If you haven’t seen the infographic showing the computer generated driving route for a road trip that hits landmarks in all 48 continental states, I suggest you check it out. Randy Olsen’s model is an amazingly efficient way to see “must see” locations in each of the lower 48 states (assuming, of course, you have the time to do it)...

For as long as we both can remember, my wife and I have dreamed of one taking our own road trip across the U.S. (albeit not as ambitious as Randy’s). This Summer, we packed our Suburu Forester with camping supplies, canned goods and our two 70 lb. dogs, and made that dream a reality whilst visiting 18 National Parks, Forests, and Recreation Areas - traversing all the way from Upstate New York to California, North to Montana, and back home in 23 days.    

To say it was incredible would be an understatement. Four + months later, we still find ourselves referencing the trip regularly and can’t wait to return to some our favorite spots. Before I discuss our process for planning the trip and detail out our specific route, here are a few suggestions for planning your own cost-effective epic cross-country adventure. 

  • Plan Extensively But Remain Flexible – In my opinion, Kerrin (my wife) and I struck a great balance between thoroughly researching potential locations, carefully planning our route, and improvising our way to new and novel destinations. We booked roughly half of our campsites and hotels ahead of time and found the other places ad hoc, which gave us a lot of flexibility. By not over-planning and keeping three “open days”, we were able to visit a few places we didn’t expect without tweaking our existing reservations in some of the busier locations. 
  • Default to Camping and Supplement with Hotel Rooms– If you haven’t camped before, I highly suggest you try it. The National Parks, Forests, and Recreation Areas nearly all have Campgrounds, most of which offer views and vistas that trump nearly any hotel at fraction of the cost ($12-$20 a night). Sunset Magazine has detailed recommendations on most of the country’s best campsites, many of which can be reserved up to six months in advance via www.recreation.gov. Our camp set-up included a Coleman 4-Person Instant Tent, two self-inflating air pads, and one incredibly comfortable two-person sleeping bag. In all, we camped a total of 15 nights and stayed in hotels for 6, which we could have easily trimmed to 4-5 had we not insisted on doing three consecutive 12-14 hour shifts on our drive home. Our strategically spaced hotel visits provided a nice reprieve from camp showers and shared bathrooms, which wasn’t the worst thing 2+ weeks into our trip. 
  • Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and California Offer A Lot of Bang for Your Buck – Between these four connecting states, you’ll find a grand total of 20 National Parks. If you want to see a lot of places in as short time as possible, incorporate at least one of these states into your trip. I highly recommend prioritizing Utah, as Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capital Reef, and Zion National Parks are all AMAZING and in relatively close proximity, while the Grand Canyon’s (less travelled) North Rim in Arizona isn’t far. 
  • Keep Food Costs Low But Eat Healthy – As someone who eats pretty healthy and generally avoids gluten and processed foods, I couldn’t stomach 3+ weeks of fast food while trying to hike everyday. We effectively prepped by packing nearly a case of canned beans, protein bars, packages of Almonds, jars of Sauerkraut, and a supply of fresh fruits and vegetables - which we replenished multiple times throughout the trip. By doing so, we were able to eat well while only spending money on one meal “out” a day (on average). In retrospect, we would have actually saved more by doing more camp meals over the fire, as they were surprisingly tasty and quite cost effective.   
  • Pressed for Time?  Consider Alternative Modes of Transport – Both Kerrin and I were set on the idea of taking our two dogs and weren’t all that intimidated at the idea of driving from New York to Colorado in two days time.  Another option would have been to fly out west and rent an RV from a company like Cruise America, as this would have saved us a lot of driving time but significantly increased our costs. I’m very happy we got to see every state but could definitely see the benefit in this approach. 
  • Plan for Emergencies – This should be an obvious point, but I’m going to state it anyway. Besides extra blankets, a spare tire and jack, a serious first aid kit, we also carried bear spray, extra flashlights, gallons of water (especially in Utah, Nevada and Arizona), and few other accouterments to ensure our comfort and safety.  Doing so gave us piece of mind in some of the more remote and rugged landscapes..

Still with me? 

Here’s a bit about our process...  

We planned our 23 day adventure around the idea that there were four National Parks we had to visit: Zion, The Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone, but later decided to include Glacier National Park as the fifth. We then sprinkled in other potential National areas that both looked incredible while being en-route to a next destination, including Rocky Mountain National Park, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and Bryce Canyon. 

While traveling, we decided to do both Arches and Canyonlands in one day, skipped Bryce Canyon and ventured through the Glen Canyon Recreation Area to camp on the shore of Lake Powell. We also added Lake Tahoe as an impromptu stop as well. Due to simple proximity, we were able to both camp in and pass through a number of National Forests and Recreation Areas in addition to the National Parks, while spending time in 18 different states.   

Anyhow – here’s what we actually did, day by day.  If we were to do it all over again, there are a few things we’d tweak or optimize further, but not many.   


Trip Itinerary

Day 1 – Tuesday, June 30

·      Drove from Halfmoon, NY to Des Moines, Iowa.  Approximate Drive Time – 18 hours

·      Lodging – Hotel in Des Moines

Day 2 - Wednesday, July 1

·      Drove from Des Moines to Rocky Mountain National Park.  Approximate Drive Time – 10 hours

·      *Camp – Moraine Park Campground

Day 3 - Thursday, July 2

·      Hiked Rocky Mountain National Park, Explored Roosevelt National Forest and Toured Boulder, Colorado

·      Lodging – Hotel in Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Day 4 - Friday, July 3

·      Explored Manti La Sal National Forest and Buckeye Recreation Area on Colorado, Utah border

·      *Camp – Buckeye Recreation Area (note:  beautiful location, but VERY dangerous if you don’t stay on main roads.  I wouldn’t recommend this location)

Day 5 - Saturday, July 4*

·      Explored both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park

·      Camp – Bureau of Land Management campground outside Moab, Utah

Day 6 – Sunday, July 5

·      Explored (beautiful) Utah and Glen Canyon Recreation Area en route to Lake Powell

·      *Camp –Wahweap RV & Campground

Day 7 – Monday, July 6

·      Drove to Grand Canyon North Rim (note: the North Rim was more accessible than the South Rim given our route).  Approximate Drive Time – 1 hour

·      *Camp – Jacob Creek Recreation Area

Day 8 - Tuesday, July 7

·      Drove to Zion.  Approximate Drive Time from North Rim - 2 hours

·      Camp – Watchman Campground

Day 9 - Wednesday, July 8  

·      More Zion

·      Camp – Watchman Campground

Day 10 - Thursday, July 9 * 

·      Drove to Mammoth Lakes, CA (Yosemite area).  Approximate Drive Time - 8 hours (through Nevada). 

·      Lodging – Hotel in Mammoth Lakes, CA (1+ hour to Yosemite)

Day 11 - Friday, July 10 *

·      Explored Yosemite

·      Lodging – Hotel in Mammoth Lakes, CA (1+ hour to Yosemite)

Day 12 - Saturday, July 11

·      Drove to and explored Lake Tahoe.  Approximate Drive Time – 2.5 Hours

·      Camp – Rural RV Park outside Lake Tahoe

Day 13 - Sunday, July 12

·      Drove from Lake Tahoe to Idaho Falls, Idaho

·      Lodging – Hotel in Idaho Falls

Day 14 - Monday, July 13

·      Drove to and explored Grand Teton National Park.  Approximate Drive Time: 2 Hours

·      Camp – Signal Mountain Campground

Day 15 - Tuesday, July 14 *

·      Explored Grand Teton National Park.  Approximate Drive Time: 2 Hours

·      Camp – Signal Mountain Campground

Day 16 – Wednesday, July 15

·      Drive to Yellowstone.  Approximate Drive Time: 30 Minutes to park entrance

·      Camp – Private campsite just outside park on Montana Side  

Day 17 - Thursday, July 16

·      More Yellowstone

·       Camp –Private camp just outside park on Montana Side  

Day 18 - Thursday, July 17 *

·      Drive to and explored Glacier National Park.   Approximate Drive Time:  6 Hours

·      Camped - Apgar Campground (Beautiful location, though, in retrospect, we would have stayed on the other side of the park)

Day 19- Friday, July 18 *

·      Explored Glacier National Park

·      Camped – Apgar Campground  

Day 20 – Saturday, July 19

·      Started Trek Home :(

*Indicates specific campground/location was bookable ahead of time.  Note:  we didn’t make reservations for Wahweap or Glacier


Is there anything you’d change or further optimize from our trip?  Have you done your own cross-country trip?  If so – share details in the comments section...