59 national parks.

“I’m a huge lover of the outdoors,” she said from her modest home in a Pleasant Valley neighborhood. “The first time I went to Shenandoah (National Park), it felt like I was at the beginning of time. It was so quiet, so peaceful, so expansive.”

That was in 1998. About 10 years later, she saw Ken Burns’ “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” a documentary that inspired her.

“I thought if there are 58 other places like this, I want to experience them,” she said. “I had no idea there were that many until I watched that documentary. It would show a park and I’d think, ‘Where’s that? I’ve got to go.'”

In 2009, when PBS aired the documentary — it’s available on DVD today — there were only 58 national parks. Pinnacles NP in California was formally established in 2013, and Lepore has been to that one, as well. Of all the parks, she liked it the least.

“It’s the newest one and it was nice, but I felt like it just didn’t have the status of the other parks,” she said.

Her favorite? “Probably” Crater Lake in Oregon.

“The color of the water I cannot describe,” she said explaining how the deepest lake in the United States was created from a volcano that collapsed 7,700 years ago.

“It is blue, blue, a deep blue, that you will never see anywhere else. It’s not an ink blue; it’s prettier than that.”

Lepore said Dry Tortugas in Florida may be tied at No. 1 with Crater Lake.

“You’re standing in chest high water and can see your toenail polish so clearly,” she said of the park located in the Gulf of Mexico at the western end of the Florida Keys, reachable only by boat or plane.

Lepore said that by the time she became determined to see all the national parks, she already had visited Shenandoah in Virginia, as well as Glacier National Park in Montana, which she had visited with a couple of friends using the services of a tour company.

Parks, sites and more

She also had visited other national park “sites” in the region, such as Allegheny Portage Railroad and Flight 93, but those aren’t considered national parks, per se.

The National Park Service (NPS) uses different nomenclature for public lands, depending on their purpose. National parks, for example, generally include natural beauty, unique geological features that may reflect the history of the region and unusual ecosystems, according to its website, www.NPS.gov. Other properties under the umbrella of the NPS are monuments, memorials, battlefields, preserves, parkways and more that often recognize a historical event or archaeological significance. In all, NPS designations number 417.

Something else that sets the 59 national parks apart is their sheer size. The smallest park is Hot Springs, Arkansas, at less than 6,000 acres. The largest is Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska, which covers more than 8 million acres and is larger than nine states.

Lepore, whose full-time job prevented her from taking leisurely drives across the American West, used a tour company to visit some of the busiest parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton and the Grand Canyon. She flew out to meet a guided bus tour, and on three of those, she went a day or two early to visit other nearby parks, such as Wind Cave and Badlands in South Dakota.

“We did that until I ran out of parks that they served,” she said. “I hit a brick wall.”

She had visited 18 by then, and her “national park buddies” were not interested in renting a car and driving across the country, not that she had time, either.

“They were like, ‘This is your bucket list. You’re on your own,'” Lepore recalled with a laugh.

It was 2012, and Lepore decided to focus on the Pacific Northwest. On a lark, she called a company that arranges experiences and told them exactly what she wanted and the owner agreed to provide a guide, rental car, hotel arrangements and other details. Evergreen Escapes, with offices in Seattle and Portland, ended up getting her to the bottom of her bucket list, she said.

Lepore averaged two trips a year for the next five years and covered a lot of ground.

“I kept doing it by region,” she said.

For one trip, she flew into Miami and fanned out for day trips to the Everglades and Biscayne NPS. Then she headed to Key West for several days, including a day trip on a ferry to the Dry Tortugas NP, home to a 19th century fort, one of the nation’s largest masonry strongholds, as well as colorful coral reefs and a variety of bird and marine life.

Last year, she went to Hawaii, visiting Haleakala NP on Maui and Hawaii Volcanoes NP on the Big Island. Already nearly halfway to the South Pacific, she was supposed to visit the National Park of American Samoa on that trip.

“You would think that you wouldn’t need a passport to go to an American territory, but you do,” she said.

Her guide forgot his, and Lepore decided to cancel that leg of the trip.

Onward

Shrugging aside her disappointment, Lepore wasn’t completely giving up on her quest. She already had been to five parks in Alaska — those in the southern part, mostly along the Bay of Alaska — but she still had three more to go in the Land of the Midnight Sun: Denali, Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley.

Lepore persuaded her friend, Christine Wertz of Sinking Valley, to go with her in late June.

“It was cool to have a friend come along, finally,” Lepore said.

Wertz said she didn’t have time to think about the trip in advance as she prepared 20 horses boarded at her Harmony Horsemanship Center for her absence. She had been to a few national parks and was well-traveled, too.

“I’m very much an outdoor, adventurous person myself,” Wertz said. “But I was in awe, totally amazed with the wilderness and the vastness. It was just so immense. I just didn’t realize how much space was going to be there.”

Denali, known as Mount McKinley up until three years ago, is home to the highest peak in North America and is 120 miles south of Fairbanks. The other two — Gates of the Arctic, the most northerly national park, and Kobuk Valley, a close second — were the most logistically difficult to reach, Lepore said.

After flying into Fairbanks, the two hopped a smaller plane for Bettles, Alaska, population 12. In Bettles, they boarded a chartered bush plane, the only way to get to those remote parks, which have no visitor centers, facilities, roads or signs.

“To fly into two parks where you literally carry the signs in with you for the pictures, being there was … very surreal,” Wertz said. “I had never envisioned myself going to a park that wasn’t accessible by vehicle.”

As remote as it is, Lepore said Gates of the Arctic would be her third choice to revisit.

One more

But, after Alaska, Lepore still had one more national park to visit, and a “national park buddy” from Washington called her this summer with encouragement.

“He said, ‘What about Samoa? You’re going to finish this,'” she recalled.

Lepore made the arrangements and headed to the South Pacific in early October. Even though she had a commercial flight to the main island, a commuter flight to a second island and a fishing boat to the third, “it was well worth it. Most people just go to the main island.”

Aware that Lepore had achieved a major milestone, park officials celebrated her new membership in the 59/59 club. Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site actually has received visitors who have been to all 417 NPS units, said park ranger Doug Bosley. He knows because they’re seeking to have their national park “passport book” stamped, something Lepore ended up doing mostly after the fact because she wasn’t originally aware of the program.

NPS officials didn’t respond to a request for information on the number of visitors who have traveled to all national parks and Lepore says she has read of others doing it.

“I just don’t know anyone personally who has done it,” she said.

Scary

Lepore said she only felt threatened once during all her trips. She came within 20 feet of a brown bear and her cubs at Katmai NP in Alaska, but a barrier was in between.

That wasn’t the case at Grand Teton. She was walking alone on the Christian Pond Trail looking for trumpeter swans when another hiker approached behind her and pointed out a grizzly bear hiding behind a tree about 100 feet away. Her three cubs were frolicking in a sagebrush meadow.

“I saw this head come up and it was a massive head,” Lepore recalled. “She huffed at us and we knew we needed to get out of there.”

The other hiker suggested turning back, but Lepore wanted to forge ahead. The 60-year-old fell to her hands and knees and began crawling through the brush.

“I can’t swim, so I wasn’t going into the pond,” she added. “We finally got down the trail and realized the grizzly hadn’t come after us. But the adrenaline was just running. I cannot describe it. That was a little scary. But just being out in the middle of nowhere, no phone, no watches, no noise, no TV, no distractions of the everyday life. …”

Lepore said she is lucky to have been able to complete her quest. She isn’t sure of the total cost, but it could be done cheaper by traveling in an RV, camping in parks and foregoing the use of hotels and professional guides, she said.

With a career, though, Lepore had limited time and she didn’t want to wait for retirement, having watched her parents die too early to enjoy their golden years.

“I didn’t want to wait,” she said. “I wanted to do it while I was able. I’m blessed to have been able to, physically and financially. I do not take that for granted.”

Lepore researched each trip thoroughly before traveling. She avoided the coldest weather in Alaska and the wet season in Samoa, and by only staying an average of less than two days per park, she knew what she wanted to do before she got there.

Lepore is considering her next quest — visiting all 50 states — because she lacks only seven, mostly in the Midwest. But her immediate goal is to return to Alaska and participate in the Iditarod sled race next March.

“You can bid on a sled and if you win, you can leave out of Anchorage with the musher,” she said with anticipation.

More than one list

Lepore’s list of hobbies extends beyond traveling.

When she’s not visiting a national park, she often can be found at Antietam National Battlefield where she volunteers most Saturdays.

Lepore also is known for her woodcarving, having shown at the Blair County Arts Festival, and she likes to visit the Brush Mountain Sportsman’s Club where she target shoots and throws a tomahawk at targets — yes, she has her own.

And, there is her quarter horse, named Denali, boarded at Wertz’s stables; her cat is named Shenandoah.

“It’s relentless, this obsession with national parks,” she acknowledged with a laugh.

Wertz thinks its more inspirational.

“I think that following your dream, having a bucket list is a great idea,” Wertz said. “I read a book where it said that you should practice dying by living your life to the fullest. … Mary Anne is one of those people: Live life as if it’s your last day and do not be afraid.”

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.

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