We were at a campsite once with our beloved StarCraft pop-up camper when a gentleman wandered over to chat. He remembered taking a long summer trip in a StarCraft pop-up with his own dad some five decades earlier, and you could hear in his voice and see in his face how much it meant it to him. Just the sight of our modest little pop-up brought back such a flood of fond nostalgic memories for him, it was actually quite moving. Imagine packing up your camper for an epic summer adventure that you hope your family will remember for the rest of their lives! His father had achieved that. We wanted the same: to head out for some adventure and to make the memories that we hope will stay with our kids – in a fond way – for many years.
Fast forward to the summer of 2019, and that’s exactly what we did: we packed up our travel trailer and set off from Florida to explore the West. Our Epic Road Trip was a fantastic experience! I wanted to share some of our route, itinerary and experiences in the hopes it might help or inspire you as you plan your own USA road trip of a lifetime.
First, here are some stats from our trip:
- 6 people staying together in a
- 33′ Forest River Surveyor 295QBLE travel trailer for
- 41 days at
- 22 different overnight destinations passing through
- 24 states and visiting
- 8 National Parks while traveling
- 8563.1 miles in a
- 2003 GMC Yukon XL that guzzled
- more than 1000 gallons of gas! (oof!)
And these were our amazing highlight destinations:
- Washington, D.C.
- Badlands National Park, SD
- Wind Cave National Park, SD
- Custer State Park, SD
- Pompey’s Pillar, MT
- Mount Rushmore, SD
- Devils Tower National Monument, WY
- Yellowstone National Park
- Grand Teton National Park, WY
- Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
- Zion National Park, UT
- Grand Canyon National Park – North Rim, AZ
- Monument Valley, AZ
- Horseshoe Bend, AZ
- Great Pink Coral Sand Dunes State Park, UT
- Four Corners, NM
- Hot Springs National Park, AR
I will be sharing posts about each of these locations with lots more photos and tips so please subscribe if you’d like to get a brief email when I publish a new post!
We booked most of our overnight stops several months in advance for the main part of our trip near National Parks (we couldn’t actually stay inside any) in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah and Arizona. We wanted flexibility on our way home as we didn’t know how many miles per day we would want to travel so we booked those as we went.
A common and reasonable guideline for RV road trippers is to be at your destination after 300 miles of driving or by 3 PM, whichever comes first. It’s not a bad idea, and we generally stuck to it, but you’ve got to have some flexibility along the way. Some travel days will be more, and some less – you may get a late start some days too. I found it really helpful to have a few potential stops along the way in mind in case kids get restless – I really like Atlas Obscura for this as we found some super interesting sites along our route we would not have known about otherwise, such as Porter Sculpture Park in South Dakota and Falmouth Spring in northern Florida.
For this trip, our family of six set off from the Tampa Bay area and headed north to Washington DC. Not exactly out west but three of our kids had a competition there so that was our first destination. We spent one night in Georgia at a KOA and one (free) night at a Thousand Trails resort in North Carolina on our way there. And of course, we had to stop at South of the Border, which is wonderfully tacky and kitsch but has an impressive reptile exhibit.
We spent five days in Washington DC focused on the technology competition before finally setting off westward. I did get to spend one wonderful day exploring DC with my 8-year-old which involved not only the first Uber ride for both of us but also a lot of walking – about 10 miles! We meandered from the US Supreme Court to the Capitol Building to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and beyond. There is so much to see and do here for all ages!
As we weren’t sure exactly what time the conference would finish and how far we could get from DC, we needed some flexibility in where we would stay that night so we used our super helpful Harvest Hosts membership and found a wonderful organic farm in the hills of Pennsylvania to stay at for what felt like the first real night of our road trip. Read about some of our 2019 Harvest Hosts experiences here! Then when you’re ready to join for access to this network of free places to stay for a night, use this referral link to get 15% off! It makes it much easier to plan a road trip!
We stopped at the lovely Pokegon State Park in Indiana for a night before heading to see friends in Iowa for a few days. The advantage of stopping earlier in the day is that you have a chance to enjoy and explore your surroundings. We got to visit Pokegon’s nature center and bird blind, swim at the beach on the lake, enjoy a ranger-led interpretative program about area turtles, find a snake along a hiking trail and play at the playground. Not to mention the campfire and s’mores!
We had an amazing time with our dear friends in Iowa – and if you check out Michelle’s blog at Simplify, Live, Love, you’ll see why! Stunning sunsets, lots of space and… chickens! My kids were enamored with all the farm animals!
Soon it was time for us to head further west…. We traveled from Iowa to a city park on the river for the night in South Sioux City, Nebraska, continuing along I-10 west to get to the stunning Badlands National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota where we stayed for two nights. This is a gorgeous park with amazing geology and great hiking. And bighorn sheep! Did you know a large ram can weigh in at as much as 300 pounds?!
Then we moved to nearby Custer State Park, which is an absolute must-see in my book. Spectacular! It should be a national park. I’d go back in a heartbeat. I cannot adequately express how much you need to add this destination to your travel plans. The 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road is fabulous. From the bison, to the swimming, the scenery, the burros, this park is just an absolute gem.
We continued westward… We had to take into account the fact that we were towing a 33′ travel trailer and that was why we opted to get to Yellowstone via the north entrance instead of the famous east entrance, which is supposed to be one of America’s most stunning roadways. We had only two full days at Yellowstone and did not get to travel this scenic road so we have something new to look forward to next time. We drove through to the west entrance, where we stayed for three nights. The national park campground that could accommodate our trailer was closed for summer renovations. Our place was nice, but it does take an extra 30-45 minutes or so to just get well into and out of the park each day so take that into consideration. I would love to stay inside the park next time, get up super early and drive out to Lamar Valley for some wildlife viewing. My dream is to spot some bear or wolves there! The geology here is fantastic and iconic, of course, truly a wonder to behold!
From Yellowstone, we had just a short trip to the majestic Grand Tetons for a couple of nights. We saw a mom and baby moose!! I was so excited. The hiking was good, lakes were beautiful, weather was fantastic, we really could not have asked for better.
We also went over to Jackson Hole for a day to do some white water rafting on the Snake River for a special excursion that we all LOVED! We had an excellent experienced guide who not only kept us entertained but also safe. Given that we witnessed a raft full of Girl Scouts flip over, and had to paddle on over to help haul some sopping cold shivering girls into our boat, this was important! Highly recommend a rafting trip! What a thrill!
We headed south to Utah, spending just one night at Deer Creek State Park where we got to meet up with some old friends who we lived with in Paris back in the days before kids, before getting to Bryce Canyon. I have fond memories of visiting this unique park as a teen and being able to share it with my own kids was fantastic. Those hoodoos are just stunning, the colors of the landscape are striking, the hiking was doable for everyone in the family, and the July weather was perfect.
From there, it was a quick hop to Zion National Park, which is a beautiful space that everyone should see. I am not one to have even the slightest desire to climb Angels Landing – a trail with sheer drop-offs and a chain bolted into the cliff edge for you to cling to (I feel dizzy and get sweaty palms just typing that!) – but we all had fun hiking down The Narrows.
We drove down to Jacob Lake to meet back up with our friends from Iowa so we had a beautiful base from which to explore the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, before heading to Horseshoe Bend and Monument Valley.
Once we parted ways, we relied again on Harvest Hosts for some great overnight stays as we made our way back toward Florida. Only one National Park was left on our journey: Hot Springs in Arkansas. Other than that, we had a few long driving days to get back home and get ready to go back to….. SCHOOL. Gah!
In case you were wondering how we could travel for 41 days: my husband is a software engineer who has worked from home for some 20 years so he just worked on the road instead. He did take some time off but was also available when needed. He usually started driving for a couple of hours in the morning on our longer travel days, then we’d switch and I would drive the rest of the way while he’d jostle with his laptop in the passenger seat, sighing and groaning and exclaiming about every pot hole and bump that we hit as if I had placed them there myself. It was entertaining! Apparently writing code in a moving vehicle has many challenges. But he managed. And yes, this country needs some infrastructure work! (And I simply did not take on any birth doula clients during this period.)
Now to start planning the next epic adventure! While I would absolutely love to go all the way out to my home state of California and up the entire Pacific Coast, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. I’m thinking maybe the northeast should be our next trip, possibly up to Acadia National Park. None of us has been in that part of the country at all. Where would YOU like to go?
Happy planning, enjoy the journey and be safe! And come back to Meander With Us soon to check out my upcoming post with tips on HOW I plan a road trip like this, our favorite apps while we’re on the road and more!