Cross-Country National Parks Road Trip

Eight National Parks, two couples, three weeks and one car

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t started with the phone call. “I got accepted in Philadelphia!” From that moment forward our blended family worked on getting our young couple situated across the country. After all the packing, selling off belongings, shipping and arrangements, the final task was getting the car there and our family road trip to see 8 National Parks was born.

Trips often start out with grandiose visions. We discussed camping, glamping and renting an RV or camper van. By the time we settled on the itinerary, with two couples – one boomer, one millennial – the trip wasn’t grand, it was practical. Early in June we piled into one car for three weeks of driving.

We had traveled together before. Father and son had a lifetime of it; the new wife and girlfriend, a bit. We weren’t strangers but definitely had different ideas of how to do a road trip. J wanted lots of camping and long hikes. V bought hiking boots begrudgingly and took to the trails with him. Dad helped foot the bills and reserved several nights at lodges. I helped with planning and hoped my road trip experience would pay off.

Knowing that J and V were moving across the country made us more patient about the overloaded car. Unfortunately that patience was tried with the packing and unpacking necessary every night to dig things out. We two Boomers packed as light as possible and there still wasn’t enough room for our minimal gear.

Travel styles collide in close quarters. J wanted to get quickly from point A to point B. He had a plan and was sticking to it. We wanted more time to wander, to pull over for pictures and discoveries. There wasn’t time for spontaneous discoveries.

We filled up on too many convenience store snacks and ate bags full of salty carbs to reward ourselves for driving the long hours. The young couple wanted, needed, full regular meals. We Boomers were accustomed to coffee and a light snack before starting the day, eating lightly for lunch and then enjoying a larger dinner. We all ended up pudgy by the end of the trip with the extra eating, snacking and sitting.

There are several books that we shared to prepare for the trip especially Michael Oswald’s great tome, Your Guide to the National Parks, which listed all 58 in full detail for visitors.  There were a few we all agreed on immediately and soon our course was set. At the outset, we visited family near Yosemite, our first park. The first morning we slipped into the grand valley for a short walk a few hours before the crowds filed in. We passed them crawling along the road into the valley as we scooted out heading west.

On we sped through the wine country of Napa and a few stops before arriving at Redwood National Forest for several short hikes and onto Crater Lake for the night. I took advantage of the WiFi in the Crater Lake Lodge for a few hours while the others hiked. Quiet time alone became a premium.

Mount Rainier really won our hearts. The winding drive to the peak was studded with views. Vast stretches of snow in sunlight made the mountain glow. Paradise Lodge was our refuge for the night. The mighty timbers of the historical building, spacious dining hall and small rooms were reminders of how travelers were once rewarded for making the journey.

Glacier National Park was the next goal and we had reservations at Belton Chalets, just outside the park entrance. It was another historic building but the rooms were nicely upgraded. Our dinner on the deck was one of the best meals of the trip with surprisingly succulent meats, great service and lots of local ingredients. Unfortunately, the next day we faced rain on the Road to the Sun. The mists had me fantasizing about Hobbits, but the crowds didn’t fit the vision. Unfortunately, also we had booked the last couple of rooms in the St. Mary Lodge on the far side of the park. While the lobby and upstairs were comfortable, in an over-stuffed, Wild West way; our rooms were bare-bones in the basement, an afterthought perhaps for days when volunteers and Park staff needed lodging. Before getting back on the road, we wandered the St. Mary Lake trails, full of brooks and wildlife. A few months later,sadly, fires swept through most of the scenic lake front areas we had walked.

I didn’t want to say that Yellowstone was my favorite National Park, to be part of the fan club, but it’s hard not to be gob-smacked by the geothermal oddities and colors, the yellow rock canyons, and especially the abundance of wildlife, big and small. Yellowstone is supremely managed. What is this vortex where animal and man jostle close and still flourish? If its famously expansive caldera were ever to actually explode, the hole it would leave would run through the heart of everyone who’s ever visited.

By this time in the journey we’d worn into a pattern of driving, packing and unpacking, eating and not. I’d relinquished trying to stay up on social media, at best posting a picture every day or so. This part of the country was new to me. The grandeur, surprising vistas, and encounters pulled me to attention. I’m just glad the rest of the family were patient with my early work angst. I learned to ask for time for myself, to let the others do the harder hikes, to go at my own pace and take the pictures I wanted without feeling badly about slowing everyone down.

We had our most unique and hardest two nights of the trip at a commercial campground, Yellowstone Under Canvas. Lack of preparation found us ill-prepared for the anti-glamping experience we faced. The camp ground though was a vision – off the main road, set into surrounding acres of open grassland, with a creek and fire pits. Our days in the park were long, sunny, and hot but come dusk, temperatures dipped to just above freezing. Each of our two tee pees were basic – two cots with thick sleeping bags, lanterns and a small table, but the group bathroom was on the other side of the site. The showers were lovely and warm with all the towels we could want; getting in and out however was a chilly crucible. On the edge of the property sat the lodge restaurant, an impressive log, A-frame. Kitchen magicians created the most delicious breakfast platters, then burgers, seared trout and breads for lunch and dinner.

New revelations came when we moved on to Grand Teton National Park, less than an hour south of Yellowstone. For two nights we slept  in comfy, attached cabins near the main lodge and marveled at the views across Jenny Lake, and shifting shadows of the jagged peaks. Created through John D. Rockefeller Junior’s ingenuity, it was easy to see how he became enamored with the land and why he worked hard to preserve it from over-grazing and development. The space drives one to introspection and I loved the bench he placed on a hillside near the lodge that faced the mountain range.

Before parting ways in Omaha, we drove through the Badlands National Park. The narrow highway crossed grasslands and dipped into close valleys framed by striated canyon walls in startling colors. Reds and pinks shot through with ribbons of sandstone in vanilla shades; the whole then cut into shapes and sharp ridges by the wind. We paused to watch mountain goats savoring greens along the road and kept going. I could’ve wandered, hiked there for days but we were running out of time.

It’s enough to pause even briefly in these natural wonders spread widely through the country. I’d like to say our trip drew us closer to one another but with the tight quarters and the pressure to press on, it was oddly hard to connect. Certainly long hours in the car could lend one to conversation but it was tiring and for introverts, a challenge. Our varied interests sadly kept us politely at arms length.

On the final day we stopped in Rapid City after walking around the Mt. Rushmore monument. The light was fading. Small clutches of teenagers jockeyed for best placed selfies. A few squirrels skittered past searching for handouts. The mighty noses and profiles seemed diminished as shadows crept across their cheeks. Cafes and galleries closed quickly and we had no time to linger. It was a powerful road trip but sadly, ‘no time to linger’ might have been the mantra for our journey.

Tips for a Cross-Country National Park Road Trip:

  • For family groups traveling together, start discussions about itineraries months in advance.
  • For peak summer visits, reserve lodging six months in advance to get the places you want and the best prices.
  • Keep on budget: Spend a night camping, or in cheaper accommodations, then splurge a few nights on historical lodges and nicer hotels.
  • GPS certainly helps but won’t always be available.
  • Mobile WiFi would’ve been great and taken some work pressure off being online during long drives.
  • The Hotel Tonight App usually works well but book more than 2 hours before arriving to avoid confusion about the reservation and rates.
  • Keep room in the car for a small cooler. We used an insulated bag to keep things chilled but it was too easy to squeeze and leak.
  • Stop at grocery stores with deli counters for quick lunches. We found it easy to satisfy everyone from salad eaters, sandwich lovers to yogurt-spooners.
  • Keep comfort in mind to manage stress. Bring travel pillows.
  • Drink enough but not so much that potty breaks are too frequent. Avoid extra salty snacks. If you’re indulging in a bag of chips, keep from overeating by putting a portion in a small baggie and eating that only, or at least finishing it before reaching for more. You won’t over indulge as easily.
  • Communicate!


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