Deserts, Mountains & Prairies: Our Cross-Country Road Trip

Now that it’s almost Christmas, I finally have some time to blog about our cross-country road trip back in September. (Life happens.) For those of you who haven’t seen our photos yet, picture this — Will, me and our cat riding in the snug cab of a 16-foot Penske truck housing all our belongings (including Will’s Harley), pulling a trailer with our car on it. This is how we made the move cross-country during a warm September. Why? Because, how could we not take the opportunity to explore America the Beautiful? Our move was the perfect excuse.

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We followed Interstate 70 for most of our journey from Los Angeles to Virginia. It took us 11 days, but only because we stopped for three or so days to visit Will’s family.

The weather was perfect, the cat behaved wonderfully (despite spending long hours in her carrier every day and being shuttled from one hotel room to another), and it was fascinating to see the landscape change from desert to endless prairies to verdant. If you’ve never driven cross-country, here are some of the highlights from our trip for you to consider checking out someday. Keep in mind, we were limited (by the truck and traveling with our cat) to quick stops at viewpoints and short jaunts. Even so, it was amazing, fun, liberating and humbling to take in some of these sights, especially after spending 10 years in the big City of Angels.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park in Utah is one of those places I would revisit in a heartbeat. One of five national parks in the state, it features the incredible red rocks Utah is known for. If we’d had more time, I would’ve loved to hike The Narrows, where you literally get your feet wet and hike in the Virgin River along a narrow gorge surrounded by walls 1,000 feet tall. It’s a popular hike, but also a risky one due to the potential of flash flooding. Just a few days after we visited the park, seven hikers died in flash floods in Keyhole Canyon.

We drove through the park, following Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and passing through the coolest tunnel ever. It’s so narrow and pitch dark, you need to buy a permit to drive through it. There are many other things to do at Zion, other hikes (to the Emerald Pools, for instance), bicycling, canyoneering, and climbing. From a purely aesthetic point of view, I really enjoyed the combination of rock and greenery here.

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Arches National Park

Arches National Park is located in Utah on the Colorado River, near the border with Colorado. It’s named after the 2,000-plus natural stone arches found there (the world’s largest concentration of them), along with hundreds of giant rock formations and balancing rocks. The smallest catalogued arch measures three feet from base to base, while the largest, Landscape Arch, has a 306-foot opening. Native Americans first explored the area looking for minerals (wealth), food, and stone for tools and weapons. What’s amazing is that the park’s geological features are ever evolving, as erosion and weathering rock create new landscapes.

Again, we only had time to drive through the park and pull over at various viewpoints, including Courthouse Towers, the petrified sand dunes, Balanced Rock, Double Arch, and the Parade of Elephants. It is a surreal environment, nothing but huge rocks jutting out of the desert floor for miles and miles. Unfortunately, we were unable to see the North and South Windows up-close. The parking area was about a half-mile walk from the Windows, and we didn’t want to leave the cat alone in the warm truck that long. So, we definitely have an excuse to go back! I’ve always wanted to walk up to those grand arches.

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Colorado rivers and mountain views

Colorado has several national forests bordering the I-70. I’m not sure which ones we were driving by at any given moment, but the scenery was beautiful, very mountainous and green. The Colorado River and then the Eagle River also run parallel to the interstate, almost all of the way to Denver. At one point, we spotted kayakers navigating the waters. The sunset over the hills was exquisite.

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Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

If you’re ever in Denver and looking for something non-touristy to do, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is your place to go.  I don’t even know how we discovered this place. I was probably googling things to do in Denver and stumbled upon this on TripAdvisor. So, what is it? Incredibly enough, it’s a 15,000-acre wildlife refuge located just northeast of Denver where you can see bison, prairie dogs, mule deer, white-tailed deer, coyotes, bald eagles, and more — all for free. (In fact, it’s a sanctuary for more than 330 species of animals.) It is a true conservation success story, being converted from farmland to a World War II chemical weapons manufacturing facility to a wildlife sanctuary.

They have a simple “trails and wildlife drive auto tour,” which lets you stay in your car and drive (slowly – 30mph max) past the various habitats. We went on a clear, sunny day, and managed to see a herd of bison — from a distance — lots of prairie dogs, and a couple of eagles (or hawks, not sure). There are also floating boardwalks from which you can do some bird watching along the marshes, and they have a visitor center that’s educational and fun for kids.

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The bison herd. Can you see it?

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And the prairie dogs. They were everywhere.

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World’s Largest Easel

Oh yes, we did. There isn’t much to see along I-70 when crossing through very-flat Kansas, so, hey, why not check out a giant easel? This was a quick stop. Will didn’t even get out of the car. The 80-foot easel in Goodland, Kansas, features a reproduction of Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” painting. Not much else to see.

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Monument Rocks

Although we’d never heard of Monument Rocks in Kansas before, it turned out to be our favorite stop of the entire road trip. You’ll see why in a second. Often referred to as the Chalk Pyramids, it is a designated National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service, which “recognizes and encourages the conservation of sites that contain outstanding biological and geological resources.” These sites are selected for “their outstanding condition, illustrative value, rarity, diversity, and value to science and education.” I would’ve never thought something like this existed in Kansas, in literally the middle of nowhere (about a half hour off the I-70). It’s an amazing hidden treasure.

Story goes that the Chalk Pyramids formed some 80 million years ago when the region was covered by an ocean. A thick ooze at the ocean floor trapped the remains of various sea animals, and was eventually covered by sediments and pressed into chalk. The chalk formations were sculpted for thousands of years by the Smoky Hill River. As you can imagine, the rocks are rich in fossils and now serve as habitat for small wildlife.

We drove out to Monument Rocks just before sunset, over the dirt roads and past the cornfields, no other vehicles in sight. (We even ran over a tarantula, and, in the process, discovered there are tarantulas in Kansas. Who knew?) We explored the rocks with nothing but the sounds of cows mooing in the distance. Experiencing the sunset there was something magical.

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Gateway Arch

Getting anywhere near the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, was a challenge, as the riverfront area was under construction. So, Will dropped me off in the middle of downtown and drove around while I walked a few blocks to get a somewhat decent photo. It’s a shame. I would’ve loved to walk up inside the arch, but it just wasn’t feasible with our entourage and with the construction zone. Either way, glad I got to see it.

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World’s Largest Wind Chime, World’s Largest Rocking Chair, and World’s Largest Golf Tee

Ladies and gentlemen, Casey, Illinois, is the capital of the “world’s largest” random things. They’ve coined themselves “a small town with a big heart” and even have a “big things in a small town” workshop where they build their claims to fame. The wind chime stands at more than 55 feet and has a small restaurant and shop next door. Right across the street is the rocking chair, 56.5 feet tall (apparently, several U.S. states claim to have the world’s largest rocking chair). A couple of miles away on a golf course, naturally, you’ll find the largest golf tee, measuring more than 30 feet tall.

So if that’s your thing, tracking down Guinness World Record holders, make sure to swing by Casey, Illinois.

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Here’s the workshop. I spy giant shoes…what are they building next?

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We took a break from our travels and sightseeing to spend some quality time with family in Indiana for several days. Here’s a quick glimpse if you’ve never been.

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Just a few states later — Ohio, West Virginia, and Maryland — we made it to our new home in Virginia. It was refreshing to see so many rivers and such green hills. I’ve always loved that about the East Coast.

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We’ve been so lucky to get to travel and sightsee as much as we have. But, sometimes it’s easy to forget that the United States has many majestic wonders of its own. Maybe someday we can finally rent an RV and drive all over the country. For now, we’re looking forward to new adventures here on the East Coast. Stay tuned!

Want to see more photos of our cross-country road trip? Visit my Flickr gallery here.

I’m sure Luna is glad it’s all over:

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