After about five years of grinding to pay back student loans, I figured it was about time to enjoy the summer for a change. In addition to wanting to scale back a little in terms of work, I also had some weddings to attend back home as well, so I decided to take the summer off from traveling and drive from California back home to New Jersey.
The trip started in Orange County, California, where I had been staying with my girlfriend and her family. They were kind enough to let me visit while I got my life in order, and I am very grateful since April and May were busy months (which is probably an understatement).
Just so you can see what I mean, I’ll give you the highlights: I moved out of my Airbnb since they had put the house on the market, move into a hotel for a few days, moved out of the hotel, flew home on a preplanned trip, flew back to work, moved in with a coworker for a week as they were in the process of moving out, packed up again, finished my assignment, drove to Orange County from the Bay Area with my car packed floor to ceiling, flew to Minnesota for a three-week assignment, and flew back to Orange County to prepare for my road trip home.
Now, that I’m out of breath from explaining the chaos, let’s recap on the trip home.
Venice Beach, Los Angeles, CA
This was an easy day. After finishing packing up my car, I drove north from Orange County to Venice Beach where my traveling buddies were currently on assignment. I wanted to check in with them before I headed home, and also to get some beach time in. We ended up brunching pretty hard and met some new friends in the process.
This day was mostly a reunion and enjoying each other’s company because I hadn’t seen them in a few months after they moved from San Francisco.
Venice Beach, Los Angeles, CA
We walked around for a good part of the morning in Venice. It was a sleepy Monday morning, so it was pretty mild on the beach. Nothing too crazy here. Just some performers setting up and early bird tourists.
After a nice morning walk along the beach and canal, we got lunch. Soon after, I was off to the east side of town to visit my friends from college and my old neighborhood when I used to live in LA.
Los Feliz, Los Angeles, CA
I arrived late-afternoon to my buddies’ apartment, everyone just getting home from work. We spent the rest of the evening catching up and hitting up one of our favorite taco stands, Tacos Tu Madre. One of my favorite parts of LA has to be the Mexican food. It’s everywhere, and it’s so good.
Los Feliz, Los Angeles, CA
We woke up early to catch a sunrise hike up to the Wisdom Tree. This was one of those impromptu, right before getting into bed super late ideas. I was totally down though because I love the trails at Griffth Park. There are so many different paths you can go depending on the time you have available and your skill. It was definitely nice to get a good start on the day too.
This particular trail is a little steep, but the views at the end make it well worth it. During the daytime hours, it can be quite crowded at times, so it’s not as easy to take in the whole experience once you’re at the top. However, since we left pretty early, we just about had the whole place to ourselves.
We did the hike, but there wasn’t that much of a sunrise because it was so foggy as we rose in elevation. It was pretty eery, to be honest. Despite the weather, it was still nice to get out there on the trails.
By contrast, without the fog, the views should look something like this:
credit for image above: twenty talk
When we came back, breakfast was obviously next on the agenda. House of Pies is a nice dinner not too far down the road, so it was nice to eat up after a long morning.
The rest of the day consisted of meeting up with other friends and hitting up some of our favorite hangouts. We ended up spending most of the night at Spitz where they have game nights, great beer, and döner (Turkish kebab). It was a nice end to a good visit with great friends.
Grand Canyon, AZ
The trip started pretty early because I knew I had about a seven-hour drive ahead of me. I ended up getting to the south rim of the canyon just after noon. Of course, I would get there when it’s hottest. I guess I didn’t factor that into my plan. However, the views made the heat so worth it.
When I first rolled up, there were TONS of people. More than I expected, but as I got further from the parking lots, the volume of people decreased.
I guess I’ll let the canyon speak for itself, but I was totally caught off guard with its beauty despite seeing hundreds of pictures before, learning about it in grade school, and getting a lifetime supply of Arizona t-shirts from my grandma when she lived there over the years (thanks Gram). I did overhear a passerby say that it looks like a giant cinnamon roll, and I can’t say that I totally disagree.
Some tips I can suggest for your trip (please learn from my mistakes):
- Bring sunscreen with a high SPF and make sure it’s accessible – we can’t have you burning up.
- Bring a refillable water bottle (make sure it starts out full) – there are some refilling stations along the way, but not too many so you may want to bring more than one actually.
- Utilize the bus tour – there are some viewpoints that are just too far too far to walk to given the heat (plus, there’s AC).
- Don’t bring snacks that can melt because they sure will – bring high-calorie snacks though because you’ll be doing lots of walking.
- Take breaks and photos whenever you can – don’t be afraid to ask others to take your photos, although you might be surprised at how many people don’t speak English as their first language (“photo please” along with the camera charade gesture usually does the trick).
I lasted somewhere around five hours before I had to call it quits due to the heat and the hiking. I wish I had more time here to explore some more, but it just gives me a reason to come back. After my day was done at the canyon, I drove about an hour and a half to my hotel, showered up, got dinner at a pub, and watched the NBA Finals. Not a bad end to a memorable day!
Meteor Crater, AZ & Petrified Forest, AZ
What a LONG day! I was definitely a little too ambitious with the planning for this one. My initial goal was to see the meteor crash site and Petrified Forest on the way to Denver. However, I got a little caught up in walking around both places, so I never quite got all the way to Denver. I had to stop about an hour and a half away because it was getting late and dangerous to drive.
Anyway, first stop was the Meteor Crater, and this was pretty cool. According to the tour, which you should totally do, it’s the best-preserved crater due to it being in the desert. You really only need an hour at this place to get the full experience. Anything longer than that, and you’ll be overdoing it.
When I was told about the crater, my friend had told me to not look at pictures prior to going because it would be that much more impressive (sorry for ruining that for you – see it anyway!).
After about an hour, I made my way east towards the Petrified Forest National Park. The drive wasn’t too bad. In fact, it was nice that the viewpoints were all drivable, meaning you didn’t have to walk all that much if you didn’t want to. The AC in the car was definitely a game-changer.
The first part of my journey through the National Park was the Painted Desert, which was really cool. The sand was all different colors and looked like a layered cake. I know that doesn’t do it all justice, but seeing the colors change as you drive through the park, it was mesmerizing at some points.
By the time I got to the portion of the park with the petrified forests, I realized that I was running quite late, so I cut that part a bit short. However, it was nice to reflect a little on the beauty of it all.
After leaving the park, it was a mad dash to attempt to make up some lost time as the day had gotten away from me. During this phase of the trip, I ended up encountering a motorcycle disguised as a chariot along with its driver.
Luckily for me, there was also a nice sunset while driving through New Mexico.
After a late night of driving, I ended up sleeping in a bit. A few days in the sun in addition to some long days driving had really taken its toll on me. There was only a short drive to Denver from where I had stopped along the way.
In Denver, there was really no agenda. My only plan was to meet up with a buddy from college who was living in town. He was free so he was willing to show me around for the morning and early afternoon. We walked around town for a little and grabbed lunch before making our way to Red Rocks Park where we went on a hike.
The air was was definitely thinner than anything I was used to so there was quite a bit of huffing and puffing going on. Below is the video from some of our hike together.
After returning from the hike, we said our goodbyes and went our own ways. The rest of the day was devoted to hitting up multiple happy hours, trying some good food, and trying some local brews.
The Open Plains
After waking up in Denver, I decided to spend the morning there, and grab one last meal. If you’ve never been, I’ll let you know that it’s a very big foodie town. Everything is amazing so I wanted one more crack at it.
After leaving Denver, just after noon, I set my aims on Kansas City, which was about a nine-hour drive. There wasn’t a whole lot in between, but something about the plains and rolling hills, in some parts, were very soothing. There wasn’t much traffic, so it was just driving and listening to podcasts while enjoying the scenery.
I ended up getting to Kansas City somewhere around ten, and since I hate eaten my weight in beef jerky on the way, I wasn’t too hungry. I just found a hotel that seemed upstanding enough and went to sleep.
Kansas City, MO & St. Louis, MO
I really didn’t know what Kansas City had to offer other than BBQ, the Chiefs, and the Royals. After looking on Yelp for some attractions, I realized that there wasn’t too many that interested me, so I decided that the BBQ was the best choice. I got some recommendations from a friend, and it was some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had. Truly melt in your mouth type of stuff.
After lunch, I made my way towards St. Louis where some friends were on a travel assignment. To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I was going to stop there in order to make better time on the road. However, I ended up seeing the iconic arch from the freeway and decided that it’d be worth it.
As I was going to meet up with my friend for dinner, these two homeless guys approached me, asking for money so they can buy dinner. Instead, I offered to buy them dinner. There was a St. Louis Bread Company (Panera Bread everywhere else) nearby and got them what they had requested. I felt that it was only right since I had been eating so well on this trip. I bring this up not for praise, but because our interaction had such an impact on me at that moment, causing me to reflect quite a bit.
At dinner, it was nice to meet up with a friend and enjoy another BBQ meal on the day.
After dinner, the day of driving wasn’t done just yet. I tried to get as far as I could under the circumstances of having a food baby and rainstorms incoming. With the rain incoming, it looked like the rest of the trip might be washed out with about fifteen hours of driving left.
I made my way pretty far into Ohio before calling it quits the night before, so that really helped set up for a much more bearable driving day on this day. The rain was still setting in so, to me, there wasn’t much reason to stop if I couldn’t get out and enjoy the weather. I decided just to power through the last ten or so hours. I made it home just as my family was getting ready for bed. When I walked through the door, my mom was going to see who was coming through the door so late. At first, it was as if she saw a ghost, but that soon turned into pure excitement which obviously made me happy to know I was missed. It was nice to be able to surprise them a couple of days early for sure.
Check out some more footage from my trip below
- All of my belongings were in the trunk or in the back seat under a blanket. I made sure that no one could really see that there was stuff in there to be stolen.
- I never booked my hotels in advance, which allowed me more flexibility in deciding where to go and when.