National park explorer
Tiffin native has been to 415 of 417 national parks
By Vicki Johnson
Seventeen-year-old Cassie Stockner, of Tiffin, doesn’t know how many miles she and her family have logged during their national travels, but she knows she’s visited 415 of the 417 National Park Service sites.
On their quest to visit all of the national parks, she and her parents, Jeff Stockner and Jodi Saum-Stockner, have traveled from coast to coast in the continental United States as well as the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Alaska and Hawaii.
Cassie now is a sophomore at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, studying to earn a double major in criminal justice and psychology. She graduated early from Columbian High School last spring, and by taking college courses while in high school, had earned enough credits to be a second-year college student.
She looks back fondly on more than 10 years of traveling every summer with her parents.
She said the idea of visiting national parks began when she was 5 or 6 years old.
“My dad had always traveled with his parents when he was a kid, and they went to a lot of national parks,” she said.
Jeff said the first few trips when Cassie was young were a test to find out if traveling and visiting parks suited her interests.
“Then I really liked it, and we decided to start building more trips off of it,” Cassie said.
When she was 7 years old, the family began to take longer trips, designed by Jeff to maximize the number of national parks they could see on each trip.
By age 9 or 10, Cassie decided she would like to see them all.
While Jeff had traveled as a child, Jodi never had been outside of Ohio before they started their camping trips.
“It’s been an experience for me as well,” she said.
The Stockners would travel for about four weeks before returning home, restocking and resting for a couple weeks before hitting the road for another four weeks.
The elder Stockners are employed in the education field, so had a few months every summer to travel.
“Every summer we would go off to a different region of the country,” Jodi said.
So continued the quest which led to Cassie visiting 415 of the nation’s 417 national parks. Her parents are close to that number, but they each missed a few parks on shorter trips their daughter took individually.
According to the National Park Service website, www.nps.gov, national parks cover more than 84 million acres and can be found in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The areas include national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails and the White House.
Cassie plans to someday travel to Guam and American Samoa to see the last two.
However, she said going to American Samoa requires first flying to Hawaii. According to Google Maps, Samoa is an island 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii — more than 21 hours in a plane from Toledo — and is one of the U.S.’s most remote national parks.
Google Maps says Guam is more than a 23-hour plane ride from Toledo, more than 10 hours further than Hawaii.
Cassie said there are a few locations where the general public cannot visit the park itself, but can stop at a visitor center that provides information about it.
For example, Jeff said visiting the actual site of the Hohokam Pima National Monument on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona requires permission from the Indian tribe.
“It’s on Indian land and you have to specifically get Indian approval to go there,” he said.
However, the area can be seen from the interstate and there’s a visitor center, also known as a “stamp station” where people can verify they’ve been there.
In other cases, Alaska has a few national sites where people can’t visit directly.
“There are remote parks in Alaska you would have to fly into, if you’re lucky,” Jeff said. “But she’s hit the visitors centers for those.”
Jeff said visiting parks is more than just stopping in at the visitor center to get a book stamped. Visiting as a child, Cassie took part in Junior Rangers, an educational program where she learned about the park and filled out a book before getting her book stamped and being awarded a badge.
She has two books full of national park stamps and a container full of 415 plastic Junior Ranger badges.
However, the Stockners didn’t limit their stops to national parks. There were lots of other places along the way. Over the years, they pushed a pin into a map of the United States for every spot they had visited.
“There are some really hidden treasures in the United States,” Jeff said.
He and Jodi can’t decide where they might want to live when they retire because they’ve seen so many places.
When they were in the north, their travels took them to Canada.
“We decided we were so far north we would just visit Canada,” Jeff said. “We’ve been in every province that touches the U.S.”
Jodi said one the most interesting parts of their journeys have been the people they’ve met.
“One of the things that has been nice to see is there are so many different people out there and to see how they live and made us realize how lucky we really are,” Jodi said.
They’ve seen shacks without electricity and running water on Indian reservations, just as one example.
“If you’ve never traveled like we have, it’s hard to realize,” Jodi said. “There are places in the United States that don’t have the luxuries we have.
“And you don’t realize how lucky we are to live in a small town and a close-knit community like we have here,” she said.
Another benefit to the national parks quest was spending time together as a family, the Stockners agreed.
“(Cassie) didn’t have a cellphone, and we were all able to unplug from technology,” Jodi said. “There were days on end when we didn’t even turn on the radio in the car.”
They enjoyed the scenery going by and the company of each other.
“We’d have three days of driving where we had nothing but cow-related jokes,” Cassie said, laughing. “It was just a thing because we saw so many cows.”
“We never took a television,” she said. They actually removed the TV from the camper, and added a cooler where they could store lunches they ate on the road.
“We didn’t even stop for lunch,” Jeff said. “We would eat lunch as we drove because time was everything. We maximized time.”
Jeff created exacting itineraries to ensure they saw all the national parks in a specific area within the allotted time.
“It took an immense amount of planning, and you did have to stay on course,” he said.
The family learned to plan for different park placements throughout the United States.
“You get up to New England, you can hit them all, but out west they’re just so spread out,” Cassie said.
Some of the most memorable experiences on the road were not pleasant. For example, one year they traveled in a pop-up camper.
“We broke down in Boise, Idaho, and the top crashed while it was open,” Jeff said. “So we traded it in in Boise and bought a hard side.”
Another time the brakes malfunctioned while they were driving down a mountain.
“We had to pull over from time to time to let the brakes cool off,” Jeff said.
“There was a lot of prayer,” Jodi added.
Because Jeff often was a jokester, talking about bears, snakes and other wildlife, Jodi and Cassie didn’t take him seriously. That was until one day when he said there was a bear outside the camper.
“I’d been teasing them the day before about bears,” he said. “And I was angry that they weren’t reacting when there was a bear 20 yards away. We were in a pop-up and I really was afraid.”
Another time a small cub ran across the road in front of them.
“We stopped so quick, Cassie hit the back of the seat,” Jodi said.
“And then there was another time when a whole herd of armadillos crossed the road in front of us,” Jodi said.
And in Arizona there was a rattlesnake across their hiking path.
As for favorite parks, Cassie’s favorite was the Dry Tortugas, an island 90 miles from Key West. She said she loved the water and warm weather.
“We can talk about how we were snorkeling and my dad left me face to face with a barracuda,” she said. “All three of the adults in my group were just swimming away. The coral was really pretty, and then I saw this really big, beautiful fish. I didn’t know anything about sea life.”
Jodi’s favorite park is Sequoyah National Park in California.
“I just loved all those big trees,” she said.
Jeff’s favorites are history related, and he has trouble choosing one favorite.
“I really liked Rocky Mountain National Park that we went through in Colorado,” he said. “Either that or the last leper colony in the United States.”
The area set aside for people with leprosy is Kalaupapa Leprosy Settlement and National Historical Park on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. In the remote area, there are about 100 lepers who live there.
Jeff said he also enjoys learning about the lesser-known areas.
“I love those little trivia things,” he said.
Learning history as part of the Junior Ranger program, Cassie discovered she already was familiar with much of the history she learned in school.
“It kind of brought it life for her,” Jodi said. “It made it more interesting.”
“Sometimes my teachers would have me teach things since I could bring stuff in and talk about my experiences,” Cassie said. She shared maps, brochures and souvenirs and the information she studied to become a Junior Ranger.
On the many miles she’s logged, Cassie said it’s the knowledge and the experience and the family times she remembers most.
At each stop, the family collected souvenirs such as magnets and Christmas tree ornaments.
One metal door in the kitchen is covered with magnets.
“When we put up the Christmas tree, we reminisce,” Jodi said. “All the memories. It’s really neat.”
For more information on national parks, visit www.NPS.gov.