Driving across the United States is an experience that I highly recommend taking the time to do – especially if you get to go with some of the best travelling companions you have.
There is no substitute for traversing a large area by ground. We watched the landscape change dramatically as we passed on the road, and we got out to experience some of the greatest spots on foot. We ate exciting meals in unfamiliar towns and re-energized with tasty snacks along spectacular trails. We enjoyed getting together with friends, experiencing the hospitality of family, and travelling with each other.
It all came together last summer when Irena, my wife’s sister, was heading to California for the next chapter of her academic career. Obviously Helen and I wanted to come across the country with her, and their younger brother Alex was wise enough to join in.
Planning began with Google Maps and ideas of places we wanted to go. I had some great memories from previous trips I had taken with family, and we did some research online and figured out a schedule. We were going to be on the road for two weeks, from Hoboken to San Francisco. After helping Irena move in and get furniture, the other three of us would fly back east.
All of our gear and many of Irena’s possessions were going coast-to-coast in a 2008 Honda Accord. Thankfully it was a four-door model. I would have gone with nothing but a jacket and whatever I could fit in my pockets if I had to, but fortunately for me and everyone who had to spend hours in a car with me, we were able to bring a backpack each, extra shoes, and a medium duffel bag to share space in. There was no room for camping gear, but we were on a limited schedule anyway, so motels and family homes would serve for sleeping space. A Garmin nüvi, smartphones, and park maps would help us navigate. We were ready for adventure.
Driving across the country is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, a dream frequently forgotten as life presented other paths. I don’t know if I truly believed we were all going to do this until we hit the road the first morning.
We set out from the Hoboken waterfront in the first week of August. There was excitement all around because we were really doing this! We made a brief stop in town to get some awesome scones and muffins a friend made for us. We joked that she was trying to make sure we would come back, but actually she’s just cool like that.
Our first day was a drive to Pittsburgh to meet with a friend. We decided that we would take I-80 across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, because it seemed like the scenery would be more mountainous than it would be if we took I-78, the other likely candidate. We would be seeing plenty of farm country on our trip, so the wooded Pocono Mountains were a nice send-off from familiar territory. As the highway winded through the hills and valleys, mist rolled over the landscape outside. We arrived in Pittsburgh with plenty of daylight left.
We didn’t explore Pittsburgh for very long, but it was a nice city and a good opportunity to rest up for the big trip ahead of us. We got a good view of the city from the top of the historic Duquesne Incline.
Below the hillside are the three rivers of Pittsburgh. Here the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio River. There is actually a park there called Point State Park. The lawn by the point contains a stone tracery of Fort Duquesne, an important landmark in the French and Indian war.
For us, the city marked our passage west. The next day would be a long drive to St. Louis.
We left Pittsburg pretty early. I was fascinated with the idea of taking the wheel for the entire distance, and my travelling companions obliged. It turns out to be about a 600 mile trip, but we made some stops so it was not too hard to handle. Most of the day was along I-70: riding hours of highway, passing cities and towns exit sign after exit sign, watching acres of farmland and rows of strip malls pass by in between.
I was going to drive right past the signs for the world’s largest golf tee and world’s largest wind chime, but Helen was not about to let this opportunity pass. We followed the signs to a town called Casey, Illinois, where big things are made. The world’s largest golf tee, world’s largest wind chime, and world’s largest knitting needles and crochet hook can all be found here. Some of the big things include Bible verses or religious imagery.
It is actually a creative way to get travelers to stop in the town. We ended up buying some sandwiches and drinks before getting on the road again.
No meal we had that day could have prepared us for what awaited in St. Louis. Going on a solid recommendation, we decided to have dinner at Pappy’s Smokehouse. We got some of the last ribs available that evening and they did not go to waste. The first bite had us all engrossed in the process of eating as much of the delicious meat as we possibly could. The other meats we had were excellent, but it was the ribs that were most impressive. We will make a serious effort to get back to Pappy’s if we’re ever close to the area.
We walked off some of the meal and car ride at the Gateway Arch, which is a pretty impressive structure to stand by. Just up some stairs from the mighty Mississippi River, the Arch was constructed as a monument to American westward expansion.
The next day would see us driving across Missouri and half of Kansas. It would also see more ribs, this time for lunch at Oklahoma Joe’s. It’s a great barbecue restaurant at a gas station in Kansas City, KS, and it has apparently changed its name to Joe’s Kansas City since we were there. We all enjoyed Pappy’s more, but we had only good things to say about Joe’s.
Eventually we got off I-70 to take a smaller highway through Kansas. It was a chance to get closer to the prairie and stick our heads out the window to feel the breeze.
We got to Cawker City just in time to see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in the evening’s golden light. Cawker City doesn’t seem to have much going on these days, but along Highway 24 there is a canopy that houses a very large ball of twine that is said to be the largest in the world. It was started by a local farmer named Frank Stoeber in 1953 and it has apparently become a collaborative effort. Visitors are encouraged to buy twine to add to the ball, though the store was closed by the time we came to town.
The big ball of twine was just a small landmark in our adventure and served as a convenient point of interest in the real goal of getting off of the interstate. We were rewarded with a sunset over the prairie.
We spent the night at a Super 8 in Beloit, Kansas. It was the same as most motels: pretty clean, offering beds and a bathroom, and serving dismal but edible complimentary breakfast.
We set off for Colorado in the morning. We passed by fields stretching to the horizon, herds of cattle, some ruined old shacks, and modern agricultural structures, some of which looked like giant robots over the horizon. Periodically the speed limit would drop as we passed through a town that stretched a few blocks from the main drag. We headed west in search of mountains.
When we were planning the trip and discussed places we wanted to go, Colorado was on top on the list, and Utah was just behind. I said that I had seen a lot of Colorado and Utah on family trips in 2005 and 2006, but I was excited to go back. Once you’ve been, you understand.
Driving into Colorado from Kansas, the landscape appears just as flat. Though the prairie was cool I was itching to see mountains, especially since we were headed to the Rockies. When I saw the mountains rise from the horizon little distinct from clouds yet unmistakably majestic, I shouted excitedly, grabbed the passenger’s seat in front of me, and started shaking it. I’m certain my enthusiasm was appreciated.
We had heard good things about Boulder, Colorado, and now that we’ve been there we have good things to say. We only spent an evening and a morning in Boulder but we loved it. It was a pleasant place to hang out and walk around, especially with an old friend accompanying us. There was a big bookstore downtown, a huge farmer’s market with numerous free samples, and some beautiful park space. People were pretty friendly, and there were mountains around the city. We ate a great dinner at the Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery. They actually gave us a complimentary platter of fries because we had to wait for a table, which was a really cool thing to do. After we sat down we got some quality burgers, salads, and beer.
Rocky Mountain National Park was a major destination for us. It was great to get out and spend a full day hiking after so much time in the car.
We decided to hike to a lake called The Loch, basing our route on a description from the book Day & Overnight Hikes: Rocky Mountain National Park by Kim Lipker (2008). We also had a nice National Geographic trail map (Trails Illustrated 200: Rocky Mountain National Park), which helped us decide our route through the ridges and lakes.
The high altitude made this hike more challenging. I spend most of my time within 2,000 feet of sea level. Today’s hike was over 9,000 feet above sea level. The morning got a little rough with the cold rain, but by lunchtime it was hard to imagine wanting to be anywhere else.
We had a full day of hiking to enjoy great ridge views and hang out around clear mountain ponds.
It was an exhilarating experience that took a lot out of us. We headed back to the town of Estes Park straight for a Vietnamese and Thai restaurant called Café De Pho-Thai. We downed serious quantities of tasty food and guzzled pitchers of water.
On our second day in Rocky Mountain National Park we hiked to the summit of Deer Mountain, which at 10,013’ actually appears to be slightly lower in elevation than The Loch. We started out lower so we did made some gains in elevation this day. Even though this hike involved fairly steep climbing, we were just well enough accustomed to the altitude that it felt easier than the day before. We had great views on the way up and a spectacular summit view.
The descent offered a chance to more leisurely observe the scenery.
It was time to get on the road again. We headed west on Trail Ridge Road and made some worthwhile stops along the way. One of the best stops was the short but spectacular Tundra Trail, which had sweeping views all around.
We encountered some wildlife we don’t see in New Jersey, including the ptarmigan, a bird that is pretty good at camouflage.
Back along Trail Ridge Road we encountered a herd of elk.
By the time we made it here, hunger had driven me to innovation and I made myself a sandwich with peanut butter and two Clif Bars of Sierra Trail Mix flavor. I would eat this again.
Trail Ridge Road crosses the Continental Divide, the geographic division between waterways that flow into the Atlantic Ocean and waterways that flow into the Pacific Ocean. It’s obviously a spot where photos should be taken.
That was all the time we had for Rocky Mountain National Park.
We stopped in the town of Grand Lake for meat and Rocky Mountain Oysters at a place called Sagebrush Barbeque and Grill. Honestly I had expected that eating testicles would leave a more virile impression in my mouth, but they were just bland fried discs. The other meat was good though, and it was kind of cool to eat peanuts and throw the shells on the floor. Plus the Old West décor was fun. After dinner we took a nice walk by the lake around sunset. Continuing westward, we stayed at a motel along I-70 in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
West of the Rockies we entered a landscape with a different vocabulary from what we were used to, a land of canyons, arches, hoodoos, buttes, mesas, and washes. Utah was ahead of us and we were excited to get there.
At Arches National Park we entered an otherworldly landscape that invited us to come explore the sand and stone and bake with it under the sun.
Water and sun protection are a must at Arches. Stop in the visitor center to fill all of your water bottles because you might need them.
You should arrive at Arches ready to wander and gaze. The walls of stone make impressive sights, and being able to look up at giant arches made me feel quite fortunate.
Arches was the only park we went to that I felt was crowded. Things have changed since Edward Abbey was a ranger and there was just an unpaved road into the park. Now tourists pour in by the carload, and unfortunately many seem to have trouble giving other people space to enjoy the rocks. However, it is hard to complain because the park really is awesome and we were also visiting the place with limited time and rushed to the accessible highlights. The landscape really is too spectacular to not share.
Although the stars are probably awesome at Arches, I was glad there was a full moon when we went. The moonlight gave Delicate Arch a satisfying glow and lit our way over the rocks. It also added to the experience of viewing ancient Native American rock art along the trail.
If you’re not camping, Moab is the place to stay when you visit Arches. If you are camping you should visit Moab anyway because it is a cool adventure town with some good food. Eating at Twisted Sistas was a nice break from the desert heat for us.
The next day we were on the road to Bryce Canyon. It was a good road to be on with the impressive desert landscapes and rock formations along the way.
We got to Bryce late in the day. We began our visit at Inspiration Point. It was a marvelous place to look out over the landscape below, take pictures, and reflect on how far we had come. We took a short walk along the rim to Sunset Point and watched the colors of sunset on the rocks.
Even though the landscape is not a canyon, the name Bryce’s Canyon has stuck to it. Ebenezer Bryce was one of the Mormon pioneers who began settling in the region in the 1870s. Native Americans had been seasonally hunting and gathering food in the area for thousands of years, but there is no evidence they stayed through the harsh winters.
The next day we took some walks among the hoodoos. The irregular spire-shaped rock formations are really something to marvel at. The walks through Bryce are spectacular. The place was busy but not what I would consider crowded.
In the evening we headed towards Zion National Park. The drive in was punctuated by the dark and narrow Zion Mt. Carmel Tunnel, a 1.1 mile drive through stone with occasional windows looking out into the canyon. After the tunnel a series of switchbacks brought us through the park and into Springdale for dinner.
Zion is really a great place to be. Massive sandstone walls surround the green banks of the Virgin River.
With only a day to explore the park, our natural course was to go on one of my favorite hikes of all time, Angels Landing. We walked switchbacks up to a trail junction on the ridge. There we took a short break before heading out onto a knife edge a thousand feet above the valley floor.
Rainclouds and distant thunder threatened to cut our hike short one way or another. Hanging onto metal chains along a nearly bare ridge is not a good place to be in a thunderstorm. Our hearts pounded as we reached the outlook at the end. We took a few pictures and headed back.
The rain held off long enough for a quick lunch on the ridge. We headed a little down the West Rim Trail to a nice spot away from where everyone congregates for Angels Landing. I would love to take a longer walk along the canyon rim sometime. We had a refreshing soak on the way down the switchbacks to the shuttle bus.
Private vehicles are not allowed in Zion Canyon in the summer, which was actually kind of nice. The busses run quietly and blend in to the landscape. They were as clean inside as a transport for muddy hikers could be. A speaker system on board tells riders a little about the park, including how many people have recently died while attempting to hike Angels Landing.
We walked through the canyon a little while to where the trail enters the river at The Narrows. We did not block out the time or bring the equipment to wade through a river for miles but I would love to do that sometime.
As we were standing in the river getting more rain, a little baby doll started to float by. Since we could tell it wasn’t an actual baby, it was kind of funny in a dark sort of way to see it bobbing down the river bumping into rocks here and there.
We enjoyed the previous night’s dinner at the Spotted Dog Café so much we went there again after we cleaned ourselves up a little. After dinner we drove off into the sunset across the desert. Utah was behind us and our wet hiking clothes were stowed safely out of smell range.
We had decided to save the Grand Canyon for another trip, when we would have more time to enjoy it, so we continued westward. Our next destination was Boulder City, Nevada via Las Vegas. It is a little surreal to drive through the desert at night and see the lights of Vegas.
Boulder City was built as housing for the construction and supervision of the Boulder Dam, now called the Hoover Dam. We stayed at the historic Boulder Dam Hotel.
Inside the motel is an excellent little museum called the Boulder City Hoover Dam Museum. The museum exhibits show how construction workers and their families lived during the building of the Boulder Dam. It used memorable displays to teach visitors about general and specific experiences of Boulder City residents.
Our morning continued at Lake Meade, the lake formed where the Colorado River is contained by the Hoover Dam. Other people were enjoying swimming there, but I was not so into it. Even though the beach was hot enough for me to overheat while sitting still, I wasn’t too eager to go in the water with the cinder blocks and other debris I saw at the edge. Once I got in the water I quickly learned it was warm as soup but was enough to keep me from overheating.
Around midday we were on our way to the Hoover Dam, an American landmark that was constructed from 1931 to 1936.
Built from 4,360,000 cubic yards of concrete, the dam and power plant complex is really too big to get in one photo unless you’re far away. You can drive and walk across the dam though, which is pretty cool.
We then headed back to Las Vegas for a lunch of overeating. We were looking for an outrageous Vegas buffet experience, and the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace did not disappoint. It really was absurd how many types of food you could get, and some of it quite good.
After a break in the decorated halls and less-decorated restrooms of Caesars Palace we were back on the road. It would be a long drive through the desert to the California coast.
It was a moonless, clear night in the desert. We could see the stars through our windows and decided to pull off the highway for a better look. Not far from I-15 we stopped the car. Darkness surrounded us as we stepped out to look at the sky. The uncountable stars above gave a brilliant reminder of how vast the universe is. As we stood and our eyes adjusted we could see more detail and unfamiliar constellations. Taking a moment to enjoy an unexpected detour lead to a memorable experience.
Helen kept driving as we cruised by Los Angeles in the middle of the night. I stayed up to keep her company and periodically assured her that I could drive if she wanted. We arrived in Santa Barbara around 2 AM ready for some serious rest. We picked a good town for it.
I really didn’t know much about Santa Barbara before we stopped there. We chose it as a destination because it was supposed to be a nice town and we had friends there. It turned out to be a really enjoyable place.
We took it easy in the morning and met a friend at a little café called The Shop. Enjoying a delicious breakfast in beautiful weather was a great start to the day.
In the afternoon we headed to the beach. Now we had really traversed North America and made it to the Pacific Ocean. Naturally we headed in for a swim. I had never swam in the Pacific Ocean before. I found the water enjoyably cold and calm.
In the evening we drove up into the hills and took a short path to a boulder strewn hillside overlooking the ocean. We hung off the Lizard’s Mouth rock and played around on some less challenging boulders.
Spending two nights in the same bed was a luxury we hadn’t enjoyed since our trip began. After another breakfast at The Shop we were on the road again. We headed north on the Pacific Coast Highway. Somehow we don’t have a lot of pictures from this drive, but at least we didn’t stop in the road to take pictures like some tourists were doing.
Along the way we saw a sign for an elephant seal viewpoint. We obviously stopped here, and we were rewarded with a beach full of elephant seals.
In the evening we rolled into Mountain View and visited with relatives in the area.
Our last day of the trip was about fulfilling our original goal: helping Irena move to California. We made the obligatory trip to Ikea followed by furniture assembly.
We headed up to San Francisco to eat at Burma Superstar, and stayed over for breakfast burritos and the morning’s flight. Fourteen days after we had set out from the east coast, we were heading back. The trip was over, but adventures would continue.