Cross Country U.S. Road Trip – Part 3 (My Itinerary)

In my “Part 1” post, I gave a review of each of the parks I visited on my cross country U.S. road trip this summer, and in my “Part 2” post, I gave all my tips and tricks for planning a road trip and/or hiking trip, and my full packing list. As promised, in this Part 3 post I will detail my full itinerary, and give reviews of each and every hike I did and meal I ate on my trip. I’ll spare ya the long intro and just get right to it!

My Itinerary

Day 1 (Travel Day)

From NYC, we made it to Mauston Wisconsin on the first day of driving. We stopped in Chicago to get some takeout Pequod’s deep dish pizza for dinner. Try to get your hands on some cheese curds while in Wisconsin – they’re famous for it there! At this point, We were in the Central Time Zone (1 hour earlier).

Day 2 (Travel Day)

From Mauston Wisconsin, we made it to Billings Montana on the second day of driving. We grabbed another takeout dinner along the way at Black Iron Grill in Miles City Montana, and it was DELICIOUS (recommend the mushroom swiss burger and the NY strip steak. Full disclosure – driving past so much open land and farms made us really curious about the local meat available at restaurants. We ate more red meat on this trip than I have all year! It was all so yummy.) At this point, we were in the Mountain Time Zone (2 hours earlier).

Day 3 (Travel Day)

From Billings Montana we made it to our first official destination near Glacier National Park in the afternoon on the third day of driving!

Tamarack Brewery for dinner – This was one of the best meals and atmospheres we experienced on the trip, so I highly recommend this brewery/restaurant. The beer was unique and delicious, and there was outdoor dining! We ordered the bison tacos, bison burger, and the mac and cheese (mandatory for me whenever I see it on a menu).

*Note that this travel itinerary was aggressive. There were two people in the car, so it was possible to switch every few hours to keep things interesting and allow for naps when we needed it. Plan for an additional day of travel if 10-14 hour days in the car isn’t really your jive, or if you are doing the drive alone.

**We did not have hotels booked for our travel days in advance. We drove all day until we felt as though we didn’t want to anymore. About an hour or two before we wanted to stop driving, we looked for hotels in upcoming towns. We liked the Hotel Tonight app for quick and easy searching of affordable last minute hotels.

Day 4 (Glacier National Park, Montana)

Avalanche Lake via Trail of the Cedars (5.7 miles in and out) – We did this as a late afternoon hike, since we worked in the morning. Trail of the Cedars was a very pretty and easy nature walk. It led into the Avalanche Lake trail, which was more of a hike. There was some uphill through the forest, nothing too crazy, which led you to a beautiful lake that you could swim in (though the water was pretty cold). This trail was one of the best ways to experience the crystal clear water at this park – this was one of the only opportunities to really see it up close and personal and take a dip. On most of the longer hikes, you get more so views of the lakes instead of experiencing them from ground level.

Tupelo Grille for dinner, for takeout since they didn’t have outdoor seating. The food was great, but I think a sit down dining experience would have been better for this menu. We got the shrimp and crawfish crab cakes, the elk meatloaf, and the bison filet. The elk meatloaf we got because we were so curious about elk, but the bison filet stole the show. The fish cakes were tasty, but again, not very conducive to takeout. Sorry for the terrible photos! It was the best I could do at a park bench in the dark…

Day 5 (Glacier National Park, Montana)

Grinnell Glacier Overlook via the Granite Park Trail (11.4 miles in and out) – We were at the parking lot at 7:20 AM and grabbed literally the very last spot in the lot. The hiking in this park is no joke, and the hikers are far from amateur – everyone means business, which means you will be competing with the early birds for parking. Honestly, it was a little bit rough getting out there so early, but it is worth it to beat the crowds and the heat on the trails. The park fills up quickly, and the mid-day sun is BRUTAL. The last 1.5 miles of the Grinnell Overlook hike is a narrow cliffside path, and the final 1/4 mile is very steep, narrow, and rocky. We did see rams along this path, which was exciting, but I personally was pretty frightened along the steep and narrow cliffside portion of this hike.

*The first four miles of this trail (the Granite Park portion) is along the mountain and then through the forest, and brings you to a resting point at the “Chalet.” From here you can choose to stop entirely (there is a pretty view), or you can connect to other trails. This is where the trailhead for the remaining 1.5 miles of Grinnell Overlook begins.

Switfcurrent Pass to Swiftcurrent Lookout (4 miles in and out from the Chalet) – The trailhead for this hike also begisn at the Chalet. This hike gets you to a full 360 degree view of the park with visibility of 14+ miles in every direction. The hike itself is short, technically, but is very steep up the mountain and is not pretty. This hike is a means to an end, but a beautiful end to say the absolute least. Look out for marmots along this trail! They are a cute mix between a gopher and a squirrel, and as you get further up the mountain they get to be pretty big!

*Alternative – doing a small portion of the beginning of the Mini Glacier trail instead at the junction where you can start the Swiftcurrent Lookout will get you an alternative beautiful view of the lakes that are visible at Swiftcurrent. We didn’t do this.

**Note that it was ambitious to do both the Grinnell Glacier Overlook and the Swiftcurrent Pass trails in the same day. If you select one, I would recommend the Swiftcurrent Pass. While the hike itself was less pretty, the views are better, and the hike was overall more enjoyable (mostly because of how scared I was on the Grinnell hike). Don’t forget that you still have the four miles back through the forest and down the mountain (Granite Park Trail) before your day is over, so take this into consideration before deciding to do multiple hikes up at the Chalet.

Lake McDonald – You can drive right to the lake, so no more hiking for the day! The water is crystal clear and the rocks around the lake are beautiful colors. The water was cold, but a dip in this lake was a nice way to cool down and recover from the 19 miles of hiking done this day.

Three Fork Grill for dinner (they had outdoor dining!) We got the elk pasta dish, and two specials of the day for dinner. If you go here, definitely consider the special of the day, whatever it might be, because the chef and staff here are passionate about food, and the dishes are thoughtfully constructed. The specials and the desserts were superb (flourless chocolate torte and huckleberry panna cotta).

Day 6 (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)

Today was a full day of travel from Glacier to Yellowstone. We went straight to the park before checking into our hotel, and got takeout for dinner from one of the restaurants in the park.

Old Faithful – We ran immediately into the park in the hopes of catching the next eruption of the Old Faithful Geyser. This Geyser is HUGE, and erupts pretty regularly every 90 minutes. Call ahead of time or check their website for information to determine the next eruption prediction to try to time this correctly – we had JUST missed the last eruption before sunset, so the one we saw was in the dark. It was still cool, but a bit difficult to see, so catching one in the daylight would be a great experience.

Day 7 (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)

“Lower Loop” – Begin to drive in the park, and you will essentially be driving from exhibit to exhibit (each has a parking lot) until you loop the whole lower section of the park. If you take a look at a map of the park, this will make a lot more sense.

1 – Firehole Canyon Drive – Turn onto this dead end road when you see the sign, and walk the boardwalk for the best views.

2 – Fountain Paint Pot – Park your car and walk the boardwalk

3 – Midway Geyser Basin – This includes Grand Prismatic, the famous colorful hot spring, and the Fairy Falls Trail, which brings you to an overlook of the Grand Prismatic, a beautiful waterfall, and an active geyser.

Grand Prismatic – This was the best thing that I saw in Yellowstone. Walk the boardwalk to catch the ground level view of this amazingly colorful spring, which will be steamy in the morning from the cool air touching its boiling hot water. The spring transforms and new colors appear as you circle it on the boardwalk. You will have an opportunity to see it from above if you walk the Fairy Falls Trail, which I highly recommend because it was 100% worth it.

Fairy Falls Trail – It’s a pretty short walk and short uphill climb to get to the bird’s eye lookout of the Grand Prismatic Spring. Definitely do this, because it’s a completely different experience from up above. Also, we found that this was a better view in the afternoon once it was warmer out and the steam from the spring subsided. Recommended to skip the overlook on the way into the trail, continue the Fairy Falls Trail until you hit the actual waterfall, and then even further to the Imperial Geyser (this one is constantly erupting so no need to time it). Fairy Falls is an in/out trail (not a loop), so do the Grand Prismatic overlook on the way back to your car for a more delayed view of it later in the day. Also, the trail to the Imperial Geyser is a bit difficult to find once you make it to the waterfall – when you are facing the waterfall, you will basically make a full 180 turn and walk in that direction. You will have to get through some rocks and tree trunks, but you should see the path emerge pretty soon after.

**We saw a grizzly bear on the Fairy Falls trail! It was a little bit scary becuase he/she was blocking the path and we had to wait for it to clear before we could proceed. But, the bear never seemed too concerned with us, and eventually traveled up the mountain to nosh on some berries. Always carry your bear spray!

4 – West Thumb Geyser Basin – Park your car and walk the boardwalk

5 – Yellowstone Lake (Hayden Valley) – You don’t have to get out of your car for this one. Drive through the Hayden Valley and along the shoreline of the lake. It’s really pretty, and you are guaranteed to see bison, up close and personal. You can stop off to see the mud volcano along this road. It’s definitely cool, but be prepared for some smelly sulfur!

6 – Grand Canyon of Yellowstone – While not quite the actual Grand Canyon, this was breathraking. You want to go to the spot on the map called “Artist Point,” because this will get you the best view of the canyon from the South Rim. There is a huge waterfall and river, and the rock is beautifully rainbow colored (including yellow, where the park gets its name from). The good news is that you can drive right up to the lookout. There is hiking around this area though, if you are up for it.

We got dinner from a Mexican food truck in town this night since it was like 10 PM before we were out of the park and back at the hotel.

Day 8 (Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming)

We stayed in the same hotel for this park that we did for Yellowstone.

Jenny Lake to Cascade Canyon Trail – This was an easy and fun hike, totaling about 10 miles. We kind of constructed this one ourselves, just taking part of the Jenny Lake Loop until it connected to the Cascade Canyon trailhead. There is a pretty river along the Cascade Canyon with large rocks, which makes it a great place to stop for lunch. The Cascade Canyon trail connects with a couple of other trails wit more views, if you want to keep going. Honestly, if you are not going to connect with another trail, you can stop on the Cascade Canyon after you pass the waterfall and turn around, because after that point it’s all the same trail with no additional views. You can also splash around in Jenny Lake either before or after Cascade Canyon if you so choose! We saw two male moose munching on some leaves in the woods, two more female moose at the base of the Jenny Lake trail (aptly named Moose Pond), as well as a bald eagle flying overhead while walking the Jenny Lake trail on the way back to the car. This was definitely a big and exciting day for wildlife!

Stillwest Brewery in Jackson Hole for dinner – Beer was great, and the food was pretty good too! We got one of the flatbreads and a salad, and then a burger and the salmon bowl entrees. You can skip the dessert, though (we got the Mississippi mud pie, but it wasn’t really a mud pie – it was more so a large cup of ice cream with oreos on the bottom. Delicious, but not particularly unique).

Day 9 (Travel Day)

It was a full day of travel from Yellowstone to Colorado

Rioja for dinner in Denver. The meal was good, but a bit salty. The signature cocktails were really unique and VERY tasty. We got the sweet breads (tried this for the first time after watching people cook it on Chopped, but full disclosure these are goat brains. They were well done, but the texture a little odd) and ceviche appetizer, and the shrimp gnocchi and octopus entrees. The octopus was some of the most tender I have ever had. Would recommend all of it!

Day 10 (Estes / Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado)

Twin Sister Peaks trail (7.5 miles in and out) – This trail was both beautiful and very enjoyable from start to finish. It was well maintained, and the last bit up to the two peaks was a fun rock scramble. You can skip the scramble if you want! It’s just the very end, adn you get a good view at the summit even if you don’t do the scramble. However, sitting at the very top of the peak for a 360 degree view of the park and a PB&J make it totally worth it. In Colorado, people often talk of altitude sickness. Honestly, I didn’t feel any while in Colorado, even at the top of the peak, and I also didn’t feel particularly winded on the hike. This seems to be different from one individual to another, but here is a pretty good resource on altitude sickness and how to both prevent and treat it.

Day 11 (Arches National Park , Utah)

Traveled most of this day from Colorado to Arches National Park

Delicate Arch Hike (3 miles in and out) for the sunset – This is a must-do hike if you are visiting Arches National Park – It is the famous image you see on the Utah license place because it is probably one of the more famous and most beautiful arches in the park. You have to do the full hike and not just the overlook viewpoint. The arch plays games with you, and somehow remains completely hidden up until the very last corner you turn, and then presents itself to you suddenly and in all its glory! The photos really don’t do this structure any justice – for reference, can you spot us in the bottom right photo?

This hike would *probably* be better suited in the morning for sunrise, since the arch faces east. We did this for the sunset, however, because it was the perfect length for the amount of time we had, and we had different plans for sunrise the next morning.

Day 12 (Arches National Park / Moab, Utah)

Devil’s Garden Loop Trail (7.8 miles round) – This is MANDATORY if you are visiting this park. The trail is fairly long and there are some steep sections, so start early because it gets HOT in the afternoon. There will be some places that you get to climb over some rock structures, but it was all safe, no steep drop-offs, and the rock is super grippy (it’s called “slickstone,” but it is comparable to sandpaper). As I mentioned in my review of this park in Part 1, it is like a scavenger hunt to find all of the arches on the loop, and a lot of them remain hidden until you turn the corner and are facing them directly. It was fun, playful, and the scenery along the way was breathtaking. Keep an eye out for the section where you walk towards what I liked to call the “skyline.” It was a set of structures that looked like a hundred needles all lined up in a row, almost like the NYC skyline. It was so compelling that this was where I stopped for lunch! Also, this was one of the hikes where cairns came in handy to keep on the correct path.

it gets HOT in Moab in direct sunlight, so in the afternoon we walked around the town, hit up some gift shops, the Moab Brewery (to take a case home), and the food truck park to pick up sandwiches for dinner.

I took my Jeep Wrangler to Moab, so it was only fair to reward her with some off roading. Later on in the afternoon, we did the Potash and Shafer Trails in Canyonlands National Park with the Jeep. We did these backwards technically because we wanted to end up at the Canyonlands visitor center area once we finished the trail. The Potash Trail was rocky and rough, but was just logistically necessary in order to get to the Shafer Trail Shafer had some cool switchbacks to get you up the mountain with incredible views along the way. There were plenty of places to turn off and take iconic pictures of your vehicles with views off the mountain of the Colorado river in the background. Totally safe trail that you can probably do with whatever car you are in, to be honest.

Sunset and Stargazing at Deadhorse State Park – We stayed in the park until after dark because this area is an official dark zone, meaning that stargazing is superb. If you decide to do this at any point, it doesn’t have to be at this park in particular, and you should choose a lookout point wherever you go that is very close to the parking lot (if not the parking lot itself). Bring a flashlight or make sure your phone has a really good charge. Finding your way through a perfectly pitch black park is a lot more difficult than you envision, even if you think you know exactly where you are. “Dark” has a new meaning out here. I wish that photos of the sky could come out on my phone, because the stargazing was like nothing I have ever seen before. We even caught some shooting stars that were leftover from the Perseid Meteor Shower.

Day 13 (Bryce National Park, Utah)

Jailhouse Cafe for breakfast in Moab before we left – This was a pancake house/diner, but the pancakes were not the best I ever had. The best pancake here is the apple ginger. The egg white omelet I got was filling and tasty!

It was just about a full day of travel down to the Bryce/Zion area from Moab.

We stopped at Puffer Lake on the drive down – This was recommended by a friend, who loves to fish. We didn’t fish but recommend it here if you do, and the view of the lake was beautiful. It was chilly and stormy that day so we didn’t go in, but it looks like you could if you wanted to!

Once in Bryce – Navajo Loop and Queens Garden Trails (3 miles round) for the sunset – These were easy trails (dare I call them nature walks?) and the views and structures in the Bryce canyon are very cool! These trails were very interactive and the trail starts you out walking directly down into the canyon, and then you get to explore the little “city” below ground level.

Sol Foods for dinner – By the time we had gotten to the hotel after Bryce, it was after 10 PM and this little deli/grocery was literally the only thing open (one of the less glamorous aspects of this trip).

Day 14 (Zion National Park, Utah)

Observation Point via the Stave Spring Trail (11.2 miles in and out) – This was one of the handful of cool hikes that you could do in the park without having to take the shuttle down into the canyon (which we avoided due to COVID). The path was very well maintained, and the views breathtaking. The hike itself was pretty challenging because you hike into the canyon and then back up the other side for the views and then back in and up the original side to get back to your car. We saw a family of rams on this hike which was awesome! The view of the Zion canyon is the same as the one you would see from the famous Angel’s Landing hike (if not better, because you are actually higher up at Observation Point). This was another hike where we relied heavily on cairns to tell us where to go. We can’t wait to come back to this park and explore more – a lot of trails were either closed due to COVID, or other natural causes happening to affect the area at the time. Take a look at the Zion section of my Part 1 post for the list of additional hikes that I will do when I come back to visit Zion!

King’s Landing Bistro for dinner. The food, drinks, and desserts here were unique, fresh, and DELICIOUS. We got the huge pretzel and tuna tartar for appetizer, and then the pork chop and salmon entrees. For dessert, we got the cherry cheesecake and peach blueberry cobbler, both made in-house. The cheesecake and pretzel were specials that night, but everything else should be consistent on the menu. Also, the drinks were so unique and amazing!! (Try the heirloom tomato based one. No, it is nothing like a Bloody Mary. You can thank me later). You also have a view of Zion’s incredible mountain range from the outdoor patio.

Day 15 (Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona)

Bright Angel Point for lookout (North Rim) – If you have never seen the Grand Canyon before, in person or in photographs, DO NOT LOOK IT UP, and close your eyes immediately and just continue scrolling through. Resist the urge. Going into this totally blind with no idea of what to expect makes it so much more incredible. Also, do the lookout before any potential hikes for the day into the canyon – you will have the best view of the canyon itself at the lookout. Also, even if you HAVE seen pictures or came to visit as a kid, this is still worth the stop. It is really something else when you see it in person.

North Rim Kaibab Trail Hike – This is the only hike on the North Rim that takes you into the canyon. You can do as much of it as you want, and once you get to the bottom it connects with the South Rim trail, which is similarly the only trail that takes you in/out of the canyon from the South Rim. The park highly discourages trying to get all the way to the bottom and back up in the same day (they do offer lodge and camping options along the hikes and at the bottom though, if you wanted to make it an overnight experience). We hiked about 3 miles down into the canyon until we got to the bridge before heading back up. The hike back up is challenging – slow and steady will get you there, but it is harder than it seems it will be when you are heading down, so keep that in mind when you are trying to figure out where to stop for the day. Allow yourself 1.5-2x the amount of time (and exponential effort) to get back up as it did to go down.

Jacob Lake Inn for dinner – It was probably the only thing open (again) on the way back to the hotel from the canyon, but the sandwiches here really hit the spot! The grilled chicken club was my favorite. Also, this restaurant is attached to a pretty lit bakery with some high quality cookies – get the chocolate parfait (fat and round chocolate chip cookie base with HUGE chocolate chunks) and cloud cookies (chocolate cookie base covered with marshmallow fluff and covered again with chocolate icing). We also got the raspberry lemon cookies and snickerdoodles, which were both fabulous.

Day 16 (Travel Day)

Meteor Crater Natural Landmark – This is the first confirmed site of a meteor crash in the world! IT might not seem like much, but this thing is HUGE, and has quite a scientific history. This is worth the stop into. Read the brochure for some mindblowing facts!

Petrified Forest – I had no idea what to expect going into this, but I am SO happy I wound up stopping here. The “forest” is comprised of old tree trunks that soaked up lava and minerals, and the plant matter was slowly replaced by minerals and the trunks became beautiful colorful fossilized rock. The colors are wild and almost look man-made, and seeing them in the shape of the tree with bark intact is really something else!

Painted Desert – You can easily drive through this while on your way out of the Petrified Forest, because the two parks are connected. The painted desert portion of the park has beautiful dunes which are made of different rock layers, so they have many different layers of color.

Los Pollos Hermanos – For my fellow Breaking Bad fans, the Los Pollos building is actually a real fast food chain, called Twisters! They serve Mexican food, and it is actually really good. We came in for a photo op and stayed for a burrito ūüôā

Walter White’s House – The house that they used in the Breaking Bad show for Walter is actually a real house. The current owners don’t seem to find it amusing that a ton of breaking bad fans frequent their house for photos though, so the front is not longer inviting, but we still did a drive-by just to see it. It still looks pretty much the same!

Day 17 (Travel Day)

We drove all day and ended up in Amarillo Texas for the night. We stopped in Saunt Louis for some BBQ for dinner at Iron Barley, and were NOT disappointed. The BBQ was delicious, and so were the signature cocktails! If you are in the area, this is definitely worth a stop into. We were really blown away by the pulled pork raviolis – pulled pork filling inside the pasta, smothered with a brown gravy, and covered with melted cheese. We finished our meal with the maple bourbon cheese cake, which was probably one of the best cheesecakes I have ever had. The consistency was so thick and creamy, and the flavor was superb with layers of bacon laced within. The menu is always changing here, which in my opinion is testament to a talented chef and passionate chef/staff.

Day 18 (Travel Day)

Our last day of travel brought us back home to NYC! We stopped into Waffle House for a single waffle, because this is mandatory almost-done-with-your-road-trip food, and we had Cracker Barrel for dinner, to round out the trip correctly.

I really hope that this road trip series was helpful for you in planning your road trip, or plain entertaining if you’re just here for the read! Be sure to check out Part 1 (full review and ranking of each National Park we visited) and Part 2 (tips, tricks, and packing lists) for even more information that might help (or entertain)!

Happy road trippin’!!

2 thoughts on “Cross Country U.S. Road Trip – Part 3 (My Itinerary)

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