National Parks Road Trip: ‘I knew I’d never have this much time again’

August 20, 2020 Updated: August 25, 2020

When Melissa Taylor lost her job to a pandemic workforce reduction, she made lemonade and headed west.

“I knew with everything being closed down, I just wanted to see all this. I knew I’d never have this much time again.”

In late May, Taylor and her 7-year-old daughter Lydia packed up their Dodge Grand Caravan and hit the road, with a plan to visit as many national parks as they could. The road trip turned into a 45-day adventure of a lifetime.

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Lydia in Badlands National Park. (Courtesy of Melissa Taylor)

The National Park System counts 419 sites and 84 million acres in all states and territories. But only 62 sites are labeled “parks”—White Sands in New Mexico being the newest, as of 2019. Add to them an abundance of sites in 20 other categories, from national lakeshores, scenic byways, and scenic riverways to national monuments, trails, and historic sites.

Taylor packed a cooler, more than three weeks worth of food, and a Jetboil propane burner for cooking. She purchased two national park guidebooks and the $80 annual America the Beautiful pass to cover all the entrance fees.

“And we just went west,” says Taylor, who lives in Wisconsin. They started with Theodore Roosevelt National Park at the far west side of North Dakota as their first destination.

“I never go all that way because normally you only have a week, maybe two max.” They had also already decided on their turnaround point: Taylor’s mother’s place near the coast of Oregon. “We wanted to be off the road by the Fourth of July.” Everything in between they made up as they went.

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A stop at Spearfish Canyon in South Dakota. (Courtesy of Melissa Taylor)

“Each spot we got to, I’d look ahead a bit, and just keep moving to the next closest national park.”

Stops included the iconic parks of Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier, but in between were the surprises, such as Spearfish Canyon, in South Dakota.

“We stopped there twice, going and coming. You are allowed to take rocks. Lydia played in the creek all day long.” This federally and state-managed Scenic Byway follows Spearfish Creek for 14 miles along the bottom of a canyon through the Black Hills National Forest. Devils Tower National Monument stands an hour to the west; a bit more than that east lies Badlands National Park.

They camped a short distance from D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery. In Washington, North Cascades State Park made the favorites list, and Olympic National Park “was straight out of National Geographic,” she says.

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Lydia in the creek at Spearfish Creek. (Courtesy of Melissa Taylor)

Staying the Night

Camping was their best option to keep the journey inexpensive and Taylor’s daughter took to it quickly.

“Lydia knew the routine: set up the tent, sleeping bags, her little light.”

But initially, many national or state park campgrounds were closed—although most have since reopened in some capacity.

“We ended up using a lot of KOAs [Kampgrounds of America] and they had really good social distancing,” Taylor says. A $30 membership for KOA paid for itself with a 10 percent discount on fees, and her accumulated reward points were enough for two free nights.

On Willapa Bay along Washington’s Pacific coastline, they stayed at Bay Center KOA, just north of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.

“We planned to tent camp but the manager asked us, ‘Have you ever stayed in a yurt?’” she says. They hadn’t, but they did—for three nights. They walked to the water for sunsets and some clamming, and took part in scavenger hunts arranged by the campground.

In a pinch, Melissa and Lydia slept in their van at a wayside, with many other travelers doing the same. Velcro squares pasted in the back windows held blackout cloths at night for privacy.

Dispersed camping was another alternative. National forests allow for Leave No Trace tent camping within their properties. Not only is this a great adventure, but it’s also a saving grace for a road trip through the national parks, when camp closings or full occupancy might thwart the day’s plan.

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Melissa Taylor and her daughter Lydia at the Oregon coastline near Siuslaw National Forest. (Courtesy of Melissa Taylor)

Choose Your Own National Park Adventure

Taylor’s mother-daughter trip allowed them to explore America on a budget without a lot of detailed planning. Many others are doing something similar as the outdoors are well suited for distancing, and these are national treasures we so often don’t get the opportunity to appreciate. What are your options?

In anticipation of the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016, I put together a proposed route for my own western park road trip, but ended up doing it with minor adjustments a year later. Also in 2016, data scientist Randy Olson mapped out the optimal route to hit all the national parks (minus three new ones since his project) throughout the lower 48 states, a drive clocking in at 14,498 miles.

For something a bit shorter, consider themes: Do you want to focus on a particular region close to or far from home? Do you prefer mountains, battlefields and history, waterways and shorelines, or forest vs. desert vs. prairie? As you dial in your route—and literally zoom in on the map—you will find additional state, county, and city parks to add as well as other roadside attractions.

Can you really drive from Rocky Mountain National Park to the Badlands without at least a photo op of Carhenge along the way? I’d say no.

Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com