How The National Park Service Taught Me To Find Joy In The Outdoors

Less than a year ago, I never would have guessed that the first thing that would pop into my head when I heard the word “joy” would be “outside”. I’m a bookworm, a city dweller, a hater of bugs, dirt, sweat, water, and prickly plants. I’m scared of the dark; I panic when I don’t have a cell phone signal. All of those things are still true, so what exactly is it about exploring the outdoors that brings me so much joy?

My first adventure in the outdoors involved a road trip to Virginia and the Assateague National Seashore in Maryland. The trip was inspired by an Instagram of wild horses chilling on a beach in Assateague, Maryland. Seeing those horses in real life went straight to the top of my bucket list, and I immediately put in for the vacation time to make the trip…only to find that the average hotel room in the area cost $200 per night! But a campsite at the Assateague National Seashore, the stretch of woods, marshes, and beaches protected by the National Park Service? Just $30 per night.

I’ll admit, my motivation was the low cost of staying in the parks. What can I say? Saving money makes me happy! And if I hadn’t managed to score a campsite at the Assateague National Seashore, I never would have been able to see those horses. I spent weeks preparing for the trip yet I still made some very rookie mistakes. By the time I left the seashore, I was sunburnt and covered in mosquito bites. I had only slept three or four hours a night. But it was still the best trip I have ever taken.

If you’re new to spending time outside like I was, the National Park Service is a great place to start. They have parks and historic sites in every state. Most of them have visitor centers with friendly, helpful park rangers, bathrooms, gift shops, and museums. Through these parks, you get to learn about the geography and history of the area you’re visiting. These parks give you a new perspective and open your eyes to the world around you. 

For example, the first national park I visited was Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, a park that is basically a winding, scenic drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains. I had grown up less than three hours away from Shenandoah but had never visited it. I grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains but had never seen such gorgeous panoramic views of them before. 

And on my drive home from Assateague, I stopped at places I never would have stopped before because I could get my passport stamped there. Did I not mention that the National Parks Service has passports? If there is even a small part of you that loves collecting things or going on scavenger hunts, you need to get one of these little books. They’re sold at every one of the visitor centers we went to. They look similar to a real passport on the outside, but inside they are filled with maps and lists of national parks and historic sites. When you go to a visitor center that is listed in the passport, you can have your passport stamped with a stamp that is unique to that area. Because I wanted to get stamped, I visited a lighthouse in Chincoteague. I visited the first national historic park in Delaware. I made an unscheduled stop in Philadelphia and saw the Liberty Bell.

I was amazed at how much fun and enjoyment I got from the passports. It made me feel like I was really engaged with the areas that I was visiting. And now, as a bonus, my boyfriend and I have a common goal to work together towards. We want to visit every park and historic site in those little books. 

The outdoors mean something different to everyone. For a lot of people, they are calming and therapeutic. For me, they are still stressful. I still hate bugs; I still hate not being able to use my cell phone. Some people, like me, need motivation to go outside (which is why the passports are so perfect for me). I don’t mind that I need to be rewarded to go out, I’m just glad that the National Park Service finally found a way to get me to love the outdoors.