How We Took the Ultimate US National Park Road Trip

We recently completed an interview, summarizing our favorite parks, challenges we faced, what worked well and our final thoughts from our Trekking the Planet National Parks Roadtrip Adventure.

If you missed any of our stories from the parks, you can click on any of the map icons below to read more.


 

National Park Roadtrip Overview

Interviewer: Thanks for joining us today. Tell us about your recent journey.

Darren: We have just returned from a 4 1/2 month trip that we called Trekking the Planet NPS. The purpose of our journey was to visit 27 of the United States’ national parks. Most people are aware of the iconic parks of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. These are just three of the 59 national parks found throughout the country.

Our goal in visiting the national parks, similar to our other journeys, was to focus on the cultural and natural significance of the places that we saw. So we visited many of the more obscure and lesser known parks.

Interviewer: So how were these lesser visited parks? Did you find them to be just as beautiful as the more popular ones?

Sandy: We visited ten national parks in the bottom third of yearly visitation. Not to say we didn’t go to some of the more popular parks, like Great Smoky Mountains and Acadia, but our focus was really on highlighting those other places. And they were incredibly beautiful. For example, we backpacked for four days in Isle Royale National Park. We had great views of Lake Superior while we trekked through vivid green forests, and we even saw a moose from our campsite. Isle Royale is the least visited national park in the lower 48 states.

Isle Royale National Park
Moose sighted from our campsite at Isle Royale National Park

Darren: We didn’t take for granted that many of the parks we visited just didn’t have the crowds, say of a Yosemite or Yellowstone. Especially since we did a lot of hiking and some backpacking; we came across very few people on the trails.
 

Highlighting Our Favorite Parks

Interviewer: I’m sure you won’t be surprised by this next question: what were your favorite parks?

Sandy: We were asked that many times during our journey. And it’s hard, because the parks are so different, and I truly enjoyed them all. But if I have to name three, I’d say Canyonlands, Carlsbad Caverns, and Pinnacles.

The hiking at Canyonlands in Utah was just outstanding. It was also very challenging, especially in the Needles section of the park. But the stark beauty of the rocks and the vistas into rivers and canyons was breathtaking.

Canyonlands National Park
Darren hiking in the Needles District, Canyonlands National Park

 

 
Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico was like Disneyland for me – the cave was just magical inside, and the fact that you can go around on your own, exploring at your own pace, was just great. We did take one tour, which was a great complement to what we saw. And walking in through the natural entrance was mind boggling, as you go down, down, down to 750 feet. At the end of our visit, we even climbed back out through the entrance – a great workout.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Walking through the Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

 

 
Finally, California’s Pinnacles, our newest national park, was a big surprise. Our hiking took us to a couple of small talus caves that were fun to scramble through with a headlamp. The High Peaks section, with towering volcanic rocks, had views that just got better around every corner. And we saw very few people on the trails.

Pinnacles National Park
High Peaks view from the Tunnel Trail, Pinnacles National Park

 

 
Darren: My favorite parks were, first, Guadalupe Mountains in Texas. This was a surprise for me, as all the hiking took us up into the mountains (hence the name). My favorite hikes were the scenic McKittrick Canyon, where we continued to climb to The Notch, and our trek to the “Top of Texas,” Guadalupe Peak (8,751 feet). Very scenic but difficult hiking.

At the top of Guadalupe Peak, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

 

 
Another favorite of mine was Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. We took a water taxi, hiked two miles, and paddled another two miles to a campsite on War Club Lake. It was remote. In fact, so remote that we saw no one for two days. In the meantime we had our own lake to explore with the canoe, and we even portaged it to the next lake over to paddle there. We were definitely off the grid.

Voyageurs National Park
Portaging the canoe, Voyageurs National Park

 

 
Lastly, I just loved Isle Royale in Michigan. Again, it was an isolated place. After riding a ferry for five hours, we were dropped off on the north side of the island. We backpacked 30 miles in four days to the west side of the island. During that time we saw maybe four people each day. It was challenging because there were a ton of mosquitoes and it rained about half of the time. In addition, I had forgotten our stove, so we needed to make friends every night so that we could borrow their stove and cook a hot dinner.

Isle Royale National Park
Hiking vista, Isle Royale National Park

 

 

Challenges Faced While on the Road

Interviewer: Those parks all sound great. Darren, you’ve led me into my next question: what challenges did the two of you face on this journey?

Darren: Definitely not having a stove on Isle Royale was one. We haven’t talked about how we drove our Toyota 4Runner 4×4 SUV on this trip. During our journey, we drove 17,200 miles and went through 34 states. Before we left, I built a platform in the back of our 4Runner so that we could sleep there most nights and also have storage underneath.

Joshua Tree National Park
Our Toyota 4Runner parked at a campsite, Joshua Tree National Park

Pinnacles National Park
Back of our 4Runner showing the platform and storage space, Pinnacles National Park

 

 
We slept in our car a total of 74 nights in all kinds of weather. One problem we had was that it was hot from the time we left in mid-March until we arrived home at the end of July. The entire time we maybe had two weeks of cool weather. So it was hard to sleep in the car because it didn’t cool down easily.

We had some screens we could put on the passenger windows to give us some air and keep bugs out. They attached to the car with magnets. The screens worked well until we arrived in Florida. At Everglades National Park, the mosquitoes were crazy. They attacked 24/7.

That night, Sandy decided to set up our tent at the Flamingo Campground and sleep next to the car. She thought that the mosquitoes might get in the car, and that she could control them better in the tent. And they did get in the car under the screen magnets. I was miserable and spent hours trying to kill them all. And I couldn’t roll the windows up because it was still so hot outside.

Finally, at 2:00 am I gave up. I left the car and ran into the tent, bringing a bunch of mosquitoes in with me. It took us over a half hour to kill them all in the tent. But at least we could both sleep. In the morning we finished our time in the park and then booked a hotel for a couple of nights. I engineered the screens to attach using Velcro, which helped going forward.

Passenger car window with screen and Velcro

Sandy: We did continue to have mosquito issues, even on Cape Cod in early June, which they told us was unusual. It made it difficult to sit outside at campsites, so we spent a fair amount of time sitting in the front seats of our 4Runner to eat dinner or pass the time. As Darren said, it was hot most of the time. We also camped in some windy conditions and through some crazy rain storms (especially one at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota).

But we were still happy to be sleeping in the car, rather than a tent. When we were out in the elements, like when we backpacked in Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, we sprayed our clothes with permethrin beforehand. It made a huge difference in the number of mosquitoes that we had to contend with, because they were pretty bad there and at Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota.

Some the hikes were a little crazy, so that was challenging, especially for me. I slid down steep trails on my bottom more times than I’d like to admit. But my PCT experiences helped and, I was amazed at what I did.

Canyonlands National Park
Sliding down the Confluence Overlook Trail, Canyonlands National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Sliding down to a stream crossing on the Jones Creek Trail, Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 

Our Toyota 4Runner’s Modifications and Gear Recommendations

Interviewer: That’s a lot of things to overcome, especially with the mosquitoes. Tell me more about your vehicle. How did it work out overall?

Darren: It was great. I think it worked out better than we thought. In all the time we were gone and with all the miles we drove, we did not have an issue with the 4Runner. Not to say that we didn’t do anything with the car – we got the oil changed three times while we were on the road.

The sleeping platform worked well. It didn’t cost much to build and it was solid. Sandy found a 4-inch mattress that was very comfortable. It was a full size, but we had plenty of room. We had sheets, a blanket, and even our own pillows from home.

Joshua Tree National Park
Sandy lying on the mattress admiring the view, Joshua Tree National Park

The platform was high enough to slide plastic containers underneath for storage of food and gear. We also had our backpacks, sleeping bags, and inflatable mattresses stored there. So it was easy to switch into backpacking mode for those 14 nights we went into the backcountry during our journey. We got the hang of climbing in and out of the car and could sit about 3/4 of the way up on the platform. So overall, it worked out wonderfully, except for things outside our control, like weather and bugs. And with the four-wheel drive we got to go off road in several of the parks. Lastly, we got about 23 miles to the gallon, so I can’t complain about that!

Big Bend National Park
Driving on a four-wheel drive road, Big Bend National Park

Interviewer: Did you have any challenges packing for this trip because you had limited space in your car?

Sandy: We spent a lot of time before we left working on our packing list for this trip. Since we wanted to backpack, we brought items that would work for both car camping and backpacking to save space. We used a Jetboil for our stove. It has an attachment that allows you to put a pot or pan on top of it, so we could cook with real food at the campsite. We even made pancakes in a pan on the stove quite often for breakfast. When we backpacked we just brought the Jetboil container and fuel to cook dehydrated meals.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Sandy cooking pancakes at our campsite, Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Petrified Forest National Park
Darren cooking dinner while backpacking, Petrified Forest National Park

We didn’t have an ice chest but a Koolatron that used the car’s cigarette lighter to get its power while we drove. It’s really more of a cool box than an ice box. So we generally used it for cheese, some produce, and beer. If we were going to be driving all day for several days in a row, we would chill meat and mayonnaise in it. But it worked out well, and we saved money and time on purchasing ice every few days.

Our meals were pretty simple – a pasta, rice, or couscous base, some vegetables, sauce, and canned meat for dinner. We had cereal, oatmeal, the occasional pancakes, or eggs and bacon for breakfast, and peanut butter or meat sandwiches and fruit for lunch.

Because it was so hot most of the time that we hiked, we made sure we carried plenty of water. That meant we needed a day pack, and we both used Ultimate Direction Hydration Packs. The pack holds a water bladder, food, and a jacket with ease and it doesn’t feel heavy on your back. Another nice thing about the pack is that there is a women’s version that has more specific shoulder harness and torso dimensions.

Shenandoah National Park
Darren hiking with his hydration pack, Shenandoah National Park

As far as hiking goes, we brought bars to eat at breaks and a lunch if it was an all-day trek. There were a handful of days that we hiked over 10 miles. We used Gatorade for our sports drink, but switched over to Skratch for the final month or so, when we were hiking in 90 to 100 degree F temperatures. Gatorade is sometimes too sweet for us, and the Skratch has a more mellow taste. We find it really makes a difference on hot days to have some supplement to water while hiking.
 

Our Hiking and Backpacking Experiences in the Parks

Interviewer: Speaking of hiking, how many miles did you cover in the parks you visited?

Sandy: In all, we hiked 402 miles in the 27 national parks. We made sure to hike at least a mile in every park, including Dry Tortugas in Florida, which is an island located 70 miles off the coast of Key West. The most hiking was in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 46.6 miles overall. And we are big believers in getting outside on the trail to really see the parks. We were at Arches National Park during Spring Break and it was crowded in the parking lots. But as soon as we hiked on a trail for 15 or 20 minutes, the crowds just disappeared.

There’s nothing better than taking a break while hiking and enjoying the view. Many times we would do this, and then close our eyes to just listen to what was happening around us – it could be bird calls, the wind, or water from a stream or a lake. Those times we backpacked were very special to us as we were really off the grid and could connect with our surroundings. That was even the case when we got caught in a snowstorm while in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Petrified Forest National Park
Tent, Petrified Forest National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Tent, Great Sand Dunes National Park
Voyageurs National Park
Tent, Voyageurs National Park
Badlands National Park
Tent, Badlands National Park

We also tried to take our time in each park, spending several days in the majority of them. For example, we spent five nights in Guadalupe National Park, six nights in Big Bend National Park, and six nights in Great Smoky National Park.
 

National Parks Roadtrip Final Thoughts

Interviewer: That’s great. Well, we are going to have to wrap this up. Do either one of you have any final comments about your journey?

Darren: Yes. With the 27 parks we visited on this trip, Sandy and I have now been to all the national parks in the lower 48 states (47 total). We have been to a few of the others, totaling 51 of the 59 overall. And we have traveled to over 70 countries around the world. I just want to say that the United States’ national parks are so special and unique. There’s really nothing like them in the entire world.

We have been to some fine national parks in other countries, but the sheer number and diversity of what we have here should not be taken for granted. And they are a great deal. At the first park we visited, we bought an $80.00 annual pass and used it for all our entrance fees in the national parks and the national monuments that followed.

We are so happy that we took this trip, and that we could highlight the lesser known and visited parks to the folks following us. Hopefully we have sparked some interest in these places for others to visit in the future.
 


 
TTP NPS Adventure
The 27 U.S. national parks we visited on this journey

Interviewer: Thanks so much, Darren and Sandy, for taking the time to share this trip with us. Any future plans you want to share?

Sandy: Not at the moment. But anyone who has been following us wouldn’t be surprised to know that we are already talking about possibilities for our next adventure, so stay tuned!

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