On a quest for tall peaks and new territories, I flew to Denver with three outdoor women, embarking on what we dubbed our “National Park Backpacking Road Tour.” We carved out a semi-circle route from Colorado to South Dakota, bought one-way tickets, and reserved a rental car for two weeks.
Beyond that, we only planned to plan nothing.
As someone who loves to plan ahead, this philosophy was stressful. The most exciting part of a trip was when I had the chance to research, schedule, and book. But by the time I returned home, I learned that letting go, having no agenda, and following intuition could allow for the most exciting and carefree of experiences.
Our first stop, Rocky Mountain National Park, welcomed us with an hour-long hailstorm. We waited it out in the car before beginning our hike to the backcountry site. During our two-day excursion, we passed lush plant life in the lower wetlands and hiked steep sections that reached elevations of more than 10,000 feet. From these heights, we were rewarded with views of evergreen forests and mountain lakes.
Driving from Colorado to Utah put us in Arches National Park after sundown, but we awoke to see it rising over the red rock from our tent site in Devil’s Garden Campground. Later, we found a secluded section of trail that wandered through mixed grasslands and expanse of barren rock.
After climbing through the opening of one of the park’s many arches, we found a spot overlooking Double O Arch. It made a quiet backdrop for our lunch.
A quick stop near Salt Lake City to cliff jump into a reservoir with local friends was key in rejuvenating us after nonstop days on the road. From there, we headed north to Grand Teton National Park, rented bikes to tour along the Teton range and sped through the meadows at its base, slowing only to admire Jenny Lake.
Then it was on to the north. Just an hour further brought us to Yellowstone National Park. We stood atop a volcanic hot spot and considered the diversity. This massive park offers so many different landscapes: canyons, waterfalls, dense forests, hot springs and geysers. We felt as if we were in another world where each trail and overlook offered something dramatically different from the one before it.
The aftermath of the 1988 fires that burned more than 35 percent of the park was still visible. Fallen black trees scattered the ground and bare lodgepole pines popped out from the new-growth forest.
We pointed our car eastward, stopping in Cody, Wyoming for a bison burger before driving through the night to South Dakota’s Black Hills. Often referred to as an island in the plains, Black Hills National Forest rises from the state’s prairies with jagged rock formations that contain caverns and pine-covered hills.
These sudden formations are a testament to the geologic activity that occurred hundreds of millions of years ago. It was then that oceans retreated and molten rock forced its way to the surface, creating the massive dome of the Black Hills.
As we walked along the area’s trails, we noticed mica and other minerals glimmering in the sunlight, reminders of its volcanic and oceanic past.
The geologic history of this region is fascinating: About 65 million years ago, nearly 7,000 feet of Black Hills rock eroded and drifted east to form the area making up Badlands National Park. Exploring this area’s pinnacles and spires, we felt as if we were on the moon. Though small in comparison to the earlier parks we visited, it was the perfect place to end our western hiking adventures.
About the author:
Adventurer, photographer, climber, marketer, outdoor enthusiast, and lover of nicknames Lindsay (Lin) is based in Washington, D.C., and works for National Geographic. She gets much of her inspiration from spontaneous adventures and quiet moments.