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Park questing: A Q&A with Matt Treat

Channel Islands National Park. Matt Treat photo

By Ian Haupt

Matt Treat is halfway to his goal of visiting every U.S. national park. During the pandemic, Treat said — like most people — he started thinking about places to visit that were lightly populated and not overseas. National parks naturally came to mind, and as travel restrictions were lifted, Treat said he started to pick up his pace. He said he’s made it to about half of America’s 63 national parks.

Treat owns the Inn at Lynden, a boutique hotel in the century-old Waples Mercantile Building in downtown Lynden, along with his wife Teri.

Mount Baker Experience caught up with Treat as he was preparing to head to a graduation in Minnesota where he planned to visit Isle Royale National Park, a remote island in Lake Superior. Questions and answers were edited for length and clarity.

Mount Baker Experience: How do you plan to make it to all of them?

Treat: Once I started thinking about this, it seemed like the trips fell into kind of two categories. It was an incidental category, where if I was going to go somewhere, for other reasons, I'd immediately look at the map and think about what I could hit while I was there.

For instance, I went to a wedding in Kentucky last summer and saw the Smoky Mountains were close by there, or close enough that I could bag that one. So I expanded my trip plans. This week, I'll be going to a graduation in Minnesota, and there's a park north of St. Paul called Isle Royale. I'm going to get that one while I'm doing some family stuff.

Then there's more intentional trips, where I plot a trip that allows me to maybe bag more than one park. That's where the Florida trip came in. A really good friend and myself went down, and we hit Everglades, Dry Tortugas and Biscayne.

Matt Treat, l., and his friend Bill in Big Bend National Park. Photo courtesy Matt Treat

I'm really a water person, and there were airboats involved and kayaks and canoes and snorkeling and paddleboards. It was a great way to see three parks.

How do you keep track?

I get a patch. All the parks have a patch that they make. I just grab a patch every time, and I've got a magnet board that I put them up on.

What’s the first national park you ever went to?

Oh, wow. I'm counting some that I went to as a kid — that kind of brings up an unwritten rule for me too. Now that I've decided to start doing this, I kind of feel like if I'm going to count it I have to have had some kind of adventure. You know, maybe I stay overnight and go for a hike or do some kind of rafting or something.

So the Grand Canyon is one I went to as a kid, and I have a patch from it, and I count it but it really seems like one I have to go back to and do again. Because all I really did was look over the edge. You go there with your family, you get out of the car, you look over the edge.

That’s one I got to do over, I'd like to hike down into the canyon or take a raft trip or something. So yeah, I'm counting some that I went to when I was a child with my family.

What sort of activities have you done?

Well, there's some parks in the Dakotas, two or three parks that are, again, close enough where I think I could get all three of them in a reasonably short period of time. And it sounds like there's some great mountain biking in those parks. So I'd like to get there with a mountain bike and tackle some of the trails that I've heard about there. I think that'd be pretty cool.

(Those parks are Badlands and Wind Cave in South Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt in North Dakota.)

You have to be prepared to be adventurous and do some driving. I don't want to spend the whole time in the car and so I try to manage my logistics so I can hit more than one without spending the entire time driving because that's no fun.

That's another thing: If I can't find somebody to go with I'll go solo if I have to, but, of course, it's really fun to go with someone. It's also really fun to go with somebody who has some knowledge that you don't, like a geologist or — I’m a mildly interested birder — but my friend Bill is an avid birder. It really adds to the trip when you've got somebody along who can point out things that you otherwise would have missed.

Death Valley National Park. Matt Treat photo

Any parks you particularly recommend?

If you could get to the Dry Tortugas, that's fantastic. You drive out to the end of the Florida Keys and either get on a boat or a plane. If you can fly out, just to see it from the air and land, spend the day there and camp there, that would be pretty spectacular. Takes a lot of planning. But it's just an amazing place for snorkeling and the view is spectacular, and the history is really amazing.

How long do you spend in the parks?

To really count it, like I said, you have to kind of do something there. So you're at least there a day. I went to the Channel Islands recently, and that was three days. That was really great, too. Those down off the coast of California. It takes a ferry ride to get there. The ferry ride went through an enormous school of dolphins getting to the island. It was already fantastic before we even got there.

But it can be anywhere from an overnight trip to a multi-day trip. This depends on how much there is to do at that park, and how much you want to do. The other thing, I research enough to know the things that I don't want to miss while I'm there. But I don't look at YouTube, and I don't do a lot of other research, because I don't want to spoil the effect of seeing it firsthand.

I make sure that if I'm going through the trouble to get there that I make sure and see all the things that are worth seeing.

Do you have a favorite so far?

There's a favorite trip, I guess. The Everglades trip really stands out to me. I did another great trip where we're able to hit four parks down in the southwest with White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend. That was really, really cool.

An island fox in Channel Islands National Park. Matt Treat photo

Voyagers in Minnesota is a really memorable trip too, especially if you like to fish. The fishing opportunities there are pretty amazing. Canoeing and fishing. That's another activity.

Katmai in Alaska as well. There's something about standing on the bear observation deck and watching bears catching salmon out of midair standing in the waterfalls is pretty incredible. That’s hard to top.

Were any underwhelming?

I found Joshua Tree a little bit underwhelming. It just must have been the wrong day for me. I think if you're a climber it's a fabulous place. There's a lot of rock climbing opportunity there.

There are also things that are surprising, like I've always thought of the Rio Grande as this huge, magnificent river and the Rio Grande these days, at the least parts of it where we were, is just a trickle. You can walk across the Rio Grande on stepping-stones and not get your feet wet. It was surprising how far down the water level has gotten. I don't know if it's irrigation and climate change, but it was kind of eye opening.

Which did you find the most beautiful?

All are really beautiful. I mean, really, in their own way. They're incredibly beautiful. But I think the one that surprised me for beauty was Death Valley. I didn't really go there expecting that place to be beautiful. And it was really fabulous and colorful. Eerie, kind of, so unusual. Especially I think the viewing at dusk and at sunset, where the light got a little bit longer. The colors of the rocks and the sand and the stone all got more vibrant.

Met any cool people, characters you remember?

I remember at Death Valley. That is a place that I went to by myself. I ended up sitting at the bar one night to have something to eat, and there was a guy on my left and a gal on my right. It turns out they both were doing the exact same thing that I was. They were park questers. It was really great talking to both of them about which parks they'd been to, which ones they recommend, which ones they've had adventures in. It was really fun trading notes and talking parks.

Zion National Park. Matt Treat photo

What have you learned?

I think the message for me is you don't have to leave the borders of our country to find unique, unusual and amazing places. You might not get perhaps the same level of cultural change that you would by going overseas. But there are definitely cultural differences too, and it's really been eye opening for me as far as how much there is to see and do inside our own country.

Anything coming up?

Yeah, I've got a good trip. Lately, I’ve been traveling a great deal with my friend Bill. He is an Alaskan, and he's a commercial fisherman up there. … We're going to go to Kenai Fjords and Lake Clark this summer.

Lake Clark has some remote cabins, which you have to be dropped off at by a skiff. It’s going to take us out there with kayaks, and we're going to fish and kayak at one camp for a few days and then paddle to another remote camp, stay at that one for a few more days, and then the skiff will come back and get us. x