Q&A: The Go-To Guides for Family Travel

Planning family travel to national and state parks is a major hassle – but it gets much easier if you follow in the footsteps of Matt and Cheryl Schoss. They started We're in the Rockies to share their expertise through videos and guidebooks, and the family business is now streaming on the Parks Channel! Here they share their story and some sage advice for park planners.

Charles Poe: I’m here with Matt and Cheryl Schoss, celebrities of the Rocky Mountains. I wanted to ask – with something like 60,000 subscribers on YouTube, how often are you recognized when you’re out and about?

Matt Schoss: It depends a little bit on the park and the area. But this last trip to the Grand Canyon, we probably got recognized about once a day. Yellowstone, sometimes 10 times a day.

Charles: Are we up to autographs yet? Or is it selfies people want?

Cheryl Schoss: Just selfies, and we’re always so grateful when people come up and say hi. It’s nice to meet people who are as excited about the parks as we are.

Matt: The other day we were driving home from Arizona, and we passed by Bryce Canyon and stopped for lunch. A family was using our guides, and stopped us and said hi. What really stuck out to me, though, was the daughter earlier that day had said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we actually ran into Matt and Cheryl?” And then there at lunch they ran into us. That was kind of crazy.

Charles: That is very cool. Tell us a little bit about your background, yourselves and your family before the We’re in the Rockies phenomenon started. 

The Schoss Family
Young Matt Schoss (with camera) in Canyonlands National Park

Cheryl: We both were born and raised in Utah, and we grew up in families that love the national parks. We would go every year. Our families would take us to Yellowstone. We went to Zion quite a bit, because both of those parks are about four hours from where we live. We continued to visit them when we had our own family. We’ve been married for almost 22 years now, and we have four kids. It’s a lot easier with teenagers than it is with toddlers.

We would go to the national parks because that’s what we could afford. We could drive there, and we would camp, and they were affordable vacations that we all enjoyed. Now our trips are a little bigger because we often take both sets of our parents who also live in Utah and get along with each other. So a lot of times, it’s a ten-person caravan with our family of six, and then both sets of grandparents.

Charles: Wow! Obviously, that adds to the trip planning challenges, which you guys have become experts on. When did you realize that you were starting to gain some knowledge that you wanted to share? Did it start with guidebooks or videos or both at the same time?

Matt: It was a process. I was looking for something else to do as a career, and I started teaching some adjunct history classes at Weaver State University. One of my sections was about the American West, and I decided to focus on national parks as a part of that section—preserving lands in the west, conservation and things like that. I realized I had a big collection of the National Park brochures they hand out when you come into the park. I started handing them out to all the students to look at, and I was surprised at the number of students who had not been to a national park, even though we’re here in Utah, and we’re very close to several national parks.

I realized I had a real passion for it. We had started looking at what we could do as an online business, something on the side that might be able to grow into something, and we were playing around with a few ideas. But we got home from Yellowstone one day and decided, well, this is what we really like talking about and doing. So let’s just try this, and that kind of blossomed.

Cheryl: We knew we liked to travel, and it started when we booked a trip to Atlanta, Georgia. Matt said, go ahead and plan it out. So I was on Youtube, and I was watching the videos, and I just thought, holy smokes, I don’t feel like I’m learning anything. I can see people vlogging through their trip, but they weren’t really helping me plan that trip for ourselves. We got to thinking, we need someone who will give us some good information to help us plan our trip.

We realized that not much of the population lives in the West, but we do. And we have a lot of knowledge about these parks, because we’ve been to them several times, because that’s what we’ve done growing up, and we still continue to do. We thought maybe we could help someone have a good trip out to Yellowstone.

Watch their “Complete Guide to the World’s First National Park”

I think the breakthrough was Matt. He has always loved to edit videos—he’s done that for 20 years. One time he thought for fun he would try to make a video about how to visit Yellowstone and how to visit Zion. And he got out the map and he was breaking it down, and we actually got pretty good views on those videos, even though we were new creators, because Matt was actually helping solve a problem. He was teaching people like he would do in his classes. I think that’s how it all got started.

Charles: And you obviously found there’s a big demand for that—you’re solving a massive problem for people who want to plan a family trip. Why do you suppose it is so hard to plan a national park trip?

Matt: That’s a good question. I think planning any trip is actually kind of difficult, because, assuming you’re going somewhere brand new, you have no idea what the landscape is for that area. I do think Yellowstone, in particular, is interesting in that it’s so big. It’s just so big. People have a hard time wrapping their minds around it. There are five entrances, and they don’t know which one to use.

I thought it was really kind of funny that we got a lot of questions about driving in Yellowstone. Like, how long does it take to get places? And what if I break down? And things like this. So we did a video on how to drive in Yellowstone, and it got tons and tons of views. We thought that was kind of funny, because that’s not a question we would think about, because we’re used to going there. So obviously, we’re always trying to look at it from the travelers perspective.

The landscape is big out here. It takes a while to drive around and get places. It’s not very developed in a lot of these places in the Rockies. There are very small airports, so you’re doing these big, long road trips. It’s quite a bit that goes into it.

Cheryl: I think one of the challenges is that online, there are hundreds and hundreds of posts on everything. A lot of times it’s hard to sift through all that and find good information. We blog, we do Youtube, so we look and see what’s out there. And sometimes I have to say, wow, this person hasn’t spent much time in this park. Sometimes there can be information overload, and sometimes it’s hard to decipher how well-versed the person is on the place.

My observation when we visit the national parks is that when you get there, there’s actually a lot of good information there. They have great signage outside that’ll help you if you have half a day, if you have one day, and the maps they give you are really helpful. But I think finding that information before your trip is difficult. I think the National Park System does a good job putting alerts on their website of things that have changed. But sometimes it’s kind of fragmented, and it’s hard to put the whole picture together unless you’re actually there learning it.

Matt talks about how, especially in the West, people underestimate how far away things are from each other. Not just Yellowstone being a big national park, but if you’re going to Utah’s five national parks. You can drive across a lot of states back east in a couple of hours. But Utah’s big. It takes hours to get across Utah. A lot of these Western states are just big.

Charles: One of the things I love about your videos is that along with the insights and the information, you’re also not afraid to talk about your fails. I seem to recall, Cheryl, you had an experience with bear spray that didn’t turn out the way you hoped. What do you consider some of your biggest park fails?

Cheryl: The one that comes to mind was when we visited Banff. We have a guide for Banff, and we collaborated with The Mountain Town Ramblers. We used our guide-writing skills, and they helped us with the concept of visiting Banff—because, of course, we’re not gonna write a guide on a place we don’t know without bringing someone in to help.

Getting tickets is kind of a challenge, because sometimes you’re planning your trip a year in advance and you get your lodging, but then, the tickets for things you want to do aren’t available until a couple of months before. So we got a little bit behind the eight ball on getting our tickets to go to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. Oh, my gosh, that whole day was a complete disaster. Our parents missed the bus. We couldn’t find a parking spot. Even the scramble to get the tickets. It was eight hours of trying to figure out our tickets before we left. It was craziness. It’s funny, because Matt’s mom loves everything and has a great experience, but she honestly does not like Lake Louise very much, because it was just so stressful.

So when I got home, I thought, this is a problem. I researched it down to the minutia, and I wrote a little freebie for people who are visiting to know all the options to get there, and when the tickets are opening up. I spent quite a bit of time solving that problem because I didn’t want anyone to have the same experience we had the first time.

I think it is actually good when our trips don’t go as planned. Because now we’re like, this is a challenge, and we want to make sure that this is crystal clear on how to visit for people who come after us.

Matt: We used to decide on a Friday morning, let’s go to Zion or Arches. Let’s just run off this weekend, and we’d just drive down there and get a camp spot, and see the park, and it was no big deal.

I think park visitation remained fairly steady for 20 years or more. It started exploding when the Baby Boomers started retiring. And social media—which we’re a part of—helps make it more popular for sure. Now that’s another challenge, all this preparation. Because there are shuttles, there’s reservations, there’s all that, and that stresses people out. You don’t want to go all the way out there, and then, oh, we can’t go do that thing because we needed to get advanced reservations. It takes quite a bit of time to plan these things out ahead of time.

Cheryl: I’m sitting here thinking about all the epic mistakes we’ve made. Another one was when we got our trailer a few years ago. I was so gung ho to take our trailer everywhere, I planned back-to-back-to-back vacations. And Matt said, “Cheryl, this is a little too much,” and I’m like, “No, it’s not, the kids are gonna love it!”

And by vacation number five it was a total meltdown. You hear about the families who say, “I’m gonna turn this car around!” We legit did that. The kids were miserable. We were miserable.

Charles: What was the breaking point?

Matt: Five weekends in a row. On the fifth weekend we went up to Yellowstone and our kids were so miserable that we actually drove home from Yellowstone a day early.

Cheryl: Yup. I remember we were walking around the Old Faithful Geyser Basin and the kids were slogging across and getting in fights. I was afraid they were gonna push each other into the geysers.

Charles: Too much of a good thing. What are you gonna do?

Cheryl: You see these travelers melting down because they were overly ambitious, and they pushed their group too far. They’re making them wake up at 6 am, and they’re on these 18-day trips.

We will never forget the time we were riding bikes through Rome, and we were having a delightful time. It was the highpoint of our trip. It was amazing. And we look over, and there’s a man on his cell phone, beet red in the face yelling at his family, and you could hear him saying, “You guys have complained the whole trip!”

Matt: It was loud, and our whole family remembers it and talks about it to this day. I just keep thinking, I don’t ever want to be like that. I can’t ever get to that point.

Cheryl: Travel is not without its challenges, even a well-planned trip. I can think of plenty of times when there were tears in the trailer because things haven’t worked out well.

Charles: What do you typically advise in terms of how far in advance to plan a trip? People are buying your guide books, and some are meticulously planning well in advance. Do you have general guidance, especially for the big parks?

Matt: That’s a great question. The typical advice is to start a year early, because the actual lodges that are run by the concessionaires within the national parks usually open up a year in advance. So the people who are really prepped who like to stay in those lodges in the park are usually booking those up a year early.

Most people don’t start planning their trips until right after Christmas. We notice a spike literally the day after Christmas. People are starting to think about next year. So that’s a pretty good time to start getting everything into place, though you might not be able to get the lodges. Each national park only has a handful of lodges—some only have one, some have none—that are actually located within the park.

But then there are all these little towns outside the park where you could typically get accommodations. It’s usually fine to start booking those in January, and even into February.

Family hike in the Grand Canyon

Cheryl: Well, actually, we had kind of an aha moment this year. We started planning our trips for 2024 in October. Normally, we’re not that far ahead. But in September we were working on a lodging guide for Grand Teton, and we were talking to the owners of various hotels. One of the tips they gave us was that right now is a great time to book for the next year, because they haven’t raised their prices for the upcoming year and there’s a lot of availability. I was surprised at the great deals we were able to get on our lodging.

The National Parks have their prices kind of fixed. But if you’re staying outside the park, you’re able to really snag some better values, and you have so much more to choose from. It’s just such peace of mind to know some of those big nuts and bolts of your trip are already taken care of, so that you know you have a place to stay at least.

The other little trick I’ve learned is that even though I can book my lodging really far in advance, I may not be able to book tickets to Jewel Cave for example, for several months. A lot of those timed entry reservations don’t open up until later. So when I book those hotels, I also make a note in my planner so I don’t forget to go back and do that.

Matt: One last thing is the campgrounds typically open up six months in advance. Typically, you’re okay in the January timeframe. But if you want to stay in those lodges and get better rates do it earlier.

Cheryl: Sometimes people think they can’t travel because they haven’t planned months in advance. It’s best to plan ahead, but it seems like there is always availability in hotels in the border cities outside the parks. You may pay a pretty penny for your lodging, or if you’re camping, you might have to stay in a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or forest service campground. But that’s okay. You might drive a little further.

The other thing I’ve learned is that even parks with reservations save 20-30% of those reservations for night before people. We’ve known plenty of people who were able to get their timed entry tickets the night before.

Matt: Timed-entry reservations are typically just during the busy hours of say, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. We’ve gone in after the busy time and had a great time. Late in the day is great because people start to clear out, and then you can just go in there and do whatever you want.

Cheryl: And you don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn. I love being in the parks first thing in the morning, but that’s not for everybody.

Charles: You mentioned the distances in Utah. You have become experts on road trips. What are your five most important tips that you think about when you’re planning a road trip?

Matt: Oh, that’s good. The first tip I would say is that home bases typically don’t work. We talk to a lot of people who want to have a home base for their trip, where they stay in one place for a long time, and then they go out and do these day trips. We talked to somebody who was driving three or four hours, one way, and then would come back because they wanted to have a home base.

We usually advise you to plan out your days so that you can move from one location to the next, and see things along the way. That’s the way I do it. Now I know that’s not for everybody, but that’s the way I like to do it. You do have to change locations every night or every two nights. It’s nice if you can get two nights in a row. But I like to do things as I progress.

Cheryl: I do think that sometimes this requires being thoughtful. We have a rule that we don’t like to drive more than an hour each way to whatever we’re doing. We wrote a guide to a Colorado road trip, where we visited ten different places. We actually figured out a way where you only have to switch locations three times if you’re hitting Rocky Mountain National Park along the way. Think about how far you’re willing to drive every day. Don’t put in so much driving that you are missing out on some of the fun.

One of my big tips about a road trip is that I like to plan on eating out once a day, and having a picnic once a day. Sometimes we have a picnic dinner, because you need flexibility. It’s nice to have a meal in a restaurant and not have to worry about it, but having to stop and get food is very inconvenient and can really mess up touring around the parks. Packing your own food can save you a lot of money. I also think it’s really important to try to eat something that’s local once in a while. It adds to the experience.

We just stayed at a really nice bed and breakfast in the Grand Canyon, and the guy who owned it prepared the most amazing food for us in the morning. It’s one of the most memorable things about our trip. And we’ll never forget eating breakfast at El Tovar. That’s another good little tip: breakfast is always cheaper, so if we want to go to a restaurant with a good view in a national park, we’ll usually go for breakfast because it’s cheaper and you don’t need reservations.

Matt: Okay, I have two more tips. Next one is to fill up on gas. Out in the West, you can be driving for hundreds of miles without seeing a gas station. So whenever we get below half a tank, I start to think about it. Then, if we have to stop and use the bathroom, just fill up now because we’re driving across the Arizona desert or something, and you just never really know. You don’t want to get into a situation where you’re 50 miles from the next gas station and you have less than a quarter tank. That’s happened to me before. If you’re coming from the coast, it can be hard to understand how wide open and spread out the West is. It’s crazy how remote it can be out here.

The other thing is, even though I go from place to place. I kinda know, after about three days of that maybe four, we do need a spot where we stay a couple of days. We did a big trip through Yellowstone, and we drove all the way up to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in North Dakota—an underrated cool little spot—and I thought, we need a break right here. We’re going to need to spend a couple of nights here because our family is going to be worn out. We do try to build in some days where we can just chill out.

Cheryl: For number five, on a road trip, it’s so important that you have spent a lot of time preparing for it. I’m not saying you have to have an itinerary and stick to it every second. If you have a plan, you know about how long things take and the best things to see. And then, if you see an animal on the side of the road and you wanna stop and look at it, you can say, we were gonna go to this geyser basin, but this is so cool, and I’m okay to miss that.

Cheryl and Matt in Antelope X Canyon, Arizona

When you have a plan, and you’re educated about where you’re going, it allows you to be so much more flexible. It’s kind of like a budget. Some people think budgets are limiting, but actually they enable you to make wise choices. I think you have to make your travel time budget. Know what you want to do, know what’s the most important so you don’t get sidetracked on things that may not really bring the most value to your trip.

Charles: It’s fantastic advice. You specialize in Utah and the West. I’m curious if you are keeping track of how many of the big national parks you’ve been to and are you trying to get to all of them? Or is that not on the bucket list?

Matt: Oh, that’s a good question. I see a lot of people who are trying to check off all 63 national parks. I’ve never really had a goal to do that. My mom and I have had more of a goal to see the 400 plus National Park Service sites. We’re always counting up how many of those we’ve done. So I just printed off the list the other day and I think I’m up to around 80 or 90 of those sites. There are a lot more to go. I’m not a perfectionist about it. I’m probably not gonna fly out to some of the remote places in Alaska anytime soon, but I like to check those off.

We just went to Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona, and we took a boat ride out to Rainbow Bridge National Monument. The only way to get there is to hike 14 miles, or to take a boat ride for the day out to this national monument. This is a really remote one. That’s another national monument I got to check off, and for me those have always been pretty much just as special as the national parks. There’s some incredible national monument sites out there, just some really awesome places.

I like the history sites as well out East. There are plenty of history sites out here with a lot of native American ruins in Arizona and Colorado and Utah. Those are the ones I think about. Anytime I go on a vacation. I was in Minnesota a couple of years ago, and I’m always looking—are there National Park sites around?

Charles: So if you had one park and only one park that you could visit, which would it be?

Matt: I would go with Yellowstone mainly for the variety. It just has so much. You get the wildlife, the canyons, the geysers, the mountains, the valleys, the lakes, the rivers. It’s so big, and it has so much.

I think Zion is probably the prettiest place I’ve ever been. And Cheryl thinks Glacier is probably the prettiest place that she’s ever been. But if I had to choose one, it’s gotta be Yellowstone for the sheer size and variety.

Cheryl: We always say it’s like five national parks in one.

Charles: In terms of hidden gems—or ones that are less crowded and popular—what do you advise? Any favorite places that are off the radar?

Cheryl: Well, Capitol Reef is one of my all time favorite national parks. I love how unique it is, because there are orchards in it. I mean what national park has fruit orchards? It’s so interesting to me. It might be because my family is a fruit family—my grandpa had a big orchard, so maybe that’s why I like it so much.

The rock in Capitol Reef is so red, and it’s an easy park to visit. There are a lot of three-mile hikes. There are incredible drives. The drive out to Capitol Gorge is the best driveable slot canyon I’ve ever seen. I’m always thinking about accessibility for people who can’t hike, and this is a slot canyon experience without having to hike and I love that about it.

The other thing off the beaten path are the state parks in Utah, speaking of road trips—and this would be my tip number six. The national parks like Arches and Zion are challenging because they’re crowded. You have to be on your A game, and get up early and so on. When you go to the state parks between these national parks, that’s your chance to catch your breath.

They saved us on our road trip. We went to Kodachrome Basin and Goblin Valley. We went to Gunlock State Park, which had a waterfall in the desert that year. We love Custer State Park. The state parks are great and allow you to get away from the crowds and still see some really beautiful stuff. They can’t make the entire west a national park, but there’s a good chunk of Utah that could be a national park.

Matt: Okay, I have three more for you. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is totally underrated. It’s got a very cute, charming little gateway town, Medora, North Dakota, that people love. The Madura Musical is a fun show in an outdoor amphitheater.

Mesa Verde National Park is awesome. It’s the most amazing Native American cliff dwellings that you’ll see. I just absolutely love that one. It’s very interactive. You’re climbing on ladders. You’re going into the ruins. There’s scenery there.

Then my last one that just keeps sucking me in is Canyonlands in Utah. It gets overshadowed by Arches, but interestingly, Canyonlands was actually a national park before Arches. Everybody thought Canyonlands was the draw to Moab at the time that they made it. Part of the reason it’s less visited is because they’ve kept it a little more rugged and have kept the accessibility kind of limited. It’s unlike anything that’s out there. It keeps drawing me back because I’ve gotta find out what is out in this untouched wilderness. It draws backpackers and real deep backcountry people. Even jeepers. You can go jeeping way off the beaten path if you have the right vehicle, and just so far out there. It takes forever to explore, because it’s a backcountry park.

Charles: Last question. What is your next adventure?

Cheryl: Black and yellow road.

Matt: We’re going to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore area which has six national park sites. And then we’re going to Yellowstone after that in one big trip.

Our next new adventure is to the Washington parks this year. We’ve had a lot of people asking us for guides to Olympic and Mount Rainier and parts of the Pacific Northwest as well as Yosemite. So we’re gonna start branching out and try to explore those areas as well.

Charles: Great. Well, listen. Your guidebooks have been invaluable to so many people, and it’s great to see your celebrity growing and growing, and thanks so much for taking the time to tell us a little bit of the backstory.

Matt: Thank you for having us.

The Schoss family, including grandparents, at Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Q&A: Hollywood to Patagonia with Alice Ford

Parks Channel contributor Alice Ford has a life that could only be dreamed up in Hollywood. When she's not traveling the world for her series Alice's Adventures on Earth, she's dodging bombs and kicking butt as a stuntwoman on films like Transformers. We spoke with Alice as she was putting the finishing touches on a new series that will debut on PBS, building on an audience that has already reached 5.7 million views on YouTube.

Alice, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. 

Of course, I love you guys, and I’m always happy to chat about national parks.

I always like to start with this summary bio challenge. In three sentences, tell us your origin story: how did you grow up, how did you find your way, and what are you doing now?

Childhood—lover of nature. Wanted to explore the world. Making it happen one country at a time.

That’s almost Haiku going on there – impressive! I know you’ve got a massive following for Alice’s Adventures on Earth, but some of the people who watch your videos may not realize that your day job is actually Hollywood stunt woman. Tell us how you got into stunt work and a little bit about those experiences.

I grew up as a perpetual tomboy. I was always roughhousing and jumping off things and getting into trouble, ripping my stockings, outside playing in the snow or climbing a tree.

Alice Ford in Lassen Volcanic National Park
Photo by Jorge Lopez Media

I didn’t even know being a stunt woman was a thing growing up. But I was in gymnastics and track and field and skiing and diving, and all these different sports. And when you do those things throughout college and then get out of college, you’re left with kind of this void in your life, because all the competition that you’ve done throughout your entire life ends.

Becoming a stunt woman was a way for me to not only feel like I was still competing and performing—in all the kinds of sports combined into one that I had done my whole life—but I also got paid for it, which was not possible in college sports until recently, especially in the sports that I did.

Alice in the Amazon Prime Live Show at Comic Con

It was a perfect fit. I didn’t discover it right after college. I actually got into stunts when I was around 24, 25 years old, so a little bit later than a lot of other people in the industry. But it was a perfect fit for me to be able to kind of marry my love for athletics with my love for being in front of the camera as well.

What was the first movie?

The first was actually a TV show called Make It or Break It on ABC Family. It was a scripted drama about a gymnastics team, and I doubled one of the girls who was on the gymnastics team.

I understand that you also worked on the Transformers films. 

I worked on Transformers 4, Transformers 5 and Bumblebee. My first really big, long multi-country movie was Transformers 4. It was an amazing experience. Definitely a lot of chaos on those sets, because there are a lot of people, a lot of moving parts, a lot of explosions, and you’re working really hard every day. But that was a fantastic experience. And getting to work with Michael Bay is something I’ll never forget. He’s a man who knows what he wants. It was a very exciting set to work on and I’m glad I got to experience that.

I bet. Is it a lot of green screen? It’s not like you were standing next to actual Transformers.

Well, the robots are digital, but unlike the Marvel movies, for Transformers we were on location in all these crazy places around the world.

Unlike Spider-Man or Deadpool, or one of the other comic book movies—where they shoot everything on a green screen now, and they key in New York City, or they key in a field full of buffalo, or whatever it is—on Transformers we were in all these cities.

We drove cars. We closed down the middle of Chicago. We were in China. We were in Washington State. We were in Detroit. We were in Hong Kong, and we’re closing down city streets. It was wild, like a real movie. Nowadays, we’re getting so much into digital that when you get to actually work on a set where you’re out in the field on location or out in the elements, that’s really cool.

Alice in Transformers 4 (Photo courtesy Alice Ford)

It sounds like a perfect job for you, since travel has always been a passion. What was the first park experience that lit the fuse for you? 

It was when I was very little—I was maybe 6. My parents loved to travel, and the first national park I remember going to was Yellowstone. We flew to Colorado—my grandmother lived in Colorado—and we did a big, huge road trip all throughout Colorado and Wyoming. We rented a cabin in Yellowstone for a couple of weeks in the summer, and I just loved it.

I wanted to move there. I literally was like, okay, family: there’s an ice-skating rink here; there’s a gymnastics gym nearby. Why don’t we just stay here and never have to go home? I loved seeing the bison and all the different wildlife.

This was long before the wolves were reintroduced, so I didn’t get to see those as a kid, but I loved the geysers and just the spectacular-ness of all the different landscapes there.

I remember we were caught in a hailstorm at one point. My dad had to go find somewhere to find shelter because we thought the windshield would break. It was just really exciting. That was the first national park that I remember vividly as a little kid.

We did a lot of long road trips as a family, especially out west. My mom and dad met in Colorado, and my dad worked a lot in the mountains of Arizona and Colorado, and he loved the landscapes out west.

Alice in Yellowstone with her mom, Elli, and sister, Meridith.

So I fell in love with that as a young kid. I also grew up in a spectacular wild place in New Hampshire, surrounded by forest and animals, and my sister and I were always out playing in the woods. We made all the animals our friends.

When did you decide to put a camera on yourself and share those experiences—the germination of Alice’s Adventures on Earth?

When I was in college, or maybe even before college, I had this notion that I wanted to do something involving travel and being on TV. But I grew up in small towns where things like that didn’t exist, where you couldn’t really get into that. We didn’t have people who were TV hosts there.

For a long time it was just this dream. Then when I started working in stunts, I met some people who were producers, and I told them I wanted to have a travel show. They suggested I write a treatment for one, at least have something on paper that outlines my ideas. So I wrote a treatment, and for a long time, all I had was this piece of paper and this dream that maybe someone will find me on the street. You know, things aren’t like that anymore.

Then I got on Transformers and we were traveling all around the world. I had planned this big trip afterwards through Southeast Asia and Australia, and one of the people I met on the movie said, if you really want to have a travel show, you should just shoot all the places you’re going to see and come up with a proof of concept, shoot a pilot.

Alice shooting for World Heritage Adventures in Parque Nacional del Teide in Tenerife, Spain

So that’s what that trip became—my first ever pilot. At the time it was a show called World Heritage Adventures, and it was basically about the world’s national parks. And that’s kind of what started everything. Because after that, I had something to show to people in the industry, so maybe somebody would take me seriously and I could grow it into something else.

That was 11 years ago. Things evolved slowly. I have become so much better as a host and editor, and as a cinematographer—as you do when you spend a lot of time doing these things. But then I got serious about YouTube a couple of years later. And now we’re here. I’ve got a show on PBS, and obviously quite a few followers on YouTube as well.

And soon hopefully shows on the Parks Channel! Excited to have you be a part of that, too. What are your goals for your audience? Obviously, you’re capturing your own experiences. They’re full of insights and advice. But I’m curious if you’ve got a mission statement that you put with the series.

I definitely want people to be able to experience nature in a way that’s more authentic. I also want them to have the takeaways of more respect and love for wildlife and nature.

I just got back from Patagonia a couple of weeks ago, and there was an ethos that the conservation company that deals with the parks down there kept repeating to me—multiple people I met said the same thing. If we can’t get people to touch and feel nature, and they can’t fall in love with it, then they won’t want to protect it.

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica (Photo by Alice Ford)
Alice kayaking in Chile

I think the thing I want to share with people in my videos isn’t just, okay, here’s how, here’s what you can do, here’s where you can eat. It’s also, I want you to feel what I’m feeling. I want you to be with me in my backpack, so you can experience this in the way that I’m experiencing it, so that you fall in love with it, and you want to protect it not only for our generation, but for generations to come.

Follow Alice on her recent solo trek through Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile

Do you have any idea of how many national parks you’ve actually visited to date? I know a lot of people like to get their stamps in the passport and collect them all. I’m sure you’re way ahead of most normal human beings, but I’m curious if you keep that number in your head?

At least 25, maybe more than that. My friend and I have decided to compete to get the most Junior Ranger badges. We started that last year, and I have like 10 Junior Ranger badges just from this past year.

I’m glad you actually have a few more to go, considering how much you travel! That’s a good thing – you never want to completely finish them out, do you? It’s a lifelong journey.

Absolutely. I hope to see more and more national parks as our lives progress.

You mentioned Yellowstone is sort of a first love. But do you have any other favorites?

I love Lassen Volcanic, here in Northern California. Even after living in California for six or seven years, I didn’t know it was a national park. I’d never heard of it—I had no idea it was in California. And then you go there and you realize that it’s so much like Yellowstone. It’s got geysers and sulfur ponds, volcanoes and crazy landscapes that are very diverse. Most Californians really like Yosemite. I like Yosemite, too, but I like Lassen a little bit more.

I love a lot of the Utah parks. Canyonlands is amazing. And some of the parks in Alaska. Denali is great. Lake Clark National Park is one of my favorites as well. I like the Smoky Mountains on the east coast as well.

So you’re obviously an expert in doing this. But going out in nature, there are always surprises. What is the biggest park fail you’ve endured?

Biggest park fail was probably when I did Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and I did not zip up my backpack pocket, and I lost my cell phone off a cliff.

Oh, no! You’re kidding. I take it that was a complete loss?

Yeah. I did search for it. There was another guy who had been hiking and who was very good at rock climbing who scaled down to see if he could find it, but he never found it. It was pinging for a while, showing it was in the park, but I think it must have fallen in a crevasse. There was just no way to find it. Getting back to where I was staying—three hours away—was a challenge because I no longer own a map and I had no directions.

Problems with the modern world—you don’t even think about having a paper map as a backup these days! What would you consider your greatest park success, in terms of achievement, or something that you just stumbled on?

That’s a good question. A recent one was Death Valley National Park, which I went to in October. We’ve had a lot of rain here in California, and Badwater Basin—the lowest, hottest, and driest place in America—has flooded so the landscape has become a shallow lake. If you go there right now, it is just spectacular to see this thin layer of water across the salt flats. I’d never seen it before and I would like to say it would be once in a lifetime—but it’s happening more now this past year. That was a unique and special thing to kind of stumble upon. And at sunset or sunrise it is spectacular.

See Alice’s YouTube video on a recent visit to Death Valley here.

Alice in Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

Very cool. Any tips or advice for photographers and filmmakers who are trying to follow in your footsteps?

Experiment. Get out there and actually start shooting stuff. Don’t wait. Just go out and do it. I think for a long time I was just like, okay, this is a dream, and hopefully one day it becomes reality. But if you’re not taking steps forward to actually make that happen every day or every week, it’s going to remain a dream for a long time.

As far as filmmaking goes, there are so many resources on YouTube, on the internet, at local photography and camera shops to take classes to learn from other people. If you see something interesting on TV or on social media and you want to replicate it, go out and experiment. Some of the coolest things I’ve learned have been from other people, or from watching movies, or from being on set and just kind of observing others. And be creative.

You mentioned earlier this idea that if we don’t experience nature, we’re not going to want to protect it. The National Park Service is trying to get more diverse and younger people out into nature to discover these places. What would you say for those who’ve been reluctant to even try because they’re intimidated, or for whatever reason they haven’t gotten out there?

I would say that it’s less scary than you think, especially at our national parks. One of the things that is so great about our national parks is that outside of maybe the North Cascades—which has very serious hikes for the most part—most national parks have a variety of trails, from half-mile paved trails to 15- to 50-mile backpacking loops. There is something for everyone, even if you’re not a hiker or a biker or a serious outdoor enthusiast. That is one of the things that makes our national parks so great. They have created them to be welcoming to people of all skill levels. So you should definitely go and check them out.

I think there are also budget ways to experience the national parks. Money is often a big stumbling block for a lot of people to access our national parks, and I think that in the years to come there’s going to be much better infrastructure to get into a lot of our national parks via trains and buses. I look forward to having things be a little bit more accessible to people who can’t afford to get to a lot of these more remote places.

Alice in Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park

I know the Park Service has struggled over the years just to keep up with all the infrastructure demands, especially in the big parks that get overcrowded. As you look at the issues that public lands face, what are your biggest concerns, and what are your hopes for what the system can become?

My biggest concerns are definitely overcrowding and infrastructure—not over developing or allowing too many people. But the hard part is, people are very much on both sides of the issue. How can we give access to everyone, but make it so the parks are protected at the same time? A lot of people don’t like the reservations, but the reservations really keep the crowds down and make it so the parks are enjoyable. How can we do both of these things at the same time? That’s one of the biggest challenges the National Park Service is facing right now.

Reservations are back at Yosemite this year, which I think is great, but for people who don’t have flexibility or a lot of disposable income, it can be challenging to find dates that work. I’m not sure where things will go, but I know there has been a lot of experimentation the last few years with reservations and lottery systems. Controlling the crowds is definitely necessary. Another big issue is people getting too close to wildlife in parks like Yellowstone. Those are the biggest challenges in my mind.

Part of it is that so many people want to go to the top four or five parks. Do you have any hidden gems that you recommend for people when they can’t get a reservation to Yosemite?

Well, if you can’t get a reservation to Yosemite in particular, I would say Lassen Volcanic is not that far. Lake Tahoe is beautiful and is not that far. Sequoia and Kings Canyon are right below Yosemite. There are also fabulous state parks. California has 280 state park units, and they’re beautiful. A lot of states have fantastic state parks. Georgia has some fantastic state parks with huge waterfalls, and tons of hiking trails, and yurts you can stay in, and all kinds of stuff.

Alice’s Travel Guide to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Lassen Volcanic National Park (Photo by Alice Ford)

In Colorado, right next to Rocky Mountain National Park there’s an amazing state park that, I think, is one of the least visited state parks in Colorado, and it has trails that are very similar to the ones that are in the national park, and you don’t need a reservation. Same with North Cascades National Park in Washington. You’ve got Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest right next door. Some of the best hikes are actually in that park, not in the national park.

Follow Alice on her Solo Adventure to North Cascades National Park.

We’ve got a long to-do list at the Parks Channel to tell people about all those places! We’re on it. What is your next adventure? 

Well, I have recently been to Antarctica and Patagonia, so that’ll be what’s out next, content-wise. I’m in the planning phase on my next trips. On my travel board over here in the corner, I’ve got New Zealand, Peru, Uganda as potential trips. Maybe Greenland this year as well. Lots of big big destinations.

Amazing. Alice, thank you so much for finding some time to chat with us. We’re really looking forward to seeing more of you on the Parks Channel along with the upcoming PBS series. Happy travels!

Thank you!

Top photo of Alice in Cerro Castillo National Park in Chile courtesy of Alice Ford.

Q&A: Parks to the Moon with Filmmaker Brendan Hall

A young filmmaker sets out on a 10,000-mile exploration of the national parks with his childhood best friend during the centennial of the National Park Service. Along the way, the two record stories of people who work in parks and those who come to enjoy them. His stunning film, Out There: A National Parks Story is a tribute to the national parks, their history and the people who work to maintain their beauty.

I’m here with Brendan Hall, adventurer, filmmaker, National Park fan, and believe it or not, civilian astronaut! But we’ll get into that later. Brendan, thanks for taking the time to chat with us.

Yeah, it’s good to be here and good to talk to you guys.

Let’s start with a summary bio challenge. In three sentences, tell us your origin story. How did you grow up? How did you find your way, and what are you doing now?

I love that, three sentences. Okay. I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut, on a small lake with parents who are psychologists and very focused on mental health and empathy, and connecting with people. I found my way because I got a camcorder when I was 12 with some birthday money, and I fell in love with filmmaking, which led me to film school, and then through road tripping led me to loving national parks and nature. And so today I’m a documentary filmmaker. I make films based around nature and exploration, and especially human connection to the natural world, including national parks. It will soon include space. I’ve been very lucky to travel all around the world telling stories for brands and non-profits, and going to some very wild places.

Brendan Hall with his first camera at age 12.

So what was the first park experience that lit the fuse for you? You mentioned you picked up a camcorder and became interested in filmmaking, but what is your first park memory or the one that really impacted you?

In the middle of college I took a road trip with my friend Anthony Blake that was very transformative for my life. I had spent the summer interning in Los Angeles for a couple of Hollywood film studios, and I thought that was kind of the beginning of the rest of my career. I had always wanted to do narrative and Hollywood films. And then, road-tripping back across the country to the East Coast, we went through seven national parks in six days.

I wouldn’t recommend that pace for most people, but at that age, and just the excitement of seeing national parks for the first time, it was completely eye-opening. For me, it was the Grand Canyon that really changed the course of my life, where I was taking photos for the first time. We were watching a sunset that turned into the Milky Way streaming through the sky. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the Perseid Meteor shower. There were shooting stars through the Milky Way, and then a lightning storm in the distance.

Lightning cracks into the night sky at Grand Canyon National Park, AZ. (Photo by Brendan Hall)

I just thought, this is magic. It made me want to—at least in my twenties—create documentaries rather than narrative Hollywood films, which was a huge departure. I had always kind of pinned my success on trying to be like a Steven Spielberg or a Scorsese, and being in those natural places in these parks changed all of that. It made me want to tell stories of people connecting to these places, kind of like I had. I also wanted to tell a story about the accessibility of these places, because we were just some kids at a viewpoint. We hadn’t hiked to an incredible place. We weren’t some specialty film crew or extreme athletes. We were just a couple of friends who watched a long sunset, and that was enough to change my life. It made me want to tell stories like that for a living.

A nice segue to the film you have on the festival circuit right now, “Out There.” Tell us a little bit about that film and the inspiration for it.

After college—a couple of years after the Grand Canyon experience—I took out a loan and got my first documentary cinema camera and began freelancing. But I was also interning, and then eventually kind of glorified interning in a small role for the National Geographic Channel. In some ways it was what I’d always dreamed of. I was around these amazing and passionate storytellers. I was a part of content that was going on television and around the world. But I was still in an office setting.

So I began dreaming up the most challenging and exciting and meaningful passion project I could possibly create. I also wanted a chance to show my artistic voice and figure out ways I wanted to tell stories—what is that story that only Brendan could tell, based on my life experience, based on my film style. I ended up moving on from Nat Geo and spending a whole summer road-tripping through national parks with my friend Anthony. Our dream behind the project was to create some sort of long-form film showing human connection with the national parks. We ended up spending seven years making this film, my first feature-length documentary.

Brendan Hall and Anthony Blake on the road outside of Redwoods National & State Parks. (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")

It’s called Out There: A National Parks Story, and it follows Anthony and me on a 10,000 mile road trip through 20 national parks, east to west across the country, all to meet people in those parks and tell their stories.

The film tells the story of a trail builder in Acadia who’s been there since the 70s; a Native American speaker and artist in Glacier; a female solo backpacker in the Redwoods; and then a French Vietnamese photographer in Yosemite, alongside a lot of other voices. Our dream was to create a sweeping and huge national parks film that communicates that odd wonder you have when you’re in those places. It was almost like when you see someone react to seeing Yosemite for the first time, that look in their eyes. How do you take that and make it into a feature length film? We thought that just seeing the passion and connection to parks in the stories of common people like us—who had just fallen in love with these places—would be something really special. The film came out last year and has been seen in the festival world. This year we’re going to tour it across the country and find a home where it can be seen more widely.

It’s fantastic. A lot of road trip films have a sort of obvious arc where you’re going from here to there. But what was really interesting, I thought, is that you’re also learning about yourself. You’re learning about national parks, and it seems like there was a broadening of your perspective as you moved across the country. Talk a little bit about that and the takeaways for you.

There was definitely a big shift in our perspective. When we set out, we just wanted to see landscapes and explore beautiful places and hit all the trails and see every viewpoint in every park. I think the adrenaline of a road trip and just trying to chase as many places as we could was most important—my first national park road trip included seven parks in six days. So when I originally hit the road to make a film about them, I was thinking of quantity over quality, and I definitely wasn’t thinking of rich and patient human stories.

The first big shift was the understanding that these parks are about people as well. Connecting with people and actually asking questions and learning about these places through perspectives different from my own was one of the most special ways to appreciate them. That was a big one for me.

Another thing I learned is that the creation of art in nature—any kind of long-form art project—sometimes takes a lot longer than you think, and sometimes it goes a lot quicker than you think. I ended up spending seven years creating this project. If you had told me that in 2016, I would have keeled over. I would have said, “No, this is gonna be done next year.” It’s been my New Year’s resolution for the past three years to get the film done. But we were very lucky that the final scene of our film, which ties the entire thing together, was filmed in year six, right at the end of the process. It was a testament for me to just keep faith in the idea that some things take more time than you expect.

Another little piece of wisdom we learned—time and again in the parks—was that having one really meaningful experience is better than trying to see everything. Every time we took that one really great hike and really savored and took our time, it was a much better way to connect to that kind of landscape than trying to hit every viewpoint and scrambling and getting nervous that we’d miss everything.

Waiting for sunrise on Cadillac Mountain, in Acadia National Park (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")
Brendan Hall and Anthony Blake on the road in Grand Teton National Park (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")
Brendan Hall's grandfather, Jim Hall, on a road trip from North Carolina to Alaska he took in 1952 with a childhood friend. (Photo courtesy of the Hall Family)

It’s great advice, actually, for anybody who’s planning a park trip and trying to tick off every box. I hope it’s not a spoiler, but one of the great human moments in the film is when you realize you were not the first member of your family to experience parks in this way. Talk a little bit about your grandfather, and what that meant to you. 

I had been traveling the parks for years. At this point we’re going on year four, year five, year six making the film and going further and wider to deeper parks and more people. I took a sightseeing flight over Denali, filming the top of Denali, which was amazing and such a life experience. But I was beginning to wonder when this whole process would end and when I’d finally feel like I had captured the park system. And by pure coincidence I was driving home from New River Gorge National Park after filming with QT Luong, who is a subject in the film and I stopped at my grandparents’ house. I had my camera gear with me and my girlfriend, who’s a filmmaker, was also with me. So we sat my grandfather down—he was 94 at the time. I wanted to hear stories about his adventures, because he had talked about road tripping in the past.

As I talked to him, I realized through his photo album he had taken a trip to Alaska with a friend of his at the same age Anthony and I did our national parks journey. He had not only driven to Alaska, but he had gone to five of the same national parks we had. When you look at the photos, it was like side by side, the same trip—the images in there were a mirror image of mine. And what was so astounding to me was that, first of all, he had paved the way for that trip 70 years before we had. I thought we’d done something unique and adventurous and exciting. But what’s so cool is that I’ve been traveling the parks for years, trying to figure out what the ending of the story was and what the meaning was, and it had been sitting in my grandfather’s living room that whole time.

It was for me an embodiment of this idea of preservation, that the whole park system was founded on balancing enjoyment and protection of these landscapes, and the value of keeping them looking the same and keeping them preserved for almost a century. I mean 70 years, and my grandfather and I looked at the exact same sights and ecosystems. It was a moment that will impact me my entire life, I think, to have such a tangible connection to the past like that. When we first set out to make our film, it was on the centennial of the Park Service—celebrating 100 years. For that to be an ending to it all, I can’t put into words how grateful I am and how much it impacted me. And it’s impacting audiences, too, which is really cool. Everyone gasps when they see the photos side by side.

Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. Let’s have a practical gearhead moment for a minute. Obviously, there are a lot of people who love to film video and take photographs in parks. What did you use to make the film, and any tips for young photographers and filmmakers?

Something we got lucky with is, I had a Canon C300 Mark II documentary cinema camera when we started filming in 2016. For filmmakers who don’t know, that’s still actually a really great documentary camera. It shoots 4K, with a really nice log color profile and amazing dynamic range. The benefit of that was that through a seven-year filmmaking process, the quality of the image still feels really good and cohesive. We could continue to film and kind of intercut some modern and some past stuff, and it still looked really good. So that was our main camera.

Brendan Hall during the filming of "Out There: A National Parks Story".

We often shot with the gimbal, which was hugely important. It was kind of like an original Ronin gimbal, which is bigger. Nowadays you can get them a lot smaller, which is cool and would have been helpful for us, because I would be hiking this 15-pound camera rig on trails, and any time you see a shot moving up a tree is me physically pushing the camera up. Along with the gimbal, we used a handheld camera, and both a lightweight photo tripod for longer hikes as well as a sturdy or heavy-duty tripod for long lens stuff in the parks.

Some of the time lapses were shot real time. We’d shoot 15-20 minutes of the clouds moving. Without the jittery trees and cars it looks really nice, because it’s through your cinema camera,  which for me just has this look. But we shot a lot of time lapses, on a DSLR as well. So you’re firing off single frames, using an intervalometer setting every 2, 3, 4 seconds. For night lapses it’s every 30 seconds because you’re shooting 20- or 30-second long exposures. We spent a lot of nights sleeping on camping pads for two hours, three hours while the camera moved across the night skies. So a lot of gear.

The northern lights dance in Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska. (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")

That’s fun stuff. Okay. So just stepping back to the big picture again. I mean, obviously, you went to a lot of parks in the making of the film and your previous road trips. I’m just curious what your park number stands at right now. A lot of people try to get to all 63 of the major national parks, and of course there are 428 national park sites. Are you keeping count? And do you know how many you’ve visited? 

I don’t have my National Park Service sites number. I know that in my lifetime I’m around 46 national parks. I’m 29 now, so the accumulation of that happened very quickly. But now I’m really taking my time being patient, and I’m not rushing anymore to tick them all off. I would like to do it in my lifetime. But I got my fill of a lot of parks very quickly, so I’m excited to take them one at a time.

Any favorites so far?

Man, so many, I mean, what’s so cool is that each park protects a unique ecosystem. For me, my emotional side, I get excited by different parts of each ecosystem in nature. They’re almost like different friends to me or different personalities. It’s also all about the people you go with—you can go to a mediocre place in nature with the best people and have a way better time than a very iconic place with the wrong people, or in a tough state of mind. It’s so subjective what experience you have.

I really love Glacier National Park. It is just stunning and it has all the big features of a national park, in terms of wildlife and landscapes. There are mountains and lakes and grassy meadows, and grizzly bears and goats, even long-horned goats. That part is just amazing. Then also, I think it represents the positives and negatives in other ways, too, where you see evidence of climate change right in your face. There used to be over a hundred glaciers, and now I think there are 30 or less—you can see the side-by-side photos of them disappearing.

Then also the Native American heritage and history there. The Blackfeet Reservation is next to the park. And that heritage is still alive and well, and being told very beautifully by Blackfeet storytellers. But it’s also a story of displacement and being pushed off some of that land for the park to be created. I love Glacier for that sense that it’s a mixture of history and an important American legacy to try to understand—both the positive and the darker sides. And it’s just a stunning place to go. In terms of what makes a national park a national park, all that stuff is really rich there.

Jack Gladstone shares his personal story and connection to the land at his home on the Blackfeet Reservation, outside of Glacier National Park. (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")

Yeah, absolutely. So we know that when you’re going into nature, there’s always going to be surprises. I’m curious, what was your biggest park fail?

A big one was when we only had a day and a half in Grand Teton National Park, which was way too short, and it was just dumping rain the entire time. We were able to film just one sunset that broke through the rain and the clouds. But we’d also not really planned well. People told us it would get really cold at night. We were young—we were 22—and just like, oh, but it’s summer, how cold could it get? Anthony only had tank tops with him. I was the only one who had a rain jacket. I had accidentally left both my sleeping bag and my pillow at other parks, in motels.

So we got there, we were camping, and we were freezing, and it was raining, and from a filming perspective we were just under-prepared. It was a total mess. I think we have plenty of moments like that where we were just learning camping as we went. That wasn’t something either of us were used to, and so we were dropping camping stoves and ripping stuff, and messing up how we built things. We were hiking with backpacks that were too heavy. I would say it was a constant stumble and bumble.

Photographer QT Luong uses his signature large format camera in Yosemite NP, as seen in the documentary. (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")

Okay, well, in the course of the seven years of making this film, you also learned at one point that you had been selected for an unbelievable experience. Can you tell us about that?

Yeah. So early in 2021, I saw a news article saying that a Japanese billionaire, an entrepreneur named Yusaku Maezawa, was taking eight artisan creatives on a journey with him around the moon. And I was like, that is just too impossible to believe. So I read more. And what’s crazy is, I could have done anything differently with my day or my life before that moment, and I might never have seen this news article. He had purchased the first-ever seats aboard a Space X rocket called Starship that’s being developed for larger crews and deep space travel to the moon and Mars. His dream is to bring eight artists and creatives from around the world.

We’ve seen astronauts go into space, some of whom created art. But we’ve also seen scientists, and a very traditional kind of person. What if we brought artists and creatives? What would they create and how would they feel, and how would they translate the experience into some kind of medium. I applied on a whim and submitted a little video application and some written prompts, and then that eventually kicked off a year-long process of interviews, a psychological interview, a medical exam, eventually a big-group, in-person interview. At the end of that year, I had a call with MZ the entrepreneur, and he said, “I just want to ask you a few more questions about your application.” So I hopped on Zoom, and he asked, “Do you want to know the moon crew announcement and who was selected?” I said, “Sure,” and that was kind of my “American Idol” moment when I knew that my life would inevitably change one way or the other. And he said, “I’d love you to join the mission and be a crew member.”

So I’m a member of the dearMoon project. There are eight of us from around the world, and I’ll be in the documentary filmmaker role. There are a couple of photographers; there’s a YouTube educator, a choreographer, an actor, a famous DJ and K-Pop star. We’re an eccentric, passionate group that’s eventually gonna go around the moon sometime in the coming years.

The dearMoon Crew, from left: Kaitlyn Farrington, Brendan Hall, Tim Dodd, Yemi A.D., TOP (Choi Seung Hyun), Yusaku Maezawa (MZ), Steve Aoki, Rhiannon Adam, Karim Iliya, Dev D. Joshi, Miyu. (Photo: https://dearmoon.earth/)

It’s a surreal and incredible project that I’m just beyond grateful for. What excites me is that so much of what I learned in national parks can be applied to this in terms of the wonder and human connection with the natural world, and that this is really a human story that we’re telling. It’s not just the Earth. It’s not just the moon. It’s our connection to them. It’s also about the idea of preservation. You know, space is this whole other place to balance enjoyment and preservation—the same way the park system does.

I attribute this space journey to this passion project, my film “Out There.” It just blows my mind that if I had never left after college and taken this road trip, or even gone to the Grand Canyon once in the middle of college, I never would have created this film, connected with my grandfather in that way, or eventually gone to space. It’s just this really cool testament, for me, to just chase what you’re passionate about and get a little bit out of your comfort zone, because you just never know where that first park or that first place is going to take you.

So 300 million people are visiting national parks every year. There’s a massive surge right now, post pandemic. People are getting out there, but visitation is older and less diverse than it should be. What do you say to people who have been reluctant so far to get out there? 

I think the first thing is just to form a genuine connection with nature. That can begin with a city park, a state park somewhere, but closer to you, and then eventually get out to a national park—especially one that’s just totally different than you’ve ever experienced.

If you have the means and you have the ability to go, it’s absolutely worth it to do so, and especially at a young age, too. There are a lot of folks who wait till they retire to first see the park system, which I completely understand, because you’re working and you’re busy, and you have other obligations. But if you’re able, I think you’ll find some of your best personal growth. Push your limits and get outside your comfort zone.

Photographer QT Luong captures a slice of the sunset in Yosemite National Park. (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")

What we learned, and the reason we called the film “Out There”—it’s not a super national park-y title—but we really believe that some of the best things in life exist outside your comfort zone. We were shown that time and time again through all these stories of the people we’ve met. I think that was the through line of the whole thing, that when you push your comfort just a little bit and get out to a new place that you might be excited but unsure about, the rest will figure itself out and you’ll have a really amazing experience.

I’d also say, for people who have significant means, to support others’ journeys in the parks. More than ever I think we need to make these places accessible. Support organizations that are bringing people out to these places that they might never have access to, and kind of let everyone come along for the ride. In theory the parks are open to everyone, and it’s such a beautiful idea, so important. But in practice not everyone has the accessibility, whether it’s financial means or just the confidence and encouragement that someone like them has a place in the outdoors. The more we can support that as a community, I think, the healthier the park system will be.

What I’d say is, go out and explore, however you’re comfortable-–but also know that outside your comfort zone is some of the coolest stuff. Talking to people, talking to rangers, talking to someone you might never expect to have a conversation with, can lead to a really beautiful interaction.

Okay, well it may be a couple of years yet before you go off to the moon. So in the meantime, what is your next adventure? Have you plotted it out yet?

I haven’t plotted my next big adventure. I want to make a film about oceans because I’m a scuba diver. I think that oceans are the next big ecosystem that is being threatened; coral reefs are disappearing, and that’s all just happening in real time. I’d really like to make a film to help preserve oceans, and highlight that human connection which I think we’ve seen a little bit less of.

Hall scuba dives through rays of light and colorful reefs on Key Largo, FL. (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")

We’re also planning a big cross country tour with “Out There,” in late summer, fingers crossed. We want to take the film east to west across the country, hit cities, hit national parks, every kind of community venue you can think of, and use the film as a conduit to share an awesome evening with people reflecting on the spaces, having talks. We’re going to pair live music with it. So my next journey, I hope, is actually going across the country again, but this time being able to share this and connect with people in a whole different way.

Fantastic. Everybody should see it. It’s an inspiring film, and it’s beautifully made. Thanks again for taking the time to chat with us.

My pleasure. I love the Parks Channel, so I’m here for it.

To meet one of the people Brendan filmed on his journey, check out this video produced and edited by Isabel Shelkin.