When most people picture America’s national parks, they think of sightseeing in Yellowstone, looking down onto the Grand Canyon or perhaps hiking in the Olympic Mountains. But Autumn Ray, ’02, sees things differently. When Autumn thinks of the national parks, she thinks of her goal to run in all 59 national parks by 2020.
Autumn’s mission began in February at the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials. After having trained for the chance to participate in the Olympics for years, she unfortunately missed her goal—and the cut—by fourteen minutes. Left with the realization that she would not be continuing to the Olympic Marathon, Autumn searched for a new focus—and that’s when the idea to run the national parks came to her.
“[They’re] one of my favorite places to run,” Autumn says, explaining her choice of the national parks. Less than six months after the beginning of her mission, Autumn has already completed runs in 23 of the 59 parks and plans to complete all 47 parks in the continental U.S. by the end of 2016. Both are ambitious goals, but as someone who grew up in the outdoors, it’s as much about passion as it is about ambition.
Autumn spent her childhood in Montana, where she was raised close to Glacier National Park. She says, “My roots are being outside.” After spending a childhood skiing in the Rocky Mountains, Autumn arrived at Seattle U prepared for rigorous academics and with plans to continue her athletic nature. While she says she regrets not getting involved in SU’s competitive athletics, Autumn was glad to be outside often when she was a student. Running down Cherry Street through the Central District and Madrona allowed Autumn to develop a love for running, and she claims that running back up the hill to campus is “the reason I can trail run.”
Now living in Arizona, Autumn is an emergency medical physician. Through her work, Autumn sees risk-takers like herself every day—but she acknowledge there’s a difference between the “stupid risks” she often sees patients having taken and the calculated risks that are part of her goal. “[At my job,] I see humanity at its worst,” she explains. But this doesn’t make her fearful. “I’m going to take advantage of my health. I’m going to pursue my greatest joy. [I want to] maximize the way I’ve lived and make the most of my life.”
While most national park visitors like to camp in the park, Autumn decided her journey would be different. After a particularly rainy camping experience near Mount Baker as a Seattle U freshman, Autumn swore off camping for life. Instead, she treks across the country in her car, towing a small teardrop camper with a bed, small kitchen and minimal other facilities. Other park visitors and friends that help Autumn along the way like to take pictures with her camper, which Autumn features as her “road crew” on her blog.
Once Autumn finally reaches each park, she can’t wait to start running. Each trail is carefully selected to be rigorous, devoid of crowds and full of jaw-dropping scenery. Autumn loves viewing the hidden gems of the parks, saying “it becomes addicting to collect them.” While she certainly has favorites (Zion, Grand Canyon and Glacier), even the less traditional parks, like Big Bend (Texas), Congaree (South Carolina) and Hot Springs (Arkansas) are full of beautiful surprises. Autumn explains, “Each [park] is completely different…They preserve not just what’s scenic, but what’s historic, what’s unique.”
Autumn is now on the second leg of her national park journey, and during May and June, she’ll visit all the national parks in North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, Oregon, Wyoming and her home state, Montana—almost a dozen parks over eight short weeks. Particularly exciting are Autumn’s visits to Grand Teton—which she says she’s looking forward to the most—and Mount Rainier—a mountain she’ll always recognize from her time at S.U., but that she’s never before visited.
Looking back on the parks she’s already visited, Autumn reflects, “It’s been fulfilling and it’s been getting me outside again…I’d lose my mind if I wasn’t running.”
You can follow Autumn’s journey on her blog, Notes from a teardrop.