All aboard! Last December Ian and I jumped on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train — simply to experience a new method of getting from Point A to Point B — and it became one of our most off-beat and unexpectedly enjoyable travel adventures yet.
Let’s visit a popular U.S. National Park in peak season at the last minute! Yeah, that sounds like our travel style. And that’s how our conversation started two weeks back when we decided we had to see the Death Valley Superbloom.
All advance reservations for park accommodations were full. We could try our luck at a first-come first-served campsite, but we didn’t really feel up to tent camping this trip. So we decided to try something new: the rental campervan.
This year Ian and I checked a HUGE item off our bucket list. We can both now officially say we’ve visited all 50 U.S. states. (Hooray!)
We’ve explored a LOT of the U.S. this year — even amplifying our goals to include visiting all 50 states in one year’s time — and every time I tell people about our epic quest, I always get asked some version of the same question: Which place was your favorite?
It was cool and sunny in South Dakota when we woke up in our tent this morning. No indication of the craziness that ensued last night, other than the minor bowing to our east-facing tent poles that left our tent slightly askew. And we were among the lucky. Our tent had survived.
Around 8pm the lightning started. It was beautiful. The sun was setting behind a thick wall of clouds, and whenever the distant lightning struck, pink light puffs would appear and pulse throughout the sky.
The open road. The fresh air. The opportunity to freely blast and belt out your favorite tunes as you explore lands previously unknown… The road trip is an experience everyone should have at least once in their life. And the effort you put into planning yours will greatly impact the memories you make.
Johnson’s Shut-Ins is a magical place from my childhood… A two-hour drive from home in St. Louis, we only visited a handful of times when I was young. But boy did I remember it. I’ve always loved outings that involved swimming, and of all the places I’ve swam in the world, Johnson’s Shut-Ins takes the cake.
Crystal-clear water flows through, around, and over the rocks at “Nature’s Water Park,” creating tiny pools where tadpoles grow up into frogs… And you can climb right in to experience it firsthand! It’s amazing. It’s also one of few places you can find where it’s fashionably acceptable to wear tennis shoes with a swimsuit. And you need them to climb around the slippery, rocky pools. The Shut-Ins aren’t particularly large, so it was always busy when we’d arrive early morning in my childhood. But mid-afternoon just after Memorial Day weekend, we were pleasantly surprised to have the place almost entirely to ourselves. If you’re looking for a summer day trip from St. Louis or Branson or the Ozarks, go here. You won’t want to miss it.
After crossing the big wide state of Texas in week two, this week started with an epic day of gluttony in the New Orleans French Quarter. We filled our bellies with pralines, boudin and beignets and then turned north so Ian could experience the best baseball in the country and what I think is one of the most unique state parks in the entire U.S.
Roaring wind. Rippling sand. Rolling dunes. All were present on the night we backpacked out to our backcountry campsite at White Sands National Monument. As luck would have it, we’d gotten the last available site. And we were grateful. Otherwise we’d’ve had to backtrack 30 miles toward Las Cruces and the nearest campground.
Up and over and in between the dunes we hiked, each carrying our backpacks, cameras at-the-ready. It took us 45 minutes to get to our campsite, racing the setting sun. We set up camp, took off our boots, and set out barefoot for the top of a neighboring dune, getting in just a few more photos before darkness and the evening wind settled in. We’ve now completed week two of our cross-country U.S. road trip, and White Sands stands out as one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen. It was magical. Enchanting, even. If you’ve never hiked over sand dunes before, add it to your bucket list. It’s surreal.
One week into our road trip, and we finally made it to the Grand Canyon! Before this visit, I’d been there for a brief stop along one of my many journeys between St. Louis and LA in college, and Ian had only flown over it in a plane. It was time for both of us to really see this place. And see it we did, in the sun, rain, sleet, hail and snow!
We camped for two days at the South Rim’s Desert View Campground — a deal at just $12/night — and endured cold, snowy weather inside our warm sleeping bags and tent (see more of our camping essentials here). After roughing it at Lake Mead and Williams the two previous nights, I was SO happy to finally be staying at a place that had showers (thought it did require a 20+ mile drive to the other side of the park). It was also the perfect, iconic place to round out week one of our all-American road trip.