Spencer McCollough is on a cycling journey to visit all 51 National Parks in the contiguous United States. His motivation stems from a desire to witness these natural treasures before they are significantly impacted by climate change. Additionally, he aims to advocate for cycling as a practical mode of transportation within and between urban areas and national parks. Continue reading to learn more about Spencer and his time on the road thus far...
What inspired you to embark on a journey to visit all 51 national parks in the USA on your bike?
A couple of years ago I read a NYT article that talked about the decisions different National Park superintendents are going to have to make as the climate changes. The mission of the NPS is to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations”. But as the climate changes, this may not be possible. The example the article focuses on is the trees in Acadia National Park. Acadia is known for its tree-lined coast aesthetic, but these trees are losing out to shrubs as the environment warms. It looks like the native trees may eventually disappear. So should the NPS let that happen? Or should they bring up a southern tree that will thrive in the emerging climate of that region and preserve the tree-lined coastal aesthetic? These are the kinds of challenges facing public land managers now.
Reading this made me realize that the parks, as I grew up seeing them on TV and in National Geographic magazines, may not exist when I’m older. The article talked about gradual changes, but more immediate threats like fires and floods are also present. This realization made me want to go see them now. Who knows what the parks, and other public lands in between, will look like when I’m 80?
I mapped the route out of curiosity, and then put it in my Google Drive where it sat for about a year. The trip stayed on my mind, and some conditions in my life lined up for me to take some time off. When that happened, I pulled out the route, dusted it off, and started to seriously plan.
Have the parks you visited so far been bike-friendly?
Not really. Glacier has been the best, and I give it a B+. Most of the parks don’t have hiker/biker spots for camping, and try to charge me $25-30 to camp there. In Glacier, it was $8. In my opinion, it should be around $5. Sites are usually limited to 6 people. So if it costs $25 for the site, that's $4.16 a person. At Yellowstone, it was $11 for hiker/biker, almost 3 times the per-person cost of a standard site. Except for Glacier, none of the other parks advertised their hiker/biker spots on the maps or signs. You had to know they existed and ask about them. It’s a secret for some reason.
Some parks also had a better road culture than others. Yosemite was one of the better ones. People passed me peacefully. In Yellowstone, it felt like I was riding on the highway. Riding there was terrible. I had a guy yell at me. We’re in a park, what’s the hurry? People were driving like they were late for work. I’d like to see the NPS make a real effort to address this.
How did you prepare for such an extensive biking trip across the country, both physically and logistically?
Logistically, I figured out the order in which I’d visit the parks by putting them all into some trucking software that gave me the most efficient route. Then I tweaked it a bit based on riding with the seasons. For the most part, I’ve followed that original order. As for the route I’m going to take, I don’t plan that more than 3 days out. It’s just too hard. I take a lot of input from locals too, who will warn me about certain roads. I used to try and plan where I’d sleep 3-4 days out. But now, most mornings I have no idea where I’ll sleep that night. I just figure it out over breakfast, or as the day is unfolding. That used to stress me out, but now I’m used to it.
Physically, I’ve been biking as my primary mode of transportation for several years now. I’ve also run a couple of 100-mile ultramarathons, and that fitness got me ready for this. My butt and legs hurt a lot for the first two weeks of the trip, but at this point, my body is pretty used to it. If you bike regularly, I think your body will catch up to your mileage pretty quickly.
Can you share some of your favorite moments or experiences so far during your journey to the national parks?
My stay in Greenville, SC. My WarmShowers host rocked, and her friends rocked. The town was also so fun. I just had a great time there. The people I’ve met on the road have made this trip special. Getting to see so many of my friends, and even staying with their families as I rode through their childhood hometowns. Making friends on the road and riding with them for a few days. That doesn’t happen on road trips. You never adopt random people and alter your plans a little so you can hang out for a few days. The sunset descent down Generals Highway out of Sequoia with some British cyclists I’d met a few days earlier. Blazing pink skies and 11 miles of tight winding roads. Getting stuck behind a bison herd for 30 minutes in Teddy Roosevelt NP. The generosity I’ve experienced on the road has been so magical. When you travel by bike you’re vulnerable, and people seem to be able to sense that and want to help you. I went into a bike shop in Macon, GA, and ended up leaving with an introduction to a mechanic’s dad. He was going to let me sleep in his yard, but after we watched some basketball together he let me sleep on the couch. In Redding, CA I met a cyclist on the bike path and ended up sleeping on a comfy pool lounge chair in his backyard. A tour like this takes a village.
National parks are known for their diverse landscapes. Which park's terrain or natural beauty left the biggest impression on you?
Sequoia was one of the parks that got into my head. Looking at those trees and thinking about how they’re thousands of years old, in some cases older than modern society. And here they are in front of me, alive, and in my lifetime they’ll hardly get any bigger. Then you also see all of the stumps, signs of greed and destruction; of choices we’ve made, and how out of whack our priorities can be sometimes. That park really hit me hard.
Riding from Teddy Roosevelt down to the Badlands also really struck me. It was hundreds of miles of grass and rolling hills. It was so huge, like being lost at sea. There were hardly any buildings, and no landmarks to use to gauge our progress through the area. It was truly remarkable and overwhelming.
Traveling to all 51 national parks is a monumental task. How do you manage your time and plan your route to make the most of your adventure?
I try to keep things open-ended, only planning a few days out at a time. That way if I learn about something I want to see along the way, meet other cyclists I want to ride with, or have a fun host that invites me to spend another day with them, I’m able to do so. Occasionally I have hard deadlines I have to meet, like catching the ferry to Isle Royale. Other ones are looser - I want to make sure I arrive at my sister’s house on a weekend so we can hang out more. Sometimes this lack of a well-planned route gets me into trouble. I had a 90-mile day in Minnesota where I didn’t see a single store, so I ate an entire family-size box of Oreos throughout breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I can be a planner when I need to be. But then I get attached to my plans and I put my head down and execute them. By not planning more than a few days out, I can slow down and be open to what comes my way.
But I do feel the winter, and I want to go as far as I can before the snow really starts accumulating. I try not to think about it too much, but I do feel some pressure from the winter to speed up while the getting is good.
Can you tell us about any memorable encounters with wildlife or unique local cultures during your travels?
In Teddy Roosevelt, I was having breakfast at our campsite’s picnic table when I saw a lone bison in the distance walking along a river bank. My buddy Kyle was still asleep. Most of the campground was just waking up, it was early. The bison kept creeping closer and closer. As it started to get too close, I thought it would surely divert its path. But it kept coming right for me.
I got up from the table and moved out of the way. I thought the bison was going to trample my bike, but it gently sidestepped it, and then walked a few feet past Kyle’s head while he slept in the tent. I've got a video of this on my Instagram. I started filming when I was sure the bison would crumple my bike and strand me in North Dakota.
As for cultures, I’d never been to the Upper Peninsula before. The UP is a different place. I’d never seen so much Busch Light in my life, nor that many people drinking it at once, nor had I had that many people buy me beers when I stopped into a bar to fill my water bottles. It was very clear when I entered the UP and when I left and returned to the States. I’m surprised I didn’t need my passport. What a cool place though. If you’ve never been I recommend it.
Biking long distances can be physically demanding. How do you maintain your health and energy throughout this extended journey?
One thing that helps, that I’ve had a lot of practice at from training for ultras is making myself eat even when I’m not hungry. Through experience you'll find out how much you should be eating, and then even when you don’t want to eat that much you’ll be able to make yourself do it. Once you get into a calorie hole it can be hard to fight back. A lot of people assume I’ve lost weight on this trip but I hover pretty close to my starting weight.
The emotional energy is harder to manage. If I notice I’ve been low energy for a few days I’ll shorten my upcoming days and eat even more. That usually helps. Anyone who has taken on an endurance effort knows that you’ll hit walls. When that happens to me I’ll usually listen to more music or podcasts and really baby myself. I’ll stop more often too. Sit on a bench. Get a donut. After a while, I’ll bounce back.
Many people dream of exploring national parks, but few take on such an ambitious journey. What advice would you give to those who want to follow in your footsteps?
If you want to go on a big trip, focus on getting yourself to a place where you have the time off. Then just go. Don’t plan every second of the trip. Don’t let the unanswered questions you have keep you from starting. Once you’re in it you’ll figure it out. Do the work to be prepared for problems you could face, and then trust yourself to handle the challenges that will come. Be ready to ask for help too.
Do you have any plans or goals related to your national park adventure, such as documenting your experiences or raising awareness for environmental conservation?
My goal for this trip is to work with the NPS to change some of their policies so that people are encouraged and incentivized to explore our parks and other public lands by bike. I’d like to see entry fees go down for cyclists, and hiker/biker spots in each park. The NPS reaches millions of people a year. If they started promoting cycling, and had information in their brochures on how drivers can safely share the road with cyclists, they could make a real dent in our car-centric culture, and show that bicycles are legitimate forms of transportation. As for documentation, I’ve been posting on Instagram throughout this trip and will be posting updates and calls to action for the advocacy work as that continues after I’m done riding.
As we look ahead, we wish to express our gratitude for accompanying us on this journey. Your participation has played a pivotal role in fostering a healthier future for our planet.
In the third episode of Walking With, Rollie Williams, a comedian and video editor from Brooklyn holding a Climate Science & Policy degree from Columbia University along with student debt, shares insights into the making of his entertaining YouTube series, Climate Town.