Western United States Once in a Lifetime Road Trip

Mountains, deserts, National Parks, and the open road

  • 109
  • 63:21
  • 3,240 mi
  • $397
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Created by Lou Poulas - July 12th 2016

Sometime in my mid 20s I started to daydream about the American West, specifically about crossing the Rocky Mountains. Stories about the Lewis and Clark expedition were enthralling to me, and the thought of attempting such an expedition on foot (and boat) seemed so improbable and daunting. Other stories, such as the Donner Party crossing the Sierra Nevadas and still others about the Nevada and California deserts all played a part in shaping my daydreams. Even novels such as “The Stand”, where in one part, a small group of 4 heroes and a dog walk from Boulder to Las Vegas, played a role. To experience a hundredth, or even a thousandth part of what these true explorers of the American West lived through was very appealing.

This trip never panned out until recently. College studies, family health issues, and a career all got in the way until my 40th birthday a two years ago. My brother and I decided that it was now or never, and took the chance. In hindsight, waiting was a blessing – embarking on the trip and leaving behind a wife and two kids (they are the best for encouraging me to take this trip!) for a 15-day adventure out West lent me a perspective that has resulted in me remembering this trip every day for the past two years. Seeing what the Western United States has to offer, and more important, the chance to leave and learn to fully appreciate what family and friends back East mean to me, will stay with me for the rest of my life.

My ultimate road trip is my adventure through the Rocky Mountains, across the Great Basin, into the Sierra Nevadas, down California’s majestic Pacific Coast Highway, and then into the desert of Death Valley, and then finally departing after several days at the Grand Canyon.

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Day 1 - The Mile High City. A perfect launching point into the American West is Denver, Colorado. Fly into Denver International Airport, and before heading into the mountains, catch some baseball at Coors Field and enjoy the ballgame with some of the best fans in the country.

"Denver, Colorado" Photo Credit: Lou Poulas

Southern Hospitality offers some great southern comfort food, just around the corner from the stadium at 17th and Baker after the game.

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Photo Credit: Joe Poulas

Boulder, Colorado, United States

Day 2 - Rock Mountain National Park. On the morning of Day 2, stock up in Boulder, Colorado, on the way to Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ve been to Boulder several times, and each time it gets better. This vibrant city has the feel of a great college town and is a great place to raise a family.

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I'm only highlighting the extraordinary eateries of the route, and in Boulder, breakfast at Lucile’s on 14th street is as good as it gets. This was far and away the best breakfast of the trip-- great Creole food with a taste right out of Louisiana, hot and fresh beignets included, of course.

Next, drive through Rocky Mountain National Park via Trail Ridge Road, America's highest elevation paved road, topping out at 12,183 feet. The views through this 45+ mile twisting byway are one of kind, offering up killer sights of mountain peak after mountain peak, all while offering an elevation gain of over 4,300 feet. Parts of the road are unnerving as there are no guardrails, despite incredibly steep drop-offs with no shoulder, but it is easily worth a case of the jitters. There are too many scenic overlooks to mention, so simply stop at any (or all) that intrigue you.

"Rocky Mountain National Park" Photo Credit: Joe Poulas

As mentioned about Trail Ridge Road-- watch the drop-offs! The National Parks Service does a great job of making parks safe, but it also makes travelers think for themselves... if you're careless, you could wind up injured. They'll give you warnings, but they won't babysit you.

Photo Credit: Lou Poulas

Forest Canyon Overlook

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Photo Credit: Lou Poulas

Forest Canyon Overlook

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Photo Credit: Joe Poulas

The are numerous scenic overlooks to stop at and enjoy Rocky Mountain National Park in all its grandeur.

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Photo Credit: Lou Poulas

View off of Tundra Communities Trailhead

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Photo Credit: Lou Poulas

Medicine Bow Curve Overlook

Photo Credit: Lou Poulas

Slow down, enjoy a short break, and walk the Toll Memorial Trail, and then hop back in you car for the journey down toward Lake Granby. But first, cross the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, and enter the true American West.

"Continental Divide at Milner Pass"

The final stop before heading to Steamboat Springs for the night-- Lake Granby

Photo Credit: Joe Poulas

Steamboat Springs, Colorado, United States

A wonderful place to spend a summer night is Steamboat Springs. I haven't been in the winter, so I don't know if things close for the season, but during the warmer months, it has a quaint downtown with good food and drink options, and the lower-end hotel accommodations are more than adequate.

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Not a must-do, but try to have at least one drink at Rex’s American Grill and Bar, just outside of downtown at the Holliday Inn. Sit at the bar and enjoy a myriad of YouTube videos on their large flat screen TVs – epic fails, funny pets, and much more!

Grand Junction, Colorado, United States

Day 3 - Into Utah Country. Wake up early and start Day Three by heading south through Meeker and Rifle, and take a scenic drive down Route 70 approaching Grand Junction, Colorado. The route winds around the Colorado River, offering some dramatic scenery as it curves its way through the west Rockies and onto the Colorado Plateau.

Just east of Grand Junction is Colorado National Monument. There are great hikes if you're interested, but if you're short for time, at least drive the 22-mile scenic byway on Rimrock Drive.

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"Colorado National Monument" Photo Credit: Lou Poulas

Independence Monument

Photo Credit: Lou Poulas

A side view of Independence Monument; it is much wider than it first appeared. There were no climbers this day, but many do try to scale the monument.

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Photo Credit: Lou Poulas

Off Rimrock Drive

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Photo Credit: Joe Poulas

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15 days, 14 nights. We logged more than 3,500 miles and stopped in five National Parks, countless small towns, and took more than 2,700 photographs. The summer of '16 marks the two-year anniversary of this epic road trip, a life-changing event that I've thought upon every single day since August '14. Work has seemed a little more pointless, while family and friends seem a little more important. I sincerely hope everyone that wants to has a chance to complete an ultimate road-trip adventure like this one.

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