This is Part 1 of a two-part story.
My U.S. Road Trip: Two Weeks, 5,000 Miles
A U.S. road trip is, at some point in time, on everyone’s travel bucket list. Few are ever fortunate enough to hit the road. My best friend and I had the first two weeks of June 2018 and a car at our disposal to do it, and knew we wouldn’t get another chance like this again anytime soon. The idea of going west was powerful, so that was the decided objective. Knowing full well that in such a short time we wouldn’t make it across the country and back to our home state of Maryland (at least if we wanted to see anything along the way) we decided that the Rocky Mountains were a good mid-point. Thus we set out to drive almost 5,000 miles of the United States in 14 days. Ambitious?
Originally, we thought we might as well just wing it, driving and sightseeing with no fixed itinerary, camping and motel-ing wherever. On such a tight schedule, however, this proved to be a suboptimal plan. To see cool stuff and not just drive-sleep-drive, 15-20 hours of pre-trip routing was what it took to accomplish what we did in the end. Worth it.
Each day had a few highlighted stops along a carefully mapped route, leaving just enough wiggle room for spur of the moment detours. What we had, essentially, was a robust skeleton. We would drive through parts of West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and eventually, back to Maryland. Five of our 13 nights were to be spent camping. However, this ended up being only four, courtesy of a rock flying off a truck in the Rockies and cracking the windshield. No injuries, thankfully. Upon returning home to Maryland, we agreed that the trip had been the perfect, though somewhat tiring, mix of driving and fun activities and stops. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Day 1 — Bethesda, Maryland to Dolly Sods Wilderness, West Virginia
Dolly Sods, a designated wilderness area part of Monongahela National Forest, is unique. Lying on a plateau over 1,000 meters above sea level, its flora and fauna resembles that of the Rockies or northern Canada. Its ecosystem is unlike any other east of the Mississippi. While winter means heavy snow, summer means heavy rain. And summer in Dolly Sods welcomed us with more than a drizzle. We were just lucky enough to speedily set up the tent between downpours. Originally planning to do a long hike, this made was impossible by the trail turning to river, and flowing. Still, it was fun to be out exploring in the wilderness and pine trees, and we got a good sense of the place.
Day 2 — Dolly Sods to Lexington, Kentucky
One of the things we knew, and were actually looking forward to, going into this trip, was that not every day would bring spectacular, otherworldly sights. The point of the trip was to see America, and that included a lot of not-so-extraordinary things. But every day brought new, different, and unexpected experiences. Driving through West Virginia, via downtown Charleston (the state capital), to Lexington, Kentucky was one such day. We went through recession-hit old coal towns and the like, and only made two stops. The first for breakfast in quaint Buckhannon, the second for tacos in a strip mall in Morehead, KY. That evening we walked around pleasant downtown Lexington, past the old town hall as well as Mary Todd Lincoln’s family home.
Day 3 — Lexington to Land Between the Lakes
This day was significantly more packed than the last. The first stop was the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site, where we saw the first memorial to the 16th president, housing a replica of his boyhood home on the Kentucky frontier. Next was Mammoth Cave National Park, named after the longest cave system in the world (with 400 miles of mapped passageways). We had booked a 1.5 hour Historic tour. It covers about half a mile and some pretty spectacular rooms (can we call them rooms?), and talks about the natural and human history of the cave. After the tour we made a slight detour by driving through, rather than around, the park, which was totally worth it. We even took a ferry across the Green River. We then made it to Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area, where we had a campfire dinner on the water before settling into our sleeping bags for the night.
Day 4 — Land Between the Lakes to Kansas City, Missouri
This was our longest day of driving, almost ten hours, ending in downtown Kansas City. With four planned stops, it was always going to be one of the biggest days of the trip. The highlight was to be driving through and exploring part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways in southern Missouri. After that, we were to hit Laura Ingalls Wilder’s adulthood homestead, followed by Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, near Springfield. (Wilson’s Creek was the first major Civil War battle west of the Mississippi.) The latter two stops never happened, as we got caught up in the beauty of the Ozarks. There, we drove up and down forested rolling hills to a place called the Blue Spring, a 310-foot deep natural spring up a path at the foot of a long dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Safe to say we meandered and photographed and admired longer than planned. After, we went to learn about the history of the Alley Spring mill, and hiked around that natural spring. By then, we knew we’d never make it to our next two stops, but oh well, we had had a superb time. We got in to Kansas City late, tired, and happy with our day.
Day 5 — Kansas City to Dighton, Kansas
This morning we visited the fascinating National World War I Museum and Memorial, then hit the road. We drove through Lawrence, Kansas. In the words of my cousin who toured the university there, you know you’re in Lawrence when you start going up the hill—as in, Kansas’ only hill. Soon after came Topeka, the state capital, where we toured the Brown versus Board of Education National Historical Site, located in a 1950s African-American elementary school, now a museum and eye-opening educational center.
The small town of Abilene, Kansas, was home to Dwight Eisenhower throughout his formative years. We were taken through his humble house, now part of the Eisenhower Presidential Museum and Library. This is the perfect place to learn about one of America’s greatest leaders, and of how he started off with so little. We spent the night right in the middle of the country, amidst the fields, in a hundred-year old hotel in Dighton. Driving through Kansas, seemingly boring at first, gave us a real sense of the vastness of the country, especially after having already driven so far. Twilight on the plains was so grounding, and so smooth, in a way, too.
Day 6 — Dighton to Denver, Colorado
After another quintessential diner breakfast, we clambered over Monument Rocks, big sandstone formations rising above the flat plains. After a few hours heading flatly west, seemingly from nowhere arose on the horizon something we hadn’t seen yet: a mountain. Thus, the mighty Rockies. We made it to Colorado Springs for quite a special lunch. Indeed, we ate at The Airplane Restaurant; the name speaks for itself. It was pretty cool munching on our burgers inside a 1953 Boeing KC-97. The Garden of the Gods is probably the most spectacular public city park in the U.S., and that’s where we headed after lunch, though our visit amongst the gigantic rocks was cut short by quite the rainstorm. And that’s how we got stuck in traffic between there and Denver. Though taking an Interstate at 2,000 meters up was kind of cool. Having finally made it to Denver after another long day of driving, we walked around downtown for a couple hours and took in one of the most livable cities in the U.S., if not the world. The outdoor, healthy vibe is indeed everywhere on display, and after the drive, exploring such a pleasant large city was a lot of fun. The R.E.I. there was also an attraction for us in its own right. Ready for the Rockies the two following days, we turned in as early as we could (like most days, actually).
Day 7 — Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park
Wake-up 5:00 am. Coffee please. Don’t sleep and drive. Worth it? Well, we started the day with a glacier at an elevation of over 3,500 meters, so yes. Saint Mary’s Glacier, little known to the masses of people who stream up I-70 toward Grand Lake and Rocky Mountain National Park beyond, is simply a jewel. We had it all to ourselves that sunny, joyful morning. But chop chop, moving along, we had yet to claim a campsite at Timber Creek campground in the park, which is first-come-first-served. This one is nicer than the others in the park because smaller and more out of the way. Thankfully that worked out, and we could then take our time to explore the mountains in peace. I highly recommend taking this round-about way into the park, rather than through more popular Estes Park. Having stopped at the visitor center to pick up a map (a must, a tradition!) we mounted Trail Ridge Road, which brings you up to 3,700 above sea level to the starkly wonderful alpine tundra, via the park’s two other ecosystems of montane and subalpine.
The experience is just indescribable. We ended up driving Trail Ridge Road about four times in our two days in the park. And we stopped at pretty much every single scenic overlook. Pretty much all four times. And took the obligatory selfie at the Continental Divide sign. We did stop off at various points, like for just-off-the-beaten-path alpine streams. Before heading back to the campsite, we walked around charming Bear Lake (alas, no bears). Though a popular attraction, it was starting to clear out by this time of day. The drive back over Trail Ridge was almost devoid of cars. Everyone who wasn’t actually staying on the west side of the park had left for the day. At the high overlook above the Alpine Visitor Center, we had the views to ourselves. On the way down, we even had some elk come out along the side of the road to enjoy some evening grazing. All concluded, after another campfire dinner, by the wondrous display of stars above.