An Ode to National Parks and the Roads between Them
by Hester Lam, Girls Who Hike Texas Ambassador
Growing up in Knoxville, TN, I was extremely fortunate to have grown up right next to the Smoky Mountains. For as long as I remember, weekends were spent exploring trails either in a local state park or in the Smokies. The summer between my junior and senior years in college (2014), I was extremely fortunate to have gotten my dream internship in LA. The only problem – public transit wasn’t exactly an option because I would need to go to different clients within the greater LA area, and none of them were near public transit nor were the concentrated in one area of LA. We decided to drive one of my dad’s cars from Knoxville to LA.
However, the day before our roadtrip began, I had to visit the source of my love of national parks – The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. According to National Geographic, the Smokies are the most visited national park with over 11 million visitors, nearly twice as many as the second most visited park. And with good reason – it’s absolutely stunning, and best of all, admission to the park is free. My favorite time of the year is fall by far. If you can ever go around October or early November, a short hike to Clingman’s Dome (easy, paved trail approximately 1 mile in length, with about 300 feet of elevation gain) will give you one of the most gorgeous views of orange, red, and yellow leaves as far as the eye can see. Since this trail is paved, it’s ADA- and stroller- friendly. On my last day in Tennessee (for the summer, at least), I elected to try a new trail – the Jump Off. The Jump Off starts at the Newfound Gap trailhead (which is often inaccessible during the winter months if it was a snowy season) and a portion of the trail is part of the Appalachian Trail. The last half a mile can be a little confusing if you are unfamiliar with the trail and I strongly recommend checking in with the rangers at the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center (on the way to the trailhead if you are driving from Knoxville) and reading about the trails prior to beginning. I like Hiking in the Smokies and Smoky Mountains for my trail descriptions, but there are multiple guide books out there as well.
The Jump Off has views in many directions and if you have amazing eyesight, you can spot Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg in the distance. In total, you will hike for 6.5 miles and gain 1,275 feet of elevation. As far as hikes in the Smokies go, it’s a fairly moderate hike (the elevation gains at Chimney Tops, for example, are much steeper despite being a shorter hike, and pretty much every path up to Mt. LeConte is difficult due to the length and steepness of the trails. That said, it’s much more difficult than Laurel Falls or Grotto Falls, which are much more family- friendly trails). Like most other hikes in the Newfound Gap area, there is a decent amount of elevation gain and the trails are on the lengthier side compared to other areas (side note: my favorite Smokies hike is Charlie’s Bunion and it shares the parking lot and much of the same trail with the hike to the Jump Off; my dad and I actually hiked to the Jump Off after we went to Charlie’s Bunion when I last returned to Knoxville this past Thanksgiving).
The drive for the first two days of driving were from Knoxville to Kansas City, MO (it was a late start) and the second day of driving was from Kansas City to Denver, CO. The first day had few stops for us; we had previously driven the majority of this route a few summers ago when I had done a summer study program in Memphis. We’d also explored many of the state parks in Tennessee before and elected not to revisit them at this time for the sake of time. These two days were the heaviest driving days for us by far. We did, however, stop to see the St. Louis Gateway Arch. While we did not have enough time to go to the Arch, we very much appreciated the view of it from the nearby parks. It has also now been deemed a National Park (Gateway Arch National Park).
Denver was a fun city for all of us; none of my family had ever been to Denver before, and the food we had on both days was delicious. Prior to our adventure to the Rocky Mountains, we stopped at the Early Bird Café and had one of the most delicious crepes of my life (I would strongly recommend if you’re ever in the area!). After we had sufficiently stuffed ourselves, we drove to Rocky Mountain National Park via Estes Park, which I absolutely fell in love with. We bought a National Park Annual Pass* at the entrance for $80 and we were off to explore the park. The mountains still had snow that had not completely melted, and there were still many trails that were closed when we had arrived. Since the primary goal of this trip was to move me, my business attire, and my car to LA, we unfortunately did not have the appropriate gear to truly hike around the park. We did, however, get to walk along some of the nature trails and got a taste of the beauty of the park, which gives me more cravings to return than whet my tastes for the park. We drove along Trail Ridge Road within the park and were able to see much of the park by car, as the roadtrip plan had us exiting from the Grand Lake entrance. We then drove to Moab, where we stayed for the night.
The next morning, we drove a short distance to Arches National Park. We elected to do a few short, easy hikes since we were also going to Capitol Reef later that day and were planning on doing a longer hike there. The Delicate Arch was definitely on our list, and we chose to do the 0.5 mile hike to the arch viewpoint. The rangers at the visitor’s center also recommended The Windows so we hiked a mile to the arches, which ended up being our favorite of the park. Finally, we hiked 0.4 miles to the Skyline Arch before we drove out of the park and went to our favorite park of the trip, Capitol Reef.
While the arches at Capitol Reef aren’t as impressive as those in Arches, the canyons aren’t full of hoodoos like Bryce Canyon, and the viewpoints aren’t nearly as high up in elevation as Zion, I loved Capitol Reef because of how they had arches, canyons, and beautiful viewpoints as all of the others without as many people. Capitol Reef was more remote, and we saw one other group during the entirety of our visit; in fact, there are so few people that collection of entrance fees is a box at the front of the park with an honor system of payment. We hiked from the Cohab Canyon Trail of approximately 0.7 miles to the Frying Pan Trail, which was approximately a 3 mile hike with 810 feet of elevation and beautiful views of the ridge around us. This portion was not easy and much of the hike was exposed. Finally, we hiked a little over 0.7 miles to the Cassidy Arch, at which we got beautiful views of the canyon below us. The view was well worth the fairly strenuous hike and we got to do some light scrambling/ bouldering near the apex of the canyon (VERY LIGHT; no crash pads were necessary and these would realistically be rated VBB if that were a real rating). After the hike, we drove around the park and saw the scenic points per the guide map along the scenic loop. We then drove to Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn in Bryce Canyon National Park where we ate dinner.
We decided not to camp at any of the parks we wanted to visit for a variety of reasons; primarily, we had a lot of stuff in the car and didn’t have any additional room for camping gear and secondarily, camping permits for many of the places we were visiting were already filled by the time I had received my internship offer. The biggest benefit of staying at Ruby’s Inn was the convenience; the park has a shuttle system to reduce ecological impact of vehicles/ the need to build larger parking lots and the shuttle ran straight from our hotel to the park’s main visitor’s center. The shuttles run from the visitor’s center to all of the main trailheads/ scenic views. After speaking to the rangers at the visitor’s center, we decided on the Peekaboo Loop (starting via the Navajo Loop through Wall Street) to see Queen’s Garden. This is actually the exact hike that we elected to do, and it ended up taking us about 4 hours with breaks and lots of picture stops. At 6.1 miles in length and about 1,600 feet of elevation gain, it was a perfect day hike, but Utah was very hot (and higher elevation than Tennessee, so the sun was much stronger) and reapplication of sunscreen multiple times a day was necessary, as well as plenty of water. After we finished, we rode the shuttle back to the hotel, showered, and decided on going back to the park for sunset and dinner at the Lodge. This time, we decided to drive the car so that we would not have to wait for the shuttle in the dark (we also weren’t sure what time the shuttle’s last loop would be, and if there would be any rides available after dinner). When we went, reservations were not necessary, and we had a lovely dinner; the elk steak was delicious.
The next morning, we drove to Zion National Park We left our car at the Visitor’s Center (during shuttle operation hours, personal vehicles are prohibited from use along the scenic route) and got off at the Grotto area. We then hiked from the Kayenta Trail to the Upper Emerald Pools. From there, we hiked down the Upper Emerald Pool Trail to the Lower Emerald Pool Trail, which took us to the Zion Lodge. In total, our hike was about 4.2 miles with 419 feet of elevation gain. The trail was fairly shady, and overall, the trail felt fairly easy since we were not directly exposed to the sun. The best part about this hike was that it ended right at Zion Lodge and we were able to get some well- deserved ice cream! We then drove to Las Vegas for the final leg of the trip.
We originally planned on going to Red Rocks during the two nights we were staying in the Las Vegas area; however, by this point, I had developed a very bad sunburn from a combination of being exposed at such a high elevation for so many days and a side effect from a topical acne cream I was prescribed at the time (Sunburns are no joke. Read more about the importance of proper sun protection and my current system in my previous blog post. As such, we decided to spend the majority of our time in Las Vegas indoors. The drive from Las Vegas was fairly uneventful and we made it to DTLA with great time.
After working two years in LA after graduation (with the same company I interned with in my first National Park Roadtrip), both my company and I felt that I would learn a lot by transferring to Dallas, TX. During the three years since my last national park roadtrip, I feel even more deeply in love with the mountains; I was part of the initial founders of the Outdoor Initiative at Claremont McKenna College my senior year and led multiple hikes, joined GWHLA, and got a tattoo of some mountains. At first, I was apprehensive about the move to Texas; I had finally settled into a routine, met some great girls within GWHLA, and had never lived in a place without any sort of elevation gain.
I also genuinely didn’t want to pay to ship my car or my things in a more short- term problem of moving. My mom had the perfect idea: she would fly to LAX and she would keep me company as we drove to Dallas (my mom does not drive), stopping in as many national parks on the way we could while still making the drive no more than three days (my dad was driving from Knoxville to help me settle in). And thus, the plan for my national park roadtrip was born.
The first day, my mom and I drove from my apartment in downtown LA to the San Gabriel Valley for a final lunch of Chinese food. We also picked up some Asian breads and snacks for our roadtrip (because no roadtrip is complete without good snacks!) and started the drive to Joshua Tree National Park. We entered at the Joshua Tree Visitor’s Center, where I bought a National Park Annual Pass* and did some short walks and took some pictures. Since this was not my first time to the park, I did not feel as though I had missed out too much by only going for a couple of hours; in addition, this was in the peak of the heat wave of 2017, and temperatures were well over 100 °F. If you’ve never been to J- Tree, the majority of the park is highly exposed, and it is the epitome of Southern Californian desert. Needless to say, we elected not to spend too much time outside. I would strongly recommend visiting around February if you are able; there is also great climbing in the area if you are into climbing. We continued driving through the park and exited from the Oasis entrance (the east side of the park). With the exception of a few short breaks, we drove directly to Tucson.
The next morning, we went to Saguaro National Park right when the park opened. After a lot of debate, we decided to go to the East (Rincon Mountain) District. While the West District also looked amazing, the timing of the roadtrip worked best for us to go in the morning rather than in the evening, and the East District was significantly more on the way than the West District. Unfortunately, the day was still extremely hot, so my mom and I elected to primarily take the scenic driving loop (this trip occurred the same week the tarmacs in Arizona were too warm for planes to take off and land) and do a short nature walk near the visitor’s center instead.
It was still early at this point, so we started our drive again. Later in the day, we stopped by a grocery store, bought a rotisserie chicken, some vegetables, and bread and ate a quick lunch before continuing the drive to White Sands National Monument. We got a little lost once we were inside the park and had some difficulty finding the Alkali Flat Trail, which was our original plan (New Mexico at 4 PM was much cooler than Arizona at 9 AM). Instead, we walked among the sand dunes near that area and then found the Dune Life Nature Trail instead. If we had planned a little better, I wish that we would have purchased some sleds and donated them to the park afterwards; nevertheless, we managed to get lots of sand all over ourselves and loved the park. After eating a dinner of leftover chicken sandwiches, we left the park and drove to Midland, TX, our next planned stop, in the dark. I wish that we weren’t quite so pressed for time; we took a scenic backroad to Midland that was beautiful for the two hours we still had sunlight. However, the last two hours of the drive were a little scarier in the dark and I felt as though we had missed out a lot of the views.
The next morning, we drove from Midland to Dallas and met up with my dad and brother in time for lunch.
INFORMATION ON MY TRIPS:
* National park annual passes are a great value; if you go to three of the pricier parks, it ends up paying for itself. However, there are also numerous ways to get a free/ heavily discounted pass. If you qualify as a senior, you may purchase a lifetime pass for only $80 (as opposed to the annual pass of the same price… basically you’ll buy a year and get the rest of your life free!) If you are currently serving in the U.S. military/ a fourth grade student/ permanently disabled, you can also get a free annual pass at any park. You may also earn a Volunteer Pass for volunteering 250 hours or more to participating federal agencies. For further details on any of the above programs, refer to the NPS website.
For Knoxville, TN to Los Angeles, CA roadtrip details, see my map.
Parks visited on trip from Knoxville to LA and entrance fees (without pass):
Smoky Mountain National Park: free
Rocky Mountain National Park: $20/ vehicle
Arches National Park: $10/ vehicle
Capitol Reef National Park: $7/ person
Bryce Canyon National Park: $25/ vehicle
Zion National Park: $25/ vehicle
Total cost without pass: $108
For Los Angeles, CA to Dallas, TX roadtrip details, see my map.
Parks visited on trip from LA to Dallas and entrance fees (without pass):
Joshua Tree National Park: $25/ vehicle valid for 7 days
Saguaro National Park: $15/ vehicle valid for 7 days
White Sands National Monument: $5/ person
Total cost without pass: $50
On this roadtrip, I did not “get my value” from my national park pass. I did end up visiting Pinnacles National Park with some friends in September, though, so I saved $15 in entrance fees there. I consider the remaining portion (if I am not able to visit another park prior to this time) to be a donation to the National Parks Services.