Have you ever fantasized taking a road trip across the US? Perhaps you dream of exploring back roads; photographing hay fields in early morning light; watching foggy mists swirl between mountain ridges far below you; picnicking in sleepy, small town parks; following roads that climb mountain passes with breath-taking views; visiting the birthplace of one of your heroes, or stopping in an old town square to buy a book in the local bookshop and drink a steaming cup of coffee. In other words, have you longed to see the real America?
Consider this, the continental US is approximately 4,300 km (~2,700 miles) from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and about 2,500 km (~1,600 miles) from the Canadian border to Mexico. It is roughly the size of Australia or China; in other words, it is HUGE. And the size of each state varies a lot–some you can drive through in a matter of hours, while others can take a day or two. There are a gazillion things to see and lovely people to meet! With so much to see and experience, you may wonder about the best way to do it; and how to decide what to see.
Recently, I solo road tripped over 2,300 km (1,450 miles) through 14 states in a pickup truck loaded with camping gear and a fold-up bicycle. With coffee, picnic food, and my navigator (the authoritative female voice of Google maps) on my mobile phone, I set off driving east from Colorado to North Carolina, then north to Michigan and back west to Colorado. I love the freedom of driving around the country on my own.
Road trips can be done in a car, stopping at hotels and inns along the way or bed and breakfasts (awesome because they often have local history and food) or Airbnbs. There’s also the option of driving in a camper van or RV and staying at campgrounds or big box store parking lots, or tent camping along the way. If you have friends or family on your route, it is very nice to visit them for a day or two. I have crisscrossed the US numerous times and have done so in a variety of ways. I am happiest with a lot of freedom and some grit, so my preference is tent camping though it’s nice to trade off between the camping option and finding a nice spot to stay if the camping isn’t good. The itinerary for my favorite type of day follows.
- Wake up, crawl out of the tent to fix and drink hot coffee and eat oatmeal.
- Pack up camping gear.
- Hit the road and drive a few hours.
- Find a small town park and eat a picnic lunch.
- See and photograph a local attraction, like Indian mounds.
- Drive until 4pm, and then stop to ride my bike around a small town, taking photos.
- Find a campsite, set up camp, and eat dinner.
- Write in my journal and read a book.
How to Plan a Road Trip
1. For newbie road trippers, write down your starting place and your final destination. For example, you may start your trip in Cleveland, Ohio and your final destination may be Moab, Utah. If you want to make a loop trip, write down your starting place and the key stops you want to make. For example, you may start in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; stop in Carlsbad, New Mexico; stop in Mammoth, Kentucky; and then return to Pittsburgh.
There are several road trip tour-planning tools to make the planning easy. You can use Google Maps to plot your starting point and destination. It is good because it can give you the fastest route and a couple of optional routes, along with the number of miles and the estimated driving time. An even better app is Rand McNally’s tripmaker tool that helps you plan and navigate the route. You select your starting point and destination. It immediately calculates the distance and the time required to drive it. This is especially important because it is easy to pick a destination that is farther away than you realized. As you add stops that you want to make in between the start and finish, the tool recalculates the distance and the time needed. Keep in mind, the calculated time does not include time you will need to fill your gas tank, break for meals, see attractions, or sleep.
The tool also lets you choose whether to drive on interstate highways or not; or whether to avoid toll roads or not. One of my favorite features is the Things-To-Do menu from which you can select interesting things to see and do along the way. Since I planned to camp on my road trip, checking The-Great-Outdoors option let me see where state parks and wildlife refuges are located. Included in the description of these places is a report of camping facilities. For example, below is the tool’s description of a state park in Kansas.
Lovewell State Park
Webber, KS (785) 753-4971
Description The state park is a prairie site located on the Lovewell Reservoir, and a wooded area is across the reservoir. Year-round camping accommodations include 117 utility hookups, 306 primitive campsites, six camping cabins, shower and toilet buildings,and electric and water hookups. Two dump stations are centrally located in the park. Lovewell also offers a full-service marina, swimming beach, playground, softball field, fishing, volleyball, sailing, picnic areas and group shelters. Pets: Leashed pets are permitted. Reservations and fees: Kansas state parks charge a nonrefundable fee for each reservation made and a nominal daily entrance fee per vehicle.
2. The two common approaches to road tripping are focusing on either the destination, or the journey. Road trippers often find that the most interesting parts are the journey itself, while destinations help determine the route you take.
3. If you have special interests (e.g., knitting, US women’s history, women vintners, bluegrass music, US National Parks, the Oregon Trail) you can plan a road trip to drive to various places where you see and enjoy sights related to your interests. For example, if you are interested in women musicians, you may want to include stops at Tina Turner’s birthplace in rural Nutbush, Tennessee and Aretha Franklin’s birthplace in Memphis, Tennessee. If you have dreamed of seeing the best of US wilderness areas and wild animals, here are pre-planned road tours of US National Parks.
The Best Ways to Road Trip
- Smaller roads that go through the little towns are really interesting. Interstate highways, by design, were built to move vehicles and equipment across the country as efficiently as possible, so they are often the quickest route across states. They miss, however, significant historical and cultural sites and much of the interesting parts of the country. Sometimes, you can’t avoid interstates, but when you can, drive on the smaller roads to experience the real America.
- Be curious and interact with locals when the opportunity arises. When locals know you are a visitor, they are likely to tell you what they are proud of, which might be the World’s Largest Ball of Yarn (Darwin, Minnesota) or the World’s Largest Hand-dug Well (Greensburg, Kansas). They might tell you that the Sand Hill Cranes (Nebraska’s Platte River valley) are migrating right now and if you go to a certain lake at dawn or dusk, you can see a million of these magnificent birds. Sometimes a town has a special dish, like the slugburger (Pat’s Café in Selmer, Tennessee), which is traditional southern food found in west Tennessee and northern Mississippi.
- To get a sense of the town, go into the local grocery store to stock up on food and drinks and have picnics! Choose the local cheese (or cheese curds if you are in Wisconsin) and stop by a farm stand to buy the fruit in season. (It’s a great idea to bring a cooler so you can buy real food in local stores and farm stands rather than be stuck with the nasty food sold in gas stations. Sure, it is a guilty pleasure of many to buy appalling food and drink at the gas station but after that wears off, having a cooler allows you to have much better food.) Community spirit is very strong in small town America, and it is evident in the volunteer projects taken on by ordinary residents. As you munch your picnic lunch, it is nice to know that many small town parks were built and continue to be maintained by volunteers from local organizations, like the Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary clubs, along with the veterans of the American Legion. With any luck, you may meet one of the volunteers.
The Biggest Single Road-Trip Mistake
Don’t pick a destination that is too far from your starting point or try to do too much. Decide what your must-see destinations are. Then calculate the distances using one of the Apps we describe above. Will you have enough time to drive those distances and sightsee? It is tempting to look at a map and try to see it all by making your trip a big loop, which if chosen poorly can mean you will be exhausting yourself by driving all day and not covering the distance you need in order to get to or spend adequate time at the desired sights. It is better to select a few destinations that are moderately spaced so you can relax and enjoy the experience. Better yet, start with a road trip close to home and then build up for the Mega Road Trip in another region.
Road trips across Middle America are generally safe ways to travel. According to the 24/7 Wall St. piece on the 10 Most Dangerous States, violence in the US is mostly concentrated in poor areas in large cities. Small towns are usually places with quiet streets, neighborhood parks, and locally-owned coffee shops. A good rule of thumb for any trip is to look in the mirror and ask yourself if you’re the sort of tourist they will be expecting at your destination. If not, think of what your plan is if this leads to awkwardness or hostility. Do a little research if you’re not sure what to expect since some places might be far safer and better bets for a great trip than others.
Before you start your trip, make sure your vehicle is in good shape—tires, brakes, oil, etc. Be aware that in some parts of the country, especially across the Great Plains, mountains, and deserts; gas stations are long distances apart and not all little towns will have a mechanic and the right parts to fix your car. Always make sure your gas tank does not get below ¼ tank or if your vehicle has the capacity, carry an extra container of fuel when in remote areas.
Rest when you are tired. Rest areas along interstate highways are good places to get out, stretch, and walk around. Sadly, rest areas can be dangerous at night, so don’t spend the night there. My favorite places to nap are small town parks. I pull under a shade tree, lock the doors, tilt the seat back and snooze for 20 or 30 minutes. Sometimes it can be more energizing than a large cup of coffee.
Pay attention to weather conditions. Storms (tornadoes, lightning, heavy rains, snow, ice, etc.) are serious hazards to avoid. Because weather can change pretty suddenly, keep a sweater, jacket, or raincoat in your vehicle. By the way, spending the night in a small town due to adverse weather is a good excuse to explore that community. It might turn out to be one of the favorite parts of your trip.
Flat, featureless landscapes are common when driving interstate highways, rare on back roads. If you hear people disparage certain states as being boring or having nothing to see or do, it is almost certain that they drove interstate highways. Going along back roads, you can see Americans in their everyday lives, driving tractors piled high with hay bales, children walking to school, and small business owners greeting customers in their shops. The back roads of America are the best places to see folk art, homemade mail boxes, odd (and some say ridiculous) sights, historical monuments, and farm stands with local honey or freshly-picked cherries. And be sure to buy at least a few priceless souvenirs such as a miniature replica of The Corn Palace (Mitchell, South Dakota) or at least a postcard of the only functional castle located on forest service land (Bishop’s Castle, near Westcliffe, Colorado). In a word, go on a Road Trip to see the real America and be sure to bring back evidence for yourself and your admirers that you really are not making up the stories of your travels. And don’t forget to send us at least one photo and story so we can add it to our gallery.