31-Day National Park RV Adventure

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With no prior RV experience, traveler Kim Gipple took a 26-foot RV named “Harvey” across the country in summer 2016, visiting 13 national parks and driving 6,800 miles in 31 days. Having not only survived but thrived during her month-long adventure, she took the time to share tips with us. 

Beartooth Highway in Montana near Yellowstone National Park

Beartooth peak from Montana's Beartooth Highway just outside Yellowstone National Park

Beartooth peak from Montana's Beartooth Highway just outside Yellowstone National Park

The Beartooth Highway is one of the most scenic drives in the nation. But we wondered how hard it would be to navigate an RV on this road. The road was smooth and well maintained and there are guardrails where needed. Curves and pull-offs are well marked. Speed limits, including those around curves, are appropriate even for an RV. Other drivers and cyclists were cautious and respectful. Overall, this was a piece of cake!

Related story: 8 RV Tips for Yellowstone National Park

Glacier National Park in Montana

I never drove in Glacier due to the restriction on RVs [On Going to the Sun Road, vehicles or vehicle combos (like a car pulling a trailer) longer than 21 feet or wider than 8 feet, including mirrors, are prohibited. In addition, between Avalanche Campground and Rising Sun picnic area, vehicles and vehicle combos over 10 feet in height may have difficulty driving west from Logan Pass to the Loop because of rock overhangs].

However, heading to West Glacier, Mont., we traveled on Hwy 206. While this stretch of road was only a mere 9 miles long, I still cringe at the thought of it. Hwy. 206 is extremely narrow, has uneven pavement causing the RV to dip left and right, has barely any shoulder with sudden dropoffs and ditches ranging from a few inches to 10 feet — and on top of it, has a posted speed limit of 70 miles per hour.

There was no way I could travel at the posted speed and instead drove around 55 miles per hour. Even then, there were times I am certain I was within inches of clipping another vehicle's mirror or falling into a ditch — all while vehicles were piling up behind me oblivious to the dangers of this road (one would think the white crosses lining the road would be a sobering reminder of the people who have died along this stretch, but apparently not).

Washington’s Olympic National Park and Hurricane Ridge Road

Hurricane Ridge Road in Olympic National Park. Photo by Justin Bailie

Hurricane Ridge Road in Olympic National Park. 

Much like the Beartooth Highway north of Yellowstone National Park, Hurricane Ridge Road in Olympic National Park is well maintained with well marked curves and pull-offs. Speed limits are appropriate, although other drivers seemed to be a bit more reckless as compared to those traveling the Beartooth (probably because of fewer cliffs). Overall, this was easy. It just took more time because I had to pull over to let the speedy drivers pass.

California Hwy. 299 near Redwood National Park

Although this isn’t in a national park, this stretch of highway is the only major highway linking the McKinleyville/Arcata area, south of Redwood National Park, to the I-5 corridor near Redding in northern California. [In total, the highway runs from Arcata in the west all the way to the Nevada border]. This stretch was 150 miles of narrow, winding, mountain driving with over 50-plus hairpin turns. There were multiple steep ascends and descends and plenty of steep cliffs off to the side, some with guardrails and others without.

Many travelers state this route is breathtakingly beautiful, but I wouldn’t know because I made the mistake of driving it at night. Not only could I not see what was off to my right, other than sheer darkness (which may or may not have been a cliff or simply a bubbling creek), I couldn’t see what lay ahead of or behind me. At times, the reflectors on the surface of the pavement, along with those that stood on poles about 4 feet off the ground, reflected on the underside of my RV that hung over the cab of my vehicle. They created a psychedelic, strobe-light effect that I swear caused me to hallucinate.

At one point, I told my niece I didn’t know if we were ascending or descending the mountain. And if the dark, desolate, winding mountain road wasn’t enough, the drivers along this stretch were downright crazy. Most exceeded the posted speed limit. One vehicle passed in a no-passing zone around a hairpin turn! The majority got so close to my back bumper. I didn’t know they were there until I went around a curve at which time I’d see their lights in my mirror.

While there were occasional pull-offs to allow for passing, very few were marked in advanced, making it difficult to utilize given my speed, weight and the ever-present tailgater attached to my bumper. After hours of twisting turns, we eventually happened upon a half-dozen flares, marking a single car rollover. Instead of gasping, we shook our heads and uttered the same words…“not surprised…not surprise one bit.” For a split second we wondered if it was one of the reckless drivers that had passed us, but immediately saw the black-skid marks making their way down the slope we were now climbing. We don’t know what happened to him/her/them. I hope they survived.

At 12:30 a.m., with 40 miles left to go, I had had enough. I was exhausted and had a knot in my lower back. Making it to the Durango RV Resort in Red Bluff simply was not in the cards for us. We pulled over in Weaverville, Calif., and spent the night in a Top Market parking lot. Officially, July 19, 2016, will go down as one of the most stressful nights of my life. Lesson learned: do not attempt Hwy. 299 in the dark.

Arches National Park in Utah

Road in Arches National Park in Utah

Road in Arches National Park in Utah

When we pulled into Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, the first thing I noticed were the cars snaking up the side of the cliff directly behind the visitor center. Much to my relief, only the first mile was “cliff driving.” I didn’t mind proceeding at the slowest of paces despite the cars behind me. I figured anyone can tolerate a slow RV for 1-mile.

Little did I know that it would be in this park where I had my first minor accident. The accident wasn’t due to excessive speed (we were both going 30-35 miles per hour) or distracted driving (we looked into each others faces as we passed) but simply because the road was narrow and we were wide. I saw the approaching RV as it made its way around the curve and noticed his front left wheel was on the centerline. I held my breath, as I had done several dozen times on this trip, and there it was— BAM!

My daughter screamed, “What was that?” I calmly replied “we hit mirrors.” I knew it was going to happen, but there was little I could do to prevent it. On the right, there was limited shoulder abutting a rock wall. Behind me, I had cars on my back bumper. Anyhow, by the time I could safely pull over, we were miles apart. What would we have said or done? It was an accident. Neither was being careless, we were two big RVs with mirrors that extended across the centerline. I counted all my blessings and considered myself lucky. It was day 29 and later that afternoon we were heading home. This was a minor setback compared to what could have happened if we had been a mere 8 inches closer.

After the collision, I took note of other RVs on the road and realized that despite their best efforts, even when their right, rear tire was on the solid white line marking the right shoulder — their driver-side mirror hung over into the oncoming lane of traffic. Luckily for me, only the glass portion of my mirror broke, but it was impossible to drive without it. So, I found a glass shop in Moab that cut a new mirror for $50. Without giving any details as to what happened, the guy informed me I was lucky because sometimes the impact is hard enough to cause the mirror to swing back into the vehicle causing the driver’s door window to break. I asked him how he knew what happened and he said, “It happens all the time. You hit another RV in Arches.”

When I returned home I Googled, “driving RV in Arches” and several photos appeared. By coincidence, or perhaps by necessity, all three photos show over-sized RVs, where either the mirror or the vehicle itself is crossing the centerline. Lesson learned: Arches is the national park where RVs need to heed caution and even if they do, they’re still likely to hit mirrors when passing one another.

Other National Parks Visited

For the other national parks we visited like Theodore Roosevelt, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Redwood, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Bryce and Capitol Reef, what driving we did do, was manageable with little degree of difficulty. I didn’t drive in Mt. Rainier or Zion.

In the end, I am in awe at the vast beauty, interesting terrain and never-ending wildlife our national parks have to offer. I am proud to say I stood near a waterfall so powerful I felt it in my soul. I stool at the base of a mountain so beautiful it made me cry and reluctantly I stood next to a steaming, hissing hole in the Earth that made me wonder in amazement.

But beyond the unique offerings of each park, what surprised me the most was the potential danger lurking around every corner from hundred-foot cliffs with few guard rails, boiling acidic water a mere slip away and being allowed to meander freely into a desolate zone without anyone checking to ensure one is properly outfitted for the terrain or temperature (the number of people gallivanting around without hats, water and in flip-flops in 106-degree temperatures astounds me). Certainly there are warnings posted but beyond that, as one ranger put it, “Proceed at your own risk” and let me tell you, people certainly do!

Regardless, our national parks are a treasure to be enjoyed by all. I thank all the people who have worked to preserve and operate these precious parks. Without them, this great 31-day adventure would not have been possible.

Reader Kim Gipple wrote this story for us after we traded emails about the Beartooth Highway north of Yellowstone before she embarked on her 6,800-mile odyssey to some of our nation’s greatest national parks. We are grateful she took the time to share her experiences and tips with us.