A Snowy Hike In Yellowstone Inspired Million-Selling National Parks Board Game

Who knew board games were still popular? What started out as a bucket-list retirement journey to hike 40 national parks turned into the hit board game "Trekking the National Parks," which has since sold more than 1 million units.

Andrew Rossi

December 09, 20239 min read

A player moves through Yellowstone on the Trekking the National Parks board game layout.
A player moves through Yellowstone on the Trekking the National Parks board game layout. (Underdog Games)

A couple’s bucket-list mission to hike dozens of U.S. national parks began with a visit to Yellowstone, and it was during a snowy trek through the first national park they had a lightbulb moment that’s now become a new award-winning board game.

Like many couples, John and Terry Binkele dreamed of using the freedom of retirement to travel as they set out to visit every national park, but they’re not sharing their experiences through exhaustive photo galleries, slideshows or a Facebook album.

Trekking The National Parks is a board game that started as a family adventure and became a family business. The Binkeles developed the game with their son Charlie, and now their concept has become a growing enterprise of trekking games.

“We love to hike,” John Binkele told Cowboy State Daily. “That's been the essence of all of these journeys was to go hike the trails of each of these parks.”

Every journey starts somewhere. For the Binkeles, Trekking The National Parks began with a plan for their first stop in Wyoming.

40 Parks In 40 Months

As John Binkele eyed retirement, he decided to start planning his future with his wife and family. But when he met with a prominent financial planner in Arizona, he learned another aspect of his future needed to come first.

“What (they) said was, ‘Before we get started on the financial side of things, you guys got to figure out what you're going to do with the rest of your lives. Because I can't figure out your financial plan unless I know your life plan,’” he said.

John and Terry knew the outdoors was part of that plan, so they decided their first adventure would be a tour of national parks — 40 parks in 40 months — and they knew exactly where they needed to start.

“We started that adventure with Yellowstone,” he said. “Yellowstone was our country's first national park. So, we thought if it's going to be our journey to visit all the majors, we might as well go visit Yellowstone.”

  • Yellowstone is one of the special "major" national parks in the game.
    Yellowstone is one of the special "major" national parks in the game. (Underdog Games)
  • Trekking the National Park has players competing for points as they visit national parks all across the country.
    Trekking the National Park has players competing for points as they visit national parks all across the country. (Underdog Games)
  • There are all kinds of encounters with nature along the national parks trails.
    There are all kinds of encounters with nature along the national parks trails. (Underdog Games)

The Trek Begins

John and Terry were fully immersed in their mission from the moment it started in October 2009. The first snow of the year had already fallen when they arrived in Wyoming.

“We went to Yellowstone and the Tetons in October,” he said. “Being from Phoenix, we don't see snow. And so, we were a bit surprised when we got there.”

One of their first treks led them 6 miles through the October snow from the Old Faithful Inn to Mallard Lake. They hiked several other trails in Yellowstone, but more snow limited their hiking plans in Grand Teton.

John and Terry continued trekking through the national parks, going beyond the boardwalks and taking trails. That’s when what John calls “the epiphany” happened — Trekking The National Parks.

The pieces were in place, and the Binkeles approached the perfect person to help develop the idea: their son, Charlie.

“My son is an artist and game designer by trade,” John said. “And in 2013, I approached Charlie and said, ‘Hey, Charlie, why don't we make a game about traveling to the national parks?’”

The Binkeles spent the next 18 months developing and playtesting their game, building the idea around the premise of another popular travel board game franchise, Ticket to Ride, which has players competing to develop railroad empires while connecting cities across the United States.

This was the epiphany moment for John and Terry, while Charlie was compelled to go further.

“Charlie loved the theme idea, but he hated my idea because it was just a blatant knockoff of Ticket to Ride,” John said. “So he spent months and months re-crafting the game mechanics to come up with what we've got today.”

Trekking The National Parks

The game, for two to five players, or trekkers, includes all 60 national parks, with six designated as “major parks,” including Yellowstone, Acadia, Denali, Grand Canyon, Everglades and Hawai’i Volcano. Trekkers start in the Midwest and start trekking from there, competing for victory points to win.

“The object of the game is to move around the board, claim parks and collect trail stones,” John said. “That's how you score points. You also have a set of cards in your hand that have two values: trekking cards so that you can move around the board and claiming cards.”

Trekkers can take two actions during a turn. They can draw a trekking card, move to another park, claim a park card or occupy one of the six major parks.

In Wyoming, players can claim Grand Teton National Park, which gives them victory points and denies other players movement options as they trek across the country. Players can’t claim Yellowstone, but can earn its benefits by setting up a campsite there.

Each major park provides different benefits. Yellowstone allows players to draw an extra card when they claim any other park, while Grand Canyon gives an additional movement option each turn.

“You’re basically collecting stones as you travel around the country and claiming parks,” John said. “That’s the essence of the game. And then whoever ends up with the most points at the end is the winner.”

The board was set. It was time for the Binkele family to roll the dice and make their first move.

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The Board Business

In 2014, they launched a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign to get capital for the initial setup and production of Trekking the National Parks. Their campaign raised more than $37,000.

Game on.

That’s when the family project became the family business. John said he and his family marketed and sold the game for the first three years.

“We were self-published. We worked as a family unit to sell the number of games we had purchased in our first print run,” he said.

Trekking the National Parks was a 2015 Mensa Select winner, an annual award given by American Mensa to five board games that are "original, challenging and well designed." Other Mensa Select winners include Trivial Pursuit, Scattergories and Apples to Apples.

Then, Charlie met with Hasan Hasmani, who saw the potential of Trekking The National Parks and offered to take it “to the next level.” They licensed the game to Hasmani in 2018, and that’s when the sales really started trekking.

John said the key was effective social media marketing, where Hasmani excelled.

“Over the three years that we had (the game), we sold 6,500 copies,” he said. “In between then and now, they sold 600,000 copies.”

The success of Trekking The National Parks led to the founding of Underdog Games, with Hasmani as CEO and Charlie as game director. Trekking The National Parks is now in its second edition, which has sold more than 100,000 copies in less than two years.

"Charlie, Hasan, and their team have done a really good job with it over the years," John said.

Trekking Onward

The epiphany of a national park board game has become a thriving enterprise. Underdog Games has developed several more games, including Trekking Through History, Trekking The World and Trekking The National Parks: Trivia.

John Binkele says he’s now in a second retirement, having stepped away from the board game business now that Trekking The National Parks is in capable hands. The game and its concept continue to resonate with thousands of people.

“They created a fan page of people who have been to the parks,” he said. “And they've got 90,000 subscribers to their newsletter. They’re always trading stories and pictures of their journeys to the parks.”

When it comes to their ongoing involvement with the game, John and Terry’s primary responsibility takes them back to where it all started.

A portion of the money from Trekking The National Parks sales is donated to the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Binkeles are forging relationships with more nonprofits to promote the game and, by proxy, support the parks.

John said their first significant partnership was Yellowstone Forever, the nonprofit associated with Yellowstone National Park.

“They have been our biggest vendor for the nonprofit of all nonprofits,” he said. “And my job right now is to make periodic contact with all the different nonprofits we sell to and try to convince some of the other ones that they might want to carry the game.”

Underdog Games published “Trekking The National Parks Park Guide Book,” written by John and based on the trekking journey that inspired he and Terry to create the game.

For the game itself, John said their objective was to create a universal connection between the parks and the players, something they’ve accomplished (if nearly 1 million units sold is any testament). The specifics of their journey aren’t on the board or the cards, but the spirit is eternally and entertainingly available to everyone, two to five people at a time.

“Something that resonated with my wife and me was the outdoors and, in particular, the national parks,” he said. “So, my wife and I decided to visit all of the major national parks. And we started the adventure. I don't know how to explain that on the board, but that's sort of, in a nutshell, how it's evolved.”

And what’s John’s next ambitious retirement project?

“My golf swing,” he said.

  • Trekking the National Parks
    Trekking the National Parks (Underdog Games)
  • What began as a retirement goal for a couple to visit 40 national parks in 40 months has become an award-winning board game that's sole more than 1 million units.
    What began as a retirement goal for a couple to visit 40 national parks in 40 months has become an award-winning board game that's sole more than 1 million units. (Underdog Games)

Andrew Rossi can be reached at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Andrew Rossi

Features Reporter

Andrew Rossi is a features reporter for Cowboy State Daily based in northwest Wyoming. He covers everything from horrible weather and giant pumpkins to dinosaurs, astronomy, and the eccentricities of Yellowstone National Park.