When I found out my best friend was getting married in California, Luke and I decided to turn the exciting event into an adventure cross country. As Luke had not been driving west of the Mississippi River, I was looking forward to introducing him to several of my favorite national parks. It should be no surprise that I overanalyzed the planning process and had no less than ten different potential routes plotted. When showing Luke the potential routes, he’d decided he wanted to be surprised, so I decided to focus on Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon and came up with the route plotted below where we would hit a total of eight national parks and potentially more.
Covid was a major concern for us, especially as I was approximately six weeks pregnant at the time of the road trip. Except for the Grand Canyon and Zion we were rarely around crowds and went out of our way to avoid being in situations that made us uncomfortable. With packing foods and snacks, our stops were minimal, which again mitigated any exposure risks. Thankfully, our precautions paid off and neither of us came down with Covid.
Petrified Forest National Park
We left on a Wednesday after work and drove to Terre Haute, Indiana before continuing on a marathon driving session the next day to Amarillo, Texas. Our only goal setting out was that we had to be in Flagstaff, Arizona to see one of my best friends from college on Friday and then Temecula, California by Sunday for the wedding. Petrified Forest National Park was our first official touristy stop of the road trip. While our stops in the parks were never long, we made an effort to do at least one hike at each park. In Petrified Forest, we stopped at several of the lookouts, as well as hiked the loop at the Blue Mesa.
Grand Canyon National Park
After spending the night in Flagstaff and catching up with my good friend Magstad, we woke up bright and early to go see the Grand Canyon National Park at the South Rim. This was a new park for both of us and we were excited to see what all the hype was about, especially as we’d heard so many people name this park as one of their favorites. Despite getting there early, the parking lots were already packed, so the crowds at the visitor center area and viewpoints were making us quite uncomfortable. We walked out to the Mather Point, before leaving the crowded area, where found the view obscured by mist and smoke. The wildfires in California and Colorado were still raging, impacting the air quality everywhere we went on this road trip. We wanted to experience a few more lookouts with hopefully less crowds so we drove down Desert View Road, which had four viewpoints that were accessible. The road was closed after Desert View Tower, so it was essentially a long dead end, but totally worth it as the crowds significantly thinned and as the sun rose, the mist lessened allowing us to get a better glimpse at the impressive landscape.
Joshua Tree National Park
Leaving the Grand Canyon we still had a long drive ahead of us as we needed to make it to Temecula by that evening. I hadn’t realized how remote (and hot) south eastern California would be! Our route took us right by Joshua Tree National Park so we were racing to get there before sunset. This is a park that one should spend much more time in, but our drive through was indeed special. The Joshua trees were unlike any tree we’ve ever seen before and I can imagine exploring the unique landscape by scrambling over the boulders would prove to be grand fun. Still, being in the park right at sunset was beautiful indeed.
We eventually made it to Temecula! We stayed in the beautiful Carter Estates Winery and Resort where we were treated to breakfast on our patio as we watch the hot air balloons float above. The dreamy wedding was later that evening up, the hill at a different winery so we spent the day relaxing after our marathon driving session.
Zion National Park – The Narrows
After Sarah and Jonathan’s stunning wedding, we had a leisure morning before getting back on the road for the long trip home. In an effort to minimize crowds at Zion National Park, you have to buy shuttle tickets a day in advance. We ended up obtaining tickets for a late morning shuttle, which worked well to give us another relaxed morning in Hurricane, UT. Of the while trip, I was most excited to show Luke Zion, as this park has two of my favorite hikes, the Narrows and Angel’s Landing. Due to Covid, I thought the Narrows might be less crowded, or at least have the space to spread out and avoid some of the crowds so I ended up deciding to go on that hike.
Once we got to the park, we rented water shoes and a hiking staff from Zion Outfitter. I can’t emphasize enough how important these items are to have during your hike. With the added ankle support and stability from the staff, you’re able to hike faster and more steadily than the crowds around you. Plus, you don’t want to twist an ankle in the middle of the Narrows. For the day, we rented our gear for $25. I do wish I’d remembered to pack a pair of sandals to switch into post hike.
We were really impressed with Zion’s shuttle service to mitigate crowds. Standing in line was less than comfortable, but once we got on the bus the spacing was ideal. As the Narrows is the last stop on the bus route, it meant that when we we’d finished our hike, we would have empty buses waiting for us. Due to the crowds in Zion, getting a bus out was a lot more chaotic than getting into the park. We thankfully finished at a time where the crowds were minimal, with our wait for a bus taking maybe 10 minutes, however by the time we’d boarded our bus, the line was extending down to the river with at least a 45 minute wait or longer. Our bus driver confirmed that the previous day the line had extended even further and it was a miserable wait for tired hikers. She said it was even worse for the hikers finishing Angel’s Landing, because even though the line didn’t look long at that location, the buses would be full at the Narrows and at this later stop the hikers had to wait an hour, if not more for an empty bus to show up. Needless to say, we were thankful to be getting on a bus quickly as we were quite hungry by the time we made it to our car.
The hike itself was wonderful and make Luke love Zion as much as I do! The crowds were quite dense at the beginning of the Narrows, so we kept our masks on and hurried past our fellow hikers as much as possible. A few miles in though we had the river to ourselves. It had been several years since I’d last hiked the Narrows and it was just as impressive the second time around. We made it almost to the end of Wall Street before deciding to turn back. The water throughout most of the hike had been shin to hip deep. There was an upcoming section of the river where it would have came up to my neck, so we’d decided we’d adventured enough for one day. Plus, I could feel that food would be needed in my future to stave off the morning sickness. So we reluctantly returned to the crowds and make our way back out of the river.
Bryce Canyon National Park
The next morning we woke up early to continue the trek home. We drove through Zion National Park one more time before heading to Bryce Canyon National Park. Luke had never seen photos of Bryce Canyon before, so I was absolutely brimming with excitement to see his reaction. Walking up to the edge of the canyon for the first time is such as shock as the landscape changes drastically. Parking at Bryce was an issue and definitely soured the experience a bit. We’d almost given up on finding a parking spot when one thankfully opened up. This is another park we’d wished we’d had more time to explore.
Capitol Reef National Park
We took a detour to Capitol Reef National Park on our way to Moab. We were yet again racing the sun so we drove the scenic route, before stopping off at the Grand Wash for a hike through more narrows. My brother and I had done this hike several years ago from its other entrance. Starting the hike from the main entrance was by far more picturesque, though I was worried our little rental car would be able to handle the rough dirt road off the scenic drive.
Arches National Park – Delicate Arch
Based on a previous trip to Arches National Park, I knew that the crowds could be intense and that the park could close if it had reached capacity, sometime quite early in the day. Luke and I woke up super early the next morning and made it Arches before sunrise. This was another park that Luke had never been to and I was looking forward to showing him the Delicate Arch. We drove straight to the trailhead parking lot and was surprised to find it already three fourths full. Knowing the crowds would only get worse we set off on the hike just as the sun was rising. Compared to the first time I did this hike, when the temperature was in the 90s, this hike was quite chilly in comparison with the temperatures falling in the mid 40s. The change in temperature made for a completely different hiking experience as it wasn’t quite as exhausting as I remember. Seriously though, how is the Delicate Arch still standing? Ready to continue our drive home, we left the park around 9:45am only to find that the park had already reached capacity and was closed. This made for our last stop at Canyonlands quite crowded.
Canyonlands National Park
On our way out of Moab, we stopped at our last national park of the trip, Canyonlands National Park. Due to Arches being closed, many of the crowds were directed toward this park, making the parking situation a nightmare. That said, the views were just as impressive though we didn’t stay and linger quite as long as I would have liked.
Upon leaving Canyonlands, we were debating on going to Mesa Verde National Park or the Rocky Mountain National Park. We didn’t have a set plan so we were improvising as we went from here on out. We ended up picking Rocky Mountain National Park, but as we were driving and researching the park, we found out that they also had a lotto system, similar to Zion and we’d missed the window to enter. So with the plans now changed, we ended up just heading home, especially since it gave Luke a whole day to go help my Dad with soybean harvest on the farm. It was such a special trip and we were thankful with how crazy 2020 has been that we were able to safely fit in going to the wedding and turning it into a wonderful road trip. We also had a little sign with us that we took photos with at every park announcing the impending arrival of our baby girl! We eventually complied those photos into a slideshow/movie to make the official announcement. Here’s to future travels with our little one!
Where were you able to travel in 2020?