Cross Country U.S. Road Trip and National Parks Tour – Part 1

Hello hello! Another hiatus from a blog post broken by travel updates! Before we get started, let me set the scene for you: it is June 2020, you have been in your 700 square foot NYC apartment exclusively for the last four months, and you have long since given up on your plan for a European vacation this summer. Chatter of “should we even try for something this year?’ is entertained, and then the borders close officially for international travel. You are highly discouraged from even thinking about breathing within ten miles of an airport, but your stir-crazy-fueled desire for a new experience is really starting to set in. So, what’s a girl to do?

Disclaimer: a lot of research and deliberation went into the decision to take a trip this year, and I almost threw in the towel and called this year a wash for travel. Please do NOT view this post as a recommendation to take a trip this year, especially if you are on the fence or uncomfortable. The decision to travel during the COVID pandemic is a completely personal decision that depends on your lifestyle, your comfort level, and the comfort level or other people in your life. Please DO view this post as an informative guide if you have already decided to take a trip similar to mine 🙂

So, what’s a girl to do? (Spoiler alert, it’s in the title of this post!) A cross country road trip! It has always been a bucket list item of mine to take my Jeep Wrangler across the country, and to take it on some sweet off-roading trails along the way. I ultimately decided that a road trip was the safest way to go this year, because I am avoiding flying at all costs. Additionally, I wanted to avoid major cities and the allure of highly populated areas with popular restaurants and sight-seeing. The final decision became a cross country road trip to explore the National Parks along the Rocky Mountains. National Parks are a great way to get out and have fun, and are within the recommendations of social distancing, when done smart and correctly.

I want to speak briefly about the concept of a road trip. I personally love them – I love to drive, and I love the car I drive, and I think they are whimsical and inherently fun. I know a lot of people who, in contrast, hate everything about them – from concept to execution. So, going into the trip I was excited for the drive regardless. Coming out of it, I think the drive was absolutely NECESSARY, no exaggeration. Yes, you can fly to the Rockies once it is safe again to save a few days of travel, but I have learned that there is no better way to experience America than to drive through each of the individual states. On the drive alone, I feel like I learned so much about each state I passed through, and I was always surprised at the stark difference from one state to another as soon as you cross the state line. This was an experience completely forfeited by hopping in a plane and zooming across the earth from 30,000 feet in the air. Ultimately, choose a method of travel that works for you, your friends, and/or the family that you are traveling with. However, if you are considering skipping the road trip part of the experience just because you don’t have an affinity for driving, I would invite you to reconsider if you have the time – it might be cooler and more enriching than you think!

In this post, I want to take you through a review of each of the parks I visited, ranked least to most favorite. In my “Part 2” post, I will spell out all of the tips and tricks that I used to help me plan and execute this trip, including detailed COVID precautions that I took, detailed tips that are hiking/road trip vacation specific, and lists of EVERYTHING I packed on my trip. Lastly, in “Part 3” I will give my detailed itinerary with reviews of each trail I hiked and meal I ate. Without further adieu, here are my opinions 🙂

National Parks Reviewed and Ranked

(Least to Most Fave)

Ok, so, I understand that ranking the parks I visited is 100% entirely subjective, and you should take my rankings and even reviews with a single solitary grain of salt. While the rankings here go from least to most favorite, the chronological order of the parks that we visited is in my next post I mentioned, in the itinerary section. Please understand my bias as you read through these reviews, and again, take everything with a grain of salt. While I do give an honest review (which includes negatives), I still think that every park is worth a visit at some point in your life, so don’t take my negative comments as advice to avoid any park in any capacity.

My Bias: I am a NYC gal, so most of my hiking experience is among the mountains of the Catskills north of the city. Each of the parks I visited on this trip offers its own unique natural wonders, but the mountains are something that I see on a regular basis back home. Additionally, each of the parks offers hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty, but I did notice that each park had a general overall difficulty level. I would say that my personal preference for difficulty level is moderate to hard, so this will impact my rankings. I also have a *crippling* fear of heights and falling, and I consider myself to be generally not very coordinated. I grew up with little to no hiking experience, and really got into hiking in college with my roommate at the time. Over the years, I have built up my hiking skills because I love nature and am a sucker for a good view, but I still get jelly legs when high up or on uncertain ground and narrow paths. I try my very best to not let my fears limit me, but my ambition to push my comfort zone gets me into my own head sometimes. You’ll see.

9. Glacier National Park (Montana)

I will start off by saying that this park has some of the most beautiful and unique scenery that I have ever experienced (where else can you see a legitimate glacier?) The streams and pools in this park have the most beautiful crystal clear blue water that I have ever seen (think real life Glacier Frost Gatorade), and seeing a glacier in real life was pretty awesome. The tops of the peaks are cold and windy (even in the summer), so bring a thick sweatshirt or puffer jacket and maybe even a beanie for when you sit down for a PB&J at the summit!

I am ranking this park last for a couple of reasons, one of which is pretty personal and has to do with my bias. The park is definitely…rugged. I did two of the larger and more popular hikes in the park, and both were very difficult and technical. The first one, Grinnell Overlook, was cliffside for about a mile and a half, and the last 1/4 mile was very steep, narrow, rocky, with not much to hold onto for balance. Having trekking poles would be useful on this one (I didn’t have them at the time, but I bought them later on in the trip). To put it into perspective for you, though, very few people on the trail were really struggling that much. Everyone was taking it slow, but many people were walking through fearlessly. Taking my own drama aside, the views at the top are spectacular and I am really glad I finished the hike, despite the fact that I was afraid. I found that the hiking paths themselves to be a means to an end, but if you’re in it for the views, don’t mind (and are prepared for) a more rugged and technical hike, and don’t fear heights, Glacier will be a lot more enjoyable for you than it was for me.

There was no requirement for a time slot or extra permit to hike in this park – the annual pass got me wherever I wanted to be! Check out my itinerary for a more detailed review of each of the hikes I did, and some food/beer suggestions in Montana!

8. Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)

The first thing you notice about Grand Teton on the drive in is the imposing nearly 14,000 ft mountains steadily approaching you. You will be amazed, like I was, as they relentlessly get bigger and bigger! The whole mountain range is massive, but the Teton peaks are the tallest in the park and are easily distinguished from the other mountains due to their three individual sharp peaks. The park itself is really well maintained, and the hike I did is an easy one, both beautiful and enjoyable. The sheer existence of the Grand Teton mountain peaks remains to me the most breathtaking aspect of this park.

The only real way to fully experience the Grand Tetons mountain peaks is on a 31 mile loop hike, which requires a tour guide and camping overnight, and would be considered very difficult (though an unforgettable and worth-it experience). There are some other shorter hikes in the park, but none that I could find that would get you onto the Grand Tetons, and most of recommended hikes I saw were on the more challenging side. My next time at the park I would like to try the Surprise Amphitheater Lakes trail – this one is supposedly a more challenging trail than the one I did, with a swimmable lake at the end. You can also continue onto an extension of the trail for an uphill climb to a breathtaking view of the Grand Teton peaks.

If you are in it for either a leisurely day in the valley of an impressively imposing mountain range, or alternatively an extreme overnight hike to 14,000 foot peaks, Grand Teton will have something for you!

There was no requirement for a time slot or extra permit to hike in this park – the annual pass got me wherever I wanted to be! Check out my itinerary for a more detailed review of each of the hikes I did, and some food/beer suggestions in Wyoming!

7. Bryce National Park (Utah)

I feel the way I feel about this park only because I visited it after already visiting Arches, which is also a desert sculpture park. The structure and canyons within Bryce are incredibly unique, and the park itself is fun and interactive. The hikes are easy (more like nature paths than hiking), and it is small enough to really explore in one day. If you are in the area, it is worth a stop into. In my opinion, the park is not a destination in and of itself, as I think you could get through most of it in one day. The park is super kid friendly. If you want to see beautiful canyons and stone sculptures on an easy walking path that could take a few hours or less, this park should definitely be on your list!

There was no requirement for a time slot or extra permit to hike in this park – the annual pass got me wherever I wanted to be! Check out my itinerary for a more detailed review of each of the hikes I did, and some food/beer suggestions in Utah!

6. Estes / Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)

The review for this park will be comparable to Grand Teton, however ranked a bit higher because I think there is more accessibility to mountain peaks through more moderate hikes. The park itself is beautiful, the scenery lovely, and the hike I did is well maintained, family and child friendly, and just the right amount of challenging. Again, there was a decent bit of variety in the hikes to choose from at this park, including a 14+ mile trip (with optional guidance and optional camping overnight) to the top of Longs Peak, which seems like a very challenging but also super fun experience. The rock scramble on the Twin Sisters Peak hike that I did is both fun and challenging, and gives the day just the right amount of thrill. I don’t really have any glaring negatives for this park, but it just ranks in the middle for me because the scenery is one note (mountains) and that happens to be the note that I get the most on the east coast. Similar to Grand Teton, if you are in it for a challenging hike and an excellent mountain view, this park will satisfy your needs!

Arrival between the hours of 6 AM and 5 PM required a timed permit that you will have to purchase in advance. You could enter the park and parking lots with no permit anytime before 6 AM and after 5 PM (I didn’t have one, so I got to the parking lot before 6 AM for my hike). Note that the park contains a major road to get you into and out of this state, so if you are trying to drive through and not even stop in the park, you will not be able to access that road during the day without a permit, so plan accordingly!

Check out my itinerary for a more detailed review of the hike I did in Estes / Rocky Mountain National Park, and some food/beer suggestions in Colorado!

5. Zion National Park (Utah)

I have really high hopes for future visits to this park. I was super excited about it coming into the trip, but a lot of the hikes I wanted to do were inaccessible when I got there, for a few reasons. The number one hike that I wanted to do, Angel’s Landing, has a chains section to get you to the final peak (you hold onto the chains for balance as you travel out along a narrow cliffside trail). The chains section was closed due to COVID, so I didn’t want to do this hike without being able to travel the final piece to the views. Second, there was a rock fall on Cable Mountain that knocked out another trail I was looking at, Hidden Canyon. Lastly, there was cyanobacteria found in the Narrows River which made the Narrows Trail largely unwalkable because it takes you through the river, and it was not recommended to walk through the water at the time. Most of the park is only accessible via a park-supplied shuttle, which you did have to purchase a ticket for a time slot (it was $1 per person, and you had to purchase these tickets 1-2 days in advance.

I wound up doing an amazing hike up to the Observation Point, which has the same views of the park that can be seen from Angel’s Landing. The hike is challenging and the path is very well maintained, especially the piece that led you up the mountain to the summit. Never did I feel like I was in danger or that the path was uncomfortably narrow, there was a rock ledge at all times making you feel enclosed on the path, and it was not so steep that it felt unreasonable (though it was steep). Also, the nature in this park is incredibly diverse. In one 11 mile stretch, I was able to hike through a meadow, through a forest, and into a canyon. I am very excited to come back to this park again and do some of the more popular hikes. Honestly, if you go here and are able to do any of the hikes I mentioned that were not available at the time of my visit, this park will absolutely rank higher than it did for me. Until next time, Zion.

Check out my itinerary for a more detailed review of the hike I did in Zion National Park, and some food/beer suggestions in Utah!

4. Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

I will start by saying that the Grand Canyon is absolutely worth the hype. There is no way you can understand what this looks like and feels like until you come see it for yourself. Coming into this park, I was torn about whether I wanted to try a hike down into the canyon. I knew that the view was going to be the best at the top, which would have been at the start of the hike anyway. I do recommend going to one of the lookout points before actually starting a hike, because that will be your best view of the canyon. However, the hike down into the canyon is also worth the experience! The hike itself (there is only one trail that gets you down there) is not technical at all – it is a wide dirt path that is shared with mule rides down to the bottom – but there is something to be said about the feeling you get as you hike further and further down into the depths of the canyon. I didn’t make it too far down, because I had been driving earlier that day and only had a few hours before sundown, but it definitely left me wanting more. There are a couple of things you should note about this park:

  • There are two rims – north and south. the North Rim is the one that I visited, but the South Rim is the more touristy one, and the one with arguably better views of the canyon (so I have heard). To drive from the North Rim to the South Rim is a 5 hour drive, as there is no way to travel across the canyon in your car. Plan accordingly – I did the North Rim because it was on the way of the trip, learned once I got there that the South Rim was a worth-it stop, but didn’t actually have time to fit it in.
  • There is one hiking trail that takes you to the bottom of the canyon on each of the rims, and the trails connect at the bottom. Hiking (or taking a mule) is the only way to get to the bottom of the canyon – there are no roads for vehicles! You are highly discouraged from trying to go all the way down and back up in the same day. There is a lodge at the bottom of the canyon, but to get into that you likely have to plan a year in advance. There are some campsites along the way which are more accessible, and would require a few months of planning ahead to be safe.
  • You can absolutely hike either of the trails down to your personal comfort level for the day and then back up There are vista points and milestones to look for at many reasonable intervals along the trails, and even a portion of them is totally worth it for the experience! The trail is STEEP, so just know that it will take 1.5-2x the amount of time (and an exponential amount of effort) for you to get back up as it did to get down. Bring snax and ample water!

I would love to go back to the Grand Canyon very soon and do the hike all the way down to the bottom, spending a night in a campsite. I would even love to hike down to the bottom of one rim, back up the other rim, and then back down and up the original rim. I met a Grand Canyon true vet who had done the hike down to the bottom multiple times, and said that rim to rim to rim (what I just described) would probably take four days of hiking and three nights of camping, but it would be an unforgettable experience!

Check out my itinerary for a more detailed review of the hike I did in The Grand Canyon National Park, and some food/beer suggestions in Arizona!

3. Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming)

This park ranks fairly high for me for a unique reason. It is is not a park that I see myself going back to anytime soon, but I do believe that you need to see it once in your life. The park sits atop a volcano, and the thermal underground activity causes a number of natural wonders that I didn’t even know existed in the world. There are geysers that explode boiling hot water at regular intervals, hot springs that develop the most beautiful colors around their edges, and sulfur mud volcanoes, which are less glamorous and quite smelly, but the science behind them is fascinating. The first time you visit this park, you will feel like you are walking through a giant nature zoo. I recommend the “Lower Loop” itinerary (check out my itinerary for a more detailed look at the “Lower Loop” exhibits), which contains all of the main attractions of the park within a drive able distance from each other – this whole loop can be completed comfortably in one day. There is very minimal hiking on this loop, however there will be a significant amount of walking through each exhibit. Due to the dangers of a very thin layer of the earth’s crust covering piping hot water beneath, there are boardwalks that you are required to walk on in the park. I think that the phenomena of this park is incredible and there is so much to learn and see, but the inability to interact with the nature took away just a little bit from the experience for me. There is apparently more hiking that can be done in the park outside of the Lower Loop, so perhaps that would make for a more interactive and hands-on experience. This park is EXTREMELY kid and family friendly. If you want to see and learn about incredible natural wonders of the earth on easy walking paths, this park will make a perfect stop on your trip!

There was no requirement for a time slot or extra permit to hike in this park – the annual pass got me wherever I wanted to be! Check out my itinerary for a more detailed review of each of the hikes I did, and some food/beer suggestions in Wyoming!

2. Yosemite National Park (California)

I know that I didn’t actually visit this park on this particular trip (I went last year in summer 2019), but it is a National Park, and I believe it deserves a spot in my National Park rankings. I had spent a few days in the park, and on the long hiking day had created a full-day itinerary combining a few trails, including the Mist Trail, the John Muir Trail, and the Nevada Falls trail. It was ambitious, and the last leg of the falls is basically a stone staircase leading straight into the heavens, but the view are absolutely gorgeous the whole entire time. The paths are also VERY well maintained, and though it is cliffside along the waterfalls for a lot of it, I never felt unsafe or that my footing was unreliable. The paths are so much fun to hike, and the surrounding nature is constantly changing, so every thirty minutes of the hike feels like a brand new experience. Stick with me for the rest of this monologue, because I’m going to hit you with a plot twist… I had visited Yosemite in late May, and the area was experiencing uncharacteristic harsh and cold weather for the season. It was consistently rainy all of the days that I was there, and there was snow on the ground in the morning. I would say that during my time in this park, I saw the WORST weather I had ever experienced for hiking. Ready for the plot twist? Despite my awful luck with Mother Nature, this park is still ingrained in my brain as one of the most magical places on earth. The best picture I have ever taken in my whole entire life (so far) has been in this park – during a period when the rain happened to clear, a rainbow appeared right in the waterfall, and the moment was so surreal that I almost expected a unicorn to come trotting out of the forest. There is something about this place that is pure magic, and I would get the annual pass every single year if I lived closer to it.

1. Arches National Park (Utah)

Hands down, the most impressive place I have ever been to in my whole life is Arches National Park. The whole Moab area is incredible, and it was an easy decision making this natural playground #1 on my list.

Arches really blew me away because of the natural structures formed out of the salmon colored sandstone by salt deposits. I knew what they looked like before visiting, and I was most excited for this park going into the whole trip, but seeing them in person is even more breathtaking than I imagined. And there are so MANY of them! Everywhere you look, there is another – it’s like a scavenger hunt walking through the park to see if you can find them all. The Devil’s Garden Loop trail is one of my favorite trails from this trip. It is the perfect balance of thrilling and challenging, but also safe and well maintained. There are plenty of places to lounge around and have a snack, and also plenty of places to play around and just climb on rocks. The sandstone is comparable to sandpaper, which makes for excellent footing – you can play around on steeper grades than you normally would on regular rock. You truly feel like you are on the moon! (or what I imagine that would be like). It would be a shame to travel anywhere near this area and not make time to visit this park. Arches is technically in the desert, so bring a TON of water and sunscreen, as there is really no shade to help you out. Getting in as early as possible is going to make it better, and plan to just relax in the afternoon. There are some lakes you can swim in nearby the park, and a ton of off-roading trails you can explore in the comfort of your own air conditioned car. The latter is what I wound up doing during my afternoon in Moab.

I will caveat my stellar review of the Devil’s Garden hike with the fact that it is rated as “hard” for good reason. It is fairly technical in some portions, requiring you to scramble up or down rock structures, and at some points is high up and cliffside (nothing too narrow though). I will forever defend this hike, though, by reminding you that I am the world’s biggest weenie and I still found this to be one of my favorites. Again, the sandstone makes for such great footing that I never ever felt like I would slip once, even if I was on a very steep grade.

I have to also mention Canyonlands National Park. The Moab area is full of off-roading opportunities, and that is what I did in Canyonlands with my jeep in the afternoon. The Canyonlands park has incredible hiking too, though I did not do any of the hikes in the park. Canyonlands is organized into three sections, and you should view these as three separate parks for planning purposes. It could take hours to drive from one side of Canyonlands to the other, so buffer in driving time if you are trying to hit multiple parts of this park. I got great recommendations from locals about the “Needles” section of the park, which looks like it has moderate to advanced hiking options. Another section, the “Islands in the Sky,” seems the most friendly for beginner and moderate hikers. Lastly, the “Maze” section looks more conducive to very advanced and extreme hiking. Check out the website for more information, and see for yourself which trails will be best for you!

The last thing I will mention about the Moab area is that it is a notable “dark” area, which means that it is excellent for stargazing. I did this in one of the parks one night, and got to see a few shooting stars leftover from the height of the Perseid Meteor Shower. This was the best showing of stars I have ever seen. Just another thing to add to the list of why Moab is a magical place!

If I could have done anything differently on this trip, it would have been to schedule a couple of extra days in Moab to explore more. There was no requirement for a time slot or extra permit to hike in this park – the annual pass got me wherever I wanted to be! Check out my itinerary for a more detailed review of the hikes I did, and some food/beer suggestions in Utah!

Again, I want to say that I would recommend any and all of these parks to anyone who is able to visit! They are absolutely spectacular, and if you have the chance to visit, please do! If you want some more visuals from my trip, check out the reels on my Instagram – I made one every single day on my trip! Now that you have a good general overview for each of the parks, Part 2 details every single item I packed, the COVID precautions I took, and some tips I follow for planning and executing road trips and hiking excursions (some of which I learned on this trip and felt compelled to share), and Part 3 is the full itinerary of my trip, including detailed reviews of each hike I did and meal I ate along the way!

Happy hiking!

4 thoughts on “Cross Country U.S. Road Trip and National Parks Tour – Part 1

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