How to Plan a Cross Country Road Trip

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Last year Brian and I did a two months’ cross-country road trip that covered 27 states, 14 major U.S cities and 15 National Parks and Monuments. Many friends asked for our recommendations and how we did it. I thought I would write a piece that would help future road trippers plan a cross-country road trip.

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First Day of Our Trip

How did you plan your trip?

We planned out trip around National Parks and major U.S cities that we want to visit.

For example, I know I want to go to Crater Lake, Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore, Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C and Nashville, Denver, and Moab area. So that’s the rough route.

We looked at the map in each state and see what’s around us. That’s how we ended up in Lava Beds National Monument in California and Craters of the Moon in Idaho.

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Leave yourself plenty of time to check out small towns and thrift stores, you never know what you would find. This is Christmas Valley in Oregon.

Do you need an RV or trailer?

Not necessarily. We had a 2001 Subaru Outback. We packed our tent, sleeping bags, lights, clothes, and a bunch of other stuff that we think we need. Basically I think it as preparing for an extended camping trip.

What do you do with the food situation?

I was not sure about food in the beginning. We didn’t pack anything to cook with. We just went with bread, peanut butter, crackers, trail mix and sausages.

I always make sure we have some fruits with us, like bananas, apples, pears, and carrots. Apples and carrots are the best because they don’t get bad or get smashed easily. We tried to only eat out once a day. Occasionally we had gas station food like hot dogs, because they are cheap and convenient.

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Blueberries and cheese cake for breakfast. Not bad for road trip food. ^^

How do you find where to stay each night?

Most time we don’t know where we stay the next day. It’s hard to plan on the places to stay ahead of time because we are not sure how far we would travel each day.

Usually by 3 or 4 pm, I Google campground in GPS and pick a location that has best reviews and a good distance from us, so we could get there around 7 or 8pm. The best practice is to call them, ask for the price and secure a spot.

Some campgrounds have after hour registration. Some don’t. It’s better to secure a place before you get there.

State parks and public lands have better rates for camping, averagely about $20 a night. Private campgrounds like KOA are more expansive; it could range from $26(Idaho) to $38(Ohio, New York). I would go with state parks and public lands first. But if you have to, then I’ll go with KOA. It’s really hit and miss with KOA. Some are great. Some are really bad. There are other unique and nice privately owned campgrounds too. You just have to read the reviews.

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The place we camped by Boston.

We camped in most of this trip. Only in major cities, we stayed with our Airbnb hosts in their houses. We spent averagely 3 nights in each city. I was able to get averagely $50 a night for these places. The first night I would do some research on the city so we can hit the rights spots the next two days.

We only stayed in a hotel in one day out of this trip. Because we have been camping for a week nonstop, staying in the car prior to that day and needed a bed for one night. We were also able to stay at friends’ places for a dozen nights. It’s always helpful when you have friends in different parts of the country.

When everything else fails, we would look for a gas station by the highway to stay in the car overnight, such as Love’s Travel Stops. You can ask the clerk in the store if it’s ok to stay overnight. They would direct you to the right spot. Some states have rest area you can stay overnight. We only have to stay in the car overnight for maybe 3 nights in the entire road trip.

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We got lucky at our Airbnb place at Detroit. Our hosts are antique collectors. So we stayed in a mansion full of antiques.

Is shower or lack of shower an issue?

Not really. I didn’t know what to expect at first. But it turns out most campgrounds we stayed have showers. National Parks usually don’t have showers. But state parks and private campgrounds usually do.

What do you recommend to visit from your experience?

The highlights for me are National Parks. Each one of them is unique and majestic in its own way. The cities we visited are pretty cool too. But cities are just cities and they are expensive, maybe I’m just not a city’s person.

Anyway, these are my top 10 recommendations!

  • Yellowstone National Park, Teton County, WY, United States (This is my dream destination with buffaloes and Old Faithful geyser.)

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  • Lava Beds National Monument, Siskiyou County, CA, United States. (The caves there are super cool to explore.)

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  • Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, Blaine County, ID, United States (This is a crazy interesting place to visit.)

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  • Canyonlands National Park, San Juan County, UT, United States (Again really awesome wild landscape to explore, minimum human intervention in the park.)

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  • Arches National Park, Grand County, UT, United States (Beautiful arches, check out the nearby city Moab too, the mecca for outdoor enthusiasts.)
  • Badlands National Park, SD, United States (This place used to be under water long time ago, super dope landscape.)

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  • Rocky Mountain National Park, Larimer County, CO, United States (High altitude, see some cool mountains, definitely stop by Boulder as well.)

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  • Crater Lake National Park, Klamath County, OR, United States (The water in the lake is so pure and blue, which is crazy.)

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  • Mammoth Cave National Park, Edmonson County, KY, United States (Longest Cave known to men, take a walking tour with one of the rangers there.)
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Sevier County, TN, United States (Learn the interesting history about the people in the south.)

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Here is the Google map to the route we took, so you can look at the stops in details.

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Hope this article is helpful to you. Cross country road trip is one of the lifetime experiences for me. I definitely recommend people to do it when they can!

 

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