Our 5,000 Mile Adventure
EVERYTHING WE LEARNED FROM driving ACROSS THE U.S.
TO Explore & CAMP IN THE WILDERNESS OF OUR NATIONAL PARKS
May & Jon
Owners of Kadzait Outfitters and experienced wilderness adventurers
We were starving for adventure.
We had the idea that we would meticulously plan every detail and execute this journey perfectly.
Here's what actually happened:
We only had accommodations for less than half of
our stops and we ended up getting into WAY more than
we bargained for (in a great way)
May just quit her job in Maryland and had over a month off before starting work down in South Florida.
We had just founded Kadzait Outfittters and had all this time to put toward anything we wanted.
Like most, the typical 50 hour a week job was not letting us quench our thirst for fresh mountain air and endless trails. We weren't exactly sure how long we should spend where, or what we should try to accomplish and see while we were on our way to...wherever it was we were attempting to go.
It was pretty early on in planning when we realized Yellowstone was the goal.
And we needed to camp in the backcountry to REALLY feel like we were there.
So we began to work backwards from there.
We decided we needed to spend the most amount of time inside that park, and we knew that we would probably have to hurry west since we're starting on the opposite end of the country, South Florida.
We also knew it would probably make the most sense to ditch the rental vehicle while we were out there and then fly home so we could maximize our time. (I highly recommend it)
We broke out a map and also called my friend who is an NPS Ranger in Yosemite for some advice.
After some talking, a good amount of coffee, and a TON of daydreaming we came up with this:
1) Atlanta: See the Georgia Aquarium and swim with Whale Sharks
2) Kansas City: Just passing through
3) Colorado Springs: Pikes Peak
4) Moab, UT: Arches NP
5) Springdale, UT: Zion NP
6) Yosemite NP, CA
7) Crater Lake NP, OR
7) Yellowstone NP, WY
8) Salt Lake City, UT for a couple of days of rest and then fly home!
like I said, we ended up throwing in a few surprises in there, and this list actually ended up adding
Las Vegas, NV
A valley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Mammoth Lakes, CA
Jackson Hole, WY
1- Georgia On Our Minds
" I surprised May on her birthday with a dip into the ocean-like tank with a 26' long whale shark named Trixie"
We opened up our adventure with a 12 hour drive to Atlanta to swim with Whale Sharks. The city is really cool, and the aquarium is voted one of the best in the world.
The Georgia Aquarium- This place has a 6.3 million gallon tank that's 3 stories tall. It houses schools of fish, manta rays that glide through the water with their 20' wide wing span, and 10 types of sharks in the tank including 4 whale sharks. You can swim with all of these creatures for about $234/person if you're not a member ($200/person for members)
SO WE DID!
I surprised May on her birthday with a dip into the ocean-like tank with a 26' long whale shark named Trixie. These sharks are the biggest fish in the world, with the largest recorded being 41' long. They can fit a small car in their mouths but they can only swallow krill and shrimp...
Good thing, because they brushed against us several times. They get right up to humans since they've been inoculated to our presence.
The cool thing about this aquarium is their conservation efforts. This place has a mission to study and preserve these beautiful animals both in the wild and in their tank. They've single-handedly advanced the field of research for all marine life in their studies.
2- ColoRADo Springs
"I thought the Rocky Mountains would be a little rockier. That John Denver was full of s%@*!"
We woke up in the morning drove 800 miles to Kansas City. We slept and then got right back on the road to drive the 600 miles to Colorado Springs.
And DAMN is Colorado beautiful!
The problem is, people know that, so there is quite a bit of traffic and bustle. But, we were getting closer to our backcountry expeditions, we just had to see Pike's Peak (again)
Pikes Peak- 12 miles west of downtown Colorado Springs, its 14,115 feet tall, easy to see Colorado Springs (and even Denver) from it's summit.
This photo was taken near the top of hiking trail up to the summit
You can bike, hike, drive, or take a train up to the top of the highest summit in the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.
The hike - can take 6-10 hours and you can spread it out over 2 days.
The bike- As far as biking goes, it's very long and not much relief. A 7% gradient on average, 7,750' of elevation gain over 25 miles. Ouch.
The drive- About an hour & not strenuous at all...and it's breathtaking the entire way up. Make sure to stop at Crystal Creek Reservoir where you can catch a glimpse of the picturesque peak set back behind cold blue water and a lush landscape. It's a Bob Ross painting in real life. So many happy trees.
The Train (closed for '18)- A really cool way to get up to the top. It's a cog railway which is only one of two in the US (the other is Mt. Washington) but it's closed for all of 2018 due to repairs :(
Here are the fees for driving up (updated 4/2018):
After driving up to the top, and hiking part of the way down (and then back up) we ended our day in Colorado Springs. And in the morning we'd be off to camp near Arches National Park!
We just wanted a cheap "hotel" close to the park, and this was definitely it. Not a bad view in the morning, either
We made the 430 mile trip to Moab, Utah to set up a tent near Arches National Park.
While we weren't camping inside the park, we were camping. Kinda.
Next to the truck.
Surrounded by loud tourists.
We just wanted a cheap "hotel" close to the park, and this was definitely it. Not a bad view in the morning, either.
We felt like we were kind of cheating with this "Car Camping" deal we had going on but we booked way too close to our trip and all the campgrounds were filled up.
What we learned- If you want to camp INSIDE a campground in Arches- you can reserve online through the NPS up to 6 months in advance (which is recommended). But there are hundreds of wilderness campsites through the BLM and dozens of RV/car campgrounds in the Moab area.
Into the furnace
We loved this hike the moment we laid eyes on the odd stone maze we were about to enter. The sun was pummeling the walls but it can't make it directly in to most of the Furnace, leaving you in shade to hike in comfort. We got lost on purpose and took our time enjoying the solitude away from the other visitors.
About 1 mile long and 1/2 a mile wide, this group of slot canyons is described by the NPS as a "natural labyrinth of narrow passages between towering sandstone walls. There is only one "path" with guided markers, no discernible trail, and usually no other people. Even wildlife is scarce. You'll see a few lizards, and if you're lucky a big horned sheep. The beauty of this hike is that it's almost a guarantee you'll get lost. And it's pretty easy to exit since if you walk long enough in any one direction you'll find your way out. We spent 8 hours wandering aimlessly, and it was one of the better experiences of the whole trip.
Most people are trying to find Surprise Arch (it really does sneak up on ya). Some of the canyons are only inches wide, some are a few feet, and some open areas are dozens of yards wide. It's a magical place to explore. It's also a fantastic place to boulder and/or scramble. The southern portion of the Furnace is a wide open area where more rounded rocks meet the slot canyon walls, a great spot for climbing around before the cool hike through the canyons.
Booking Your Permit- the need to know
1- You can only get them in person from the visitor's center. They do not hold or reserve them online, also they don't issue them if it's within 30 minutes of the visitor's center closing
2- You can purchase your permit up to 7 days in advance, they usually do not have permits for day-of
3- Max group size is 10 per permit
4- You're only allowed to hike in the daylight hours
GPS is notorious for not working well due to the height of the walls. A compass is nice but it's not a huge area, you can get out when you want.
We also checked out Delicate Arch, Double Arch, Park Avenue, Balancing Rock and devil's garden. We brought food and a propane cooker so we didn't have to waste time in the cafeteria
After some stops at the local brewery, and taking pictures of the landscape we called it a night. We were on the road to Zion in the morning!
The Zion Wilderness
"We couldn't help but have
this overwhelming feeling
of satisfaction that we were
leaving the world behind with
all of it's noise, crowds, smartphones
When most people think of Zion, they picture Angel's Landing, The Court of the Patriarchs, The narrows and a sea of people. Zion is one of the most populated National Parks. We decided to get into the backcountry to an area of the park that is seldom visited. We acquired a walk-up permit for the area of the park called Wildcat Canyon and loaded up gear with 4 days of food and water purification
We were finally getting to do what we intended when we were planning this expedition West. We started the drive at sunrise to the Wildcat Canyon trailhead, loaded up the packs, left the truck behind and set off into the woods with just our gear. We couldn't help but have this overwhelming feeling of satisfaction that we were leaving the world behind with all of it's noise, crowds, smartphones and hassle.
The Wildcat Canyon is a quiet, serene area of the park connecting to the west rim trail (you can do a 47 mile Trans-Zion trek that includes the west rim trail)
We hiked in about 6 miles and found the perfect spot overlooking wildcat canyon and set up camp. Wilderness camping means you don't need a designated site, as long as you are not visible from any trail.
Our camp was not far from a spring near lava point. When we found this "spring" it was very dried up from lack of rain and what was left was a small puddle obstructed by rocks.
No go for filling bottles. We had to ration our water and look for another water source.
We found a different source of water and we were set...after about 18 miles of hiking. But we brought PURINIZE, Iodine tabs (which we can't stand), and an emergency straw just to cover every base. So we filled up what we needed and brought it back to camp.
We ended up being right on the money with how much water we had left over at the end. Probably a little too close for comfort.
On the Wildcat Canyon trail below Lava Point at sunset
What we learned- Be wary with the water sources during the dry/hot months. The rangers are giving you the best information they have at the time about water flow, but things change. In the dry times, plan your campsite around at least 2 sources of water in case 1 doesn't pan out.
On our final morning, we woke up at sunrise and packed up. We were off to meet up with our friend who is an NPS ranger in Yosemite. So we loaded up into the truck and took off for Cali and left beautiful Zion in the rearview
Yosemite OR... Vegas??
We were in the truck with the windows down to air out our gear and whatever the smell we have been earning over the last several days.
We routed the address and notice we were passing conveniently close to Las Vegas.
So we decided a detour for 1 day was in order. We went on hotwire and booked a resort for a night on the strip. We laid by the pool, enjoyed several drinks, had a real shower, and even gambled for a bit. Also, we enjoyed several drinks.
Half of the fun of being on an adventure is the spontaneity and we love going with the flow. We usually stick to the parks, but this time we got to see Vegas which neither of us had seen so in that aspect we enjoyed the journey there!
So in the morning May is awfully hungover and we had quite a long, winding drive which I don't think she appreciated in the slightest.
NOW ON TO YOSEMITE
We arrived at our friend Paul's house at night, and couldn't get a reference for where we were in the park. We said our hellos, caught up over a beer (May had water) and then turned in for the night. When we woke up we saw we were in the Yosemite Valley. We were struck in awe by the fact that glacier point towered over his backyard. we thought: "People get to live here?!"
We spent the next couple of days doing all of the standard tourist sights. Paul guaranteed us some behind the scenes value to the area.
Everyone loves to go to the mist trail and see Vernal Falls, fewer make the extra miles to see Nevada Falls. But even less take the John Muir Trail (JMT) back down.
TIP- We HIGHLY recommend you take the JMT trail down, you'll get incredible views of Vernal Falls, Liberty Cap, and Half Dome's backside via some really fun switchbacks. While everyone is climbing up the Mist trail, you'll climb down a different route and get to see another part of the park!
The view of El Capitan from Sentinel Dome. Hike to this spot and get a 360 degree view of the valley
Yosemite Valley's hallmark and arguably the most visually striking part of the park, the granite domes are a big point of interest for a great reason.
We took the 1 mile hike up to Sentinel Dome during the day and made the drive to the Glacier Point overlook for some stargazing at night. These 2 spots are legendary for their night skies, check them out after sunset as well!
Sometimes they're flooded in the early spring, but they're ALWAYS beautiful.
We got to hike around May lake and Tenaya lake, 2 spots in the meadows that were matched in tranquility and beauty. The meadows has a main visitor center or you can see the lakes via pull-off sites along the roadway and hike around.
Hot Springs & Meteors
Paul asked very nonchalantly "What are your plans Friday?" May and I looked at each other and shrugged.
It's now midnight and we were following Paul outside the park to an area near Mammoth Lakes. We were driving in pitch black and what seemed to be off-road. After changing into bathing suits we followed Paul to a hot spring where some locals were setting up GoPros and their night lenses. The show was about to begin.
This was the biggest Perseid Meteor shower in 30 years. And we were hanging out in a hot spring with a front row seat drinking ice cold beer (it was about 40 degrees out). around 1am the skies started producing long streaks of bright light from the broken rocks colliding into the atmosphere above our hotspring. Paul didn't stay for too long, we parted ways that night as we were about to continue our journey to the North. We enjoyed the show for a few hours and then slept in the truck in that valley.
We had no idea
how cool the view was going to be when we woke up. We were surrounded only by the Sierras and desolation. It was time to pack up and head to Montana
One last piece of parting advice from Paul was to skip Crater Lake (since it was 80% on fire) and head to Chico Hot Springs in Pray, MT. We didn't have a reservation or any idea of what this place was, but in the spirit of how our spontaneity has been blessing us so far, we just headed that way.
It was a 17 hour drive, however.
Chico Hot Springs
Paul did not disappoint with his advice. This place is nestled in Big Sky Country with lots to do in the middle of nowhere!
We arrived at Chico pretty late and just passed out from the long drive. We left all gear in the truck and in the morning we got right to it and headed into Yellowstone. My sister was a Ranger in Montana at the time and was experienced in getting around Yellowstone, so she was going to meet up with us for some wilderness camping. But since we were here 2 days ahead of schedule we toured the park, and got our wilderness permits at the the main visitors center in Mammoth Hot Springs at the north entrance to the park.
Appropriately dubbed "The Serengeti of North America- we encountered everything from Eagles to Wolves. Bison roam freely here by the thousands
The yellowstone wilderness
You don't feel like a tourist anymore when you're keeping an eye out for bears and living outside of cellphone range
We checked out of Chico after a couple of nights there and made our way south to our new home for the next week: The northern rim of a volcano crater that exploded 640,000 years ago.
The beauty of this park lies in the areas not crowded with people. The land feels truly untouched, and if it weren't for the trails you would wonder if anyone had ever stepped foot there before. Our first day there we hiked in and set up camp, we got to explore a couple of lakes in the area. We cooked some dinner and called it a night.
This guy was in front of our tent every morning we were there, which was a pleasant start to each day.
I'm leaving out the part where I heard this Bison stepping in to our camp at night, and thinking it was a Bear. Not much sleep was had after that.
Each time we left camp to go "into the park" we saw bison, pronghorn and elk. Sometimes very close. It was just another reminder of how immersed we were in the land, especially when the animals looked uncomfortable that we were there. A sign that they don't encounter too many humans.
Each day in the park we spent doing day hikes, seeing the canyon, the geysers, wildlife and every other nook and cranny of the park we could get our hands on. At the end of each day we'd hike back into camp and make our dinner, sleeping under the stars next to our bison friend. It was everything we were hoping for during our planning phase of this trip. It was becoming apparent that our trip was nearing it's end as we were packing up camp for the last time at the end of our week. Vanessa said her goodbyes and went home to Montana as we headed farther south. We did have a problem though.
We were ahead of schedule since we never went to Crater Lake. We had reservations in Salt Lake City for the last 2 days of our adventure and nothing between now and then. We were passing through the Grand Tetons anyway and decided to check out Jackson hole, and hike around the Tetons. We'll figure out a place to stay when we drive towards civilization and cellphone range.
We decided on crossing Jenny Lake via ferry to hike up to inspiration point. We both found the hike to be moderate, but really soothing. The rivers, foot bridges and lush forest encapsulating the trail is nothing short of therapeutic. We thought the Tetons contained the most beautiful trails on the entire trip. Glad we saved them for last :)
We found a a place in Tetonia Idaho (an hour outside Jackson Hole) to sleep and made our way over there. The next day we had a relaxing visit through Jackson and at night we made the 5 hour drive to Salt Lake City.
We had driven over 5,000 miles between cities & Parks, not including what we drove when we got to each place. We had seen and done so many little things that I couldn't possibly fit into one blog post, and we'd done more than we'd planned on doing. The last couple of days spent in SLC were spent in the downtown area gorging on unhealthy and delicious food, and then going to a spa for very long massages. We experienced some inexplicably beautiful places that even pictures don't capture properly and we did it with endless smiles and laughter. I will always look back on this trip as one of the best times of my entire life and to do it with someone so special to me is what really made the whole trip. Find your park, and explore it with your family and true friends.
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About the Authors
Jon and May are the owners of Kadzait Outfitters. When they're not running the company, they're taking care of their dogs and cats and planning their next adventure.