Let’s Drive From Colorado to Oregon
From Red Rocks to Crystal Clear Lakes on a beautiful Road Trip
(Originally posted February 2017, updated June 2018)
“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view”
― Jack Kerouac,
The best way to experience the wide-open spaces of America is behind the wheel of a car. Take a road trip. It’s a big country. With many points of view and millions of viewpoints. I’m talking vistas, not politics right now. Call it escapism. Call it soul-searching. Call it what you will. There is freedom on the road. And beauty to behold. So much beauty. I’m feeling the call of the church of nature lately. Nothing fills my soul like a walk in natural wonder.
The Western United States has plenty of wonder on offer. I’d like to share a few of my postcards from the road. This was a road trip a few years back from Denver, Colorado to Portland, Oregon. We had planned stops and room for impulsivity. This is the recipe for a darn good road trip. Follow along with me.
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
― Jack Kerouac,
B | MOAB, UTAH
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
Our first stop on our road trip from Denver home to Oregon was in one of my favorite U.S. National Parks. Situated just outside charming Moab, Utah – Arches National Park was like nothing I had ever seen before my first visit. We have now been several times and I highly recommend it. Great for all ages and levels of physical fitness there is something to impress everyone here.
Red rocks like the landscape of mars dominate the discoveries. Start at the Welcome Center just outside Moab. If children are along, sign up for the Junior Ranger program – a small booklet to engage in learning about the geology and biology of the area.
The park is open year-round and the visitor center is open every day except December 25. Hours of operation change with the seasons. Current Visitor Center Hours: 7:30 am – 5 pm. Check website for current information before your visit.
As of June 1st, 2018, it will cost $30/vehicle (including all occupants) to enter Arches National Park or $15/person entering by bicycle or hiking. Youth under 15 free. Entrance is good for 7 days.
The park is busiest from March – October. Take care in summer months as temperatures can soar to 100°F (37°C) and shade is limited. Bring lots of water with you – limited facilities past the main visitor center. And remember sunscreen and wear sturdy shoes for hiking to get peeks at some of the park’s icons.
Balancing Rock, Sand Dune Arch, and Windows Arches. If yours are up for a walk – Landscape Arch is the longest natural arch in the park and the 5th longest in the world. There are thoughts that it won’t last much longer. Or plan for the 3.2-mile roundtrip (sections over slick rock with a 480m ascent) to see Delicate Arch with everyone else at sunset. So magical, the State of Utah put it on their license plates.
Camping around Arches National Park
Unfortunately, the main campground inside the park at Devil’s Garden is closed for construction from March – November 2017. There are other campgrounds outside the main gates – you can find them listed here.
3225 South Highway 191 | Moab, UT 84532
With littles along, the rustic charm of the Moab outpost of Kampers of America (KOA) is a welcome respite. We rent a “Kamper Kabin,” that sleeps 6 in 4 bunks and a double bed. Bring your own sleeping bags or bedding. But the value here lies with a swimming pool to cool off after hiking through the red dust as well as a mini-golf course for late evening fun with the family.
101 N Main St | Moab, UT 84532
Best brunch in town. Check for opening hours and plan accordingly. Outdoor seating during warmer months. Delicious.
C | BRYCE, UTAH
BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK
The State of Utah has five National Parks within its borders. (The third most per state behind much larger Alaska and California.) Bryce Canyon is a little off the beaten path but offers a vista like none of the others. Hoodoos – strange rock formations created by the unique geology here dominate the landscape. Quirky towers, striated with whites, oranges, and reds sit below you in the valley. When viewed from the canyon rim, it is not difficult to be impressed with this vista. But I recommend that you hike down in and see them up close and personal.
The visitor center here is excellent and offers talks and presentations as well as information on the local geology. In summer months – May to September – opening hours are extended from 8 am – 8 pm. During shoulder months April and October – open 8 am – 6 pm. The Center closes at 4:30 pm in winter, from November – March.
All Bryce Canyon hikes start at the canyon rim and head down to the valley floor. Be prepared with water and sunscreen and save energy for the hike back up. Horseback trail rides down into the canyon available as well.
Thors Hammer and Wall Street on the Navajo Loop Trail. Or check out the Astrology Nights held at the Visitors Center affording views through the telescopes at the galaxy beyond. Because Bryce Canyon is isolated from population centers, it avoids light pollution and one has the potential to see the Milky Way and 7500 of the closest stars. Check website for details.
Camping in Bryce Canyon National Park
North Campground and Sunset Campground both offer tent and RV sites. Only the North campground is open year-round and on a limited basis.
Bryce Canyon Lodge and Cabins
Bryce Canyon National Park, Bryce, UT 84764
Historic lodge with 114 rooms available from April through mid-November. Rustic cabins, a general store, dining room, and other amenities available.
For lodging outside the park – check here.
D | ORDERVILLE, UTAH
ROCKS & GEMS SHOPPING
No American road trip is complete without curious and authentic places to stop and experience real Americana. Orderville, Utah is a beaut of a stop for anyone interested in rocks and minerals. And even if you aren’t a self-proclaimed rock hound, you might be after stopping at one of the iconic shops here on Route 89 between Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park, where we’re headed next. I mean where else can you grab a geode, onyx, petrified trees, crystals, AND fossilized dinosaur teeth.
The Rock Stop
385 W State St, Orderville, UT 84758
Fisher’s Rock Shop & Jewelry
400 W State St, Orderville, UT 84758
E | SPRINGDALE, UTAH
ZION NATIONAL PARK
People come to Zion to commune with angels. Heaven on earth. But no matter what your religion, this park will move you. Currently, it sits firmly in my top three U.S. National Parks for purveying epic and awe-inspiring landscapes. Of the five National Parks in Utah, Zion is the granddaddy. Greener than the barren martian landscape of Arches N.P., Zion sits along a slot canyon formed by the Virgin River. It is also one of the most popular parks in the Western States and sees an average of 4 million visitors annually. Plan your visit here in early summer or early fall to experience all of Zion’s majesty.
Nearby Springdale, Utah – like Moab – has become an adorable outpost for park visitors, hikers, adrenaline junkies as well as families. The Virgin River continues its course out of Zion and right down along Springdale. Great options for accommodations, restaurants, and cafes here as well as many stops for the free shuttles that take you right into the park.
Start at the Visitor Center to pick up a current park map and guide with up-to-date listings on trail conditions and shuttle stops. Excellent bathroom facilities, gift shop for sunscreen you forgot, and places to fill up your water bottle with Zion spring water.
If you want to drive into the park – come EARLY. Parking is greatly limited inside Zion, and Visitor Center lots will fill by mid-morning. OR skip parking hassles and park in Springdale and grab free shuttles which run from March to November.
Weeping Rock and Riverside Walk along the Virgin River. Then in warmer months – a hike up the Narrows in and out of the river is a must but will be crowded. Check with Visitor’s Center for less popular trails with equally amazing viewpoints.
Camping at Zion National Park
Zion has two campgrounds in the canyon. These are South and Watchman Campgrounds. Reservations can be made at Watchman online. Otherwise, plan to come early to try for a spot as most fill by noon from April – October. I told you it was popular here.
Zion National Park Lodge
Only in-park lodging with dining facilities available year-round.
Desert Pearl Inn
707 Zion-Mount Carmel Hwy | Springdale, UT 84767
If you have one place to splurge on your road trip, save your pennies for a night at the Desert Pearl. After camping in Bryce it was a perfect respite. Ask for a family room on the Virgin River side and your spacious accommodation will open up onto a grassy area right along the shaded river with beautiful red rocks looming in the distance. The river is narrow and shallow here – a perfect place for kids to swing and float down the water a bit, then clamber back up the bank to do it again. Catch frogs. Swing from the rope right over the river. Too much nature for the day? Take a dip in the pool with views of the red rocks and watch the moon rise.
Bit and Spur Restaurant and Saloon
1212 Zion Park Blvd | Springdale, UT 84767
Tex-Mex with attitude. Fun decor and outdoor patio. Great margaritas and guacamole. Perfect after all that hiking!
Larsen’s Frostop Drive-In
858 St George Blvd | St George, UT 84770
Classic American road trip pit stop. Burgers, fries, milkshakes of every ilk. Make mine a vanilla malt, please. A must-stop leaving Zion on your way to Vegas. Yes. I said Vegas, baby.
F | LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
LAS VEGAS STRIP
Now a good American road trip is chock full of yin AND some yang. For all that nature, we have to create balance. One night in Vegas is usually enough to do it. And yes. I do believe you can take your children to Vegas. For a night. All that neon is fascinating to everyone.
The classic welcome to Las Vegas sign. You may have to wait your turn to get your pic, but come on. It’s an instant classic. Lucky for you the sign now sits in the middle of a median at 5100 Las Vegas Boulevard South. Parking spots available and paved paths lead to the sign.
If traveling with children, be aware that Sin City can live up to its name. Keeping exploration to daytime and early evening hours and specific sites will minimize concern. Many of the big hotels on the Strip have amazing pools that are a big splash with families, especially after the camping and hiking of previous days.
The water show in front of the Bellagio, the Big Apple roller coaster atop New York-New York, shopping under Caeser’s Palace, and the light show at the Fremont Experience.
The Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino
129 Fremont Street Experience | Las Vegas, NV 89101
When in Vegas, baby. We went old school for our Vegas family experience and choose to stay at the iconic recommend the Golden Nugget for two reasons. It has a pool with a water slide through a shark tank. I’m not kidding. Hours of entertainment. And, second, it is part of the Fremont Street Experience – a huge LED canopy that connects several Vegas casino legends with a shopping mall and restaurants. Nightly light shows on the huge canopy begins at dusk.
G | HAWTHORNE, NEVADA
MINERAL COUNTY MUSEUM
Leaving Las Vegas – you could opt to continue your road trip west to Los Angeles. But we’re from Oregon – so we’re headed north. With a couple of the deepest alpine lakes on the map to round out our journey. Nevada is not a small state and transversing it takes determination. When Lake Tahoe is your target, believe me, it’s worth it.
But before we get to those gorgeous blue waters, we’ll cross through some wild, wild west. Tumbleweeds and sagebrush and teepees and cactus. LOTS of cacti. And then out of nowhere is the peculiar town of Hawthorne, Nevada. It’s worthy of a stop. Home to around 3000 inhabitants, the local economy here is mostly providing for the local Army depot. A stop at the free Mineral County Museum gives a glimpse through time at what life was like in this part of America.
Mineral County Museum
400 10th Street | Hawthorne NV, 89415
H | LAKE TAHOE, NEVADA/CALIFORNIA BORDER
Ahhhh. You made it. It was long and at times desolate. But Tahoe calls. Can you hear it? Whispers through the tall pines that line the surrounding mountains. Come to the lake.
Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in the United States and straddles the border of Nevada and California. Today, we’re staying on the Cali side, but both sides have merits. We drove far today and will set up camp and stay. For two nights.
Summer is beautiful here, but Lake Tahoe also has world-class ski resorts for those interested in winter action. Check out Heavenly, Diamond Peak, Squaw Valley and Mount Rose.
South Lake Tahoe and beautiful Emerald Bay. On the Nevada side, take the lift up to the top of Heavenly for amazing views over the lake and a great restaurant at the top. Want to get out on the water? Take a turn on a sternwheeler that leaves from Zephyr Cove.
William Kent Campground
1995 W Lake Blvd | Tahoe City, CA 96145
We enjoyed the rustic campsites across the street from the Lake at William Kent Campground near Tahoe City on the California side. Easy access to Tahoe City for provisions or good restaurants, William Kent sites are wooded and semi-private. Bear lockers are available and recommended for the safe keeping of all your food stuffs. Yes. Bear lockers. Use them, people. They’re there for a reason.
S’mores around a campfire. Three simple ingredients. Pure American summer perfection. Marshmallows. I recommend Jet-Puffed mallows. Don’t believe that there is a difference between American marshmallows and other marshmallows? I am here to tell you there is. Believe it or not, I think American marshmallows are less sweet than those I’ve found here in Denmark. Toast your marshmallow to a golden brown perfection where the middle is just perfectly melted and about to slide off your stick. Set it gently atop a square of Honey-Maid graham crackers and carefully insert one brick of Hershey’s chocolate. Squish together with a second square of graham and let sit a minute to ensure time for the chocolate to melt. Now taste. Ahhh. Smile. You’ll want some more if you did it correctly.
I | KLAMATH FALLS, OREGON
CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK
Lake Tahoe is second only to Crater Lake, which sits a little further north in southern Oregon as the deepest freshwater lake in the United States. The crystal clear blue water sits inside a volcanic caldera created after the eruption of the former Mount Mazama approximately 8000 years ago. When we arrived mid to late June, summer had not yet hit Crater Lake, snow still closing down some roads and trails. Overcast skies did not afford the best blues the lake has to offer, but the park still impresses.
From Crater Lake, we made it home to Portland. There is much to explore in Oregon that I will share in further posts. But for now, with nearly 2000 miles (3200 km) under our belt in a week’s time, we need our own beds. Our own shower. And rest for our weary feet.
But our experiences from the road will leave watermarks of wonder. For a long time after. Get out there. Buy the ticket. Take the ride. Feel the freedom of the open road.
ALTERNATE ROUTES AND ADD-ONS:
From Vegas, you could head to Los Angeles, California with a stop at the iconic Joshua Tree Monument. For more information and a great list of hikes, there check out Backroad Ramblers Complete Guide to Exploring Joshua Tree National Park
Or take a day to detour to the Grand Canyon with this great guide from Travel from Meraki, How to Enjoy the Perfect Day at The Grand Canyon with Kids.