This summer, Mr. Eats, Mini Eats, and I went on an extensive road trip, nearly three weeks of seeing the sights of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and South Dakota (and a little of the states in between). It was by no means a culinary expedition--our focus was on national parks and monuments--but since I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the logistics, I thought I’d give some details here. Of course, I’ll include some of my favorite food-related stops as well!
Planning for the trip took nearly a year; reservations for accommodations in or near national parks during the summer book up that far in advance. The first thing I did was figure out what places we wanted to see and could reasonable drive to. Yes, I know they have those things called “airplanes,” but a) we had to take three seasons of clothing for three people and b) flying is just so unenjoyable and unpredictable these days that I didn’t want to risk it.
Our priority for the vacation was Yellowstone National Park, a place my husband and I have wanted to visit our whole lives. Our destinations also included visiting with my brother- and sister-in-law (and niece) at her parents’ house just outside Park City, Utah for the 4th of July as well as the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado (a favorite of ours), Grand Tetons, Devil’s Tower, and Mount Rushmore. We later added Badlands National Park to our itinerary since it was near Mount Rushmore. I wish would could have included more in Utah as well as Glacier National Park, but we didn’t want to rush our visits to the other areas.
Day 1: Leave Nashville at 6:30 a.m.; lunch on the road; dinner in Junction City, Kansas; stay in WaKeeney, Kansas Super 8 (travel time, with stops: 14 hours)
As I looked at the map, I decided that Colorado would be our first destination. I’ve driven straight through before, but I’m years older and have a 7-year-old, so we stayed overnight in WaKeeney, Kansas, having budgeted for about 13 hours of drive time, including breaks. It actually took a bit longer than that, so staying in Junction City, Kansas would have been better. Still, leaving at 6:30 a.m. on a Tuesday allowed us to avoid rush hour in Nashville, St. Louis, and Kansas City. We had no problems with traffic at all. But WaKeeney was just a little too far west and it was late when we arrived. But driving through Kansas is actually pretty cool. Different from years ago, now the landscape of western Kansas is covered in huge wind turbines, which look like dancers on the horizon.
Day 2: Leave WaKeeny and drive to Boulder, Colorado, four hours and spend the afternoon; drive from Boulder, Colorado to Estes Park, Colorado, one hour
The advantage of WaKeeney was that it was only four hours away from our first vacation stop, Boulder, Colorado. Note: the interstate around Denver is a tollway that photographs your car and sends you the bill later. And it ain’t cheap. This is particularly problematic for people who rent cars (we rented a minivan) because rental companies frequently assess fees for automatic tolls.
Anyhoo, we were so excited to arrive in Boulder. Our first stop was Illegal Pete’s, a local favorite on the Pearl Street mall. It’s mostly burritos and burrito bowls, but they’re huge and delicious. Afterward, we shopped, watched street performers, and got shaved ice before heading up to Estes Park.
Though we prefer to stay in Boulder, for this trip, I felt Estes Park was a better idea (and I was right). We need a condo with bedrooms and more home-like accommodations, which is easier to find in Estes Park. It’s also much closer to the park entrance and there’s lots to do for my very extroverted kid. We stayed at the Lofts at Estes Park on Riverside, which was walking distance to all the downtown shopping and restaurant district as well as to a playground and park area. The balcony of the condo overlooks the Big Thompson River as it flows through the town, which is spectacular.
Also nearby was Poppy’s Pizza, a really great little restaurant with wonderful salads and pizzas and a patio right next to the river. It was very reasonably-priced and we actually all got two meals out of our pizzas (thankful to have a full kitchen at the condo).
Day 3: Rocky Mountain National Park Trail Ridge Road, Alpine Visitor's Center, Tundra, Continental Divide, Lake Irene
I had to be flexible on our itinerary to allow for rainy days (rainy afternoons are almost a certainty in most mountain areas, though). I had plans that could be adjusted based on weather. So for our first day in the park, we got out early and drove along Trail Ridge Road all the way up to the tundra, Alpine Visitors Center, over the Continental Divide and down to Lake Irene. We hiked several trails at the high altitudes, which was tough for the first day, but took it easy for the rest of the day. We had a nice picnic at Lake Irene (I took a cooler so we could take food) and Mini got to play with some other kids in a meadow. We also saw lots of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, which I’d never gotten to see in person.
Day 4: Denver Museum of Science & Nature, Boulder Creek Path, Chautauqua Dining Hall
The next day (a Friday), the weather in RMNP was projected to be rainy, so we drove to Denver to visit the Denver Museum of Science and Nature. It’s huge and there were several special exhibits I liked (particularly about minerals and gemstones and Colorado’s mining history) but a large portion was dedicated to dioramas of various places and wildlife that was taxidermied. It was like a macabre zoo. But Mr. and Mini loved it.
On the way back to Estes Park, we stopped back by Boulder to walk along the Boulder Creek Path and have an early dinner at the Chautauqua Dining Hall. Mr. Eats indulged in western specialty meats (bison meat loaf!) and I had a wonderful vegetable pasta. Mini Eats had mac and cheese and a generous bowl of mixed fruit. We also toasted the beginning of our vacation with two spectacular cocktails. After dinner, Mr. Eats strolled around the base of the Flatirons while Mini and I hung out at the playground. After four days of interacting with mostly just her parents, she was happy to make some new friends.
Day 5: The Stanley Hotel, RMNP Cub Lake hike, Colorado Cherry Company
On our third day in Estes Park (a Saturday), we started with breakfast at The Stanley Hotel. Reservations don’t fill up for the restaurant, but they do for the ghost tour, so we had to skip that. We did get to enjoy walking around the grounds of the hotel and enjoying the spectacular weather.
Afterward, we went back to RMNP. Since it was already mid-day, we opted for the less-busy trails accessible by shuttle from the park-and-ride. The plan was to do the Cub Lake and Fern Lake trails (which are connected), but I mis-read the information about the length and elevations. So, we ended up doing just Cub Lake, but it was about six miles with a 1,000 foot climb in elevation. We didn’t have enough water or snacks to make it to Fern Lake. I was also concerned about missing the shuttle back to the park-and-ride, since we were out for six hours. It was more stressful than I’d planned, but it was a beautiful trail and we got to see a mink (or ferret) catch a snake right next to us and also have fish nibble our toes. After finishing this exhausting hike, we drove out to Lyons to eat at The Colorado Cherry Company. Pies, and cobblers, and ice cream for all.
Day 6: RMNP popular lake trails
On Sunday, we got up early to do the popular hikes, since we knew the crowds would be heavy (this was July 2; the 4th of July holiday is the busiest for national parks). We barely made it into one of the last parking spots at the park-and-ride and then headed to Nymph Lake and Dream Lake. Dream Lake was a real treat and worth the climb in elevation and across creeks and snowbanks. There’s a spectacular waterfall, too.
After finishing those trails, we visited Bear Lake (the easiest and most popular trail in the park) and then headed to Sprague Lake for a late picnic lunch. It was once the home to a resort and is still a really fun place to have a picnic since you can play in the creek nearby.
Later, we had leftovers from dinner at the Chautauqua and toasted our last night in town with mead from the nearby Redstone Meadery.