Cross Country National Park Road Trip
For a couple of years, my husband and I have been wanting to do a big family road trip out west exploring the National Parks. We’ve been to Colorado, hiked the Black Canyon of Gunnison, but nothing really outside Colorado or anything farther west.
The first challenge was finding three weeks in our schedules that didn’t conflict with work or school. My husband travels frequently for work, often last minute, and I book weddings up to a year in advance. Since pulling our kids from school was not an option, we knew we’d be going during summer break. While we realized July wasn’t ideal, it was the only three week period we had on the calendar without conflicts so we blocked it off and started planning.
We knew that we wanted to hit the big parks of Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, but we weren’t sure if it would be too much trying to pack that distance in after driving across the country, so the Grand Canyon was loosely planned. We knew that if things were rough, we could always head back east sooner. We used the website RoadTrippers.com and put in Yellowstone National Park to start the planning. This is a great tool as it also has an app that we used the entire trip. It allows you to see your drive time between each location. It also has certain features you can turn on or off depending on your interests. If you want to see camping locations or hotels in the area you simply select your preference and plan from there. You can also turn on local attractions, museums, hiking, etc. The other great thing about this tool is you can input your vehicle make and model and it will figure roughly how much you’ll spend in gas for your trip.
Since getting out west and returning home was at least four days drive both ways, we decided it would be best to split up this portion of the drive with two solid days of driving, a full day break in between to explore, and then two solid days of driving. This ended up being super easy. We never felt like the driving would never end, as having that one day break in between two days of driving was huge. On the way out West, we stopped at Badlands National Park for a day of exploring and on the way back we stopped in Kentucky to visit with family. We decided that we’d like to camp as much as possible unless we were at a location only one night since it was a lot of work to set up camp for just one night. This ended up being a great balance for us. We booked all our campsites ahead of time so we were guaranteed a place to land each night. If you’re considering a trip like this with camping, you need to book at least 6-9 months ahead of time. We booked campsites in and outside the National Parks. Depending on the national park, we found there to be more amenities at campsites outside the national parks. We mostly booked hotels on the way out since we wanted to knock out as many hours driving as possible. Once we were out West, we stayed in a tipi outside Yellowstone one night which was really cool and similar to glamping. We also had a hotel in Jackson Hole which was a nice break from camping and camp food.
We set out to visit seven national parks but ended up adding one more on the way home. We visited Badlands, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion, Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest. We drove through many national forests and hit a few places that we hadn’t planned on visiting such as Niagra Falls and the Meteor Crater along Route 66 in Arizona. We also added a few stops along Route 66, because you just have to. In all, we spent over 125 hours in the car driving over 7,241 miles through 20 states and loved every bit of it.
What are the takeaways from this trip?
I think this type of trip was perfect for our girls, ages 11 and 13. I think any younger and it may have been a little more challenging, but as they get older schedules become even more challenging. We know this because our son was transitioning to the University of Vermont and therefore couldn’t join us.
I took four cameras but ended up shooting entirely with my Canon 5d Mark III with my 24-70L.
The thing I loved most about this trip was the simplicity of being on the road and living with the basic necessities. It was the cleanse I needed, breaking away from the confines of life and reconnecting with family through nature. This type of travel invigorated my senses and left me with such wanderlust that I can’t wait to start planning our next road trip.
You can read more about my thoughts on how traveling fuels the soul in an article I wrote for Dear Photographer Magazine in their Epic Summer, September 2017 issue.
We didn’t plan on stopping here, but it had been so long since our last visit that the kids barely remembered. We explored for a bit, had some lunch and got back on the road heading to the Badlands.
We needed gas, time out of the car and it looked interesting so we spent a little time roaming around this ghost town where Dances with Wolves was filmed. It was the perfect stop.
This was perhaps one of the parks I enjoyed the most. It may be because I was originally thinking that our time might be better spent getting out West and exploring there instead of spending a full day exploring the Badlands. It turned out we needed that break in driving and the park also surprised me in many ways. We saw several wild animals and got extremely close to a buffalo. There was a fence between us but had I known they can jump fences and run 35 miles per hour I probably would not have gotten out of the car to grab this shot but I’m glad I have it and I’m alive to share it here.
We ended up camping in the park at Cedar Pass Lodge Campground. We were really happy with the campgrounds but our first night we were sent running for the truck. A micro storm with lightning came through waking us up in the middle of the night. The wind was so strong and our tent was being challenged as it bent over, nearly on top of our faces. We could hear everyone out hammering down their tent stakes. We got out and did the same moving our heavy stuff from the truck to our tent and sleeping the rest of the night in the truck. Similar storms also brought a beautiful rainbow during dinner one night.
We did a sunset hike the night before heading out which was one of my favorites.
Drove through on our way to Yellowstone. This was a quick stop, really the majority of these photos were taken from the road, and we could have made it quicker by not going in but we did. We drove to Crazy Horse but didn’t go in because it was so far away from completion. If it is ever completed though it would be worth the drive in since it is so much larger than Mount Rushmore.
Four nights camping, three days exploring.
Our first night we opted to splurge and upgrade our camping experience to see what glamping was all about. We spent the night right outside Yellowstone at Dreamcatcher Tipi Hotel in Gardiner, Montana. This was really fun since we didn’t tell the girls about it until we pulled into the parking lot. There were approximately 10 tipis at the site with really nice bathrooms nearby. Our tipi had a king sized bed and chaise lounge with electricity and had enough room for two twin rollaway beds. However, since we arrived late, they didn’t have enough. They were very kind and apologetic offering a credit on our bill so we made it work for the night. Each night they have a communal campfire with s’mores, and beer and wine for the adults. It was nice meeting and chatting with fellow travelers about their journey.
The next three nights we camped outside Yellowstone on the west side at Wagon Wheel Campground. We were surprised to see this campground in the middle of town. It seemed like a nice RV campground but the tenting area was rather small. Luckily, there were only one or two other tenters so we were able to expand beyond our small site into other sites.
Day one we explored the northern part of Yellowstone as we drove in through the park to our campsite. We stopped at Boiling River for a dip. It was really cool as the water was a combination of freezing cold river water mixed with extremely hot water coming from the spring. You definitely have to be careful though as some areas would get really hot. We also saw a few of the lesser known geysers.
Day two we explored Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Yellowstone Lake. It was rainy part of the day but that made the red rocks that more vibrant.
Day three we spent exploring the bigger known geysers of Old Faithful, including the geyser trails beyond Old Faithful, Morning Glory Pool, and Grand Pristine Spring which was breathtaking. It would have been great to get a drone shot of this one with the changing colors from yellow to blue but, FYI, drones are not allowed in any of the national parks. I should have read up on this before our trip as I could have saved some space in the car.
We drove in from the North and the view just kept getting more spectacular around every turn. The girls pretty much slept through a lot of these views since we hit the road so early and this was about half way through our trip. It was nice driving into Jackson Hole and relaxing in a hotel bed.
Funny note about this. We were telling the girls that Grand Teton translated to French means Big Tits as the early French trappers named the mountains. When we got to our hotel I uploaded these photos and for the caption just put “Grand Tetons” which to my horror Facebook translated to read….yup, you guessed it. Big Tits. I got a few private messages alerting me to it and one from my son saying “nice mom”. Damn you Facebook translate!
Two nights and one full, hot day of exploring and hiking.
It was 103 in Moab and we ended up getting a late start the one day we had to explore because our camp site had a bees nest in the tree. They seemed to like the smell of bacon!
With this late start, we didn’t get to the trail head of Delicate Arch, the arch you see on Utah’s license plates, until 1:00. It’s approximately 1.5 miles in and out and takes approximately 3 hours. Because of the heat, we weren’t sure the girls could handle it so we opted for the half mile hike where you could at least still see Delicate Arch. Although we got to see it, it was small looking at it from a mile away. Next time we’ll plan better and do the hike early enough that we avoid the hottest time of day.
Although the heat was intense and the girls were seeking every bit of shade they could, this southern girl was soaking it up. Except at night. I wish I had an air conditioned Airstream at night. In fact, because our campsite had electricity, we bought a fan and put it in the tent to keep from sticking to the outside of our nylon sleeping bags.
Approximately one hour drive to through with a few stops on our way to Zion National Park.
This park is pretty close to Arches so we hit it early in the morning after packing up from Arches and on our way to Zion. It was so early that getting a shot of all four of us in front of Mesa Arch without having to wait for other tourists to move out of the way was nice.
1-2 hour drive through on our way to Zion National Park.
I loved the beautiful colors of this park and wish we’d had more time to do a horseback ride. At this point, the girls were getting pretty giddy getting in and out of the car and racing out to the lookout points.
This ended up being one of my favorite places for hiking, and the star gazing at night from our tent was unbelievable. We stayed inside the park at Watchman Campground. We purchased one of the last sites back in February when we were planning our trip and it was a hike-in site. It wasn’t much of a hike but it was more effort to get our food and camp stove to our site so we opted to eat our dinners out here.
We wanted desperately to hike the narrows but the park rangers advised against it. Although it was sunny and beautiful where we were, there were potential thunderstorms developing north of us which meant that the narrows could flood, and flood quickly. Although we had that warning, we did hike the one mile to the beginning of the narrows and was surprised to see so many people not letting that stop them. We decided that we’d take a quick dip in the river before making our way back to camp.
Our Last night in Zion and our view from a fantastic pizza place, Zion Pizza & Noodle.
One full day exploring and one night of camping. We had originally scheduled two nights camping here but we thought it would be wiser to start our journey home and give ourselves one full day break with family inbetween two days of driving.
We drove into the park from the east exploring Desert View Watchtower first. Then we drove through the park and setup camp at Mather Campground before heading out for a sunset view of the canyon at Mohave Point. Many people got off at Hopi Point but we kept going to get away from the crowds and we knew from our research that Mohave point would also give us a spectacular view. It was a smart move because for the longest time there weren’t a lot of people around and we were able to get a shot of the four us before it became more crowded.
This wasn’t on our original list of national parks but on the drive home we thought we’d make a small detour and check it out. It was amazing to see wood that had turned to stone and the beautiful colors it made.
The other interesting piece about this park was learning about the ancient Puebloan tribes that lived in this area and seeing the abundant petroglyphs on rocks that were over 800 years old.
Also, we tried to take a photograph of at least the kids at each national park sign. Cheesy, I know, but it’s great for the album we made. We discovered towards the end that most national park signs also have a camera “post” or “pod” so you can do selfies in front of the sign instead of mom or dad being left out because they’re taking the photo.
Located in Winslow, Arizona this crater site is unbelievable. The white patch you see in the bottom center is the dig site where you can see cutouts of the American flag and a 6’4″ tall person only visible through binoculars. The crater is nearly a mile wide, 570 feet deep and approximately 49,000 years old. A must stop if you’re in the area and it doesn’t take long to see the crater and walk through the informative museum.
And, that’s a wrap until our next road trip adventure.