They embarked on the ultimate family road trip
David and Madison Bowman packed up their life in NYC, hopped in a converted shuttle bus and spent 18 months visiting all 59 U.S. National Parks with their two kids, Graham and Margaret. Find out why they did it and what they discovered along the way.
L.L.Bean: What you achieved as a family makes you superheroes in our minds, so what’s your origin story? What made you decide to visit all the National Parks?
Bowmans: David and I married young, had kids quickly and jumped into careers straightaway. We never regretted our timing with any of those decisions, but we knew it meant that if we wanted to travel, we'd be doing it as a family. One night, several years after moving to New York, we wrote a “bucket list”. On it was a childhood dream of David’s to visit all the national parks in the U.S. We needed a change in work and we wanted to spend more time outdoors as a family so that night we started researching more about living on the road and the national parks system. A few weeks later we bought an old city shuttle bus we found online. We kind of just went for it.
L.L.Bean: What did the outdoors mean to you before your epic road trip and what does it mean to you now?
Bowmans: Before the trip we always enjoyed doing things outside but we more enjoyed just traveling to cool places than actually doing cool outdoorsy things. Through the course of that trip, we really got in contact with nature. It’s come to mean a very different thing now. It’s become a more necessary part of life. Being outdoors has become a way for us to connect, both to nature and to each other. It's a way for us to remember our place in the world—big enough to have an impact, small enough to stay humble and in a state of wonder. Plus, it smells amazing :). And there is always more to learn, more to see and notice. It's never-ending entertainment. And it can be so peaceful and calming.
L.L.Bean: How has your experience outdoors brought you closer together?
Bowmans: Well for one we were physically very close, living in a bus with no air conditioning and travelling all over the country. Spending time in places and doing things that are challenging has made the four of us into a team. We work hard to keep things humorous and happy for each other and we encourage each other to do hard things. It meant so much to watch our son tackle these things he didn’t think he could do. That process of encouraging our son to keep hiking, keep going, to do all these new things brought us a lot closer. It also brought out some elements of his personality that are helping him so much now in other things he is doing.
L.L.Bean: What are some of the challenges of bringing a family on such a grand trip?
Bowmans: We definitely had to learn not to push our kids too hard. We were all happiest when we slowed down and took the time for relaxed play. In Glacier National Park, we abandoned our plans for a tougher trail in favor of an easier walk, and along the way we floated leaf boats down the stream, set up an imaginary candy store in the hollowed-out trunk of a tree, made mud pies and followed a line of ants until we found their hill. A lot of our trip consisted of moments like this, slow, quiet hours where we let the kids do whatever they wanted.
Of course, there were other times when we had to do long drives or when we wanted to tackle more intense hikes. We played lots of games on the trail and in the bus, listened to audiobooks and music, and kept lots of snacks on hand.
L.L.Bean: Which is your favorite National Park?
Bowmans: It’s too hard for us to pick favorites because it’s very subjective. But some of our best experiences were in Utah’s five parks, where the red desert is on brilliant display; in Alaska, where enormous glaciers, wildlife and pristine wilderness abound; in Maine’s Acadia National Park, where we climbed pink granite hills and explored tide pools; in American Samoa, where we snorkeled around beautiful coral reefs and fell in love with the traditional Samoan culture; and in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, where Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are full of giant sequoias, vast granite canyons and gushing waterfalls.
L.L.Bean: What is your favorite National Park experience?
Bowmans: Watching bears fish for salmon in Katmai National Park was definitely a peak life experience. We spent hours and hours there, entranced by the jumping fish and the pouncing bears. Then when we left, we got stuck on the trail waiting for a mama brown bear and her 3 cubs to move away. That was definitely a memorable day!
L.L.Bean: How do you see your experience helping others?
Bowmans: Doing the trip full-time like we did wasn’t easy, but doing it in pieces, on weekends or for vacation, would be very easy, especially for a family based in the US. That’s one of the reasons we decided to share about our trip publicly: we’re big believers in traveling closer to home so that you can travel more. Traveling internationally is wonderful, but it also makes for a large carbon footprint, takes your vacation dollars outside your own economy (nothing wrong with that, but it’s nice if you can support your own community!) and puts travel out of reach for many people. We love that every person in the US has a national park site within a day’s drive from their home, a beautiful spot to visit that will be inexpensive and that will open their eyes to new things, people and experiences. We highly recommend that people travel more locally and get to know intimately the landscapes that surround them.
L.L.Bean: What message do you hope to convey to other families who want to get their kids outdoors?
Bowmans: Our few pieces of advice would be: Take advantage of the places closest to you; visiting the parks doesn’t have to be comprehensive or complicated. Kids don’t really care where they are as long as they are getting plenty of love, attentive listening, and time to play. For long drives in the car with kids, read lots of stories, keep healthy snacks and water on hand, color, play games together and enjoy the time to chat. The best hikes for kids are ones that have plenty to see and do along the way. If you want your kids to love outdoor activities, give them time to explore their way, which may involve a lot of stopping while they follow ants, gather stones, peek under logs, or whatever else catches their interest.