Updated: Jul 5, 2021
May 6th, 2020
Let’s face it, in 2020 the bottom dropped, at least for the grand adventures we all had planned. My first planned camping trip of the season to City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico was recently canceled. I booked early this year, thinking I had learned my lesson from last year when I waited too long to book campsites at popular state and national parks around the Southwest, only to find most campgrounds full by late spring.
So what do we do, now that our outdoor adventures for 2020 and the foreseeable future are in limbo? And what do we do to satisfy the adventure itch? My advice: plan bigger and better future adventures!
Since I cannot travel and get out to the iconic parks on my list to visit, here’s a look back at several of my past trips, a bit of reflection on things I could have done better and would do differently in the future.
Yellowstone National Park 2012
Growing up in Massachusetts, I was surrounded by National Forests, State Parks, and National Historic Parks, but not an abundance of National Parks as we understand them in the American West and Southwest. In 2012, during a trip to Nebraska to visit family, Stacia and I, along with her siblings, decided to make a road-trip across the state of Wyoming to Yellowstone National Park over a long weekend in July. Since there were six of us, we decided to stay at a hotel in Cody, Wyoming instead of camping.
During our two-day stay, we were able to road-trip around the Grand Loop Road and visit some of the most iconic spots, including Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We also completed one moderate hike to Fairy Falls, stopped at several of the visitor’s centers, took some scenic walks to some geysers and hot springs, and enjoyed grizzly and bison sightings (from a distance, of course).
Yellowstone is simply otherworldly. This area encompassing northwestern Wyoming and parts of Montana and Idaho is a landscape of extremes, from the severe swings in seasonal weather, to the abrupt shifts from fields to steep mountain slopes, to the extreme colors of the park's hydrothermal features, to the ridiculous abundance of waterfalls within park boundaries (290 total). It is by-far the most beautiful natural landscape I have ever visited, and not a park to simply consider a check on a bucket list!
If I visit Yellowstone again (which I certainly plan to), I would do several things differently. First, and the most obvious, is to plan more time! Yellowstone National Park encompasses an area larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined! How did I imagine two days was enough time?
Second, I would spend more time in the less-trafficked areas of the park. I understand there’s a good reason people congregate around the Old Faithful and Yellowstone Falls areas, but the bus-loads of people make these natural features feel like they’re located in the middle of a city rather than in a massive protected natural space. I’d rather be overwhelmed by the beauty of the park’s features than by the abundance of fellow sight-seers, so on a second trip to Yellowstone I might find myself spending more time in the northern part of the park, which is packed with trails listed as ‘lightly’ or ‘moderately’ trafficked.
Grand Canyon National Park 2019
Grand Canyon National Park is awe-inspiring, which explains why it’s one of the most heavily-trafficked of our nation’s parks. I remember a common reaction to our first look over the canyon was “it doesn’t look real” or “it looks like a picture or painting.” There’s something about the way our minds are conditioned in this highly technologized, urban world where a photograph on a screen is more relatable and real than a canyon landscape carved by water. Of course, this isn’t just any canyon carved by any river, but I think the point is still valid!
I visited the Grand Canyon as part of a girls trip to Las Vegas in May of 2019. The month of May in the American Southwest is already hot, so not ideal if you’re planning some day hiking. We were your typical drive-through tourists during our one day visit to the Grand Canyon. Our one hike of the trip was to Horseshoe Bend right outside of Page, which is actually within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and not the Grand Canyon National Park.
From Horseshoe Bend, I had planned to take the route to Las Vegas that would allow us to stop at the North Rim for some sight-seeing. On the day we arrived in Page, I found out that some major road construction had closed down route 67, thereby closing the entrance to the North Rim. Now, I could not have predicted this construction project months in advance, but it was an unfortunate consequence that made us detour to the South Rim, adding to our travel time.
This Northern Arizona - Southern Utah area is packed with parks and recreation areas to fulfill any kind of desert adventure imaginable. On a future trip to the area, I would plan for Spring or Fall arrival, when the weather is cooler, and would scope out some moderately difficult hiking trails to get in some true outdoor adventure!
Great Smoky Mountains National Park 2014
Okay, so by now it’s evident that I have a history of taking lots of road trips and clearly spending more time driving then enjoying the destinations. This visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a one-night stay on a summer drive from Texas to Massachusetts.
We entered the park through the tourist town of Gatlinburg and chose the closest campground: Elkmont. The Elkmont Campground consists of 200 tent/RV campsites, so needless to say the area was crowded. Our campsite was nicely equipped with a tent pad and backed onto Little River, so we were fortunate in that way.
We were, however, very close to a camp neighbor to the south of our site who summoned the fire department by pouring lighter fluid onto a patch of grass roughly five feet from his camper, then lighting it on fire. He apparently was making an attempt at killing some bees, but park rules clearly restrict fires to within park-provided fire rings only (he could have torched his camper!).
My wife and I like to choose campgrounds that are lightly or moderately busy for car camping, since backpacking is out of the question with my Ankylosing Spondylitis. However, 200 other campers packed closely together in the Smoky Mountains is less than ideal, especially with discourteous neighbors. Like all parks I’ve visited, there are more populated and less populated areas. Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans over 800 square miles with ten developed campgrounds for car and RV camping and 150 hiking trails. There’s by far enough space here to spread out!
Typically, I like to evaluate all my camping options utilizing Google Earth, pictures from other campers, and information provided on the Recreation.gov website. From what I can tell, the Balsam Mountain campground has some more spacious sites and is a smaller campground. The Abram’s Creek Campground advertises itself as a more remote and secluded destination, which may also be a better choice for a future trip!
In the end, it’s evident that some of my past adventures were lacking, at least when it comes to time management. I do have some adventures in the works for this year, and hopefully I’ll be able to attend safely and plan better. Though, there is something enticing about a little spontaneity on vacation, and there is such a thing as over-planning!