Summer 2018 Road Trip

When [a person] has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

We set off in early May of 2018 for a three month road trip across the western U.S. and Canada. We ultimately covered 7,300 miles, visited 16 national parks, hiked over 180 miles of trail, and pitched our tent in 26 different campgrounds. Our son, James, was seven months old when we left home; he turned out to be an excellent camper and hiker.1 We pulled this off using a 2005 Pontiac Vibe (“The Silver Bullet”), a 4-person tent, and lots of alcohol patience.

We would like to thank Deb, Chris, Vicki, John, Sarah, Mike, Alyson, Jack, Hyland, Susan, Andrew, Robin, Ben, Dianne, Robert, Krista, Julian, Bonnie, Dave, Eliza, Evie, Nancy, and John for letting us into your homes and/or joining us along the way.

We hope the information here helps you plan your own adventures in the American West. The links on this page will direct you to sites that we found particularly helpful when planning the trip.

Best Park for Hiking: Glacier National Park

No surprise here, since our list of top hikes (see below) is dominated by Glacier. Many of the best hikes are accessible directly from the Many Glacier campground, so you don’t even need to drive to a trailhead.

Runner up: The Banff / Lake Louise / Yoho area in Canada

Best Park for a Family Vacation: Yosemite National Park

A family vacation ideally offers variety, creature comforts, and relatively easy-to-access highlights. Yosemite checks those boxes, provided you go earlier in the year to catch the waterfalls and avoid peak crowds and fires (we were there the first week of June).

Runner up: Waterton Lakes National Park

Most Unique Park: Bryce Canyon National Park

There is a greater concentration of bizarre and beautiful “hoodos” in Bryce Canyon than anywhere else in the world, making a hike into the canyon a truly unique experience.

Runner up: Yellowstone National Park

Least Appreciated Park: Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef receives over 1 million visitors a year, but these are largely “pop-ins” making the drive between Bryce Canyon and Moab. We don’t think it gets nearly the trail cred it deserves. The Fruita Campground was our favorite; it even has a shop within walking distance that sells freshly-baked pies!

Runner up: Redwood National Park

Top Hikes

We completed nearly 40 day hikes along the way. Below is our ranking of the top 15, based on the conditions we happened to experience. Three of the top six hikes are in Glacier National Park, and that doesn’t even include Hidden Lake, Swiftcurrent Pass, or Ptarmigan Tunnel — all of which would likely be near the top if weather, time, and fatigue hadn’t stymied us.2

  1. The Iceline (Yoho NP)
  2. Grinnell Glacier (Glacier NP)
  3. Mist and Nevada Falls (Yosemite NP)
  4. Bryce Point Traverse (Bryce Canyon NP)
  5. The Highline via Grinnell Glacier Overlook (Glacier NP)
  6. Iceberg Lake (Glacier NP)
  7. Navajo Knobs (Capitol Reef NP)
  8. Sentinel Dome and Taft Point (Yosemite NP)
  9. North Kaibab (Grand Canyon North Rim)
  10. Angel’s Landing (Zion NP)
  11. Plain of the Six Glaciers (Banff NP)
  12. The Narrows (Zion NP)
  13. Yosemite Point via Upper Yosemite Falls (Yosemite NP)
  14. Cascade Canyon (Grand Teton NP)
  15. Murphy’s Point (Canyonlands NP)

Top Campgrounds

  1. Fruita (Capitol Reef NP)
    A shady oasis in the midst of grand, arid landscapes. Spacious, grassy sites. Orchards, freshly-baked pies, and cinnamon rolls. Recommended sites: 29, 10, 30.
  2. Many Glacier (Glacier NP)
    Unbelievable proximity to multiple, jaw-dropping day hikes in the “American Alps”. Hard to get a reservation, and you better be there early (no later than 6 AM) to get a first-come site in summer.
  3. Lake Louise (Banff NP)
    Peaceful, central locale for exploring Lake Louise, Banff/Yoho NP’s, and the Icefields Parkway. Spacious sites, excellent showers. MUCH cheaper than other accommodation in the area.
  4. Tillicum Beach (Siuslaw National Forest, Oregon)
    If you can get a reservation on the bluff side of the campground (sites 30, 29, 15, 26, 31, or 46) your site will look right out on an expansive beach and ocean, surrounded by privacy hedges and coastal pines.
  5. Gold Bluffs Beach (Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, California)
    Six miles down a dirt road, this place is secluded and dreamy. Reserve an ocean-side site (sites 16 and 17 are best), and you will be camping in the dunes with nothing between you and sunset views. No natural shade or windbreaks, so bring your own.

Top Scenic Drives

  1. Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper (Alberta)
    We didn’t make it to the northern section of the parkway, which is (supposedly) the best stretch. I can’t imagine how it could get even more stunning.
  2. Scenic Byway 12 from Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon (Utah)
    Endless views from the summit of Boulder Mountain, then alpine meadows and aspen groves, followed by Grand Staircase-Escalante. Oh, and you end the day at freakin’ Bryce Canyon.
  3. Beartooth Highway from Red Lodge to Yellowstone (Montana/Wyoming)
    If you leave Red Lodge very early, you have the road all to yourself and you end up in Yellowstone’s famed Lamar Valley in time to catch early-morning bison herds.
  4. Highway 101 from Redwood NP, CA to Coos Bay, OR
    Start off in coastal redwood forests and then drive along cliff edges on the rugged, southern Oregon coast. There were moments we came around a bend and simultaneously said, “Oh, wow.”
  5. Going-to-the-Sun Road (Glacier National Park)
    Not as long as the other drives, but views-per-mile is off the charts. Hellish traffic late in the day, so go early and see the sun warm up the mountain sides.

Best of James!

The chillest baby camper ever.

Cost of Travel

We spent about $8,000 during our three months on the road (accommodation, food, gas, park passes, etc.). Our pre-child backpacking gear was less than ideal for this kind of trip, so we spent another $1,350 on new gear before setting out. We expect to put it to good use in coming years.

  1. It didn’t help that he is in the 95th percentile for weight…
  2. Other caveats: We didn’t get to explore Grand Teton National Park sufficiently due to smoky conditions; we weren’t able to secure a bus reservation to access Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park; and we “only” went to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (hiking is better at the South Rim).