I love traveling abroad to see the grand cathedrals and castles of Europe still standing after thousands of years, majestic and full of history. But then I have to remember what's in my own backyard - our grand cathedrals and castles, still standing after hundreds and thousands of years. The giant trees in Redwood National Park, 700 years old, the smooth granite in Yosemite created by glaciers over a million of years ago, a 1946 foot deep lake formed by a volcano exploding 7700 years ago.
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.
- John Muir, The Yosemite
Inspired by Ken Burns's documentary, The National Parks, Tom, Bailey, and I went on a 12 day Western National Park road trip in October of 2011. We were living in Los Angeles at the time and drove north to Seattle before heading back. It was amazing. The trip led us through Redwoods National Park, Mt. Rainer National Park, Mt. Hood National Forest, Crater Lake National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and Yosemite National Park. We also mixed up the trip with a few cities and spent time in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Mammoth Lakes. It was cold, wet, and one of my favorite trips I've ever been on. All we had was our Prius (named The Blueberry) and camping gear. We splurged a few time on hotels, but tried to spend the majority of the trip in our tent. We also tried to visit as many dog friendly places as possible (since we had Bailey with us) and were happily surprised at how dog friendly every place we visited was.
The trip was planned as follows - it was aggressive, but we wanted to see as much as we could:
Day 1: Los Angeles to San Francisco - 371 miles
Day 2: San Francisco to Redwoods National Park - 313 miles
Day 3: Redwoods National Park to Portland - 336 miles
Day 4: Portland to Astoria to Olympic National Park - 241 miles
Day 5: Olympic National Park to Seattle - 174 miles
Day 6: Seattle
Day 7: Seattle to Mt Rainier National Park - 97 miles
Day 8: Mt Rainier National Park to Mt Hood National Forest - 201 miles
Day 9: Mt Hood National Forest to Crater Lake National Park - 209 miles
Day 10: Crater Lake National Park to Lassen Volcanic National Park - 250 miles
Day 11: Lassen Volcanic National Park to Mammoth Lakes - 329 miles
Day 12 & 13: Mammoth Lakes
Day 14: Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite National Park to LA - 40 miles (to Yosemite)
It was a good idea on paper, but here's how it actually played out.
The drive up I-5 from Los Angeles to San Francisco is probably one of the ugliest drives in the country. Its usually smoggy and packed with traffic. Normally we just pass empty fields and eventually get into some almond and orange groves. Other than that its just a passing way to get north. But then we got to San Francisco and everything was beautiful! Tom and I had always talked about moving to San Francisco and every visit made us want to move more and more. We ended up moving here a little more than a year after this trip.
We first stopped at Crissy Field to let Bailey run the five hours in The Blueberry off. Its currently a huge dog friendly San Francisco beach just by the Golden Gate Bridge. There are talks in San Francisco to ban dogs, but so far it hasn't happened. Its one of our favorite places to bring Bailey to. Free parking and free beach - what more could you ask for?
Redwoods National Park
After a short night in San Francisco, we headed north and west along the California coast to Redwoods National Park.
Redwoods National Park is unique because it is both a National Park and contains California State Parks Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek Redwoods and contains 45% of all remaining protected coast redwood trees. The old redwood forest used to cover over 2,000,000 acres of the California coast, but following the California Gold Rush lumbermen soon started chopping the trees down and sending them to San Francisco and other western cities as they began to grow. When the National Park was created in 1968 almost 90% of the original redwoods were gone.
Most of the drive to the park was in the rain, but the coastal views of the Pacific were still magnificent. We arrived at Jedediah Smith Campground in more rain and there were only three other campers in the campground (all in actual campers).
It had been raining steadily for a few hours by then and after watching the forecast we knew the rain would only get heavier, so we did our best to set up as quickly as we could. Luckily, we had stopped in Eureka a few hours earlier and purchased a GIGANTIC tarp from a sporting goods store to use as a rain cover. Little did we know then how much we'd be using it on this trip!
I'm not sure if it was because we were there during the off season (and a super rainy night), but no one came to collect our camping fee and no one was in the ranger booth, so our first night in a National Park was free! We went to sleep that night under a steady fall of rain and woke up to our thermarests literally FLOATING in the water that pooled in our tent over night. Yep, we got SOAKED.
We didn't get to see as much of the redwoods as we would have liked, but it was still a beautiful drive. We packed up The Blueberry as quickly as we could, getting drenched in the process, and started our way north towards Portland, about a six and a half hour drive.
We arrived in Portland still a little damp and treated ourselves to a night at the Westin Portland. Westin is part of the Starwood hotel group and they have an amazing rewards program. We had been a part of their rewards program for a few years at that point and had earned enough points to stay for free at all of our hotels. And the even BETTER part - all Westins are DOG FRIENDLY! No fees and no weight restrictions. You do have to sign a waiver saying you won't leave your dog unattended in your room, but that's it! They even have Westin Heavenly Dog Beds, bowls, treats and toys for your pup. Bailey is quite a fan.
We brought all our gear up to our room and spread it out in the bathroom hoping it would dry before we headed out to Olympic National Park the next day. Luckily - once the fabric is laid out it dries pretty quick. We did make a bit of a mess of the hotel bathroom with all the leftover dirt and twigs from our tent, but I tried my best to clean it up before we left.
Portland is an AWESOME town. Everyone needs to go to Portland! We spent the day wandering around, hitting up some of its famous brewpubs like Rogue where Tom had a hard time deciding which of the many, many beers to choose from. It started raining again as the day went on and as night approached we started asking around for a good night spot to check out. We were told to go to Tugboat Brewing Company which was near our hotel. Since it was rainy and we had Bailey with us we took a leap of faith and called the brewery to ask if we could bring Bailey inside with us and they said yes! As soon as we walked in the door everyone inside (including the bartender) started cheering. Laughing, we walked over to a booth and Bailey crawled underneath and snuggled up on the floor for a good nap. It was a great little brewery with only one guy working the bar. It felt more like visiting a friend's house than visiting a brewery. We soon understood the cheering we received when we entered as more people entered and more cheering occurred. However, anytime anyone left the bar we all booed. It was a great night.
The plan after Portland was to head to Olympic National Park in Washington, but after talking to a few people we learned that it is one of the wettest parks in the area. The park is full of temperate rainforests that can get up to 150 inches of rain a year! We had gotten completely rained out in the Redwoods so instead of spending another full day and night in the cold rain we decided to skip Olympic for another trip and head straight to Seattle.
Like Portland, everyone needs to visit Seattle. I loved Seattle. It feels just like a bigger Portland - same easy going vibe, but with a little more hustle and bustle. Only a three hour drive north of Portland it was an easy hop to make.
We spent another two nights at the Westin Seattle which is situated right by the water downtown, and a short walk from the famous Public Market and Space Needle.
We spent a lot of time walking around the downtown area and, of course, had to make a visit to the flagship REI store. We had more great food, including some of the best pho I've ever had (I'm not sure if I was just cold and hungry at that time, but it was amazing!). Seattle is a fantastic city and I recommend everyone visit!
Mt Rainier National Park
After a few days in the city we were ready to head back into the wilderness. Mt Rainier National Park is a quick two hour drive from Seattle and on clear days you can see the mountain from the city. We were lucky to see it as we drove up from Portland to Seattle because it again started raining off and on again the day we headed out to Mt Rainier.
Mt Rainier became our 4th National Park in 1899 and is named after a stratovolcano in the park called Mount Rainier that reaches 14,410 feet. It is also the most glaciated peak in the contiguous US creating six major rivers. Driving in to Mt Rainier we saw the epic National Park entrance that I was waiting for. There wasn't one when we drove into Redwoods, but it was very prominent here at Mt Rainier. The landscape suddenly changed from forests of trees to gigantic pines and scenery that is so beautiful it is almost blinding.
We camped at Cougar Rock and had the entire campground of 173 sites to ourselves (it was the second week of October and the campgrounds were closing the next week). All hiking trails in National Parks do not allow dogs so we had to stick to the paved roads and campgrounds with Bailey, but we still were able to take in incredible scenery.
Again we pulled out our gigantic green tarp and tied it up between trees to try and keep as much of our site as dry as possible. Since we were the only ones in the campground it was magnificently quiet and we only heard the gentle fall of rain throughout the night. The rain passed in the very early morning and the only audible sound was the wind gently blowing through the trees. We packed up The Blueberry that morning and headed south for Mt Hood National Forest in Oregon.
Mt Hood National Forest
Our plan was to go from Mt Rainier to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, but it was going to be a really long drive so we decided to make camp in Mt Hood on the way down driving through the National Forest on the way. Mt Hood is Oregon's highest point at 11,240 feet and is part of the Cascade Volcanic Arc.
For more info on Mount Hood and the thousands of things you can do there (including ski year round!) check out Travel Oregon's link here.
Amazingly, Mt Hood National Forest is only about 60 miles from Portland! We made our way towards the Clackamas River and camped at Lazy Bend Campground near the town of Estacada for the night. Again, we were the only people at the campground until late in the night when another group showed up. And again, it started raining as we were setting up. Luckily we were able to fashion our giant green tarp over most of our site and could even sit close to our fire that night.
Crater Lake National Park
It was about a 4.5 hour drive from Mt Hood to Crater Lake and all through the National Forests. Oregon is stunning and it was a gorgeous drive through the Deschutes and Umpqua National Forests. Then we came to Crater Lake.
Crater Lake National Park sits between 6500 and 7100 feet and weather can change very quickly. We pulled into the park on what might have been our first blissfully sunny day since we started, but were met with foot deep snow along the rim of the lake. A ranger told us it was rare to see this kind of clear day this late in the fall when most of the time the lake is covered in fog and clouds so visitors aren't able to see much of the landscape.
Crater Lake was formed by a volcano called Mount Mazama that collapsed in on itself 7700 years ago. Snow and rain has fallen continuously into the lake since then creating its bright blue color. The lake is 1946 feet deep making it the deepest lake in the United States.
Crater Lake National Park was established in 1902 and became our 5th National Park.
Crater Lake was one of the most stunning places we visited on this trip. We spent close to two hours just walking around a very short section of the rim and took over 200 pictures. It was just jaw-droppingly beautiful.
We had hoped to camp at Lost Creek Campground in the park, but the campgrounds had closed early due to the amount of snow they had just gotten. The temperatures were starting to drop into the 30s at night so we were ok finding a cheap hotel about an hour outside the park.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
The sun continued to shine the next day as we headed back to California and to Lassen Volcanic National Park, about five hours south.
Lassen Volcanic National Park surprised me. I didn't have many expectations for this park as I did for Mt Rainier and Crater Lake, always hearing of their beauty. I hadn't read or heard much about Lassen Volcanic before this trip so I wasn't sure what to expect. Again, I was absolutely blown away by the beauty of this national park.
It also had the same lead up of beautiful forests, but once we crossed into the park we truly entered into a new found paradise of wilderness.
Lassen Volcanic is our 12th National Park established in 1916. Lassen Peak is still an active volcano and the last series of eruptions happened between 1914 and 1921. There are still steaming fumaroles where hot sulfuric gas escapes.
There is one main road that drives through the park called Main Park Road (appropriate). We entered in the north at the Manzanita Lake entrance and had planned to camp there, but after a brief stop we decided to travel through the park to the southern side and camp near that exit at the Southwest Walk In Campground right by the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center.
The drive through the park took about an hour and was just beautiful. We made our way to the southern entrance and started to set up camp at the Southern Walk In Campground. And by walk in I mean about 100 feet from where we parked our car. Again, we were the only crazy campers in the campground enjoying the last few days of the camping season. After setting up and watching the sun set and moon rise, we were expecting a calm and quiet night and decided against hanging up our giant green tarp. We woke up around 6am to a steady rainfall and quickly packed up camp. We were lucky that we decided to drive through the park the day before when the sun was out because this morning was dark and foggy and we would have missed all the magnificent views we saw the day before.
We settled into The Blueberry and started our six hour drive south to Mammoth Lakes.
If you've read Nordic Skiing in Mammoth Lakes, California you know how much I love Mammoth Lakes. This was our very first visit and we both fell head over heels in love with the area. Since it was October and Mammoth is a ski town it was VERY quiet and it felt like we had the entire place to ourselves. Our trip was winding down and with only one National Park to go we settled into Mammoth Lakes for a few days to try and prolong our trip as much as we could. Again we used our Starwood points and stayed at the luxurious Westin Monache.
We hiked for the first time around Convict Lake, about 10 minutes outside of town. Its a beautiful three-ish mile loop around the lake in the pocket of a few gigantic mountains.
We also hiked around Lake Mary (which we later skied on our return trip this past Winter).
Yosemite National Park
Our 12 days on the road was coming to an end much faster than we were ready for. We had quickly adjusted to our new lifestyle camping, being in nature, and disconnected from the world and now had to slowly acclimate back to urban society. But before we did that we had one last stop in Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite National Park is probably the most popular national park in the US. It hosts over 3.7 million visitors each year, and surprisingly, most of those visitors only stay within seven square miles on the Yosemite Valley floor.
In 1864 President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant which set the land aside for preservation and public use and paved the way for Yellowstone to become the first national park in 1872. Yosemite officially became our third national park in 1890.
Coming from 12 days on the road traveling up and down the western US we were expecting Yosemite to be the grandest of all national parks since we had heard so much about it. Yosemite was to be the national park that all other national parks were to stand up to. We entered from Lee Vining through the Tioga Pass on the eastern side and were immediately stunned by its beauty. We had been traveling along the side of the great sierras, but now we were entering into them. The Tioga Road is 45 miles through Yosemite high country and is the highest trans-sierra route crossing the pass at 9945 feet in elevation.
We continued down through the park, stopping here and there for a photo, but had to keep Bailey in the car for most of it since dogs are not allowed on trails in national parks (something I would really like to see changed in the future). It took about an hour until we reached the Yosemite Valley and took in the infamous view.
It was as stunning as expected, but we were a little thrown by how busy the park was. It was mid-October, on a Wednesday, and there already was a long line of traffic to get into the park. The campground was packed and was tightly compounded, one site right on top of the next. The Yosemite Valley felt more like an amusement park than a great wonder of nature. We were a little jolted since we had spent so much time in empty parks, but Yosemite is one of the most popular parks in the country so we should have expected to see it full of visitors. There has been much discussion about curbing some of Yosemite's visitors in order to save the valley. The park made a plan in 2013 to restore 200 acres of meadows, reorganize transportation, and reduce traffic congestion. However, their final plan included restoring 189 acres, removing informal trails, non-essential roads, and infrastructure, increased camping availability by 37% by adding 72 sites in Upper and Lower River Campgrounds, 35 walk-in sites, 87 sites at Upper Pines Campground and 40 drive-in sites at Trailer Park Village. They also planned to add additional shuttle service in the Valley to alleviate private vehicle congestion and expanding regional transit to the park. These changes were made to meet ecological restoration goals and reduce traffic congestion.
Yosemite was just as beautiful as everyone says it is, but I think we were more impressed by the parks we had heard less about, like Lassen or Crater Lake, and were equally impressed by those parks as we were by Yosemite.
In the end, I think visiting ANY national park would bring just as much splendor and joy as visiting Yosemite National Park. This trip was incredible and one of my favorite adventures that we've been on. I have plans for a Western National Park Trip Part 2 for the future where we go east to Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier, up to Banff in Canada, and then head west to Vancouver and down through Washington, hitting Olympic National Park and Lassen Volcanic for the second time. Hopefully we'll be able to get back in The Blueberry in the next few years and seek out this new adventure.
If you're about to start your own planning for multi-National Park Road Trip, here are a few tips we learned along the way for planning purposes.
- Get an America The Beautiful Pass. They are $80 and get you in to any National Park for a full year. Each park generally charges $10-30 per entry so check each park's fees and your pass may pay for itself. It was also helpful to buy in advance and just show our pass at each ranger station and then drive right in. You can get them from federal recreation areas or in store or online at REI.
- Research each park. NPS.gov has a great website for every park. Some campgrounds need to be booked through third party agencies so be sure to research that as well.
- Plan in advance - especially if you want to camp at a park during the summer months. The campgrounds fill up FAST so try and book as early as possible. Most campgrounds can be booked six months in advance.
- Watch Ken Burns's The National Parks. It is an amazing documentary about the history and culture of The National Parks. It is truly inspiring. There is also an accompanying book and audiobook that we got and listened to during our long drives. The documentary is available streaming on Netflix and a few episodes on PBS online, and is also available for purchase from iTunes, Amazon, and PBS.