Updated: Jun 24, 2020
Going on a road trip around the United States is hands down one of the coolest adventures you will ever experience. The US has so much to offer. From the Mountains of the Rockies to the desert oases of Utah and Arizona. To the lakes of Minnesota, to the Green Mountains of Vermont, and so much more, every state has something new and breathtaking to offer.
In this post, we'll lay out exactly how we did our road trip around the United States in a month. What we packed, where went, and what you should expect. If you're considering taking the journey of a lifetime, this post will help guide your path.
30 Days. 112 Hours. 7,100 Miles, 20 Stops
That's the outline of our trip. 30 Days. One hundred twelve hours in the car. 7,100 Miles of highways and backroads, 20 unforgettable stops.
As you can see from the map, our starting and ending point was Lake Tahoe, Nevada. My girlfriend and I had just graduated from college, and we couldn't think of a better way to celebrate than seeing the country.
Of course, you likely won't follow our exact route, but this should give you a general idea of where to stop, what to see, and roads to take during your road trip around the United States.
The Planning Stage
Start by making a plan of how long you want to make your trip, and where you want to go (scroll down to get some good ideas). Then map it all out on Google Maps. You can only add 10 locations to one map, so you may have to open up several tabs like I had to in the plans above. Once you have this, print it off, or take a screenshot of it and keep it on your phone, this is your outline. Now, you can plan the full trip around this.
One of the most critical aspects of planning is where you are going to sleep. It's the worst thing to arrive at your destination as the sun is setting, and you have no idea where you're going to catch some shut-eye for the night. Not planning is planning to fail. In our case, we camped the majority of the time. If you don't currently have a tent, it's worth the small investment upfront to save on the hotels' costs every night. We invested in a Yakima Skyrise Rooftop Tent, and it worked wonders for us, but more on that later.
Anytime you're planning on camping in a National or State Park, you need to look ahead on the park website and reserve a camping spot well in advance, especially in the summertime, as they fill up fast. A night at a federally or state-regulated campsite will typically cost you anywhere from $15.00-$20.00 bucks. However, if you want to save some money, you can always check out freecampsites.net. The site looks a little outdated, but it's an excellent tool for finding free campsites worldwide. Just make sure you're reading the reviews as they're usually a good indicator of whether or not the campground is in good shape.
Most regulated campsites will have bathrooms, but it's rare to find any with showers, and 30 days on the road without showering is pretty gnarly. You might be okay with it, but your travel buddy sure isn't! Make sure you bring along some biodegradable soap that you can use to rinse off and freshen up in a lake for this reason. If bathing in a lake isn't for you, then It's important to factor in a few nights in hotels, or try to find some old friends that can host you for a night along the way. It's probably about time you had a beer with them!
The Packing Stage
The part that everyone dreads, packing. For starters, you're going to want a car that offers plenty of space. Did I mention we spent 112 hours driving in the car? In our case, with it just being the two of us, my Subaru Forester worked perfectly. Ensure you have enough space, plan out what you're going to pack, and how you're going to optimize the space you have. Start by writing down a list of things you need. Here are a few of the things that were on my list.
Spatula for grill
Pots and pans for the grill
Large water jug
Utensils- we have the plastic set
A container or two for organization
Flashlight(s) or headlamp
Map to be safe
Dish soap, sponge
Ibuprofen and aspirin
First aid kit
Camera, charger, tripod, lenses
Small Fold out table
NPS pass- pick up at the first park
Wet naps/ Hand Sanni
Oil - you're going to put a lot of mileage on your car
National Parks Pass - Can pick up at the first national park you stop at for $80.00
The list goes on. As you can see, it's no small feat to gather the gear you need for the trip, but once you have everything together, you'll be thankful for the work you put in. One thing to note, it's a very, very good idea to grab a couple of plastic storage containers and label each one for specific materials. You can use one for utensils, one for food, and another for essentials like flashlights, lighters, and first aid.
Once you have all of this, you're just about ready to go! Make sure you get your car into the shop before to ensure everything is good to go. It's probably a good idea to get an oil change before you leave as well.
Now, into the details of our trip. Read on to see places you need to visit, and our best suggestions for sleeping, hiking, and sightseeing.
Stop 1 - Craters of the Moon National Park, Idaho
Total Time Spent Here: 3 Hours
Rating (out of 10): 5/10
Our Suggestion: If you're near Central Idaho, it is certainly worth a stop, but I wouldn't go more than 2 hours out of your way to see it.
The first stop on our trip was Craters of the Moon National Park in Central Idaho. It's not hard to see where the park gets its name from, as the terrain is unique. Big boulders, caverns, and lava stone looking rocks surround the area.
While at the park, we were able to walk amongst the cave, climb a few of the viewpoints, and learn some history behind the lava fields. It was undoubtedly a refreshing first stop but didn't warrant more than a 3 hour stop.
Stop 2 - Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Total Time Spent Here: 2 Days
Rating (out of 10): 10/10
Our Suggestion: A Must See. Mountains, Wildlife, Beautiful Views. It's a surreal experience.
Where to Camp: Jenny Lake (Very Busy Site). Gros Ventre if Jenny Lake is not available.
After Craters of the Moon National Park, we made the drive over to Grand Teton National Park to set up camp for the next two days. We planned to camp out at the Gros Ventre campground in the Southeast corner of the park. Jenny Lake campground was in the preferred camping location but is only first come first serve. Since we arrived late, we decided to reserve a spot at Gros Ventre, which was more than sufficient for our needs.
On our first full day in Jackson, we got up with the sunrise and set out to do a hike up to Delta Lake. It was only about a 10-minute drive from Gros Ventre, and the fresh morning mountain air flowing into the car was all too refreshing on the way there.
The hike itself was 9 miles in total, with about 2400 feet of elevation gain. You can find the trail to Delta Lake by starting on Amphitheater Lake Trail. It can be a little challenging to find, as the path to Delta Lake is technically not maintained by the park's service, but it is a very popular trail, and there are usually locals in the area to help you spot the turn-off. I've laid out everything you need to know about getting to Delta Lake in another post here.
The hike took us about 4 or 5 hours in total, including the hour we spent hanging around and eating lunch at the Lake. After we got back to the car, we drove around a bit more to explore the park. There are only two main roads through the park, so it is pretty easy to find your way around.
We drove North by Jenny Lake, and up to a spot called Oxbow Bend - a beautiful viewpoint where the Snake River weaves around the landscape and is host to all sorts of wildlife looking to quench their thirst. If you're lucky, you might see some moose, eagles, or even bears, especially during sunset.
After exploring the park, we made our way back to camp. Along the way, we stopped to catch the Sunset at Mormon Row, a historic spot within the park lined with barns that offer some fantastic photo opportunities. Once we arrived at Mormon Row, we pulled out our Yakima SkyRise Rooftop Tent to get cozy and watch the sun disappear behind the mountains.
Buffalo frequent the areas surrounding Mormon row, so it would not be surprising if you see some of these friendly giants. Just don't get too close, they aren't always friendly giants.
During our second full day in the park, we felt the effects of the hike the day before, so we decided to keep it low key. We went and explored Jackson Hole Ski Resort, which offers tons of fun summer activities. After some shopping and playing some disc golf on the mountain, we grabbed some refreshments at the Mangy Moose.
After exploring Jackson Hole, we set out with the goal to see a Moose. We drove around Moose Wilson road - a narrow road appropriately named for common Moose sitings. However, as it was mid-day, we didn't have much luck (the best times to see them is morning and evening).
We ended the day by catching the Sunset at Oxbow bend, again hoping to see a moose. Although the sunset was beautiful and we did see a beaver, we didn't see any moose.
It wasn't until we were driving back to our camp spot that a Moose darted out of the woods right in front of our car. Holy ironic. Keep your eyes out for wildlife whenever driving in the park!
Stop 3 - Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Total Time Spent Here: 3 Hours
Rating (out of 10): 6/10
Our Suggestion: If you're near South Dakota, it is certainly worth a stop, but I wouldn't go more than 3 hours out of your way to see it.
After Grand Tetons, we continued to make our way east towards Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The Badlands consists of crazy rock formations, spires, and canyons. It is a mind-blowing sight to see, and it makes you wonder how the terrain can be so different from state to state.
The main thing to do in the Badlands is drive-through and stop at some of the overlooks. The image above is from the many viewpoints. There are only a few main roads that weave around the park, so it is pretty easy to find your way around.
There are some hiking trails, but with minimum shade and some scorching temperatures, we decided to stay in our air-conditioned car. Instead, we continued the sightseeing journey by driving along the Badlands Loop Scenic State Scenic Byway throughout the park.
Spending about 3 hours here sightseeing and driving around was enough time for us to feel like we got to take in a reasonable amount of the scenery and experience the park.
**If you haven't seen Mount Rushmore, it is not very far out of the way from Grand Tetons to the Badlands and is worth a quick stop**
Stop 4 - Minneapolis, Minnesota
Total Time Spent Here: 3 Days
Rating (out of 10): 6/10
Our Suggestion: It is a good spot to find a hotel or friend's house where you can crash on the couch and use a shower.
Ahh, the land of 10,000 Lakes. Who wouldn't want to stop at a place with 10,000 Lakes? We have some family in Minnesota, so our stop here likely looks different from yours, but we'll lay out some good ideas.
First things first, shower! After spending a few days in the woods, Minneapolis is an excellent time to find a hotel, or track down an old friend, and take advantage of the access to showers before you're in the woods again unless you went the alpine lakes bathing route already!
If you haven't seen Mall of America, you should probably add that onto your list. Whether you're a fan of malls or not, it's a sight to see. Waterparks, Aquariums, Roller Coasters, and so much more all combined into one giant mall. If that doesn't scream America, well then I just don't know what does.
Next, find a lake to hang out and kickback. Did I mention there are 10,000 lakes? Enjoy some downtime and recharge before you hit the road again.
If you've got some extra budget, you could always check to see if the Twins are playing and good catch a ball game, walk the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi River, Stroll through the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, or check out the Minnehaha Falls.
Stop 5 - The Windy City, Chicago
Total Time Spent Here: 3 Hours
Rating (out of 10): 6/10
Our Suggestion: Check out Cloud Gate and try some famous Deep Dish Pizza.
Just a 6-hour ride from Minneapolis, Chicago, was a quick stop on our list. As we made our way around Lake Michigan, it was not too far out of the way, so we figured why not.
We ran into some initial traffic heading into the city, as expected. Once we made it into the city, it was pretty easy to navigate to Cloud Gate in Millennium Park, otherwise known as the famous Chicago Bean. There were tons of tourists and pedestrians alike, but we still managed to snap some good photos and admire the sunset gleaming off of the reflective sculpture and surrounding buildings.
After seeing the bean, we walked a few blocks over to Giordano's to indulge in some deep dish pizza that we have heard so much about. All we can say is holy filling. No need to get a large size!
Once we got our pizza fix, we continued our travels up to Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan, where we had reserved a camping spot for the night.