This author visited over 60 national parks in 2020. But which Utah park was her favorite?

In her book, ‘Feral,’ writer Emily Pennington describes her journey to visit every U.S. national park.

(Emily Pennington | Little A) Emily Pennington hiking the Peekaboo Loop at Bryce Canyon National Park. Pennington has written a memoir, "Feral," about her experience visiting all the national parks in the United States.

Emily Pennington doesn’t understand, she said, how to live with regrets.

But there was a time, about three years ago, when “the Emily of the past needed to rip a hole into her existing reality,” she said.

Climbing through that hole, Pennington hit on an ambitious plan: To visit every national park in the United States.

Pennington chronicles her journey in a new memoir, “Feral: Losing Myself and Finding My Way in America’s National Parks,” to be released Feb. 1 by Amazon’s Little A imprint (hardcover, 270 pages).

Pennington didn’t grow up considering herself an outdoorsy person, she said, but after a backpacking trip in her late 20s, she fell in love with it.

“When you find something that you love that much, that just fuels your soul to that degree,” she said. “It’s really easy to get quickly obsessed and want to become an expert at it.”

Pennington spent the better part of a year planning the route for her adventurous trip. She ditched a job she was getting tired of (as a high-powered executive assistant in Los Angeles), and climbed into her “chariot” — a 2015 Ford Transit Connect that she called “Gizmo” — to start her trek around the country.

As she describes in the book, Pennington started out at California’s Joshua Tree National Park, about 140 miles east of Los Angeles. From there, she embarked on a soul-searching, “Eat, Pray, Love”-like journey, navigating through weather and trekking logistics as well as going through a break-up and dealing with such mental health concerns as anxiety and depression.

“The parks didn’t care if I was beautiful or bookish or well mannered,” she wrote in “Feral.” “They only cared if I was competent.”

(Emily Pennington | Little A) Emily Pennington's campsite in the Needles area of Canyonlands National Park. Pennington has written a memoir, "Feral," about her experience visiting all the national parks in the United States.

A trip interrupted by a pandemic

The book — which starts with the author’s land acknowledgement to the Native American tribes who shepherded the land on which she traveled — reads like a funnier version of Jeannette Walls’ “The Glass Castle,” which depicted a fractured, dysfunctional family that frequently took to the road.

Her plan was to hit all 62 national parks that existed at the time. (The 63rd, New River Gorge in West Virginia, was established on Dec. 27, 2020, after Pennington started her trip.)

Pennington knew to expect the unexpected in the wilderness. That notion hit hard soon after she started — when the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to sweep the world.

Like a true wilderness trekker, having little connection with the outside world, Pennington found out about COVID-19 slower than others did.

“It was really bizarre to get pieces of the news of COVID and then maybe be in the backcountry for a few days, then maybe come back out and get information that a city you were in was about to shut down,” Pennington said.

She jetted to Utah in early March 2020, aiming to hit Utah’s “Mighty 5″ national parks in two weeks, knowing a shutdown was imminent.

It was in Utah that the virus got real for Pennington, as it did for so many others at the start of the pandemic.

It was in Utah — specifically, in Moab — when Pennington encountered firsthand the tourist nightmare the national parks became during the pandemic. As she wrote in her book, “the proximity to so many strangers made nature feel more like a carnival than a temple.”

She saw the strain on the national parks when Colorado ski resorts all closed in March, because of COVID-19. “What happened was it was spring break and you had this influx of tourists coming to this small town,” she said. Moab doesn’t have a “very large medical system,” she said, and she got to see the locals react to the added crowds.

(Emily Pennington | Little A) Emily Pennington at the entrance to National Park. Pennington has written a memoir, "Feral," about her experience visiting all the national parks in the United States.

Nature ‘deflates the ego’

The reason people flocked to public lands during the pandemic, Pennington said, were twofold.

“We knew the outdoors were a relatively safe place to socialize and congregate,” she said. “But there was something much deeper at play for 2020 and 2021, too, which is that nature has this really powerful way of making all your city problems and the modern world feel incomparably small.”

Nature, she said, “deflates the ego” and makes problems feel more manageable, trivial or silly.

“When you’re dealing with a pretty existential threat, like a global pandemic, there are a lot of ragged edges of anxiety, depression and fear that need to get smoothed out,” she said. “Going to these places that feel ancient and timeless in a way is one of the best healing salves you can find.”

The one Utah park that struck her the most, Pennington said, was Capitol Reef National Park.

“I feel like for some reason, nobody ever talks about it,” she said. “People talk about Zion and Bryce Canyon, but Capitol Reef really surprised me with its big slot canyons and less-crowded arches that you can hike to, and really phenomenal backcountry camping opportunities outside the park.”

She also said that she burst into tears the second she stepped on the ledge at Sunset Point in Bryce Canyon National Park.

“It was so overwhelming and comforting that it was one of the few moments that a landscape made me burst into tears on that trip,” she says. “There was a sense of things were going to be OK.”

By the end of 2020, Pennington was able to visit 61 of the national parks. She got to visit No. 62 — the National Park of American Samoa — in early 2021, after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted there.

Pennington said the national parks in Utah provided “her last breath of fresh air” before she went into a two-month lockdown in her California home.

“I have this sense of immense gratitude for the Utah parks,” she said, “because I was watching the world shutdown piece-by-piece as I was road-tripping around the state and trying to maintain my sense of wonder and intent.”

Ultimately, Pennington hopes that people read her memoir as a love letter to the national parks, and that the book encourages them to explore parks they haven’t heard of, rather than “flocking to the top 10.”

“I hope people will realize that you don’t have to be a professional athlete or millionaire to take a year off or plan a really big adventure,” she said. “You don’t even have to grow up outdoorsy or be particularly brave.”