By Mathew Brock / WesCom News Service

Visiting just one of the 60 national parks in the U.S. can be a great adventure, but choosing to visit them all is quite the undertaking.

Cheri and James Maitland from Jackson, Michigan began traveling the U.S in 2010 with their children, Jameson and Gerald, on a mission to visit each of the 60 national parks in the country after seeing “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan on a PBS broadcast.

Their plans soon changed when they realized there was more to see than just the main locations of the 60 parks and they’ve since committed to seeing all 417 national park sites in the U.S. and its territories. Their most recent stop was the Redwoods National Park near Crescent City.

“From here we’ve got three more parks to go to finish the contiguous United States,” said Cheri. “We’re headed to Whiskeyville next and will finish up at Devil’s Postpile.”

Since last August, the Maitlands also began hosting two foreign exchange students, Taiga Koshimizu from Miyazaki, Japan and Hannah Werblow, from Dresden, Germany, who have joined them on their travels.

“We’re homeschoolers, but someone at church said they knew a foreign exchange student from Japan who was interested in American culture and national parks,” said Cheri. “The family voted to host Taiga and when they came to inspect our home they saw we had a lot of room and asked if we’d like to host another student. We asked them to send us a Spanish-speaking vegetarian and they ended up sending Hannah from Germany.”

While Werblow doesn’t speak Spanish, the Maitlands were still overjoyed to have two foreign-speaking guests join them to learn about American history and culture, while also sharing their knowledge of Japan and Germany.

“I didn’t want to come to America at first for a whole year, but my mom’s colleague had done the foreign exchange program and convinced me how much I could learn as an exchange student,” said Koshimizu. “I’ve learned so much vocabulary and culture from travelling.”

When they started their tour, the Maitlands also started collecting Junior Ranger badges, which are awarded to young visitors who complete a set of activities in a national park guidebook. Its common for people to collect a few Junior Ranger badges and display them on a vest, but the Maitlands soon ran out of space. So, they started a second, knee-length set of vests. Those are now nearly full as well.

Since the Maitlands started their tour of the contiguous U.S. they’ve visited 383 parks and collected over 600 badges. They hope to visit the final three parks in the contiguous U.S. before the head to thel parks in Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and Samoa by the end of 2019.

Since they started staying with the Maitlands, Werblow and Koshimizu have been to over 70 parks and have also amassed a large collection of Junior Ranger badges.

The group received their latest badge on Wednesday after touring the Redwood National Park this week. They stopped by the Newton B. Drury Center in Crescent City, where they met with Park Rangers and members of the Redwood Parks Conservancy.

“We often get asked what’s our favorite park and we often can’t answer because it’s like picking between your children,” Cheri said. “We like to focus on what makes each park unique and up here it’s just how towering the trees are. We’ve been to other parks and the trees here make them look like normal forests. It’s much more intimate here, looking up and seeing how small you are.”

While visiting national parks, the Maitland group strives to learn as much about the history of the park and area as they can. A big part of their visit to the redwoods involved learning about how close they were to being wiped out. Its estimated that less than 10 percent of the original redwoods remain after being nearly wiped out because of the demand for timber in the Gold Rush.

“I’m so glad that the people here have chosen to protect these trees so people can come and see them, said Werblow. “Even if you plant new trees, they would never get this tall.”

Redwood National Park provides a self-guided Junior Ranger program, but has actually received so many visitors in the past few years wanting to participate, they’ve struggled to afford the materials to keep up with the demand. Part of that burden was alleviated when the travel company Globus began donating $8,000 annually to the park.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids come through to do the Junior Ranger program, but what these kids are doing has real purpose,” said Ranger Michael Glore. “The Junior Ranger program is meant to help create future stewards for our parks. If more young people had the work ethic and motivation to do what these kids are doing, it’d be a good thing.”

The Maitlands and their guests also spend a considerable amount of time volunteering at parks closer to home and one day Cheri and James hope to work as interpretive rangers, maybe even someday returning to volunteer at the redwoods. Koshimizu has also expressed interest in someday becoming a tour guide or travel agent to help people from around the country experience American culture.

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