The Most Epic Alaskan Road Trip
Part III: The Lower 48
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When I drove from the lower 48 to Alaska July 2016, it was exciting but I was in a serious rush. I needed to start my new job in 3 weeks and I would be embarking on this trip alone.
My trip from Alaska back down to the lower 48 was going to be a lot less stressful. I allotted myself 4-6 weeks to get to Colorado, and my boyfriend would be joining me. It was August so weather wasn’t going to be an issue and we could take the time to really explore and make the most out of a once in a lifetime road trip!
- The Most Epic Alaskan Road Trip (Part I)
- The Most Epic Alaskan Road Trip (Part II)
- Why I Chose Travel Therapy
- My $5000 Tiny Van Conversion
- Why I Decided to Live in a Van
- 7 Reasons why you Should Travel to Alaska
We decided we wanted to spend a lot of time exploring other parts of Alaska and Canada! It was also a priority to hit up as many national parks in the process as possible. We bought an Annual National Park Pass which was $80 ($40 each). The pass was well worth it!
Some National Park entrance fees are as much as $25, we got our return on investment pretty quickly. Summer 2017 also happened to be the celebration of Canadian National Parks and all entrances were free!
The national parks we visited (US and Canadian): Denali, Wrangell St. Elias, Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Northern Cascades, Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone. Other must-see stops that weren’t National Parks included Valdez, Whistler, and Vancouver.
The road trip took exactly three weeks and the total cost of the trip was $2109.35. Here is the full breakdown by category.
The Lower 48
This post will be all about the Lower 48 portion of the trip. We spent 7 days traveling in the lower 48 until we arrived at our final destination, Colorado. The lower 48 is what most Alaskans refer to as the contiguous USA (all states except Hawaii and Alaska). Since purchasing the annual national park pass we planned most of our route to the national parks we wanted to visit!
We entered back into the US through Washington state. Word of advice, prepare to wait a while to get into the USA, we sat for about an hour.
Once we were back stateside, we stopped and strolled around Bellingham, WA; which is a very beautiful town along the ocean. We were really tired and ended up sleeping at a rest stop off of I-5. I suppose this is the reality of van life, sometimes I sleep in a beautiful spot by a river, sometimes I sleep in a parking lot.
Northern Cascades National Park
Northern Cascades NP was most definitely a pleasant surprise! We spent the day driving along the highway with blue/green lakes in every direction. Key stops included gorge lake and diablo lake. There are plenty of stops along the highway to take in all the beauty that is Northern Cascades NP. We had ambitions of completing a hike some other folks had raved about but it appeared that the 2 weeks on the road got to us. We parked at the trailhead and accidentally took a 4-hour nap, oops! I definitely regret not getting to hike in the park but I think the nap was well needed.
Mt. Rainier National Park
Mt Rainier is one of those large volcanoes that is always snow-capped and appears to be floating in the sky. The park roads allow you to get extremely close to Mt Rainer which is seriously impressive. If you go to Rainer NP make sure to not just plug it into your GPS because there are three entrances.
The best route is to head towards the Sunrise Visitor center this is the entrance on the Northeast side of the park. To make a long story short. we went to the wrong entrance at first and had to drive out and back around half of the park to get to the correct entrance.
We had intentions of staying in the park campground because it was so close to the mountain and the stars were absolutely stunning that night. Well, I guess everyone else has this idea as well because it was full. It was dark, late, and we were really tired.
You cant park here
We noticed a very large pull out by the entrance that several other cars were camping at so we decided to park there. About 2 hours later we awoke to park ranger headlights in the window. We were informed that we could not boondock at this spot because we were still in the national park, oops.
We were frustrated and explained that we were tired and had driven a few hours today, and the campground was full. He was very helpful and directed us to national forest land a mile down the road that we could boondock on. Although this was annoying, we did end up with a better secluded and quieter spot.
This was actually the only time on the whole trip that we were told to move. It was ironic because when we were struggling to find a spot we were wondering what the worst case scenario would be. We’re happy that he just asked us to move and no other consequences were received.
The next day we drove to the Sunrise Visitor Center and hiked some of the sourdough ridge trail. It was a beautiful day and the snowy Mt Rainier against the green and flowery hills is a beautiful sight. There is a view from every direction on the trail, I would recommend.
Literally the day before the total eclipse on 8/21/17 we decided to alter our route in order to get on the path of totality. We headed towards the border of Idaho and Oregon to watch.
We ended up watching the eclipse in a Loves gas station. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the appropriate glasses so we would take pictures with the camera and then look at the image. We did look at the path of totality. It was pretty intense to witness, the sky suddenly got dark like dusk and it got a little bit cooler. The best part was probably the oohing and awing of everyone at the gas station taking in an event like this all together.
We pretty much drove through Idaho the next day, we wanted to make sure we had time to explore Grand Tetons and Yellowstone NP. Finding free campsites in this part of the country was pretty easy. We learned that you can boondock in any national forest unless otherwise stated, for up to 14 days. Almost all the national parks had national forest land surrounding the park, thus once you leave the park entrance it’s pretty feasible to find a free camping spot.
Grand Tetons National Park
I was pretty excited to visit the Grand Tetons. I have always seen pictures of these iconic mountains and always hoped to visit one day. Before I started this trip I was looking up activities for Grand Tetons and came across Taggart Lake. I was pretty stoked because Taggart is my last name, so obviously, this was on the to-do list. I would highly recommend Taggart Lake if you are only in the park for one day. The hike is not difficult, only about 1.5 miles, and leads to a seriously beautiful lake. Shamus jumped in but it was a little too cold for me to do that.
Yellowstone National Park
I sincerely wish we got up early to visit this park. We hadn’t had too much difficulty with traffic on any other national parks before this, but this park is so crowded. Due to construction and high volume of visitors we sat in traffic for almost an hour. I think it’s definitely worth it to get to the park before 8 AM if you visit.
Stops in Yellowstone included old faithful and the grand prismatic basin. Old faithful was a unique experience. I didn’t realize there were a whole hotel and lodge and other buildings around the geyser. I typically don’t like crowds but there is something wonderful about people applauding and cheering for nature.
Well, this concludes the 3 part serious about the most epic Alaskan road trip. The trip lasted exactly 3 weeks. It’s a little difficult to wrap my head around driving to and from Alaska in one year. I don’t think there is a better way to visit and explore this part of North America.
Tips for a Lower 48 road trip
Annual park pass is worth it
If you are planning a trip around visiting national parks, it’s totally worth it to get the park pass. The price is per car, not per person. If you plan on spending more than $80 in park entrance fees in one year, I highly recommend.
Do not boondock in national parks
To be fair, it was dark and we didn’t realize we were still in a national park when we got busted. As mentioned before tho, national parks are typically surrounded by plentiful national forest. Unless stated otherwise, you are able to boondock in any national forest for up to 14 days. Remember there are no amenities and you must pack out what you bring, leave no trace.
Go explore your own backyard
The US has so many amazing and beautiful National Parks. People many years ago advocated for these lands that they ultimately became infatuated with. There is a reason these parks are protected and are so sacred to people. Get out there and explore!
What’s your next road trip? Leave a comment below!