The American Road Trip. Just how easy is it. If you actually need an answer to that question, let me tell you: it’s ridiculously easy. So easy in fact, that we’ve driven around more of the place than we have our home country, and we’ve actually just booked another trip there for this coming November. Frankly, there really isn’t any other way to do the US. Unless you’re flying from city to city spending a few days here and there, the roads are where the US experience is truly at.
I have one word to sum up the US when travelling: CONVENIENCE. Exploring the US requires minimal planning. There is food and accommodation available pretty much everywhere (although note the below exceptions relating to trendy cities and crowded tourist destinations). You can go pretty much wherever your whim takes you. And that is actually one of the main reasons we decided to have our next vacation there. Too lazy to research and organize a new destination, we instead picked out a new part of the US that we haven’t yet had the pleasure of exploring – the East – so continuing our ongoing tour of America’s National Parks – the Great Smoky Mountains – including a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Driving in the US is pretty easy overall if you’re travelling long distances. The interstate highways connect major (and even not so major) cities. The speed limit is generally 70mph –even hitting 80mph in Texas. So if you need to cover a serious distance in a couple days and are content bouncing from one fast food joint to the next, the I’s will get you there. However, if you want to experience some of the more beautiful aspects of this vast country (and time is not a major factor) consider trying some of the smaller roads. The US is really good at tagging its scenic routes – all you need to do is look out for the “Scenic Byway” label. We discovered this on our very first US road trip travelling from Las Vegas to New Orleans and back again – in the big road atlas we had purchased, those Scenic Byways are identified by a series of green dots. The levels of “scenicness” are of course varied, but if you have the choice and you can spare the time – always take the Byway.
Three Week American Road Trip Itinerary
Our September 2016 road trip took us up to the North-West from Seattle across to Yellowstone National Park and back again. We generally always do a loop to avoid the one-way car hire fee – but because of the vastness of the country the loop concept actually works quite well – you don’t always have to choose between the high road OR the low road – you can do both. September is shoulder season in that part of the world – and we certainly came across the reality of that description during our first stops in Glacier National Park. Glacier has a very short season making it super busy during the warmest summer months, something we were trying to avoid due to a lack of patience for slow tourists and insufferable numbers. Of course, there’s a reason the summer months are so busy – increasing your chances of decent weather and stunning views means accepting the mandatory crowds. In September, the weather starts to wain meaning it could go either way and for us it went the way of rain and mist – which for those who know mountains, know that that means low visibility, miserable hiking conditions and diminished scenery. The roads in the park were still busy and we still managed a pretty hike reaching snow-covered trails on the second day – but unfortunately we did not get to experience the dramatic views that I had been drooling over via the internet for months before. A final tip – even during shoulder season, accommodation at Glacier was still difficult to come by, and is one of the exceptions to my confident generalization: “America: The Convenient.”
We continued east to Yellowstone, only to experience sunburn on day 1 and snow (yes, SNOW) on day 2. Yellowstone would have to be one of the more accessible US National Parks – easy to drive to, and many of the attractions can be viewed from your car, or following a short amble along a boardwalk to see the sulphuric springs and geysers. Of course, the fact that car touring is so easy and popular means that you are likely to be stuck in traffic for a good portion of the park – particularly when there are so many bear and bison sightings to slow down for. You will get stuck behind people pulled over on the side of the road pointing a long lens camera out the driver’s side window – we found this even during shoulder season (although note Yellowstone’s tourist seasons are not so restrictive as Glacier’s).
It’s easy to focus on the more well-known national parks and tourist destinations where you’re in the US – so remember to consult your map and consider what’s between you and the next big city before you decide to jump back on the Interstate. Idaho for example – perhaps not the most well known tourist destination for non-Americans (or perhaps even for locals). However, that skinny-topped state is in fact filled with hiking and rafting opportunities – and even ski vacations in the winter months. We stayed at a little ski-town called Ketchum near Sun Valley – and used this as a base to go hiking in the Sawtooth National Forest. We even talk about potentially going back there some day to test out the little ski runs. As with many American towns these days, Ketchum had its’ own brew-pub and craft beers were readily available. A warning to the foreign tourist – particularly those accustomed to drinking & buying alcohol as a teenager – the US is strict with its ID policy, pretty much regardless of how old you are/look. We were constantly ID-ed – and were even refused service in one place where the bartender refused to accept our Australian drivers’ license.
Eventually, we looped back towards Mount Hood with the intention of stopping for a night or two in Portland for a bit of trendy civilization. This idea was soon dashed however, after checking the price of accommodation – the disparity between city and small town accommodation is significant. Not that desperate to see another big city, no matter how trendy, we decided against the Portland side trip, and continued north for a short hike at Mount Rainier before stopping for a final few (also expensive) nights in Seattle. I’m sure to be admonished for this, but I can’t say Seattle was my favourite city. It too, was expensive, had a serious downtown (not dissimilar to a bolder, trendier version of Melbourne in fact) and it was almost impossible to get dinner without a reservation (PS, when did dinner reservations become mandatory in cities??). I will admit, the city itself was pretty, surrounded as it is by piney-green forests, hills and waterways, but for me, there’s no reason to rush back.
Top Tips American Road Trip
- If you’re indecisive, crave flexibility, are not in a rush and love fast food – road-tripping USA might just be for you.
- If you’re short on time, take the I. If not, make friends with the Scenic Byways.
- Alcoholics: carry your ID.
- There’s a reason some national parks are popular. Pack your patience.
- If you’re hitting a lot of national parks, buy the annual park pass. Unless you’re only visiting a single park, it will pay for itself in no time.