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The 5 worst ways to die in a national park (and how to stay alive)

By Laura Brown
updated November 15, 2021
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©Joe Ybarra/EyeEm/Getty Images
America has some of the most beautiful natural wonders that can be seen in National Parks all across the country. These beautiful places are wild and wonderful, and the wilderness can bring significant dangers to human beings. We've got the 6 worst ways to die in a National Park, and some tips for staying alive.

#1: Dissolving in a Yellowstone hot spring

People from all over the world go to marvel at the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. Occasionally, people decide to avoid warnings, fences, and pathways in order to get into one of the hot springs - an activity known as “hot potting.” Unfortunately for many who decide to partake in this very illegal activity, both the heat of the springs and the strong acidic nature of them make this a very dangerous idea. 22 people have died throughout the park's history doing this.

In 2016, a brother-sister pair were on a trip to Yellowstone National Park when they decided to try to hot pot at the Morris Geyser Basin, considered one of the hottest geysers in the park. After walking past the pathway and several signs, Colin Scott went to dip his toe in the water when he slipped and fell into the pool. By the time his sister Sable found help, Colin’s body had almost entirely dissolved by the acid in the pool. His flip flops were the only piece of him ever seen again.

How to stay alive: Never go swimming without ranger permission.


#2: Falling off of Angel’s Landing in Zion

Angel’s Landing is one of the most formidable hikes in the USA, not for anyone with any fear of heights. The final half mile traverses the spine of a 1500-foot high rock formation. The trail is very narrow in places, only 5 feet wide, with an iron chain to hold onto - it is the only thing separating you from falling down the 1500-foot straight drop into Zion Canyon.

15 June, 2018: A woman holding on to a chain while climbing to the top of Angels Landing.

©Ryan Kelehar/Shutterstock

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what has happened to at least 10 people since 2004, who have fallen off the side and perished. In 2018, a 13-year-old girl was hiking Angel’s Landing with her family when she decided to turn back and meet them at Scout’s Lookout. When her family returned from the hike, they were unable to find her and reported her missing. Search crews found her body the next day, and determined she had fallen off the cliff to her demise.

How to stay alive: if you’re going to climb on a ledge 1500 feet off the ground, make sure you’re as safe as possible.


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©Bram Reusen/Shutterstock

#3: Murdered by a serial killer in Shenandoah National Park

Distance hiking is typically an activity where the dangers come from natural forces - things like storms, bears and cold. Hikers don’t typically have to plan to come into contact with a serial killer, but that’s exactly what is alleged to have happened to Julianne “Julie” Williams and Laura “Lollie” Winans in May of 1996. The two women were on an overnight hike in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia when their throats were slit, they were stripped of their clothing, and their bodies dumped near that Appalachian Trail.

Investigators initially suspected that the murders were committed by a man named Darrell David Rice, who was indicted for the crimes in 2001. Rice is suspected to be the “Route 29 Stalker” that abducted women in Northern Virginia in the 90s. The charges were eventually dropped after investigators could only establish circumstantial evidence that Rice was in Shenandoah National Park that day. There are a few other potential suspects, none of which can be conclusively tied to the murders.

The case remains unsolved.

How to stay alive: Constant vigilance while distance hiking. Don't murder people. SSDGM.


#4: Eaten by a bear in Katmai National Park

Alaska’s National Parks are some of the most remote places in the world, which was part of the appeal to Timothy Treadwell. Timothy was an environmentalist who established a foundation called Grizzly People, dedicated to protecting bears. He spent 13 summers camping in Katmai National Park living with grizzly bears and studying them.

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©Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

In 2003, he was camping near a salmon stream that was a popular grizzly feeding spot. He was accompanied by his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, even though she was reportedly afraid of bears. When a remote plane pilot landed to pick up the pair, he couldn’t find them and reported them missing. When park officials arrived to search for them, they found their mangled remains nearby, with a large male grizzly aggressively protecting the campsite. All that was left of Timothy Treadwell was a partially disfigured head, spine, and an arm with his wristwatch still on. Investigators also found a video camera nearby, which included a 6-minute audio recording of screaming and cries as the bear attacked the duo.

This is the only known occurrence of a bear attack in Katmai National Park.

How to stay alive: bears don’t want to be your best friend. Leave them alone.


#5: Getting lost in Death Valley

Death Valley is the hottest place in the United States, and often in the entire world, and anyone visiting the National Park needs to be prepared for extremely high temperatures. In 2009, a mother and her 6-year-old son got lost in Death Valley when a GPS unit told them to turn down a remote backcountry road.

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Alicia Sanchez and her son Carlos were only supposed to spend one night in Death Valley. Instead of using a paper map, Alicia was relying on the GPS unit in her car. The GPS turned them onto a gravel road, where they got stuck with a flat tire. She fixed the flat tire, and then continued on into the desert, where it is unclear if she was lost, disoriented, or trying to turn around. Eventually her car got stuck in a patch of sand, and for 5 days, she and her son were stuck in the hottest desert in the western hemisphere waiting for help. Her son succumbed to dehydration and heat exhaustion the day before his mother was found by a search and rescue team.

How to stay alive: Always carry a paper map and more water than you think you’ll need.


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Inspiration

A guide to each of the Hawaiian Islands

Are you still having that dream about Hawaii? The one where you’re at the beach sipping a Mai Tai? Hawaii is a rich and beautiful place with unique nuances between each island. Read more for a breakdown of what makes each island special, what the individual policies are for COVID and safe travel, and other essential things to keep in mind when picking your destination. Kaua'i Island Known for: Kaua'i is also known as "The Garden Isle" because of the tropical rainforest blanketing most of the land. Kaua'i is small at just 25 miles long and 33 miles wide, with roughly 77,000 locals, but represents the land of discovery for Hawaiian culture and the spirit of aloha. The iconic island scenery appears as the backdrop to several movies, including Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blue Hawaii, and Lilo & Stitch. "The oldest and northernmost island in the Hawaiian chain is draped in emerald valleys, sharp mountain spires, and jagged cliffs aged by time and the elements. Centuries of growth have formed tropical rainforests, forking rivers, and cascading waterfalls! Some parts of Kauai are only accessible by sea or air, revealing views beyond your imagination." COVID policies & restrictions: The county of Kaua'i manages its own inter-county travel quarantine processes due to its at-risk population. Transpacific travelers are still exempt from a 10-day quarantine if they receive an approved, negative test result within 72 hours of arrival. No tests are available when you arrive. Travelers may also start the Kaua'i Resort Bubble Program, where you are required to wear a wrist tracking device and stay within resort bounds. Within, you can explore and relax freely. Masks are required. Things to do: Kaua'i is full of small towns like Hanapepe and Koloa, where visitors can taste local cuisine and culture. Because of some exclusive access points, it's a great destination for water activities and sky tours like kayaking the Wailua River or ziplining across the valleys. Other activities include snorkeling, horseback riding, and hiking. Things to note: Most of the Kaua'i hiking trails require a permit. To obtain, call the State Parks Office at (808)-274-3444. To learn more about Kaua'i trails, go to their website. Major regions: North Shore (Princeville), East Side (Coconut Coast), Lihue (Kalapaki), South Shore (Poipu), West Side (Waimea). Airport: Lihue Airport, LIH with services from Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines Oahu Island courtesy of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority Oahu Island Known for: The heart of Hawaii is also known as "The Gathering Place," which is home to the capital city of Honolulu and the majority of Hawaii's diverse population. This melting pot fuses cultures from the East and West with the values and traditions of Native Hawaii. Oahu is the third-largest island with world-famous surf, Waikiki beach, historic China Town, and Pearl Harbor. "It's this fundamental contrast between the ancient and the modern that makes discovering Oahu — from bustling city life to laidback surf towns — so enjoyable. Oahu, the child of Papa and Lua according to one tradition, is honored in this chant composed by Kumu Hula Manu Boyd and performed by Kumu Hula Snowbird Bento." COVID Policies & Restrictions: The standard COVID policies apply. You must have a negative COVID test before departure and enroll in all the necessary platforms. Things to do: Oahu's bustling from Honolulu's affluent culture where you can dine at farm-to-table restaurants, visit historic destinations, experience hula. Beyond learning to surf, you can explore the ocean by taking a group outrigger canoe ride off Waikiki Beach. Things to note: Oahu is the most affordable island for travelers. The competitive prices offer up the ideal budget vacation between the abundance of hotels, activities, city life, and attractions. Major regions: North Shore, Honolulu, Central Oahu, Windward Coast, Leeward Coast Airport: Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, HNL. Also known as the Honolulu International airport. Molokai Island courtesy of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority Molokai Island Known for: Hawaii's fifth-largest island is only 38 miles long and 10 miles across its widest point, making it easily accessible by foot, bike, or car. The highest sea cliffs in the world populate the island and the longest continuous reef. The majority of Molokai's population preserves the island roots of rural lifestyles. "Whether you're led by a guide along the cliffs leading to Kalaupapa National Historical Park or discovering Papohaku Beach, one of Hawaii's largest white-sand beaches, Molokai is truly an island of outdoor adventure where Hawaii's past comes alive!" COVID policies & restrictions: Molokai Island is part of Maui County and follows the safety protocols of Maui. Things to do: The best thing to do in Molokai is to explore the deep jungles, cathedral valleys, beaches, and one of the most remote settlements in the world. The ancient Halawa Valley features one of Hawaii's most iconic landscapes. Anglers and divers celebrate Molokai for its diverse underwater landscapes. Things to note: This island is considered the "getaway" for inter-island travelers, with some of the most deserted beaches among the Hawaiian islands. Major regions: West End, Central Molokai, East End Airport: Hoolehua Airport, MKK. Mokulele Airlines services inter-island flights from Oahu or Maui. Lanai Island courtesy of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority Lanai Island Known for: This is the smallest inhabited island open for travelers to Hawaii. Located only nine miles away from Maui, yet it feels like a whole other world. Visitors can indulge at luxurious resorts or take a 4-wheel-drive to explore hidden treasures. Lanai is known for its serenity, adventure, and privacy. "Take the rocky road to Kaiolohia (Shipwreck Beach) for dazzling views of Molokai and Maui, go horseback riding amid lush valleys and ironwood forests near Lanai City, amble the Munro Trail through the lush rainforest to Lanai's highest point at 3,370 feet—the opportunities for adventure on Lanai are endless." COVID policies & restrictions: Lanai Island is part of Maui County and follows the safety protocols of Maui. Things to do: There are 400 miles of dirt roads, hiking trails, and 18 miles of secluded beaches. With that, the world is yours. You can hike, explore the parks and gardens, ride horses, go clay shooting or enjoy an archery adventure. Get on the water at sunset for a romantic boat ride or go whale watching. Things to note: Some of the best whale watching can happen in the ocean channels between Lanai, Maui, and Molokai when humpback whales travel to Hawaii in winter and spring. There are only a few ways to get here, and it's from another island. Major regions: North Lanai, Central Lanai, South Lanai Airport: Lanai Airport, LNY. Local flights services inter-island travelers from either Oahu or Maui. Maui Island courtesy of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority Maui Island Known for: Maui is the second-largest island in Hawaii and is affectionately called "The Valley Isle." The island is loved for its world-famous beaches, the sacred Iao Valley, and the magnificent sunrise and sunset from Haleakala. Haleakala National Park encompasses the island's tallest peak, volcanic Haleakala. "It's not surprising Maui has been voted "Best Island in the U.S." by Condé Nast Traveler readers for more than 20 years." COVID policies & restrictions: On top of the Hawai'i Safe travels program Maui posted its new Public Health Emergency Rules. As of April 9, trans-Pacific travelers who arrive with a negative COVID-19 test result may also be required to take a second COVID-19 test, which would be administered and paid for by Maui County. Things to do: Whether you choose the spa route or the adventure route, there is a lot to do. Choose from 14 courses (several of which are ranked at or near the top of the "world's best" lists). One local tourist spot is the Haleakala Ecotours, an authorized concessionaire for Haleakala National Park. The scenic Hana Highway can take you all along the island's 30 miles of beaches, including golden-crescent Kapalua, sheltered from strong currents by lava-rock promontories. Major regions: Maui comprises five regions known as West Maui, Central Maui, South Maui, Upcountry, and East Maui. Airport: Kahului Aiport, OGG or the regional, private airport Kapula Aiport, JHM on the west side of the island. The Big Island courtesy of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority Island of Hawaii Known for: “The Big Island,”' is the largest and the youngest in the Hawaiian chain. It's nearly twice the size of all the other islands combined with four different climate zones, including a polar tundra resulting from the shielding effects of its massive volcanoes. "The island of Hawaii is an unrivaled expression of the power of nature. However you decide to experience the island, it is sure to leave you humbled!" COVID policies & restrictions: Both inter-island travelers and transpacific are expected to either quarantine for ten days, get a quarantine exemption, or take a pre-test within 72 hours of arrival. Things to do: Travelers can ride horses along waterfalls trails or explore the Hawaii Volcanoes National park, which offers plenty of hiking trails like the Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube) or the Devastation Trail. You can stargaze on the mountain tops, tour a coffee farm, or hang out on the beach. There's more beach here than any of the other islands. You can even go on a Manta Ray dive at night. Things to note: Make sure you read up on safe hiking practices on the island trails. Some can be pretty difficult or unsafe. Don't hike alone and tell someone where you are going. Don't drink any of the water on the trails or wade in with open cuts. For more information, go here. Major regions: Kohala, Hamakua Coast, Hilo, Puna, Kohala, Kona, Kau Airport: Kona International Airport, KOA.

Inspiration

The best hot springs near Reno, Nevada

There are more hot springs in and around Reno than anyone knows what to do with. Some are through resorts while most others are natural. Some of them even have campsites near to offer an overnight soak under the stars. Here are the top 10 favorites! Before you go, be sure to read up on Nevada's COVID-19 policies and guidelines here. 1. Wild Willy’s Hot Springs This hot spring, near Mammoth Lakes, is open year-round, has beautiful views, and always has close to perfect water temperature coming in anywhere from 95-105 degrees. Upon arrival, there is a boardwalk leading to two hot spring pools. One of the pools is much larger and deeper than the average hot spring pool appealing to bigger groups. They both have cement and have been built-up to keep them in pristine condition. 2. Hilltop Tub Hot Springs Yet another hot spring in Mammoth with a view of the Eastern Sierra. This pool is on the littler side so arriving early or going during the week may be key to getting a secluded experience. It is a man-made stone pool with a valve for slight control of the temperature. This is one of the places that nude soaking is more popular. 3. Travertine Hot Springs This area is easily accessible and has multiple pools making it easy to share which is needed at this high traffic popular hot spring. The name of these pools most likely came from the rich gray travertine mud that lines the floors and is known for its restorative properties. This is one of the places that nude soaking is more popular. 4. Buckeye Springs This warm waterfall like experience pours down from the springs above into a warm pool between the banks of the Buckeye creek and a steep sidewall. The sound of the falling water brings a different kind of relaxation to the hot springs. There is nearby camping at Buckeye Campground. This is one of the places that nude soaking is more popular. 5. Soldier Meadows Hot Springs There are 4-6 places to get in the hot water ranging from the 90’s to the low 100’s in this area. They are made up of damned pockets along the hot spring’s river. This is a great hot spring to go to if the plan includes staying overnight. There is a cattle ranch near that offers lodging or tons of BLM campgrounds to choose from. 6. Trego Hot Springs Though the Black Rock Desert is most popularly known for Burning Man every summer, it is also perfect for visiting several hot springs that give the spring soakers a different vibe than the others on the list. The views of the playa combined with the pond-like hot spring is unlike any other. This is technically on private property but there are BLM signs guiding the way to the hot spring. This is ideal for those who do not want to walk because you can park right next to the hot spring. 7. Spencer Hot Springs This spring includes natural pools and an enclosed pool with a metal tub and an in-ground spring. Some reviews say that the bottoms of the pools are soft sand, and the water is cleaner than one would expect in a natural pool. There is also a beautiful view of the Toiyabe Range. It is easily accessible (still on a dirt road though) and free to camp. Or, for a more civilized stay, the town Austin is not too far away. This is a great place to visit for those who are new to hot springing. 8. Fish Lake Valley Hot Wells This is a popular place for those with campers and ATV’s. Unlike most other hot springs, this one comes with amenities such as BBQ’s and firepits. The hot springs here are a large concrete pool and two natural ponds with a view of the White Mountains and Boundary Peak. 9. Bartine Hot Springs This is perhaps the most unique tub of the hot springs on the list. The pool here is a three-seat stone tub that was dug into the ground. There is a breathtaking view in all directions, in and out pipes to keep the water nicely circulated and clean and has carpet on one side for a more comfortable area. The bottom is known to get a bit slippery from algae. The walk in can be muddy and finding the hot spring has proven difficult in general, though there are directions to follow. 10. Resorts If the natural approach is not for you, there also resorts that have luxurious hot springs. They have limitations due to the pandemic, but they are worth the time and consideration. Steamboat Hot Springs, Carson Hot Springs, and 1862 David Walley’s Resort (my personal favorite because of the beautiful view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Carson Valley) all offer a range of services and a spa-like experience with facials, massages, steam rooms, and of course, hot springs and pools. Don’t forget these tips when planning your trip to one of the hot springs! 1. Dress accordingly. Some hot springs require a little walk or hike after parking the car. If the plan is to stay later into the night, bring a set of warmer clothes. And while we’re on the subject of clothes, it is also important to note that most hot springs are in remote places. This means that there is not a dress code, and some may take advantage of that for a nude soak. 2. A lot of people are out looking for adventure and a chance to experience the springs, share the space. 3. Just like anywhere else, leave the area cleaner than when you found it. Our planet needs our help. Be respectful to the land and future visitors. 4. Some springs on private property. This does not mean that they cannot be visited but pay close attention when there are “no trespassing” signs 5. Some hot springs can be difficult to get to without a bigger vehicle. A lot of them require at least a short drive on dirt roads. 6. The temperature of the hot springs is ever changing. Because they are naturally-fed, there is no guarantee that they will be cool enough to get in. Some hot springs have seriously burned or even killed people and their pets so always check the temperature beforehand. Haley Beyer is a Budget Travel intern for Summer 2020.

Inspiration

How to see the best of Montana in 7 days

Montana is criminally underrated. Its natural beauty has earned it the nickname “The Last Best Place” and, after a week-long road trip across the state, you’ll have a hard time arguing otherwise. The western half of Montana is particularly spectacular thanks to the wonders of Glacier National Park, Flathead Valley, and its many small town splendors. But don't miss out on the beautiful highways that wander around the 100+ mountain ranges in the state. One of the many unintended consequences of COVID-19 travel restrictions has been the rebirth of the American road trip. Instead of flying to far flung places, people are escaping in their vehicles, in search of rest and respite. Luckily, there is only one way to properly see Montana in all its glory-- road trip. Due to the sheer size of the state, it would be nearly impossible to scratch the surface of Montana in a week. Instead, spend your time enjoying the Western side of the state-- where buffalo roam in front of snow capped mountains. Trip length: 7-10 days; 448 miles (720km) Best time to visit: August through mid-September (fewer crowds, weather is still warm) Essential photo op: Lake McDonald Can’t miss experience: Driving Going the Sun Road Quick road trip summary: Day 1- Kalispell and Flathead Lake Day 2- Wild Horse Island and Bigfork Days 3 and 4- Glacier National Park Day 5- Missoula Day 6 and 7- Bozeman and West Yellowstone Optional additions: Whitefish Kalispell Start your Montana adventure in quaint Kalispell! This quintessential Montana town, which will only take a day out of your itinerary, is the gateway to Glacier National Park, making it the best introduction to the state any first-time visitor could ask for. It’s an essential rite of passage for every visitor to order a huckleberry milkshake from Norm’s News. Flathead Lake, Montana. ©Justin Foulkes/Lonely Planet Flathead Lake If you have the time, drive 14-minutes south towards Flathead Lake! It’s the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River and an idyllic place for a picnic. In warmer weather, you’ll see people stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, and horseback riding around the Lake. You might also spot Flessie, the resident lake monster that locals swear dwells in the water. Flathead Lake is also home to guided Llama treks for the extra adventurous. Whitefish A 20-minute drive north from Kalispell will land you in Whitefish, a gorgeous town known for its ski slopes and high-end boutiques. Whitefish also has quite the reputation for its “romantic getaway” status. Montana has the second most breweries per capita in the country (just behind Vermont), and Whitefish has plenty of them. Because of this, it’s almost a requirement that you grab a craft beer from a locally-owned brewery like the Bonsai Brewing Project. If you happen to be visiting during the summer, check out the town’s farmer’s market for local vendors selling everything from florals to produce and handcrafted jewelry. Short on time? Skip Whitefish (for this visit) in lieu of exploring Flathead Lake. The Rocky Mountains in Montana. Photo by Donnie Sexton. Bigfork Bigfork, Montana, nearly qualifies as a hidden gem. It gets overlooked regularly by those passing through, but that’s a mistake. Bigfork is so picturesque it was proudly featured in the Hallmark film “Christmas in Montana”. Bronze bear fountains are dotted throughout the town, adding to its Western feel and shops along the main street sell homemade preserves from native berries. Make sure to try a pint of the local brew at Flathead Lake Brewing Company. Wild Horse Island For a totally unique Montana experience, head to Wild Horse Island. The island, which is actually a state park, is inhabited by bighorn sheep, deer, bald eagles, and (just as the name suggests) wild horses. You can kayak or paddleboard out to the island if you’re feeling fit, or opt to relax on a boat ride from Bigfork. Glacier National Park. Photo by Donnie Sexton. Glacier National Park Warning: visitors who travel to Glacier National Park may never want to leave. If there is one single spot you simply cannot miss on a visit to Montana, it’s Glacier. As the Crown Jewel of the state, it could keep you occupied with its scenic trails and glacial lakes for days on end, however, you’ll want to allow yourself a minimum of two days. First-time visitors to Glacier might feel overwhelmed by the wealth of options for what to see and do, but there are some clear winners topping any must-see list, including: stopping by Lake McDonald, hiking Grinnell Glacier, and, of course, driving Going the Sun Road. This 50-mile stretch of road is a feat of engineering that takes about 2 hours to drive one-way. The Highline Trail and Avalanche Lake are also well-worth seeing. Helmville Rodeo. Photo by Donnie Sexton. Missoula As far as college towns go, Missoula, Montana, is one of the best for outdoor enthusiasts. It is also one of the country’s quirkiest. An autumn visit to Missoula calls for a hot cup of caffeine at Clyde Coffee, Butterfly Herbs, or Break Espresso. Enjoy your joe while you stroll around the city and take in its many murals and Tibetan prayer flags flying from front porches. There are plenty of local businesses to support, including Hometana, The General Public, and Rockin’ Rudy’s. On the way to Missoula, make sure to stop in at Ninepipes Museum to support Indigenous art and designs. Bozeman Venture further south and you’ll land in Bozeman. Made extra popular with tourists thanks to the television series “Yellowstone” (starring Kevin Costner), Bozeman is known locally as the “California of Montana” due to the number of start-up companies. Despite its reputation as a “pass-through” place with pseudo cowboys and obvious wealth, Bozeman is remarkably easy on the eyes. it only takes a heartbeat to see why everyone wants to live there. Bozeman has a thriving food and coffee scene (local favourites include Nova Cafe, Jam!, Five on Black, and Plonk), historic ghost tours, and luxury spas. Bozeman is also home to the Bozeman Stampede Rodeo, the Montana Ballet Company, and rowdy Montana State University football games. Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Donnie Sexton. (West) Yellowstone National Park Montana might be home to only 3% of Yellowstone National Park, but that sliver is steeping with phenomenal views. Fill your days up here with fishing, whitewater rafting down the Yellowstone River, and hiking the nearby trails. After all your outdoor recreation, treat yourself to dinner and huckleberry ice cream at Arrowleaf Ice Cream and Grill. Beartooth Highway in the Summer. Photo by Laura Brown. Red Lodge Montana and the Beartooth Highway The Beartooth Highway is a 68-mile All-American road connected the town of Red Lodge, Montana to Yellowstone National Park. It is considered one of the most beautiful drives in America. It is typically open in the summer months, but those with adventurous snow experience can try their hand at a snowmobile in the winter. Stop over in Red Lodge for a charming small western town experience.

Inspiration

The best books to read in every state in America

As soon as coronavirus arrived in New York City last winter, my brain became a tangle of anxious thoughts, pounding down on my already overtaxed amygdala. I had one salvation: a three-by-two map of America hanging in my living room. While most of my friends set their sights on the Balis and Bermudas of the world, my only travel goal has long been to visit every state in America. Ostensibly, this map’s point was to be the canvas for a smattering of pins until I created a multi-hued distribution upon all 50 sates. In actuality, the point was to accomplish something, to wrangle up America into a palm of pastel thumbtacks, to live a life full of stories. Stories from a life of zigzagging our great terrain this past year, it turned out, would not be in the cards as travel restrictions and lockdowns made all too clear from the outset of this mess. But as I squinted once again at the pin-less sweep of real estate on my wall somewhere between Minnesota and Oregon early last spring, I realized I could still get to work on these travels, if I got a little creative. Thus, my 50 states book project was born, where I embarked on a challenge to read a tome set in every state in the union. I still met people and places and things and disasters and triumphs, but I didn’t rent a car, or hop on a plane, or even scour the internet high and low for Clorox wipes to sanitize my hotel room. Instead, I let William Least Heat-Moon, Bill Bryson, and Paul Theroux lead me on road trips, I hung out with that guy who walked across America, Peter Jenkins, I chased redbirds in Kentucky with Sharon Creech, listened to crawdads singing in North Carolina, and I went on one hell of a bender with Hunter S. Thompson in Vegas. I spent a grand total of $233.96 buying used books on Amazon—less than an average one-night hotel stay in Chicago, mind you. I read classic texts and obscure novels, fiction and nonfiction, humorous and heartbreaking, and it completely changed the way I think about travel. For one thing, given the titles I read, I can now unequivocally say the best adventures are the outdoors ones. My nationwide literary adventure had me walking around my own little nook of a park, Sutton Place Park in Midtown Manhattan, like I was a Thoreauvian naturalist (I’m not sure how he’d feel about the giant neon Pepsi Cola sign across the East River). In lockdowns, these books gave me inspiration to find meaning in the toughest of days knowing that This Too Shall Pass, and the road awaited me. It even helped me feel a little less pissed when my well-intentioned best friend would send me gorgeous mountain-y snapshots from her quarantine castle in the Hudson Valley. After all, I had just gotten back from a whirlwind stint in Iowa. Perhaps counterintuitively, surveying a book from every state in America blurred the lines of my much-loved pushpin map. Alaska was Alabama was Kentucky was Kansas. On page 18 of my Michigan selection, The Deer Camp: A Memoir of a Father, A Family, and the Land That Healed Them by Dean Kuipers, I came across this passage: “The great American anarchist Edward Abbey is probably not a terrific role model for mature relatedness—by all reports, he had prickly relationships with other people and, like Henry David Thoreau, needed the solitude he so extolled. But in Desert Solitaire Abbey addressed that need to confront our position vis-à-vis the nonhuman world…” In a quick swoop of the pen, my Michigan author had referenced my Maine essayist and my Utah wordsmith. We’re all independent, yet linked. Separate, yet dependent. Alone in the woods, yet with your friends on the forest floor. Alaska is Alabama is Kentucky is Kansas. Alabama Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep Cep does a deep dive into Harper Lee’s true-crime book about reverend Willie Maxwell, an alleged serial murderer that never was finished and published. Her portrait of To Kill a Mockingbird’s scribe, Harper Lee, is just as fascinating as the unreal story of Maxwell. Alaska Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer There’s hardly a stretch of 10 pages in this book without creased corners and underlining, in this enthralling account of a renegade college grad who abandons the conventions of traditional life on Alaska’s harsh frontiers. Arizona Arizona Then and Now: People and Places by Karl Mondon By the time I got to my Arizona selection, my eyes had glazed over from so. much. text. Thankfully, this assortment of archival photos from the Jeremy Rowe Collection juxtaposed with modern-day photography from Mondon was exactly what I needed. Nothing will beat the heavenly Grand Canyon, but the main street photos of towns like Bisbee and Winslow really made me nostalgic for wandering a new teeny town’s downtown for the first time. Arkansas Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks by Jared M. Phillips Hippies of the Haight-Ashbury variety + backwoods hillbillies = “Hipbillies.” A fascinating perspective on this Southern counterculture from the 1960s and ‘70s, I was intrigued to learn about these back-to-the-landers’ incredible impact on the future of the Ozarks. California The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan Head to San Francisco in this award-winning gem from Tan that also brings you along to China in stories of immigrant Americans, the lives and pain they left behind, and the chapters they’ve built anew. Colorado The Voyeur's Motel by Gay Talese A journalist uncovers a heck of a world after receiving an anonymous letter from a peeping Tom who owns a hotel in Aurora and spies on unknowing guests. It’s creepy, it’s can’t-put-down, and it will definitely have you look around extra carefully after you check into a hotel room. Honorable mention: Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson by Juan Thompson Connecticut The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin Well, guess I need to see the 2004 movie starring Nicole Kidman now. Because, wow, what a book: When Joanna arrives in Fairfield County with her husband and kiddos from New York City an American horror classic ensues, from the same author as Rosemary’s Baby. Delaware And Never Let Her Go: Thomas Capano: The Deadly Seducer by Ann Rule This book has something for every kind of reader, true crime, politics, superb research, psychological nuances...the list goes on and on. You’ll stay up way past your bedtime finishing this one. Florida Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh Woman decamps from her busy life and heads to Captiva Island, off the coast of Fort Myers. Woman picks up various seashells and uses them as metaphors to reflect on life: work, relationships, struggles, joys. Turns out said woman is married to a Nazi (see: New Jersey), which ruins this poetic, rhythmic philosophical missive for me. Georgia Between Georgia Torn between two families, a husband and a best friend love interest, the tension is palpable in this Southern Drama with a capital D. As one reader referenced in the Amazon reviews, the saying "We don't hide crazy in this family. We sit it down on the front porch and give it a cocktail” was just made for this book. Hawaii The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings You know a book is that good, when the George Clooney movie version doesn’t even hold a candle to it. There’s a wife in a coma and her extramarital affair, a husband forced to reckon with raising his two daughters alone and being heir to a ton of primo real estate, and so much more that will leave you unable to think about anything else for a couple of days. Idaho Idaho by Emily Ruskovich I’ll be the first to admit I picked this book up for the eye-catching floral design on the cover, but I couldn’t put it down for the pathos bleeding through every page. When a mother kills her child, so much more crumbles and is lost, but the beauty here is in all that is found, practically, philosophically, and otherwise. Illinois Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond When I was an editor at Men’s Journal in 2016, I sat in the cubicle next to Mr. Diamond (remember these things called offices) and this book encpatures so much of who he is: wise, writerly, idiosyncratic, and a touch grumpy. Enjoy the ride as he commences a quest for the filmmaker behind Home Alone, Sixteen Candles, and National Lampoon’s Vacation. Indiana The Fault In Our Stars by John Green I’m still crying, but to be fair, how could you not be crying after reading this novel about two kids who love like there are thousands of tomorrows despite the terminal cancer diagnoses with which they’re both reckoning. Iowa The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson 1950s-era Iowa is brought to life in this oft humorous memoir from the beloved travel writer. It really made this New York City kid feel like she was missing out on a quintessential childhood experience by never having attended a county fair. Kansas In Cold Blood by Truman Capote A true crime classic that revolves around the brutal slaying of four family members in a small town in Western Kansas and the detective work that ensues. The book was praised for utilizing novelistic techniques to describe the characters and their feelings, a trailblazer for the nonfiction genre. Kentucky Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech Lockdowns have had me returning to tween books (don’t judge me), and I don’t regret the walk down memory lane in the least, especially in the company of the protagonist Zinny. The industrious youngster sets out into the woods and grapples with grief, blossoming love interests, and frustrating family dynamics along the way. Don’t we all? Louisiana Magic City by Yusef Komunyakaa Step inside 1950s Louisiana in Komunyakaa’s hometown of rural Bogalusa in this harrowing collection of poems. Within, the talented poet tackles racism, sexuality, and economic inequalities with a swift, vivid hand. Maine The Maine Woods by Henry Thoreau What I would give to escape this city jungle and take a walk in the Maine woods right about now. Thankfully, Thoreau’s quintessential naturalist account of three trips into the rugged woods with philosophical musings intertwined with the detailed physical descriptions of all that Thoreau witnesses. Pretty foreboding for the mid1800s: “the mission of men there seems to be, like so many busy demons, to drive the forest out of the country.” Maryland Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler Admittedly, I picked up this book because there was a tantalizing slice of pie on the cover. But I’m glad I did: Follow along for all that unfolds as one grieving Baltimore family learn about long-hidden truths and struggles to cope. Massachusetts Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom I mean, what can I say about Tuesdays with Morrie? In this blockbuster memoir-cum-biography, a journalist visits his beloved former college professor at home as he dies of ALS. A five-star book (albeit, with some four-star writing). A beautiful biography of a life well lived, and a workaholic writer who’s outlook is changed because of his inspiring teacher’s example. Michigan The Deer Camp: A Memoir of a Father, A Family, and the Land That Healed Them by Dean Kuipers It was easy to fall in love with Kuipers’ elegant prose in a story about an estranged father and his three sons and what happens when said absent dad tries to make amends after buying 100 acres of hunting property in middle-of-nowhere Michigan. It’s a memoir I know I’ll be recommending for years to come. Minnesota Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich I had picked this book up because I was supposed to gather with a crowd of hundreds to see Erdrich speak at the 92nd Street Y this past month. Needless to say, that blessed packed auditorium never came to fruition, but I’m glad I still devoured this spooky, powerful account of a pregnant woman in a world where expecting mothers are held captive in hospitals. Honorable mentions: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen; The Good Girl by Mary Kubica Mississippi The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner I did it. I read a full Faulkner book. And while I probably would have understood more about this Deep South family and Dilsey, their black servant, had I read the SparkNotes, if only for the occasional heart-stopping quote like “Clocks slay time... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” Missouri The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States by Walter Johnson This Missouri native and now Harvard professor captures the oft overlooked history of St. Louis, tracing the city from Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition to modern times, with moving examples in each chapter. It’s a tough look at racism in our country from centuries past to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, but a look well worth taking. Montana A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean So far, I’ve lost one friend to Big Sky Country since lockdowns commenced, and I can now totally appreciate why. Penned by a retired English professor who commenced his fiction career at 70, this novella and accompanying short stories will have you eager to fly-cast and play cribbage amidst a backdrop of trout streams, drunkards, and whores (maybe not the whores). Nebraska The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert Venture to the 1898 Omaha World's Fair – filled with sinners and saints – as one ventriloquist stumbles upon a new love. The book has burlesque dancers, snake oil salesmen, and plenty of wild west drama and romance. In these strange times, what more could you want? Nevada Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson Like The Plot Against America (see: New Jersey) I didn’t think this stream of conscious book would be for me, so I was amazed that I polished it off in three evening reading sessions. Vegas is wild, life is wild, and it’s all gravy baby in this fast-paced (psychedelic) trip. New Hampshire Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving If this doesn’t make you want to traipse around New Hampshire (minus an accidental murder and an unfortunate sheriff), I don’t know what will. The inventive novel takes detours to Iowa, Vermont, and more, as you get to know three generations of men and a rotating cast of women and feel particularly drawn to say goodbye to your smartphone for a while and retreat to 1950s Coos County, New Hampshire. New Jersey The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth In this lengthy novel, Roth reimagines a world in which Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh is President, creating fantasized historical fiction that has striking parallels to today’s dystopian America. The book focuses on Philip’s upbringing in Newark in the 1940s in a tight-knit Jewish community, with a brother desperate to leave and a cousin returning home from World War II missing a leg. Overall, this book a nice reminder for me that reading beyond your typical wheelhouse pays dividends. Check out the miniseries on HBO Max after you’re done. Honorable mention: Shore Stories: An Anthology Of The Jersey Shore by Richard Youmans (Editor) New Mexico House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday After I told a friend in California about my little project, I was touched when this book arrived in my mailbox a few days later. This Pulitzer Prize novel by esteemed Kiowa journalist moved me in all the right ways during such a time of turmoil with the unforgettable Abel, a Native American man who returns to his reservation after fighting in World War II. New York The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger In a time when it was easy to forget New York City’s boisterous splendor, it was comfort food to cavort around famed landmarks and reconvene with old Phoebs, Holden, and even pimply Ackley. As for “those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South,” I’m pleased to report they appear to be COVID-free and frolicking about even as hell and temperatures freeze over. Honorable mentions: A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin; Here Is New York by E.B. White; Manhattan’45 by Jan Morris; An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena; The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto North Carolina Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens A haunting murder story with unforgettable characters, a moving love story, and evocative descriptions of nature’s wonders, all set in the marshlands of the Old North State. North Dakota The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown by Blaire Briody Part culture analysis, part travelogue, this book about the oil biz delivers on the premise of its title — especially on the wild front. Ohio Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance From page one to the end, try putting this book down as it simply yet poignantly captures the realities of growing up in a family riddled with addiction and drama. P.S. If you watched the stekkar new Netflix flick, you’ll definitely appreciate reading the original memoir. Oklahoma A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal Dubbed “a love letter to a classic American city,” this love story in a Tulsa that straddles the line between dusty and sparkling is unlike any other you’ve ever read. Oregon Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed Okay, so it also covers California and Washington, but since the author lives in Portland, we’ll give this unique, achingly beautiful memoir to her stomping grounds. Chronicling one woman’s quest to hike the PCT in the cradle of grief, this memoir will change your outlook on everything from nature to family. P.S. Reese Witherspoon stars in the 2014 movie adaptation. Pennsylvania Rabbit, Run by John Updike This was the first Updike book I read, but it won’t be the last. I think one Goodreads reviewer nailed it: “Have you ever seen something noted because it is a representation of a specific thing? For example, a building might be marked with a plaque as a perfect representation of a type of architecture. Well, this book should be marked with a plaque as a perfect prose example of America in the late 50s/early 60s.” It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t progressive in its treatment of women, but man was it enthralling. Rhode Island The Islanders by Meg Mitchell Moore Get to know Anthony, Joy, and Lu, three strangers whose lives become intertwined on Little Rhody’s picturesque Block Island. They may call it a summer beach read, but I call it cozy quarantine perfection. South Carolina The Last Original Wife by Dorothea Benton Frank Set in Georgia and South Carolina, its a low-country love story that will leave you feeling Hallmark movie good. Also, the descriptions of towering trees, Sullivan’s Island, and Charleston restaurants, will help you indulge the armchair traveling spirit we all need right now. South Dakota Deadwood by Pete Dexter When the going gets tough, the tough head to Deadwood...at least in the 1870s if you’re Wild Bill Hickok or Calamity Jane. Expect searing grit. Booze, sex, betrayal, and murder in an action-packed work of fiction you won’t soon forget. Tennessee Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver A searing fictional narrative that grapples with the effects of climate change and draws you into the world of a young woman living on a farm in an isolated sliver of Tennessee. If you’re a lover of the mystical monarch butterflies, this is definitely for you. Texas God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright Diverse chapters covering everything from hurricanes and guns to music and Texan heroes, get a taste of this big, beautiful, and oft contradictory state. (Which, by the way, is so much more than Austin) Utah Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey This best-seller reminded me of the understated, almost eerie grandeur of Utah (I once took a SUP yoga class in thermal waters within the Homestead Crater, a 10,000-year-old crater, about a half-hour outside of Park City, if that’s not enough trendy activities rolled int one) — and had me itching to return. Through Abbey’s elegiac prose, sourced from journals and reflections of his time spent as a ranger at Arches National Park outside Moab, you’ll yearn for the day when you can visit all of the natural wonders he describes for yourself, and with new eyes. Vermont Stranger in the Kingdom by Frank Mosher It’s a real treat to get lost in fictional Kingdom County, Vermont, in this tale that centers around a small town, a murder, and life in New England. Dealing with difficult themes like racism, Mosher manages to weave in humor and moral lessons without being preachy. Virginia The Jezebel Remedy by Martin Clark What happens when a married couple who are partners in law in a small Virginia town encounter a mysterious death of their most eccentric clients will leave you surprised at each twist and turn. One of my first quarantine reads last spring, it’s a veritable page-turner and welcome distraction from the relentless news cycle. Washington Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (Spoiler alert!) The last line of this courtroom drama regarding a case of a drowned fisherman on remote San Piedro Island was well worth slogging through the entire book for me: “Accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.” West Virginia Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life by Chuck Kinder This Goodreads review just about summed it up: “At turns uproariously funny and break-my-goddamn-heart sad, Last Mountain Dancer started off good and ended even better, set in a world where Hank Williams occupies the same spiritual space as the ubiquitous Jaaaaaysus.” Suffice to say, I’m looking forward to the day when I get to visit these country roads for myself. Wisconsin Population: 485 — Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time by Michael Perry I’ve visited my fair share small towns in Wisconsin like outdoorsy Door County’s fly-speck gem, Sister Bay, and Elkhorn to see the Dave Matthews Band play the much-hyped amphitheater that is Alpine Valley, but I’ve never ventured to one quite like Perry’s hometown of New Auburn, rendered beautifully in this unforgettable memoir. Wyoming Wrapped and Strapped by Lorelei James I like Harlequin romance novels, so shoot me. Hippie vegetarian meets hunky cattle farmer in a raunchy stint at the ole Split Rock Ranch and Resort in this “Blacktop Cowboys” series mass market paperback hit. Now I definitely want to visit Wyoming for the, um, scenery.