With Emmy Award-winning ABC TV show Rock the Park, Jack Steward and Colton Smith team up for an ongoing tribute to the beauty of the great outdoors.
If, on a cool day last June, you had hiked your way through the canyons of lower Manhattan, explored the ground floor of Murphy’s Tavern in the Financial District, and climbed the staircase to the wood-paneled upstairs dining room, you’d have been treated to the rare sight of two wildlife fanatics out of their natural habitat. Jack Steward and Colton Smith, the two hosts of ABC’s travel adventure series Rock the Park, make it their mission to be as close to fresh air as their crampons will take them, having catalogued their journeys through America’s national parks since 2014. But when the two were in town to shoot an upcoming episode on Ellis Island, they stopped for a bite at this lunch spot, where a muted replay of the previous night’s Yankees game played on multiple flat-screen TVs.
Photo credit: Brandon Schulman Photography
Photo credit: Brandon Schulman Photography
Steward, whose close-cropped beard gives him the air of a philosophy student, tucked into a plate of beef Stroganoff, while Smith, a Matt Damon look-alike, opted for a chicken Caesar salad. In between bites, they chatted about what it is that feeds their souls – namely, nature in all its fascinating, fear-inducing, fun-providing glory.
“It starts with fun,” says Steward. “It’s just really fun. For me, the essence of nature is the spiritual experience it gives me. It’s looking at something bigger than myself and feeling connected to that. It inspires me in every sense. I just love who I am when I’m out in nature.” Adds Smith, “One hundred percent. It humbles you, and at the same time, it empowers you.”
Steward and Smith, both 28, met as second graders at St. John the Baptist elementary school in Excelsior, Minnesota, and grew up just down the street from each other. Sharing a love of the outdoors, they often found themselves at the Steward family cabin in the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota, documenting each visit with Steward’s video camera. Later, Steward took his camera with him to the University of Montana, where he combined his love of camping and filmmaking by creating documentaries of nearby national parks.
Smith, on the other hand, opted to attend Northern Michigan University. Fate intervened, however, when Steward needed a buddy to drive to Seattle. Smith leapt at the chance – and the moment he saw the beauty of the mountains surrounding Missoula, he decided to transfer.
The two quickly discovered they weren’t meant to be roommates. Steward is a neatnik who can pack his backpack in 10 minutes; Smith, not so much. Still, they continued to realize that they had more in common than not. “We’re both risk-takers,” says Steward. “We both like to drop everything and go.”
Photo stills from Rock the Park courtesy of Tremendous! Entertainment
Their adventures, broadcast each Saturday morning, have exceeded their wildest expectations. They’ve scuba-dived off the Apostle Islands, geocached in Lassen Volcanic National Park, biked through Denali and skied the Grand Tetons. When Smith, who is afraid of heights, is shown quaking as he’s scaling Sahale Mountain in North Cascades National Park, he’s not acting. “It was the most terrifying moment of my life, but also the most gratifying,” he says. Also frightening was the pair’s experience wild-caving in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, slithering deep underground through tiny pockets in the rock. A sudden monsoon hit, and their only exit, a narrow passageway, began to fill with water. “We were on our backs, noses against the ceiling for the last 6 feet,” says Smith.
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The two spend nearly 100 days of the year traveling in their red Subaru Outbacks. Steward calls his vehicle a mobile apartment; “I’ve got food, a full bed setup, comforter, sheets, everything.” The dependability of the vehicle, he says, is a major asset. “I was in Zion over Memorial Day. The signs said, ‘Hazardous Road,’ and there were all these trucks turning back. But my Outback got up there just fine.”
Time on the road is often spent cranking up the music or listening to audio books. Steward still packs his camera along with a guitar, and Smith has started to bring his dog, Junior, while the team chases the next amazing experience.
The show is about personal growth, but it also takes on the issue of environmental consciousness, making clear just what’s at risk if we ignore nature’s warning signs. As anyone who has seen Rock the Park is likely to agree, in Steward and Colton, the cause has two passionate, tireless advocates – doing their best, each episode, to bring the message home, right into viewers’ living rooms.
Read insider tips for visiting the national parks from Rock the Park’s Jack Steward!