Denver, Zion, Yosemite, Bend, and Olympic NP. Help me camp.
September 17, 2017 4:26 PM   Subscribe

Mid-October road trip needs a smidge of formality. This is where you guys come in. Help me find things to do and places to see with a tight schedule.

A friend of mine and I are departing Denver in the middle of October and driving his car up to Seattle. We've come up with several spots that we'd like to explore and camp at, but we aren't sure what's absolutely necessary to see along the way, and which places we should camp. The portion of the trip with the locations in the title need to be consolidated into nine days, with the exception of Olympic which I'll be doing either solo or with a separate friend.

My friend and I are young(ish) and adventurous, and we have zero intention of staying in campgrounds or doing the more touristy things. That is with the exception that we can go backcountry from the touristy places for additional things to see and places we can pitch a tent either legally or illegally.

Any insight that could filter out the things that aren't really worth my research would be fantastic. Thanks a bunch Meta!
posted by omgkinky to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Fwiw you can get day passes in the national parks and drive to most of the notable sites in them. I did this at arches a few years ago.
posted by brujita at 5:27 PM on September 17, 2017

Better than the day pass is the parks pass. Good for a year, and generally cheaper once you plan to go to more than one of the Big (i.e. expensive-ish) parks.

If you're ok with sleeping in the car, parking lots are always an option.

If you're going to Zion, head across I70 to Utah, then down to Capitol Reef and Utah Highway 12, which takes you by Bryce. Seriously, check out Bryce at sunset, it's so worth it. Then you can drive down to Zion for sunrise the next morning.
posted by notsnot at 6:20 PM on September 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Zion seems way out of the way. It's beautiful, definitely, but not more so than Bryce, canyon lands, escalante, etc. My point is that I could spend a month in southern Utah and your timeline is tight for everything you want to do.

Bend is nice, but it isn't in the same league as the other places you mention. I would make a left turn off 97 at 62 and go to Crater Lake instead. Crater Lake is astounding and you have a rare opportunity to be within striking distance of it -- it's not near anything else and not really on the way to anywhere and you may well not get another chance to see it. Also, there's not much to do there besides get out of the car and marvel at the view (i.e. Perfect for the kind of quick highlights trip you're planning). If you have to go up through Bend instead, I would definitely hit Smith Rock which is just North on 97 and not far off the highway.

Assuming you would be headed from Bend toward Seattle, I'd recommend taking highway 26 from 97 and going over Mt. Hood. Stop at Timberline lodge for the views and the day hiking trails from the lodge. Have a beer at the lodge and appreciate the WPA's masterpiece building. The other way over to Seattle is 97 to 197 which takes you to the Columbia River Gorge and Hood River, which are nice enough, I just like Mt Hood better and that's the way we always go between Bend and Seattle.

Yosemite is another place I could spend a month. But at least the highlights can be done in a couple days, stick to the Yosemite Valley floor, go see Yosemite falls, go see Glacier Point.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 7:34 PM on September 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

I appreciate that you are young and adventurous but there is no way you are going to get too far off the beaten path into the back country with the time line you propose. If you are willing to cut some of your destination points, then yes you can find some slot canyons near Zion or hike part of the Pacific Crest Trail, but that's not the question you asked. Sorry, but you are going to be mostly driving and then stopping for a couple hours at a time to walk around with this itinerary.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 7:41 PM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also, Olympic National Park is really three parks: there's the coast (which is awesome, there are large parts that are wilderness, inaccessible by anything but back packing), the rain forest (the only temperate rain forest in the lower 48), and the high alpine. October's getting well into rainy season and the high alpine may not be reliably accessible. My vote would be to hike (backpack) up the Hoh River trail as far as you can get, towards Mt. Olympus. You'll be relatively protected from weather by the vegetation and if the fall stays warm and dry, you'll be able to get some elevation.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 7:47 PM on September 17, 2017

Wow, just looked at a map and realized Yosemite is way the hell out of your way too. I'd save that for another trip too.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 7:51 PM on September 17, 2017

That is with the exception that we can go backcountry from the touristy places for additional things to see and places we can pitch a tent either legally or illegally

The Western US and Southern Utah are chock full of spots where you can camp for free - the magic phrase is "dispersed camping". Different areas will have different rules - and as someone who spends a few weekends a year cleaning up illegal campsites, please follow the rules. They exist to keep pristine areas pristine.

Camp in designated spots, pack it in, pack it out (in some cases this means your poo, too!) and practice leave no trace ethics.

Find an area you want to be in, stop by a ranger station or tourist info station and ask about options.

You can make Zion in a day from Denver, but it's a loooooong day, and you'll blow past The Colorado Monument, Arches, Canyonlands, Dead Horse, Goblin Valley, San Rafael Swell, Capitol Reef, Glen Canyon, Bears Ears, Natural Bridges, Bryce, Grand Staircase. The list just goes on and on. One or more of those may be easier/more efficient than Zion for you.

You'll miss great drives like Hwy 128 from Cisco to Moab. The La Salle Mountain Loop. Hwy 95 from Blanding to Hite. The recommendation to take 12 from Capitol Reef is very, very good. But you want to do that in the day, because the scenery is amazeballs. Seriously - getting off the interstate is the best thing you can do.

If you're dead set on Zion - there is some really great dispersed camping near Geyser Peak north of Torrey. It's a gravel road back to the most of the sites, but bad weather may require 4WD. It's at 9k feet so likely to be chilly at night - makes a fire worth it and keeps the bugs down. There is also lots of dispersed and roadside camping on Hwy 12 south of Grover.

Zion is an out and back drive - you'll come out the same way you went in. Show up early in the day, it still gets hot in the afternoon. It's naturally constricted so it gets really congested and they alternate directions at the tunnel so be prepared to spend 30-45 minutes there if your timing is bad. Plan on probably 90-120 minutes from park entrance to parking. They have a bus system that will take you to the various spots, it is very good, but slow. Zion is a full day, pretty much however you slice it.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:08 PM on September 17, 2017 [8 favorites]

and places we can pitch a tent either legally or illegally

I've done a lot of this kind of camping and developed a role of thumb: do not camp illegally within the National Parks. We got moved along every time. Might be different now over a decade later. Good luck.
posted by salvia at 9:07 PM on September 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

We drove Vegas to Santa Fe over a couple weeks a few years ago. The highlight was Chaco Culture National Historic Park. There is cheap camping there, (only 3 of 35 sites occupied the 2 nights we spent there) and great hikes around. It's scarcely visited.

Your route sounds like you're intentionally staying south for warmth, but it means way more distance. You're gonna spend a lot of time driving. What about Yellowstone and the Tetons?

Get your butts up at the crack of dawn and put as many driving miles in as you can early so that you're not burning all your prime daylight in the car. This will happen naturally if you're camping since the sun will wake you up, but it's a good idea to start out the trip this way. Daylight is a scarce resource.
posted by thenormshow at 7:50 AM on September 18, 2017

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