We sometimes forget what lies right in our own backyard. To many outside the United States, our national parks are seen as triggers of envy. From the daunting yet magical peaks of Grand Teton National Park to the lush forests of Olympic National Park, all throughout the U.S. we are gifted with plentiful natural beauty. Over the last 14 days I’ve had the opportunity to see these two national parks and a whole lot more. While living out of a tent with three friends, we drove upwards of 2,500 miles on a route that took us through Montana over to Northwest Washington and finally to our eventual destination of Santa Barbara.
From our origin of Boulder, Colorado, we had the chance to see snowcapped peaks, heavy flowing rivers, deserted towns and empty luscious coastlines. But as we traveled north for the first leg of the journey, the only exciting part about day one was that we’d actually left. After driving a bland five hours to the town of Thermopolis, Wyoming, we found a campsite that ran parallel to a flowing river that exuded colors I’d never seen before throughout my many trips to the “Equality State.” Camping in the unheard of would become a theme of this trip.
Our first desired destination was Grand Teton National Park. After three hours of driving, we finally understood we were going to the West. Sharp and jagged snow-covered mountain tops appeared in the distance as we entered the park. To the right, bison roamed freely, taking for granted the pristine backdrop they call home. As we went deeper into the park, it was time to find a camping spot. Coming in unprepared was yet another reoccurring theme of this two-week trip — it was a blessing and curse. We stayed the two nights at a mildly packed area just north of one of Wyoming’s most gorgeous, yet populated areas: Jenny Lake. A two-minute walk through the tight trees and down the cliff from our campsite, an empty beach appeared with a sprawling view of the Tetons, seamlessly with no regard for their staggering beauty as they’re accompanied by the famous Jackson Lake. This area became prime for hikes up Signal Mountain, reading in silence and soaking in breathtaking views all along the main road.
Washington was next. This state is an outdoor gem. As we made our way through Montana while bypassing Coeur d’Alene, a National Forest in the Idahoan panhandle, we eventually made it to Mt. Rainier. Engulfed in trees that soar so high it blocks sunlight, and the sound of the fast-flowing stream only a half mile away, the Ohanapecosh campsite was a perfect reminder we were finally in the Pacific Northwest. We hiked through dense forests along streams to find astronomically big waterfalls, hiked up the practically vertical trail of Shriner Peak and saw Lake Erie reflections of the mesmerizing Mt. Rainier. If this park is not on your bucket list, it should be. It has everything a lover of the nature and the outdoors aspires for.
Three hours more west we landed in Olympic National Park. Within its 1,442 square miles, you can hike, fish, surf, climb, kayak, canoe and anything else you can imagine. We camped somewhere in the middle of the park after a few tips from rangers. Alongside our tent we found ourselves next to Crescent Lake. Fish were abundant to say the least. We also found hikes nearby that lead to majestic waterfalls hidden amongst heavily damp leaves. This was a recurring sight all throughout the Pacific Northwest. After a few days, we went to the brink of Olympic. As we got closer to the ocean we found ourselves in the village of La Push. It’s known for its ravaging waves, but during this summer day our first sight of the ocean was almost a replica of a lake. First, Second, Third and Rialto beach were all chilly paradises. Darkened sand, trees sprouting off rocks and cliffs, and of course freezing water. After this we traveled south towards the idyllic Ruby Beach and off to Oregon.
Costal Oregon is an empty pleasant coastline that’s forgotten about all too much. Its oceans are hidden by damp trees and mounds of tussock covered dunes. As you make the trek down the 101 and find yourself looking for a beach, a small hike is more often than not involved, but the result of a quiet beach is the reward. Oregon, just like Washington, is yet another outdoor paradise, if you’re willing to brave the cold. Surfing thrives along this rugged coastline. I had the chance to paddle out at Oswald West State Park, which involves a mile hike to a cove that proports stunning views of sandstone cliffs and the ice-cold Pacific Ocean. Luckily enough, I was gifted with some swell — waves being about waist to shoulder high reeling off the rocky point.
We packed up after our session in the water and kept moving south. Eventually we ended up in Northern California: home to massive Sequoias and Redwoods. We camped between the trees and relaxed near Crescent City. Being only a five-minute drive to the ocean was quite a feeling; there was no need to head too far inland, we figured, since our next stop was Big Sur.
As the trip came to a close we moved onto the famous Highway 1. I don’t think there is a more gorgeous drive in all 50 states than this. Full of blue water that looks like it belongs in the tropics, open land that makes you feel lost in the wilderness and gigantic cliffs that emulate Iceland, this area has it all. As we moved down the highway and cruised by the pullovers that existed every 250 feet, we eventually stopped at the all too gorgeous McWay Falls. This is the shining star of Big Sur, featuring an 80-foot waterfall nestled inside a cove of bright blue water, you forget you’re in central California. As we headed down the highway we took in all that Pfeiffer State Park had to offer — stopping at pullovers to watch the waves thrash, and once stopping in the ocean for a surf that featured lonesome lineups and clean wave faces. Our final destination was then reached in Santa Barbara: a gorgeous city on the fringe of Los Padres National Forest and a long Kayak away from the Channel Islands.
Photos by Mitchell Milbauer.