About Us

National Parks Experience (NPE) founder, Joe Sweeney, is an educator with over 15 years of experience working with youth. Growing up in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, Joe developed a strong connection with the outdoors. This connection with nature led him to earn a bachelors of science degree in biology from Hampden-Sydney College. After their wedding, Joe and his wife moved to Denver, Colorado. While living in Denver, Joe took advantage of every opportunity to explore the west visiting such places as Grand Canyon National Park, Arches National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Teton National Park, as well as countless rivers, trails, and mountains in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona.  After earning an associates degree in education from Metropolitan State College of Denver, Joe and his wife returned to Roanoke, Virginia. Since his return to Roanoke in 1999 Joe has been teaching science and coaching football at a local high school. He attributes his passion for the outdoors to his teachers, Boy Scout leaders, friends and parents. It was those people who took him on backpacking trips along the Appalachian Trail, showed him how to fly fish and hunt, and took him to see the natural beauty of the ocean, mountains and rivers. Experiencing the powerful effect nature has had on his life, Joe developed the National Parks Experience program.

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Above: Grand Canyon Field Guide Jack Pennington and NPE Director Joe Sweeney at the top of Bright Angel Trail.

The National Parks Experience program began in 2007 with a trip to Grand Canyon National Park. With the guidance of an instructor from the Grand Canyon Field Institute, students learned about the geology, ecology, and history of the Grand Canyon as well as outdoor skills. Wanting to enhance the academic portion of the trip, a classroom component was added to the program in 2011. 

Today the National Parks Experience is a 501c nonprofit corporation that offers semester elective courses to high school students in Roanoke, Virginia. The classroom instruction focuses on the ecology, geology, natural history and human history of a park. Over the past years the program has focused on the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and US Virgin Island National Parks. The curriculum for the class is developed in cooperation with Grand Canyon Field Institute and Yosemite Institute. The goal of the classroom instruction is to provide a knowledge base about the geologic features, types of environments, species of plants and animals and history of the national park.

To prepare the students for the physical demands of an extended backpacking trip in one of these national parks, students participate in training hikes in the local Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains. During these trips students gain experience in several outdoor skills including: preparation of meals, packing a backpack, setting up tents, proper clothing, hydration, and the practice of “leave no trace” camping. The semester culminates with a week of backpacking and exploring the national park. The combination of classroom preparation and time exploring the park creates an educational experience that is unmatched and will remain in the memories of these young people forever.

The National Parks Experience is more than an environmental education program. It also works to develop the character of those that participate. Students who have taken part in the trips to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Virgin Island National Park returned home with an increased sense of self confidence and a feeling of accomplishment that they carry with them to this day.