Nobody knows Danny Gross is the geek. It’s about putting that hat on everybody else. He figured out how to build an authentic brand that belongs to everybody. - Ed Giardina

At first, Cheyenne Yanez and Vic Robledo didn’t know that the iconic image with the round glasses and ranger hat was a real person. It was the summer of 2015. The Whittier, California couple had just celebrated their daughter, Penny, turning 5, and they had decided to embark on a healthier lifestyle. “We started going out for hikes and stuff, and then we eventually saw pictures of the Grand Canyon, and it intrigued us,” Cheyenne recalls. “So we took a visit to the Grand Canyon, and we were totally unprepared. We didn’t know that our pass was good for a whole seven days, so we drove back three days later to LA.” Their trip might have been shortchanged by a lack of experience, but they and their daughter were hooked.

Back home, surfing online to find more pictures of national parks, they stumbled upon an Instagram account whose profile photo looked like a minimalist cartoon drawing of Teddy Roosevelt – just hat and glasses, and under that the name “National Park Geek.” It had around 700 followers, all swapping photos of their adventures. Some of the images were gorgeous, as if taken by a professional, but others were snaps from average park fans, and some highlighted lesser-known places.

“It was very inspirational for us seeing others going out to different national monuments, national parks,” Vic says. They created their own Instagram account and took the handle “the_adventurous_3.” Cheyenne and Vic didn’t know it yet, but they’d met a community that would change their lives.

Cheyenne Yanez, Vic Robledo, and their daughter Penny pose with Daniel Gross.

The Missing Shirt

A few months later, 130 miles away in Bakersfield, Linda Mohammad decided that hiking was a far better exercise option than a gym. An engineer originally from Malaysia, she discovered a list of nine California national parks and chose to make a mission of hiking each one. “I remember thinking, I want to find a national park community,” she says. Not the collectors who buzz from park to park, barely staying long enough to get the stamp in their Park Passport. “I associate national parks with geology. So that’s the geeky side, my engineering side. When I googled ‘national park nerd,’ National Park Geek came out. I came across the website and they had T-shirts at the time that they were selling. And the logo, I mean, it’s really cute. So you have to admit you want one.”

Linda Mohammad in Death Valley National Park in April 2016.

Linda bought a purple shirt with the snappy logo and wore it on a trip to Death Valley, her first national park. When she got home, she posted a photo of her wearing it with the Death Valley sign in the background. “I tagged National Park Geek,” she says. By then, in April 2016, the site had attracted around 10,000 followers. “And then I can’t remember if it was the same day or the next day, that picture got reposted on the National Park Geek Instagram. Now I was like, oh, that’s a thing. If that’s a thing, then, you know, I would do more of it just because I really love the logo. It speaks to what I’m looking for in terms of a National Park community.”

Linda bought another shirt for her next trip, to Pinnacles National Park – and again, her photo was reposted on National Park Geek. Sequoia was up next, so she purchased a fun one that said “Big Tree Hugger” along with the Teddy-like logo. But this time there was a problem. “It says it was delivered, but my mailbox was empty,” she recalls. On the store website she found an email for National Park Geek and sent them a note. “I didn’t know who’s behind it. I don’t know if it’s a person, a conglomerate, a business – like, what is it?”

And that’s how she met Daniel Gross, the National Park Geek. “He said, yeah, it says it got delivered. I’m sorry that happened to you,” Linda says. “I wasn’t going to try to get money back, because it seems like it’s a small business. I just don’t know how small, so I let it go, and I remember Danny said, ‘Karma will get them.’ So I was like, you know what? Yeah, karma will get them.”

The Love Story

A more positive form of karma must have been at play when Jacqui Gross met her future husband, Danny. She was living in Philadelphia, where she had discovered a love of American history. “I’ve seen every little corner, every historic part of the city that’s where everything started,” she says.

Jacqui was chair of the industrial design department at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. And it was in that role, attending a conference, that she met the man who would be her soul mate. Daniel Gross was a Baltimore native who was also chair of a design department at the Art Institute of California – Orange County. In his spare time, he served as volunteer fire captain at the La Habra Heights Fire Department. Like Jacqui, he was also a passionate explorer – and deep in his bones, a lovable geek. “He read a lot of books. I could never catch up with him,” Jacqui says with a laugh.

From the beginning, their relationship was defined by their travels. Danny’s heroes were John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, men who by modern sensibilities had their failings, but who in their time were visionaries in wanting to explore and protect America’s treasured places. “He was full of gratitude” for the freedom we have in America, Jacqui recalls, and they brought out the best of each other. From their professorial perches, Danny and Jacqui feared that some of that adventurous spirit was being lost. They would ask their students how many had been to Yosemite. “Maybe one or two hands went up,” Jacqui says. “It’s only a drive away. Every time I’ve been there I heard at least 15 languages. Why won’t you just go there? It’s not that far. It’s not that expensive. You can sleep in your car if you need to. So I was always amazed that Californians wouldn’t even think about their backyard.”

Jacqui and Danny married and had a daughter, Abigail. And still they traveled and explored. It was in 2015 that Danny decided to set up an Instagram account. “We thought that’d be a great way just to share pictures. And he came up with that nickname he gave to himself, National Park Geek, because he was true geek!” The photo-sharing site had been around for five years by then as an iOS app, but a site redesign and Windows version would see its user engagement skyrocket. By 2018 Instagram would reach 1 billion annual users.

Geek Chic

Danny dashed off the iconic logo, inspired by his heroes and informed by his deep understanding of design. Earlier in his career, at a summer program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, he had studied with Milton Glaser, the legendary graphic designer who created the “I Love New York” logo. Ed Giardina worked with Danny at the Art Institute and still marvels at how he conjured such an indelible image. “He built something that’s authentic and selfless, because he wasn’t branding himself, he was branding this anonymous traveler to the parks,” Ed says. “Nobody knows Danny Gross is the geek. It’s about putting that hat on everybody else. He figured out how to build an authentic brand that belongs to everybody. And that’s so rare in this day and age.”

“A brand is not simply a logo. A brand is how a product or a service makes you feel,” says Cameron Rennacker, one of Danny’s former students and now head of Rennacker Studio in Phoenix. “Danny created more than a logo. He created a community first and then a brand second.”

Danny started sharing photos of their trips and reposting images he liked from others. Soon, getting attention from the National Park Geek became a draw for people to tag him. “I remember when Danny would say, ‘Well, we have a hundred followers,’ and I said, ‘Don’t get excited, you know, it’s a lot.’” Jacqui recalls. “Then we got 400 and I said, ‘Really, you know, maybe it’s gonna stop now, so don’t get too excited.’”

In December 2016, Danny and Jacqui took their toddler Abigail on an epic trip from California, across Arizona and into Texas. Before heading out they posted to their community that they’d be visiting Saguaro National Park and suggested a meetup. “We had a lot of followers there, and that’s how this next-level adventure began,” Jacqui says. “People kept asking him, can we get the sticker of this logo? So I said, ‘Here’s $500, go crazy, you know, if it doesn’t work, don’t worry about it. It’s not much.’ I created the sticker. And you couldn’t believe how many people wanted to buy it. So we created the online store. And we just rolled from that.”

Saguaro became the first national park to sell the National Park Geek stickers. Jacqui and Danny started attending the Public Lands Alliance conference, which brings together all the park gift shop vendors. Soon the brand began to take off. Today, National Park Geek’s Instagram account has a whopping 736,000 followers. Merchandise is sold on its online store and at national park gift shops across the country.

“I remember when we were little, people really reacted to everything, and they loved it, and it just went wild, and it grew organically,” Jacqui says. “There was no trick of any kind. It was truly all by the people, for the people, whatever you want to call it. So that was kind of impressive, and I still can’t believe it.”

Danny leaned into community building, appointing National Park Geek Ambassadorsincluding Linda Mohammadto help spread the word. That first meetup in Saguaro led Danny to organize more of them, often in California. Cheyenne, Vic and their daughter became regulars. “We started networking, making so many friends,” Vic says. “People from all backgrounds, all races, and that was the most beautiful thing I believe. Danny . . . brought a lot of people together.”

National Park Geeks are not just people who appreciate parks and history, or hiking, or photography. They share a mission. “We shared the awareness that Earth needs a cleanup,” Vic says. “We need to be stewards of the land as well. When we go up to these places, we inclined our child to leave no trace behind, clean after yourself, clean up after others. We would see people with bags and with their children, cleaning up cigarette butts out of the ground that wasn’t even theirs. I mean that. Who knows how long they would be there? But these people showed so much character.”

Along with trading insights on where to go and what to do, the community helped each other develop new skills. “We got so excited to take night photos of the stars, the Milky Way, and through National Park Geek we learned those tips and tricks, and we were able to capture the beauty of the night sky and share it with everyone,” Cheyenne says.

Penny was 5 when they first discovered that beguiling logo. Today she’s 13, with a hat bursting with Junior Ranger Badges. She’s an alumnus of the National Park Trust’s Buddy Bison program and an official National Park Geek Ambassador.

Danny had inspired several generations to care about national parks and make it a mission to see as many as possible. “His dream was to retire and become a seasonal ranger – and change parks every year,” Jacqui says. “Can you believe that?”

See a gallery of Danny's photos

A Shocking Loss

In December 2021, four days after his daughter Abigail’s 10th birthday, Danny Gross suffered a sudden, massive heart attack and died. There were no warning signs. He was just 55 years old. “It was devastating on so many levels,” Jacqui says. “He wasn’t just my husband and my kid’s father. He was also my partner, my co-worker. He was my everything, and my best friend. So it’s like one evening it’s, just, all gone.”

“When I saw the missed call from Jacqui that morning, I remember telling my husband, this cannot be good ‘cause Jacqui is reaching out to me from Danny’s phone,” Linda says. “I really miss his friendship. He had a way of making people feel special.”

The OG National Park Geek may be gone, but his legacy lives on through Jacqui, Linda and others who cherish the community. The logo’s power to inspire is undiminished.

“You could be hiking up a mountain with two people on the trail, and someone’s gonna stop you and say, ‘That’s a cool badge you have on your backpack. Where’d you get that?'” Cameron says. “It’s always a really cool opportunity to stop and talk about Danny’s legacy when someone does that.”

More National Park Geek products are on the way. “It took me 6 months to even start thinking and working on designs that would fit in his style, and even though we collaborated, there were a few things I did on my own,” Jacqui says. “Whatever he did is going to stay there, because that was really the foundation, but I’m not afraid to add on… People love the pink bandana. They love the purple sticker.”

Chief National Park Geek Ambassador Linda knows there’s far more room to grow: “As far as National Park Geek community, I hope that will continue to inspire more park lovers, and I also hope with time and capacity we could also grow in our reach on social media, not just reposting and providing inspiration, but also the educational aspect of things. You know, when you talk about geeks, you want to throw out a lot of park facts!”

Cheyenne and Vic miss Danny too, but the National Park Geek still motivates them – and sometimes even turns up in unlikely places. “You might find somebody at the beach with one of the stickers on the cooler, and we might not necessarily know these people, but we’re like, that’s how big this is. That’s how big it’s gotten. That’s the cool thing about it.”

Somewhere in those starry park night skies, the OG is smiling, eyes twinkling behind those rounded spectacles, doffing that ranger hat in appreciation.