116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
As we pitched our tent, memories of similar campgrounds in Yellowstone welled up in our minds.
The simple campground was in quiet woods, giving us the feel of wildness, yet we were near factories and a spider web of roads.
A couple of times each year we drive the thousand miles of Interstate 80 between Iowa and the New York City area to visit relatives. We once did it in a single marathon drive.
Then we realized I-80 gives the opportunity to enjoy three national parks, all bisected by, or very near, the highway and an easy day’s drive between them. We now make the drive in three days, overnighting near the parks. It makes the drive pleasant and gives the chance to enjoy the solitude and scenery of national parks.
Interstate 80 between Iowa and New York mostly threads its way through rural countryside, with one notable exception. The 60 mile stretch from Joliet, Ill., eastward is harrowing. Several major highways converge to snake around Lake Michigan. Roaring vehicles pack close together and weave in and out of lanes.
Driving in our small car we feel sandwiched between roaring monster trucks. We grip the wheel and grit our teeth as we pass through the gauntlet of traffic, knowing there’s a respite only a few miles ahead.
Indiana Dunes National Park
A national lakeshore until it was elevated to national park status in 2019, Indiana Dunes is about 270 miles east of Cedar Rapids and hugs the curving shoreline of the southern tip of Lake Michigan.
Camping in the park after a tiring drive lets us take refreshing swims in Lake Michigan. Chicago’s magnificent skyscrapers and woodsy Michigan are visible from the beach in the vast semicircular sweep of the southern lakeshore. Perhaps the park's greatest appeal is its quiet and wildness set within an urban and industrial area.
Tired of traffic, we exit near Chesterton, Ind., drive a few miles north and enjoy the oasis of quiet, trees, beaches and wildlife in a national park close enough to Cedar Rapids that we’re able to pitch our tent and enjoy a leisurely afternoon. Sometimes we sit on driftwood logs and watch gulls and waves. Other times we hike the steep, impressive dunes. While we like to camp, there are a number of vacation rentals and motels to choose from.
“Indiana Dunes National Park and the surrounding area have pristine beaches, streams and interdunal ponds and wetlands. Expansive prairies and forests nestle between steel mills and neighborhoods,” said Christine Livingston, Assistant Director/Marketing Director.
The park offers bike and hiking trails, fishing and swimming, wildlife viewing and something unique to the National Park Service. Following the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, five display homes were moved to the lakeshore and are now within the park. The Florida Tropical home makes us feel like we're beside the warm ocean and the nearby Cypress Log Home gives the feel of the north woods. They are National Park Service oddities fun to view.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
After packing our tent the following morning, we ramp into the slipstream of I-80 for a 305-mile drive to Cuyahoga Valley National Park south of Cleveland.
Usually we arrive by mid afternoon, giving us hours to hike and explore. There’s no camping in the park, but several state parks and private campgrounds are in the area. We usually stay overnight in a motel and enjoy dinner at a nearby restaurant after an afternoon of hiking and birding.
On our last visit we toured a new visitor center before descending a cool trail into a forest of giant hemlocks and pines to view Brandywine Falls.
We’ve also walked the towpath of the old Ohio and Erie Canal. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the park is the Cuyahoga River, once so polluted it caught fire many times. The burning river sparked the environmental movement. Today the river runs clear. One dam has been removed with another scheduled to be demolished.
“Steelhead trout now migrate upstream to spawn in the clean water,” a ranger told us.
“We love the park for its vistas and hikes, which range from gentle slopes along the towpath to steep hikes up and down ridges past ancient trees,” said former Cedar Rapids residents Curt and Sigrid Reynolds. They now live in the Cleveland area and visit the park often.
On day three, we continue our journey toward New York along 369 miles of I-80. In Pennsylvania, the Interstate bisects a 300-mile-wide hardwood forest stretching to the Delaware River. Although 13 million people live in the Keystone State, drivers along the interstate would never know it.
Few towns line the road, but scenery abounds. The interstate winds through increasingly steep terrain with deep valleys and tall ridges. A particularly spectacular site is an immense road cut around mile 180, where construction crews blasted a pathway through a high mountain, exposing hundreds of feet of rock.
Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
After hours traversing Pennsylvania’s forests, hills and valleys, the interstate passes through Stroudsburg, a small town just west of towering cliffs on each side of the Delaware Water Gap, a deep valley with rugged mountains climbing above the Delaware River.
Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area spans the river between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Want to tell friends you did part of the Appalachian Trail? It’s easy. The iconic trail crosses the river on the I-80 bridge. So, anyone driving across the river has done a section of the famous trail. Backpackers often are spotted slogging their way alongside rushing cars.
The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area’s 70,000 acres were purchased by the government years ago to build the Tocks Island Dam. Construction never happened. Instead of a massive reservoir, it is a national park featuring deep woods, steep slopes, waterfalls and wildlife.
“This is the wildest part of New Jersey, the nation's most densely populated state,” said Len Rue, a local resident.
Hikers might even spot a black bear not far from the mostly suburban and urban New Jersey. Many motels and restaurants are located in nearby towns on both sides of the Delaware River.
Our final driving day is an easy 70-mile traverse of tiny New Jersey to the George Washington Bridge spanning the Hudson River. Often when we are with relatives, we work in visits to one of many National Park Service sites in and around the Big Apple.
Breaking the long drive into three days makes our journey to New York leisurely while allowing time to enjoy the natural beauty of national parks in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Rich and Marion Patterson have backgrounds in environmental science and forestry. They co-own Winding Pathways, a consulting business that encourages people to “Create Wondrous Yards.”