This 90-Something Grandma Visited all 63 US National Parks!

Intergenerational duo finds that no mountain is too high when enjoying the great outdoors together.

Jul 13, 2023
Special Collections: TIES THAT BIND


Travel, Family, Nature
This 90-Something Grandma Visited all 63 US National Parks! | Intergenerational duo finds that no mountain is too high when enjoying the great outdoors together.

By the time she turned 85, eight years ago, US grandma, Joy Ryan, had never seen the ocean or mountains, CBS News reports. For Joy, trips to the local fishing hole with her late husband were about the farthest this nonagenarian had ever ventured, even if she loved watching the Travel Channel, according to People.

But this intrepid woman, known for her positive outlook on life, discovered that she and her grandson Brad Ryan, were actually two peas in a pod through their love for travel, adventure and connection, when they began to visit the American great outdoors together. And this was a hobby that expanded into a successful quest to visit all of the 63 national parks in the US!

Brad told People, "When I learned she had never seen the great wildernesses of America – deserts, mountains, oceans, you name it – I thought that was something that would haunt me if I didn't intervene in some way." It was after taking his grandmother out of Ohio on a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park bordering Tennessee and North Carolina, that he came up with the idea of visiting all 63 US national parks with her to create inspiring memories.                . 

Smashing stereotypes
Going to all 63 US National Parks is a huge achievement even for a much younger adventurer. Joy’s physical strength grew with their trips. Brad explains to CBS News, for instance, that his grandma went white water rafting at 91, with class three rapids. "She was braver than I was." When zip lining at the New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia, meanwhile, she broke the record by almost a decade!

It wasn’t always like this, however. As NPR reports, Joy was so wobbly on their first trip, challenged by her balance and coordination,  that a group of college students burst into spontaneous applause when she reached the top of a trail they were following. 

"We defied erroneous assumptions about the limitations of aging. We defied financial and logistical constraints," Brad tells CNN, noting that his 93-year-old grandmother made history as the oldest living person to visit every US National Park.

And this grandma clearly has a great sense of humor as well as bravery to spare: "I'm the oldest old lady to ever visit every national park," she tells NPR with a smile.

When asked about the source of her strength, Joy herself believes it’s a mix of optimism, willpower, and the privilege of good health. It seems that there’s also a healthy dose of awe for the surprises that the great outdoors will reveal to adventurers like herself. Stunned by the sheer loveliness of the rainforest’s green vines and flowers, fringed by stone archways,  and the crashing ocean in American Samoa, Joy remarked "Isn't that magnificent? Oh! It's so pretty, I love that. It's like it's a dream."

From baby steps to giant steps
Significantly, the pair’s recent adventure is a giant step in another sense; healing family estrangement.

NPR details that the duo’s journey may have started 21 years ago, when Brad’s parents divorced, and he found himself estranged from Joy, his paternal grandmother. Several years were to pass before his  sister’s wedding in 2008 gave him the chance to start to catch up with her. He felt sad to see this woman, so important to him in his childhood, now gaunt, and feeble at the age of 78. He reached out to her, and slowly began to rebuild their relationship to the point when he felt comfortable inviting her to join him on their first trip together, even sharing his mental health problems arising from being part of a super-competitive vet school program.

And they certainly had the opportunity to make up for lost time. As Brand tells CBS news, while they explored the contrasts of nature, from whale watching to seeing gigantic trees in California’s Redwood Forest, some of their best moments together happened in the car:

"We hit the road together and we start talking about our lives," Brad says. "And she told me things in her 80s and 90s about her life, some of the difficult things that she's been through, that she's never spoken to anybody in her life. And I was able to open up to her about some of the trials and tribulations of my own life." 

Brad also shares the reason that they let their visit to the National Park of American Samoa be the final, 63rd stop on their tour of American National Parks: "We can enjoy the beach, we can enjoy the beautiful tropical paradise. But as we've come to learn from the rangers that work there, American Samoa is an island community that is very firmly rooted in family… And I think that there's a bit of a poetic beauty to ending it there as well."

Kilimanjaro, here we come!
Perhaps it’s no surprise that having been bitten by the adventure bug, this team isn't stopping anytime soon. 

This intergenerational duo is now planning to visit all "Seven Summits,"  the highest mountains on each of the seven continents of the Earth The Washington Post reports, with the pair already having checked one destination, North America’s highest peak, Alaska’s Denali. This is why Joy, now 93, and Brad. 42, are heading to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, this summer.


This venture is part of a broader mission to visit seven continents, as reported in Travel + Leisure, but still at his grandmother’s slower, and more reflective pace, one that revels in getting lost on purpose, and absorbing local wisdom and perspective. 

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Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.
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