One of my dreams had always been to do a cross-country road trip. This almost came to fruition about six years ago when my brother and I seriously considered spending two weeks to do it. But that didn’t happen. Then when I landed a new job in San Francisco and had one month of funemployment, I knew this was it. I shipped all my belongings over, rented a 2014 Kia Forte, and embarked on the cross-country journey.
Two buddies graciously offered their time and sanity to join me on the road trip. We left Arlington, Virginia in the wee hours of March 31. It had rained overnight and as we drove west through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, the rain only got harder and more persistent. The road conditions were not great, but after about seven hours we made it to Columbus, Ohio for lunch. Schmidt’s Sausage Haus was highly rated online, especially their Autobahn buffet, so we feasted on German sausages and side dishes. It was good and had a lot of variety – different styles of sausages and a mix of non-meat options – and well worth the $20. After our late lunch, we pushed through Indiana and reached our first stop – St. Louis, Missouri – at about 8:00 pm! We ate dinner at El Burro Loco in Central West End with a friend who’s studying at Wash U. The food there was amazing and very well made, and the atmosphere felt like you’re in Mexico with live music and sombrero hats.
We explored St. Louis for the next day, beginning with sunrise at the Gateway Arch. St. Louis used to be the largest western city by population, and people would come here first before continuing to California, hence the name of the arch. It is also the largest freestanding arch in the world.
One of the most unique attractions about St. Louis is the City Museum. Think of it as a giant adult playground. The creator took scrap metal from different areas and made this giant playground, or “museum.” We went on a slide that continued for more than five seconds and climbed on a bunch of outdoor structures that were suspended ten stories in the air. It was actually frightening because so many people were on it, and with the wind the structures actually shook. Definitely an experience and would recommend it.
St. Louis is known for its BBQ, so we got lunch at Pappy’s Smokehouse. The ribs fell right off the bones and the sauce was perfect (Although we did have better BBQ in Kansas City for dinner). For dessert, we got milkshakes from Crown Candy. The strawberry milkshake was awesome but too thick, especially right after a heavy BBQ lunch. We then checked out Art Hill, which wasn’t too special since we weren’t picnicking or sitting to read a book. Overall St. Louis was aneat city and had some well kept mansions. It was pretty quiet but I liked the different pockets of neighborhoods, but according to our friend it’s not the safest city to be in.
One of the four main types of BBQ is Kansas City BBQ, so we were kind of obliged to stop in Kansas City for Joe’s Kansas City BBQ. The ribs on this one were even more tender and the sauce was better than lunch. Fun fact, there is a Kansas City in both Missouri and Kansas. Also, Kansas was the worse state to drive through since it was five hours of flat fields – toughest leg of the whole trip.
Today was a Denver day. We arrived in the morning and walked around 16th Street Mall. Most attractions are along 16th Street and we managed to see everything by lunchtime. We saw the Capitol and Civic Center on one end, both with beautiful architecture and a nice park in between, and walked back down 16th Street. Denver’s downtown was smaller than I thought so it was very accessible, but 16th Street wasn’t too exciting since it was essentially an outdoor mall.
We met up with another friend at Sloan Lake just a couple of miles outside of Downtown. It’s great how you can drive a few minutes and be away from the city and be immersed in nature. And everywhere I looked I saw the Rockies snowcaps in the distance. I loved that about Denver and how Denver is so accessible to all the nature spots.
After Sloan Lake, we checked out Denver Central Market and Larimier Street. The market was in a nice tucked-away neighborhood but food options were limited. Outside the market though, were a bunch of murals and well painted street grafitti. For dinner, we had poke at Avanti, which was like a food court, and caught the sunset from the balcony.
The next day was supposed to be spent in Denver, but since we saw everything, we took the advice of a friend and climbed St. Mary’s Glacier just outside of Denver. Litte did we know, it was 20 degrees in the mountains and snowing. We were way underdressed in sweats and sneakers. Before even getting to the trailhead, we were out of breath because of the 11,000 ft altitude. The altitude’s no joke. Despite that, we trailblazed through the snow, literally because there was no visible trail, and reached the glacier 3/4 miles later. It was beautiful. Everything was white except for the few pine trees and the mountains in the background. We were so grateful to have made it, but didn’t stay long because the cold and wind were brutal.
After warming up and driving three hours further, temperatures rose to the 60s and we began our hike to Hanging Lake. The hike was a pretty steep incline but at least it was warm, and the views were fantastic. Along the hike we saw the canyons and mountainsides and passed by streams and snowbanks. It’s called Hanging Lake because waterfalls feed into the lake, and then the lake funnels to streams that flow down the mountain. The views of the lake and of the mountains felt very surreal and like what you’d see when you Google Colorado. This state was my favorite and in my opinion was the most beautiful.
The drive through Colorado and most of Utah was beautiful. The landscape changed from the Rockies to canyons to desert, and the canyons had all shades of colors. When we stopped on the side, we saw rabbits and cacti growing.
The next day was spent in Arches National Park. It was a quick drive from Moab, Utah and first thing we saw was Balanced Rock, which was a rock that’s bigger on top than on the bottom. In the morning we hiked Devil’s Garden Trail and it ended up being more difficult than intended because we got lost. It was like 7 miles. Along the trail, we saw Landscape Arch, which is the longest and most fragile arch in the world. We also passed by Double O Arch and our turnaround point was Black Angel. The arches were impressive, but the views of the canyons were even better because they were so grand and stretch for miles! It was hard to fathom the size and we kept stopping to admire the beauty.
We took a lunch break by Double Arch (different than Double O), Window Arch, and Turret Arch. These were less impressive but was a much easier hike.
In the afternoon, we hiked to Delicate Arch, a 3-mile easy hike. This arch is on Utah’s license plate and is so unique because it is freestanding. Most arches are created when a hole forms in the rockwall, and as it erodes it becomes an arch. Delicate Arch stands alone at the top of a crater and we cautiously climbed to take photos with the arch. The view outwards from underneath the arch was phenomenal. It was canyons and several arches that stretched out into the horizon. Overall, I thought Arches was beautiful and impressive, especially because some of these arches will likely collapse in the next couple of decades.
The next day, we woke up at 4 am to catch the sunrise at Canyonlands National Park, specifically at Mesa Arch. We arrived an hour before sunrise and there were already at least 15 photographers. When the sun did come up it was amazing and well worth it. It rose underneath the arch and the lighting was perfect. I met this older guy next to me who taught me how to produce sun stars, so cool!
After sunrise, we drove around that section of the park to the Grand View Point Overlook, Upheaval Dome, and Island in the Sky. The views are all majestic with giant canyons, and it made us realize how tiny humans are compared to nature. Canyonlands is also giant that it’s split into four sections and we only visited one section.
We arrived at Page at night, and per the advice of a local bartender, we drove further out to get some night shots. It was amazing how much you can see without any light pollution.
First thing we did this morning was the Antelope Canyon tour to Upper Canyon. The canyon itself was actually pretty small and packed with tourists. We walked through the canyon floor and saw the shapes, contours, and colors of the canyon walls. Spoiler alert – the canyons aren’t as colorful as they look in photos. Even our tour guide taught us how to apply iPhone filters. But experiencing it in person, we were able to take in the depth and size of the canyon. During monsoon season, flash floods would come through the canyon and people would have 30 minutes to evacuate the canyon. Kind of crazy.
Afterwards, we went to Horseshoe Bend just a quick drive away. It’s huge. The canyon was really deep and the bend in the Colorado River was amazing. We were literally crawling to the edge to look down and guessing if the ledge we’re on was suspending over the canyon or not. From various angles, the bend and the shape of the rock look sightly different. It was impressive and a little scary how there were no railings at all.
Overall, Antelope and Horseshoe Bend were smaller attractions but still very eye opening. Just being phsyically in Antelope and experiencing it, or lookin at Horseshoe in front of you is just so much better than looking at a computer screen. You realize how big it is and how crazy these things were formed. Note the funky time zone differences in Arizona because some parts follow Daylight Savings whie others don’t.
We spent the night in Las Vegas because of the cheap hotel, but didn’t really club, gamble, or do any of the Vegas stuff.
Next day, we spent the first half in Death Valley National Park. We saw the lowest point in the western hemisphere at Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level. The valley floor is a salt basin and was actually a little damp when I touched it, but it only gets 2 inches of rain per year. The air felt heavier and very stuffy, the opposite of what Denver felt like. Nearby, we saw Devil’s Golf Course which was dried rocks and salt that look like golf balls. Then we stopped by Artist’s Palette to see the different colors along the valley walls, but it was surprisingly and extremely windy in the valley so we didn’t stay long. Lastly, we hiked Golden Canyon. By this time, the sun had risen and it was HOT. It was 100 degrees and the 2-mile hike was brutal. From the top, we saw valleys and everything looked brown and tan. There were nothing around us besides for rocks and desert. On our drive out of the park, we passed by Mesquite Sand Dunes which was literally desert that stretched forever. We also drove through a sandstorm and for 50 miles did not see a town, so that was slightly terrifying.
Overall, Death Valley wasn’t super enjoyable because of the heat and I thought the ony cool part was Badwater Basin. It’s hard to stay in the park too long because by noon the heat becomes unbearable, and this was during the springtime too!
The whole trip took 9 days, we crossed 13 states, and added 3773 miles to the car. The drive was very manageable with three people and I felt like we weren’t rushed. I enjoyed the national parks and nature over cities, all of which exceeded my expectations and wowed me. I’ve been researching them for years and it was awesome to see all the attractions in person. My favorites are St. Mary’s Glacier because of the effort it took to get there, and Hanging Lake because the view was unreal. Least favorite is Death Valley – it was just too hot and bland. If I were asked to do a road trip again, I will likely agree if it’s a route with attractions I haven’t seen before. It was fun having a rough plan, and winging it along the way and scrambling to find hotels at each town.
Super grateful for Luis and Scott to take 9 days out of school and work to drive cross country with me. It would’ve sucked big time driving myself.