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The Ultimate Road Trip: 4 Friends, 14 Days, 10 National Parks, 5860 Miles!

My writing includes my personal travel experiences, destination, history, and cultural information.

A magnificent sunrise in Utah.

A magnificent sunrise in Utah.

The National Park Plan

It all started with four friends chatting it up one day. One said, "Let's go on a trip." The other said, "Yes, a road trip!" Another said, "The ultimate road trip!" and the fourth said, "Let it be said, let it be done!" And so, the plan for the ultimate road trip to visit national parks in the United States was born!

Before we knew it, we were dividing up responsibilities. One would be in charge of mapping and the itinerary. Another would be in charge of lodging. The third would be responsible for healthy eating. And the fourth friend? He would be in charge of making sure the other three fulfilled their duties!

We would leave in just six days. Our loose plan was to drive west from St. Louis and see as much as possible in 14 days, or before we all killed each other! The days before our trip flew by with packing (for two seasons), shopping, booking the lodging, planning the itinerary, and getting our vehicles serviced just to be sure all was good from a mechanical point of view.

Where Did We Go?

  • Grand Lake, Colorado
  • Placerville, Estes Park, Independence Pass, Rocky Mountain National Park, Aspen, and Mesa Verde National Park
  • Salt Lake City, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, and the Four Corners
  • Grand Canyon National Park
  • Jackson Hole, Grand Tetons National Park, and Yellowstone National Park
  • Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore, and Old Faithful
  • The Badlands National Park and Wall Drug Store

The Beginning of the Trip

The day of departure quickly arrived! Leaving out of St. Louis, we pre-decided it would be best to take two vehicles: a Toyota 4 Runner and a Lincoln MKZ. Two cars would allow us time to enjoy some time away from friends but also, depending on road conditions in the parks, we thought we could always leave the Lincoln behind at entrances and all pile into the 4 Runner. (That part didn't happen since, as it turns out, the MKZs are more versatile off-road than one would think!)

The first day was just driving and we ended up in Hayes, Kansas, in time to eat and sleep. The real adventure would begin the next day as we headed west towards Colorado on Interstate 70.

Tradition Was Born in Grand Lake, Colorado

After a full day of driving, we arrived in Grand Lake, Colorado, late in the afternoon. Our hotel was beautiful, offering a fabulous dinner, and was located right on the lake. We dutifully took care of business, going over the plan for the next day. (This trip was pretty large-scale, and especially when traveling with others, it's crucial to communicate to make sure everyone is good with the plan.)

Seated on the deck overlooking Rocky Mountain National Park, a tradition was born. From that evening forward, we played a progressive game of Yahtzee, the winner taking all at the end of the trip. This tradition eventually made its way onto future trips. We set a limit of three games per evening and a per evening buy-in of $5.00 a person.

At the end of the evening, we all agreed to wake up before sunrise, grab a coffee, and drive to a lookout point a short distance from the hotel. This spot had garnered a reputation for glorious sunrises, and none of us wanted to miss out on what was touted to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience! With all expectations met, we headed out for our first national park adventure.

The spectacular sunrise is seen from a lookout point close to our hotel! A glorious way to start the day!

The spectacular sunrise is seen from a lookout point close to our hotel! A glorious way to start the day!

Rocky Mountain National Park

The west entrance to the park was only about one mile from the hotel. It was here that we learned we could buy a pass that was good for a year and offered unlimited access to all the United States National Parks. Done deal! We weren't eligible, but there is a reduced rate for seniors aged 62 and over.

Rocky Mountain National Park map

Rocky Mountain National Park map

With our first park of the trip, we drove with high anticipation, knowing that Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the highest national parks in the country. We had read that the elevations ranged from 7,860 feet to 14,259 feet and that there are 60 mountain peaks over 12,000 feet high. I had learned about the continental divide in school but never dreamed that I would drive through it. It runs north to south through the park marking a climatic division that is palpable.

Rocky Mountain National Park is known for its hiking trails, lakes and waterfalls, animals (elk, wolverines, grizzly bears, bison, and bobcats), scenery, trees, and seasonal wildflowers. But did you know that within the park are cirque glaciers (small glacier that occupies a bowl-shaped basin)? None of us had any idea about the glaciers, thinking the climate in the park wasn't cold enough.

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Pro Travel Tip

With the high elevations in Rocky Mountain National Park, you need to be aware of the possibility of altitude sickness, which is caused by not allowing the body enough time to adjust to reduced oxygen and changes in air pressure when reaching high elevations. Symptoms can include headache, vomiting, and impaired coordination. There were a few times we felt a bit out of sorts.

Visiting This Park

At each entrance of the park sits well-stocked visitor centers. There are snacks and drinks available, but more importantly, there are maps, brochures, and videos to watch. We took full advantage of each visitor center, picking up brochures and maps. Trails and lookout points are well mapped so these items were essential for our purposes.

On the maps and brochures, the trails are marked with a difficulty level. Of the four of us, only one was an experienced and skilled hiker which made these markings very pertinent to our overall safety. The last thing we wanted was to become the focus of a search and rescue operation!

A lookout point in Rocky Mountain National Park.

A lookout point in Rocky Mountain National Park.

We took our time, but we were also cognizant of our schedule (as many parks as we could see in 14 days). Spending the better part of one day in the park, we experienced the grandest of vistas, hiked, and one of us spent part of the drive time on the floorboard of the car since some of the roads were scary and it always seemed like the edge was on the passenger side! (That might have been me.)

A Beginners Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

A Beginners Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

Independence Pass

We spent the night in Lakewood, Colorado, heading out of Rocky Mountain National Park, Yahtzee at the ready. The next day we would experience the incredible adventure of Independence Pass, have lunch in Aspen, and on to Durango, where we saw a portion of the Million Dollar Highway, and ultimately, Mesa Verde National Park.

Independence Pass was incredible. Fortunately, we were prepared for the higher elevation (12,095 feet) and the drop in temperature associated with that! Arriving at the parking area, we donned our winter coats, hats, and gloves and set it out on the paved path for the infamous scenic overlook.

While we were caught up in the glory of our stop, it started snowing and sleeting. It seems our homework had paid off! Here we had views of Mount Elbert, Colorado's highest peak, and La Plata Peak, the state's fifth-highest at 14,336 feet. To the west, we saw the Maroon Bells, Snowmass Mountain, and Capitol Peak, which are all over 14,000 feet.

Independence Pass was spectacular! We were so happy we had winter gear!

Independence Pass was spectacular! We were so happy we had winter gear!

Shedding our winter outerwear, off we went down the mountain to lunch in sunny and much warmer Aspen. From winter gear to shorts and tee shirts in one hour!

Utilizing US 285, we had about four and a half hours to reach Durango, our next stop.

Durango and the Million Dollar Highway

Beginning as a railroad town in the 1880s, today, Durango is known for its historical significance, exemplified in the town center. We found great shops, restaurants, and museums that were all geared towards a "western theme" and the great outdoors. The Animas River runs through downtown Durango and is known for spectacular fly-fishing and whitewater rafting.

Arriving late in the day, we decided to have dinner at a courtyard western-themed restaurant and explore the next morning. Plus, we had a very close Yahtzee competition waiting.

After a great night's sleep and with cars loaded, we made our way to the riverwalk. We then decided to hike for an hour or so—the Million Dollar Highway was on the day's itinerary.

Hiking in Durango, Colorado

Hiking in Durango, Colorado

The Million Dollar Highway

Running out of Durango, this stretch of US Highway 550, which is about 25 miles, connects Durango, Silverton, and Ouray. Said to be one of the most spectacular drives in the world, it does not disappoint.

There seems to be some disagreement over the name of this stretch of roadway ranging from the fact that it cost so much to build, the amount of gold ore that remained in the roadway's fill, or the price for those incredible views of the San Juan Mountain. Taking in these views took us out of our way but feeling like we were so close to this iconic drive, we didn't want to miss it. Road trips like this should have flexibility; it's part of the fun!