8 National Parks in 10 Days – The Best Outdoor Variety Road Trip Itinerary

We began planning for the 2019 BROad Trip during the summer of 2018. While our friendship has traditionally revolved around a shared love of music and BBQ – we decided this trip would focus on exploring America’s natural beauty. Specifically, our goals were to:

  • Visit as many national parks as possible in 10 days
  • Hike the famous Half Dome in Yosemite National Park
  • See a grizzly bear and not die
  • Convince Laj not to sleep through the entire trip
  • Explore a range of landscape features (our resident geologist, Eric, might have influenced this plan)
  • Still find some BBQ

In this article, we will outline the steps to take when planning a hiking/camping focused road trip. Then, we’ll discuss our trip itinerary, along with some specific guidelines for renting a car, finding camping gear, reserving campsites, and packing. Finally, we provide some tips for making the road trip (especially any long driving portions) more interesting! 

This post is the main hub for our first National Park Road Trip (June 2019) – for more information and advice about each stop of the trip, please see the links below.

The best picture ever taken of Eric – he insisted it lead off this article. Wearing shorts in a snowstorm? Savage.

Steps for Planning a Road Trip

Planning a trip can be daunting, especially one which requires so many advance reservations. Flights, vehicles, campsites, permits … where to start? Here we will provide some advice about the steps to take while planning a hiking/camping focused road trip. Work with your friends, and take it one tier at a time!

The first challenge is deciding when to embark on your trip. This is largely dependent on the parks/areas you wish to visit. For example, while Grand Teton National Park is open year round, many roads are closed in the winter. The best month to visit is September, when the entire park is accessible, Aspens bloom, and the summer crowds leave. We traveled in June due to work restrictions in other months. Compromises are necessary! Figure out what dates work for your group – the first step is to request/take time off (if necessary). 

Once the dates are set and you know how much time you’ll have for the trip as a whole, it’s time to start building an itinerary in broad strokes. No need to decide on specific hikes or pit-stops, just the parks, forests, and highlights you want to visit. This is important because the general itinerary outline determines what airports you will fly in/out of (if members of your group are flying). At this point, buy plane tickets. Everything else will be worked out in time – the trip is official!

A few notes on flying versus driving from home. Clearly, flying might be necessary if some members of your group live across the country. It also saves time at the start and end of the trip, and allows access to more of the country. Equally obvious, flying can be expensive (especially given the added cost of needing to rent a car). We’ll let you weigh these factors on your own.

Now it’s time to split up responsibilities within your group. We recommend creating a google doc, sharing it with everyone, and getting on a phone call to hash a few things out. In the shared document, allocate and record the following duties: 

  • Reserving the rental car (see below)
  • Renting camping gear (see below)
  • Booking hotel rooms (if necessary – for example, at the very beginning/end of the trip)

And then, assign one person to “take over” each stop of the road trip. If similar to our itinerary, the easiest delineation is by National Park – one person to take responsibility for planning all aspects of Arches, one to make all reservations at Yosemite, etc.

The point-person for each section of the road trip needs to plan the following three things: Where to leave the car, where to hike, and where to camp. Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, important considerations vary from place to place – and here we refer the reader to our posts for individual parks (see below!).

Trip Itinerary

America has a wide range of natural landscapes – many of which are protected within our National Parks. Although the crowds can be severe in the summer months, we decided to make these parks (and the most spectacular hikes we could find) the target of our 2019 road trip. Following recommendations from friends and family and extensive googling, we settled on the following itinerary:

Alex and Laj live on the East Coast, so these destinations required a bit of flying. We decided to fly into Jackson, WY at the beginning of the trip because it put us right at the mouth of the Tetons, and prices were not much higher than Bozeman or Cheyenne. On the other hand, we drove a bit further at the end of the trip to depart from San Francisco, because we were able to find cheap tickets. Beware these “open-jaw” itineraries! While flight prices are not too different from equivalent-distance round-trip bookings, open-jaw car rentals are quite a bit more expensive than round-trips. This should be a consideration when choosing destinations.

Although we planned our route in advance, we made some impromptu adjustments. Here, we hopped out of the car to stop foot in Idaho for a few minutes (very exotic).

Renting a Car

Most of our readers are probably familiar with how to rent a car. If so, feel free to skip ahead to the bullet points below, where we highlight some considerations to keep in mind for a road trip specific car rental. 

As a first step, we recommend using a site like kayak to search through rental options. Simply enter your dates, pickup and dropoff locations, and the site will populate options from a number of different rental agencies. These agencies market vehicles by class: the wording might vary, but these are generally Small, Medium, Large, SUV, and Van. After choosing a rental agency and class of car (see considerations below), you should book with the agency directly (e.g., Hertz, Budget etc.). This is because, should any issues arise (rebookings, insurance claims etc.), it is much easier to deal with the rental agency directly rather than working with a middleman. 

Clearly, price will be an important factor when choosing a car. In addition, keep the following things in mind:

  • Don’t be afraid to pay a bit more for a larger vehicle, for comfort. Although the parks and other destinations will be the highlights of your trip, you will be spending a significant amount of time in the car.
  • Speed limits in remote areas are really high. On our trip, we could go 90 mph (e.g., outside of Death Valley) and still get passed on both sides. This is another motivation to drive a larger vehicle that can sit more comfortably at high speeds.
  • Some agencies place mileage restrictions on their rentals (with additional fees per mile above the limit). Make sure you read this fine print – and either calculate the expected mileage of your trip to ensure you will not incur additional fees, or find a rental with unlimited mileage.
  • If you expect to encounter any dirt roads (to reach remote trail heads, for example), consider a vehicle with 4 wheel drive.
  • Purchase insurance! It’s no secret that rental agencies make a significant portion of their revenue from insurance premiums – and this indicates that most of the time, insurance is not necessary. Some people use this rationale to justify not buying insurance. However, you will be driving an unfamiliar car, in unfamiliar places – often for long stretches of time. You might consider yourself a great driver – but everyone in your group will have to take the wheel at some point! We think it’s a smart safety net. It will give you peace of mind, at the very least. 
    • Note: many credit card companies offer rental car damage protection as part of their cardholder policy. You should check your policy before making the decision to purchase insurance from the rental car agency.

We rented a Toyota 4Runner, and honestly – this vehicle class (SUV) was one of the best decisions we made when planning the trip. Ample room in the trunk for all our gear, a large gas tank (fill up when you can … we admit to being a bit nervous when approaching Death Valley), and a roomy backseat where Laj predictably conked out during all driving sections longer than 30 minutes.

The Bug Slayer’s final toll, as we approached the end of our trip in California.

Although the 4Runner started off pristine, we soon discovered that Idaho is literally filled with bugs. They all ended up on our windshield. From that point on, we dubbed our car The Bug Slayer and vowed to not wash its windshield for the remainder of the trip.

Renting Camping Gear

Having the right gear is essential for a successful camping road trip. Although Eric owned his gear (pretty much a requirement living in Colorado), Alex and Laj decided to rent the essentials for the trip. Here are the gear rental basics:

  1. Find an outfitter (see below)
  2. Choose the gear you would like to rent (pre-bundled kits are the most economical)
  3. Provide the date, and the shipping address where you’d like the outfitter to send your gear
  4. If you’d like to pre-pay for return shipping, provide the end location of your trip

The decision of renting vs buying should be based on price value, and therefore your future plans. For example – our gear rental price per person was approximately $200 (more details below), while a nice backpacking backpack can cost upwards of $350 alone. The math is pretty clear: if this is a “once in a lifetime” trip, rent. If you plan on camping more in the future, buy some gear! However, we can’t deny it is very convenient to avoid cleaning and transporting gear by renting.

After extensive research, we ended up renting from Mountain Side Gear Rental, a Colorado based company with good reviews and relatively low prices. We chose the 2 person backpacking kit, which comes with:

  • 1 Two-person tent (tan colored tent in the left of the picture below)
  • 2 Big Agnes down sleeping bags (choice of degree rating)
  • 2 Klymit inflatable air pads
  • 2 backpacks with rain covers (choice of size)
  • 1 backpacking stove
  • 1 GSI Pinnacle Dualist cook-set
  • 2 Black Diamond headlamps with batteries
  • 1 First aid kit (Sealed. Additional charge if opened)
  • 1 Set waterproof matches
  • 1 50′ Paracord (rope)
  • 1 Military-style can opener
  • 1 Biodegradable camp soap
  • 1 Plastic backpackers trowel
Our tents withstanding the snow (and probably several Grizzly bears). The tan tent on the left came with the gear rental, Eric’s North Face tent is on the right.

This is a truly complete kit for two people! Pricing is based on the length of your trip – our price was $338 for 8 nights, $406.78 after pre-paying for shipping both ways. We recommend having your gear shipped to a hotel, convenient to the start of your trip. Most hotels will be willing to accept a shipment on your behalf (though they will be more willing if you are actually staying at that hotel during your first night, as we did at the 49’er Inn and Suites in Jackson, WY). Mountain Side will ship your gear to arrive the day before you arrive, to compensate for potential UPS shipping delays. 

This should go without saying, but make sure you call a location before addressing your shipment, to make sure they are willing to accept on your behalf! Mountain Side will email you with a tracking number after shipping, for your peace of mind – likely the case with other rental companies as well.

Overall, Alex and Laj were happy with their gear. Here are some specific comments:

  • When booking, you will have to choose a pack size. These are either large, female-specific, or youth – should be pretty easy to determine!
  • The two options for sleeping bag temperatures are 0 and 25 degree (F). These specifications are what temperature the bag will keep you safe at – not necessarily comfortable. Alex and Laj got the 25 degree bags, and were completely miserable during our first night in the Tetons when the temperature dropped well below freezing. While zero-degree bags are typically a bit heavier, make sure you keep an eye on the predicted weather, and factor in temperature changes with elevation.
  • Keep in mind: this kit comes with one tent, so make sure you are willing to get cozy! You will split up the tent pieces between the two bags while hiking, to distribute the weight.
  • Laj’s inflatable sleeping pad would not stay inflated. This was obviously a comfort issue – but the sleeping pad can also be an important insulative layer between you and the cold ground. We think this was an isolated issue – the quality and reliability of the rest of our gear from Mountain Side was top-notch.
  • We appreciated that the backpacks had a detachable day-pack. This was helpful for a few shorter day-hikes (when we just wanted to carry water and sunscreen, for example) including the summit of Half-Dome.
  • The “backpacking stove” in this kit might be confusing to new backpackers. The piece looks like this, and is essentially an ignitor that screws into the top of an isobutane-propane fuel canister. The kit does not come with fuel – you will have to pick some up before the trip. Luckily, these fuel canisters are standardized. Keep an eye out for 7/16 thread canisters – likely in the camping section of any walmart, etc. We were very happy with this style of stove. It’s lightweight and simple to use – in fact, much more user-friendly and stable than the style of stove that Eric brought: the MSR WhisperLite.

Although our rental experience was smooth, Alex and Laj have since purchased gear of their own, and won’t need to rent again in the future.

Eric and Alex using their detachable day-packs at Bryce. Any heavier, and they would probably tumble off the edge.

Reserving Campsites

In general, it is essential to reserve campsites and backcountry permits as early as possible, because visitation numbers at America’s national parks increase almost every year. The number of park visits has increased by 3% since 2018, and 15% over the last 10 years. Doesn’t sound like much? That’s 327 million trips in 2019! 

Here we’d like to provide a few general thoughts about reserving campsites and permits. For more detailed information by location, see our posts about individual stops (such as Yosemite) on the road trip. 

Remember to factor in driving time when finding campsites. Don’t pick a site that requires a long hike, if you’ll be driving all day to get to the park and therefore starting out late. However, as long as you make reservations, there is no need to worry about arriving at your destination late in the day. For example, we didn’t reach our Sequoia campsite until nighttime (about 9pm), but nobody had swiped our spot, even though the area was quite crowded.

If spending any time in the backcountry – please keep safety in mind. We are the first to admit how awesome it would be to see a bear in the wild … and not die. There are a few measures you simply have to take around your campsite:

  • Place food, garbage, cooking implements, personal hygiene products, and the clothing you wore while preparing food, in a bear canister, bear bag, tree- or pole-hung bag or provided metal food locker.
  • Place sleeping areas at least 100 yards away from cooking and food storage areas.
  • Keep a flashlight and bear spray in your tent at night.

Packing Recommendations

Some people simply don’t like packing, or get stressed trying to anticipate what they will and won’t need on a trip. This is especially true for new experiences – in this case, for those new to road trips, and/or backpacking! Here we will provide some guidance on packing road-trip, hiking, and camping related items – not obvious necessities like underwear.

First, let’s talk about clothing. Obviously, you can wear whatever you want in the car – just be comfortable. But remember, there is no place for dirty clothes to go! We recommend bringing a trash bag to store used/smelly items, so your friends won’t hate you. Packing for the hiking and camping legs of your journey requires a bit more thought:

  • Don’t bring cotton socks. Most blisters are caused when moisture builds up on your skin, making it more susceptible to normal rubbing within the shoe. Your socks should be made with some material that wicks moisture away from your foot (cotton does not do this). Wool is a good option, like REI’s Darn Tough line.
  • It is important to dress in layers when hiking, because it allows you to better control your body temperature.
  • If you don’t care about being stylish, zip-off pants are actually pretty great! Laj swears his pants are his favorite piece of gear!

Alex loved wearing the Proof 72-Hour Merino Tee, which is designed to wick moisture and resist odors for up to 3 days (reducing packing weight).

Alex on hour number 1 out of 72, before his magical shirt started to smell.

Next, let’s discuss some must-have gear. Again, this is not an exhaustive list – just some items we could not live without on our trip:

  • Invest in a nice pair of hiking boots. Getting blisters is the worst, and quality brands really do make a difference. We recommend trying on different styles at a store (like REI) rather than buying online, because brands have subtle fit differences. We like Merrell boots.
  • If you do start developing a blister, you’ll be glad to have some moleskin to cover and protect the raw area.
  • Bug spray and sunscreen … goes without saying.
  • Don’t forget to bring a roll of toilet paper (stored in a zip lock bag, so it can’t get wet in your pack) and a trowel (aka a “shit shovel” as we call it).
  • Sleeping bags don’t typically come with pillows. Although a rolled up fleece sweater (for example) works just fine, Eric really loves his packable pillow.
  • If you want to test your survival skills, bring a knife and some paracord.
  • The backpacking kit discussed above comes with these items, but for those bringing their own gear, make sure to remember a headlamp (makes it easier to pee at night), a first aid kit, a cooking stove, a mess kit, and some dishwashing soap

If you will be traveling in bear country, you’ll want to bring some bear spray. For obvious reasons, you are not allowed to bring bear spray on a plane … but, you are also not allowed to pack it in checked luggage. As we discuss in our Tetons article, we picked up bear spray in Jackson, WY at the very beginning of the trip. One tip: in towns like Jackson, many tourists purchase bear spray, don’t use it (bear encounters are uncommon, after all), and then leave it in their hotel or rental car. So, rather than buying a can at the store – try asking at the front desk of hotels and rental agencies! We got our can from the Budget Rental Car office. This does require a bit of trust, so please exercise caution – at the very least, ensure your can is not super old or used.

Keeping Sane While Driving

If this is your first rodeo, you and your friends might get sick of driving … very quickly. As exciting as it may be to focus on planning hikes and brewery stops – here are a few pieces of advice, from a group of friends that have survived tens of hours stuffed in a car together:

  • Before your trip, collaborate on a music playlist. Here’s a link to our classic-rock themed playlist on Spotify.
  • Keep in mind: the responsibility of the driver is to not kill everyone, the responsibility of the person riding shotgun is to stay awake, give directions, and play music, and the responsibility of those in the backseat is to not complain and research food options.
  • Speaking of food, eat meals on the road whenever possible, because it’s easier than lugging a bunch of food around while hiking and camping. 
  • Consider buying bags of sunflower seeds for long stretches of driving – and get some cups for seed shells at a gas station. Seeds (what we call crack pods) are the perfect road trip snack because they’ll keep you occupied for hours without filling you up.

Final Thought

Our final overarching piece of advice is this: Sometimes, the best parts of road trips – certainly the most memorable – occur in places that you encounter by chance. Stop EVERYWHERE that might be interesting. You won’t regret it, but you might regret passing something by.

How could we pass this place by?

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