Visiting all 61 U.S. National Parks is the goal for 89-year-old Grandma Joy and grandson Brad Ryan. The duo started their journey in 2015 after Grandma Joy said she’s never seen the mountains. The pair, who recently went viral on their adventures, have visited 29 so far — including Shenandoah National Park.
“There’s so much of the great outdoors she never got to experience, and it made me feel sad for her because I had been able to travel and experience quite a bit that I was grateful for,” Ryan, 38, said. “When I was in my fourth year of vet school, I had a weekend where I could get away, and I love the Smoky Mountains. I asked her if she wanted to come with me, and she said ‘When are you picking me up?’”
The trip to the Smoky Mountains four years ago was the first of many for the Ohio natives.
“We arrived in the middle of the night and it was raining. She held an umbrella over my body and her body while I was hunched over trying to put this tent together,” he said. “She camped for the first time when she was 85. She giggled even when she fell off the air mattress. She climbed 2.3 miles up the Alum Cave Trail to the Alum Cave Bluffs. I knew we were on to something in terms of what we could accomplish together.”
Upon returning Grandma Joy to Ohio, she cried — a moment Ryan said he’ll never forget. Less than two years later, the idea to visit all the national parks was formed.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if she could actually see Old Faithful blow up? If she could actually watch the sunrise over the Grand Canyon, imagine how good that would feel. Imagine how it would feel to watch your grandmother walk through an ancient Redwood Forest and stare up at this tree that was standing tall before she was even born.’ I just kept having all these visions for the future,” Ryan said.
Ryan started a fundraising campaign using GoFundMe in 2017 to fund their next adventure — 21 national parks in 28 days. In 2018, the pair went to Shenandoah National Park. However, Ryan’s connection with Shenandoah National Park goes back well before then.
“My history with Shenandoah National Park is that when I was a veterinary student, I actually did an externship at the Wildlife Center in Waynesboro. Most recently, at the beginning of the year, I was living in Front Royal working at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. So I’ve lived on both sides of Shenandoah National Park, and I hiked the entire park in 2009 when I was doing the Appalachian Trail. I’ve spent a lot of time at Shenandoah,” he said.
Ryan now works as a wildlife veterinarian for the Global Health Program at Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., less than 75 miles from Shenandoah. He said he uses his park pass to enjoy weekends there, including hiking Old Rag for the first time recently.
“There’s something special about every park that you can really appreciate while you’re there. Shenandoah National Park to me represents the heart of the East Coast, the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, and this is coming from somebody who’s hiked the entire range of the Appalachian Trail,” he said. “I think for my grandma, it ranks as one of her favorites because she’s able to just get out of the car, walk over to an overlook and take it in without having to really do strenuous hiking.”
Since going viral, Ryan said he receives a lot of questions from young people who want to do something similar with their parents or grandparents. He says Shenandoah National Park is a great first one to check off the list because it’s suitable for all ages and includes Skyline Drive.
“I would extend to anyone who’s reading this who’s having a similar epiphany or it’s sparking some idea of something they want to do with their grandparents — it might not be a national park — but, whatever unfilled dream you want to pursue, make it happen,” he said.
Grandma Joy and Ryan are planning to set out on their next journey this month to California and back in hopes to cross off 20 more national parks. Ryan documents their adventures on Instagram at @grandmajoysroadtrip.