Inspired by the jaw-dropping beauty of Yosemite National Park, Dan Sadgrove set off on a road trip around the United States to discover the diversity of the country’s landscapes. Here, he describes what he witnessed, and encourages all travelers to the U.S. to look beyond the major cities and toward the country’s interior.

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What inspired you to travel 6,000 miles through 12 U.S. National Parks?

It all started with an impromptu trip to Yosemite. I was living in Mexico and a friend who was visiting LA invited me to stay with him with the promise of a road trip. I’m not really a big city guy, but it was getting steaming hot in Mexico so I decided to take up him on the offer. I booked a flight up and we headed out on a very poorly planned drive, which blew my expectations away. I’ll never forget driving through Sonora Pass into Yosemite Valley; it was one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve ever seen. The beauty of the surrounding nature caused my jaw to hit the floor and it stayed that way the whole time I was there. We spent a few days exploring Sentinel Dome and Vernal Falls and other areas of the park before heading back to Venice beach. It was just magical.

Not being from the US, I hadn’t heard much about the National Parks prior to that trip. I knew the names of some of the more well-known spots – Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone – but not much more than that. After seeing Yosemite, though, I knew I had to discover more. I ended up buying an old pop-top camper – a 1969 Ford Econoline with a bed, fridge and stove in it – and traveled back to LA a few months later to take to the road with no plan but to visit as many National Parks as I could.

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Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

Which parks did you visit and did you find that they were all diverse?

I’ll run this in order: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier, Mt Rainier, Crater Lake, Yosemite, and finally Joshua Tree. They’re all incredibly different, almost unbelievably so: the red rocks of the Utah Parks, the incredible forests of Glacier, the desert alien landscape of Joshua Tree, the incredibly lush Yosemite Valley. Grand Teton is right next door to Yellowstone – they border each other – and yet, it feels like it’s a whole different planet. It’s amazing to know that so many landscapes exist all within one country.

Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

Where did you stay along the way? 

I lived out of my van for the most part and stayed at campsites in or just outside of each National Park. It had a power hookup so I’d find anywhere I could plug in. I learned that you can sleep in Walmart parking lots for free too, which came in handy in Boulder, Colorado when I couldn’t find any other accommodation. I went to a motel a couple of times just to have a proper shower and sleep in a real bed, but most of the time, I just rolled into each campsite hoping to get a space. I probably could have planned it better by pre-booking sites, but I never knew how long I wanted to spend in each park, and if I liked a place, I wanted to have the flexibility to stay on longer. I would have hated having to move along just to make it to somewhere in time for a booking.

Related:  The Stories Behind 7 Otherworldly Photos from South America

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Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

What were some of the highs and lows of being on the road for over 6,000 miles?

The highs were the parks themselves. Entering each one was a brand new experience as they are incredibly diverse from one another. That made any and every challenge worthwhile.

The lows included having to settle for gas station drip coffee, not being able to find fresh fruit and vegetables in many of the small towns I drove through, and the lack of young people out in the parks . I mostly encountered families and older folks. I met a great couple from New Jersey in Zion and we hung out again in Wyoming, and I had some friends meet me in Aspen as we drove up to Rocky Mountain National Park. I had never driven over 4 hours in a day before and I was racking up 13 hour days pretty easily on dead-straight highways, so I was always grateful to have company when I reached a destination.

Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

In your feature on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, you mention that you’re not into long hikes with high altitudes. Did you find that each park offered manageable treks, even for the less hiking-inclined? What other activities were you able to engage in in the parks?

Definitely. The hikes are graded from easy to strenuous so there’s something for everyone. If you want to beat the crowds and have a reasonable level of fitness, I’d recommend the strenuous walks; they’re not actually that difficult. I felt a bit of the altitude in Rocky Mountain National Park, but the others aren’t that high above sea level so there’s no real worry for altitude sickness.

The best part about the parks – and it took me going to a couple of them before my stubbornness subsided – was the accessibility of the rangers. They are extremely knowledgeable and were always open to suggesting the best course of action for the day. I leaned on them for advice almost every time I went out into the park and because of them, I was able to find some gems that weren’t in any of the brochures. I jumped 20ft off a rock cliff into Phelps Lake with Devils Canyon as the backdrop; I hiked up Observation Point Trail to get the best view of Zion National Park – far, far better than Angel’s Landing. Most rangers were able to recommend secret spots to look out for.

Each park has a lot of other activities to offer, too – some are ranger-led and others you can do solo. You can kayak down rivers, canoe or paddle board on lakes, hike through slot canyons up Zion. There’s a lot to learn about the flora and fauna of, too, and most campsites usually have a lecture led by the rangers each night where they talk about what can be found in their respective parks.

Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

If you had to recommend one or two must-see parks, which would they be and why?

If time was limited I’d probably hit up Wyoming – you can see Grand Teton and Yellowstone and stay in Jackson Hole if you prefer creature comforts. I had the best time in Grand Teton – it was the first time I had seen a wild bear up close. Hiking back from Lake Solitude I was 15feet away from a bear eating berries on the trail. It was scary stuff. Truth is, you could spend weeks in each park and not come close to seeing everything.

Related:  Blue Mind: the Ningaloo Reef Whales

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Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

Dan-Sadgrove-US-National-Parks

What was the biggest takeaway from this trip?

The US interior is just phenomenal and people should know more about it. My friends and family always go to big cities like LA or New York or Chicago or Miami, but they should all try get into the interior. If you’re in LA, drive 4 hours north and visit Yosemite – the drive will be well worth it – or head a couple hours east and see Joshua Tree. Just get out of the city! The U.S. is a beautiful country and you shouldn’t just limit yourself to the cities.

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Dan Sadgrove is from New Zealand and is currently on the road travelling. With a background in anthropology and ethnomusicology, he has a strong interest in different cultures and often travels to places that offer a unique slice of life unlike his own experience of growing up in suburban New Zealand.

32 COMMENTS

  1. so awesome dude! I did a solo road trip myself this past summer to Arizona and up into Zion. There’s something abo a solo adventure that allows you to truly explore the wilderness and yourself without interruption. It’s truly a moving and inspiring time. I plan on doing a longer trip next summer much like yours: more of Utah, up into Wyoming, and over to Oregon before I head south through Cali back to San Diego. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  2. I’m definitely a huge supporter of National Parks and love visiting them! I’ve been to National Parks and Historic Sites all over the country (and not just because I want to get stamps for my National Parks passport). The US has incredible landscapes and scenery and they are not be missed. Great photos and insights about your unique visits!

  3. Since I’m a female, I’m wondering if you have any inside opinions about me taking on a similar road trip solo. I’ve been considering bring a dog along. (That wouldn’t mean I would have to get a dog first.) do you think having a dog with me would be better or worse? Hold me back at all? Or would the safety of it be worth it? If you could do it again, would you go alone or bring friends? It’s one of my biggest goals to do what you did. I’m just not sure what the best plan of action would be. How long did the trip take you?

    • We have been traveling national parks for the past 24 years. We plan on doing them again after retiring. Dogs are great companions but not allowed on the trails in national parks. Makes us sad

    • Hi Breeana,

      I sent you an email but it may have gone in your spam folder. Get the dog after – like Karen mentioned dogs are mostly not allowed on the trails in the National Parks.

      This trip took me roughly 3 months solo but I was taking my time. You can limit yourself to 5 or 6 parks and do it in a much shorter time, especially if you hit the Southwest Utah region there are 4 pretty close together.

      If I could I’d do again I’d go with friends, but being solo you have total freedom to do whatever you feel like. In my experience the National Parks are very safe and very friendly. I linked up with many people in the parks and we hiked together for parts of it. You don’t need to plan much, just get out there and get stuck in. The beauty of the first step is even though it’s often the hardest to take, it will only get easier. You learn the good and the bad on the way and the experience of becoming experienced is worth that first step.

    • Hi Breanna,

      I’m a girl, and a very small one, and I’ve completed five or six similar park road trips on my own throughout the West. I don’t have a dog, but I do have a good hatchet, and I’ve never once felt threatened or in danger in the parks – or anywhere along my trip – and I both camped and stayed in inexpensive motels. People in the parks are so happy to be there, and happy to look out for one another, and I’ve found that to be the case outside of the parks as well. Don’t let being a lady hold you back; my national park trips have been the greatest choice I have ever made.

      xo
      Chelsea

    • Unfortunately, most parks are not dog-friendly, some parks not allowing dogs on any of the trails. That being said, I am a single woman
      traveling alone and spent 4 months on the road last year with my dog and wouldn’t do it any other way. We hit 27 national parks and
      monuments and the only ones that were really unfriendly to the extent that we left were Bryce and Zion. Lsuckily there was a great state
      park, Kodachrome Basin on the flanks of Bryce where there was no dog issues so we stayed there and viewed Bryce from outside the
      park.

  4. Awesome photos. I did a very similar road trip last year in an RV with my two kids & hubby, we love the National Parks of the US, we are from Australia. My 12 year old participated in the Junior Ranger Program as part of her home schooling for the 6 months on the road. From Joshua to Denali we experienced the most amazing wildlife and wilderness and we have travelled around Oz too. Americans are very friendly and accommodating too!

  5. My boyfriend and I are interested in embarking on a trip almost identical to this. My question is, how much did things cost you? I know gas will be a large portion of the cost, but approximately what could we expect?

    Thank you!

  6. Hi,
    My husband and I are considering doing a long trip like this with our two daughters as part of their schooling experience. We were wondering if you had a map of the course you took and the length of time it took you! It would be great to have some base to work off and build our own adventures into it.
    Thanks for the inspiring article!

  7. The best way to see the world in your own wan and in your own time. Those are beautiful pictures, but you should see the Australian out back. To bad I always wanted to see the Americas but never managed to get there.

  8. Fantastic pictures from a wonderful trip. A friend and I did a 8250 mile National Park trip in July that hit most of the same parks: Rocky Mountain, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon (North Rim), Vermillion Cliffs, Painted Desert/Petrified Forest, Death Valley, Manzinar, Yosemite, John Muir Woods, Craters of the Moon, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Devil’s Tower, Black Hills NF, Jewel Cave Nm, Wind Cave NP, Badlands. We drove a Hyundai Elantra and camped in a big tent, an occasional KOA cabin and a couple of motels, with about seven days visiting friends and not parks. I suspect, by your terrific pictures, that you took a more relaxed time visiting the parks. (We hit three parks in one day in Utah.)

  9. In 1996 I made a cross county trip with my family, my wife and four children in a Chrysler Mini van. We started from New Jersey and went all the to California. Along the way we mostly camped. It took us one full months. In this trip in addition to other places we visited Yellow Stone, Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, Petrified forest and Mount Rushmore all in one trip. The trip also included Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angles, Los Vegas, Hoover Dam. Yes National Parks are very beautiful.

    I also Happened to visit other parks, Acadia, Cascade, Olympia, Mount Rainer, Denali in Alaska. In my humble opinion the most beautiful national Park is Banff National Park in Canada. In Canada I also visited Jasper, Yoho.

  10. Hey,
    This road trip looks incredible, very inspiring! I’ve been looking for a road trip to take and this one looks worth it. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind sending me the course you took just to have a layout. And any tips on what you found useful, good ways to save money, favorite camp sites and ect. Thanks! And you captured these parks beautifully!

  11. I absolutely loved this and I hope one day to do something similer and make my way through the national parks and other great places. I plan for my life to visit every state and ever national park in the US, Its a big goal, but hey I’m only 18 I have a long time to reach it.

  12. I am preparing a trip to the West, a single woman, with a dog. Your trip is similar to my wants. I plan to paint along the route
    I have enjoyed your comments. and would like to learn more.

  13. I just did a National Parks tour in spring/summer and hit up a lot of the same parks as you. The National Parks in the US is one of the best things about this country and I plan on visiting a lot more of them. I just went to Mesa Verde last week and planning on White Sands in New Meixico in a couple of weeks then Arches and Canyonlands next spring

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