Travel Podcast Ep. #4: “National Parks”
32,000 miles. That’s how far Minh-Chau and Vu Chu, a.k.a. “The Traveling Chus” drove with their 4-year-old son, Harvey, on an epic 8-month road trip visiting 51 U.S. National Parks. After spending 7 1/2 years with Expedia, Minh-Chau was ready for a sabbatical and to reconnect with her family through travel and nature. Whether it’s eight months or eight days, the Chus have travel tips you need to make your next family road trip a success.
Harvey Chu: We’re at Redwood National Park and we’re going to look for dinosaurs in this forest!
Nisreene Atassi: That is the voice of 4-year-old Harvey Chu. I’m here with his parents today who recently left their home, family, and jobs behind to travel on an epic eight-month road trip to visit the 51 national parks. My first question for you both is, did you end up finding any dinosaurs in the forest?
Minh-Chau Chu: We did not find any dinosaurs, but we did go and search for them.
Nisreene Atassi: Today on the show we’ll find out how you guys embarked on your epic journey, what you saw, what you did and what tips you have for anyone else who’s planning their own eight-month, eight-day or even eight-hour journey through America’s national parks. I’m Nisreene Atassi and this is Out Travel The System.
Today we’re heading out on the open road. In the driver’s seat I’ve got Harvey’s parents Minh-Chau and Vu Chu, welcome to Out Travel The System thanks for coming on the show today.
Nisreene Atassi: Minh-Chau, you actually work at Expedia and I stumbled upon your story because before you actually went on your trip you sent this email out and you said “Hey my husband and I and our son are heading out on this epic journey you can follow along” and then here we are basically a year later you’ve come back to Expedia and you sent the same email saying “Hey I’m back, come follow us and see everything that we did.” So how does it feel to be back at Expedia?
Minh-Chau Chu: It has been amazing actually because I was there for 7 1/2 years and being at the same company for a long time you kind of need a sabbatical so coming back I’m rejuvenated and I feel refreshed. I feel like I can do anything, I feel like I’m a better employee and better co-worker and I have a better outlook on life and being back has been really positive for me personally.
Nisreene Atassi: I understand that you hit more than 120 destinations including 51 national parks. Take me back to the first park that comes to mind from that very first stop.
Minh-Chau Chu: For me, the one that stood out the most that put chills on my back is Big Bend National Park. When we were driving that canyon is just ginormous and we’re driving in a little car and we’re looking up and it felt like it was an out of body experience to see it from above you’re looking down and we’re so tiny and everything was so grand. Then going there and going through the canyon with my son and my husband it was just like “wow” this is what life is meant to be. So to me, that was an amazing experience to have nature impact you in that way that I’ve never had in my life.
Nisreene Atassi: Vu, what was Harvey’s reaction at the first destination?
Vu Chu: Mount Rainier was our first stop. It was beautiful. It was the end of the fall season so the plants and the trees have turned colors so you got a lot of red, orange and yellow. It was just so vibrant up at Paradise Visitor Center and so Harvey had a blast just observing and enjoying the snow-covered Mount Rainier, that was a great way to start on our trip. However, it rained that night and it was the biggest rain that we experienced the whole trip and it happened on the first national park stop.
Nisreene Atassi: Well it sounds like you guys saw some really extraordinary things. I mean just the way that you’ve described the grandioseness of the canyons and the different colors and the waters, talk about just overall extraordinary destinations. I know you guys visited The Wave in Coyote Butte, but I understand it’s really difficult to get into that site and extremely beautiful to see. Tell me a little bit about that place and what that was like.
Vu Chu: It was definitely a really wonderful experience for us. To give some background, initially, we weren’t sure if we could do it. We did some research and you know there are people that said “Oh don’t bring your kids,” but we thought about it for a while and then we figured, ok let’s just drive two and half hours, put in our lottery ticket and if we get it then it’s meant to be.
Nisreene Atassi: So it’s a lottery system to get into?
Vu Chu: Yes it’s a lottery system. I think that day we had about 200 people and there are usually 10 people that get selected via online lottery and then 10 people on site. So a total of 20 people per day can go and hike and experience The Wave.
Nisreene Atassi: I’m guessing that’s why people suggested you not bring your children.
Vu Chu: Well the hike is about eight miles roundtrip and where it’s at, it can get really hot in the summer. There aren’t a lot of facilities for the hike. So when you get in there and you have a little one you definitely have to be very prepared. I think Minh-Chau would be really good at sharing some of the tips that we’ve learned about hiking The Wave.
Minh-Chau Chu: The Wave is actually only six miles, but then you do a lot more walking around which then totals up to about eight miles. Our tip for that is you have to have a baby carrier or a toddler carrier and we brought one of those. So it is not as strenuous of a hike as people think it is. With our child, he loves to hike up and down little mounds and that hike is mostly those things so he was having a ball just hiking that and after he gets tired then we put him in the carrier so he hiked maybe half the time and the other time we would carry him. So definitely make sure you have a carrier if you’re bringing in a child obviously planning is a really important piece.
Nisreene Atassi: What percentage of your trip ended up being unplanned versus the planned destinations?
Minh-Chau Chu: We basically kept with the plan that we had with all those destinations then we end up doing a lot more because there’s so much to see in America. So we ended up taking a trip to the Virgin Islands National Park which wasn’t on the trip because it was more expensive, but then if you’re in Florida already then it’s not too expensive to fly over. Then we did the White Sand Dunes which is an extra hour detour, but we were like hey what’s one extra hour. So we ended up doing those things and we hit a lot of other smaller points of interest because we were already traveling and after a while, you travel so many miles what’s another hour or two. So we ended up driving two hours one way to see this space observatory in Texas. My husband’s like “oh it’s only two hours one way, let’s do it.” We went and my son had such an amazing time looking at all of the stars through the huge telescopes that we had never experienced. So to us, those types of detours are invaluable.
Nisreene Atassi: So you guys primarily got around driving, it sounds like. Did you drive the entire way?
Minh-Chau Chu: My husband, yes.
Vu Chu: So we probably logged 32,000 miles. I didn’t track the miles in Hawaii, but our map initially came out to about 20,000 miles, a little bit more.
Nisreene Atassi: I’ve had my car for two years and I think I’ve only driven like 12,000 miles so 32,000 miles is like more than I can even imagine.
Vu Chu: Yeah, but you know what we had a plan and strategy in place when we were planning this trip. We do recommend to people that are looking to do a trip like this would be to not drive at night. We kept our driving between different destinations to an average of three to five hours. That’s because we have a little one. Definitely factor in transportation between the different locations when you’re trying to experience the location because the setup time, the cleanup, and packing your stuff to go to another location takes time so definitely consider that when you’re mapping out or planning for your trip.
Nisreene Atassi: You had a trailer/RV and then you also stayed in some hotels. How did you decide when to camp rather than stay in your trailer or to get a hotel, what was your deciding factors between all of your different sorts of lodging?
Minh-Chau Chu: So we already planned that ahead of time. We have a huge Excel spreadsheet that indicates when we should stay at a campsite versus in the city or RV site. So we ended up doing about 70% campsites and 30% in hotels.
Vu Chu: We knew for a fact that if we were going to New York City, we’re going to want to see Manhattan and there’s nowhere we’re going to park that trailer so we had to plan that out. So those big cities we ended up finding a hotel that we could park the car and the trailer and then take the train or the bus in.
Nisreene Atassi: So you mentioned you had this giant Excel spreadsheet. Can they find that on your website?
Minh-Chau Chu: We haven’t posted yet, but we will. It’s really a massive spreadsheet. It’s kind of dynamic like if you wanted to change your agenda it auto-updates to the new dates that you want and it’s definitely a smarter Excel spreadsheet to help you plan so I definitely will have that on my blog.
Nisreene Atassi: Of all of the destinations that you guys went to, did Harvey have a favorite destination?
Minh-Chau Chu: He loves the Everglades. He also really loved the Virgin Island National Park because of all the fish that he was able to see off the shore.
Nisreene Atassi: Well he’s got an exotic taste.
Vu Chu: He does. He loves Caribbean lobsters now.
Nisreene Atassi: Don’t we all.
Vu Chu: Oh they’re delicious. I’m biased now between that and the Boston or the Maine lobster.
Minh-Chau Chu: We’ve never seen him so happy seeing fish before he was just ecstatic just standing on the shore and seeing the fish. He would say “there’s a school of fish!” and he keeps saying it over and over and over again “school of fish!” We’ve been to Hawaii before but we’ve never been able to stand by the shore and see hundreds of fish swimming by his feet and we have a YouTube video on that and it’s just amazing to see.
Nisreene Atassi: So what do you think Vu, would you say that those were his favorite ones as well or did you get a different perspective?
Vu Chu: You know Minh-Chau hit the perfect park that he just kept on saying that he really enjoyed. We thought it was underrated, partly because it’s really remote. Even for myself. that was on my top list. I have my top three parks that I would love to go back and relax and at the same time be adventurous This park on St. John Island is two-thirds of the island and the park is protected by the National Park Service. So your beaches are pristine and the coral is amazing. The fish, the turtles the stingrays… we saw all of those. If you wanted to swim with turtles you go to Maho Bay you’re guaranteed to swim with turtles. When we’re at Trunk Bay, gosh the sand was just so fine that you step on that and you feel like you want to take a nap. It was just great and Harvey had a chance to play in it and we thought it was the best vacation. On top of being able to explore a unique park that now a lot people a chance to see.
When we were mapping out this trip and did some research, Minh-Chau found a website by Dr. Randy Olson. So he’s a data scientist and he has some algorithm that maps out the most efficient way to either see or drive through all the 49 states and the most efficient way to see certain major cities in the U.S. so we took his suggestion on routes and then of course researched and found the list of all the parks that we could hit and we combined those two.
Nisreene Atassi: How long did it take you guys to actually plan this eight-month trip?
Vu Chu: Minh-Chau took just two months it was so crazy. We came back from Japan last year and that was when we made the decision and said let’s do this because our son is in kindergarten this fall. Time just flew by so quickly and so we wanted to capture and enjoy our time together and experience nature with each other and we made that decision in July and two months later we were 80-90% done with the plan. So that was kind of our September and then we left October 1st.
Nisreene Atassi: So what were some of your tips that you would offer other parents out there who might be thinking of doing a long road trip or a small road trip and they’ve got little kids? Is there anything that you guys learned that you think would be good for other parents to know?
Minh-Chau Chu: I think the big part is the parents, it’s usually not the child. It’s the parents that have to put the right mindset into traveling and saying this is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re gonna do it. You have to mentally prepare for the meltdowns. You have to mentally prepare for when things don’t go your way. Yes, you have unpredictable times so we did a lot of things to prevent those types of meltdowns. In the car, we have a huge Tupperware of all his toys and then we built this cushion that he can rest his feet so he can have an enjoyable ride and he’s comfortable. We have a really comfortable car seat for him. We also have all these other activities that he likes to do in the car and we have a huge snack bag of all his favorite snacks. My son loves to eat.
Nisreene Atassi: I mean that keeps me entertained on a long road trip so I feel like Harvey and I are very similar.
Minh-Chau Chu: You’d be friends. So we did a lot of those things that help him stay entertained and then when all things failed, then we’d give him the iPad and we’re not really big on giving kids electronics because we’re outdoors people, but when you’re on a really long road trip and you’re in there for three or four hours at a time you need to do something that would keep him entertained. The other tip that we have for traveling with kids is you have to prepare them as well and they’re not just the child in the car, they are a partner in travel, which means that you have to tell them what’s up. You have to tell them when we’re doing certain things, we have to tell them the agenda and then give them options like we’d always ask, “Hey Harvey this is where we’re going, today we can go to the beach or go to the forest or go to the lake, what would you prefer?” So give them options and involve them in the decision making because even though he was four at the time, he’s still a passenger and traveler with us and he has opinions.
Nisreene Atassi: I’m sure people come and ask you questions because not everybody can embark on something like that. That’s a massive undertaking and I’m sure there’s a lot of people who might be just looking at an eight-day trip or even an eight-hour trip. Would you still sort of give people the same suggestions and have them put the same level of research into things?
Minh-Chau Chu: I think it actually applies to a long trip as well as a short trip because even for a long trip you can book in advance, which is great, but you can also book last moment. For us we didn’t really book in advance, we booked everything kind of last moment and it still worked out. I think that’s the thing about a lot of people being afraid and we were those people for a while, we were like “oh we have to book things like three months in advance and make sure we get a hotel make sure we get a campsite!” But we didn’t do any of those things, we just went with the flow and booked it two weeks in advance or even a month in advance so it’s all attainable if you want to travel somewhere.
Nisreene Atassi: What spurred you guys to want to take this eight-month trip? You wrote something and it was clear that family was the most important thing in life and that was part of the impetus so what was the moment that really triggered this?
Minh-Chau Chu: A lot of people asked us this question because it is a really big move for our family or for anybody right, and for us it was. I wrote on my website with regards to this as well is that we were trying to have a kid for a long time after Harvey and we spent years trying to have one. After we had our second miscarriage it devastated us and we were really sad and depressed and then we said you know we need to focus on something else. We need to focus on the child that we do have and the family that we have here and so we decided that we needed to do something that we love and then focus on our family. What we love most is being in nature and what we love most is travel. So it just kind of organically grew that we were going to do the parks and I don’t remember who decided to do it but somehow we ended up doing it and now I can’t remember how we came about it, but we just thought, “we gotta do this.”
Vu Chu: It was me. I was just Googling around and I saw Dr. Randy Olson’s website and I love road trips and I like to drive so. So I shared with her a few days after coming back home and I was like “oh wow.” Then the other factor was if we don’t do this now and we try to just do this a little bit at a time, then it’s going to take years and then we’ll find other excuses not to do it. As we were building the schedule it just became clear that we might need to quit our jobs.
Nisreene Atassi: But the whole point was reconnecting with nature and reconnecting with your family, do you feel like you can still achieve that with a weekend trip or did you feel like you needed to have this big eight-month excursion? For people out there who are looking to have the same sort of experience, do you feel like they can achieve that even if they did just go for a couple of days?
Minh-Chau Chu: I think a couple of days might be a little short, but I think that you do what’s right for you and what’s right for your family. For us, three months would have been great, but eight was definitely better. I think that a long trip really helps heals the soul for anything that you have going on. For us, travel saved us from a lot of sadness that we were experiencing and after this trip we haven’t thought much about it and now I feel like I’m a better person as a mom, as an employee, as a wife from this whole trip. We’ve learned so much about each other and when you’re traveling 24/7 you can’t just like hide you know so I think that a long trip is definitely something that’s better for us. It doesn’t mean that it could be applicable to everybody else, but sometimes even a getaway weekend is perfect for whatever you’re experiencing. To me the tip is just to get out and do something and travel and explore and learn, to me that’s the most important.
Vu Chu: Last week we did a hike at Franklin Falls and then this week we’ve been debating whether to go to Mount Rainier to do a long, good hike or go to Olympic National Park. Pacific Northwest has a lot to offer, sometimes just driving two to three hours can really give you an experience if you’re looking to try to connect with nature or just disconnect from electronics. The reason why I like the national parks is when you go, were forced to be disconnected from electronics and that forces us to communicate and spend more time with each other.
Nisreene Atassi: Well thank you to you both for coming on the show and for sharing your journey and taking us along. Your national park road trip. Minh-Chau, Vu, and their four-year-old son Harvey recently spent eight months visiting 51 national parks across the United States. You can see all of the exciting videos and photos from their trip on their website.
We’ll have links and some videos as well so you can come and find us @Expedia on social media to learn all about the Chus and if you can’t make it to a national park you can certainly go and visit The Traveling Chus and live vicariously through them to see and experience some of their adventures.
Thanks for listening to Out Travel The System brought to you by Expedia. We would love to hear your travel adventures and tips or if you have been to a national park and other stories that you’d like to share. Feel free to e-mail us at email@example.com or you can come and find us on social media. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show for more insider secrets and tips to help you out travel the syste I’m Nisreene Atassi, happy travels!
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