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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.