Due to a passport snafu, we are delaying our trip to Southeast Asia until January, 2015…but we are filling the rest of 2014 with a good ole fashioned American Road Trip!
Driving around America has always been a dream for John and I, even before we met. Now, with our powers combined, we are setting out in the Jeep (Black Betty, bram ba lam) and making the most of the 40 days we have left in 2014. We are embarking on an exciting, if not ambitious, 5500 mile loop through 17 states, visiting at least 8 National Parks and hopefully seeing some friends and family along the way.
Here’s what the itinerary looks like…if you’ve got any tips or recommendations, leave them in the comments section!
St Louis, Missouri & the great river road
Our first stop along the way will be the Gateway to the West. We’re going to take the Great River Road through Missouri, which, as you might have guessed, follows the Mississippi. Experiencemississippiriver.com argues that this is the longest and most important scenic byway in the USA. They have also created a nifty little logo featuring a green pilot’s wheel, which they seem especially pleased about. This sign can be found along 3000 miles of byway as it follows the course of Moon River from Minnesota all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. We are only following about 20% of it, up through Missouri until we reach St. Louis where we will scarf down provel cheese, play some corkball and probably take pictures of the Arch.
Iowa City, Iowa
Hopping back on the Great River Road, we head towards Iowa City. On the way, we will pass through Hannibal, MI hometown to Mr. Mark Twain. Lots of people I trust have visited Iowa City and have told tales of awesomeness. It also helps that one of the coolest gals I know lives there…so we’ll hopefully be catching up at some point.
Des Moines, IA
A quick jaunt up the road and we land in Des Moines. Des Moines is listed as the “number one spot for U.S. insurance companies” in this Business Wire article and named the third largest “insurance capital” in the world. Ooooh, be still my beating heart! In all seriousness, we are catching up with some good friends here as well, so I know we will experience all DM has to offer before we leave Iowa in the rearview. I intend to hum Dar Williams’ lovely song, Iowa (Traveling III), the whole time we are in the state.
Sioux Falls, South dakota
John has been whispering in my ear about South Dakota for 5 years now, and this is our second attempt to get to there. I know it’s going to be freezing cold…that’s why we are going north now before it completely freezes over. I have been promised endless vistas and a 80% chance of buffaloes. Outside of Sioux Falls we will be following the Outlaw Trail, which Roadtrippers likens to a “wild west era where famous outlaws, horse thieves, lynch mobs, and lawmen ruled” . We’ll pass through Devil’s Nest, a meeting point and hideout area for Jesse James and his gang.
Small Town! Big Adventure! At least that’s the official tagline of Valentine, Nebraska. It’s really just a stop off on the way to the Black Hills of Dakota, but after perusing the website I am excited about the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (bisons, prairie dogs and elk! Oh my!) and braving the old train trestle that crosses the Niobrara River just outside of Valentine. It is a quarter of a mile long and towers 150 feet above the river…but don’t worry, it’s part of the Rails to Trails initiative that has converted the abandoned Chicago and Northwestern railroad into a crushed limestone trail with wooden decked bridges.
Rapid City, South dakota
We are going to use Rapid City as a base for many adventures…if we are not completely snowbound. The surrounding area has an almost endless supply of natural beauty: the Badlands National Park, Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills. We will probably be here for Thanksgiving…hopefully some lovely South Dakotans will take pity on us and give us some cranberry sauce.
We had originally planned to go up through Yellowstone and then down through the Grand Tetons, however, there is only one road open in Yellowstone during the winter, and only one entrance to that road which lies on the other side of Wyoming and requires a rather lengthy trip into Montana to get there. The road from Yellowstone to the Tetons is closed as well, so instead of navigating around for 2 miles of park access, we are going to save these two parks for better weather. That’s where Cheyenne comes in…it’s a straight shot down and does not require passing through an inaccessible mountain range. There’s a Cowgirls of the West museum, so everyone should expect fashionable coon-skin caps for Christmas.
Hoping to catch a Broncos game while we are in town, but if that doesn’t work out, there is plenty to keep us occupied…including some good friends and family. It’s also in close proximity to the Rocky Mountain National Park. We will probably be using Denver as a base to visit the surrounding countryside and fully enjoy being in the Denver Beer Triangle; the area between Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins is apparently referred to as the “Napa Valley of Beer.” The Coors Brewery (largest single brewery in the world) may call our name at some point.
Montrose is home to the newest National Park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The Gunnison river has been working on this canyon for 2 million years. The weather might prohibit us from doing much, like many of the National Parks in this neck of the woods, most of the park roads are closed for winter, but there are plenty of trails to shuffle through on the snow shoes with authorized guides.
It’s time to hunker down with the family again in Salt Lake City! John and I spent a week driving all over Utah last year, and enjoyed every minute of it (except for Hogsback Pass). We mainly focused our exploring to the south and southwest visiting Zion, Bryce and Arches parks. Utah made me fall in love with the landscape of the west. This time we are looking to explore in the North a bit before we head through the Nevada desert.
We didn’t want to drive all the way to Reno, but we did want to experience a segment of “the loneliest road in America”, US Route 50. You may recognize Rt. 50 from the movie Vanishing Point, which used several sections of US 50 as part of the driving sequences. It’s straight, it’s deserted and inspired Stephen King to write Desperation which will be responsible for keeping me on edge for the entire time we are driving on this remote road.
Las Vegas, Nevada
I mean…seriously. I’ve never been to Vegas. I’m very excited.
Death Valley, CAlifornia
Death Valley sits in the Mojave Desert, and a visit will officially get us in California! The warmest place on our trip, Death Valley will be a beautiful 60-70 degrees. The largest National Park in the lower 48, this one’s got it all: deserts, badlands, salt flats, canyons and mountains. Continuing on the movie theme, parts of Death Valley were used by director George Lucas as a filming location for Star Wars, providing the setting for the fictional planet Tatooine. It’s a popular park for star-gazing as it has one of the darkest night skies in the United States.
Mojave Desert, CAlifornia
Just nearby, the Mojave Desert National Reserve contains over a thousand miles of dirt roads are open for exploration with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, which we conveniently have. Seeing as it’s the only park we will be able to drive all over, we are planning on doing some serious 4×4-ing to check out the areas inner attractions, such as the lava tube! (I’m not sure what awaits us in the Lava tube, but the trail to the tube ends at a hole with a ladder in it…my kind of adventure!)
Flagstaff really means the Grand Canyon, which John has been to before but I have never visited. Depending on the weather, we may raft and hike, although this October, bats tested positive for rabies so we will stay away from dark holes. The Barrington Meteor Crater is in close proximity, as well as the Lowell Observatory and the Petrified Forest National Park.
Albuquerque, New mexico
Ever since I worked with the Santa Fe Performing Arts Center, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to bring John to New Mexico. I love the landscape in NM…the colorful hills, the night sky…the food! My first experience walking around at 11,000ft was just outside of Albuquerque and I will never forget the realization that I was higher than when the flight attendants used to allow the use of personal electronics. Our trip to Peru took us to higher elevations, but I will never forget the experience in NM of gasping for air and wondering what the hell was wrong with me.
We will be taking a road trip break at this point and flying back to Nashville to watch John’s youngest son, Alex, graduate from U.T. Thanks to my previous job, I’ve got Southwest Rapids Rewards point out the wazoo, so this won’t cost us a dime! We’ll pick Black Betty up at the airport and get right back on the road 2 days later.
Roswell, New mexico
There’s no need to explain what we are doing here…it’s going to be alien-centric.
Carslbad Caverns, New Mexico
Caves are super awesome and Carlsbad Cavern National Park had plenty of ’em. During our last NP stop, we’ll be going underground as well as searching the sky for the Milky Way. The White Sands National Monument is nearby, 275 square miles of sand dunes composed of gypsum crystals.
Saying goodbye to New Mexico and starting on the home stretch. We are crossing Texas in a couple of chunks, hitting Abilene first (home of the worlds largest paper airplane). We’ll be checking out the ghostly ruins Fort Phantom, an 1851 army fort. There’s a lot of Texas to get through, and we are avoiding most of the big towns along the way so I imagine this will be a quiet, rolling drive across our second largest state attempting to eat our weight in BBQ.
You can’t avoid it…and with the amount of folks we know there, why would we want to?
We opted for the interesting route back up to Nashville, which essentially means avoiding Arkansas. Resisting the temptation to go to New Orleans, we are taking the plantation road down from Shreveport through central Louisiana. Bill Al’s Feeding Show is along the way which means plenty of alligator action if we so desire.
We are picking up the south end of the Natchez Trace in Mississippi and headed north to Tupelo, birthplace of Mr. Elvis Presley. I’ve driven the Natchez in it’s entirety before, but it’s been a long time. I am sure by this point we will be homesick and speeding back up to Nashville, so we might not stay with the Trace’s 55mph route for the entire time, but I think it will be nice and calm way to get our heads back into being home again.
Pup squozin’ time!
We’ve got some camping gear to pull together, warm clothes to dig out of storage and, most importantly…road trip playlists to make.
On the road again…I can’t wait to be on the road again…