Driving West

Waking up the morning to the start of an epic adventure is always the best feeling. The proper terminology is pre-trip adrenaline rush: stressed to make sure everything is packed and accounted for, while also excited with anticipation to see and experience new places. But this trip was going to be unlike anything I have ever done before; multiple 3 day weekends of traveling out west while repositioning the car for the next weekend at a new airport. Absolute insanity and craziness, I know, but every moment of it was pure bliss! Once the car was ready, the first stop was Benton Harbor, Michigan right on the shore of Lake Michigan. 

It was a shorter night than I wanted but seeing the sunrise over Lake Michigan was much more important and what better place than at Indiana Dune National Park! After a Dunkin Donuts drive through breakfast, my mom and I made it just in time for the sunrise over the lake looking out toward the Chicago skyline appearing as tiny specks on the horizon. We only had time for one short hike before the rain started. The trail traverses the different stages of plant life forming on a beach appropriately named, the Dune Succession Trail. The hike’s furthest inland point is located in an oak tree forest that showed no signs of a beach anywhere nearby. Then slowly the path turned from dirt to sand and the plants went from trees to shrubs to shells. There were lots of boardwalks and nice overlooks along the way, but the water was way too cold to swim in. 

Then the rain started as we drove through Chicago, Illinois onwards to Starved Rock State Park. At this point, we should have just kept driving west, but we both wanted to see this park so we stopped anyway. It was a torrential downpour, but we did do a little tiny trail overlooking French Canyon. Westward bound again except for a quick lunch at Monical’s Pizza. The pan pizza is pretty good, but the sourdough breadsticks with cheese sauce is the highlight of this Midwestern chain. 

The plan was to check out a bridge that is lit up at night on the High Trestle Trail bike trail, North of Des Moines, Iowa, but it was STILL raining. Another time. But Des Moines is a pretty cool city with the modernity of buildings and the abundance of parking garages. There is a decent size metro park that is adjacent to the Better Homes and Gardens test garden that you could tour during the day. It is tiny compared to what you would expect, and honestly quite amazing they can make the magazine covers look completely different every time. And then we drove some more to Omaha, Nebraska because what else is there to do at night? And if you’re curious, it was raining all the way.

The sun has appeared! First stop in Omaha was at the Henry Doorly Zoo. I’m not a huge fan of zoos since it always seems like the animals are never doing anything and the enclosures are all sort of the same. Not here though! This is absolutely the best zoo I’ve been to due to the shear number of animals and the uniqueness of showcasing them. The only downside is the lack of a safari tour. The highlight is the desert biome which is inside a glass dome with what seemed like an impossible configuration of enclosures weaving back and forth built in to this huge central rock. And underneath, a huge collection of animals that live in the dark, again, wondering how they fit so many. There was even a whole section devoted to alligators that were resting right next to the walkway inches from our feet! The other highlight was the gorilla exhibit. All the gorillas seemed to love the attention of the onlookers with them sitting right next to window to eat and even doing their chest pounds as seen in movies movies. There was a poor kid who started crying once the gorilla slammed the glass with both hands on a full charge though. But then another gorilla patiently waited until the camera was put away before leaving the window where a child was getting a picture. 

Just on the western outskirts of Omaha on I-80 is the Holy Family Shrine. It’s kind of a pain to get to since highway exits and entrances are not as common the further west you go, but it is highly worth seeing up close, although you can see it from the highway. I’d call it a modern approach to building a church with its mostly glass construction for natural light. There was also a little stream of water that runs down the middle of the aisle up to the alter with stone cutouts in the floor. Just down the hill was the Way of the Cross Trail with the fourteen stations retracing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The total length is supposed to be the distance Jesus carried the cross.

Then it was back to I-80 to stop at the capitol building in Lincoln, Nebraska. The place was designed like a castle and the elevator floor indicator was similar to a clock face with a spinning needle. Once you venture past Lincoln, exits that have actual services are few and far between. But there is one last stop for the day, the world’s largest rail yard owned by Union Pacific in Platte, Nebraska. Bailey Yard has 315 miles of track to process over 10,000 railcars a day, all within 2,850 acres. We didn’t arrive until after dark, but from a distance, it looked like a city with the countless number of lights. I visited once before when it was daylight and got to go up the Golden Spike Tower to view the yard. From that view, you can actually see the workers releasing individual train cars with remote controlled train engines down the perfectly sloped track to couple with the east or west bound trains.

The shortest way to Salt Lake City, Utah is to stay on I-80, but its also not the most exciting stretch of road. It didn’t add that much to the trip to drop down to I-70 and drive through Denver which is a way more scenic route to put it lightly. Once you exit Nebraska, the farmland almost completely turns to just open grassland and gas instantly went up. From Denver, we went south to Roxborough State Park where we did a short loop called the Fountain Valley Trail around the red rock formations and up to an overlook. Then we decided to venture down another path and try to squeeze in another loop before the rain reached us. It started to sprinkle just as we got off the trail, but we were in a parking lot further down the main road so I ran to go get the car about a half mile away so we both weren’t soaked. We stayed close to the mountains that night to avoid the snow that was coming down further west.

We finally made it to the absolute best section of I-70, the Rocky Mountains. As soon as you leave Denver, the highway starts to gain elevation. For the next 3 hours, the road consists of weaving around the mountains, going through tunnels, and lots of steep grades. There were tiny bits of snow falling at the Eisenhower Tunnel, but the rest of the drive was clear. Just before Glenwood Springs, the highway starts to really curve around the canyon with the Colorado River and it eventually becomes one long bridge. There was road construction happening causing traffic to come to an engine off type of stop. But you can’t complain when the views are so stunning.

Eventually, we made it through the construction to Grand Junction, Colorado to visit Colorado National Monument. The plan was to hike in Rattlesnake Canyon, which is a side road off the main park road to some arches. But the road was all mud and impassable. Instead, we just drove the loop road around the canyon taking in the 360 degree views. We stopped at all the pull offs to walk right out to the edge. The highlight was Independence Monument; spire climbers scramble up to the top every Fourth of July to raise the flag. After taking in the sights, we drove North out of Colorado, all the way to Vernal, Utah.

Out in the middle of nowhere is Dinosaur National Monument. The dinosaur bones are few and far between outside of the main building. We walked the Fossil Discovery Trail which, in theory, passes multiple signs of dinosaurs but were kind of hard to spot without any markings or a trail guide. There were a couple short side hikes that went to areas that had pea size fossils scattered within the rocks. One side trail, however, said there were multiple bones sticking out from the rock wall marked with their location. Perfect! We only found one grouping of tail bones. It wasn’t until we talked with a park ranger later that we found the femur bone sticking out about waist level at the end of the spur. Once we saw it, we were kind of embarrassed but bones really blend in well. The main attraction through is the exhibit hall; this is where all the digging for fossils took place for many museums in America. It was pretty cool to see the place where skeletons you saw in museums as a kid were found. And it’s fascinating how the bones are all strewn about and what it took to reconstruct how the bones would have gone together. What’s crazier, though, is how many bones are still buried in the rock deeper and further along this vein outside of the building that will never be uncovered since it is now protected land. We also checked out the campground which is right next to the river with very colorful rocks. Too bad it was so cold out.

Just outside of the park is an 85 foot wide arch that is completely overshadowed. The directions to hike there were a little sketchy from the parking lot. Like which way do I head? We followed a jeep trail that was in tough shape for a bit knowing roughly where on the map it should be close by. Finally, there was a sign confirming we were on the right track. We were really close actually and just had to go around a bend to see it. We explored an eroded hollow in the rock next to the arch to escape the sun. 

Then it was on to Salt Lake City, Utah where my mom flew back home the next day and my friend Dhruv flew in for a weekend of exploring the city!

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