Feeling lucky as I got to pick any of the midsize cars in the rental lot, I drove off confidently Westward. There was only one problem; I had chosen a car without cruise control. And I didn’t find about it until I was on the other side of Denver.
I had to make a decision; do I continue or go back and deal with the hassle of exchanging vehicle. I chose the former and it was a serious mistake. Clocking well over 6,000 miles this trip, my right leg will likely never be the same. But I didn’t know that when I was finally heading West on I-70.
Itinerary Denver to Grand Junction, CO; Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, UT; Death Valley, NV/CA; Sequoia NP, CA; Yosemite NP, CA, San Francisco, Berkeley; Napa/Sonoma Valleys, Redwood NP; Oregon coastline (including Portland/Eugene); Seattle/Olympia, WA; Hoh Rainforest/Olympic NP; Butte, MT; Yellowstone NP, WY; Grand Teton NP, WY; Cheyenne, WY; Boulder, CO; Rocky Mountain NP, CO.
Grand Mesa National Forest
First stop Grand Junction, CO. A small city with a wonderful national forest just outside town limits, great for hiking, climbing or just admiring the vast landscape.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument/Capitol Reef NP
The drive from Grand Junction to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument/Capitol Reef NP is a marvelously scenic. I found myself stopping every few minutes for photos or mini-hikes. After lots of navigating, I found the area I had mapped for a day out. My quest was a slot-canyon, discussed on some hiking-enthusiast forums, and I was determined to find it. The directions were not great, so it took me a few attempts before I finally made it. The hike into the high altitude desert nearly did me in, though. I severely miscalculated my water need and ended up so dehydrated I thought I wouldn’t make it back.
It was a rather unassuming entrance, easily missed. Inside, I had to wade waist deep through a nasty pool of stagnant water (who knows what crawled around in it) but on the other side, I finally found the entrance.
The incredible sandstone formations, shaped by millennia of sandblasting, made me forget about time and, instead, I headed deeper and deeper into the crevasse. The walls are so close in places that I barely could squeeze through.
Up early to start hiking in the desert by 6 am. My theory was that getting in this early would increase my chances of seeing some of the parks inhabitants. But by 7 am the thermometer was already above 100 F and all critters had retreated to their homes for the day.
Much of the salt flats are mixed with sand and mud but here and there you can find nice, large rocks of salt.
Various geological deposits.
This park seems to be less visited than some of the other CA parks. I was largely alone on the trails but still, I did not run into any wildlife. However, when leaving the parking lot, I spotted a year old bear cub, grazing/rooting around about 100 yards from the road. I went closer for photos but he was not ready for company and I decided not to push it as his much larger mother likely was very close by.
It’s hard to get a sense of scale from photos. The massive trunks are often burnt as wildfires are common in the area.
The beauty of this park is well known but unfortunately, the forest itself is so mobbed that there’s little peace to find anywhere. Also, there’s shopping, large camping sites and all sorts of services making the experience feel “canned” to me. I spent a few hours on the trails, but miffed by the overpopulation decided I might as well head to San Francisco.
Of large US cities, this is one of the few I could see myself living in. I used the opportunity to stay with friends and reconnect with some college friends.
Northern California/Oregon/Washington Coast
Highway 101 up the coast is a spectacular drive. Scenic towns, beautiful beaches, and old-growth forests. This area is definitely worth coming back to.
Hoh Rainforest/Olympic NP, WA
is located in the extreme Pacific Northwest of the US. We all have heard about rainy Seattle not far away. But Hoh is in a class by itself, receiving yearly rainfall totals of about 140 to 170 inches (12 to 14 feet!). The resulting moss blankets the surfaces and makes hikes feel like you’re walking on a giant wall-to-wall carpet.
Reaching Butte, MT after a very long drive through Washington state and Idaho. Old mining town and environmental superfund clean up site.
The fabled park, though flush with visitors, is large enough to offer places to hide and trails to explore on your own. And the wildlife is in your face. Upon entering the park, a herd of buffalo blocked the road as they swam across the adjacent river and started walking down the main road, next to the cars. There must have been 70-80 animals, totally oblivious to the vehicles on the road. It’s an experience seeing a teacup size eyeball peek in through your window.
A large healthy buffalo population. Right, Grizzly spotted across the river. It’s a humbling feeling knowing you’re not on top of the food chain anymore…
While the fauna is rich and plentiful, many come for the geological marvels. By luck and ignorance, I had a front-row seat to the geological theme park as I veered off a trail and landed in the middle of a no-go area. The geothermal vents, pools, and geysers that others see from a boardwalk were literally at my feet. It could have ended badly; many of these areas have a very thin crust, and I could have ended up boiled, or getting knocked out from breathing in toxic fumes.
Grand Teton NP
Perhaps my favorite national park, it’s less trafficked than it’s bigger neighbor, Yellowstone. But as a result, animal sightings are even more abundant. I had all but given up on a close encounter with a bear, packed the bear spray in my backpack when I walked into an unsuspecting bear family. Deep in my thoughts, something sprang up from the thicket on the left of the trail. Turns out it was a female brown bear, on her hind legs. The pose is not aggressive, counter to what many believe, but nevertheless gets your attention. It all happened so fast, and I was frozen — in awe and frightened at the same time. As this happens, there’s a racket a few yards back (the bear was about 10-15 feet from me). Turns out the bear had three cubs, whom all scrambled up a scraggly pine. The mother got down on all four and started rooting around. I had managed to retreat a few yards and from that distance, the bear did not mind my presence. I stood around watching the cubs come down the tree and felt very privileged to have experienced the encounter.
It’s easy to get close to other animals in Grand Teton as well. I was so near a Yellow-bellied Marmot I could have petted him. Similarly, I got very close to some game birds and other smaller mammals. These are not rare but from my experience in other parks, it’s unusual to get so close to wildlife.
Jackson Lake Lodge, a historic lodge with a spectacular view (photo above). A little expensive but worth it.
Sadly the only photo that suggests the close bear encounter. But the Marmot was very cooperative.
This is horse and gods country.
Rocky Mountain NP, CO
My epic road trip ended in the Rocky Mountains. This part of the country has everything an outdoorsman need and I will come back to explore the area later.
Categories: North America