Nine National Parks in a Cross Country Road Trip

Preface from Sarah: Yes, there is indeed both a preface and a note from me! Samuel and Kara first drafted this post back in December of 2017! I would be remise to not acknowledge that due to life and several iterations of this post, we are finally ready to share their fantastic road trip with you almost two years after their move! So much has happened since then from them buying a house to getting married. As such, you’ll find my note below is rather dated. Regardless, I hope you enjoy their photos from this amazing adventure!

A Note from Sarah: Please join me in welcoming Samuel and Kara again to the Critiquing Chemist! You’ll remember Samuel most recently from our cross country road trip where we managed to hit eight national parks in 4 days! Samuel and Kara’s first post last highlighted their adventure to Olympic National Park. This past February, they treated us to their trip to Australia and their delightful post last week detailed their busy twenty four hour layover in Beijing.  The post below continues their adventure as they return to the United States to embark on their three week cross country road trip.

Hello everyone! Following our wonderful Australian adventure, we returned to the United States with our flight arriving back where we’d called home for the past year and a half in Seattle, Washington. As we were making the move back to Michigan, we  had approximately 20 days to return to the Mitten by Christmas, so we decided to take our time on a cross country trip. We have both experienced several road trips from Michigan to Washington on the northern routes, so we set out to explore our remaining unvisited States of western US by traveling south, east, then north to Michigan.


Day 1: Seattle → Portland → Redwoods National Park

We said goodbye to Seattle, our home for the past year and a half and took off in our cramped new home for the next fifteen days, a Chevy Impala.

The first day was filled with mostly driving but we were able, of course, to find the time to enjoy lunch at one of our favorite restaurants, Pine State Biscuits, in Portland, OR. They’re famous for their fried chicken biscuit sandwiches. As always, we reveled at the beautiful art that covers the city before returning to our drive.

Day 2: Redwoods National Park → San Francisco → Yosemite National Park

We arrived at the Redwoods at night time to set up camp, but were welcomed by the beautiful redwoods towering over our campsite and massive bull elk not even a 100 yards from our site that next morning. And when we say morning in this post, it turned out to be 12:30 p.m. I guess you can call that jetlag after 32 hours of flights and layovers.  As we journeyed south, we took the Avenue of the Giants and participated in the traditional tourist activities involving the Redwoods, such as driving through one of the gargantuan trees to almost taking out one of our rearview mirrors. Our lone stop in San Francisco was for the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. After spending time appreciating the overall design and formation of the bridge we made our way south to Chowchilla, CA, an hour outside of Yosemite National Park


We spent the rest of the day driving south until we reached our destination: Redwoods National Park. We camped at Elk Prairie Campground on the south side of the park.

Day 3: Yosemite National Park

Upon driving to the park the next morning we utilized the YARTS shuttle bus to drive into the park. Once we arrived to the park, we hiked the Lower Yosemite falls Trail and the Mirror Lake Trail. Most of our time was spent in the Yosemite Valley. We planned on ice skating but unfortunately the rink had been closed. We are currently scheming to adventure back to Yosemite National Park with Sarah and Luke this summer to conquer Half Dome and spend more needed time exploring this breathtaking park.


Day 4: Pinnacles National Park → Joshua Tree National Park

We arrived at the Pinnacles National Park Visitor Center where we parked and took the shuttle bus into a popular day hike location.  We had to take the shuttle due to full parking lots at the popular trailheads. As the newest national park, created in 2013, we were taken aback by the amount of people trafficking the park. We ended up hiking the Bear Gulch Trail, which offered a fascinating vantage points as you move throughout the pinnacle formations, in and out of the sunlight.  After the hike we took the shuttle back to our car and drove south through Los Angeles which was covered in smoke at this time due to the wildfires in Ventura and the surrounding areas. We had originally planned to kayak around Santa Cruz Island, located in Channel Islands National Park but our plans changed due to the proximity of the wildfires to Ventura harbor.


Day 5: Joshua Tree National Park → Hoover Dam → Kanab, UT

The desert landscape at Joshua Tree National Park was unlike anything we had encountered thus far.  On the scenic drive through the park we stopped multiple times to capture the beauty of the countless Joshua Trees (not just one tree, as someone in our car assumed).  We also took time to free climb the boulder piles, which are littered throughout the park. I was able to climb to the top of a large boulder pile, which resulted in a group near us stating how impressed they were with the speed of the climb. As I’m sure you can imagine, Kara thoroughly enjoyed me reiterating this story many, many times over throughout the rest of our trip.lrg_dsc01232lrg_dsc01273lrg_dsc01233lrg_dsc01259lrg_dsc01225lrg_dsc01268img_7950lrg_dsc01261lrg_dsc01253img_7994

After leaving Joshua Tree we hurried north to catch a glimpse the Hoover Dam before it closed.  The Hoover Dam is truly a modern marvel as it spans the Colorado River connecting Arizona and Nevada.  We arrived at the dam with just enough time to take a walk over the immense structure and learn a little bit of its history. After the dam, we journeyed north to Utah to try our luck in the Wave lottery.

Day 6: Wave Lottery → Antelope Canyon → Horseshoe Bend → Grand Canyon National Park

We woke up bright and early to drive to the National Monument Visitor Center where the Wave drawing takes place every morning. The daily lottery only allows 10 people to explore the Wave. With over 50 applicants, we were sadly, unlucky and had to settle for plan B. Don’t worry, Plan B was Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend which are amazing and eased our disappointment regarding missing out on the Wave.

Antelope Canyon must be toured with tour guide companies located within the reservation for the tourist safety and to preserve the canyon. The tour guides were incredibly knowledgeable, from detailing the history of the canyon to the most beautiful viewpoints throughout. After spending time at the canyon, we made our way to Horseshoe Bend. Horseshoe Bend is easily accessible right off the highway from Kanab to the Grand Canyon. At this time, the area is currently under construction, which allowed us to gain better viewpoints since the guard rails have not all been completed. As intimidating as the drop-offs at Horseshoe Bend are, they were worth the incredible view. We stayed and enjoyed the scenery and peacefulness of Horseshoe Bend for some time before jumping in the car and heading toward Grand Canyon National Park.

Day 7: Grand Canyon National Park
Camping overnight at the Grand Canyon on day 6 to day 7 was definitely an experience. The camping was the same as every other night with the only difference being the temperature, a low of 13 degrees. As always, we stayed in our tent, but this night we utilized a couple extra sweatshirts, snow gloves, hand warmers, stocking caps… and a little bit of extra cuddling.


The Grand Canyon did not disappoint. We hiked the Ooh Aah Point Trail on the southern rim of the canyon. It was a moderate hike that provided beautiful views, we definitely recommend this hike if you’re only at the Grand Canyon for a day.  We marveled in the beauty of the canyon from different viewpoints and promised ourselves we would return to the Grand Canyon to hike the great “Rim to Rim.”

Day 8: Petrified Forest National Park → Saguaro National Park
Following the prior night’s experience, we decided on a hotel near the Petrified Forest National Park. We began by driving through the Painted Desert and seeing the vast array of colors within the shifting terrain.  As we continued south through the park, we began to see the gleaming of petrified wood (200 million year old wood that has been turn into stone and not by Medusa or through reflection of a Basilisk). At one of the pull-offs named, “The Crystal Forest,” petrified wood covers the land as far as you can see. It has the stoic beauty of the rock while appearing as part of nature with its wooden design.  In addition, the park also has petroglyphs that can be viewed on an exhibit and is rich in archaeological discovery that can be found highlighted in displays at the Visitor Center.


Saguaro National Park


Day 9: Guadeloupe Mountains National Park → Last Jedi- Carlsbad, NM

Guadeloupe Mountains National Park is home to Guadeloupe Peak the highest point of elevation in the state of Texas at 8,751 feet.  With a mission of reaching the top of Texas we started out on an 8-mile round-trip hike, gaining around 3,000 ft in elevation. After the 1 mile mark Kara called it quits and went to explore the rest of the park as I stormed toward the top.  The summit was well worth the effort as the views were jaw dropping. After enjoying my well-deserved bag of vanilla wafers (only food I had in my bag) I ran down the mountain, finishing in just under 4 hours. Safe to say Guadeloupe Peak kicked my ass, as I limped around for the next 3 days.  The hike was strenuous but beautiful and I definitely recommended it to those in the area.


After the exploring Guadeloupe National Park we attended the opening screening of The Last Jedi that night in Carlsbad, NM. DON’T WORRY NO SPOILERS HERE… BUT IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE LAST JEDI BY NOW WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE? We collectively gave the movie a 3/5 stars. Except my girlfriend wants it to be noted that there is a scene with Kylo Ren shirtless, and that deserves a strong 4.9/5. And that is all we will say about that!

Day 10: Carlsbad Caverns National Park → Big Bend National Park

We took the Ranger-led Left-Handed Lantern Tour at Carlsbad Cavern. The tour was entirely lighted by candlelight to provide the experience of the early days of cave exploration. We learned a great deal of information regarding the caverns. We were surprised to learn of a hostage situation that occurred in the 70’s at the park. A pretty crazy story, if you want to read more about it click here. After the tour, we explored the iconic “Big Room” of Carlsbad Caverns that spans the length of 6.2 football fields. (As if we couldn’t be anymore American, we use football fields as a unit of measurement.)  The caves were a spectacle to see and showed the different varieties of cave formations. We recommend seeing this beautiful national park and participating in the tours that are offered. We also would like to strongly recommend that you DO NOT watch the horror movie, “The Descent” before exploring the caves.


Day 11: Big Bend National Park (MEXICO)

After Carlsbad, we got into Big Bend pretty late. We camped two nights on the Rio Grande River. After researching the park, we realized there was a border crossing to Mexico within the park. We were skeptical at first, but having both never been to Mexico we were excited for the opportunity. After leaving the U.S. Port of Entry, we walked to the Rio Grande River where we paid $5 to be rowed across in a small boat. Once reaching the other side we were offered rides on mules or horses to take us into the nearby village of Boquillas del Carmen.  We opted instead to walk the ¾ of a mile into the village. The village’s primary source of income is tourists from Big Bend and consists of one small strip containing two restaurants. We had lunch at Jose Falcon on the left side of the street and were thoroughly impressed with the enchiladas and burrito we ordered and the overlook of the Rio Grande river. Next, we walked the entirety of the village and bought a couple shirts to remember our sweet first visit to Mexico. We returned to the Port of Entry and had our passports scanned and questioned whether we brought contraband. After passing the 3 or 4 questions, we were back in the U.S. and returning to spend more time in Big Bend National Park.


Big Bend is vastly beautiful and has a lot to offer in terms of the differing terrain from the river, to the desert, to the mountains. We could have easily spent a couple of weeks there. Unfortunately, we did not have time to hike but we did have time to drive the park. Big Bend is known for their wildlife; which includes black bears, javelinas, and mountain lions. We did not see any of these animals during our short  trip but we did see about 20 coyotes during the drive with one brave guy venturing within 10 feet of our tent site.

Day 12: San Antonio, TX → Lake Charles, LA
The day was spent driving, but we did take a pit stop in San Antonio to see the historic Alamo and enjoy dinner on the Riverwalk.  The Alamo provided us with a rich history of Texas’ fight for independence. We were surprised to find that the size of the Alamo was much smaller than imagined but still enjoyable…(that’s what she said.).  The Riverwalk was as advertised with a fun and scenic view of the river and its variety of shops. We had dinner at Casa Rio, definitely recommend this restaurant with 4.5/5 stars!


Day 13: Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge → Hot Springs National Park

With the route we were taking, we decided to swing into Louisiana. Kara had never been to the bayou or Everglades and wanted to attempt to see alligators in the wild, and if unable, at least try some true southern gumbo. Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge did not disappoint. In the first half hour that we were there, we did not see any wildlife beyond birds and turtles, but as we drove the 3-miles around the refuge the sun began to come out, and so did wild alligators. We saw approximately 30 alligators, ranging in different sizes that were 5-20 feet from the car.  It was a sight to see and resulted in us driving around the refuge an additional time to see them once more before leaving.


After the refuge, we went to Blue Dog Café, which we would both highly recommend, 5/5 stars.  Kara was so pleased with her first experience with southern Gumbo. She had the “Louisiana Gumbo” in a bread bowl which contained crab, shrimp, and oysters and was raving about it for hours after leaving. I ordered the “Crawfish Alfredo” and it was so good, no complaints from me. Also, their bread is the Red Lobster’s Cheddar Bay biscuits on steroids, and we may or may not have had three rounds of bread for the two of us.

The remainder of the day was driving and settling our campsite at Hot Springs National Park. Check back next week for our final post regarding our road trip as we explored Hot Springs National Park!

Day 14: Hot Springs National Park → Memphis, TN

Hot Springs National Park is unlike any other national park in the U.S. because it is located within the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas. To our surprise, the Hot Springs have been capped and turned into bathhouses that have been used for decades. We explored the historic “Bathhouse Row.” The Visitor Center and the longest running bathhouse has been continuously open and operated since 1912. The park has the Hot Spring Mountain Tower that has some of the best views in Arkansas, but unfortunately it was a misty rainy day and the view was poor.  The Visitor Center is a replica of the bathhouse from the 1920’s. Kara, who works in healthcare as an Occupational therapist was elated to learn and discover the medical uses of bathhouses were the rehabilitation centers of that time. The bathhouse had a version of a modern day rehabilitation gym, rooms for electrical stimulation, water therapy, and additional rehabilitation equipment. Sadly, the bathhouse we wanted to visit and utilize was the Hot Spring baths is closed one day a week, i.e., Tuesdays, which happened to be the day we visited this national park.  We would recommend keeping in mind the specific hours of the bath houses when traveling to this national park to get the full experience.img_9766.jpg

For the remainder of the trip, we spent large portions of our days behind the wheel to make it  home before Christmas. We did, however, have time to stop in Memphis, Tennessee on our way north to try some world famous Memphis BBQ. We did a little bit of research to determine the most highly recommended BBQ places in Memphis and decided to try out “Central BBQ.” Without a doubt, 5/5 stars. The ribs fell off the bone and had great flavor. We tried the dipping sauces, not that the ribs needed it, and fell completely in love with the mustard and mild BBQ sauce. We had side orders of potato salad, macaroni and cheese, and coleslaw and buns. Not a single bad thing to say. I cannot emphasize enough, that this food was amazing. My girlfriend considers herself a somewhat of a potato salad connoisseur and gave the potato salad a 5/5. We were very happy with our choice and felt ready, albeit about 10 lbs heavier, to continue on with our drive, making the final push home.

While it was bitter sweet to have our world travels and road tripping come to an end, we were both excited to make it home for the holidays to spend quality time with both our families. Thanks for sharing in our once in a lifetime trip spanning from Australia to China, and from Seattle to Mexico before finally reaching Michigan.

Till the next adventure!

Samuel and Kara


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