Highlights From Our Drive West

Considering how long it’s been since my last post, I thought a quick look at some of the highlights of the past several months would be the best option. After a full summer of family time back in New England, we’re back in the van full time and finally (almost) back in the warm southwest. This was our third time driving the van across the country and, once again, we took a different route.

Before leaving New England, we swung through the White Mountains in New Hampshire to do a hike that’s been on our list for years. In the Pemigewasset Wilderness there’s a loop you can do that brings you over eight of the state’s 4,000 footers, with a little over 9,000 feet of elevation gain over the course of the thirty one miles. Most hikers do sections of the loop as day hikes or overnights, or the full loop in a few days. Other hikers (and runners) willingly make things harder and knock out the whole thing in a single day. That’s what we wanted to do.

Thirty one miles, 9,000 ft elevation gain, one day. Sounds fun, right? Well, it gets better. There are also a few spur trails off the loop in case you feel the need to add an extra 4,000 footer or two. Of course we tacked on these bonus peaks. By the time we wrapped up our day we had thirty three miles even with about 9,500 feet of gain.

In all honesty, it was not as bad as we thought it was going to be. A single day Pemi loop was something we had each decided to do years ago, before we were dating. Not getting around to it until several thousand hiking miles later went a long way in easing what could have been a much more difficult day. It’s probably for the best, though. We were able to really enjoy one of our last Northeast hikes without the distraction of excessive, self-inflicted discomfort.

The timing of our Pemi loop couldn’t have been more perfect. We unknowingly planned it for the Friday before Labor Day and, while we had the trail nearly to ourselves aside from some AT hikers, the following day the whole area was swarming with people. Realizing what weekend it was, we got out of there as fast as we could.

This time around we opted to drive west via a more northern route than our previous trips, going through the Adirondacks and across upstate New York. Somehow we ended up not hitting any of the Adirondack high peaks, though we did fit in several smaller hikes/trail runs in the area. As we made our way across the state we made a stop in Seneca Falls to check out the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. A few parts of the park were closed for renovation, but we did get to explore the visitor’s center museum and Wesleyan Chapel.

From Seneca Falls we made a somewhat impulsive decision to swing by Niagara Falls on our way out of New York. It was one of those things we figured we may never make a special trip to go see, but since we were already so close we might as well pay a visit. We tend to do that a lot in the van.

We drove through on a late September Tuesday after giving no thought to the fact that the busy season was far from over. Our tolerance for crowds is pretty low at this point, but since we’d already driven all the the way there we got out to look around. Given the crowds, we stuck to the free stuff we could easily walk to and called it good.

Our second rather impulsive decision came as we were passing through northern Indiana. We crossed into Michigan for a free campsite a few miles over the border thinking we would pop into a nearby national park the following morning. The next day we woke up to rain, not great for visiting sand dunes, so with that plan out of the running we weighed our options over our morning coffee.

Our campsite was just off a highway that was our last chance (without backtracking) to go north through Michigan and loop around through the Upper Peninsula. Well aware that our late season timing might have us rushing through, we opted to go for it.

The entire time we were in the northern states we had to keep a close eye on our batteries. Tree coverage prevented us from getting much solar, so unless we had several back-to-back driving days (to charge off the alternator while we drive) we had no off-grid way to recoup the power we were consuming. As a result, we ended up staying at paid campgrounds with a power hookup about every one and a half to two weeks.

Once we decided to head north, we timed one of our paid stops to be at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Campgrounds at sites managed by the National Park Service are reliably well run, clean, and half off with an annual parks pass, so we try to use them whenever we need a site with amenities.

Sleeping Bear Dunes was cool, but we stuck to the mainland so there’s not a whole lot to say about it. Hiking in sand is, well, hiking in sand. Several miles of it is fun occasionally, and this was a beautiful place to get our fix of it for a while.

One of the biggest factors in our decision to loop through Michigan, the UP and then back south through Wisconsin was the timing of our passing through. Throughout New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana we had seen the leaves starting to turn. Continuing along the most direct route would have put us in corn country within a few days, whereas taking the long route almost guaranteed some solid leaf peeping. It turned out to be better timing than we thought and we ended up crossing into the UP in what appeared to be the peak foliage week.

By this point we were nearing the limit of our cold tolerance. Exploring is fine, but we both had work to do and sitting in the van gets real cold, real fast. In the interest of getting our butts to warmer temps, we picked one thing to do in the area before moving on.

We took a day to check out Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, going in on a drizzly weekday to avoid any potential late-season crowds. Our ~12 mile hike brought us out along the shoreline before looping around to pass by some waterfalls on the way back to the van. I’m not sure our timing could have been any better if we’d tried. The colors were absolutely amazing, then the next day we woke up to snow.

The final highlight was definitely for me, or rather, my nine year-old self. While we were driving through Nebraska with no real plan other than to get through the state, I opened the map to see what was ahead and maybe find a spot to stop and stretch our legs. We happened to be coming up on an exit to a town that had one of the original Pony Express stations. The station was originally constructed on a portion of the Oregon Trail as a fur trading post and then used as a Pony Express station for the brief duration of the service. It was later donated and moved here for preservation.

This was by far one of my favorite things we’ve stumbled upon in our travels. Several years ago I had looked up Pony Express historical sites out of curiosity, but so many of them are in Nebraska and frankly I wasn’t sure I’d ever go to the state just for this. I had completely forgotten about it until the site popped up on the map.

Last year on the CDT we hiked along part of the Oregon Trail through southern Wyoming. Much of the Pony Express route overlapped with the general Oregon Trail route from Missouri through Nebraska and Wyoming, so it was pretty cool to see more of the landscape they had to navigate. Having the experience of hiking through such remote, exposed territory definitely makes this stuff hit differently, and our conditions and safety concerns were so much milder than what these riders faced.

Crossing the Nebraska / Colorado line marked the end of our somewhat hurried drive southwest. We’ve slowed down a bit since then and fit in some solid exploring, but those are stories for another post.

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