One place in the United States proves to be unlike any other. The Four Corners region refers to where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet together at one point. Sculpted millions of years ago, the surrounding landscape is now home to various National Parks and monuments – each with its own unique charm. Having the opportunity to experience these natural wonders is an ultimate bucket list accomplishment.
With hundreds of miles to cover, a road trip is a wonderful way to get around, where you can experience and see even more beauty along the way; arriving in a new town every few days, making meaningful memories. But when the focus lies on traveling, don’t let sustainability take the back seat. There are a number of resources available that encourage responsible and sustainable travel. This article is aimed to provide advice on how to stay responsible while road tripping around the 4 Corners – sharing responsible business recommendations, route suggestions, and sustainability tips and tricks. So buckle up, and join us on this green journey!
Stop 1: Rocky Mountain National Park
Sustainability Tip: Since this is, in fact, a road trip, a set of wheels will be needed. Taking the time to select a rental vehicle that releases low CO2 emissions, is a hybrid, or full electric, would reduce your carbon footprint immensely during the trip. On account of public transport not being an option for an adventure like this, choosing an eco-conscious vehicle is the better alternative than a regular car.
After touching down in Denver and acquiring your most important tool for the foreseeable future, the Colorado wilderness is just about a 1.5 hours drive away. With glacier carved valleys and an accessible tundra, deciding what to do in Rocky Mountain National Park can prove to be daunting. Straying away from the more popular activities can be fulfilling in more ways than one. On the Eastern side of Grand Lake lies the East Inlet Trail that rewards the determined with Lake Verna and Spirit Lake. Seven miles one way, this could either be accomplished as a full day adventure, or for a more leisurely take you could turn the trek into an overnight, backpacking trip!
Stop 2: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Heading Southwest for 6 hours will bring you to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The encompassing area contains deep, narrow, vertical cliffs – it only makes sense that a popular activity is rock climbing in some of the most remote spots of the park. Where the bulk of climbing takes place around the North and South Chasm Walls, the canyon is 1,820 feet deep. At its deepest, the canyon is 2,722 feet deep. Choosing a less popular time of the year to climb will allow you solitude and calmness during a time that could be stressful. In an effort to be a responsible climber, make sure you are: clearing chalk (whether it is yours or not), keeping to the trail while en route to the climb spot, picking up trash in an effort to leave no trace, using eco-friendly equipment, and removing old bolts.
Stop 3: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Reserve
Great Sand Dunes | 📷 @nima_sarram
Preparing for a quick 3.5 hour drive Southeast, a stop for some food is necessary. Just over an hour outside the National Park, the town of Gunnison is home to a family-owned coffee shop – Mochas Coffeehouse & Bakery. Serving breakfast and lunch, with vegetarian and vegan options, the coffeehouse & bakery distributes organic, fair-trade coffee, and is committed to the quality of their food. With bellies full of good grub, you’re now ready for a complete change in landscape.
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Reserve is home to the tallest sand dunes in America. While the most popular activity is to climb and explore any area of the 30 square mile dunefield, another great experience is to see the dunes after dark. With a combination of minimal light pollution, high elevation, and dry air, the Great Sand Dunes is the perfect backdrop to sit in the dark and witness one of Mother Nature’s greatest shows. Planning your visit around a moonless night, or with a late moonrise could create even better conditions.
Stop 4: Mesa Verde National Park
Road trips can get long and tiring. Keeping up with a good hygiene routine is not only beneficial for yourself, but also your passengers! Many traditional bodycare products contain harmful ingredients that have been proven to have negative effects on the human body. Furthermore, many of these products are packaged in plastic materials, which contributes to the ever growing plastic pollution issue that our planet is facing. Thankfully, there are companies working to remove the negative associations regarding personal care products. WeFill is a business based in Durango, Colorado with a mission to limit single-use plastic container consumerism. They offer a refill system for household cleaning products, and bath and body products. If you are in need of shampoo, body lotion, shaving products, face moisturizer, even micellar water; WeFill will cleanse your personal canvas in time for the next National Park.
Heading to the Southwest corner of Colorado, you will reach the last National Park for the state – Mesa Verde. This National Park showcases archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people, with unique man-made rock formations which were previously resided in. The most popular activity within the park is the Cliff Palace Loop, requiring a pre-ticketed, ranger-guided tour. While this definitely deserves an inquiry; there are certainly other areas to explore that will be less crowded with tourists. The Petroglyph Point Trail is moderately trafficked and an easy 2.4 mile loop hike. The largest petroglyph panel in the National Park deserves a thorough inspection from any traveler.
Stop 5: White Sands National Park
With Colorado in the rearview mirror, New Mexico is next on the agenda. An 8 hour drive South calls for the need of groceries. Fortunately, Albuquerque is the halfway point to our next destination. Obtaining your nutritional needs in an eco-friendly matter can sometimes get tricky as plastic packaging plagues common grocery stores. Albuquerque hosts La Montanita Co-op – New Mexico’s largest community-owned natural foods market. Aside from carrying local, organic produce, meat and cheeses, handmade gifts, and natural body care products; the star of the show is their bulk section. Here you can fill up your reusables with an assortment of snacks to keep you energized and going for the next leg of the trip!
After stocking up on essentials, our next National Park is a short 3.5 hour drive South. White Sands National Park displays the world’s largest gypsum dunefield, engulfing 275 square miles of desert. Sledding the unlimited sand dunes is one of the most popular activities visitors partake in. For even more solitude, the Playa Trail is a simple 0.5 mile stroll that leads you to a small playa – a low-lying area that fills with rainwater after storms. This ever-changing landscape awaits those who are looking to seek something out of the ordinary.
Stop 6: Carlsbad Cavern National Park
Sustainability Tip: Another frequently neglected sustainable travel practice is composting when traveling (luckily, ecomadic put together a guide here). Much easier than most people anticipate, composting while on the road can be done effortlessly by anyone. With the help of like-minded communities, areas all across the world have adopted composting programs to stimulate the routine of disposing organic waste properly. For ultimate change, we as individuals must dig deep.
Heading Southeast, we come upon a commonly overlooked National Park – Carlsbad Cavern National Park, where hidden beauty lies below the surface. This National Park encompasses more than 119 limestone caves that were formed by dissolving limestone due to rainwater. The biggest spotlight at the park is cave exploration, as there are over 50 miles of hiking trails that visitors have access to. The six mile Upper Rattlesnake Canyon to Guadalupe Ridge Loop offers canyon scenery and a variety of cacti and other desert plants.
Stop 7: Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park | 📷 @rawdyl
Venturing out of New Mexico and into Arizona, your clothing may start to accumulate dust and dirt from all the cave dwelling and dune sledding. To one’s advantage, Cero. – a unique social enterprise shop – is located in Tucson, which is on the outskirts of our next upcoming National Park. Not only do they carry package-free home and body products, but they also support local artisans too – selling handmade jewelry, clothing, and accessories. From bamboo toothbrushes to shampoo & conditioner bars, Cero. is the perfect stop to grab some more zero-waste essentials & clean up.
Once you’re feeling fresh, you are ready for Saguaro National Park. The area is famous for the nation’s largest cacti – the giant saguaro, the universal symbol for the American west. In Saguaro, two sections divide the park – the Western section (Tucson Mountain District) has a denser population of cacti, thus, attracting more visitors. On the other hand, the Eastern section (Rincon Mountain District), has a lower concentration of cacti. Although the Rincon part of the park lacks the famous prickly plants, this part of Saguaro is the only place to camp, supplies miles of backcountry hiking, and leaves the congestion of tourists behind.
Stop 8: Petrified Forest National Park
Sustainability Tip: Being in the Arizona desert, temperatures can soar well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit depending on what time of year you visit. Hydration is an essential component of your health, and to ensure you can make it through each day of this once in a lifetime road trip. Reusable water bottles are without a doubt the most discussed zero waste swap. Trendy as they are, a good quality water bottle can serve you for years if taken care of properly. Klean Kanteen holds fame for creating the original stainless steel, BPA-free water bottle. Avoid further single use water bottle pollution by purchasing a reusable bottle and carrying it alongside you into each park.
You’ll certainly need to stay hydrated in Petrified Forest National Park, where on a clear, sunny day you’re guaranteed to break a sweat. Nearly 5 hours Northeast of Tucson lies a forest unlike any other in the country, abundant with trees not made of wood, but quartz. Petrified wood resulted from natural occurrences dating back millions of years ago. Ancient trees tumbled into a river system, fell deep below the surface, and were carried by mammoth amounts of sediment and debris. Due to the rapid rate at which this occurred, and the depths the logs reached when initially sunk, oxygen was cut off and the rate of decay took centuries. Various minerals now make up the structure of each log. Most notably: silica dissolved from volcanic ash, which then absorbed into the penetrable wood, crystallized in the cellular structure over thousands of years, and eventually replaced the organic material as the trees decomposed. The park is split in two individual areas, each having something particular to offer. The Southern section encompasses the higher cluster of petrified wood, while the Northern section is home to the colorful hills of the Painted Desert. The Petrified Forest National Park is one of the United States’ best kept secrets as it sees a fraction of the foot traffic that the most popular National Parks see each year. Such as Yosemite and Great Smoky Mountains.
Stop 9: Grand Canyon National Park
Continuing North for another four hours delivers you to the doorstep of a top ten National Park in the United States – the Grand Canyon! Carved over 6 million years ago, the Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most studied landscapes in the world and lies within the Colorado Plateau of Arizona. Venturing to the park is an experience everyone should have at least once in their lifetime, but first you will require some food to fuel your body before the challenging hikes. The Morning Glory Cafe is a local vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Flagstaff, Arizona that was established in 1985. The long-standing establishment serves up hearty and healthy organic meals, made fresh daily. Including smoothies, hemp burgers, and tempeh clubs. Additionally, Morning Glory Cafe strives for zero waste by composting nearly all food waste, and carries on to use this soil produced to grow and harvest vegetables for the cafe – coming full circle and growing their own. After caring for your appetite, the time has come to disembark inside a National Park larger than the state of Rhode Island.
For those out there willing to reach harder-to-access locations to be rewarded with a more exclusive and intimate encounter, such routes exist. The Rim-To-Rim Hike proves to be strenuous; booking at 24 miles, this out of the ordinary venture rewards the strong-willed while parading through two billion years of the Earth’s history. Eventually arriving at the heart of the Grand Canyon, you’ll find the Colorado River. An overnight stay for the rugged outdoor folk is conceivable thanks to Bright Angel Campground. The time to visit the Grand Canyon is now, as its ever changing landscape will progress due to the Colorado River activity and natural erosion occurrences.
Stop 10: Zion National Park
With our last state on the horizon, we approach the first and most visited National Park of Utah. Before getting into the swing of The Beehive State, a recoup may be needed following your Grand Canyon episode. Bunk House Inn is an earth conscious bed and breakfast that exists on the perimeter of Zion National Park. Surrounded by orchards, pastures, and majestic red cliffs, this eco-accommodation is committed to the values of ‘reduce, reuse & recycle’. Their most notable green stride is that solar panels produce about 80% of the energy they use, while the remaining 20% is derived from wind power. Furthermore, they reduce their water consumption by installing water saving faucets and shower head attachments; and their front porch was crafted with 100 year old reclaimed wood from the Great Salt Lake railroad trestle. With all their eco-conscious effort, the Bunk House Inn offers a peaceful atmosphere and a low-impact consciousness. You can unquestionably rest your head easily with a smile on your face knowing your pillowcase was washed using “green” products.
Now refreshed and prepared for what lies in the foreground, you can now retrace steps of the native people and pioneers of Zion National Park. Home to one of the scariest hikes in America – Angels Landing – Zion is more than just slot canyons and astounding hikes, the park also works to protect ancient archeological sites. The Anasazi people were the original inhabitants of Zion 800-1,500 years ago; they left behind deserted cliff houses and rock art throughout the National Park. After a park ranger grants you access, Petroglyph Canyon is a hidden gem within Zion. Unacknowledged by most, these ancient drawings which line red sandstone walls continue to hold little understanding; their age along with their meaning.
Stop 11: Bryce Canyon National Park
Bearing Northeast for another Utah phenomenon, we are transported to a landscape that seems otherworldly. Bryce Canyon National Park is home to the notable hoodoos; the freezing and thawing of water over millions of years are what ultimately created the shape and structure of the hoodoos scattered throughout the National Park. Technically not a canyon, Bryce is a series of natural amphitheaters, wearing away into an escarpment of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Covering a space of 35,835 acres, the possibilities of surveying the area seem endless. A more in-depth approach of learning the in’s and out’s of a National Park is to load up a pack and hit the backcountry for an overnight escapade. Backpacking is an approach to fully immerse yourself in the surrounding environment; and the activity doesn’t contribute to overtourism in the more easily accessible park areas, where the natural terrain may be diminishing. The Under the Rim Trail is comprised of 23 miles of forests, meadows, and sherbet-colored cliffs, taking anywhere from one to four days to complete.
On this days long trip, ample opportunities will emerge to ensure you are practicing sustainable backcountry hiking and camping. Most would think, “I’m already outside in nature instead of the city… isn’t that eco-friendly enough?” Sadly, that’s not the case. Ethical guidelines while involving yourself in the outdoors begin with sticking to the trail and not venturing off. By opening a public trail, this already damages the natural environment, therefore designated paths decrease the disturbance of the ecosystem. Additionally, agitation to wildlife or vegetation displays human beings as disrespectful visitors. The grounds on which we walk while in National Parks are not our homes, but the abode of various critters and species. Native animals are not circus acts or zoo exhibitions; feeding them is a huge no no! Unknowingly, offering wildlife our human food causes more damage than we realize. One last procedure to fall in line with, is proper disposal of human waste. Not something everyone likes to discuss, but nonetheless, vitally important to guarantee humans are not polluting the biosphere in yet another manner. A bit more exertion is necessary to do your business if you’re comparing the encounter to a customary bathroom; a small hole 8-12 inches deep, at least 200 feet away from a water source, campsite, or trail, and all wipes or toilet paper need to be packed out and taken with you. Caring for our environment can be done so in numerous ways. At times, some of the most minuscule things we do can have the most considerable effect.
Stop 12: Capitol Reef National Park
Setting course Northeast once again, our route takes us through Boulder, Utah – one of the most isolated towns in the United States. With a population of just 253, you wouldn’t anticipate a local Boulder restaurant to cater their procedures with environmental sustainability in mind. But think again! Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm is owned by Jen and Blake, who are committed to environmental ethics, sustainability, and social responsibility and community development. The meals served at Hell’s accentuates local, regional, and seasonally appropriate cuisine; appropriately, their menu rotates periodically. Much of the produce served is grown at their own six-acre farm – including potatoes, lettuce, radish, peas, kale, even garlic! Resonating further with their bountiful resources, Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm has arranged so their food scraps are returned to Earth, by either composting or feeding to their chickens which carry on to lay their eggs served in the restaurant. After fueling up, it is time to venture to the next stop.
With a name established in recognition to Washington D.C.’s American State Capitol Building and the coral-like landscape, Capitol Reef National Park demonstrates to be a hidden gem of Utah. Serenity radiates from every corner of this National Park, so concluding how to spend your time may be complex. As Capitol Reef’s sister parks have higher foot traffic, it is almost as if you’ll feel that you have the park and its entirety to yourself. Whether hiking, driving through, discovering petroglyphs and fossils, or collecting fruits at the orchards of Fruita, Capitol Reef National Park has something for everyone.
Stop 13: Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands | 📷 @rondiel
Aiming for a more prominent National Park in the Four Corners area, we are in close proximity to Moab – home to none other than Moab Farmers Market. Efforts to support local businesses and farmers have never been more crucial. When visiting the farmers market at Swanny City Park, you choose to appreciate the dedication from natives of the area. Hosted on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings, these gatherings are a place for residents and tourists to share the crops of the giving land. While carrying ordinary market finds like fruit, vegetables, and honey; some more unique vendors have popped up over the years. Herbal medicines, body products, natural dairy and meat, tea, even a quesadilla cart and cheesecake booth. An exceptional way to discover the last city of the road trip, and a debut for what’s to come.
Containing some of the most alienated land remaining in the continental U.S., Canyonlands National Park showcases, “remarkable effects of millions of years of erosion on a landscape of sedimentary rock”. Canyonlands comprises four separate sections: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon Unit. They all share the desert atmosphere, but each consist of exclusive characteristics that distinct themselves from each other. The Needles portion accommodates sandstone spires that give this part of Canyonlands its name. To digest the area properly, the Chesler Park Loop Trail has a bit of everything. Nearly 11 miles for completion, the route brings you through strangely shaped canyons and melting lava rock formations.
Stop 14: Arches National Park
Just a stone’s throw away and you find yourself mixed amongst the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. Over 65 million years in the making, Arches National Park is the home of over 2,000 recorded natural arches. Utah’s state symbol and the most recognized natural stone arch in the world, Delicate Arch sits amidst its neighbors. While this arch attracts spectators from across the globe, many fail to indulge in Arches’ entire perimeter. Standing tall by its lonesome in the Northwest corner of the National Park is Tower Arch. Forgotten by most, this 5 mile trek allows seclusion in a space that may otherwise be jam-packed with sightseers. With Arches National Park drawing so much attention over the years, Moab has been the host to millions of people.
Moab clung to that opportunity to lead by example when it came to sustainability. Presenting an impressive collection of environmentally mindful businesses, you may have a hard time leaving Moab. For however long you decide to treat yourself, a place to recharge is essential. Red Moon Lodge can be found in the thick of Moab Valley, Utah. With a mission devoted to conscious change and mindfulness, the lodge offers travelers a place to recharge that has minimal impact on the Earth. Red Moon Lodge is completely solar powered and serves only organic food, composts, recycles, uses non-toxic cleaning materials and natural pest management, and practices water efficiency techniques. This special, spiritual lodge guarantees respect for you during your stay, while appreciating and valuing what Mother Nature has continually offered.
Ending the Trip Responsibly
More and more establishments are emerging that are contributing to the regeneration of a truly sustainable economy in all aspects. The duty is ours, not only as travelers but as residents of our own communities, to bring attention to the businesses willing to go the extra mile and not just think about making profit. Despite the detection of “green” brands not being the simplest of tasks, emerging from the other side confirms to be valuable in more ways than one. With hearts now full of wholesome memories, a 4 hour drive will bring you to the airport in Salt Lake City.
If this route sparked inspiration to attempt your first environmentally responsible road trip, we hope your efforts continue to not only motivate yourself, but those who surround you. Happy travels!
ecomadic is a sustainable tourism brand that empowers travelers to make more conscious decisions. By curating a marketplace to easily find and identify responsible businesses to support, and providing educational publications through our online green travel magazine, ecomadic is committed to helping empower travelers make responsible choices throughout their journeys.