Taking a Road Trip Across The Western US
At the end of August, I took off on a three week road trip. I started from home in California and drove through Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, and Oregon. I had nothing planned but the places I wanted to visit and the day I needed to be home by.
It was wonderful to explore the national parks along the way and to see the Western side of the US.
With COVID-19 and the major transitions going on this year, this year has been heavy. Prior to the trip, I was in a bit of a creative rut and in a poor headspace. This trip helped me feel more aligned, feel like myself, and get the creative juices flowing again. Sometimes all it takes is a long drive to get yourself out of a rut.
If you are planning a similar trip, even to a couple of these places, this blog post breaks down tips and places to explore in the different states. I didn’t get to explore as much I wanted to because of a heatwave, wildfire smoke, and a couple of COVID-19 closures. So I’ve also included things I would have done if the weather had cooperated. Make sure to check the weather and conditions before heading out!
There is so much to explore in California. There are mountains, beaches, seven national parks, and so much more. It’s no wonder it’s called the “golden state.” Since I live in California and started my road trip here, I didn’t spend much time on this specific trip exploring California, but here are some places to explore within the state.
Yosemite National Park, CA
Yosemite National Park is one of the most iconic places in California and one of the most visited national parks in the state. And for a good reason!
Yosemite is full of hikes like Half Dome, the Mist Trail, and the John Muir Trail. Whether you’re looking for day hikes or backpacking trips, Yosemite has something for everyone and at every skill level. If you want to see some of the most beautiful backpacking trips in Yosemite, read through this blog post.
For more on Yosemite National Park, read through this full guide on exploring the park.
Sequoia National Park, CA
Sequoia National Park is another must visit national park in California. It’s the only place in the world to see the giant sequoia trees, which are the widest trees in the world!
Not only do you get to experience the towering trees, but you can also hike to some of the most beautiful places in California. Trails like the High Sierra Trail span 72 miles from the giant sequoia trees, through the high country mountains of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and finally finishing on Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states.
If you’re not ready to do a 72 mile through hike, there are so many other shorter backpacking trips and even day hikes for every skill level. I recommend getting a map to fully see the expansiveness of the park, to see the different hiking trails and to help you plan your trip.
Death Valley National Park, CA
Death Valley National Park is another beautiful park to explore. The landscape here is so diverse, from salt flats, sand dunes, to multi-colored rocks.
Death Valley is not a park you can visit year round though. In the summer it gets very hot! This summer it got to 129.9°F/54.4°C! You do not want to be here in the heat because heat exhaustion and heat stroke are common. For more on preventing heat exhaustion and stroke, read through this blog.
Having said that, Death Valley is perfect in the winter, early spring and late fall months. I went in February and it was 70-something degrees outside and perfect!
For more on Death Valley National Park, read through this full guide on exploring the park.
Redwood National and State Parks in CA
Redwood National and State Parks is another must visit place in California. Especially on a road trip like this. It’s the perfect stop on the way to or from Oregon since the park lies right next to the border.
Towering redwood trees, which are the tallest trees in the world, and the rugged California coast make this park somewhere you need to stop. There is a national park and a variety of state parks to explore and hike in.
Big Sur, CA
Whether you’re driving north or south on your road trip, no California trip is complete without stopping by Big Sur. Turquoise ocean waters, cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, coastal redwood trees, and more.
Bixby Bridge, McWay Falls, and Pfeiffer Beach are must-see places in Big Sur. Spend a couple of days here just driving around and exploring the area. Getting a campground in one of the state parks can be hard, they usually book up months in advance. But there are many places in the area where you can disperse camp.
On this trip, I didn’t stop in Nevada because of the heatwave. It was well into the 100’s while I was driving through. If you’re doing this road trip when the weather is milder, then I highly suggest you stop at Valley of Fire and Great Basin National Park.
Valley of Fire State Park, NV
I stopped in the Valley of Fire on a different road trip and was blown away by this little state park. The Valley of Fire is around an hour outside of Las Vegas. So whether you’re driving through on your way to Utah or having a party weekend in Vegas, this is a great stop to stretch your legs.
The Fire Wave is a hike that you must do if you’re stopping here. It’s a short 1.5 mile hike with 236 feet of elevation gain that showcases beautiful striped orange rocks.
But just like Death Valley, be careful in the summer. I made the mistake once of hiking in over 100 degrees and even though the trail is a 1.5 mile road trip, I ended up with heat exhaustion. I really struggled with getting back to the car even, so speaking from personal experience, safety first. If it is mid-summer, go in the early morning hours when it’s cooler outside!
If you’re passing by Utah, it’s hard not to stop! Utah is so beautiful. There are five different national parks and so many other wilderness areas to explore. In the summer it does get hot, so if you’re exploring here in the summer, go in the early morning hours or in the evening hours. But the best time to explore Utah is in the fall and spring months.
My original plan on this road trip was to stop in Moab, Utah and explore Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park. I’ve wanted to explore this area for so long. But there was a heatwave passing through and it was over 100 degrees when I arrived. I spent the night in Moab and then continued to Colorado.
Zion National Park, UT
If you’re driving from California to Utah, then this should be one of your first stops in Utah! I recommend spending at least several days in Zion. There are so many hikes and things to explore.
The Narrows, Angels Landing, and Observation Point are hikes that you must do inside of Zion. They’re also very popular trails, but worth it. For more trails, I always suggest getting a trail map to see the different trails in an area and the rad places they go to. I love National Geographic maps.
If you get permits, the Subway is a must do hike! It’s a 9 mile round trip with 1,305 feet of elevation gain. Like the Narrows, you’ll be hiking through water, so you might want to wear a wetsuit or appropriate shoes. Here’s how to get Subway permits.
The downside of exploring Zion is the parking situation. To get to some of the more popular trails, you’ll need to park at the Visitors Center and take the shuttle. Get there early before it fills up!
Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
Right next to Zion National Park is Bryce Canyon National Park. This is another underrated national park, but a must see! The Navajo Trail is a beautiful trail. Make sure to also stop by Sunset Point and Sunrise Point overlooks!
It’s also beautiful in the winter for snow hiking and snowshoeing adventures, here is the full winter guide to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Outside of the park, you can stop and explore Red Canyon. When I was there in the winter, it was right after a winter storm so the area was covered in fresh powder. Against the bright red and orange rocks, it was so beautiful.
Capitol Reef National Park, UT
Capitol Reef isn’t as popular as some of the other parks in Utah, but it’s a cute one! Although there aren’t as many hiking trails as there are in some of the other parks, this one is perfect if you like car camping and off roading. One of the more popular roads in Capitol Reef is Cathedral Valley Road, which does require a high clearance vehicle.
Arches National Park, UT
One of the best parts of Arches National Park and it’s neighbor, Canyonlands National Park, is the close proximity to Moab. Moab is such a cute town! If you’re looking to stay in hotels, go to restaurants, and explore the local charm while exploring Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, stop in Moab!
Arches National Park is one of the more popular parks in Utah, alongside Zion National Park. There are so many hiking trails, and so much to explore. Make sure to do the 3 mile round trip hike to Delicate Arch! This is one of the most popular hikes in the park, and rightfully so!
Canyonlands National Park, UT
In comparison to some of the other Utah national parks, Canyonlands National Park is empty throughout the year. This is the place to visit if you’re looking to avoid crowds. Canyonlands National Park is also a great place to go on a packrafting adventure!
Colorado is one of the best states to explore. If you’re looking for some city life experience, you can enjoy Denver and then head to the mountains and climb a 14er (14,000-foot mountain).
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Whether you’re exploring in the fall months and chasing fall foliage, exploring in the winter, or hiking and backpacking in the summer and spring, Rocky Mountain National Park is beautiful in any season.
The entrance to the park is right outside of Estes Park to the East and Grant Lake to the West. If you’re in Estes Park, make sure to stop and walk around and soak in the cute mountain town charm. There are also several shops selling taffy, so if you’re in the mood, definitely pop into one and get yourself a baggie.
Make sure to drive the full Trail Ridge Road/Beaver Meadow National Scenic Byway. It’s beautiful with so many stops along the way. If you want to hike a 14er inside of the park, at 14,259 feet, Long Peak is a must do. From there check out Glacier Basin, the hikes from Bear Lake are absolutely stunning. You can also snow hike or snowshoe these trails in the winter. Read through this guide for exploring Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter.
Colorado Springs, CO
Colorado Springs is two hours south of Denver and worth the trip! You can stop by the Garden of the Gods, hike or drive up to Pikes Peak (a 14er), soak in hot springs, and so much more. Read through the full blog on how to spend a weekend in Colorado Springs here.
Aside from the Aspen ski resorts, Aspen is mainly known for its Maroon Bells. You can do an easy loop that overlooks the Maroon Bells, or you can do a harder backpacking trip to the Maroon Bells.
From Aspen, you can also do a scenic drive to Independence Pass. In the winter months, this road is closed, but in the summer it’s a beautiful drive with campgrounds and trails along the way. I recommend getting an Aspen and Independence Pass map to see all of the different trails in the area.
Telluride / Ouray, CO
The towns of Telluride and Ouray are right in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, which are arguably one of the most beautiful places in Colorado. If you’re here in the fall, don’t miss fall foliage colors here. The mountains turn into beautiful shades of yellow and orange. And in the spring and summer, this area is vibrant green with wildflowers.
Blue Lakes Trail to Mt. Sneffels is a must do in this area. It’s a 13 mile round trip hike with 5,501 feet of elevation gain. It’s not an easy hike, but so beautiful.
The drive to Wyoming from Colorado was not all that exciting. But once I started getting closer to the Grand Tetons National Park the landscape changed to more evergreen trees, and then you finally could see the outline of the Tetons on the horizon. I arrived right in time for sunset.
Unfortunately, there were so many wildfires nearby that it smoked out both the Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park.
There are grizzly bears in Wyoming and Montana, so make sure to read up on bear safety and carry bear spray.
Grand Teton National Park, WY
Yellowstone National Park, WY
Because conditions were smoky, I didn’t get a chance to explore Yellowstone National Park at all. It’s right next to the Grand Teton National Park and if you’re doing the same road trip as me, it’s on the way to Montana.
By the time I left the Grand Teton National Park, the air quality was so terrible, it was hard to be outside. So I decided not to risk hiking in the poor air quality and just keep going. Remember, health always comes first!
There are so many geysers inside of Yellowstone National Park. Make sure not to swim in them and careful not to fall in! The water is very hot and people have fallen in and disappeared. This isn’t the same as the casual hot springs we all like to soak in.
You can also hike in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone to Lower Falls. It’s stunning with beautiful falls.
Montana was one of my favorite places on this trip. Maybe because there was no smoke compared to other states like California, Wyoming or Montana or maybe it was because the weather cooled down after the heat wave and it actually felt like fall.
Glacier National Park, MT
I have wanted to see Glacier National Park for years and I was so excited to be here. Unfortunately, because this was a COVID-19 year, I didn’t actually get to do anything inside of the park. Part of the park was closed because it lies on a Native American Reservation and they were disproportionately affected by COVID, it also happens to be where I wanted to do the most hiking.
Also because of COVID, Glacier National Park was only letting so many people in on a given day. Normally I go before sunrise because there are fewer crowds and for photos, the lighting is better. But since the park was only letting so many people in, the first day I tried to get in, it was mid-day and you couldn’t get in. Everyone got the memo and showed up before sunrise. So by 6:30am I couldn’t even find parking inside the park to hike.
It’s a bummer that heatwaves, wildfire smoke, or COVID-19 affected this trip so much, but it was still amazing to see all of these places. So on my trip, I ended up just driving through Glacier National Park and then driving on to Washington.
In Glacier National Park, I wanted to explore Hidden Lake Trail, Avalanche Lake, the Highline Trail, and Grinnell Overlook.
Whitefish is a cute mountain town, it’s also a popular ski resort in the winter months. If you end up in a situation like me where you couldn’t hike in Glacier National Park, not only is it a cute town to hang out in, there are so many trails to explore.
On this trip, I also ended up driving to the border of Canada. Because of COVID, the border was closed, but it was still a beautiful drive with several lakes and trails along the way.
Beaver Lakes on the Lion Mountain Trail is 21.6 miles with 2,867 feet, making it a wonderful backpacking trip. Big Mountain via Summit Trail, Swift Creek Loop, and Journey Trail are also beautiful trails.
While I was on this trip, Washington was covered under smoke. It was impossible to even be outside. So I spent the entire time cooped up in my hotel room in Seattle working. It wasn’t quite the Washington experience I was looking for, but I had a chance to go shopping and explore local restaurants and stores. I love the mountains, hiking and being a dirtbag, but I also enjoy good food and shopping. It was a nice end to the trip.
I am looking forward to coming back and exploring Rainier National Park, North Cascades National Park, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and Olympic National Park.
On my road trip, because everything was covered in smoke, I ended up just driving through Oregon to get home. So on this specific trip, I didn’t explore Oregon. I originally wanted to spend some time by Mt. Hood, by the coastline in Oregon, and go through the different hot springs throughout Oregon.
On a separate trip, I’ve explored Crater Lake and it was so beautiful! It’s a must explore.
Crater Lake National Park, OR
In Crater Lake National Park, drive around the rim of the lake. There are several lookout points along the way. Two trails that I highly recommend are the Watchman Peak Trail which is 1.6 miles and 415 feet of elevation gain and Mount Scott which is 5 miles round trip and with 1,325 feet of elevation gain.
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