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Cross Country National Park Road Trip

Updated: May 1, 2022

[from the Archives]

Following up with my last post - my cross country road trip is the most spectacular and life changing experience I've had to date. My dad and I had quality time that I'll always hold close to my heart and I'll dream of the natural wonders of this world that we got to see for as long as I live. We broke up the trip nicely so it didn't really feel like we were driving for hours at a time until we got to the Midwest, but by that point we were in the home stretch anyway. We tried to keep the trip as "spontaneous" as possible but admittedly, the Type-A planner in me had our itinerary including stops, hotels and gas mapped out pretty thoroughly (detailed below).

Day 1 - Malibu, CA to Primm, Nevada (252 miles, 3.5hr total drive time)

The trip unofficially started when my family headed down the California coast to Pismo Beach and Santa Barbara for a mini-family vacation following my college graduation in the Bay Area. We enjoyed some family fun in the sun riding dune buggies and surfing up a storm before we split up after my brother's 25th birthday dinner at Duke's Malibu (where we got to see dolphins swim by during our meal!!). My mom and brother embarked to LAX, while my dad and I officially started our cross country road trip, making our way to Primm, Nevada where we stayed at a $45/night, casino hotel with a buffalo shaped pool, naturally.

Day 2 - Primm, NV --> Las Vegas --> Valley of Fire --> Capitol Reef National Park--> Caineville, UT (431 miles, 7.5hr total drive time)

The next day was an adventurous one. We started out early and were glad we did because it was almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit already by the time we got into the car at 6am. That being said, we had every reason to be quick with our next few stops to avoid the scorching heat for as long as possible - hopping out of the car real quick to snap some pictures of us at the famed Seven Magic Mountains and Welcome to Las Vegas Sign before carrying on to the Valley of Fire. The Valley of Fire [State Park] has some of the most extraordinary landscapes I've ever come by, even if it was in the hundreds by the time we finished our hike of the wave formations at 11am. As my dad and I took in the scenery and gushed in amazement as we headed to our next stop, Capitol Reef National Park, we mapped out where we'd be stopping for gas because we knew our route was about to become progressively less civilized for the next few hours and my gas tank capacity is quite unremarkable. If we had more time and I hadn't been to the parks previously, it would have been the perfect trip addition to see Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks immediately following Las Vegas. As planned though, we headed to Capitol Reef National Park where we were blown away by the red rock formations, layers of golden sandstone, chimney pillars and canyons. We took our time hiking around the park, taking in the surrounding beauty as much as we could before heading to our Rodeway Inn for the night, which being just outside the park, had beautiful views as well.

Day 3 - Caineville, UT --> Arches National Park --> Canyonlands National Park --> Parachute, CO (360 miles, 6hr total drive time)

The next day was a BIG one that gave us the opportunity to double stack National Parks with Arches and Canyonlands so close to one another. We could have started at either of the two parks but chose to begin the day at Arches, which also meant starting our day with a steep, winding, white-knuckle drive into (and later, out of) the park. Once on stable ground, our breath was taken away by thousands of natural sandstone arches, desert landscapes and snow capped mountains in the distance. It was here that we did one of our all-time favorite hikes - a 3 mile round trip hike to the famed Delicate Arch that had us scaling the ragged mountainscapes for a stretch before being welcomed to front row views of one of the world's most famous arches. Following that hike, we did some more ground exploration of the balanced rock, elephant rock and finally to my second favorite landmark from Arches NP, Park Ave, before grabbing lunch at a Burger King while we waited out a hail storm.

Post storm, we traversed another windy road, high in elevation to Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands is unique for many reasons, but particularly because after driving up a mountain for what feels like an hour, suddenly everything around you becomes flat and prairie-like (we literally saw prairie dogs) and then BOOM an insane canyon comes into sight below you. Canyonlands is MASSIVE, truly, truly massive, and we just explored one park entrance area but it was gorgeous. Here, we also got to see another one of the world's most famous arches - the Mesa Arch. This arch overlooks the canyon below and if you look through the pothole you can see for miles upon miles into the carved canyon below. To this day, it's one of the most talked about items in my dad's repertoire. After a full day exploring the park, we drove for a few hours to our hotel in Parachute, CO before embarking on another full day the next day.

Day 4 - Parachute, CO --> Rocky Mountain National Park --> Torrington, WY (380 miles, 7.5hrs total drive time)

It's not very often that we have near death experiences that leave us absolutely shaking in our boots - but believe me when I say that day 4 of our cross country road trip was one of the scariest days of my life. To start, we woke up to our first rainy day of the trip thus far, which we should have taken as an omen as to what was to come. We then drove about 3.5 hours to Rocky Mountain National Park, including a GPS-led off-road detour through a rugged, muddy, mountainous 27 miles of road that had us holding our breath the whole time. Thankfully, my dad is a very responsible driver and had no problem navigating the storm so we made it out relatively unscathed, though we had to have a good laugh when we stopped at a gas station afterwards and the car was coated in such a thick layer of mud that we couldn't read the license plate (a problem that we fixed with a quick squeegee, for legal reasons of course). It was only a short drive to the southern entrance of the park from there but as we neared the park entrance we approached a few signs warning that the road ahead was closed due to winter weather (in June!). We decided to proceed with the drive until we got to the visitor center because we didn't have any cell service and needed somebody to point us into the right direction now that our clear path through the park was seemingly impossible. Once we reached the visitor center we asked a park ranger for directions and she let us know that the weather turned course and the road through the park was still open but to "hurry up and get on the way because it could close again at any time". My dad explained to her that my car was a rear wheel drive convertible that was not equipped to drive through winter road conditions but she responded that they "wouldn't open the road if it weren't safe for everybody" - so off we went! Within about 10 minutes of our drive (which included a significant rise in elevation) it began precipitating a snowy ice mix and the fog quickly rolled in. For the next almost hour of drive time we were cutting through sheer cliff roads (many of which did not have guardrails) with little to no control over our vehicle and about 3 feet of total visibility in all directions. Truly the definition of white-knuckle driving, we sat in silence with our hearts was in the pit of our stomachs. Finally, after one-too-many close calls, we felt the shift in elevation as we began our descent down the mountain and our weather letting up with the lessening of altitude. By the time we were nearing the bottom of the mountain the sun was shining and we got to take in the outrageous views and evergreens. We were further rewarded for surviving the drive when we rounded a hairpin turn to see a family of elk deer grazing in a meadow. It was something so surreal and beautiful to see such majestic animals in the wild, and that was reinforced with a moose and bald eagle sighting too! After we officially made it out of the mountains, we grabbed a grilled cheese from Tom + Chee and drove on for a couple of hours to our Motel 6 in Torrington, WY for the night. All in all, it was one of the scariest days of my life but I'd do it time and time again if I knew that it would have the same outcome. My dad and I talk about and reflect on our time in Rocky Mountain National Park with perhaps the greatest excitement of all.

Day 5 - Torrington, WY --> Wind Cave National Park --> Mount Rushmore --> Badlands National Park --> Mitchell, SD (520 miles, 8.5hrs total drive time)

If you look at a map of the US and the route of our trip, it becomes very obvious that Day 5 was out of the way, however, my Dad and I decided that driving 4 hours "out of the way" when we were already driving for 8 days was easily justifiable given the landmarks we'd be able to see. I'll start out by saying that south western South Dakota is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been and I'm SO glad that we extended our trip to see this part of the nation. The first stop of the day after a couple of hours of driving was at Wind Cave National Park where we did one of the candlelit 1.5 hour guided tours of the caves. It was definitely remarkable but having been to many different caves and taverns in my time, I'll be honest that I have a hard time differentiating them all in my mind with very little that distinctly stands out for me. I would still recommend a visit to this park without a doubt though for the wildlife alone - hundreds of buffalo crossing the road alongside your car and prairie dogs scattered throughout. It was truly such a lucky sight to see and made for some amazing memories. Afterwards, we drove about an hour to Mount Rushmore, making a quick pit stop at the Crazy Horse Memorial on the way. Full disclosure, we were very underwhelmed by the Crazy Horse memorial and the overt commercialization of the whole thing, however, it was still very interesting to see the process for carving into the mountains and read further into the history of Crazy Horse. On the other hand, we were blown away by Mount Rushmore. The grounds were remarkably kept, parking was reasonably priced (all things considered) and the surrounding scenery was jaw-dropping. Between the two memorials, we felt our history knowledge enriched and extremely grateful to see these landmarks that we may never have stumbled upon without our trip. After a quick refuel and beer at a local brewery, we continued our drive onto Badlands National Park - which I'd argue aren't bad at all. Funny enough, the typically dry, barren lands were unusually green and lush following prime spring weather and I was in love. I had such a blast winding my little red convertible through the dramatic landscapes of layered rock formations, steep canyons and towering spires. It was the perfect way to end our adventure packed day and ranks very highly on my all-time-favorites list. One thing that I did not account for when pre-booking our hotel 3 hours away in Mitchell, SD for the night was that we'd be driving against time and losing an hour of the day when we crossed time zones - nonetheless, we ended the day at our Super 8 with such admiration for our beautiful country and it's rich history.

Day 6 - Mitchell, SD --> Jolly Green Giant Statue --> Rockford, IL (565 miles, 8.5 hrs total drive time)

My dad and I always say that a cross country road trip would be perfect if you could just transport yourself to the East Coast once you get to ~ Chicago (if not sooner) because boyyyyy does it get monotonous. Day 6 included absolutely nothing but cornfields and a pit stop at the Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Life, MN. Admittedly, this would have been a great day to stop at one of the midwestern major cities of Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Dubuque, Madison, Chicago, etc. but with our destination of NJ in short reach, we powered through. We did enjoy some fantastic deep dish pizza once we got to our hotel in Rockford, IL though.

Day 7 - Rockford, IL --> Indiana Dunes National Park --> Cuyahoga Valley National Park --> Boston Heights, OH (475 miles, 7.5hrs total drive time)

By Day 7 we were ready to get home and even considered cancelling our hotel in Ohio to drive through the night but mostly decided against it because there's a famous hot dog place I wanted to stop at in NJ that wouldn't be open in the middle of the night. At Indiana Dunes, we were definitely impressed by the monstrosity of the dunes but even more so impressed with the insane amount of flies. Literally, as soon as we stepped foot onto the beach we were entrapped by what felt like thousands of flies biting at our ankles. We quickly ran to dip our toes in the lake and then dashed back to the car and decided to do the rest of our venturing from there. Originally, Indiana Dunes was meant to be the only park that we saw that day but we got to the Cuyahoga Valley area sooner than expected and decided to brave a few quick trails before a summer storm swooped in. It was so beautiful to explore the woods and waterfalls of Cuyahoga Valley and get to cross off the final National Park of our trip.

Day 8 - Boston Heights, OH --> Hot Dog Johnny's --> Polar Cub --> HOME (430 miles, 7hrs total drive time)

The final day of our trip! We had nothing to see and were eager to get home but that didn't stop us from stopping at two of our favorite family tradition places - Hot Dog Johnny's (Buttzville, NJ) and Polar Cub (Whitehouse Station, NJ). Some of the best hot dogs and ice cream in the world and a must visit for anyone in the area!

There are thousands of different takeaways, landmarks, reasons for exploration and routes to take for a cross country road trip, but one thing remains true - it's an absolute must do in every lifetime. It was without a doubt one of the most impactful experiences of my entire life and the fact that I got to make and share those memories with my dad means the world to me. It's something that has bonded us and made for some unbelievable stories together that I wouldn't trade for the world. Even if traveling cross country isn't for you, I still urge everyone to find what it is that brings you passion and excitement and make a point of exploring that with someone that you love and trust.

1 Comment

Oleg Shak
Oleg Shak
Dec 14, 2023

Beyond the stethoscope, hearing specialist are sonic artisans, meticulously tuning our auditory experiences. Unveil the craft that goes into preserving and enhancing our ability to hear. Step into a world where expertise meets compassion, and every consultation is a symphony of care.

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