My Road Trip Across America with a Complete Stranger

Right after graduating college, I went on a road trip with this girl, Allison. We had a few classes together, so it seemed our interests were similar. One time, we ate Mexican food together and bonded over our mutual love for tacos. Still, we barely knew each other. Everyone would probably say it was inadvisable. Why would you go on a road trip for two weeks with someone you’ve hung out with one time? “Because she loves Mexican food” is probably not the best response to that question, but “because she loves national parks” most definitely is.

This could go wrong in so many ways.

How it Happened

On a random day in May 2014, this girl who I barely knew had frantically texted me when she was offered an internship at Yosemite National Park. Among the few things we’d talked about, our love for national parks was one of them. It was an amazing opportunity, but she had doubts. She would need a car, but didn’t want to drive all the way from Florida to California by herself. Additionally, she had very little time to get there before her start date, making a solo trip even more challenging. I’d been in her shoes before. When I got my internship in Alaska, I wanted to drive from Florida, but that’s 5,000 miles. It takes a little bit of time, and time was something I did not have. So I was forced to fly and relied on others to drive me around. She had done the same working at another national park the year before. She was done relying on other people. But she couldn’t find anyone to make the trip with. She was so worried she’d have to turn down the offer. I bought a plane ticket to Florida the next day.

Let the Road Trip Begin

Welcome signs from all of the states and national parks we traveled through
Welcome signs from all of the states and national parks we traveled through

I arrived from Delaware and spent a day at home before meeting up with her. Coincidentally, we’d grown up twenty minutes away from one another. My mom drove me to her parents’ house and our families met for the first time. Our moms exchanged phone numbers, obviously nervous about how this would turn out. I’m pretty sure they were both convinced we would hate each other by the end of the trip. I had wondered this myself, and I’m sure Allison did, too. Were we crazy? There wasn’t enough time to wonder because the next thing I knew we were driving away, waving at our distressed mothers and heading to California.

Day 1

Our first stretch was a big one. We planned to stop at ten national parks on our trip, and all of them were located between Colorado and California. Our goal was to reach Colorado as soon as we possibly could. The first stop was Tallahassee, just four hours away, to pick up a few more things and say a few goodbyes. After that, we didn’t plan on stopping again until we reached Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, which meant another 24 hours of driving. We had a plan to alternate sleeping and driving so we could make it there in decent time.

The plan was working perfectly. We had some food in the car, so we only stopped for gas and bathroom breaks. Florida was long gone as we cruised through Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. But then Texas happened. In case you weren’t aware, Texas is freaking huge. It felt like we had made so much progress after crossing so many state lines, but now we had been in Texas for what seemed like days and we were exhausted. We decided to take a pit stop in the parking lot of a Walmart outside Amarillo. We parked next to some RV campers who clearly had the same idea in an attempt to shield ourselves and our little sedan. Then we both looked at each other and started laughing hysterically. This was going to be so uncomfortable, and so weird. We couldn’t possibly sleep in a Walmart parking lot – that’s insane!

We were out like lights in a matter of minutes.

Allison and Riley in front of Colorado's welcome sign
Allison and I in front of Colorado’s welcome sign

Day 2

We woke up just after sunrise, laughing at how tired we had truly been, and continued on our journey. Celebration ensued when we finally reached New Mexico and Texas was officially in the rearview. We only passed through a small corner of the state before hitting Colorado, finally. Now the real adventure could begin: Great Sand Dunes wasn’t far now.

Well, Great Sand Dunes is what we expected the adventure to be. The real adventure was snow. Remember, this is two Floridians on a road trip. We had no idea what to do. The lack of visibility was downright scary, and we gave each other pep talks to get through it. Luckily the snow wasn’t too bad and we made it to our lodging just fine.

We checked in to an adorable log cabin just outside the national park. Visibility was poor so we couldn’t really see the dunes, but the comfort of knowing they were out there was all we needed. We unpacked our sleeping bags and curled up inside to keep warm in the freezing temperatures. When I laid down, I noticed some of the snowfall was coming into the cabin through small openings between the logs. Normally I would have freaked and had nightmares of falling asleep only to wake up buried under feet of snow. Instead, it was such a treat to watch while I drifted off to sleep. I thought it was so beautiful. I don’t remember the exact number of hours we slept, but I can tell you it was somewhere between 10 and 15. We were completely drained. When we woke up it was still cold, but the snow had stopped and we could see blue sky. We couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

Riley at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in Colorado, standing in front of huge dunes and towering mountains
In front of the snowy Great Sand Dunes

This was a national park both of us expressed interest in because other people told us how cool it was. But neither one of us understood why, which intrigued us even more. It was just sand, right? We had sand dunes in Florida… what’s the big deal?

The big deal is these are the tallest sand dunes on the continent! This place is incredible. My favorite part was learning about the ecosystems. This relatively small park supports alpine tundra, krummholz, alpine lakes, subalpine forests and meadows, montane forests and woodlands, riparian, dunefield, grasslands, shrublands, sabkha, AND wetland ecosystems. You can find all kinds of life here. We walked over to the dunes but they were a bit slippery with the snow and ice so we decided not to climb. At certain times of the year, you can ride sleds down the dunes (can you say bucket list?) and wade in Medano Creek. Needless to say, I would be back. But for now, it was time to continue the road trip and head to our next destination.

We set our GPS for Moab, Utah and drove across southern Colorado, making our way through the absolutely beautiful Rio Grande National Forest. There was still some snow falling, but luckily it didn’t seem to be sticking to the road. We were rolling along just fine until we started descending from the mountains. Turns out Floridians also don’t know how to drive down huge hills. I had used the brakes too much and we could smell the burning rubber, so we pulled over for a little while and called Allison’s dad. He said we would be fine if we waited until the brakes weren’t overheated, and advised us to drive using lower gears downhill. Lesson learned.

Our Unexpected Stop: Mesa Verde National Park

Allison and I at the Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde National Park
Allison and I at the Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde National Park

We were back on the road and things were going smoothly when I decided to look at a map. I couldn’t believe it. I looked at Allison and said that we had overlooked Mesa Verde National Park. We were so focused on getting to Moab that we hadn’t realized we’d be driving right by it. We hadn’t planned on stopping, but it fit into our itinerary just perfectly. When we arrived at the visitor center, we learned we had missed all of the guided tours to the more remote pueblos, but were still able to walk down to the Spruce Tree House and look around. Crawling down into old pueblo homes was an amazing experience. It was definitely worth the stop to check it out. I can’t believe we hadn’t seen it before.

With another national park checked off the list, Moab was next. But, wait! This map also says we’re going to drive right by the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. We couldn’t possibly skip that, right? If we hadn’t stopped at Mesa Verde, this day wouldn’t have been nearly as cool! We’d better go.

Canyonlands National Park: Needles District

A panorama of the Needles rock formations in Canyonlands
A panorama of the Needles in Canyonlands

The sun was setting when we drove in, so we weren’t able to go to the visitor centers or anything. But, we were still able to drive the road into this less-visited section of Canyonlands. And let me tell you, it was stunning. I’d never been a big rock nerd and didn’t take any geology courses in college. I was thrilled to have Allison with me, who knew so much more about these formations than I did. Regardless of my lack of knowledge, the beauty was undeniable. But unfortunately, the sun was still setting and our time was limited, so we continued on to Moab.

Arches National Park

Riley sitting in front of Delicate Arch
Sitting in front of Delicate Arch

Arches National Park is one of my favorites. I would love to live in Moab someday so I could fully experience it and its neighbor, Canyonlands. We spent little more than half a day here. Arches can get extremely crowded, but we were hoping the masses of people hadn’t arrived yet since it was before Memorial Day. Still, we made a point to get up early and head to the park so we could hike to Delicate Arch. This arch is famous and we knew that once people did arrive, they’d be following in our footsteps. We made the right decision, as we had it mostly to ourselves and saw a ton of people as we hiked out. This trail is one of my favorites in the national park system, so look for it to be featured as part of my Top Trails series very soon.

After the hike, we spent time driving through the rest of the park. We visited the Fiery Furnace, a famous location you cannot enter without a park ranger, and looked in awe from afar, wishing we had more time. We did a few other small trails to other famous arches as well. When it started to get a bit too crowded for our liking, we decided to go back to Canyonlands and explore another area of that park.

Canyonlands National Park: Island in the Sky District

Looking off into Canyonlands
Looking off into Canyonlands

We spent a pretty significant period of time at Arches, so we didn’t have a ton of time here. Plus, what I’ve realized is that Canyonlands is a place for backpacking. With three districts total, all different from one another, this place deserves a lot of time and dedicated exploration. Time was something we did not have on this trip, so we stuck to the park road and pulled off at the various viewpoints. Occasionally, we were able to take short walks. Just like the parks before it, I added it to the list of places I’d have to come back to and allow more time for.

We stayed in Moab for a second night, allowing us more time to explore Arches and Canyonlands. Moab had a delicious Mexican food restaurant, so we were able to partake in our other mutual love: tacos. The next morning, we were off again, setting our sights on western Utah.

Capitol Reef National Park

Allison and I at Capitol Reef
Allison and I at Capitol Reef

The first stop was Capitol Reef, an admittedly quick break in our travels. As far as Utah’s Mighty Five goes, Allison and I agreed: Capitol Reef was a lesser priority. But we still did the park justice with the little time we had. We went on a hike and saw our first rattlesnake and marveled at the rock formations. We drove the park road and took photos of the park’s undeniable beauty. But the simple fact was Bryce Canyon was next, and we could not wait. There was more to see at Capitol Reef, that’s for sure, but time wouldn’t allow it if we were going to reach Bryce Canyon before sunset.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Riley admiring the view while looking over Grand Staircase-Escalante
Admiring the view looking over Grand Staircase-Escalante

This is tough for me to write because Congress recently voted to shrink the size of this monument. This announcement broke my heart into little tiny pieces. If you ask Allison or me what our favorite part of our trip was, both of us would agree that Grand Staircase was in the top three.

I texted a close friend of mine about our journey, as he had been a park ranger at Canyonlands and knew the area. He said that when we drove from Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon, we needed to take State Route 12. We checked the GPS and it would only add about 30 minutes or so to the trip, so we agreed. He had lived here and I trusted his judgment. I don’t even want to think about the possibility that I almost didn’t take this road. It truly is, in my opinion, one of the most scenic drives in America. You drive through forested mountains and along a shelf traveling through the desert, all in just 2.5 hours. Allison and I kept shouting our excitement, wondering aloud where we were. We were in Grand Staircase-Escalante. I don’t even have the words to describe how breathtaking it is.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Riley sitting in front of Bryce Canyon's infamous Hoodoo formations
Sitting in front of Bryce Canyon’s infamous Hoodoos

After an amazing day traveling through Capitol Reef and State Route 12, Allison and I were on a high. Utah was beautiful and everything was great, and now we were in Bryce Canyon, one of the places we were most looking forward to. But the thing about high expectations is that you might get let down, and we were.

It’s not because of the park itself. Bryce Canyon was everything we imagined in terms of beautiful nature and picturesque views. The issue was the people. Busloads of people who got in the way of our photos and tried to feed the birds from their picnic tables. A park ranger was also rude to us for the first time on our trip. We made the most of our visit by attempting to avoid everyone as much as possible. After enjoying the park’s scenery, we were ready to go. We traveled to Springdale for the evening, just outside of Zion National Park, our next stop.

Zion National Park

One of the many gorgeous views afforded in Zion
One of the many gorgeous views afforded in Zion

In our heads, we planned to attempt the famous Angels Landing hike during our visit, but we were exhausted after our travels. We had now been on the road for a week and it was taking its toll. It would be better, we decided, to hike some smaller trails and take the bus through the park to see as much as we could. I hadn’t even been to Zion yet and I already knew I’d have to come back one day.

Riley standing in Kolob Canyon
Standing in Kolob Canyon

Our favorite part of Zion was visiting Kolob Canyon, a northern part of the park that fewer visitors travel to. Allison and I agreed we preferred fewer people, especially after our time at Bryce Canyon, and Kolob was the perfect solution. Plus, it was magnificent. It was also the perfect place to end our trip to Utah and say goodbye to national parks for about a day as we continued on the road. Additionally, we really took in the solitude, because our next stop was Las Vegas, Nevada.

Hoover Dam / Lake Mead National Recreation Area

The Hoover Dam on the border of Nevada and Arizona
The Hoover Dam on the border of Nevada and Arizona

Neither of us was thrilled about heading to Las Vegas. The only reasons we decided to stay there were it wasn’t too far from Zion or Death Valley and hotels were shockingly inexpensive. But we agreed we would stay as far away from the strip as possible. That being said, what else was there to do?

As luck would have it, we found yet another national park, Lake Mead National Recreation Area. This is the lake created by the Hoover Dam, one of the wonders of the world and an engineering marvel. It wasn’t exactly the type of park we were thrilled to explore. We would have much rather been able to fit in a visit to the Grand Canyon instead, but we accepted our fate and off we went. I drove through Las Vegas’ rush hour traffic as if I was piloting a racecar in order to arrive before closing time and barely made it. We were able to walk around and check out the dam, a pretty astonishing piece of work. You wouldn’t believe the size of it unless you stood there yourself. Then just like that, it was time to leave and we were on the road, heading into Arizona when a herd of Big Horn Sheep ran out in the road. It wasn’t the park we expected, but we still got to see some wildlife before heading back to Las Vegas.

Death Valley National Park

Allison and Riley stand at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America
Allison and I at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America

We drove across Nevada the next morning and were in complete shock. A few days ago we had driven through a snowstorm in Colorado and now it was 100 degrees outside. But the good news was we had made the most progress yet: we had officially entered California. Unfortunately, our trip was almost at an end. But we still had a few parks to visit first.

Death Valley wasn’t exactly on the way to Yosemite, but it was a park I desperately wanted to visit. I felt bad about this in the end. I could tell Allison wanted to get to Yosemite sooner rather than later so she could settle and move in before she started work. Furthermore, I was also starting to wonder if spending additional time in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks would have been time better spent. But it was too late to change our route now. I enjoyed our time in Death Valley, and we were able to visit Badwater Basin, one of my bucket list items. This is the lowest point in North America at -282 feet. It’s also one of the hottest. Driving out of the park, we were treated to stunning mountain vistas as we continued north.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Allison and I celebrating in front of General Sherman, the world's largest tree
Celebrating in front of General Sherman, the world’s largest tree

Next up were Sequoia and Kings Canyon. These two parks are managed together, so it’s honestly difficult to know when we were in one or the other, especially since it was nearly four years ago now. Like so many others, we had a list of things to see here and didn’t even come close to covering half of them. But we did get to visit the General Sherman tree, the largest in the world, and walk among the other giants. We also drove on various park roads and saw a black bear, our first on the trip. Once again, I would need to spend one to two weeks here to really get to explore the way I wanted to, but at least now I had a taste.

Yosemite National Park

Riley stands at Glacier Point in Yosemite
Glacier Point in Yosemite

Arriving in Yosemite was bittersweet. We made it to our destination, one of the most famous national parks in the entire world, but that meant the trip was coming to an end. We traveled to Glacier Point, hiked to a few waterfalls, and completed a few trails. Allison started job training and I drove to Hetch Hetchy Valley, famous for the dam John Muir and others fought so hard against. I walked a trail in Tuolumne Meadows accompanied only by grazing deer. Yosemite certainly lived up to the hype, and I was already looking around and deciding what I wanted to do on future visits.

And then just like that, it was time for Allison and me to say goodbye. I had to say goodbye to this person I barely knew, then suddenly got to know so intimately. What did the future hold? We’d gotten along so well, better than anyone could have thought, but what did that mean? Would we see each other again, or just have the memories of these twelve national parks to hold on to?

Present Day

Allison and Riley in Grand Teton National Park in 2016
Allison and I in Grand Teton National Park in 2016

Allison and I became best friends, and still travel to national parks together whenever we can. We attempt to do one trip every year. In 2015, one year after the road trip detailed above, I traveled to Alaska to visit her in Denali National Park, where she was working. We also spent time together in the Washington, D.C. area visiting small monuments and some state parks in Delaware, where I lived. In 2016, we traveled to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks in Wyoming. Some unexpected events came up in 2017, but we still managed to meet up and kayak at a state park in Florida. Currently, our 2018 plans include a visit to a remote national park in Alaska. 

I would definitely say we took a major chance. The odds that we would have hated each other by the end of the trip were probably extremely high. I can’t even imagine what the road trip would have been like if that had happened. But we took the risk and I believe we would both agree that we’re better because of it. It’s hard to find women our age who enjoy traveling to national parks, sleeping in cars in sketchy parking lots, and getting dirty from playing outside. I’m lucky to have her as my travel companion for life.

Among so many other similarities, Allison and I had the exact same pair of hiking boots. We took a photo of them in every national park we visited.
Among so many other similarities, Allison and I had the exact same pair of hiking boots. We took a photo of them in every national park we visited.

20 Comments

  1. What an amazing trip and beginning to a beautiful friendship. We recently did Utah’s Mighty Five as well, and we loved it! One of my favorite parts of our trip was Escalante as well. Also, I have been wanting to hit Mesa Verde! Great pics and love the story.

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