Back on the Road!
Covid really threw a wrench in everyone’s plans and aspirations for 2020. Although we were very fortunate compared to many people around the country and the world, we were impacted as well. We were disappointed that our 5 month trip to Latin America was cancelled this year in March after months of planning. When all was said and done, we lost a couple thousand dollars, plus hundreds of hours spent calling to cancel everything and trying to recoup as many of the costs as possible. After spending March-July at home and quarantined away from everyone, we couldn’t wait to hit the road again. An extended US road trip to see many of the national parks throughout the country has been in the back of my mind for years, but with air travel limited and potentially dangerous, this summer seemed like a good time to embark on it.
Our goal was to stay to ourselves and outdoors as much as possible while still enjoying an awesome new adventure, experiencing some of the best sights the country has to offer. We decided on an 8 week trip based on all we wanted to see and the timeline we had available. Initially we thought the best way to do that would just be to take a tent and camp in the national parks, but with limited camping experience and such a long trip, that didn’t see like a good idea. Instead, we decided to buy a mini-van, take out the seats, and build a platform to sleep on in the back! Even this was well outside of our comfort zones, but we were up for the challenge. Nights in the van were interspersed with occasional hotels, Airbnbs, and staying with friends and family so that we could shower and regroup. We also decided to get Planet Fitness memberships to be able to stop for showers on the road sometimes, which ended up being vital for long stretches of nights in the van. Besides being able to keep to ourselves more, another advantage of sleeping in the van most nights was the reduced cost of accommodations. On last year’s road trip accommodation costs were actually our single biggest expense, so any savings there was welcomed.
Road Trip Overview
We left on August 7th and returned home on October 1st. The full itinerary is outlined below:
- Roanoke VA to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
- Cuyahoga & Cleveland
- Ohio to Michigan
- Northern Michigan
- Michigan (Upper Peninsula)
- Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
- Tahquamenon Falls
- Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
- Duluth, MN
- Voyageurs NP
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
- South Dakota
- Mount Rushmore
- Crazyhorse Memorial
- Custer State Park
- Wind Cave National Park
- Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming
- Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
- 2 days at Yellowstone
- Glacier National Park, Montana
- 2 days at Glacier
- Montana to Washington
- Drive thru Spokane, WA
- Arrive North Cascades NP
- North Cascades NP
- Mount Rainier National Park
- Poulsbo/Seattle, WA
- 2 days Poulsbo/Seattle area
- Olympic National Park, Washington
- Washington to Oregon
- Stop in Portland, Oregon
- Arrive Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
- Crater Lake, OR
- Redwood National Park
- Redwood to Lassen
- Stop in Redding
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Lassen to Yosemite
- Drive thru Sacramento
- 2 Full days @ Yosemite National Park
- Kings Canyon NP
- Sequoia NP
- Pinnacles National Park
- Monterey/Salinas, CA
- Pacific Coast Highway
- Drive along coast thru: San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura
- Channel Islands NP
- Los Angeles
- Death Valley
- Las Vegas, NV
- 4 nights in Vegas
- Carlsbad/San Diego, CA
- 3 nights in Carlsbad/San Diego
- La Quinta/Joshua Tree NP
- Petrified Forest
- Saguaro NP
- New Mexico
- White Sands NP
- Carlsbad Caverns NP
- El Paso
- Guadalupe Mountains NP
- Big Bend NP
- Hot Springs NP
- Back home to Virginia!
In total, this amounted to 12,800 miles in 8 weeks! We visited 28 national parks as well as several national monuments and state parks across the country. We also spent 30 of the 55 nights sleeping in the back of the mini-van!
Stay tuned for Whitney’s next article where she will detail what we did throughout the road trip, and include more of the awesome pictures we took! Until then, I’m going to focus on discussing the expense breakdown of the trip.
I really didn’t have any idea what my expenses would be like for this trip with spending so many nights in the van but driving an insane amount. I concluded that anything less than $2,500 in total would be a win considering I spent over $1,200 in 3 weeks on last year’s road trip.
Here’s what my expenses actually ended up looking like for this trip (keeping in mind these are just my expenses, with many of the costs split between Whitney and me):
- Besides the 30 nights sleeping in the van on public land or in private parking lots for free, we were fortunate enough to be able to stay with friends and family in a few spots along the trip, which saved us some money. We redeemed some hotel points for one of our stays and got significant discounts on some other hotel nights. Surprisingly I only spent slightly more on lodging this year in 8 weeks than I did in 3 weeks on our last road trip.
- This was actually my biggest expenses this year which was a surprise. I thought for certain that the gas expense would be higher than food, with almost 13,000 miles driven. One of my goals for this trip was to not gain any weight on the road. Every long trip that Whitney and I have taken we come back heavier from eating out some much. This year we avoided fast food as much as possible which cost much more. To my delight, I actually came home weighing less this year despite eating some really awesome food along the way (mostly because we were hiking so much)!
- Part of the reason for choosing the mini-van over a full size van was for the improved gas mileage. We averaged about 28 miles/gallon which was better than I anticipated but with all the ground covered on this trip, spending a lot on gas was inevitable.
- This amount includes a variety of expenses. Some of these were entry fees to state parks and attractions, ferries, service for our satellite phone, and materials to build the platform in the back of our van. We bought our annual national park pass on the last trip so it was still valid until the end of September, which was perfect and saved us money. Since most of our “entertainment” was hiking and free sight-seeing this year, we spent relatively little in this category.
Total Spent on the Road Trip: $2,016 (~$37/day)*
*Keep in mind that these expenses are just for my half of the trip and do not include Whitney’s half or what she spent along the way!
Of all the trips we’ve ever taken, including five months in Asia in 2018 and four months in Europe in 2019, this was my favorite! We saw so many indescribably beautiful sights in such a short period of time. We ended up hiking over 310 miles at various places around the country on this trip, which was well worth it for the views. It was a whirlwind of driving and hiking, but exactly the adventure I was hoping for when we started planning it.
Sleeping in the van went much better overall than I thought it would. With that being said, by the end we were both ready to be back home in our own bed! The van did very well with all of the driving and we only had one close call in the Redwoods. A giant branch fell off of one of the trees while we were driving underneath it. It landed within a foot in front of us and damaged the plastic on the front of the van as we drove over it, but luckily it was all cosmetic damage. It was a scary experience, but we felt very fortunate knowing that it could have easily been much worse. If we’d been driving just slightly faster the van would have undoubtedly been totaled and our trip would have been cut very short!
This definitely won’t be our last road trip in the van but future trips will probably be in the 4-6 week range. 3 weeks last year was too short, but 8 weeks this year was a little too long. Somewhere in between should be just about perfect for us. After this trip, we’ve now been to 45/50 states and 38 of the 62 US National Parks! We are eager to visit the rest of the states and National Parks, as well as return to some of our favorites in the future!
Would you attempt a road trip like this?? Let us know in the comments!!