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This family-friendly SUV is the perfect road trip car for nature lovers

Time for a vacation? The Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek beats flying

For most Americans looking to go on a vacation, flying this summer was a nightmare. After being locked away in the house for the past few year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems like everyone had the same idea to get away once things calmed down. Unfortunately, with so many people looking to travel at once, chaos ensued at airports around the world. Staff shortages and soaring demand created the perfect storm for delayed flights, lost luggage, and pricey tickets. Not a good way to start a vacation.

With the national average gas price finally coming down to hover around $3.80, we think there’s a better way to get around – your car. With gas prices tumbling rapidly and fall now here, now is a great time to fall back in love with your car. America is such a vast country with each state feeling like its own little nation. Flying can be quicker, but it doesn’t give you the same sense of just how big the U.S. is as driving does.

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2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek front end from driver's angle with green hill in the back on a dirt trail with the sun peeking through.
Joel Patel/The Manual

The planned road trip

Last month, Nissan invited us to embark on a road trip, even letting us bring a plus one and our furry companion to Saranac Lake in Upstate New York. Instead of flying, which would’ve required a connection and a 40-minute drive to reach the final destination, we opted to stick to the ground. The trip consisted of an Uber ride to an Amtrak station, a 3.5-hour train ride to New York City, a quick stop to pick up a 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek Edition, and then a six-hour drive to Saranac Lake. Not exactly a short journey, but an enjoyable one, nonetheless.

For families looking to go on a vacation, the Nissan Pathfinder makes a fine choice. It has impressive towing capacity, loads of storage compartments on the inside, and a roomy cabin with seating for up to eight. It’s a lot better than the 1995 Toyota Corolla my family designated as our go-to form of transport for long drives when I was a child. One thing that the Pathfinder is missing compared to other midsize SUVs is a rugged option for families that tend to spend their vacations off the beaten path.

The Rock Creek Edition

Nissan fixes this issue for 2023 with the addition of a rugged Rock Creek Edition model. While other brands are more than content to sell you an SUV with a rugged body kit with a catchy name that actually doesn’t have any improved off-roading capability over the base model, Nissan’s doing things differently. Not only does the Rock Creek have the serious look of an off-roader, but it’s got the goods to handle some really tough terrain.

The Rock Creek Edition is more than just a body kit. The Pathfinder with the mean mug features a suspension lift, a heavy-duty roof rack, updated front and rear bumpers, 18-inch bead-lock style wheels, and knobby Toyo Open Country All-Terrain tires. All-wheel drive comes standard and thanks to an updated fuel map, the Rock Creek gets an extra 11 horsepower and 11 pound-feet of torque out of the Pathfinder’s 3.5-liter V6 engine. The interior gets some special touches in the form of special leatherette and fabric upholstery, Rock Creek logos, orange contrast stitching, and second-row captain’s chairs. Another new addition is a special Off-Road mode for the 360-degree camera that gives you a better look at the terrain below the SUV.

Is Nissan following a trend? There is a case for that argument, but Nissan has done more than the average automaker that’s banking on the consumers looking to purchase an SUV that looks more rugged than it really is. The Rock Creek can actually go off-roading and do double duty as a family vehicle and the Adirondacks are a perfect place to aim the Pathfinder’s nose for a family vacation.

How the Pathfinder Rock Creek did

With a six-hour drive to get from NYC to Saranac Lake taunting us, we toss our bags into the SUV’s large cargo area and settle in for a long day of driving. The skyscrapers in the city quickly disappear, turning into strip malls in New Jersey, before finally giving way to lush mountains with foliage that’s preparing to undergo a large transformation in the next few months. The roads are windy and smooth, slicing through the mountains, a large departure from NYC’s hellish grid that’s riddled with cat-sized bumps and ruts.

Despite the ever-changing landscape, the Pathfinder Rock Creek does it all. On the bumpy roads of NYC, the Rock Creek handles the undulations comfortably, a benefit of the raised suspension and beefier tires. The ride is equally as smooth on the highway, though the raised suspension results in a fair amount of body roll when the road narrows. The Pathfinder’s base shines as a long-distance cruiser thanks to its cozy seats, hushed cabin, and proficient V6 that doesn’t need too much of a prod to pass other drivers.

Eventually, the mountains part to show enormous bodies of water that are nestled in between sharp cliffs. You don’t see these kinds of sights from a plane – the kind that make you question whether high city prices are worth the traffic, noise, and pollution. Beyond ogling at nature, the other thing you can do in a car that you can’t in a plane is to pull off the path when you see something interesting to explore.

Roughly 16 minutes outside of Saranac Lake, we saw signs for Lake Placid, the site of two Olympic Winter Games. It’s a spot that makes an immediate impression when driving up Cascade Road, as the skip jumping complex look like extraterrestrial launch pads emerging from the ground. Not too far away, is the Olympic Cauldron, the Olympic Speed Skating Oval, and the Olympic Center sitting just outside of mirror lake. It’s a nice place to stretch out before finishing the journey.

Compared to NYC, the small village of Saranac Lake is tiny – a realistic guess is that there are more people in a single apartment complex in NYC than in the whole affluential village. It’s a stunning place. A massive lake acts as the central location for the entire village, with shops, restaurants, and houses sitting feet away from the dark blue water. Usually, these trips involve hours driving along a predetermined route to get a feel for the car. Nissan didn’t do that. Instead, we were given access to kayaks, motorized boats, and the keys to the Rock Creek to do as we pleased. The idea was to have a family vacation.

That’s exactly what we did. After kayaking through Lake Flower and boating through Oseetah Lake, we grabbed the keys to the Rock Creek and explored the town. We stopped to check out the Olympic sites, get some lunch, buy some merch, and get lost – things you’d normally do on a family vacation. While we didn’t get to go rock-crawling on a grueling trail, we did find some light trails that led to campgrounds, hiking trails, and private access to secret parts of the lake. The Rock Creek easily dealt with the changing terrain and proved to be just as comfortable bopping around town as cruising down the highway.

The Adirondacks are a place that appeals to outdoorsmen and women. It’s a place where people can trade the constant noise, no-stop pace, and skyscrapers of NYC for something far more serene. You’ll find mud on the majority of cars that are parked at one of the many outdoor shops in town, but instead of a Subaru, the Toyota Land Cruiser appears to be the vehicle of choice. In that context, the Rock Creek fits right in. It looks the part and brings extra capability over the regular Pathfinder for people who prefer to take their vacations in locales where they can explore nature.

After a full day of adventures, we headed back to NYC, disappointed that we only had one day to explore such a gorgeous area and a promise to return. Just like this trip, we decided to return in a car. A flight would’ve been far easier, but nothing beats driving. As for the Rock Creek, it never became uncomfortable, even after 15 hours of driving, which says a lot. A regular Pathfinder would’ve been able to make the same journey in nearly the same, if not more, comfort because of feature content. That, though, is missing the point. The Rock Creek looks better than any other Pathfinder and, if you’re the kind of person that would rather bring hiking boots instead of sandals on your vacations, it’s the Pathfinder to get.

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