ANCHORAGE, AK (January 17, 2017)—Max Lopez-Cepero was driving from Chicago to San Diego in the mid-1980s when he saw a sign for a turnoff to the Petrified Forest National Park. “I thought that sounded interesting, and I made an impulse decision to go.”
So began what would become a successful quest covering more than two decades to visit every U.S. National Park—from Arcadia National Park on the coast of Maine to the National Park of Samoa, and the Virgin Islands National Park to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, located north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska.
Several years after that impulse decision Lopez-Cepero, who is now the pastor at First Covenant Church in Anchorage, traveled to Florida for a series of meetings and decided to visit Everglades National Park there.
“When I got home, I looked at the map and saw how many parks were out west, and I thought it would be fun to see how many I could visit,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking that I would visit them all.”
That summer, he and another pastor bought an RV that had been in a fire. Together they restored it and shared the use of it. That began the adventures that would take them across the country and, notes Lopez-Cepero, to several parks in Canada.
“The one I thought I would never visit was the national park in American Samoa,” Lopez-Cepero said. But he and his wife, Helen, traveled there for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in 2004.
“That was the tipping point” in deciding to visit all of the parks, says Lopez-Cepero. “I was kind of surprised that I was able to catch them all.”
“It’s changed our family,” he says. “It was a way I could make connections with my kids. Our trips were times to talk and experience life together. They love the outdoors in part because we spent so much time there.”
Lopez-Cepero reached his goal in 2012 when he and his family hiked the crater at Haleakalā National Park in Maui. But then President Barack Obama signed legislation that established Pinnacles National Park in California as the fifty-eighth park in 2014.
Lopez-Cepero and his son visited Pinnacles in 2015. “We saw a huge condor,” Lopez-Cepero says. “It was a real treat.”
Lopez-Cepero says he experiences awe and has his spirit renewed at the parks. “It’s not just that God is, but that God is powerful and wants beauty and is creative.”
At times the sights have left him speechless, such as when a friend took him to Yosemite National Park in California. “We got there late at night so I couldn’t see anything,” he says. “We were camping in a tent, and I remember getting up the next morning and I must have had my mouth open for five minutes. I was turning around just gaping at the wonder of these towering peaks, each of them very different looking, and seeing the waterfalls.”
Lopez-Cepero said he is frequently asked which park is his favorite. “One answer is to be evasive and say they are all wonderful,” he jokes. “They each have their own special charm.”
When pushed to choose, he says he’s returned to the Everglades several times because it is “fabulously interesting,” but Yosemite and Olympic National Park in Washington would be the top two.
Olympic ranks because of its diversity of environments, which include mountains, a rain forest, and the coastline. “The fog is almost mystical.”
Lopez-Cepero suggests that visitors do their research before traveling to a park.
“I learned early on to always do what the park is known for,” especially if time is limited. He advises people to begin at the visitor center and ask a ranger for advice on what to do and be aware of.