Edina residents are celebrating with awe-inspiring visits to national parks.
Rich mouthwatering cake, brightly colored candles or a deliciously decadent meal. These are all traditional considerations when celebrating a birthday. For the lucky ones, a birthday may even consist of a live musical concert, mani- pedis with Champagne or a transatlantic vacation.
Edina resident Stephanie Thomas has never been big on festivities that land her in the spotlight. But when her 60th birthday approached, she reconsidered how to honor and celebrate the milestone. Leaning into her love of the outdoors and incorporating her sense of humor, Thomas decided to visit a place full of light and life—Death Valley National Park in California. Although quite clever, Thomas’ family didn’t initially take to her ironic play on words, but onward she went.
Visiting a national park was nothing new to Thomas or her family. As strong believers in accessible, preserved and protected parks and avid fans of stunning landscapes, it was a perfect plan. “I’m obsessed with national parks. Being in nature is so energizing and rejuvenating to me,” Thomas says. The family has visited Acadia, Badlands, Blue Ridge Parkway, Hawai‘i Volcanoes and Yosemite national parks. They’ve also visited Custer State Park among others.
Once in Death Valley and surrounded by nature, Thomas was able to reflect on the artistry in every direction. Gazing out at the unique rock formations doting the vast landscape, she says she was in awe.
On the morning of her birthday, Thomas and her husband arose at 4:30 a.m. to get a head start on hiking into the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes to watch the sunrise. Although it was pitch dark, the determined couple stumbled across the dunes until the sun started its ascent over the hills. It was then that Thomas felt the transcendence of it all. The way the emerging light manipulated the dunes was an “incredible display of light and shadow that changed every second,” Thomas says. It was at that moment that she felt ready to greet the dawn of a new decade.
Thomas’ hot tip: Follow photographers on social media to uncover the best kept secrets when it comes to the national parks. They always know the premier spots.
For Edina’s Ellen Hunter Gans, being “outdoorsy” has always been in her blood. From growing up on road trips and camping, to taking her own family to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and beyond, there’s no shortage of adventure.
As a nod to her husband’s 40th birthday, Gans, her husband and kids (6 and 8) decided on a two-week road trip to several national parks, including Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Zion and more. What made the trip family friendly was the ease of it all. “I loved that we could hop out of the car and do hikes that were manageable for a 6-year-old and yet took us to jaw-dropping places,” Gans says. A few early mornings even included solo hikes at Pike’s Peek and the Zion’s famous Angel’s Landing before the kids began to stir awake.
Up next for the family? They’re hoping to get to Acadia, Glacier, Grand Tetons and Yellowstone national parks. And although Gans welcomes any excuse to visit a national park, she says, “Celebrating a milestone birthday as part of the experience makes it even more meaningful. It’s hard to imagine a more memorable experience than taking in jaw-dropping natural scenery with your loved ones as you celebrate another trip around the sun.”
Gans’ hot tip: The America the Beautiful annual pass offers access to as many national parks as you want in a calendar year. “We are so fortunate to have such an incredible, diverse array of national parks in the U.S.,” she says. “Even if you’re not super outdoorsy, I think there’s something for everyone.”
Ellen Westin has conquered four marathons, countless half marathons and completed a RAGNAR race, yet over the years, athletic training has stepped aside to make way for other priorities like her career and three children. But as she also approached her 40th birthday, Westin wanted to do something big. “I wanted to prove to myself that I can still do it, put in the training and accomplish something that was a huge challenge,” she says. That huge challenge? The Rim-To-Rim, a 25-mile hike across the Grand Canyon.
Training became Westin and her husband, James’, focus for the next four months, as they balanced weightlifting, running, doing stairs and endless rolling ski hill hikes (sometimes in pouring rain). “I thought training for a 25-mile hike would be easier than training for a marathon … I have been proven wrong,” the Edina resident says. Along with the physical training, Westin was prepared for the voyage by understanding the importance of drinking water, eating often and replenishing electrolytes to avoid altitude sickness.
All her training paid off when October came and it was time for the trip. The day of the hike, a shuttle took them to the trailhead to begin their journey at 4 a.m, led only by their headlamps. Hikers first descend 14.3 miles and 6,000 feet to the bottom, and although a brisk 38 degrees F at the starting line, the bottom of the canyon (The Box), is often quite the opposite, at 91 degrees F. Despite the heat, Westin and her husband found many of the treasures the hike has to offer, including a waterfall called Ribbon Falls, which is only accessed by walking through Bright Angel Creek.
After a full day of hiking, Westin approached the Devil’s Corkscrew—a relentless trek through switchbacks up the canyon. The final 4,500-foot-ascent out of the canyon is 9.6 miles. “The amount of elevation going down and back up was so much,” she says. But with the sun setting around them, headlamps on once more, the serenity of the hike set in. “The last mile and a half with headlamps, you can’t see the top of the canyon, so you don’t know how far you have to go. But you look up and you can’t tell what’s a headlamp and what’s a star because they’re that bright. It’s very peaceful,” she says.
Coming out the other side of such a rigorous experience, Westin and her husband needed a few days to recover. However, there is zero regret. “My favorite thing to do is hike and be in the outdoors,” she says. “I could not think of a better way or place to celebrate this milestone birthday.”
Westin’s hot tip: Commit. Decide that you’re definitely doing it, and find someone to do it with you for encouragement for training. It’s nice to have a partner in it. It helps you keep going.