Wilderness is something that calls to all of us. The wild is a part of the soul of America that inspires so many to visit national parks, even if they never leave the car. Post-graduation I needed some wild. I needed to get far away from the months of studying, routine, and “what’s next?” stress. Me and a friend from high school took off on a month-long trip to soak up as much of the wild as possible. In total, we visited 14 parks, from the snowy summer peaks of Olympic to the sweltering heat of Zion. All National Parks have something different to offer and certain parks appeal to some more than others. So here it is, my completely biased opinion of all of the parks I visited on my trip. These are pretty vague, but I’ll post more detailed blogs with all trails, campsites, and towns soon!
- Rocky Mountain
Colorado has always called me. I was grinning as we drove closer and closer to the Rockies through Denver to Granby. Unfortunately, we only got to do 2 hikes while we were there. The weather was perfect and the trails were pristine.
Favorite hike: Cascade Falls; 7.4 miles; easy
I know there are probably tons of fantastic hikes that I didn’t have a chance to even set foot on but out of the 2 hikes we did, this one was definitely better. The trail is out and back and follows a gorgeous river. The elevation was a little tough for a Floridian and a Ohioan but we huffed our way up. I wish we had more time to explore the Rockies but we planned to check off some more hikes when we came back through at the end of the month, which looking back was a little silly. When we came back through Granby, we showered as many times as possible and sat on the couch as often as possible.
- Grand Tetons
As soon as the Tetons came into view I was gushing. The peaks rise out of the grasslands and stand strong and striking in the sky. The mountains are magnificent. I honestly couldn’t stop staring. “Oh my god” was muttered approximately 100 times. Every hike we did was breathtaking, with stunning views and gorgeously placed trails the whole way. Grand Tetons earned its place among my favorite parks before we even passed through the front gate. Here I saw the highest concentration of wild life, had the closest interactions, and saw the most new (to me) species than I did anywhere else on our trip. Bald eagles, elk, moose, caribou, mule deer, bison, and yellow-bellied marmots were some of the amazing creatures I was able to observe from a safe but close distance.
Favorite hike: Jenny Lake to Inspiration Point with a spur to Cascade Canyon; around 10 miles?; easy with a hard spur
Due to trail construction, we had to make this an out and back but it can be done as a loop. The Jenny lake loop is 7.7 miles of river, lake, mountain, and grasslands. We hiked from the ranger station at Jenny Lake to lower inspiration point (the upper point is closed for trail repairs) and then up and over snow to the Cascade Canyon trail head. The snow was too strenuous without snowshoes and gear so we turned back at the Canyon opening. You get awe-inspiring views of the mountains the entire time. Most people opt to take the $15 shuttle boat across Jenny lake so the trail is mostly empty. The shuttle lets off right past the Cascade Canyon spur and at the base of the short trek up to Inspiration Point. This part of the trail was nice but crowded. We hiked up, got a view, and made our way back to solitude. The Grand Tetons were full of really great trails but the constant mountain views, tons of wildlife sightings, and solitude made this trail my favorite.
I’ll just be blunt and tell you I had absolutely no interest in seeing Yellowstone. I know as a nature lover, I should have been stoked to see the first national park in the world. As soon as we pulled up to the crowded gate, I knew I was in for a long day because I hate lines and I hate crowds. We stopped in Yellowstone to break up the long drive and to stretch out our stiff legs. We took a quick hike up to Observation Peak to get a view of Old Faithful. All I could see was giant parking lots, lodges, stadium seating wrapping around the geyser, and the line of cars coming into the park. If we had more time and less irritation from the crowds, we might have stayed longer to check out the backcountry. The front-country left me angry, grumpy, and unimpressed. It felt like an amusement park. Through all this irritation, I had to remember: national parks are for everybody. Not every family or individual is lucky enough to be able to hike on unmaintained trails. For some people, a wooden walk way is the only way possible to experience nature. Everyone deserves the chance to experience nature. So I shrugged my shoulders and we headed off.
Glacier was up there with my favorites too. Though most of the park was still under deep snow, what we did get to see was beautiful. Due to the road and trail closures, we didn’t get much solitude but met some very nice people on the trails. I’d recommend visiting Glacier later in the summer post-snow melt to get your pick of the amazing trails.
Favorite hike: Avalanche Lake; 5.7 miles; moderate
This trail is rated #1 on Alltrails so you best believe it was worth the trek. It’s short, easy, and ends at potentially the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen. We saw tumbling toddlers and elderly with canes so this trail is really for everybody. The woods were mossy wonderlands. Raging rapids and rocky peaks are all over this trail. At one point, I swear we had stumbled straight into a scene from King Kong (the skull island part, not NYC). The trail is lined with huge rock walls with waterfalls cascading down. The brown earth is damp and soft underneath your feet. The trail leads you down to the waterfront of Avalanche Lake. The massive mountain reflects clear as day across the water. I stood there, mouth open, for at least 20 minutes. A tear or two might have escaped my eyes looking at the mountains- that’s how beautiful it was! All I needed was a cup of tea and a big comfy chair and I could have sat there for the rest of my life. The trail continues alongside the lake for another half mile or so. It offers views from different angles but stops abruptly at an “end of trail sign”. A couple passing us from the other direction told us minutes before they saw a grizzly swimming. He had unfortunately toweled off and left the premise by the time we arrived. This trail is probably crowded all year long but I’d recommend waking up early to enjoy the views in solitude.
- Mount Rainier
Are you tired of me saying a park is my favorite? Mount Rainier was breathtaking (have I used that word too many times? Am I losing credibility? I swear everything is just THAT beautiful). We spent a day in the Longmire region and a day in the Paradise region. A lot of trails and roads were closed due to snow but we were still able to get great hikes in. If you are a cross country skier, this is your paradise in May. There were also a ton of people with skis and boards strapped to their backs headed up the volcano for a rad day on the slopes. Longmire lacked a visitor center and water access (it was all turned off for the winter). Paradise basically had a ski resort as a visitor center, complete with free wifi, a gift shop, and a café. This place is definitely on my list (with Glacier and Olympic) of places to return to in late summer. I know there are even better trails that were still under snow and I would love a chance to summit the mountain.
Longmire region: Glacier Basin trail; 8.3 miles; moderate, with a spur to Emmons Moraine; 1 mile; moderate
This out and back trail is worth every step. The spur trail crosses the river over a beautiful log bridge and up a few gravel switch backs to a trail. From the spur overlooks you can see an emerald lake and mountain views. The main trail continues up another couple miles with mountains, streams, and river views the whole way. The snow near the top was a little difficult to terrain but it was worth it. There’s a campsite you can stay at on the very top of the trail if you plan ahead (we did not).
Paradise region: Rampart Ridge to the Wonderland Trail; 4.8 miles; moderate
My good friend Steve the park ranger recommended this trail to us our second morning in Mt Rainier. We took the Ridge trail up to an unmarked overlook (you have to step off the trail but it’s easy to find) and returned back to our parking spot at the Lodge using the Wonderland trail. Again, this trail was basically empty. We only saw 3 people on it. You get 3 overlooks at Mt Rainier at the top of the ridgeline before disappearing down into the forest again. It was a short but nice morning hike.
- North Cascades
If I had to describe all the northern parks in one word, it would be snow. Cascades was also pretty inaccessible to us. Without planning ahead, we didn’t bring any snow gear with us, crossing the back country off the list. We camped for free which was great but none of the trails offered as much seclusion as I would have liked. The best hike we did was the strenuous (truly, the only hike of the entire trip that killed me) 10 mile Sourdough Mountain hike. While the scenery was full of rolling mountains, endless trees, and white stone, I could only focus on three things: the massive dam, the endless powerlines, and the ache in my calves. The Diablo lake trail also had nice overlooks but none that overshadowed the view of the dam and the powerlines visible at each one. One day, I would love to explore the backcountry and the trails that were closed due to snow but for now, I’m not comfortable calling any of the trails my favorite.
Olympic was a wonderland. I understand why Stephanie Meyer chose it as the setting of her series Twilight because those woods are magic. Washington is truly the evergreen state. The rolling hills thick with strong, tall pines were magnificent. Walking through the woods, the trees were light and airy. The sun shone through the leaves in a way that gave me the impression they were full of magic and secrets. Olympic confirmed my love for Washington. Again, almost everything was closed but what was open was worth it. In addition to my favorite hike, we camped on Second Beach in La Push. It’s a 0.75 mile hike to this beautiful place and it sits as my favorite campsite of the trip.
Favorite hike: Hurricane Hill; 3.1 miles; moderate
This was the only trail open in the Hurricane Ridge area, but it was stunning. It was paved almost the entire way up and was pretty busy. The views of the dense forest and the foggy peaks were awe-inspiring. Another, “I can’t believe how beautiful this is” place. It’s super short and I wish we could have hiked in this region for longer but without open trails, we packed up and headed to the Rain Forest for some more hikes.
- Crater Lake
Snow. That is all. No trails. Only snow.
- Great Basin
This was another stop solely to break up the long drive. We stopped for an hour and did a short alpine lake hike. It was 3 miles and decently pretty. Not pretty enough to be considered one of my favorites.
- Capital Reef
This park is up there with my favorites. Capital Reef had great hikes and amazing views at every turn. We camped for free on public land 3 minutes out of the park and hiked or ran the majority of the trails. There are orchards in the park that let you pick and eat the fruit for free or take some to go for a small fee. There’s a small river (Fremont River) that was perfect for cooling off and bathing in after a long day of hiking. There’s also a small country house that sells pies, cinnamon buns, and cute random things right across the road from the picnic area. The park is small but well worth a visit. It’s also almost entire fee free. There’s a scenic drive needed to access a few hikes but majority of them you can access from route 24, which cuts directly through the park. We hiked 18 miles a day while we were here. It was fantastic.
Favorite hike: a semi-loop trail starting at Cohab Canyon to Frying Pan to Cassidy Arch to Grand Wash; 8.1 miles; moderate; strenuous; moderate; easy
This loop is great but is not actually a loop. It’s a “C”. To hike this, they recommend you walk 2 miles down the shoulder of the road to the first trail head of Cohab Canyon or hitchhike. We opted to run. We hid our backpacks in a rock pile near the second trail head, drove to the end of Grand Wash, and ran 6 miles to the start. It was the perfect pre-hike warm up. There was absolutely no shade and the sun was strong but there was a breeze almost all the time that helped relieve us from the 100 degree heat. The views are stunning, the whole way with rock formations at every angle. Make sure you pack plenty of water and salty snacks/electrolyte mixes.
Zion was everything I expected it to be and one thing I did not: the most crowded place of the trip. I knew Zion had been gaining popularity in the past few years but it was intense. The crowds were ridiculous. We were able to avoid them mostly by waking up early and getting a back-country permit. I cannot say it enough WAKE UP EARLY AND GET A PERMIT. Otherwise, you WILL go insane. Guaranteed. The park is full of hiking, canyoning, and climbing. In the off season, I could easily spend a lot more time here. However, it was 114F and there were tons of people and we ran out of electrolyte mix. We did as many hikes as we could before my friend got sick from the heat and we were forced to escape to the cooler temperatures of the Grand Canyon.
Favorite hike: Top down from the Narrows; 20 miles; easy to moderate; permit required
This probably tops as my favorite hike of the trip. Of course, it was the only one we reserved and had to pay for, but it was well worth it. I made the campsite reservation 3 months in advance for $5. We picked up the permit the day before for $15. To get to the trail head (which is outside park boundaries), you have to get dropped off or take a shuttle since they only allow you to hike top down. The shuttle was $25 and took an hour and a half. We hiked for 4 hours before arriving at our site, campsite one. It was up on a bank in a clearing where the river and the stream you follow into the Narrows meet. Everyone that passed us as we set up camp and made dinner were really nice and cool people from all over the world. There are only 12 sites available with one party staying at each one so the trail is pretty secluded. We woke in the morning to frigid temperatures and icy water. We waited a couple hours to crawl out of our sleeping bags and brave the first deep step back into the river. The second day, the water was much deeper and some of the maneuvering through the river was more difficult. There were deep swimming holes, chest deep water at points, and constant zig-zagging across the water. It was serene and the canyon was magnificent. The last 3 miles of the trail are open for day hikers. As the day went on, we saw more and more people. At first it was nice, and then irritating, and then just pure anger. The last 2 miles of the trail were more packed than the wave pool in Disney World. I saw people littering, smoking, and overall not respecting their surroundings. We speed-hiked our butts out of there. This hike can definitely be done in a day, no problem, but it was nice to spend a night out there. It’s worth the money to get a permit.
- Grand Canyon
North Rim of the Grand Canyon was quaint. I liked it. My friend was drained from her heat sickness the day prior, so we stuck to shorter trails with lots of shade and water access. We had planned on doing rim-to-rim but in our dehydrated state, it would have not ended well for us. I honestly don’t even remember the name of the trails we did first but we took a ranger recommendation and linked all of the North Rim trails together to make a nice 5 miler that ended at Bright Angel Point. We took the Grand Canyon as a rest day for the most part and relaxed in the Lodge for the hottest part of the day.
Favorite hike: Widforss Trail; 9.1 miles; moderate
This trail is chalk full of overlooks. We stop and hiked out on a rocky overlook where we sat for a long time taking in the views. Each turn offered a new view of the canyons and I never got tired of looking at them. It ends at a clearing with another beautiful overlook of the canyons. The trail was moderately trafficked but relatively clear compared to the shorter trails we did earlier.
Arches was weird. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I was surprised. The trails were all SHORT. Like, very short. We did almost every trail in one day, hiking leisurely, and stopping to hang out wherever we wanted. We spent the heat of the day in Moab at Moab Coffee Roasters (they recognized us every day…probably because we were very dirty and most likely stinky). We did Delicate Arch overlook for sunrise and Delicate Arch trail for sunset. A popular location at all times. It was a nice view for sunset but my favorite spot was the North Window for star gazing. Despite all the annoying photographers, it was breath taking. We laid on the rock below the arch in silence for a while observing the clear sky and the bright milky way. Arches was worth a stop but going there solely for hiking is disappointing.
Favorite hike: Devil’s Garden; 7.5 miles, moderate
This loop was pretty cool. The first mile or two is a bit crowded but the majority of people turned around before the trail becomes unmaintained. The primitive trail loops around giving views of arches and boulder fields. There were rock scrambles and climbing and I was ecstatic. There was a natural boulder wall near Navajo arch that I managed to throw together a choppy V2 on. It was a pretty easy hike and after a lot of long, hard trail days, we were in heaven.
The short hike up to Mesa Arch was the most scenic view we had in Canyonlands. It took about 5 minutes and was seriously crowded but gorgeous. We checked it off and then headed out on our main hike. The Island in the Sky region had a lack of water sources so we planned to do our main goal, the 8.3 mile Syncline Loop. At the beginning of the trail is a wooden sign warning of the danger and difficulty of the trail. We laughed and took a picture. It was hot and about 3 miles in, it got strenuous. Long, steep uphill climbs with no shade and no place to replenish our desperately vital water. We unfortunately did not read the recommendation to hike clockwise for an easier hike and hiked the “challenge” course, counter-clockwise with very steep, never ending switch backs for the last few miles. Long story short, I thought we were going to die. My stomach was not absorbing the water I so desperately needed so I was dehydrated but bloated with water. I began to feel light-headed, my vision blurred, and my muscles ached as I slowly willed my legs up and up for miles. I finally understand what my mom feels like every time I drag her out on the trail. It was scenic but it was so damn hot, I can hardly remember. This was the only hike on the whole trip that I couldn’t wait to be over with. Though we had many more hikes picked out for afterwards, one look and my friend knew I was ready to retreat to Moab for a much needed iced chai. The next day, we headed out to complete the 8.2 mile Lost Canyon trail but 2 miles in, my friend fell ill. I left her in the shade at a nearby campground, grabbed the car, and we started the long drive back home. It wasn’t the best end to the trip but we couldn’t risk something serious happening further into the trail. I know Canyonlands is full of amazing trails and climbing but we’ll have to hold on experiencing that until a cooler time of year.
Well there you have it. My somewhat short, a lot longer than I had planned for, overview of the 14 parks I visited. I have detailed notes and stories that I’ll be sharing throughout the rest of the summer but hopefully this can help at least one person plan a pretty rad road trip. If you have recommendations of hikes I missed in any of these places, let me know! I definitely would love to visit them all again sometime in the future.