In March 2021, after spending a long year confined to the inside of our apartment, we decided to take the journey of a lifetime and spent 6 months on a road trip through the western USA. From our home in Virginia to California and back, we tried to squeeze in as many adventures as possible. In this article, we’ll highlight our favorite and least favorite memories of the trip! We hope our experiences will provide some inspiration for your next road trip and encourage you to pack your bags and hit the road, whether it be for a day, a week, a month or more!
After a year holed up in the walls of our apartment, working from home with no end in sight, we sold most of our belongings, packed up everything else, and started our 2021 road trip through the western USA.
From March to August of 2021, we drove from our home in Richmond, VA and set off on a road trip across the western USA, setting up shop at a new AirBnB each month. In total, we traveled over 10,000 miles, hiked about 500 miles, visited 12 national parks, saw 6 national forests, and explored 4 national monuments, all while working full time. Yeah, we were busy.
We spent every weekend adventuring and exploring a new part of the country. We did it all. Rock climbing in Joshua tree, sunrise in Death Valley, climbing Half Dome, exploring the wild terrain of the Utah desert, sleeping under the stars in the Sawtooth Mountains, and made our first major life decision to buy a plot of land in Idaho with Teton views.
We became hooked to life on the road and can’t imagine living any other way. In the article below, we share both the highlights and lowlights from our life on the road (no, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine like Instagram makes it seem). We hope that our list will both inspire your wanderlust and also help you plan your next road trip through the Western USA!
Overview | Highlights of our Road Trip through Western USA
During our time on the road, we drove over 10,000 miles, spent more than 200 hours in the car, lived in 7 different places, spent 37 nights in a tent, went on 12 backpacking trips, and hiked roughly 500 miles. Through all of that, there were definitely some highlights and some lowlights. Luckily, more highlights than lowlights but there were certainly plenty of both.
In the sections below, we highlight both the best, most-memorable moments of our trip, and those moments that are memorable but not in a good way. Our hope is to both inspire your next road trip and give you a glimpse into what life on the road is really like. We know Instagram can make it seem that everyday is a vacation but some times things can go very wrong. Don’t get us wrong, we feel incredibly lucky to live the nomad life and love sharing it with you all!
Here are our 28 favorite moments from our road trip through the Western USA:
- Snowshoeing for the first time in the Rocky Mountains
- Watching the sunrise from the Panamint Sand Dunes in Death Valley
- Seeing the sun light up Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America
- Discovering the beauty of the Alabama Hills
- Rock climbing in Joshua Tree
- Seeing Mount Whitney and Badwater Basin in one epic view
- Being completely alone in Zebra Slot Canyon in Grand Staircase
- Adventuring to the Cosmic Ashtray in Grand Staircase
- Peek-a-boo and Spooky slot canyon in Grand Staircase
- Backpacking in Coyote Gulch
- Druid Arch + Backpacking in Canyonlands
- Seeing the largest tree in the world (General Sherman) in Sequoia
- Hiking in Paradise Valley in Kings Canyon
- Watching the sunset from the West Rim Trail in Zion
- Waking up in the Sawtooth wilderness to the most epic sunrise at Twin Lakes
- Seeing a baby mountain goat on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park
- Backpacking the Paintbrush – Cascade Canyon Loop in Grand Teton (with friends!)
- Taking a plunge in an ice-cold glacial lake in Glacier
- Catching our first glimpse of the Badlands emerging from the smoky haze
- Watching 2 moose walk right through our backcountry campsite in Glacier
- Sipping wine on the rocky beach of Sawtooth Lake
- Seeing the hydrothermal pools in Yellowstone
- Kayaking on Jackson Lake
- Hiking to Delta Lake
- Attending a rodeo in Idaho
- Climbing Half Dome + Cloud’s Rest in Yosemite
- Seeing the Great Lakes for the first time
- Falling so in love with the Tetons we decided to call a slice home
P.S. this list is ordered in the order that we experienced each highlight, not in ranked in terms of our favorite.
Map | Western USA Road Trip
The map below displays the location of each of the highlights from our trip:
Details | Western USA Road Trip Highlights
In this section, we’ll describe each experience on our list of highlights from our Western USA road trip.
1. Snowshoeing for the first time in the Rocky Mountains
The first stop of our trip was in Denver for one week. We only had one day without travel or work so we went snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was our first time snowshoeing and we loved it! A great way to get outside in the cold of winter.
You can read more about how to go snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park here:
2. Watching the sunrise from the Panamint Sand Dunes in Death Valley
Our first night backpacking on the trip did not go as planned. We had just settled into our tent at the base of the Panamint Sand Dunes when the wind started whipping and, out of nowhere, a rain storm rolled in. And Death Valley supposedly only gets 2.2 inches of rain per year!
But everything was worth it the next morning, when we stumbled out of our tent and saw the bluebird skies and the sun casting the most amazing shadows across the dunes. And even better, the rain had washed away all footprints from the area – it was like we had a blank canvas!
Read more about how you can plan your own Panamint Dunes backpacking trip here:
3. Seeing the sun light up Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America
Badwater Basin, which sits a 282 feet below sea level and is the lowest point in North America, is a must on any western USA roadtrip. Even better is being there as the sun rises over the surrounding mountains lighting up the intricate web of salt formations across the basin floor!
4. Going on a “treasure hunt” for arches in the Alabama Hills
The Alabama Hills were one of the most unexpected and pleasant surprises of our trip! We had never heard of them before moving to southern California but ended up spending a ton of time exploring the area. If you have the time on your trip, we definitely recommend spending a day hunting for the famous Alabama Hills arches!
You can read more about how to embark on a treasure hunt of your own in the Alabama Hills here:
5. Rock climbing in Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree is one of the best places in the world for rock climbing and if you really want to experience the park, you have to strap into your harness, throw on a helmet, clip into the belay and go for it! With tons of different rock formations throughout the park, there are pitches available for all skill levels. Rock climbing is one of our new hobbies and it all started in Joshua Tree!
Learn more about how to go rock climbing here:
6. Seeing Mount Whitney and Badwater Basin in one epic view
Did you know that Telescope Peak, the tallest point in Death Valley, reaches an elevation of 11,043 feet and you can see both Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, and Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48, in one epic view? We definitely didn’t! The challenging hike to reach the summit of Telescope Peak is worth the pain for this unbeatable view!
For more details on the Telescope Peak hike, check out our detailed guide:
7. Being completely alone in Zebra Slot Canyon in Grand Staircase
There are so many cool things to do in Grand Staircase Escalante (keep reading for more!) and Zebra Slot Canyon might just be at the top of the list! You will need to wade through some cold, murky water to reach the perfectly striped walls of Zebra Slot Canyon but Sarah swears it is more beautiful than the uber-popular Antelope Canyon. You will need to see for yourself!
We hiked to Zebra Slot Canyon early enough in the morning that we had the place entirely to ourselves – it’s a surreal feeling to be entirely alone in a place like this!
Read more about how to see the striped walls of Zebra Slot Canyon with your own eyes below:
8. Adventuring to the Cosmic Ashtray in Grand Staircase
A weird rock formation that resembles an ashtray/belly button/massive skull with no defined trail located deep in the Utah desert? Yeah, thats the Cosmic Ashtray for you!
This insane formation can be found in Grand Staircase but beware – it does take a little navigation to find it, as there is no marked trail to get you there. But your effort is rewarded with easily one of the most unique and wild formations we have ever seen!
Read more about this otherworldly spot in Southern Utah here:
9. Climbing around Peek-a-boo and Spooky Slot Canyons
If slot canyons are your thing, you have to stop at Grand Staircase during your road trip through the western USA! Not too far from Zebra Slot canyon (see number 7 above), you will find two more slot canyons: Peekaboo and Spooky! You can climb through both of these slot canyons in one 6-mile hike.
Find everything you need to know to visit these hidden gems in Grand Staircase Escalante in this post:
10. Backpacking in Coyote Gulch
We really weren’t kidding when we said that Grand Staircase is filled with tons of amazing adventures and backpacking into Coyote Gulch is definitely near the top of the list! This was one of our favorite backpacking trips but even if you don’t have time for an overnight, you should definitely try to hike in and see Jacob Hamblin Arch on your western USA road trip!
We’ve compiled all the details to help you plan your own Coyote Gulch backpacking trip here:
11. Spending 3 days backpacking in Canyonlands, with a detour to Druid Arch
Often overlooked for the more popular and accessible national parks in Utah, the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park will always hold a special place in our hearts. Filled with spires of striped rock, grassy meadows with expansive views, and the towering Druid Arch, the Needles far exceeded our expectations. Our only regret is that we didn’t stay for longer!
Read more about how to hike to Druid Arch in Canyonlands here:
12. Watching the sunset from the West Rim Trail in Zion
Alright, we’ll cut to the chase – Zion is crowded. Sure, Angel’s Landing and the Narrows are cool but you will be sharing the trail with hundreds of other hikers. If you want to leave the crowds behind, you’ll need to put in a little extra effort, and backpacking up to the West Rim is one way to do just that. Watching the sunset over Zion, just the two of us, was easily one of the best nights of our trip.
Interested in backpacking the West Rim Trail in Zion? Read more here:
13. Seeing the largest tree in the world (General Sherman) in Sequoia
It is nearly impossible to describe in word or picture just how big General Sherman is but to give you some sense of scale – its branches measure up to 7 feet in diameter! Walking along the Congress Trail, admiring the massive sequoias found throughout the Giant Forest, left us speechless. Make sure you stop on your road trip!
14. Hiking in Paradise Valley in Kings Canyon
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park are located right next to each other making a stop a two-for-one deal. Most people are probably more familiar with Sequoia but let this be a warning not to overlook King’s Canyon. The name does not lie… our hike through Paradise Valley was one of our favorite day hikes of the trip!
15. Climbing Half Dome + Cloud’s Rest in Yosemite
One of the longest and most exhausting days we had on the whole trip was when we climbed Half Dome and up to Cloud’s Rest in one day. Two of the most popular and beautiful hikes in Yosemite, and we were able to cross them off the bucket list in one very tiring day. We left Little Yosemite Valley Campground before the sun rose so we could watch the valley light up with the warm, glowing rays.
Even if you can’t do both, you have to stop at Yosemite on your western USA road trip!
16. Kayaking on Jackson Lake
With the iconic Grand Teton standing tall across the waters, kayaking on Jackson Lake was one of our first Teton experiences and probably the best introduction we could have asked for. The views of the mountains across Jackson Lake are unmatched and any Western USA road trip would not be complete without a stop in the Tetons!
Find more details about kayaking on Jackson Lake in our ultimate 2-day Grand Teton Itinerary:
17. Waking up in the Sawtooth wilderness to the most epic sunrise at Twin Lakes
Before our trip, we had never heard of the Sawtooth mountains but some of our best moments were spent in the wilderness surrounding these jagged peaks in central Idaho. Maybe the best sunrise of the entire trip was at Twin Lakes, which are part of the longer Alice Toxaway Loop. With the granite massifs looming on the far side of the lakes, the sun slowly lighting up the sky in shades of purple, and perfectly still water creating an immaculate reflection, this was one morning we will never forget!
Read more about Twin Lakes and backpacking the Alice Toxaway Loop in the Sawtooths here:
18. Seeing a baby mountain goat on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park
Just look at the little guy! So fluffy and curious! (Note we maintained a respectful and safe distance from mom and baby!) But even if we didn’t cross paths with this photogenic friend, the Highline Trail in Glacier was easily one of our favorite hikes during the entire trip. With steep cliffs, sweeping views of mountains and glaciers, and plenty of wildlife, you have to hike the Highline Trail on your western USA road trip!
19. Backpacking the Paintbrush – Cascade Canyon Loop in Grand Teton (with friends!)
Our favorite backpacking trip, the Paintbrush Canyon – Cascade Canyon loop is the pinnacle of Teton backcountry experiences. Sure, you can see Tetons from almost anywhere in the park, but the best way to experience them is by getting into the backcountry and the best way to get into the backcountry is the Paintbrush Canyon – Cascade Canyon loop. If you want to spend a night under the stars, this is the hike for you!
20. Taking a plunge into an ice-cold glacial lake
After a long, hot day hiking to Cracker Lake in Glacier National Park, we decided to jump into the frigid waters, and well, I think the picture below speaks for itself. It was just a little chilly! We each lasted about 2 seconds before we sprinted out of the lake, shivering but definitely refreshed. If you ever have a chance to jump into a glacier-fed lake, make sure you are prepared for the consequences!
21. Watching 2 moose walk right through our backcountry campsite in Glacier
Waking up deep in the wilderness in Glacier National Park on the banks of a picture-perfect lake is memorable enough but add in a few curious neighbors and you have yourself one of the best mornings ever! Our new moose friends were too busy munching on shrubs and bushes to care about us humans, but we were snapping all the pictures we could because it seemed too good to be true that two moose would be so close by.
(Another PSA that we maintained a safe and respectful distance from the moose. They are known to be a bit grouchy and we actually moved out of their way as they approached our tents.)
22. Sipping wine on the rocky beach of Sawtooth Lake
Sawtooth Lake is nestled high in the Sawtooth backcountry and is surrounded by beautiful granite peaks. You can hike to the lake and back in a moderate day hike, but we were able to take it slow and camped out on the banks of the lake. This gave us time for some well-deserved rest and relaxation on the rocky shores, complete with red wine and books!
Read more about hiking or backpacking to Sawtooth Lake here:
23. Seeing the hydrothermal pools of Yellowstone
I would go so far as to say that no western USA road trip is complete without a stop at Yellowstone, one of the most iconic and popular national parks in the US! That being said, we didn’t love Yellowstone. Sure it has a lot of really cool things but there are also tons of people everywhere.
Nonetheless, the Lower Geyser Basin must be seen to be believed. With geothermal springs and geysers around every corner, stopping here is mandatory on any western USA road trip!
24. Hiking to Delta Lake in Grand Teton
Probably our favorite day hike in the Tetons, the trek to Delta Lake is long and steep, but the pain is well worth the straight-on views of the Grand Tetons across the green-blue water of this glacier-fed lake. The trail is a little sketchy and requires some route-finding, but if you have a day to spend in the Tetons, definitely consider a trip up to Delta Lake.
You can read more details about the hike here:
25. Attending a rodeo in Teton Valley, Idaho
Both of us being from the east coast, rodeos were a foreign subject until we got to Idaho. When we had a free Friday night to kill, we decided to stop by the Teton Valley rodeo and we were not disappointed! While we might have felt a little out of place, the fun atmosphere and views of the Tetons made this an unforgettable experience for us city folk. We will definitely be back at the rodeo soon!
26. Catching our first glimpse of the Badlands emerging from the smoky haze
When we visited the Badlands, smoke from wildfires across the west had rolled in and the air was so thick with haze you could barely see your hand in front of your face. But after a while, the morning haze started to burn off and suddenly we were greeted with some of the craziest views we have ever seen. The sun shining through smoke and haze added a level of color unlike anything we have experienced. Of course, we’d rather there be no wildfires creating the smoke in the first place!
27. Seeing the Great Lakes for the first time
It is impossible to comprehend just how big the Great Lakes are until you see them in person! We spent a weekend exploring the north shore of Lake Superior and definitely recommend a quick stop for anyone on a Western USA road trip!
28. Falling so in love with the Tetons we decided to call a slice home
If you haven’t noticed, the Tetons take up an outsized proportion of our list. The Idaho/Wyoming area near the Tetons (aka Wydaho) was easily our favorite place on our trip. We love the area so much that we made our first major life decision together and decided to buy 2.5 acres of land in Driggs, Idaho. If you had told us when we left on our trip that we’d end up owning land in Idaho, we would have thought you were insane! But we are so excited to start our future in this magical place.
While we whole-heartedly recommend everything else on this list, you might want to return home with a smaller souvenir than we did!
Lowlights of our Western USA Road Trip
Now that we’ve shared the best experiences from our trip, it’s only fair we keep it real and fill you in on the lowlights as well. We hope our misadventures will give you some insight on what to avoid and help you plan your western USA road trip.
Regardless, no matter how much you plan, something will inevitably go wrong on your trip. What’s important is to move on from the bad experiences as quickly as possible and keep a positive attitude. Someday you will look back and smile!
Here are our 12 lowlights from the trip:
- Hiding out in a tent during a torrential downpour in Death Valley
- Camping in 15 degrees in Bryce Canyon
- Not making it to Stephen’s Arch in Coyote Gulch
- Falling into ice cold water in the Narrows in Zion
- Waiting in line to have a photo taken at Delicate Arch
- Wiggling through the crowds to get one tiny view of the sun rising through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands
- Living in Brian Head, Utah at an elevation of 10,000 feet
- Spraining an ankle the week before our backpacking trip in Yosemite
- Fitzgerald barfing all over Matt’s legs on a one-lane road driving through the Sierras
- Getting stuck in a “bison jam” in Yellowstone
- Getting pulled over in South Dakota
- Things that didn’t live up to the hype: Old Faithful and Mount Rushmore
1. Hiding out in a tent during a torrential downpour in Death Valley
Death Valley is the driest place in North America, so of course it absolutely poured our first night backpacking of the entire trip! You really couldn’t have scripted it any better! Luckily, we had just set up our tent and were starting to make dinner on the Panamint Dunes, when the wind picked up and the skies just opened. We were unprepared and scared for the possibility of a flash flood. But the storm soon passed and the next morning was one of the most memorable moments of our trip! Just be warned – even if you are in camping in Death Valley, be ready for anything!
2. Camping in 15 degrees in Bryce Canyon
Another camping experience early in our trip where we were definitely not prepared for the elements. With puffy jackets, sleeping bags, and extra blankets, we thought we’d be cozy enough to sleep through 15 degree temps in Bryce Canyon but we were very wrong. We have since invested in some better cold weather gear. Lesson learned!
3. Not making it to Stephen’s Arch in Coyote Gulch
We definitely bit off more than we could chew with our plans for Coyote Gulch. Stephen’s Arch is located at the far end of the gulch and our plan was to hike in, set up our camp, drop our packs, and continue to the end of the gulch until we reached the Escalante River and Stephen’s Arch, one of the largest natural arches in the US.
However, we drastically overestimated how much time it would take to hike through the water in the gulch and how much time we would spend route finding. We ended up turning back with less than a mile to go so we didn’t get caught out past dark. We put in 25 miles of hiking and didn’t reach our final destination… womp, womp!
4. Falling into ice cold water in the Narrows in Zion
We have very mixed feelings about the Narrows in Zion. Of course, they are incredibly beautiful and we’d recommend that you hike through them if you are visiting Zion. But, there are definitely some downsides. Not only will there be a ton of people around you for the whole hike, but also if the water levels are high, it is very easy to misstep and fall into the freezing cold water.
The problem is that the water isn’t clear so you can’t always see what is underneath as you step forward. One little stumble over a hidden rock and all of a sudden you are soaked!
5. Waiting in line to have a photo taken at Delicate Arch
Delicate Arch in Arches National Park is one of the most iconic sites in the western USA and should definitely be a stop on your road trip. However, be warned that there will be crowds and a line to get a picture under the arch. We arrived at the trailhead in the dark and hiked in to see the sunrise over the arch, so we thought we would avoid the crowds.
But we underestimated just how popular this spot is. There were tons of people and we ended up waiting in line for 30 minutes just to get a picture under the arch.
6. Wiggling through the crowds to get one tiny peak of the sun rising through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands
If you are sensing a theme related to our disdain for crowds, you are spot on. A common lowlight of the trip was battling crowds at some of the more popular spots. A prime example is Mesa Arch. It is super beautiful and definitely worth a visit but just be prepared for crowds, especially at sunrise. People were literally rubbing elbows just to squeeze in to get a peak of the sun rising through the arch!
7. Living in Brian Head, Utah at an elevation of 10,000 feet
Okay, we’ll be honest, our home base in Utah for a month was less than ideal. We stayed in the small ski town of Brian Head, which has full-time population of 70 people. While there are only a few restaurants and stores open here at any point in time, it turns out that the months of April and May are off-season (between skiing and hiking) which means the town basically shuts down.
We ate many frozen pizzas on Sunday nights after a long weekend of adventuring when there were no restaurants open to pick up something quick. Even worse, the town was situated at almost 10,000 feet of elevation which definitely took some acclimatization.
8. Spraining an ankle the week before our backpacking trip in Yosemite
The week before our backpacking trip in Yosemite, where we planned to climb Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest in one day, we were back home in Richmond for a friend’s wedding. Of course, we wanted to still squeeze in some outdoor adventure, so I (Matt) decided to go for a trail run. About a mile in, I leapt off a step and rolled my ankle on a rock.
I knew something was messed up right away. After a quick doctor’s visit and some x-rays, I was relieved to learn it was just a sprain. Now, I definitely wasn’t supposed to be backpacking and hiking the next weekend, but I taped it up tightly, threw on a brace, and decide to go for it. Sure, it was a little painful but when you have the chance to climb Half Dome, you can’t pass it up!
9. Fitzgerald barfing all over Matt’s legs on a one-lane road in the Sierras
Fitzgerald, our best buddy and the cutest feline companion, has been with us throughout our travels. When we are driving, he typically finds some little nook to curl up in and falls asleep. But our drive through the Sierras from northern California to Idaho was a long, winding, twisting road and the poor guy was not a fan.
All of a sudden he just started barfing all over my legs while we were on a one-lane road with no place to stop! It is a good thing he’s cute!
10. Getting stuck in a “bison jam” in Yellowstone
We were a little underwhelmed by Yellowstone and spending two hours stuck in a “bison jam” probably has something to do with that. We had a very precise and very packed agenda planned for our time in Yellowstone and we ended up missing out on a few sites because we spent so much time stuck in traffic while bison were in the road.
But hey, you have to admit, this little guy is pretty cute so I suppose we can forgive him…
11. Getting pulled over in South Dakota
It’s actually pretty impressive that we only got pulled over once throughout the entire trip and got away with just a warning. On our drive from Idaho to South Dakota, we had just crossed the Wyoming/South Dakota border when all of a sudden the red and blue lights started flashing. Unbeknownst to us, the speed limit dropped from 80 to 70 at the border and the cop was waiting for us!
He was nice enough to give us just a warning but we certainly paid closer attention to the speedometer after that!
12. Things that didn’t live up to the hype: Old Faithful and Mount Rushmore
During our time on the road, we did a lot and naturally, there are going to be some things that just don’t live up to the hype. In our opinion, the two sites that left us disappointed were Old Faithful in Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. When we visited Old Faithful, its eruption was on the smaller end and we just didn’t find it that impressive. The geysers and geothermal pools around Old Faithful are super cool, so it’s worth stopping regardless.
Similarly, Mount Rushmore just isn’t that much. You walk up to the viewing area, see the carving from about half a mile away, and that’s kind of it. We probably spent about 20 minutes total at the park. Again, it’s worth stopping on your western USA road trip because it’s an American icon, but don’t have high expectations.
Other useful resources
Planning a road trip through the USA? You may also find the following resources helpful:
- Road trip | Road Trip Camping Essentials + Downloadable Checklist
- Road Trip | 11 Proven Tips for Taking a Cat on a Road Trip
- Road trip | 59 Best Songs About Travel and Adventure
We hope you enjoyed our 2021 Western USA road trip recap. We’re excited for even more adventures in 2022, as we continue to live on the road. What spots in the USA would you add to our list?!