Have you ever wanted to drive from one side of the United States to the other? Stopping in every state to see what they are famous for or just to try the food and talk to the locals? When I was in college working on my bachelors degree, myself and a couple of girls that I was in school with decided when our semester was over in the spring we would drive across country…just because we could. We were all in different programs; Anthropology, Geology, and Paleontology but we were in the same division and all of us loved camping and National Parks so this was our goal…hit every National Park we could from one side of the States to the other in a three week long trip. So since I was the planner I wrote up an itinerary, map, highlighted the Atlas, (this was before everyone had cell phones or GPS) figured up the cost of gas for every state, cost of camping at each National Park, rough estimate of food etc. Gas at this time was $1.89 if that gives you an idea of when this was.
Well about a week before we were to leave, the Geologist backed out on us and threw my calculations for the trip off. Not being one to give up on what was sure to be a fantastic trip, I decided to compromise and accept the offer from my friend to bring along her ‘on again, off again’ boyfriends’ brother whom I had never met or knew anything about. I regretted that decision almost immediately! I thought this guy would be a ‘replacement’ for our friend that couldn’t make it and pay his share just like our friend had planned, but no this guy never paid for anything, no gas, no food, no camping fees or park fees-nothing! And as I would find out later in our trip, all his money was going to marijuana that he was buying off random people as we drove across the county.
So away we went into the unknown of our country. Our first stop was The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is the #1 visited National Park. This park borders Tennessee and North Carolina and is abundant with diverse wildlife, flora and fauna. There are many places to hike, bike, ride horses, swim, ski, camp and more. The Appalachian Trail runs for 71 miles through the park as well. There are several small towns in the area on both the Tennessee and North Carolina side of the mountain. There you will find hotels, cabins, chalets, restaurants, crafts and art work and plenty of things to do in all of these towns. On the Tennessee side Gatlinburg is right in the middle of everything, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, Wears Valley, Pittman Center, and Townsend. On the North Carolina side you have Cherokee, Bryson City, and Waynesville.
Cherokee is actually a Cherokee Indian reservation that is definitely worth visiting if you’re in the area. They have a wonderful cultural heritage museum, several plays they do throughout the year, a native village where they demonstrate how the Cherokee used to live and a pretty famous casino in the area called Harrah’s. Check out the sites below for more information on The Great Smoky Mountains National park, the local towns, and all the things to do here. Well worth the visit.
Our next stop was Buffalo National Wild and Scenic River in Arkansas. This is America’s first national river and is one of the few rivers that has not been dammed up. There are many fun outdoor activities in this park, canoeing, kayaking, camping, hiking, horseback riding, and historical homesteads. If you don’t have your own canoe or kayak you can always rent them here. The Buffalo River has 151 miles of freely flowing access for a very enjoyable ride. There are good whitewater areas as well as slow riding areas of the river so assess your abilities before getting on the river and make sure you get the right maps and information for your skill level to ride on the river.
No permits are required at this time to get on the river like many others, however be sure to check out their website below first to see any updated information. You are also allowed to do back country camping along the river as well. Check out the parks Preventative Search and Rescue page for information on back country camping and a list of what to bring.
There is also a lot of history and culture in this area. The Buffalo River runs through the Ozark region which has a very long human history going back to the Paleoindians 10,000 years ago. If you really want to learn more about the history and culture here, rangers do free interpretive hikes from Memorial Day to Labor Day to educate visitors on the region.
Be sure to bring a camera along with you if you have one. Smartphones these days take great pictures but they still can’t compare to an actual camera. There are so many beautiful areas to take pictures so don’t miss any opportunities. The Buffalo National River is also home to at least fifty-nine different species of fish. Twelve of these species are considered game fish and it’s a favorite spot for those looking for Smallmouth Bass, Rainbow and Brown Trout. Check out all state license information on their website. Anyone 16 and older must get a license.
The park encompasses over 95,000 acres that surround the Buffalo River area and 75 miles are designated equestrian trails. If you plan on bringing your own horses, be aware that this state does require proof of a negative Equine Infectious Anemia Test ( otherwise known as a Coggins Test) upon entering the park. You can also read about all rules and regulations concerning horses on their Preventative Search and Rescue page to make sure you are prepared.
Our next stop was Oklahoma City National Memorial. Depending on how old you are you may or may not remember what happened here on April 19, 1995.
The deadliest domestic terrorist attack happened here on that date and remains today the worst in American History. A former military veteran of the Gulf War became disillusioned with the military and the government due to the incidents that occurred at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993. He conspired with three other people to carry out his terror attack killing at least 168 people and injuring over 680 more. One terrorist would be put to death by lethal injection in 2001, one sentenced to life in prison, one to twelve years, and one would receive immunity for their testimony.
At the time when we visited this memorial, I had never been to such a tragic site before and the silence there was deafening. It was the calmest and saddest place all at once, until that is 9/11 in 2001. I would visit that memorial years later and have that same feeling.
I think it’s important to remember our history good and bad to hopefully help us prevent issues and threats for the future. It seems today people forget so easily the tragedies that occur and there appears to be an escalation in those tragedies.
Cibola National Forest in New Mexico was our next stop. This is a 1,633,783 acre forested area that stretches from New Mexico, through Texas and parts of Oklahoma. The word Cibola is said to be from the Zuni Indians meaning tribal lands. There are many activities within the National Forest including hiking, camping, skiing, mountain biking, wildlife viewing, and backpacking. There is a tramway here as well that takes visitors to the top of Sandia Peak to a restaurant and the ski slopes.
The park includes four ranger districts; Mt. Taylor, Mountainair, Sandia, and Magdalena, four wilderness areas; Apache Kid, Withington, Sandia Mountain, and Manzano Mountain and four National Grasslands; Kiowa, Rita Blanca, Black Kettle, and McClellan Creek. Be sure to check their website below before you plan your trip for fees and permits.
Next stop, Petrified Forest National Park. This place was very fascinating and surprising. When you come up on the park you may not think there is much here and decide to just drive on to the next big thing but trust me this place is worth stopping for and going for a hike. It was absolutely beautiful the different colors in the sand and rocks made for some fantastic pictures. There are many different hikes to take throughout the park, there is a list of those on the website below. The Petrified wood here dates back to between 211-218 million years.
We were there in early May and I would advise if going during that time frame, to have plenty of water and sunscreen when hiking. There is also a museum there that shows the many fossils that have been found in the region. If you love history, geology, paleontology, climatology or any other related field you will love this park. Most of the hikes are under 4 miles and fairly easy at that. If you want to see the Hoodoos Tower at the Devil’s Playground you will need to get a permit at the Painted Desert Visitor’s Center. These permits are few per week so try to hit up the VC early because it is first come first serve. They will give you instructions on how to get to the Devil’s Playground at the visitors center.
This is one of the more eroded parts of the park hence the need for permits to limit the amount of people treading here. It looks like an alien planet and you will not want to miss out viewing it for yourself. Also the actual petrified trees there are a really beautiful rainbow kind of color. I knew what petrified wood was before going to this park however, when you are standing there looking at it, touching it and knowing it used to be a tree but now has been transformed into rock, it kind of blows your mind just how mesmerizing mother nature can be.
I was also doing some research on this trip so I arranged to get soil samples at each of the National Parks to bring back to University. Be sure to call ahead to arrange for this type of research in the park you are planning on visiting as taking anything from parks without permission is illegal otherwise. So on to our next destination which is actually part of the Petrified Forest, The Painted Desert. Or rather the reverse is true, the Petrified Forest is within the larger region called The Painted Desert. This area is a desert badland that runs from the east end of The Grand Canyon to the Petrified Forest.
The rocky badlands in the Painted Desert area encompasses 93,500 acres and part of it does run through the Navajo Nation. The area definitely proves the volatility of the Earth over millions of years with volcanic activity, earthquakes, floods, and even sun exposure that have created this magnificent area of geologic formations.
Both the Navajo and Hopi Indians have lived in this regions for hundreds of years, however it was the Spanish Colonists in the region that gave it the name we still use today; El Desierto Pintado. There are also some beautiful displays of ancient Native American rock carvings or paintings on the rocks so pay close attention to these areas and see if you can spot them.
There are many options for places to stay in the area. Camping being the preferred by many travelers that really want to experience The Painted Desert at sunset and at night. This is when the beautiful colors come to life right at sunset for the best pictures and the stars at night here are unbelievably clear and crisp so camping should be your first choice, however if camping is not your thing there are plenty of other options around that I have listed below. Find what suits you best. Flagstaff is the closest largest town that has anything you will need but there are some smaller towns nearby that can function for your needs as well.
Our next stop was a little off the beaten path and seamed like we were aimlessly driving through the desert for awhile but it was so worth it and served as a prelude to Arizona’s pride and joy The Grand Canyon. Our destination was
Canyon de Chelly National Monument which is entirely within the Navajo Nation Tribal Lands. Families live within the canyon so please be respectful of their space and remember this is their home not just a tourist attraction.
There is a beautiful contrast when standing at the top of the canyon before you descend to the bottom. The reddish brown cliffs artfully eroded from the river below and the green trees that grow so lushly along the river banks. If you look closely you will also see some of the native residents tending to their goats along the river banks as well. There are also ancient ruins along the cliffs as you get to the bottom of the canyon floor you can get a real good look at those and just how amazing the Navajo ancestors were at building these homes within the cliffs.
These cliff dwellings are approximately dated between 1250 C.E.-1300 C.E. and are some of the best preserved ones in Arizona. You will also find some great artwork here that the Navajo make themselves, paintings, jewelry, and my favorite the sand art paintings. I bought several of these from a Navajo local that I treasure most from my tour of the western part of the United States. Speaking of the locals, we were on the rim at night overlooking the canyon waiting for sunset when a local approached us talking about artwork that he does and wanted to know if we would like to see what he had back at his place. So the three of us took a small hike with him back to his house. Once I got a look at his place it was really more of a one room mud hut type of place.
There was a really old native man sitting outside who by the way never spoke a word as he followed us inside the mud hut. There in the middle of the floor was an old wood burning stove, a bed, a table & yes lots of artwork that this younger native had drawn. He offered us to smoke with him and I’m guessing his father in this peace pipe type of instrument.
My two companions gladly participated but I have always had an aversion to smoking, whatever the substance was I was not a smoker. From the smell it was definitely not average ol’ tobacco though. Then he offered us a drink from a bottle that he said they make themselves, a type of alcohol. Now normally I would have participated in this type of friendly gesture but again I declined as I was thinking of all kinds of possibilities at this point and I thought to myself; someone needs to remain sober to get us out of here if something goes wrong. Before leaving though I did buy some of his artwork that I thought was very good.
Now to the grandest of them all, The Grand Canyon and my friends it is Grand indeed. It was breathtaking standing there looking out over the canyon for the first time. It is so beautiful that it’s difficult to comprehend what you are looking at or if it’s real or a painting that somehow you ended up in.
I felt frozen looking out over the rainbow geologic formations, watching the river flowing at the bottom, listening to the sounds of nature and imagining all the humans that had come before this most Grand hole in the ground and felt the same emotions that I was feeling. It must have been awe inspiring to the first natives and first pioneers to witness this beauty and I wondered what they thought about it, how they reacted to it and what other stories this area could tell.
When arriving at The Grand Canyon we actually got there at night and went straight to a campground at the park. Boy does it get cold at night in a primitive tent in these parts so pack accordingly when making your plans.
This is not a trip to plan lightly but with great thought, research, and planning. If you want to just visit the canyon from the top at the overlooks then you really don’t need to plan too much but if you plan on hiking the canyon then this takes some time. You need to first be in shape to get down and back up. Find the right place to stay while in the canyon. Have the right tools and essentials needed when hiking, and prepare for the weather no matter what time of year it is. It doesn’t hurt to learn about what wildlife is in the canyon especially while hiking to be aware of what is possible.
After all our hiking, camping, and traveling it was time for a little rest so Sin City here we come! The road to Las Vegas, Nevada from The Grand Canyon at this time was a real treat to be able to drive across the Hoover Dam. This is a masterful dam and something I was quite interesting in seeing as my maternal grandfather, Charles E. Hathaway, was an
engineer for TVA in Tennessee whom designed and built dams during the 1940’s-1960’s and retired in the late 1980’s. I had also done a research paper in University about dams in Tennessee so it was a thrill for me to get to drive across this famous dam.
The year we went out west on this trip was just a few months after 9/11 happened in New York and law enforcement agencies were scrambling to tightened up security. Some bad choices were made I’m sure by many agencies in the beginning by profiling people that fit a certain idea in their head of who was a threat and who wasn’t. Unfortunately we did witness some of this profiling while crossing the Hoover Dam. There were law enforcement officers and agents everywhere when we arrived and they were pulling vehicles over and searching them before you crossed the dam. We were not pulled over but the vehicles that were on the side and being searched personally and their vehicles being searched, appeared to be Middle Eastern and East Indian descent. Honestly it was a sad sight for me watching these people being violated simply for their looks. This may have been one of the reasons I became a law enforcement officer soon after this trip.
Finally we reached Las Vegas Nevada and decided to get a hotel here and try a little gambling. Although none of us were really into that scene we thought we should try it while we were in town resting up for the next leg of our adventure. We didn’t stay long enough to really enjoy all Las Vegas has to offer as this was not what our trip was about, however a dedicated trip back to Las Vegas is on the menu.
After our ‘rest’ in Las Vegas it was on to Death Valley California. Believe it or not this is a beautiful place despite it’s name. ‘Death Valley’ actually came from the first pioneers that came through here and were not prepared for such a desert climate and many of them died on their trip. Camping in the desert meant freezing at night so again be prepared if you plan on visiting any desert areas and camping.
There is a really nice resort in Death Valley. When I was there it was called Furnace Creek Ranch, however the name has changed to The Oasis now. It was a welcomed site for sure after driving in the desert to come across this place. At first it looked like a ghost town of Old West legend with the broken down wagons, the tumble weeds blowing through the buildings, the dust tunnels stirring the ground, and all the black crows hanging around cawing with their feathers all ruffled up like they just flew through a tornado. So we parked and walked into the Saloon area looking pretty dusty and ruffled ourselves and had a nice cold drink to get the dust taste out of our mouths. We had a conversation with the bartender for a while about the area and what we needed to do and see before we left that region.
One of the places he mentioned was Scotty’s Castle which construction began back in 1922 by a millionaire Chicago couple, Albert and Bessie Johnson. The name actually comes from a gold prospector and con man, Walter Scott who coaxed the couple into building the mansion in Death Valley near his ‘gold mine’ which did not exist. The two men however, became good friends in the end. The home is truly a marvel and is a beautiful mansion that still stands today, however there has been some flash flood damage in recent years so currently the site and tours are closed until further notice.
Another interesting place was a Borax mine when we were there. We drove out to the mine and I did a soil sample on the natural Borax there. If you have ever heard of the 20 mule Borax team then you know that exporting the Borax was an incredible feat when it began back in 1883.
These mules were incredible and in the history of the Borax mine there was never a wagon that broke down on its usually 160 mile trek through the desert. Be sure to either read up on this amazing outfit or visit the visitor’s area and see for yourself in person. Unfortunately today the old Borax mine has been shut down and is no longer operational but you can still visit the site near Furnace Creek. You can read more about the 20 mule team on the sites below.
It’s hard to believe that such a desolate place with a name like Death Valley would beckon so many to visit, but this is truly a remarkable place. The history, the climate (one of the hottest places on Earth, it has registered 190 degrees Fahrenheit on the ground), the unusual geology in the area, the salt flats in the Badwater Basin, the Racetrack
where rocks appear to float across the dry, cracked earth below your feet, The Ubehebe Crater, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and the endangered pupfish that adapted to life in the desert 250 million years ago can be seen in salt water ponds, springs and caves throughout the valley.
We visited one of those salt water pond areas where the pupfish were and we noticed the sky in the area all of a sudden looked very dusky. We kept looking at it, standing there starring and then realized real quick it was a sand storm. Did not expect that and boy did we run quickly back to the vehicle. There are also many other outdoor activities you can do within Death Valley if you’re up for the challenge. Be prepared with good shoes and a lot of water!
Next stop was on to Utah to Zion National Park. Unfortunately while we were visiting there was some sort of event going on and all the campgrounds were full, so we had to get a hotel here. The cliffs were so tall it actually felt as though they were falling in on you while walking around.
This was a majestic park from the rusty red and purple sandstone cliffs, to the lush river banks that flowed through them. There were so many unusual flowers growing in this park I wish I had thought to bring a pocket guide (no cell phones when we were there).
The region that is now Zion National Park has been inhabited or visited by humans for 10,000 years and archaeologists have also studied artifacts here that prove there were humans in this region as far back as 300 B.C.E. Some of the inhabitants were Ancestral Puebloan or also known as Anasazi, and Southern and Fremont Paiute. The Mormon pioneers were the most recent culture to have left their impact on Zion Canyon before the land became protected.
One thing about Zion when you visit during the peak season, from March-November, is the park service provides free shuttle service and it is also required. This means you are not allowed to drive your personal vehicle just anywhere you want during this time frame. There are a couple of places you are allowed to drive but you will need to talk with the Visitor’s Center upon entering to find out where. We hiked and drove to the places we could without the use of the shuttle just because we did not want to be told when to stop and how long we had to view, hike etc.
The closest town is Springdale and it was such a quaint town. Reminded me of a ski town or a spa resort town with all it’s cool, artsy, and eclectic shops, restaurants, boutique hotels, and pet friendly establishments as well.
After leaving Zion National Park we were feeling the effects of being on the road and camping for too long so we started to drag a bit at this point. We had planned to stop at several more national parks but we skipped a few out of shear exhaustion. We drove straight to Arches National Park next but there are 3 more beautiful parks in-between and hopefully next time I drive out I can visit those; Bryce Canyon NP, Capitol Reef NP, and Canyonlands NP. We actually drove right through all 3 of these but only stopped briefly to take some pictures on our way to Arches NP.
Here is a peek at Bryce Canyon National Park. As in all of Utah there are these beautiful red sandstone, eroded, geological formations, but at this particular park they look a little more like fingers protruding up from the Earth below as if reaching for the sun.
The Arches National Park is definitely a red rock wonderland and is even more beautiful at sunrise and sunset. The red formations look as though they are on fire in the heat of the day. If you are looking towards Colorado, you will see the snow capped mountains in the background which provide a nice contrast to the red rocks.
As with all of our national parks there is a lot of history and culture behind their story. The land that would be The Arches National Park was first home to natives in the region that would leave fascinating rock art behind or Petroglyphs (pecked images) and Pictographs (painted images), giving us clues to their past. Civil War veteran John Wesley Wolfe would later operate a cattle ranch here from 1898-1910 that would eventually be established as a National Park by President Herbert Hoover in 1929. If you want to visit the museum for the park it is primarily located in Moab Utah.
The town of Moab is another really cool small town with all kinds of interesting shops, restaurants and opportunities for some great outdoor adventures. Make sure you have time to visit downtown while visiting the parks in the area.
Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado was our final destination on this trip. This is an archaeological park for the Pueblo people in every sense of the word. There are almost 5,000 archaeological sites here and 600 cliff dwellings.
The Pueblo people lived in this region for 700 years from 600-1300 C.E. and some of the best preserved sites in the United States can be found here at this park. Unfortunately they have closed the Spruce Tree House dwellings for tours indefinitely due to rock slides/falls, however you can still view them from afar and get some pretty good pictures. There are also a couple of cool little towns nearby; Durango and Cortez. Durango is a little bigger and had more things to do but Cortez is the closest town to Mesa Verde NP.
Well we finished our National Park tour from coast to coast, for this trip anyway, and we were ready to get back home to Tennessee where the grass and trees are as green as far as the eye can see. We were tired of seeing flat lands and desert, even though it was beautiful to see all these places, nothing feels as good or looks as good as your home after 3 weeks on a road trip.
I hope you enjoyed my quick trip across the United States and will join me again for the next adventure!
I have listed a lot of websites for each location we went to in order below if you want to do some research and plan your next adventure.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Buffalo National Wild and Scenic River National Park, Arkansas
Oklahoma City National Memorial, Oklahoma
Cibola National Forest, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
The Painted Desert, Arizona
Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona Navajo Tribal Land
The Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Hoover Dam, Nevada
Las Vegas, Nevada
Death Valley National Park, California
Zion National Park, Utah
The Arches National Park, Utah
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado