It may sound cliche, but we all had the time of our lives on the National Parks Road Trip #1 last summer. Honestly, what could be better than exploring beautiful parks, making food by the campfire, and drinking at every brewery we drive past? Needless to say, we started planning for the next adventure immediately, with the following goals:
- See more of the Tetons. On our first trip, we were hit by a snowstorm during our time in Grand Teton National Park, which severely limited our hiking, sightseeing, and basic survival chances.
- Visit as many national parks as possible. It can be a struggle to plan an itinerary which hits several parks, with enough time to enjoy them – especially when you can’t take unlimited time off work!
- Not die from bears, bison, or COVID. The risk from each was mitigated by a basic policy of not being stupid. Just view from a distance.
- Become one with our inner Teddy Roosevelts. It turns out that Laj was really looking forward to visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park. His sleeping pad popped on night #1, and to him, finishing the trip without patching or replacing it was akin to Teddy finishing his speech after getting shot. Badass.
In this article, we will discuss our trip itinerary, and then outline the steps to take when planning a hiking/camping focused road trip – including some specific guidelines for renting a car, reserving campsites, and packing. Finally, we provide a venison jerky recipe and some tips for taking advantage of opportunities you might stumble upon while exploring.
This post is the main hub for our second National Park Road Trip (July 2020) – for more information and advice about each stop of the trip, please see the links below.
Steps for Planning a Road Trip
So you want to plan a road trip with your friends – one where some people need to fly across the country, where you will need to reserve a vehicle, multiple campsites, and permits, perhaps buy some equipment, clothing, and food? It can be daunting!
Rather than repeat advice, we’d like to refer you to our last trip post, where we discuss our strategy for planning – which involves designating a “point-person” for each aspect of the trip. This might be an individual destination (where the point-person determines where to leave the car, where to hike, and where to camp) or a task like reserving a rental car.
Important considerations for the point-person will vary from place to place – and here we refer the reader to our posts for individual parks (see below!).
We are not ashamed to say that our itinerary changed about 15 times leading up to, and even during, our trip. For example, we had originally planned to explore Banff National Park, but Coronavirus-related restrictions prevented us from entering Canada. We also wanted to visit Glacier National Park, but its eastern entrance was likewise closed – so we decided to postpone to a time when we can fully experience the area (you’re welcome).
Despite these limitations, we created an itinerary that satisfied every goal listed above. From the severe mountain peaks (and grizzly bears) of Wyoming, to the endless grasslands and barren “badland” buttes of the Dakotas – with every pizza and brewery destination along the way – this trip will satisfy your inner desire for both nature and calories. Here are the stops:
- Boulder, CO – Luckily for Eric, he lives a lot closer to the epic parks of the west, the incredible national beauty of the United States … basically just a better part of the country than Alex and Laj. So the trip started with Alex and Laj flying into Denver, with an overnight at Eric’s apartment in Boulder. We gathered supplies and our epic road trip vehicle (see below).
- Grand Teton – We barely scratched the surface of the Tetons last year, and were excited to stay in a different backcountry campsite, and go on a long hike into the canyons this time around.
- Yellowstone – Thermal pools, mosquitoes, beautiful lakes, mosquitoes, exploding beers, and tourists.
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park – Imagine the Conservationist President designed a national park by hand, threw in some wild horses and prairie dogs, and accidentally added in way too many bison. Oh, and you can camp wherever you want. Interested?
- Badlands National Park – Sorry, too incapacitated from heat stroke to write a blurb here.
- Wind Cave National Park – Probably a really cool destination, if the elevator into the cave (aka the entire park) weren’t broken.
We ended the road trip where we started, in Boulder, CO. This allowed Laj and Alex to book cheaper (round trip vs open-jaw) flights – always an important consideration. The rental car was also less expensive this way. Boulder is also an amazing destination for craft beer! We’ll have a post coming out soon on this subject – if Eric can stop being lazy and write it.
Renting a Car
Car rentals are pretty straightforward, although sometimes expensive transactions. Many of you have likely done this before – and if that’s the case, feel free to skip to the list below, where we cover some considerations specific to this type of hiking road trip.
We recommend using a site like kayak to sort through rental car options, because it will aggregate options from several agencies at once, and help you compare prices. Simply enter your dates, pickup and dropoff locations, and the vehicle class (i.e. compact, large, SUV, etc.). After finding your perfect car, we recommend going to the agency’s website (e.g., Hertz, Enterprise etc.) to book – because we have found it easier to deal with the company directly if issues arise (e.g., potential insurance claims) compared to working through a middleman. Another thing to keep in mind is that rentals at airports are often more expensive than picking up a rental car elsewhere. The convenience might be worth it, but you will pay for it! We rented from an agency located in Broomfield, CO, which was 30 minutes from the Denver airport.
Obviously, price will be an important factor when choosing your car. In addition, keep the following things in mind for this type of trip:
- Some agencies place mileage restrictions on their rentals. Make sure you read the fine print on this subject, 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. This has not been an issue with our trips, but the zombie apocalypse could happen at any time, so we always opt for the 4WD just in case.
- Don’t be afraid to pay a bit more for a larger vehicle, for comfort. Of course, your group will make the final decision about where to spend your money, but you will be spending a significant amount of time in the car.
- Speed limits in remote areas are really high. It was not uncommon to hit 90 mph on our trip (e.g., through Montana) and still get passed by others, presumably chasing the cannonball record. This is another motivation to drive a larger vehicle that can sit more comfortably at high speeds.
- Don’t purchase insurance through the rental agency! At least – not without considering this: many credit card companies offer insurance for rental car purchases, if the rental is paid with the card. We paid with an American Express card, which did provide coverage (for no additional cost). It’s worth looking into. Note that in our last article we did recommend buying insurance … live and learn!
For this trip, Eric was put in charge of renting the car, because he lives in Boulder and was able to pick up the vehicle locally. We were able to find a “standard” class vehicle (advertised as a “Ford Fusion or Similar”) 9-day rental for just $200, including unlimited mileage. This was through Enterprise – but we’re not going to lie, this was a fantastic deal, which you will have trouble replicating. Keep in mind that this transaction occurred during COVID, where rental agencies’ business was struggling. Supply and demand!
When Eric arrived at the Enterprise office, they offered him the choice between two cars: a Jeep Cherokee, and a 2-door Chevy Camero Super Sport. It remains unclear why either of these would be considered similar to a Ford Fusion, and also presented an almost impossible decision. Choose the sensible Cherokee, with plenty of room for bags and people – or the Camero, which would be 20x more fun to drive, but would force Laj to ride in the trunk. It took an almost superhuman effort of self sacrifice for Eric to take the Jeep. And the Bug Slayer 2.0 was born.
The Bug Slayer 2.0? An affectionate name-sequel to our rental car for the previous road trip, which collected every bug in Idaho on its once-pristine windshield. Big shoes to fill, but the Cherokee performed admirably (especially through the Dakotas, where bugs became baked-on during 100+ degree heat). The car also had ample room in the trunk for all our gear, a large gas tank, and a roomy backseat where Laj predictably conked out during all driving sections longer than 30 minutes.
Unfortunately, the front windshield also caught a kicked-up rock while traversing Montana, and chipped. As we mentioned above, the credit card would have covered damage like this – but the rental car agency actually never charged us for it. Good luck to finish off our trip!
Here we’d like to provide a few general thoughts about reserving campsites and permits. For more detailed information by park/location, see our posts about individual stops on the road trip.
The most important thing is booking as far in advance as possible. For some parks like Yosemite, the booking window opens almost 6 months in advance, and desirable sites/permits are taken in just a single day! The number of visitors to America’s national parks rises every year, and the reservation systems are aimed at keeping crowds at manageable levels. Don’t wait until the last minute!
A quick note from our trip last year: remember to factor in driving time when finding campsites. This really only matters if you also have to hike to the site, but if you’ll be driving all day to get to the park, you might be starting out later than planned. However, as long as you make reservations, there is no need to worry about somebody swiping your spot.
It turns out that we are still not perfect planners, so we’d like you to learn from our mistakes. In addition to considering driving time, it is also essential to evaluate the amount of hiking required to reach each camping site! Between the Tetons and Yellowstone, we hiked almost 50 miles in 3 days. Much of this was required, just to reach our campsites each night. While we don’t regret either campsite location (in fact, they were both incredible) necessarily – we do wish we had planned for more rest between destinations!
Following from the last point, we recommend choosing a centrally located campsite, relative to the hikes on your itinerary. In the Tetons, for example, the hike on our itinerary required an additional ~4 miles (each way) just to reach the trailhead from our campsite.
There are two types of people: those who love packing for trips, and those who despise it. All three of us fall into the first category – making group lists about packing ideas, sharing links of things to buy, and practicing setting up tents months in advance. Here, we want to provide some tips – especially for those in category #2 above.
However, before we start, we’d like to spit things up into 3 categories. First, there are some items that you should simply know to pack, such as toothpaste and some deodorant. Your friends will thank you, and we won’t bother covering them here. Second, there are many items we discuss in our previous post which we 100% stand behind, including recommendations for clothing, gear, and bear safety items. Please check out those notes for potential life savers. And third: the packing recommendations that we discovered on this trip. That’s what we’ll discuss here:
- A mosquito net that sits around your face and neck. Alex was the only one in our group with the foresight necessary to combat the hordes of mosquitoes in the Tetons and Yellowstone with anything approaching sufficient defense. We recommend this one.
- A light top layer to cover skin. The rich get richer, and Alex was also able to protect his arms with this lightweight, breathable top layer – perfect for hiking and combating the apocalyptic hordes of mosquitoes we wandered into.
- Flamethrower for the mosquitoes. OK – we’ll stop beating this dead horse now.
- Fire-starting tinder “tabs.” Look, we aren’t all boy scouts, and sometimes it’s hard to start a fire with sticks and a lighter. We used some of these tabs and it made the job much easier.
- Butane torch lighter. This style of lighter works quite well with the tinder tabs, and is a bit easier on your thumbs.
- A lightweight towel. We went for an epic swim in Leigh Lake at the base of the Tetons, and our hike back to the campsite was much improved with a super light towel.
- High quality camera. So far, all of our pictures have been taken with our cell phones. It’s true that phone cameras have improved immensely over the years, but they generally lack in zoom and exposure adjustments. This is obviously a personal preference, but we have decided to invest in a better camera for future trips. If you like to relive experiences through photography, it might be worth the money.
- The RIGHT camping stove. There are a few choices of styles of camping stove. Some ignition systems screw directly on top of the isobutane fuel source, and some sit to the side, with a system of tubes. We highly recommend the former, for simplicity and stability – something like this.
- Paracord. One of the ultimate multi-use items, for many unforeseen challenges. We used paracord to lift our backpacks (filled with food and other bear attractants) into the trees in Yellowstone, so we didn’t die. Some paracord options can be unraveled to provide fishing line, tinder, snare line, and other survival-oriented lines.
Finally, let’s talk about backpacks and day-packs. Like a good set of hiking boots, we believe that a comfortable and sturdy backpacking pack is worth the money – especially since it will last you for years to come. We found that smaller day-packs are also essential for trips like this – carrying the massive backpacking bag on shorter day hikes (from the campsite, for example) would be unwieldy.
Eric has the Gregory Baltoro 75, which is on the expensive side – but comes with a few accessories, such as a day-pack that sits inside the main compartment when not in use, and an included waterproof cover. The main compartment unzips from the front, providing easy access to all items, and the waist buckle has a smaller (waterproof) compartment for holding your cell phone, etc.
Alex bought the Osprey Volt 60 and the Talon 11. The Volt also comes with an integrated raincover, and some straps on the outside to hold a sleeping pad (so you don’t have to give up room within the bag). Alex was able to easily fit the day-pack within his larger bag when we hit the backcountry. Laj has the L.L. Bean White Mountain 70, which is a top value option (purchased for under $100, but still great quality from a known brand). None of us had any problems with our packs, but it’s important to remember that all of these bags are adjustable to match individual torso sizes. Laj had to adjust a bit on the fly, which was not an issue.
Let’s Talk About Food
If you’ve ever been on a long hike, you know that the PB&J sandwich you enjoyed at the end (squished by your water bottle or not) was the best tasting food you’ve ever had. This is an illusion – seriously, pizza out of a brick oven is way better. On our trip, we made every effort to eat in amazing restaurants and breweries, in between hikes, whenever possible. For specific recommendations on these, see our posts!
Still, it was sometimes necessary to cook food around the campfire. We’re not complaining about it – there is definitely something fun about cooking and eating “out there” despite having to use basic ingredients that you can carry in your backpack. Maybe it’s the constant fear of a grizzly bear thinking that the food is his (who would argue?).
Here are the ingredients and basic instructions for the three meals we ate around the campfire:
- “Bro-tillas” Mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, flour tortillas. Simply build like a quesadilla and melt in a pot/skillet over the camp stove. We ate these on our very first night of the trip, in the Tetons.
- Rice and chili. This is a simple, easy to carry, and tasty meal. Just buy some “minute” rice (simmer for a while in water over the stove) and combine with a can or two of fully-cooked chili. We found that heating the chili in its own can was a bit messy (tended to bubble over) so we combined it with the rice in a larger pot.
- Homemade jerky. Granted, you’ll have to make this one ahead of time. Eric made some amazing apple habanero venison jerky. Here’s the recipe:
Apple Habanero Venison Jerky
- 3 lbs. venison – either ground (which is what we used) or trimmed of fat and sliced into thin strips ~¼” thick, against the grain
- 2 cloves garlic, diced
- 1 shallot, diced
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, diced
- 4 sweet apples, chopped
- 1 cup of apple cider vinegar
- 2/3 cup white sugar
- 2/3 cup brown sugar
- 5 to 10 habanero peppers, roughly chopped
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 6 tablespoons lemon juice
- Over medium high heat, cook the garlic, shallots, and ginger in the oil until soft (about 5 minutes)
- Add the vinegar and bring to a boil, then stir in the sugar and stir until dissolved
- Add the habanero and salt, simmer for 30 minutes. Add lemon juice and transfer to the mixture to a blender, puree
- Let the sauce cool completely
- If using ground venison, mix ¾ of the sauce into the meat. If cutting strips, lay onto a tray and coat with all of the sauce. Set into the refrigerator and chill overnight
- When ready to cook, preheat the oven to the lowest temperature setting (~160 degrees)
- This is the tricky part: laying out the meat for drying out. Eric lined several oven racks with tin foil, and thoroughly perforated the foil by punching through with a meat skewer, to promote airflow around the meat
- If using ground meat, use a jerky gun to lay down strips on top of the foil. Coat with remaining sauce that was not mixed into the ground meat. If cutting strips, lay them out – making sure nothing overlaps. Set oven racks at least 4” from the bottom/top heat sources of the oven
- Crack the oven door open by an inch or so, by wedging something into the door (Eric used a spatula). This helps the meat dry out
- Dehydrate in the oven for several hours, testing every once in a while. The jerky should crack, but not break when bent
Final Thought: Driving Without Going Insane
You might expect the long driving legs of the road trip to be the most boring, repetitive aspects of your journey. Wrong! We actually look forward to these long driving sections – and we have a few tips to cultivate the right mindset.
First (and most important), you need to be willing to stop anywhere that looks remotely interesting on the side of the road. For example, we stopped at the Iron Horse Saloon in Forsyth, Montana – simply because it looked different, and potentially fun. And it was! One person in the car (preferably not the driver) should periodically google fun things to do in towns that you’ll soon be driving through. That’s how we found the Tongue River Winery, which was one of the top highlights of our trip, and completely unplanned!
So an unexpected stop will delay your dinner, or your planned arrival to a hotel. Who cares? So it’s only 10 in the morning, which is not a time you’d normally start drinking on a Tuesday. Nobody will know! Check out that saloon with elk skulls on every wall!
Driving is an opportunity to plan the epic meal you’re going to have for dinner, a chance to experiment with new music (aka annoy Laj with his least favorite music on earth, yodeling), and to finalize the instagram post you’re hoping will make your friends jealous (which is the entire point of instagram, there we said it). All this being said, a good place to start is simply creating a shared music playlist with your friends. Here’s our playlist from the trip, if you want some inspiration!