My writing includes my personal travel experiences, destination, history, and cultural information.
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.
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.
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.
Read More from WanderWisdom
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!
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.)
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.
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.
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!
Mesa Verde National Park
Next on the itinerary was Mesa Verde National Park, which in my opinion, is not your typical park. Offering amazing canyon views, the park is known for its cliff dwellings. This area has been inhabited since prehistoric times by Paleo-Indians. It is noted that the cliff dwellings are amazingly intact (because of their very nature, they are protected from the elements). Established in 1906 by Teddy Roosevelt as a National Park, it was also placed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1978.
Cliff Palace, not only the largest cliff dwelling in the park but the largest in North America, gives visitors a glimpse into what life was like over seven hundred years ago.
We spent about four hours in Mesa Verde National Park, although the recommended time is about six hours. I felt like the time we spent there was quite adequate. I found the cave dwellings to be really interesting and enjoyed this park a lot; I found it unique. One memory I have is what seemed like giant black birds everywhere. Realistically, I know they weren't stalking us, but for the rest of the road trip, it seemed as if these birds were following us!
Grand Canyon, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks
From here, the itinerary got a bit convoluted, with the next few days resembling the "Evelyn Woods" road trip. The four of us were determined to see as much as we could see in the time we had allotted. Looking back, it seems we did some back-tracking with our maps looking like swirls of dizzying circles. We knew we were off course but having a great time, so that didn't matter. With four alpha personalities on the trip, none of us wanted to admit our planning wasn't quite up to snuff. Spontaneous, impromptu, and laissez-faire all come to mind when describing those days!
Four Corners Monument
From Mesa Verde National Park, we headed to the Four Corners Monument in Utah. Managed by the Navajo Nation, the monument was erected in 1912 to mark the spot where the corners of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico come together.
Vaguely remembering this from geography lessons in grade school, this extremely remote spot was definitely worth the stop! When I say remote, don't take that lightly; the closest town is about 10 miles away, and there is only a gas station and a few people living there. The area of the monument does have a visitor center and some vendor stalls. As close as we were to this landmark, it didn't seem right not to take a break from the drive and step into all four states!
Grand Canyon National Park
Entering from the Southern Rim, this 1.2 million acre canyon is spectacular! Created over millions of years, this is the largest canyon on the planet. The Grand Canyon is often considered one of the Wonders of the World and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, celebrating its 100th anniversary on February 26, 2019.
We took the Rim Trail walking tour, which runs west from the Pipe Creek lookout point for about eight miles of paved road and is then followed by seven miles unpaved to Hermit's Rest.
Taking us about six hours, I would say that parts of the hike were easy and other parts moderate. The views were heavenly, and when you consider that the canyon was carved out by the Colorado River, it's pretty darn incredible! I'm glad, however, that we saw the Grand Canyon before seeing Zion and Bryce Canyon...keep reading.
The Adventure Continues
To say the least, we were exhausted after our six-hour hike. (And, I was getting creeped out from those giant blackbirds which seemed to have followed us from Mesa Verde!) What we thought was a well-thought-out plan that included a specific itinerary and hotels booked in advance was becoming a distant memory.
We decided to find a hotel, grab some dinner and play the next installment of our Yahtzee tournament. It seemed the Yahtzee tourney was the only thing in our original plan that had stuck! Getting a good night's sleep, Bryce Canyon National Park would be first on the agenda the next morning as the four alphas were learning all about flexibility!
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park is best known to have the greatest concentration of "hoodoos" on Earth. What in the world is a "hoodoo"? Taking thousands of years to form, they are natural columns of rock that form bridges, pillars to natural amphitheaters, and other fabulous rock formations.
Bryce Canyon is also known for canyoneering and rappelling, which we did not do. Instead, we drove through the park stopping at the numerous lookout points and taking several mini-hikes out on the rock formations. It is often said that the best way to see this park, is to view it from the top down. Zion National Park, on the other hand, according to the experts, should be viewed from the bottom up. Taking this advice, we had an awesome experience.