Voices from the Road

Racing to the top: 17 days of driving and hiking our way across the U.S.

We stood at the base of the Avalanche Lake trail in Glacier National Park, contemplating the overfilled parking lot and growing crowd at 8 a.m. It would be 2 miles uphill to the lake, and our challenge to ourselves for the trek was “No one passes us on the way up.”

Over the course of 2 weeks, the theme of our road trip was speed. For a pair of former college runners who spent 2020 cooped up, a speedrun road trip was the perfect adventure.

As originally planned, this trip was going to bookend a family wedding. After our plans were set, the couple-to-be changed the wedding date, but we were still committed to the trip.

Buffalo and Big Sky Country

From the first full day, the goal was to get as far into North Dakota as possible. It started slow, with a highway speed limit of 55 mph inside Chicago that gradually increased as we made our way west, topping out at 80 mph in North Dakota. We made it to Jamestown, North Dakota, and visited the World’s Largest Buffalo. The first real buffalo, however, greeted us the next morning by the entrance sign to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Mountains and rock formations at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Getting lost along the Painted Canyon, the trail occasionally disappears amid layers of tan, red, and yellow sandstone. It’s not hard to imagine why the park’s namesake was inspired by this landscape for his nature conservation efforts as president. After a brief foray near one of the many prairie dog towns, it was time to leave the park and drive to Montana.

Our final stop of the day took us to Little Bighorn Battle National Monument where we witnessed the site of General Custer’s infamous charge. Noticeably recent additions of a memorial and Native headstones show how far we still have to go in acknowledging the complicated history of this site.

The next day, we headed northwest to Glacier National Park, where snow-capped mountain peaks rose above rolling plains, putting truth to the name “Big Sky Country.” For the first time on the trip, we allowed ourselves to slow down and soak in the grandeur of the scene. Staying immediately adjacent to the park’s South Entrance, we finally had more than one day without driving. 

A stream with logs and downed trees in it and mountains in the background at Glacier National Park.

Even though the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road was closed to traffic at higher elevations, there were still plenty of hikes around Lake McDonald to keep us busy. In Glacier we experienced alpine lakes and rushing torrents of glacial meltwater; expansive plains, dense cedar forests, and rainforest microclimates. 

Taste-testing through the Northwest

One day’s respite was all we got, and then it was on to Seattle. There we met up with family on the originally-planned wedding weekend, where we mostly took a culinary tour of the city: sushi at Aoki, lunch at Dick’s Drive-In, beer at Holy Mountain, and most importantly, taste-testing petit fours for the wedding. 

The journey west continued into the Olympic Peninsula. In Olympic National Park we stepped into a fern-floored forest, spotting enormous banana slugs along the Hall of Mosses trail. A short drive to the coast later and the animal-spotting continued with green anemones and yellow, orange, and purple starfish nestled among the nooks and crannies of Ruby Beach’s tide pools. 

We had finally made it to the Pacific Ocean, continuing south along Oregon’s rugged, windswept coastline. Following an overnight stay in architecturally-beautiful Astoria, Oregon, we made it to the sea stacks at Cannon Beach, then turned inward toward Bend.

In Bend, we had the good fortune of staying at the now-listed AirBnb of extended family members, who used us as beta testers to make sure their place was ready to rent (it absolutely was). Bend definitely deserved a longer visit, with extensive recreation options including mountain biking, beer, hiking, bungee jumping, rafting, a man-made whitewater course, and more beer. The nice thing about driving was that it was easy to take a few six-packs from our favorite breweries home with us.

Although Bend may have been our temporary home base, we had more to see. First was a morning trip to Crater Lake, a brief, but stunningly beautiful stop. Next was a day trip to Eugene’s TrackTown, USA, where real speed was on display at the newly-completed Hayward Field, home to the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. 

Out-of-this-world views

After a few days hopscotching around Oregon, it was time to leave Bend and make the big drive to Idaho Falls. Idaho felt otherworldly, thanks to Craters of the Moon National Monument, used by the Apollo 14 astronauts as training grounds for volcanic geology before their trip to the moon. 

Leaving Idaho, we headed to two of the most popular parks in the national park system, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. We figured that we would have to race other visitors to (and within) each park—and the line to enter Yellowstone proved that idea correct. 

With the sights and smells of Yellowstone, it’s no wonder why this became the world’s first national park in 1872. Yellowstone is very much a drive-through park. This makes it one of the more accessible, and thus more crowded parks, which almost ruined our experience. Thankfully we move quickly, and this was our biggest hiking day, with nearly 11 miles of ground covered, mostly before 2 p.m.

The crowds continued just to the south of Yellowstone in Grand Teton National Park, but so did the spectacular views. Rising abruptly from sagebrush plains, the Teton Range may have been the most picturesque of all the alpine vistas we visited. 

After more hiking and kayaking the following morning, we found respite in the cabins at the Togwotee Mountain Lodge. From there it was a drive through ruby-red gorges and basaltic scarps across Wyoming to another volcanic formation, Devils Tower National Monument. With a full visitor center parking lot, we had no choice but to hike 1.5 miles up to the base of the tower. That turned out to be a better experience anyway, as the Red Beds Trail was empty and offered beautiful views of the geometric cinder cone, the Black Hills, and red clay riverbanks.

Challenge completed

Finally we hit the homestretch with one more national park to bookend our trip, Badlands in South Dakota. Traipsing through the Notch Trail, through striated sandstone spires and up a wood-runged ladder, it was easy to get lost. The landscape was extreme, harsh, and different from any we’d experienced before, which made for a perfect finale. 

Rock formations featuring unique stripes and colors due to wind and water erosion

As we pulled into the garage at the end of 17 days on the road, we reveled in the ultimate measure of a successful trip: On all of our hikes, no one was able to pass us.

Meet the Roadtripper

Danielle Kauffmann