Forty-seven national parks, 17,335 miles, 67 days, three flat tires, two forest fires, three boat rides, temps ranging from 31 degrees and sleet to 106-degree blinding heat–and no speeding tickets–equals one extraordinary and unforgettable motorcycle trip of a lifetime!
When I told my friends and family of my planned motorcycle trip, a visit to each of the 47 national parks last summer, there were plenty of questions from everyone. “Are you crazy?” “How many other riders are joining you?” “Is your life insurance paid up?” “What type of gun are you taking?” And finally, “Why?” But I had heard it all before on my previous trips to the four corners of the U.S. in 2013 and to all of the lower 48 states in 2014.
It all began last winter when my wife surprised me by sending me a link to a website that mapped out an efficient way to visit each of the 47 national parks in the lower 48 states, riding the least amount of miles. When I began to plan the trip, I realized that picking a date to leave Chicago in order to avoid all the tricky weather conditions in the various parts of the country was harder than I expected. The Midwest has the tornado season in the late spring, Florida has hurricanes beginning in June, Death Valley has 120-degree heat in the summer, and the cold and snow could still be around in the mountains out west in early summer. I made the decision to leave on May 1 and hoped that I would be able to avoid most of the weather issues.
Planning the route for the trip was easy. I used the map that my wife had shown me and, although I didn’t have any time constraints, I still plotted the estimated distances and traveling times between the parks to help me plan for places to stay while on the road. I found that Google Maps, set to “avoid highways,” gave me the best routes with the most interesting scenery.
Traveling through 17,000 miles of back roads, I was able to discover roads that many motorcyclists can only dream of riding. Imagine riding the seven-mile bridge in the Florida Keys, just you, your bike and miles of ocean all around you until you reach the next island Key. Then there are the desolate, lonely roads, like U.S. Route 62 heading out of Carlsbad, New Mexico, where “Next Gas 145 Miles” signs warn you of the barren and isolated landscape. Utah State Route 12 through the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument area delivers magnificent vistas as far as the eye can see and is a motorcyclists’ dream, with hundreds of sweepers and a few free range cattle to make things interesting.
Some of the best conversations on motorcycle trips begin with a simple question: “So, where are you headed?” Bonds develop quickly between riders, and this trip held no exceptions. There were the two riders I met in Alpine, Wyoming, from Portugal and Gibraltar. They invited me to plan a trip with them to ride in Morocco.
And then, while touring Sequoia National Park, I met another pair of riders from Los Angeles. We became fast friends and now we regularly keep in touch and I plan to connect with them on my next ride out west.
I am frequently asked, “What is your favorite national park?” I don’t have a single favorite, but rather a Top Three. Dry Tortugas National Park covers an entire island and is located 70 miles west of Key West in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. The fort there was historically significant during the building of our country (Google it).
Zion National Park, one of our nation’s most majestic parks, is accessed via Utah State Route 9 and covers 146,596 acres of multi-colored canyons that take your breath away.
Lastly, Kings Canyon National Park is set between Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park in central California. Although this park isn’t as well known as some of the others, it reminds me of riding in the Alps in Europe, withroads that are carved on top of mountains with unforgiving 1,000 foot drops. Riding the winding road alongside a raging, overflowing river trying to accommodate last winter’s massive snows was exhilarating.
The beauty of this canyon ride is that you get a bonus at the end: you get to turn around and do it all over again.
Every national park has its own personality, beauty and history. From Acadia National Park in Maine with its rocky shores, high winds on Cadillac Mountain and seafaring history, to Big Bend National Park in Texas, running along the Rio Grande river, each park is special in its own way. At one vista point, I was able to walk across the Rio Grande into Mexico and then back again. For perspective, Big Bend is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. Approaching Big Bend from Alpine, Texas, on State Route 118 presents a desolate intimidating roadway, especially as temps hit 106 degrees.
Entering Death Valley National Park, I was uneasy with the extreme desolation, especially knowing that I was only one flat tire away from a crisis. At 3.4 million acres and 1,000 miles of roads, this is the largest National Park in the lower 48 states.
Food is always an important component of any trip, from lobster reuben sandwiches at Keys Fisheries in Marathon, Florida, to BBQ at Lockhart’s in Dallas, Texas, which is always served on butcher paper. I prefer to search for the mom & pop places to eat and try the local delicacies.
This trip of a lifetime gave me valuable insights regarding the beauty of our national parks and how precious they are to us. My advice is to visit as many of these national treasures as possible, I guarantee you will not be disappointed!