What is the single hardest part of planning an epic road trip? Choosing where to go. SERIOUSLY. This is a big deal. If you choose the wrong destinations then your entire trip will be ruined forever and ever and you’ll never want to take another road trip and you’ll barely even be able to get into a car because it will be a reminder of that gawdawful place you decided to visit because so-and-so posted these gorgeously filtered (and obviously fake because it is nowhere near like the) photos of it on Instagram or that other stop with nothing but a closed gas station and a boarded up church that you picked out randomly on a map because hey! spontaneity is fun! and don’t forget about how you added six hours to your drive because you just had to stop at that diner that was on that one food show and you ended up with food poisoning with your head hanging out the window like a Golden Retriever which meant you couldn’t go to all of those other places that you wanted to see because you will never ever come back this way again and this is your only chance and if you don’t do it right you’ll feel like the ultimate failure.
This is a BIG DEAL.
Except…. it really isn’t. I know this. I’ve been on a few road trips. None of them were perfect, yet all of them gave me experiences and memories that I’ll remember, and cherish, forever. When it comes to choosing where to stop along the way there are very few wrong answers, and a whole world of right ones.
That, of course, is part of the problem. As we plan our Epic Road Trip of Early 2017 (unwieldy name, I know, but there will be more road trips next year, and they will probably be Epic, so I have no idea what to call this trip. Suggestions welcome!), I am like a carnivore in a butcher shop, Augustus Gloop in the Sugar Factory, my aunt in Charming Charlies. As I mentioned in the intro to this whole experience, I want to go EVERYWHERE.
And yet, we have a nearly finished itinerary. We don’t have every stop planned, but we do know many of the towns, some of the overnights, and the general route.
How did we do that, you ask?
By setting a time limit, knowing our interests, checking the weather, and setting goals.
Setting a Time Limit
With this particular road trip we’ve got a specific destination on a specific date, so we worked backwards and forwards from there.
We have to be in San Diego for the Travel and Adventure Show on March 4 and 5. When I first tossed the idea of driving instead of flying to my husband he asked how long I thought we’d need – “three weeks? A month?” Gleeful that he was even open to the idea, I figured we’d need a month. One week in San Diego, a week and a half getting there and another week and a half to get back seemed just about right.
Our calculations took into consideration that we don’t want to drive more than four solid hours per day, if we can avoid it. If we’ve built in a long day of driving we won’t be able to pull over at every historical marker and lookout point, and that is a priority, man. We also want to have time to explore the towns we visit, get in some good hiking, and have some time to relax.
This is experience speaking. When we drove Route 66 in 2011 we had sixteen days to drive from Chicago to Santa Monica and back. There were some long driving days in there, but they became even longer when we ended up in Amarillo for four days – a quarter of the trip – after someone backed into our car. (Poor Charlie.) That meant the rest of the time we were racing to catch up and get back by our deadline. It takes some fun out of a road trip when you’re spending most of the day, for days in a row, on the road itself.
So, four hours of driving per day over a period of ten days each direction. That still leaves a lot of options. We began to narrow them down by thinking about what we really wanted to see and how we wanted to get there.
Knowing Your Interests
Things that get me jazzed about traveling:
- cool people
- stunning views
- seeing mother nature in all her glory
- seeing humankind in all its glory
- discovering new (insert noun here)
The list could probably go on, but for the purposes of this road trip the above are the main considerations. They’re pretty broad, so this is how that list translated into actual destinations.
We knew we wanted to avoid interstates more often than not. When you get off the highway and onto the two lane roads you see more of what this country offers. From the highway you only get a glimpse of gas stations, fast food joints, and the occasional fireworks stand. That means that our four hours of driving cover less distance because we won’t be doing 70+ MPH without stops.
By taking two lane roads we can visit off-the-beaten-path locations and we’ll see more roadside attractions. We’ll probably visit the Blue Whale of Catoosa and Cadillac Ranch again, but we’ll also see new kitschy and cool and unique things we’d never see from the highway. By visiting small towns we’ll meet real, actual people, from the brewer who turned his hobby into a business to the local blogger who will share all of her favorite lunch spots.
We also love being outdoors and love camping. (As in, I get slightly obsessed with it.) That means we’re going to visit as many parks as we can and we’ll bring along our trusty tent. We’re going to be in some Dark Sky areas, so sleeping under the stars is a must. This is a need, not a want.
We’re including some day visits for hiking. Places like Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, El Morro National Monument in New Mexico, and Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. I’ve wanted to visit Mesa Verde National Park for as long as I can remember, and on this trip I will. Oh yes, I will.
Checking the Weather
This is where Jim is the voice of reason. I’m all like “ooh – let’s take the back roads all the way through Illinois and Missouri and then let’s camp everywhere” and he’s like “Theresa – we’re leaving in February.”
(This is why it’s good to travel with someone with different strengths. Jim = practical. Me = not so much.)
While I’d love to camp at Mesa Verde, the campground isn’t even open until mid-April. I’d like to explore spots of Route 66 in Illinois that we missed the first time around*, but there could be feet of snow on the ground and lots of uncleared roads when we’re driving through. Our return trip through the Rockies will need to be flexible because it will still be early March.
*We missed a lot because we didn’t pick up the “EZ66 Guide for Travelers” by Jerry McClanahan until we were in Missouri. If you plan on driving Route 66, GET THIS BOOK.
However, the timing also means that camping at Joshua Tree will be perfect, and a visit to Yuma, Arizona, will be a lot more comfortable than it would be in August. No matter when you take a road trip, weather should be part of the planning process.
Setting goals for a road trip might seem like an odd way to plan, but if you know ahead of time what you’re hoping to gain from this experience, your planning will be much easier. A lot of those goals are based on your interests, but some of them are more esoteric, and all of them are your own.
An obvious goal of this trip for me is research for this site and The Local Tourist, but I also have some personal hopes. One of them is spending quality time with my husband. While we work from home and spend more time together than any couple I know, we spend most of that time working. This will give us an opportunity to connect on a deeper level.
Another is that I hope to fully own my dreams and clearly see the path to achieving them. I’ve made some big changes in the past several months, and this website is one of the biggest. This road trip is me stepping away from the day-to-day and literally making my dream a reality.
If you’re thinking about planning an epic road trip, choosing your destinations is the first step. Do you have any tips for planning where to go? If so, please leave a comment!
Next up on Planning an Epic Road Trip (PERT): which tools we’re using to craft our itinerary.