In mid 2018, Ben and I found ourselves in a very unique position: we had just moved back to Ohio and decided to take 4 months off from life – no work, no school, no worries. We packed up Old Ruby (Ben’s 2003 Corolla), and began a month-long Western US road trip adventure.
From Cleveland, our first stop was Missouri. I do not have much to say about Missouri, as we were just passing through but it was not our favorite. The infrastructure was rough, people were not very friendly, and per our hotel clerk…the “best restaurant in town” was the worst Mexican food Ben and I had ever eaten. Okay, it was only the first day – we chalked it up as a laughable experience and decided we would never live in Missouri. Additionally, I began having terrible cold symptoms. On day two, we decided together that we just wanted to get to Colorado, so we were going to drive the remaining 12 hours in one go. There is not much to see between Missouri and Colorado and I would definitely recommend flying. Kansas alone was six hours of nothing but a single straight road, peppered with cows and windmills.
After a long day of driving, we finally made it to Colorado! We decided to stay in Denver to experience the city and to have easy access to the parks and surrounding areas. We had a room in an airbnb booked, and on arrival, the airbnb looked pretty normal – a cute little brick house with a nice sized driveway and backyard. Once inside, however, we realized that our airbnb was a “green friendly” home and that we were sharing it with some very sketchy individuals. As I mentioned previously, I was developing quite the cold and felt pretty uncomfortable using the shared bathroom with these questionable people. Not to mention, you could see into our bedroom when the door was closed…Ben quickly did some research and found a very nice Choice Hotel for less than what our airbnb cost. We messaged the airbnb property owner and explained that I was sick – and we were refunded our entire charge! We then drove over to our hotel and were greeted by a group of people passing around a bong. They asked where we were from and we said Cleveland. Their response? O-H! So, of course, we promptly responded…I-O! Fellow Clevelanders, cheers! After two full days of driving and some misadventure, we were finally settling in. We found the best ramen (ever) at a restaurant called Uncle. The ramen was SO spicy, it cured my cold!
Over the next several days we explored Denver and much of what it has to offer. We took a drive and did some hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park – the higher elevations really catch up to you, even when you are in shape! Our favorite city in Colorado, one that we would consider relocating to, was Fort Collins. Small, quaint, accessible, and paced a bit slower than Denver – it was perfect. If you are just passing through Fort Collins, stop and get a cup of coffee at Momo Lolo. Everyone always asks, “Did you go to Boulder?!”. We did, and honestly, it was a bit much for us. Because it is a trendy place to go, it is overrun with traffic and crowds. Don’t get me wrong, it is very cute and the scenery is amazing, there is also a ton of shopping (if that is your cup of tea)…it just was not our favorite place in Colorado. One thing that was apparent in and around Denver is that people are FIT. There are sidewalks, hiking trails, and public parks literally everywhere. If you love the outdoors and/or lead an active lifestyle – this might be the place for you.
On the next leg of the Colorado portion of our trip we headed further west through the mountains. It took about four hours to get from Denver to Grand Junction. Along the way we passed places such as Keystone, Breckenridge, and Vail – no skiing in June, though! The landscape was breathtaking, and the tippy tops of the mountains were still speckled with snow. Western CO looks much much different than Eastern CO. Where the east has trees and flowing streams, the west has dusty roads and sparse vegetation – it is like two different worlds. We backpacked in Dominguez Escalante National Conservation Area, BLM land just south of Grand Junction. Camping in the desert is always an adventure, the days are hot and nights get quite cold. But there is absolutely nothing like the night sky in the desert – with no light pollution, you can really appreciate how small we are in the universe and it is incredibly humbling.
For the next part of our trip, we continued on to Utah. Our first stop was Arches National Park which took about two hours to drive to from Dominguez. We were very surprised to see how busy the park was. Traffic was bumper to bumper, and there were almost lines of people hiking out to see the popular arch formations. Due to the crowds, and the heat (reaching 105°F) – we opted to not spend a lot of time at the park. We had full intentions of continuing south to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon for more backpacking. However, temperatures were climbing to dangerous record-breaking levels, and we knew we could not carry as much water as we would need. So, we re-grouped and decided to head north instead, saving our would-be destinations for another trip. Thus, our next stop was Salt Lake City where I had my first taste of In-N-Out, it was pretty good but being from the east…I prefer Shake Shack. We also tried Sushi Burritos – which were very tasty!
While in Salt Lake City, we of course had to check out The Great Salt Lake! I am not sure why I had it in my mind that this lake would be some ethereal place where we would easily float in clear, icy, salt water and be at peace…my expectations could not have been further from reality. For a $15 fee, you enter the park and begin driving several miles to where the “beach” portion of the lake is. You are greeted with the pungent aroma of decay and swarms of flies. Once you reach the parking area, you have to walk a quarter mile across where the lake used to be (but has since dried up), while running from MILLIONS of flies. After you throw your belongings down and quickly strip to jump into the water in order to escape the flies…you realize that the water is warm, murky, and filled with MILLIONS of tiny dead brine shrimp. Lovely. Needless to say, we did not spend much time at the lake. We left feeling dirty and desperately wishing for a shower. While driving around the rest of the park we did catch a glimpse of some buffalo and a family of antelope – which was pretty cool!
After a few days in SLC we headed six hours north, through Idaho, and to our first stop in Montana – Lewis and Clark Caverns. This small state park would be a wonderful family destination; I myself visited as a child and was very excited to go back as an adult with Ben. The park offers a few different tour options based on length, and level of difficulty. We opted for the Classic Cavern tour at $12 per person – it was two hours long and required ducking, waddling, bending, and sliding our way through the cave! The tours do require a moderate degree of physical fitness…to even participate in the tour, you need to be able to hike ¾ of a mile from the ticket booth up the mountain to the mouth of the cave in under 30 minutes (some middle-aged people in our group did not make it in time). If you are interested in history or geology, you would definitely appreciate this informative experience. Because we had not intended on going to Montana, we had not booked any lodging and were stuck at a Howard Johnson in Helena – worst hotel ever! I found a (potentially) blood-stained washcloth under our mattress and I’m pretty sure there was a prostitute in the room next to us. In the future, I would pass on Helena.
The next day, after having the best breakfast of the entire trip at Shellies Country Cafe, we headed for our main interest in Montana, Glacier National Park. We entered the park on the eastern side near St. Mary, and we were not impressed with any of the available camping sites so we decided to try the western side of the park instead. We set off down Going-to-the-Sun road and were met with a dead-end due to an avalanche that had not been cleared or melted away yet (in June). Bummer. We headed back and started the three hour detour around the park. We arrived to West Glacier and finally checked into the park. While a bit more busy, this side had much better developed camping options available. We stayed in the Apgar campground and had a large private site to ourselves that was surrounded by lush greenery and wildlife. At one point, we had a deer walk right through our campsite while we were eating! Also, what a drastic change in climate…from a dry 105°F to a chilly and humid 28°F degrees on our first morning in Glacier – yes, it was snowing! We explored Lake McDonald, with its shores of multi-colored colored pebbles. We also tried a variety of different huckleberry items – a park staple.
My favorite hike on the entire trip was the hike where Ben proposed halfway through the trek. From our campsite, we drove an hour and a half north in the park down narrow dirt roads, dodging potholes, and really putting Old Ruby through the ringer. The micro town of Pole Bridge was adorable, and a nice little pit-stop on our way to the northernmost portions of the park. The trailhead started at the developed end of Bowman Lake, and followed the shoreline through the base of the surrounding mountains. Ben was determined to get to the primitive campsites at the other end of the lake, 7 miles from where we started. Once we reached the opposite end of the lake, he got down on one knee and we made it official. After soaking in the moment and snapping some photos, we realized it was getting late in the day and we didn’t want to be out in bear country at night so we essentially jogged 7 miles back to the car. I bet your significant other didn’t make you trudge 14 miles round-trip, in 5 hours, through bear country for a ring haha! But it was an absolutely beautiful day complemented by the unmatched clarity of the lake water and the majesty of the mountains. We are looking forward to returning one day and camping where he popped the question!
After our Glacier adventures, we drove back south and stopped in Yellowstone National Park. We had a dinner of bison burger, elk ravioli, and poutine at Bullwinkles and saw none other than Guy Fieri! Though we were tempted to approach him and ask for a photo, we could tell he was trying to go unnoticed with his family so we just admired from afar. Yellowstone is one of the most popular national parks in the US so we were lucky that there were still a few campsites open on short notice. If you plan on visiting this park, plan in advance to get a good site. Our site was at the bottom of a hill, which did not bode well for us once the rain started, and had zero privacy. Luckily, we did not spend much time at the campsite because we were off seeing all of the different geothermal features the park has to offer! We saw Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs, and all of the geothermal basins in between. We also spotted a black bear, two grizzly bears, numerous elk, and several herds of buffalo! Unfortunately, the park is much more developed than I remember from way back in 1999, and there is a surplus of tourists from Asia – I’m talking running past you with their cameras to take photos, bumping into you, and being generally unpleasant. Overall, I would say visit Yellowstone if you never have before – it is beautiful even with the increased tourism. But do not be the person who does not follow rules about staying on designated walkways and maintaining a safe distance from wildlife!
By this point in our trip we were starting to get weary from being on the road, but we wanted to squeeze in one more stop. Heading back east we opted for South Dakota – we intended on seeing the Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore. However, we cut our trip short after a jerk park ranger accused us of being drug runners. We had hoped to see Mt. Rushmore at night time, and encountered an issue finding our park pass so we pulled over to look for it. The park ranger pulled in behind us and approached us with his hand on his gun, asking if we were having car trouble. We said no and explained the situation. After accusing us of running drugs…he made us take all of our belongings out of the car, threatened to bring a drug dog out unless we confessed, and made us stand in the rain while he ran our information. After about 20 minutes of standing in the rain at night, he let us go and told us that where we pulled over was employee parking only and not to do it again. Ben and I were both shocked and confused, we were shaking with anger, all of our gear was soaked, and so decided that this was a sign to end our trip. We spent one night in South Dakota and headed back to Cleveland the next day with a stop in Wisconsin just to sleep.
While there were some not so great events during this trip, there were countless wonderful memories made. It is still the one trip that Ben and I always talk about and reminisce over. If you ever get the chance to take an extended period of time off work, do it. If you ever get the chance to road trip in the western US, do it. We went into the trip with a plan and fate foiled it…but it ended up being a trip neither of us would ever forget!