Help Me Plan My Summer Cross-Country Driving Trip

Hello Dopers,

I would appreciate any input offered on a cross-country driving trip planned for this summer. I will be leaving from the Washington, D.C. area at the end of June and driving a sinuous route across the northern tier of the country to end up in Davis/Sacramento, CA in early August, with a week-long stop in North Dakota. I am planning to take several weeks to enjoy the scenery (first time driving across the country), visit some friends (more on that in a moment), and do some bird-watching/hiking.

These are the tentative stops I am planning specifically to visit friends and family:

  • Morgantown, WV
  • Lexington, KY (plus Kentucky Horse Park!)
  • Twin Cities, MN
  • Bismarck, ND - this is the schedule-setter, since I have to be there in mid-July for a week-long veterinary-related volunteer trip.
  • possibly Seattle or Boulder?

A bit more about me and what I’m looking for:

  • Moderately fit
  • I am afraid of heights, so not a fan of vertigo-inducing rock scrambles or paths along cliff tops - more of a walk in the woods with sheltered or big, safe-seeming overlooks
  • Female, unarmed, and will be traveling alone; I imagine I’m probably best off sticking to parks and such that are not completely devoid of other people in case I get hurt or feel threatened (thoughts on personal safety? any other wimpy females who hike and/or camp alone?).
  • Looking for birding and wildlife viewing opportunities (part of me wants to go through Michigan to look for Kirtland’s Warblers, although July is crappy time to be looking for birds).

Are there any must-see parks along the way? Any suggestions for routes to take or avoid? Should I go up through Michigan and through the UP to get to MN, or should I go through IL and WI? Other than getting to ND in time, time is not an issue.

The only driving trips I’ve taken have been in the mid-Atlantic up to Long Island, down to southern VA, and out to KY once (well, and some winter driving in IA, but I flew to Des Moines), so most everything will be new. I am a solo road trip virgin, so have at it!

Thanks for your tips.

Get yourself a GPS for your car if you don’t already have one. It will be worth more than its weight in gold on a trip like that. Even the $120 Garmin models work very well. You won’t ever be truly lost and it can tell you where to find the nearest hotels, food, bathrooms, or police if you need them.

Thanks! I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.

May be a good idea to have an anchor person somewhere that you can inform of the day’s agenda in the morning and check in with in the evening.

While in Minneapolis check out the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Very nice.

When I travel, alone or with others, I prefer to take my meals in little ma and pa type cafes. Usually the food is inexpensive, decent and typical of the locality, you can eavesdrop on the local gossip and they are generally friendly and helpful with ideas for places to visit and to stay. Truck stops are a good second choice. Not so much for the food as the fact that many of the knights of the road are helpful to women traveling alone. And many of them know the good places to visit as well.

If you have a car club membership (what do you guys call it, AAA?), you can go to them and get free travel books and maps for all the states you’re planning to visit. They are excellent for planning a trip; they have listings for sights to see, plus restaurants, and hotels for every area. The other thing we do when we visit the US is stop at an IHOP or someplace like that right away and get the coupon magazines they have there - there are awesome coupons in them for hotels.

Here’s another vote for getting a GPS. The Garmin Nuvi’s are nice - we have 2 of them. Go a step or 2 above the basic model, though - you want one that announces road names when it gives directions, at least. Our first one just said, “Turn left in 100 yards”. That little extra bit with the street name was useful, and that’s why we have 2 of them.

If you’re going to hike a bit, think hard about getting a handheld GPS, too. I have a Garmin E-trex, and it’s great to use when you’re on the trail. If you want a reason to stop here and there as you’re driving, go look into geocaching at It’s a high-tech treasure hunting game, basically. You use the handheld unit to find little stashes and caches hidden all around the world. You’d be amazed to find out how many are out there, probably within a mile or two of where you’re sitting right now.

I live in Michigan, and I recommend you come through here and across the UP. But if you’re coming through in July, stay away from Traverse City, MI. Normally I’d say “Come see my home town”, but in July, you may get here during the National Cherry Festival. The place will be gridlocked with tourists then, prices will be outrageous, and we won’t be at our best. Come during the off season, though, and we will try to show you a good time. BTW, Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI has a nice horse facility. I have no idea if dropins are allowed or encouraged, but I’ll throw that out there. And I work at MSU, so if you’re in the neighborhood, drop me a line, and I’ll buy you lunch.

The UP is gorgous, but plan on bugs. Bring bug spray and bug dope - lots of it. One time we were up there with scouts, and I heard 2 mosquitoes talking about the smallest boy. They were discussing eating him there, or taking him home for the kids.

Have decent, reliable transportation. Nothing sucks like breaking down on a lonely road, miles from nothing. It doesn’t have to be new, but don’t try this in a 15 year old beater with 200,000 miles on the clock.

Carry a cell phone and car charger, and some basic tools if you know how to use them.

And have fun! I’m jealous - a cross-country drive would be amazing, I think.

When heading south into CA:

The ancient redwoods you see in the car commercials are in a tiny patch called Avenue of the Giants, on 101, approx 50 miles south of Eureka.
And take 101/ CA 1 - do NOT do I-5 - it is a souless bypass of some really nice coastal driving. Take your time - even if you DO manage to pass the slow-moving truck, there is another one half a mile up. Relax and enjoy the sights

I’ve road tripped to each of the four corners of the lower 48 from the Midwest, and I think my favorite part was driving on I-70 from Denver through to I-15. SE Utah in the late afternoon/early evening was probably the most awe-inspiring section of the country. If you go that route, be aware that it’s also very isolated.

Thanks for all of the great feedback.

RalfCoder, I’ll definitely take you up on the offer for lunch with a Doper. I’ll let you know when my schedule is solidified.

TetheredKite, I can always use my parents as anchor people (they are already worrying!), as well as friends along the way.

I did the random cross country road trip 4 times in my college years. 15 years ago or so, leaving from the North East and getting as far as southern Alaska.

I don’t know about the GPS (hiking, maybe), but half the fun was getting lost on backroads, finding local diners and bars.

My recommendations, haul ass to get west of the Mississippi as fast as you can. You have a few things set near there, so have fun with that.

My favorites. The black hills in SD. Just lots of neat stuff, we always set up camp at a campground right near crazy horse and ventured out during the day. A place close to there called the Fort had good cheap buffets, and a petting zoo. First place I ever had a llama spit in my face, with a mouthful of food, and was chased by a turkey.

National parks because they are cheap. Yellowstone, pretty much on your way, that is a cool place. If you’re up in ND, and head south to SD, the badlands, devil’s tower (really not that exciting). Little big horn is right there(not overly exciting). And that drive across Montana is pretty, and some friendly people, but pretty fricken boring and really long.

I haven’t spent much time in Colorado, but Mesa Verde was really neat. From there the painted desert/pertrified forest is pretty close. Then you have the grand canyon which is really just a big hole in the ground. If you get that way,
I would try and hit the north side through Utah, much cooler stuff, Arches national park (worth the time), Zion, and some others I don’t remember the name of.

Norther Cali is worth a bit of time also, its pretty, Sequoia national park, and well, pretty much everywhere. I also enjoyed the Oregon and Washington coast lines.

Your options are pretty much endless. I’d pick a few spots you want to see, and leave some time in between in case you see something fun. I’d try and take as many back roads as possible. Highways just get boring, and you find some neat stuff on the backroads.

Roads to avoid, Chicago, all of it, if you decide to head around lake MI that way, do it at night or on a Sunday, and rt?? from salt lake to reno, it just sucks.

Wish I still had the time to go cruisin’ like that, have fun.

We loved the Crazy Horse memorial - we could have spent an entire day there (Mount Rushmore left us cold - sorry, but US American presidents didn’t move us much). If you like rocks, there’s a geological museum at a college town near Mr. Rushmore that was quite interesting. We love Yellowstone Park, too - it’s really something to see. Little Bighorn was also interesting, if you’re a history buff.

We haven’t made it as far as the Grand Canyon yet, but we did stop at Bryce Canyon in Utah, and would recommend it for the scenery.

Horsetech, I’m looking forward to it. I’ll send you a private message with contact information.

Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons are a must. But, during the summer months accommodations can be very hard to find. Have a AAA book and a GPS, and be prepared to look around for motel rooms. Still worth it though.

If you are planning on hitting very many National Parks (Which I would very much encourage you to do) the first thing to do is hit the NPS website and purchase an annual pass. It will save you money in just a few visits. (Actually, I believe it saves you money even if the only parks you visit are Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.)

I also have a great deal of fondness for the Explorer edition of the NPS Passport. It is fun to add to the number of stamps every time I visit a new park.

While I agree that the Badlands in South Dakota are well worth visiting, as well as Crazy Horse, I would highly recommend hitting the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. The South Unit is only a few hours to the west of Bismarck and is really beautiful.

If you are up to it, camping will be much cheaper than hotels, especially in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. I had no problem finding a campsite in the Grand Tetons for my tent, but the next I had a horrible time finding a hotel room. (I wouldn’t have bothered, but I had some health issues that made it a really good idea to be near a restroom. :()

Glacier National Park is utterly stunning, though Going To The Sun Road has some steep drop-offs near the road so must be driven very carefully.

Grand Teton National Park is breathtaking and is also quite close to Yellowstone; both are worth a visit and offer plenty of hiking from easy to tough, and plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities.