If you tally up every national park, land-based national monument, and national conservation land scattered across the United States, then account for crossover, you’ll end up with 478 distinct places. And Scott Jones is likely the only person to have visited them all.
On August 26, Jones arrived at Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument to complete what he’s dubbed the Treasured Lands Quest, a nearly 15-year project with roots that stretch back to the 1930s when his grandparents road-tripped to visit the country’s small, but growing collection of national parks. Though he now lives in Phoenix, Jones grew up in Tucson, interrupted only when his father’s job relocated the family to Detroit while he was in grade school. In an effort to explore their temporary new home, Jones’ mother bought a state parks pass and together they ticked off each one within a day’s driving distance. “Holy crap—that was my first quest!” says Jones. “I hadn’t really considered that before.”
By high school, Jones was back in the desert, this time with his own car. He began hiking in the nearby mountains; by college, he was venturing further afield. As it turned out, visiting national parks and other public lands was a relatively affordable vacation strategy for a college kid, especially one with an equally adventurous girlfriend. Echoing that childhood experience in Michigan, he bought a national parks pass. “It’s like, yeah, we can afford to drive to Yosemite, eat pork and beans, camp, and see some cool stuff; we can’t afford to do a Vegas weekend,” he says. “At some point it all just kind of snowballed. We were like, we might as well to go to all of them.”
Though he’s now freelance, even while working full-time for conservation nonprofits, Jones figured out how to prioritize his mission. He doesn’t have any kids or pets, he often camps at fee-free locations, he’s thrifty at home, and he has a willing partner (his girlfriend, Jen, although his ex-wife was also on board). They make every moment count. “Being in the hotel room, watching TV re-runs is the worst possible hell to me because I’d rather be out doing something else, even if it’s driving to the next place,” he says. “I’m really physically tired when we get back from trips, but emotionally and spiritually, I’m really reinvigorated.”
As you might expect, Jones also returned from all of those trips with plenty of stories. There was his first time in Alaska, where he hopped a bush plane with his buddy to visit Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. The only snag? A trio of wildfires virtually surrounded the preserve, a challenge for their young pilot who’d never been to the area before and was using a GPS app on his phone to navigate. Luckily, they landed safely at a historic mining camp, much to everyone’s relief—and to the surprise of firefighters staged in the area. “They’re like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And we’re like, ‘Oh, we’re here for the [national parks] passport stamp,’” he laughs.
Because bush flights charge by the minute for ground time, Jones and his pal had only an hour to explore the area; when the fire commander heard about his quest, however, she insisted on reassigning firefight duties in order to personally escort them to Slaven’s Roadhouse, a relic of the Klondike Gold Rush era they wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise. Back at the helicopter (with a scant minute of overtime on the ground), they then flew directly into a storm. “We’re doing figure eights and I’m looking at my GPS, and it’s like—this doesn’t look very good. And then the pilot just banks to one side and guns it for, like, 20 minutes,” says Jones. Another perfect landing—and a helluva memory.
Then there was a visit to rarely visited Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, centered on a caldera located on the remote Aleutian Peninsula. The weather is volatile, condition reports are hard to come by, and flights depend on clear(ish) skies; Jones and his girlfriend waited five and a half of the six days they’d allotted, checking with pilots every two hours until they caught a break. And then the couple had to run for it—they had twenty minutes to meet the plane. This time an innkeeper—one they’d just negotiated a new room with, figuring they’d have to stay in town a bit longer to visit the preserve—took pity and offered them a ride.
With marginal conditions, Jones wasn’t sure if the pilot was going to be able to land; the dream might be on hiatus until he could save up enough money for a return visit. But then the shocking blue waters of Surprise Lake, tucked inside the caldera, came into view. “It was one of the most meaningful moments in my life. My girlfriend started crying as soon as we hit the water,” says Jones. “It was really triumphant and emotional, and all I had was Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’ playing in my head.”
Jones would finish the national parks portion of his quest a few days later at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, not only in the company of his girlfriend, but also some friends who’d gathered to surprise him (Jen’s tears upon landing at the lake were partially due to the overwhelming relief that they wouldn’t screw up everyone else’s travel plans by arriving late to Glacier Bay). But neither that experience, nor his last one at Upper Missouri River Breaks means that Jones is done. “It feels like a weird, arbitrary ending,” he says. “It’s a big accomplishment, but it’s not like I’m not going to keep going to these places.”
If there’s one thing that comes across when talking with Jones, it’s that he’s not merely a collector; he’s grateful for how these places have shaped him along the way. He’s been plenty moved by beautiful scenery, for sure, but places like Manzanar, a World War II-era Japanese internment camp located in California’s dusty Owens Valley, and Topeka’s Brown V. Board of Education Historic Site, which chronicles the fight to end school segregation, struck an equally deep chord. Jones recalls walking down a hallway lined with video screens at the latter, surrounded by footage of people yelling racial epithets—the same thing Linda Brown would have experienced while going to school.
“As a white, male American living in Phoenix, this is not something that I deal with on a daily basis,” he says. “Places like that have really changed how I view America, how I view my role in America, how I view the history of our country. And I think that’s one of the real benefits of this for me.”
Even though he began this project as a personal challenge, it’s experiences like the one in Topeka that helped Jones realize others might benefit from adopting their own goals, whether or not they’re related to public lands (although he certainly encourages people to visit as many of them as possible). He’s currently developing the Questing App, which will help people track their own travel goals, but Jones stresses that it’s not about finishing; it’s just about getting out to see things you might not otherwise.
“I’m not a competitive person, you know,” he says. “I did all this not because I was trying to be the first person, but because I wanted an example that other people could see—Hey, this normal dude was able to pull this off. That means I can, too.”
Below, Jones shares a few more details about his big quest.
What is the farthest you’ve traveled for your public lands quest?
In terms of sheer distance, I think War in the Pacific National Historical Park in Guam is probably the furthest at about 6,500 miles. National Park of American Samoa is probably about 5,000 miles away, too. Along with the “fly-in” parks in the Western Arctic in Alaska, those all definitely felt entire worlds apart from my daily life here in Phoenix.
What was your shortest trip?
My shortest visit would probably be the 20 minutes or so that I spent at what has to be the most obscure national monument in the country—the Military Working Dog Teams National Monument on Lackland AFB outside San Antonio. It’s just some bronze statues, an inscribed granite wall, and a water fountain surrounded by some landscaping. It’s basically a memorial that happened to be designated by the Antiquities Act. I had no idea that dog teams were used so much in the military, so it was interesting to see, but it really doesn’t take long to visit.
Any idea how much money you’ve invested into accomplishing this quest?
Oh wow, the last thing I want to do is to total up how much money I’ve spent traveling. It’s definitely a lot, especially in the last few years with a number of expensive trips outside the contiguous U.S.—but every penny of it was well spent.
What are some of the places that have become favorites, and is there one that tops them all?
Oh, there’s absolutely no way to choose a single one. My top 5 list is at least 30 long. It’s just impossible. The “crown jewel” national parks, like Yellowstone and Yosemite and Glacier and Grand Canyon are on that list, as are some BLM national monuments like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante and Agua Fria. And there are also some lesser known places that I simply loved because of who I was traveling with, or the specific experience I had while there, or because it completely changed how I view something. So a place like Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas, also makes that list because it made this boring thing I read about in a textbook into something really moving and opened my eyes to issues of race that I just hadn’t truly considered before.
You’ve obviously seen more than most people ever will. We know about places like Yosemite and Yellowstone, but what do you think are the “hidden gems” of our federal public lands?
Every single one of the places I’ve visited is a hidden gem to someone. That’s a big reason why I love travel quests so much—they force you to go to so many places that you wouldn’t otherwise go. And in turn, you discover these places you had never even heard of before or places you didn’t think you’d enjoy. And bam, they become a highlight of the trip. So for me, many of what I consider the hidden gems were places that either surprised me, or taught me something interesting, or otherwise offered an experience I wasn’t expecting. The best way to find hidden gems is simple: go to places you don’t know much about with an open mind and see what’s there.
All photos courtesy Scott Jones