Growing up in Southern California meant I was almost inherently drawn to the outdoors. From mountain biking to surfing, I was lucky enough to have adventures waiting for me right outside my front door. The rush of catching a wave or finally reaching the top of a challenging bike trail is something I’ve always enjoyed. I started go-karting when I was nine, which gave me another outlet to achieve that sense of excitement through speed and the pursuit of victory. I worked my way up through the ranks of racing and now compete in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the premier level of open-wheel racing in North America. You’ve probably heard of the Indianapolis 500, a race held at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway, right? We hit speeds of 230 mph around that track and register five G’s at short tracks like in Phoenix or Iowa. So while I do get that adrenaline rush “at the office,” I still love spending time outside like I did as a kid.
Not surprisingly, some of the countless things that attracted me to my wife, Kathleen, include her love of the outdoors and fearless attitude. Last winter we purchased an RV to use at the racetrack as our “home away from home” between practice sessions. But away from the track, we are making sure to take full advantage of the opportunities it gives us to explore. Because racing season doesn’t allow for vacation time during the summer, we try to take an extended trip following the final race of the season to (literally and figuratively) slow down and reset. As part of our honeymoon, we went on a three-day camping trip in Australia. During that trip, we looked at each other and realized we were missing a lot of the natural beauty that the United States has to offer! For our off-season trip this year, we looked for an active road trip stateside. Kathleen came across the Outdoor Project’s Ultimate Western National Parks Road Trip, and we were sold!
We settled on a month-long journey through eight national parks with our dogs Taj and Lilah. We had a bit of experience from a hiking and camping excursion in Moab a few years ago and an annual house boating trip in Tennessee, but otherwise we were rookies when it came to planning for an extended trip like this. Here are our three main takeaways:
We knew our start date and location and our end date and location. Everything between? Totally TBD, at first. We started by narrowing down our park wish list and prioritizing how much time we’d want to spend at each location. We were willing to spend more time at the parks that are a bit harder to reach and the ones with so much to offer! Mapping our driving routes came next. It’s important to factor in setup and tear down, as well as any detours (weather, traffic or otherwise) you might encounter along the way. Because we brought our dogs with us, we also wanted to make sure they were comfortable while we were out hiking—so we tried to plan one hiking day followed by one free day to spend with the dogs (maybe playing with them at a dog park to let them burn some energy or driving around the national parks looking for wildlife).
We planned our trips months in advance, but we found some sites are full even earlier than that. Especially if you want to do adventures requiring national park permits (like Half Dome, fishing or rafting), make sure you are planning a long time ahead. Depending on the time of year, services may be closed for visitors, so remember to take that into consideration before showing up!
Kathleen is the queen of notes and checklists! So I was happy to let her take the lead. It helped us to make three lists—own, borrow and purchase. We’re lucky to have a group of friends who are also outdoor enthusiasts, so it helped to lean on them for a few supplies (and plenty of advice, too). Having good technical gear can make all the difference on a big adventure trip like this. We were prepared to hike and adventure in all weather conditions—and we did—from a snow storm to sun and warmth!
I don’t know if there are words to describe how much we enjoyed this trip! We’re already dreaming and scheming about the next time we can get back out on the road. Are there things we would have changed? With hindsight, of course! But it was all a part of the experience and lessons we can apply during our next trip.