Road Trip: Utah, Dever, Missouri

The next stop on the trip was Denver, Colorado. Colorado has been calling to me for a while now, so I was excited to have the chance to visit. The drive from Utah had some great scenery and kept me awake: stratified rock formations gradually turned into mountains, and I eventually drove through the continental divide on I-70 (that’s a LONG tunnel). I wish I had more time to stay in the West of Colorado and hike the mountains, but that will have to wait until another trip.

I had an Airbnb in the city for the night and quickly showered and cleaned up once I got there. The rest of the day I walked around the city, getting to know the different parts and checking out what the local economy had to offer. At night I toured a few of Denver’s well-known breweries. I ended up making a friend (who was in Denver for a wedding) at Epic Brewing and we tried everything they had to offer.

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I departed Denver the next morning with a slight headache (turns out 24 beers is lot to drink, even when they’re only samples and you’re splitting them!) for one of the longest days of driving on the trip. It was around 13 hours driving time to the Mark Twain National Forest in Southern Missouri where I planned to spend the night. I-70 seemed to stretch endlessly off into the horizon in Kansas, with only occasional roadwork to break up the monotony. I listened to audiobooks, ran through playlists of music, called friends and family and sang to myself – anything to pass the time.

I arrived at the National Forest before midnight and found the campground I was looking for on a map at the entrance. Quick dinner, pitched the hammock, and I was asleep before I knew it. It was muggy, though, and rained heavily through the night so I didn’t rest much. On the way out the next morning, the road had flooded over. I was a bit nervous about crossing in the Saab, but didn’t really have a choice. I drove through quickly and was on the way to Nashville.

In Missouri I realized how much appreciated the US Forestry Service. Not even for the National Parks or more established parts. There are many little-known National Forests in corners of country that are completely free to access and available for anyone with a desire to get outside. In most of them you can camp at an established site for a small fee, or do dispersed camping – basically backcountry – for free. That’s the power of public land: it’s there for everyone to use. I was very satisfied at how simply and inexpensively I could live on this part of the trip, all thanks to the USFS.

Fried Chicken Stops: 1
Radio stations flipped through: too many to count.
Route traveled:

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Road Trip: Southern Utah

After a long, hot day of driving (high temperature of 114˚F!), I made it to the dessert outside of Zion NP. My plan for the night was to pitch a tent on some federal land outside of the park, where I could get away from the lights of the town nearby and camp for free.

It’s not well known, but you can camp on any undeveloped land administered by the Bureau of Land Management for free and without a permit. Simply follow their rules, don’t overstay your welcome and leave no trace. With that in mind, I found this (PDF) map of the are around Zion. With the help of GPS on my smartphone, I was able to locate a place to park along Kolob Terrace road, packed up my bag, and hiked off into the desert.

About a quarter mile from the road I set my gear down for the night. The ground was still warm from the afternoon sun and I was able to sleep out, cowboy style. I fell asleep to the most amazing starscape I’ve ever seen – there were no big sources of light for miles and the sky was completely clear. That was a night to remember. I was struck by the simplicity of it all: I was alone in the desert. Nobody knew where I was, and nobody would know come morning. I hadn’t paid for a campground or a hotel room, yet I had one of the most memorable nights on my trip. I felt like a cowboy, a pioneer, an explorer, you name it. Content, alone and at peace.

I then drove into Zion where I spent the morning. I did a few short day hikes, including the trail to the mouth of the narrows:

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(yes, I did resort to taking selfies for this part of the trip)

In the afternoon I drove to Bryce Canyon. It’s about 2 hours of switchbacks with great views and one long tunnel. In Bryce, I did a day hike of the peek-a-boo loop and then trekked down into the canyon to spend a night in the backcountry. I camped in a valley that was surprisingly forested with plenty of trees to set up a hammock.

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I had one last brew from Deschutes to finish!

I had one last brew from Deschutes to finish!

The next morning I hiked out among the Hoodoos and was on the road again…

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Road Trip: Turning back east

Lizzy left from LAX, and I’m on my own for the next week and a half until I get back to the East Coast.

Just my luck, because soon after leaving California, the Saab broke down! I was stuck on the side of the road in the 110˚ degree heat with a car that would not start.

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A bit of backstory: Saab cars have had a direct ignition module (that sits on top of the spark plugs and replaces the distributor in traditional ignition systems) since the 1980’s. The DI system increases efficiency and is supposed to work better with turbocharged cars. All good things, except for when they fail! The DI module had already failed on this car once before, so I was prepared…

I pulled the spare DI out of my trunk (drive a Saab long enough, and you’ll always have one of those in the boot), undid the 4 torx screws and swapped it out. It started right up without issue! The spare thew a check engine light (it was loaned from a friend and not 100% functional, I ended up getting a brand new part in Denver), but I tightened the bolts and was on my way soon enough. Total time for repair: 10 minutes.

My next major stops were Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks in Southern Utah. I was excited to get back out in the wilderness after spending several days in California cities.


Road Trip: Santa Cruz to LA

We made our way down the Pacific Coast Highway again to stay with Lizzy’s other brother in LA. It was a beautiful sunny day and perfect for a drive. We stopped at the famous Carmel-by-the-Sea for a quick run to the beach. We also tried to visit Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, but the line for parking was SO long that we eventually bailed. 2015-06-20 10.17.20
Instead, we stopped at Cafe Kevah for a quick cup and to take in the views from the balcony.
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We didn’t drive Route 1 the whole way – it got crowded in the afternoon and really slowed down. Still, the portion I drove was windy, fun and filled with spectacular views.

We spent the night in LA: got some great Asian food for dinner, shared a few California beers, soaked in the hot tub and had a well-deserved rest. The next morning (after brunch, of course) I dropped Lizzy off at LAX and she headed back East. I was headed back East, too, but it would take much longer. Those updates to come soon!

Road Trip: Santa Cruz, CA

After our time roughing it in Yosemite, Lizzy and I were looking forward to the comfort of staying at her brother’s house in Santa Cruz, California. Comfort, and a shower. Probably more a shower than anything!

After we had cleaned up, and had some real food in us (no more of that freeze-dried backpacking stuff!) we spent the next day exploring the Santa Cruz area. We visited UCSC and the arboretum there, which had interesting exhibits of plants from semi-arid climates like Australia and New Zealand. Next was some coffee from Verve Coffee Roasters, an awesome shop on Pacific Ave in downtown Santa Cruz. They had a huge range of different roasts brewing, all of which were light roasts (I think I found my favorite coffee shop). The one I chose had distinctive orange peel notes and was delicious!

We then visited the Santa Cruz wharf and got some fresh shellfish for lunch. Stagnaro Bros is at the end of the wharf, and delivers quick to-go orders of their best stuff. We chose crab cocktail, shrimp ceviche cocktail and some clam chowder to go with it, all of which was delicious. We ate on the wharf with the herds of sea lions calling out beneath us.

We also visited Natural Bridges state beach, known for the walking trails, abundant butterflies and the beach, which had used to have three natural “bridges” made out of rock. Unfortunately, only one is still standing due the persistent erosion by wind and water.
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For dinner, we gathered some friends together (Kevin came to see us from Palo Alto!) and had a cookout at Davenport beach. My mouth is watering just thinking about everything we grilled! Not pictured: red snapper, chicken skewers, more vegetables. We hiked up a path close to the beach to catch a windy sunset, too. Have you ever seen a cloud that so closely resembled a shark?

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Road Trip: Yosemite National Park

I’ve been attached to Yosemite since I got into climbing freshman year at Brown, and I was thrilled I finally had a chance to visit the park. Lizzy and I planned to do a three day backpacking trip to really get out into the wilderness. She also hadn’t been backpacking before, so it was a great chance to teach her all about backcountry camping! We spent the first night in the Crane Flat campground so we could get a backcountry permit the day before starting our hike. We also explored Yosemite valley at this time, including the famed mirror lake (not pictured: half dome off to the right of the photo).
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For dinner that night: lentil curry that turned out way better than you would expect for camping stoves. It took about two hours of cooking, and we didn’t pack our bags as planned, but it was worth it!

The next morning we packed and headed to the chilnualna falls trailhead, the starting point of our hike. How’s that heavy pack feel?
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We were greeted by 5 miles of steep uphill terrain in 95 degree sun. Reaching the waterfall at the top was a perfect reward.. there were pools of water flowing into each other and eventually over a cliff, hundreds of feet down into the valley below. Perfect spot for lunch and an afternoon swim! 2015-06-16 13.05.50We spent the first night at a site a few miles upriver from the falls, and the second by a mountain lake. Every day we had spectacular views, mountain meadows and granite monoliths that had stood the test of time along the way.2015-06-17 17.58.43 2015-06-17 18.22.56

We covered about 20 miles over the three day trip, most of it on steep terrain. Not bad for a first-timer! Yosemite is a huge park with a wide range of different environments, though. We only scratched the surface of what it has to offer. I can’t wait until the next chance I get to explore more of the park!

Road Trip: California Coast

We were headed south, down to Yosemite National Park. The best way to drive in California (okay, maybe I’m a bit biased) is along the coast. The Pacific Coast Highway, made up of route 1 and 101, runs most of the West Coast and combines spectacular views with fun, windy roads. We stopped along the way at Cape Perpetua for some hiking along rough winds and surf.

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We spent one night in the Redwoods (Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park) and a second in Oakland, CA. First time driving over the Golden Gate! I hear it’s always this cloudy?

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Road Trip: Oregon

Lizzy and I spent two days exploring different sections of Oregon. The first night we camped at Columbia River Gorge and explored the surrounding area. We did a moderate hike up to a peak with a great view of the river and dams. It was windy at the top! We also hiked to some waterfalls in the surrounding valley.

Overall, the Columbia River Gorge area is a spot you should definitely check out – you could spend a few days visiting the different sites. Eagle creek campground gets five stars in my book.
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We spent the next day in Portland, visiting the rose garden, Japanese garden, and walking around the city.
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Some excellent beer in the evening (Stormbreaker Brewing has a great selection) and sushi for dinner rounded things out. Plus, our friend Mariya drove down from Vancouver and hung out with us!

Bonus photo: The remnants of an incredible Mexican Hot Chocolate donut from Blue Star Donuts the morning we left. So good!
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Road Trip: Seattle, Washington

My girlfriend Lizzy flew out to Seattle to join me for the next section of the trip – a tour down the West Coast. Our first day in the city was packed with visiting the interesting sites in downtown and West Seattle (where we were staying in an airbnb).

First stop: Pike Place Market. The famous indoor/outdoor market spans several blocks by the water in downtown Seattle. You’re immediately greeted by stalls of fresh fish, produce, craft-made everything. I think I became fifty bucks poorer just walking onto Pike street. Just look at this fish stall!

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We explored the market and stocked up on provisions for the next sections of the trip. Buckwheat honey (surprisingly good on oats), salmon jerky and Italian salami should drive away the mundane tastes of backpacking food. I also visited a few coffee shops to try some of Seattle’s famous brews, and eventually decided to take home a bag from Seattle Coffee Works. It tastes great in the new traveling french press I also picked up!

Downtown had some more interesting sights to check out, like the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum. Most of Dale Chihuly’s work is displayed in this indoor-outdoor museum. The color and scale of some of the exhibits are truly stunning.

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One thing I immediately noticed about Seattle in contrast to the East Coast: people are friendly out here. Not just fake “how’s it going” friendly. No. Actually friendly. Interested in talking to strangers and learning their story. I had a 20 minute conversation about traveling with a guy on a beach in West Seattle. Lizzy and I talked about farming and produce to a vendor in Pike Place, after which he gave us a great deal on the food we had lined up. I just can’t see these conversations happening in Boston or Providence. Time to start looking at grad schools in Washington? Maybe…

Road Trip: Grand Teton National Park

We wanted to spend a night in the backcountry in Grand Teton National Park, but all backcountry stays require a permit. The park saves a portion of the available permits for walk-in hikers, so we thought we had to get to the ranger station right when they opened to be guaranteed a spot. After waking up at 6am and hauling to the park (about an hour drive from Yellowstone) we were the only ones trying to get a permit for that day and got it with ease. Slightly tired, we drove to the trailhead and prepared to hike out to Lower Paintbrush Canyon for the night.

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The camping area was only a few hours from the trailhead, and we reached it with time to do a nice day-hike. We moved further up the canyon, trying to reach Holy lake. The views along the trail were incredible. We were surrounded by mountains on all sides, with lots of snow still visible in the distance.

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Soon we were hiking in snow, too! Straight up the canyon, kicking in to secure our footing.

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Time to reach the lake from the campsite: 2 hours
Time to get back to the campsite, hiking down hill, most of it sliding in the snow: 55 minutes
Quite a difference!

We spent the evening cooking and hanging out in camp and went to bed pretty early. In the morning, there was a moose staring into our camp! It noticed us, but didn’t seem to frightened… just went on munching on plants.

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Grand Teton National Park was my favorite wilderness experience of the trip so far, and I recommend anyone who gets a chance to seek it out. I’ll be back in the future to do the Teton Crest trail or some more intense hikes.

Tonight, we’re at a hostel in Teton Village (near Jackson and the park).

Days since last shower: 8
Feeling of a hot, prepared meal: Satisfying and well-deserved.
Sleep in a real bed: Looking forward to it.