National Parks Road Trip

At a breakneck pace, we drove from Massachusetts to Nevada and back again in about 3 weeks — stopping at 8 National Parks and other landmarks and parks along the way.

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The Backstory

Trip Date: June 2018

True story: 5 years before this trip, when I was not a self-identified “hiker,” nor was I interested in hiking, Kevin inceptioned this National Park cross-country roadtrip idea. He sat me down, opened his computer, and proceeded to present a powerpoint that highlighted all of the sites we could visit. He showed me pictures of people practicing yoga atop mountains to convince me to take this trip. Suffice it to say, we did not take the trip that year and I promptly forgot about the idea, or so I thought…

Over the next few years, I dabbled in hiking and camping (my 2nd night ever camping was at 14,000 ft on our Salkantay Trek) and Kevin gained more outdoor experience on his own. Then, in the summer of 2017, when I was transitioning to a PhD program and we had both a tight budget and a few weeks off of work together, I suggested that we do this road trip. Yes, his inception plan worked. And, I am so glad it did. This road trip transformed my life. Even though our trip fell smack dab in the middle of an unbelievable heat wave, I truly enjoyed camping for the first time, pushed my physical capabilities and hiking confidence, and found my own, independent, love for the outdoors. 

Assuming you have time off, the good news about this trip is that it is really accessible and flexible (monetarily and physically). Each park we went to had options for more or less experienced hikers, for those who wanted a lovely nature walk to see the highlights, or for those who wanted a more physically demanding experience. We chose to camp, which kept costs low, but there are more full service lodging options in most places, particularly near National Parks. Additionally, there were so many places we would have wanted to stop at if we had more time. There is no shortage of options. Ultimately, we visited four cities, eight national parks, a national monument, and a pretty hike or two in between. There were certain hikes that required permits, activities that required tickets, and campgrounds that were very popular and needed booking months ahead, so we planned this trip pretty meticulously. I was not so surprisingly nervous about hiking and camping, so we invested a lot of time and energy in creating an itinerary that I knew in advance and could mentally prepare for. Others may not need or want that much structure or advanced planning. Just know yourself and what your levels of comfort are. If you have more time and can tolerate some uncertainty, leave some time to explore more places. We found that we could take this trip and spend no more than we would have just living in Boston! 

After sending our families a detailed itinerary, we loaded up our trusty Prius and drove cross-country from Massachusetts to Nevada and back again.

National Parks Road Trip Itinerary

Since this trip was primarily a hiking trip, with a couple of city stops in between, we planned it knowing that we’d need to stop for places with showers and grocery stores. Our timeline was a little bit truncated because of our own work constraints, and because I desperately wanted to get to Denver for yoga at the Red Rocks Amphitheater (which was completely worth it)! If we had more time, we would have loved to have made it all the way to California, stopping in the Great Smoky Mountains, the Ozarks, and spending more time in the Tetons along the way.

The following itinerary is an outline of our entire trip with the driving we did between destinations and activities we engaged in. Most of our activities included hiking, but in some places, we enjoyed museums, breweries, and local sites.

Please Note: 

  • Driving distances do not include mileage around parks
  • Lodging costs include service fees where applicable

Day

Starting Point

Destination

Driving Distance

Activities

Lodging

Cost of Lodging

1BostonSt. Louis1178St. Louis Gateway Arch Drove through the night0
2St. LouisKansas City248Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
AirBnB47
3Kansas CityDenver605Denver Botanic GardensAirBnB83
4DenverDenver0Yoga on the Rocks at Red Rocks
Denver Art Museum
Breweries in the Rino District
AirBnB83
5DenverTwin Lakes122Twin Lakes Area Hike
Periodic Brewing in Leadville, CO
Twin Lakes area campsite0
6Twin LakesGreat Sand Dunes134Midway Pass Hike
Independence Pass
Explore sand dunes
Piñon Flats20
7Great Sand DunesMesa Verde223Sand sleddingMorefield Campground30
8Mesa VerdeGrand Canyon511Petroglyph Point Trail
Cliff Palace Tour
Shoshone Point
Forest Service Land0
9Grand CanyonGrand Canyon0Rim to River Backpacking Day 1 – South Kaibab TrailBright Angel Campground26
10Grand CanyonGrand Canyon0Rim to River Backpacking Day 2 – Bright Angel TrailMather Campground18
11Grand CanyonLas Vegas128Stays in VegasNew York New York202
12Las VegasZion161Emerald Pool TrailSouth Campground20
13ZionZion0Observation Point TrailSouth Campground20
14ZionBryce Canyon73The NarrowsNorth Campground20
15Bryce CanyonBryce Canyon0Queens Garden Navajo LoopNorth Campground20
16Bryce CanyonGrand Teton525Fairyland Loop
Taggart and Bradley Lakes
Gros Ventre Campground30
17Grand TetonYellowstone30Amphitheater Lake Meadow
Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook
Fountain Paint Pots
Norris Geyser Basin – Porcelain Basin
Canyon Campground33
18YellowstoneYellowstone0Mt. Washburn
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Specimen Ridge Trail
Lamar Valley
Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces
Canyon Campground33
19YellowstoneMount Rushmore530Mount RushmoreGrizzly Creek Primitive30
20Mount RushmoreGalena Territories680Badlands National Park
Door Trail
Family0
21Galena TerritoriesGalena Territories0Family0
22Galena TerritoriesChicago156Family0
23ChicagoKeuka Lake623Family0
24Keuka LakeBoston391Home0
Total Miles6318Total Cost715

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One Comment

  1. Claire
    July 6, 2020
    Reply

    Beautiful photos and impressive itinerary! Thank you for sharing your journey! I will use this as a starting point if my husband and I ever make it out to Zion, which I hope we will do someday soon.

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