The Ultimate National Park Travel Guide

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” 
― John Muir

The Ultimate National Park travel guide.jpg

Living in the West — Colorado in particular — sometimes makes me feel like everyone is a master outdoors-person. That everyone has been to more National Parks than me (and I’ve been to 47 on my own just in the US!), everyone has an SUV crammed with gear, and everyone is on top of some mountain right at this moment, probably looking down at me and laughing. But, alas, apparently that is not so. 

While National Parks visitors have generally increased each year (318 million in 2018!) they are still mostly concentrated in the top 5 parks, with the bottom 5 only receiving between 10-20,000 visitors a year.

For comparison sake (and math!) Disneyworld averages over 52 million visitors a year — nearly five times the number of visitors of the most visited National Park — Great Smoky Mountains — which sees just over 11 million. The second-most visited park — Grand Canyon — only had 6.3 million visitors last year.

So, while social media may make it seem like everyone already knows everything about National Parks — don’t worry, they don’t. With the start of National Park Week (and a fee free day April 20) and summer vacation season gearing up, hopefully you are planning a trip to one or two of America’s best idea. To assuage any anxiety you may have, here are my answers to the most common questions I get about National Park Travel:

Planning

which parks should i visit

This is the by far the question I get asked the most! Which parks are “the best” or my favorite. Well, here’s the thing, it doesn’t really matter what my favorites are — because my motivations for visiting might be different than yours or your family’s.

I always tell people to consider their motivations when planning a National Park trip. What do you want to do while you’re there? Because while you may think a parks trip is all hiking and wildlife — there is so much more to do at many (most, even) of the parks.

Some parks are great for a drive (with lots of photo worthy overlooks), some parks are great to bike in, some parks are on water or have a lot of water inside, some parks are better for families, and some parks have entire towns inside. The point: understand your motivation for the trip and how it matches up to where you are going. 

If you want to stay in a cool lodge and play mini-golf in the afternoons — don’t go to the Petrified Forest. On the flip side, if you want to hike in solitude (you know, become one with nature, kumbaya, namaste) then maybe don’t hit the South Rim of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Village. 

There are a lot of different atmospheres within parks, and also outside of them. Big parks generally have towns outside that cater to tourists and families (Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain) while other parks are literally in the middle of nowhere (Guadalupe Mountains, Pinnacles, Theodore Roosevelt) and some are nearby to medium to large cities (Channel Islands, Saguaro). 

It’s important to take all of this into account and also to understand what you/your friends/family actually like to do. If you only want to walk 3/4 of a mile (or less) to see some natural wonders — that’s awesome and totally possible. Don’t try to backpack for three days just because you think that’s the thing to do.

when is the best time to visit

Again, the “best” time might be different for everyone. I go to a lot of parks in the off or shoulder season to get away from crowds (and it’s cheaper), but I also miss some things that way. That being said, there are some “rules” to consider when planning a trip.

If you aren’t from a mountainous or higher elevation place, you may not realize how long “winter” lasts. Rocky Mountain National Park, Glacier, North Cascades, Mt. Rainier, and Crater Lake are just a handful of parks that will have snow well into Spring. In many cases the roads won’t even all be open until much later than you might expect. So unless your motivation is to see the snow, check each park individually to see when roads will be open and when you can expect the snow to be melted.

Similarly, there are a few parks that you really don’t want to be in after the spring. Death Valley, Saguaro, and Joshua Tree all have extremely high, uncomfortable, and even dangerous heat in the summer months.

Other things to consider: is there a certain ecological event you’d like to witness? Many parks are known for spring blooms and fall foliage. While the parks will be more crowded during those times, it is for good reason, and might be worth the trip.

Bugs/Wildlife: There are definitely certain seasons that are better for seeing wildlife and worse for certain bugs. If these things concern you, look up that park specifically.

where do i stay?

Not to sound like a broken record here but, this depends on what you want/like to do. You don’t have to camp! But if you want to, that’s definitely the best option in my opinion. Many times any other lodging options are 1+ hour away, which takes time away from your experience in the park.

There are also beautiful lodges in many parks. These are often booked well in advance, so if this is the route you want to go — book early.

Gateway towns often have chain hotels, but I find that they are often overpriced for what you get. If I’m not camping I generally will spring for an Airbnb. There are almost always an abundance of interesting Airbnb listings near the larger and more remote parks.

how do i plan my route?

When visiting a National Park, you’re going to need a car. While there are shuttle buses within many parks (and I recommend using them!), the parks themselves are generally remote. Luckily, a lot of National Parks are (relatively) close to other parks — especially in the West. And remember, they’re also mostly all in the middle of nowhere anyways, so if you’re going to spend the time to drive to one, you might as well add in another one. Or four (looking at you California). 

I’ve taken advantage of proximity on most trips. Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are obvious groupings, but Theodore Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain National Park aren’t too far from them either. Wind Cave and Badlands are near each other, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, and Black  Canyon of the Gunnison are all within somewhat short distances of each other, and I even went to Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, and Big Bend all in one big loop. 

Then of course there are the obvious: California, Washington, and Utah are all packed with National Parks — it would be a crime against Ken Burns to only visit one. 

what do i pack?

National Parks are great because they cater to all sorts of people. You can hike the back-country for days and climb a 14er, or you can stay in a luxurious lodge in a park with it’s own grocery store. There are certain things you need, sure, but if you plan on doing the normal things, no need to spend your entire vacation budget at REI. 

That being said, there are some things I have with me no matter what:

Water — in a water bottle and a gallon or two in my trunk (although many parks have water stations for fill ups)
Sunscreen -- even though I always forget to put it on (just having it makes me feel mature and prepared haha)
Snacks — usually mixed nuts and dried fruit (no melted mess)
Book -- (related to the place I am in if possible! - check the visitors center)
Camera — DSLR or just iPhone (make sure they are charged!)
Hat
Tevas
America the Beautiful Pass - $80 to get into all the parks for a year, as well as tons of other National Park sites (GREAT DEAL I use it all the time)
Pepper spray/knife -- cause hey, I'm alone (and I guess the type of badass who carries a knife) 

and…. that’s it. That’s really all you need. Probably more than what you need, actually. I have other boots, backpack, first aid, poncho, hiking poles etc, but generally use those mostly at non-National Parks.

what do i wear

Again, this isn’t as complicated as you might think. What would you wear to go to a park in your town? You can probably wear that. I usually wear leggings, Tevas, and some kind of t-shirt or tank. If it’s hot I’ll wear some denim or athletic shorts. I usually keep a flannel nearby if it get’s cold.

Think about breathable fabrics, layers, and comfortable shoes. You’d be shocked at how many people try to hike down into the Grand Canyon in totally inappropriate dress shoes and even heels.

Just use common sense :)

In the Park

what do i do there

Again, this depends on what you like to do. There is no “right way” to visit or experience a National Park. But, if you have no idea or are looking for new experiences I always recommend visiting the visitors center first. And don’t just walk in and out. Talk to the Rangers! Get specific! They want to help you have the best experience. I say some version of this: “I like to _______, I have ______ time, I’d like to see _______, what do you recommend?” Always works. They know the secret spots. 

And then let go of any expectation. You’re there to enjoy yourself, so if you get sidetracked and miss a spot or two on your list — it’s okay.

what if its crowded

If you’re visiting some of the more well-known parks in season, they’re going to be crowded. It’s just the way it is. And in many ways it’s great to see the parks being appreciated. But, if you’re like me, the crowds can make the experience a little… annoying. Luckily, I’ve spent enough time in the popular parks to come up with a game plan for crowds.

Get there early. Always. The early mornings are always going to be less crowded. Parking lots may not be full yet, popular trails aren’t congested, and you also get the best views.

Venture off the main “attractions”. While I would never say to skip something like Old Faithful or the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone (they’re worth fighting a crowd) remember that there is SO MUCH more to do and see at Yellowstone. And this is true for all of the parks. If you’re not sure where to find a hidden gem, ask a ranger, but then also ask someone else. I usually ask a gift shop or restaurant worker. Maybe someone you met in town. The key is to find someone who lives and works in the area — they know the spots.

Another option is to travel in the off season. When I post pictures in a park I always get comments that I went at the wrong time, or should really come back for ______ season. But, like I’ve said about 50 times, my motivations are different than theirs, so I might be perfectly fine missing that season or event in a park in exchange for less people overall. You might be too.

what if i dont want to hike

Then don’t! Like I mentioned above, there are so many options in each park. You can bike, drive, boat, swim, canoe, snorkel, and all kinds of other activities depending on where you go. Think about that before you plan your trip so you’re not stuck doing something you’re not interested in.

what if i'm tired

Then take a break! Seriously, don’t burn yourself out. That is definitely not the point of a vacation. I see so many people at parks who seem totally beat down from trying to see and do it all. Families are bickering and no one seems to be having any fun.

I spend a lot of time relaxing. Sitting on a rock somewhere and reading a book. Or just sitting. Listening. Meditating. Taking a nap. Allow yourself to do the things that make you feel good. That give you energy and fill you with joy. If that’s going hard for 12 straight hours, that’s great. If it’s sitting at a lookout for 12 straight hours, also great. It doesn’t make your experience any more or less.

am i safe

One of the reasons I started traveling to National Parks was because they felt safe. I wanted to spend time outdoors, but wasn’t ready to go off the grid completely. While National Parks are often very large and remote, they are also generally full of people — and park rangers!

If you’re concerned about safety camping, or encountering wildlife, stop by the visitors center and talk to a ranger. Maybe even go on a guided hike. Remember that you are surrounded by like-minded people — who would help you if you needed.

how do i care for environment

This might seem obvious, but according to what I’ve seen at parks apparently it isn’t. There might be a few areas for trash in some parks, but they are few and far between. Anything you bring in, you need to take out. Park rangers are not custodians, and more importantly — there are bears hanging around! Wildlife does not need your skittles wrapper/you are actually endangering people on top of ruining the very thing you are here to see. 

Actually, aim to leave a place even better than you found it! If you see some trash, pick it up. 

And it should go without saying, but don’t write on, deface, carve etc anything into anything (yes, people still do this)

For more information, check out the Leave No Trace Seven Principles.

what's trail etiquette?

If you don’t spend a lot of time on trails, you may not know trail etiquette is even a thing. So here’s a quick rundown (of the stuff that bothers me):

Right of way - The hiker going uphill has the right of way. It takes more energy and flow to ascend so the hiker going down should step to the side. 

Noise - Keep it down. I've actually been on many hikes where someone was playing music loudly from their iPhone. No earbuds. That is NOT why people go into nature. Keep it to yourself. 

Groups - Hike single-file unless you are truly the only people on the trail and can see ahead/hear behind! Sorry, but you can still talk that way. At least stay on the right half of trail space, and stay on the actual trail. 

Don’t take it with you - Don't take the rocks/branches/whatever. Leave it for others to look at. :)

Traveling Alone

As much as I’d like to think that traveling alone isn’t any different than in a group — it is. Especially as a woman. So while all of the above information still applies, there are some special concerns I’ll try to address here. For more information on solo travel and safety check out my posts here, here, and here.

what if i'm scared

Fear is a natural emotion. It makes sense to be afraid of something when you don’t know what to expect/haven’t experienced it before. But you can’t let the fear stop you. Real courage is acknowledging fear and continuing. Easier said than done though right?

Here are some things that can help to face fears:

 Gradual exposure – Identify your fears and then gradually expose yourself to them. If the idea of going on a week long off the grid hike is scary – start with a solo hike on a busy trail for a couple of hours. Work your way up to the thing you are afraid of. Practice is key – the more you expose yourself to the source of your fear the less of a hold it will have on you.

Acknowledge and accept – There’s always a point at the beginning of a trip where my mind is working overtime with fear. Did I remember to turn off the oven, did I pack my phone charger, what if the Airbnb is sketchy, what if what if what if. I have learned to acknowledge my fears and then accept that I can’t do anything more. I feel the fear and let it pass. This is a practice of mindfulness. Imagine you are watching cars drive by on a street. You acknowledge they are there and let them pass. Do this with your fear – acknowledge it and let the thoughts pass.

Think positively – A generally positive attitude is key. Assume things will go well. Assume it will all work out. Look to the past and remember the times when your fears were unfounded and assume they will be again.

Practical Tips: I always carry a pocket knife, pepper spray (or bear spray), and when staying in a hotel or Airbnb I have a doorstop alarm and/or an add a lock. Much more here.

how do i get photos?

Every day people ask me how I get photos of myself if I am traveling alone. Some people seem to think that I am lying, and have some secret boyfriend or photographer in tow. But, nope, 99% of my photos I take on my iPhone with the camera timer. The other 1% are taken by strangers I ask to take a photo of me if I’m in a crowded area. For many years I just set my phone up on a ledge, wall, or ground, but now I use this inexpensive tripod that fits in my day pack.

Here are a few tips:

Basics: Set the timer on your phone camera to 10 seconds and either set up the tripod or find something to prop your phone up against. It could be a wall, a fence, your water bottle – I’ve found some crazy stuff that works.

If you can help it, don’t use the selfie camera – you won’t be able to see yourself but the quality of the photo is much better.

Set your phone up as high as you can. Sometimes a pic from the ground can look cool but generally closer to eye level makes a better photo.

If you have an Apple Watch - set your phone somewhere farther away and use the watch to cue the photo — or use a remote (most tripods will include one)

Camera timers are the secret to the cartwheel/active shots – the timer takes a burst of photos so you have a few to choose from.

Take a bunch! Haha but seriously – take one, look at it, and then make adjustments as necessary.

And then post them all over the internet. (duh)

how do i let people know where i am

I tell at least one or two people what my hiking area is, and I share my location from my phone with my parents and two of my friends. I don’t know how that works when you don’t have service, but it makes me feel better that if they don’t hear from me, they can see my location. It’s also important to check in with others when you have service.

On the other side of that, it’s important not to post where you are! I’ve seen people post photos of their exact campsite while they are at it — not a good idea.

I still have questions!

You’re going to be okay! At some point you have to stop planning and start doing. Just go. Talk to rangers. Make friends with others in the park. Learn by doing. You’re going to have a great time :)

If you have specific questions about any of the parks I’ve been to, leave me a comment below!

My 7 Favorite Roadside Art Installations

“The key to understanding any people is in its art: its writing, painting, sculpture.” 
― 
Louis L'Amour

Whoa sign outside of Big Basin National Park in Baker, Nevada (pop. 68)

Whoa sign outside of Big Basin National Park in Baker, Nevada (pop. 68)

When I’m on the road, I always make time to stop at interesting roadside attractions. Sometimes I get lucky and find something right off the highway, while other times I’ve had to venture into backroads and follow handwritten directions from a local to find my destination.

Either way, it’s always exciting to to find art in the outdoors. Wide open spaces are inspiring, and provide a backdrop unlike any art museum.

Here are my 7 favorites so far:

Galleta Meadows Estate — Borrego Springs, CA

Galleta Meadows Estate is in Borrego Springs, California — a town completely surrounded by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It is also the home to over 130 metal sculptures along the sides of the roads. A philanthropist, Dennis Avery, owned the land, and commissioned artist Ricardo Breceda to create the historic, prehistoric, and fanciful creatures all over his property.

They are massive, and awe inspiring. You can find most of them off of Borrego Springs Rd, through a seemingly never-ending network of dirt roads. There are maps available in town, but I’d argue finding them is part of the fun.

On the way: visit Anza Borrego Desert State Park! Spend some time in Borrego Springs, stop at Kesling’s Kitchen for lunch, or take a picnic to Christmas Circle.

More information can be found here.

Seven Magic Mountains — outside Las Vegas, NV

7 magic mountains

No, it’s not a theme park, but the crowds might rival one. I’m sure you’ve seen photos of Seven Magic Mountains scrolling through Instagram. But you might not realize that the installation is right outside of Las Vegas — off I-15. Meant to be a two-year installation created by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, the 30 foot neon rocks are still standing almost three years on.

And still bringing in crowds. I’d try to visit at sunrise or sunset, and on a weekday if possible to avoid the crowds.

On the road: Las Vegas :) It’s also a good spot to stop and take a break between a trip from Zion National Park to Joshua Tree.

More info can be found here.

Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum — Joshua Tree, CA

During one of my first trips to Joshua Tree, I stayed in an eclectic artist owned camper in the desert. My plan was to spend my days in the park, but my airbnb host highly recommended that I take a detour — to the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Musuem. I am SO glad I did. The Desert Art Museum is made up of several acres of land displaying Purifoy’s assemblage sculptures. He created them all on site from 1989-2004 using all sorts of materials.

There are brochures at the entrance with names and story of each piece that I definitely encourage you to read when visiting. Then meander through the thoughtful and political sculptures, likely without a crowd. This art is meant to be walked in/on — Purifoy was interested in the role the environment would play in the pieces. It is truly unlike anywhere I have ever been.

On the road: Joshua Tree National Park is just a stones throw away.

Read more here.

Cadillac Ranch — Amarillo, TX

cadillac+ranch

This is arguably the most famous roadside art installation of all — Cadillac Ranch. Sitting, er, buried on a cow pasture with an unlocked gate (actually it’s second location), Cadillac Ranch is an ode to the changing Cadillac tailfin. It was created by the San Francisco art group Ant Farm, with funding from local millionaire patron Stanley Marsh 3.

Cadillac Ranch was crowded and strewn with empty spray paint bottles on my visit — but I was still glad I stopped. The interactive nature of the art is inspiring — reading and admiring what others have created on the cars.

On the road: Cadillac Ranch can be found right off I-40 outside of Amarillo between Oklahoma City and Albuquerque. It’s also a stop along the historic Route 66.

Read more here.

Prada Marfa — Valentine, TX

Another famous Instagram location — Prada Marfa. Prada Marfa is not actually in Marfa, but a mile or so outside of Valentine, Texas (pop. 134) and 26 from Marfa. This is one of the rare destinations that is actually more remote than it seems in photos. It is truly in the middle of nowhere, which is the point. Conceived by artists Elmgreen and Dragset, and supported by Miuccia Prada (she hand selected handbags and shoes to be displayed inside), the store is obviously non-functional, and meant to be permanent without repairs.

You find it directly on Highway 90, south of I-10 towards Marfa.

On the road: Marfa is an amazing city full of art and oddities. Visit Food Shark, the Chinati Foundation, and attempt to get a glimpse of the Marfa lights. It’s also a great stopping point on the way to or from Big Bend National Park.

More info here.

World’s Smallest Target — Marathon, TX

There isn’t much known about this one, as no one has ever claimed responsibility. Located 40ish miles east of Marfa on US 90, it is surrounded by… basically nothing. I visited after Prada Marfa and if nothing else it made me chuckle. My kind of tiny store indeed.

On the road: it is outside of Marfa, and about 2 hours North of Big Bend National Park.

Read more here.

Carhenge — Alliance, NE

I spend a lot of time driving through Nebraska, and like their new slogan explains — “it’s not for everyone”. I saw the signs for Carhenge multiple times, but it’s location 2 hours north of the Interstate wasn’t exactly appealing. I took the scenic route to visit Scottsbluff National Monument on a recent trip, so it was the perfect time to stop.

Carhenge is just what it sounds like — a Stonehenge replica made with cars. Built by Jim Reinders in 1987, the site has a visitors center, parking, and other artwork on site. While I don’t know if I would go two hours out of my way to visit, it is an interesting and eclectic stop if you’re in the area.

On the road: Scottsbluff National Monument is about an hour west

Read more here.

This list doesn’t even scratch the surface on roadside art installations, but I hope it inspired you to add one or two to your list.

What outdoor art installations do you recommend? Let me know in the comments :)

The Anticipation Phase

“Well," said Pooh, "what I like best," and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called.” 
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

I love traveling to strange places off the beaten path. I love road trips, I love exploring, and I love finding hidden gems along the way. All of these things bring me a lot of happiness. But something that brings as much or more happiness is just the process of planning the trip. I love researching, I love planning, I love talking with friends and gathering recommendations. Of course I am not alone in this.

Trips, like a good story or a lesson, come in three phases: the anticipation phase, the savoring phase, and the reflection phase. As a teacher, the beginning of a lesson serves the most important purpose - the "hook" or in educational terms, the "anticipatory set". The anticipatory set is meant to "focus students attention, provide a brief practice and/or develop a readiness for instruction to follow" it "helps students to get mentally or physically ready" for the days objective. The anticipation is what drives the lesson. It is when the inquiry starts and (hopefully) the curiosity is ignited. 

Anticipation, in general, works this way. The latin root of anticipate - ante-capio literally means to take before or to cause something to happen sooner. When you are anticipating something, the positive emotions associated with what you are anticipating happen sooner. If you are going on a great vacation, getting married, or buying a house, you feel the happiness boost well before the event takes place. 

And it's not just anecdotal, there are several studies that back me up on this. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Quality of Life found that among participants, the majority of people felt happiest before a trip - even more so than on the trip itself. Another study commissioned by booking.com found similar results. In the study, 72% of people experienced an immediate high when booking a trip, 56% said they were at their happiest when booking, and over a third said they thought about their trip once or more per day for a quick pick me up. 

These studies aren't surprising when you think of the vast history of delayed gratification research. People who are able to delay gratification have always been posited to be happier in the long term. Like the famous 1970's cookie and marshmallow experiments where the children who could delay their gratification received not only another cookie or marshmallow but were found to later do better in school, have less behavior problems, higher SAT scores, higher incomes and on and on. The trajectory for those who couldn't was much more negative.

What does this have to do with anticipation? Well, there is a ton of research that suggests that not only does delaying gratification build willpower and more successful people, but it actually makes the thing you have delayed that much more satisfying. 

According to Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and happiness researcher, "it is better to immerse yourself" into the planning and anticipation stages of a trip for many reasons. It helps to actually smooth over discrepancies in your expectations vs reality of the trip, you learn something new, and it gives moments of novelty to your everyday routine. 

Novelty is at the crux of anticipatory planning for me. As University of California professor Sonja Lyubomirsky has found in her research, because of the concept of "hedonic adaptation" we return to our baseline levels of happiness after adapting to positive and negative experiences. Basically, once we get what we've wanted we adapt to it - it becomes our new normal and alas, it becomes boring and we take it for granted. The way she and other researchers suggest to counteract the adaptation is through novelty, variety, and surprise. Simply changing your daily routine to spend ten minutes researching an airbnb or a trail you want to hike can provide the variety to keep your levels of happiness up. 

So how can you apply this to your life? Well, plan something! It can be a year in advance! In fact, that would be awesome - you have a whole year to anticipate and plan. Here are some things I do in the Anticipatory Phase:

Pinterest Boards

I create a pinterest board for trips I have coming up. That way I can browse through posts about the area, specific things I want to see, photography, packing tips etc. and pin the things that excite me. I may never go back to any of the boards but the excitement is in the creating. 

Books

Of course! I have nothing without books. Read about the place you are going! I read Astoria before visiting the Grand Tetons, a Georgia O'Keeffee biography before visiting Santa Fe, and read parts of Wild pretty much anytime I go on a hike. There is a great website: Longitude Books that has books organized geographically (so smart). 

Movies/TV

Watch a movie that's set in the area, watch a TV show with a similar backdrop (or exact hello Westworld), look up documentaries on YouTube.. the possibilities are endless. I've spent many nights watching random internet videos of Bishops Castle or Arcosanti (currently anticipating) to prepare for a trip. 

Blogs/Podcasts/Articles

Basically, google it. There is information on everything in a form of communication that you enjoy. Trust me. (Or just start here)

Shopping

Buy some new gear! Even if it's something small. I bought a new pair of leggings before I went to NYC that I've needed for months but it felt special to "buy them for New York". 

Countdown Apps

This is just fun (well if you have some available phone storage). There are many apps that countdown to events in your life. I generally download one once I have a trip confirmed, set my arrival time, maybe a background photo of where I am going, and I can look at it whenever I need a pick me up. It sounds small but it's really kind of gratifying. 

And finally...

Talk About It!

Talk to your friends about your trip. Social bonds increase happiness already so it's a double win. And you'd be surprised how many people have already been to the seemingly obscure Utopian off-grid community you are going to and they can be great resources. 

So don't be afraid to anticipate. Don't fall into the trap (that I sometimes do) of being afraid to think too much or plan too much so you won't be let down. Because even if the trip is a letdown, you've experienced a lot of joy already. :) 

 

how to: plan a weekend road trip

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

As much as I would like to spend weeks traveling the globe, my kind of travel is generally of the long weekend road trip variety. Living in Colorado makes finding beautiful places easy but - trust me - there are hidden gems near anyone. 

People ask me a lot of questions about road-trips: how I decide where to go and how I find interesting places when there. While most of my advice is common sense and you probably do most of it already, hopefully I can give you some kind of new tool to make your planning less stressful or some inspiration to start planning (Memorial Day is around the corner!). So here is the first of a series of "how to" posts covering some basics of short road-trip planning. 

car window

First: Where to go??

The first thing I do when I have a long weekend or am itching to get away is to look at a map. I start in Denver and search a radius of 4-6 hours in any direction for place I haven't been.

denver map

 

A good strategy is to find the green on a map and zoom into it! This is what I got a couple weeks ago zooming in to the Rapid City area. So many places I never would have thought about!

rapid city map

Second: Where will I stay?

After finding the area I want to go to I generally will start an airbnb search. I set the map to the same places, filter it to my price range and entire home with the dates I want to travel and see what comes up. If you haven't used airbnb before, my advice is to go for places with lots of reviews 4 1/2 stars and up. I've had only really great experiences this way. 

airbnb rapid city

If there isn't anything I like I move the airbnb map around with the cursor to see if anything else pops up. Just make sure to keep it within the distance from home that you want to travel.

This also helps with finding unique places. The best places I've stayed (tiny houses, domes, etc.) are "off-the-grid" in some form so it's worthwhile to look in the outer areas. They are also generally cheaper!

This trip didn't have a deal good enough for me so I went on to Hotwire

Love a straightforward hotel. 

Love a straightforward hotel. 

As you can see, hotels tend to be much cheaper in this area. Personally, I also knew that the objective of this trip was to spend as much time as possible visiting things outside of the hotel so having a swank or interesting place to sleep wasn't as important to me. 

I don't make the actual reservations just yet though! I just need to know where the best accommodations are to direct the rest of my search. 

Third: What will I do while I'm there?

Sometimes I visit places for a specific reason, sometimes just because I haven't been there, but generally it's a combination of both. I had never been to South Dakota, but I knew I wanted to visit Mount Rushmore. After that I was open to anything. 

Again, looking at a map is a great way to start. That's how I found that Badlands National Park was within a day trip of Rapid City. I also put Custer State Park on my list from the map. 

Reading other blogs is a great way to find well known and less known attractions. I usually start with a Pinterest search and go down the rabbit hole for a bit, pinning posts and taking notes of places that seem interesting or that keep coming up in posts. 

black hills pinterest

I also always look at the "things to do" section of TripAdvisor. It's based on reviews from real people so the content and ratings are genuine.

trip advisor

 I look at the general vicinity and also the specific city I'm staying in. The Rapid City TripAdvisor page is the reason I got to see this dinosaur: 

dinosaur park

Another great way to find interesting local attractions is instagram! Hashtags and location tags are seriously how I've found some of the greatest places I've ever been. 

I also do this with the locations I visit to make sure I don't miss out on a cool spot. It's also a great way to get inspired and excited for a trip. 

Instagram led me to Art Alley in Rapid City, an awesome alley downtown full of street art. (look out for a dedicated post - so great to find in South Dakota)

Fourth: List making!

After I have some ideas/notes/maps I write out actual distances between the places I want to go to find the best route. This (of course) starts by looking at a map and getting a general idea for what's going to be the smartest route. Then I look up distances between the points and come up with an itinerary. This helps me feel more organized and makes the best use of my time. Not a minute is wasted! 

This is what I ended up with for the Black Hills trip: 

itinerary

I didn't end up making it to Wind Cave National Park or Chapel in the Hills but knowing the possibilities made the actual trip much less stressful. 

Fifth: Book it!

Book the trip! Take the day off, confirm the hotel/airbnb/tickets etc. Be confident that you have planned an amazing trip and focus on the fun stuff!