Cameron Shook

How do you plan a bucket list trip?

Cameron Shook
How do you plan a bucket list trip?

There are big events in people’s lives: births, marriages, deaths, and sometimes trips to places you’ve only seen in magazines. The problem becomes that, if you’re given an opportunity to go to a location on your bucket list, how in the world do you make sure that the trip lives up to the hype you’ve built up in your own mind? It would be like suddenly winning a date with Scarlett Johansen just to find out her breathing sounds the wheezing of a dying animal. But, back to bucket list trips, in places as big and wild as the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks, where do you even begin? Combined, there’s over 3900 square miles to explore and it’s hard to tell where to begin.

My wife and I have been planning on taking a big trip as a kind of make-up honeymoon, but hadn’t decided on where we wanted to go. Our honeymoon was a short and simple affair, a 3-day weekend at a friend’s cabin at Black Mountain before we headed back to our jobs since we couldn’t get more time away than that. 4 years later, and we’re finally ready to make good on the promise that eventually we’d go on a REAL honeymoon. The decision of when and where was made for us two weeks ago while I was sitting in a meeting at work. My phone buzzed, telling me that my dad was calling me which was odd since he almost never calls in the middle of the day. I silenced the phone and sent him a text saying I was in a meeting, but what was up? He texted back saying that he signed me up for a contest, that I had won, and that I needed to check my email ASAP, which I did to find out that I had won the Casio ProTrek “ABCs of the Outdoors” contest. While he ruined my ability to function in that meeting, his tenacity in entering every contest he comes across (to date he’s won a kayak, gift cards, and a custom pair of Chaco sandals) earned me a 3 night stay to a resort outside of Yellowstone National Park along with 2 nice watches which he staked a claim to immediately. It also just so happened I had saved up enough airline miles from my job sending me around the country for the past 2 years to cover the airplane tickets, so all that was left was to plan what we wanted to see.

We’re stretching out the trip to a total of 10 days at the end of September, and we know where we’ll be at least 3 of those nights. The rest is up to us however, and that’s where things begin to get hard. Everyone knows the things Yellowstone is famous for: Old Faithful, the hot springs and geysers, the herds of bison and of elk. The Grand Tetons has stunning peaks, secluded lakes, and even more elk. But when it comes to putting feet on the ground and going to make the most of your time, how do you start to pare down your list of options? There are some new tools available to make this easier than ever before, but old school tools still have their place.

The old school approach to narrow down what trails to hike is to find a couple of local guidebooks (I’m a big fan of the Falcon Guides by the American Hiking Society) and do some reading. If you’re looking for information a little closer to home, John Malloy’s guides cover the entire east coast and I’m only sad he doesn’t have any for Wyoming and Montana. One of the big benefits to a physical guidebook is that if you find a trail that’s on your hit list, you can take the guide with you to tie in with any of the topographic maps you have for the area.

 If you want to be a little more high tech, thankfully there’s several great websites. www.alltrails.com has the biggest user base with the most reviews and it’s also a good way to get updated information on trail conditions (closures, reroutes, etc) that the old fashioned guidebooks just can’t keep up with. Backpacker Magazine has also compiled all of their articles over the years onto their website by location, so you can find lots of good ideas pretty quickly. While this is definitely a “editors choice” option, it will probably eliminate all of the iffy choices and take you to the highlights. As an extra bonus due to the wonders of technology, Google Earth has images from many of the different trails in the parks so you can at least get an idea of what you’d be hiking to see and you can even do flyovers to get a better sense of the terrain. Popular destinations like National Parks have the added benefit that at least 14 specials have been made and almost all of them are on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video. While it’s not the best, it’s still better than reruns of “Dancing with the Stars”…anything is better than that. So if insomnia hits late one night, see what videos are out there.

Searching for campsites is fairly straightforward: for sites in the National Park, the National Parks website is the best place to start. www.recreation.gov is the place to find all of the other federal campsites, cabins, etc. in National Forests and other public lands, and they finally have a great new feature that you can search by an area and set up an itinerary of places to stay and things to visit. A new site for me that has a lot of options not only in the backcountry but also in town is www.airbnb.com. Essentially, if someone has a campsite, cabin, or just a spare room in their house, they list it on AirBNB giving you plenty of interesting options to choose from. For example, I have choices of yurts, small river side cabins, and converted sheep herder wagons all around Yellowstone National Park. I would recommend going for places with better reviews just to reduce the creep factor, but a benefit of Air BNB is that you get a more personal experience with some locals and possibly some great info.

I’m still in the process of planning my bucket list trip, and I know that it’s never going to work out exactly like I imagined. Things that I’ve been dying to see will probably fall short of my expectations and things that I didn’t even know existed will turn out to be the most memorable part of the trip. While I can’t help researching things to death, being informed but flexible is the best plan of all, trying not to cover too much in a short amount of time leaving enough time to visit those unplanned adventures that will only present themselves once you get boots on the ground.

Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.