The Great American Road Trip
February 2, 2012 9:38 AM   Subscribe

Two Canadians road-trippin' in the USA in May. A few questions. Itinerary suggestions welcome.

Okay, so the Mrs. and I are heading down to Vegas for a business workshop May 15. We're heading out from Northern Alberta, Canada, driving our small car. We are photographers and plan on stopping as needed for landscape photos and other Americana. We're also planning to bring camping gear and mixing up camping with (cheap?) hotel stays.

The workshop will eat up most of a week, but we've added her vacation time on to the end, so we have an additional two weeks to road trip around the Southwest before heading back. We definitely want to see the Grande Canyon, but that's about it for sure.

We're really, really flexible in what we're going to do. Making it out to LA or SoCal would be cool, as would dipping more into Arizona, New Mexico, or even Mexico. We also considered looping back up the West Coast through California and Oregon. Like I said, we're totally flexible at this point. Here's a prelim map of one possible itinerary.

We're a little concerned that it will still be very early in the season (ie. winter) and this may limit what we can get up to. Also, we're into epic landscapes, natural and archaeological history, delicious food, and things like that.

So, our questions:

- Where would YOU go on a trip like this?
- What kind of things should we not miss? (museums, national parks, quirky roadside attractions, greasy spoon diners?)
- Can anyone recommend some bitchin' camping or awesome hotels we should check out?
- Any other road-trippin' tips or suggestions?

posted by hamandcheese to Travel & Transportation around West Palm Beach, FL (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: D'oh! I meant to say March 15, not May.
posted by hamandcheese at 9:43 AM on February 2, 2012

Best answer: Let me be the first to suggest US 101 to get from San Francisco up to Washington state. Interstate 5 is okay up that way but doesn't come anywhere close to the natural beauty you'll see hugging the coastline.

Some friends made a 3-day vacation a few years ago just driving up the coast on the 101 and had a great time.
posted by AgentRocket at 9:45 AM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Zion National Park is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It's about 2 1/2 hours from Vegas by car. Closer (and by no means beautiful, but fascinating) is Death Valley.
posted by ubiquity at 9:47 AM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I came here to say what AgentRocket said, only I'll leave you with a link to my question about driving from Seattle to SF. (It was awesome.)
posted by desjardins at 9:47 AM on February 2, 2012

Best answer: You see where I70 dead ends in I15 in Utah? Head east on I70, drop down to Hanksville, UT, then head west again on UT 12 through Capital Reef, on down to Bryce. Trust me on this. Then continue down to Zion. Holy crap do NOT miss southern Utah.

Death valley, on your way back north, will already be hot, but rather awesome.

And either do Yellowstone (although it will still be mostly snowed in), or Yosemite (which will not be open from the east). THere's a reason they're classics.
posted by notsnot at 9:48 AM on February 2, 2012

Absolutely visit northern AZ/ southern UT. Some of the most beautiful places on earth, and will really amaze you.
posted by Monkeyswithguns at 9:49 AM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

March? Eek, nemmind Yellowstone. Pretty much plan to drive straight through until you get to southern Utah. On clear roads, it should be about 16 hours drive from the US/Canada border to the I70 turn.

I've been to Zion in March. The high-canyon hikes are snowed in, but there's plenty of scenery. Bryce is f-f-f-f-fuckin' cold, still, but if you get a clear day it's really awsome with snow. UT-12 should be clear.

And Death Valley is, to disagree with ubiquity, beautiful. It's a raw beauty, but as photogs, you'll appreciate it. Late march will be perfect timing for any wildflowers that may occur (varies year to year).
posted by notsnot at 9:53 AM on February 2, 2012

I can only speak for the West Coast drive, having done it twice in the last few years. It is unspeakably beautiful, and totally worth doing. From Calgary we typically drive to BC, cross the border in Osoyoos, take the Cascade Highway to Seattle (stunning and mysterious), then turn south. You will hit the redwood forest which is a must see.

On the way back, we once headed up from Nevada through southern Idaho and it was also much more impressive than I had imagined. Parts of southern Idaho look like Mars in color and terrain. I could not believe there is not a coffee table book somewhere about it. I am not a photographer, but if I was I'd be in heaven.

In fact, having seen what little I have of the US, and much of Canada, I must say they won the geographic lottery hands down. Within an hour of driving you can be in a vastly different and stunning landscape.
posted by tatiana131 at 9:55 AM on February 2, 2012

Best answer: (if you want to see what March in southern Utah looks like see my flickr link here.
Death Valley in a particularly colorful wildflower year looks like this.)
posted by notsnot at 9:55 AM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have a look around the following web sites:

Road Trip USA. Of especial interest may be two of the the itineraries they've already plotted out, called Border to Border and Pacific Coast -- it looks those two routes put together nearly match your anticipated itinerary. What I loved about this site (which I got in paper-book form ten years ago) is that they stick to the smaller back roads, and do a great job of letting you know about the tiny restaurants, weird roadside attractions, hotels, and even radio stations along the way; they also do a good job of letting you know "after this town there's no gas station for 90 miles, so stock up now," or "the back road here takes you through some really ugly strip malls for miles, so here's your chance to get onto the Interstate for a while, blow past them, and then rejoin the route further on". (Note: within each itinerary on their page, they break it down into sections, so you can pick and choose which legs of their itineraries you want to do.)

Roadside America is more exhaustive and skews more to the weird, but it's also crowd-sourced, so it may be hit-or-miss. But you can pick and choose from the travel tips and generate your own maps with your own flagged destinations on it, from amid their staggering list of recommendations.


And now for my own suggestions:

* I actually prefered Zion Canyon and the Arches National Park to the Grand Canyon. That may be, however, because I was kind of being dragged along with my family through the Grand Canyon and we stuck to the more heavily-touristed areas, and in the other two I was more on my own and could I what I damn well wanted.

* YOSEMITE. I cannot stress that enough.

* Hearst Castle was honestly more fascinating than I thought it would be.

* Do at least SOME of the stretch along the Pacific Coast; ideally the stretch through what is known as "Big Sur", which is roughly from where Hearst Castle is (San Simeon, CA) up to San Francisco. There's even an inn you can stay at in Big Sur which is fairly affordable, but gorgeous as all hell, and has amazing views. (The best photograph I've ever taken in my life was a view from their Parking lot -- I followed this little path about ten yards into the woods past a storage shed, turned a corner, and it looked like I was in flippin' RIVENDELL.)

* There's a weird little state park north of Las Vegas called Valley of Fire, that's worth a day trip -- an unusual and specific series of features conspire to make a landscape that will make you swear that somehow you've stepped through a cosmic wormhole and are now on Mars.

* Don't rule out Vegas in its own right -- the kitsch factor can make it an absolutely fascinating place to do people-watching. I went under similar circumstances (a friend is a reporter and was covering a convention, and I mooched the other half of his free hotel room), and we did almost no gambling on his down time -- instead we were wandering around with our eyes bugging out of our heads and pointing out things like, "dude, look, they've got animatronic gladiator teddy bears in the CAESAR'S PALACE window."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:59 AM on February 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I love you Metafilter.
posted by hamandcheese at 10:00 AM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Notsnot has it nailed. You will not want to miss the NP's of southern Utah, and in total, they will enhance your enjoyment of the Grand Canyon if not blow it away, as others have said.
The Cali/Oregon/Wa coast is epic as well, but super super windy (as in shaped like a snake) in many places, so have a care if there are car sickness issues.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:09 AM on February 2, 2012

Morro Bay south of Hearst Castle is pretty awesome.
posted by just sayin at 10:13 AM on February 2, 2012

Best answer: Aw, there is so much to see! I don't know if it should make it onto your list since it is basically a full day of driving, but driving across Southern Utah from Zion NP to Moab (Arches and Canyonlands NPs) via a route that included Highway 12 was one of the highlights of my Southwest road trip last year. That road... for sheer QUANTITY of SCENERY, I've never seen anything like it. Zion NP is amazing and photogenic as all get-out, Arches was great too, didn't really get the chance to spend a lot of time in Canyonlands.

At the Grand Canyon, you should check out the Kolb Studio, which belonged to a pair of brothers who made a career of photographing and filming the Grand Canyon in the early 20th century. (It's at the South Rim.)
posted by mskyle at 10:15 AM on February 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, don't take the 5 through central California--either the 101 or the 99 to the East will be more interesting and photogenic. The 5 only exists for speed of travel.

On the coast up in Cambria, a private tour of W.R. Hearst's junkman's Nitt Witt Ridge folk art environment is a great offset to the luxury of Hearst Castle (my own photos are here).
posted by Scram at 10:23 AM on February 2, 2012

Newport, Oregon: Do you eat seafood? Eat here. Googly Map.

Take the Pacific Coast Highway (California 1/US 101) up the coast, not I-5. 101 goes through the Redwoods, which are bucket list worthy.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:27 AM on February 2, 2012

I camped at the Grand Canyon in early May and never been so cold in all my life. Well, not in May anyway. We totally underestimated how cold the mountains get at night. Be prepared for cold-weather camping and higher altitudes. You're probably not as naive as I was since you live in northern Alberta, but I assumed Arizona = warm enough to camp with regular summer gear in May, but I was wrong.
posted by soelo at 10:34 AM on February 2, 2012

I think your sample map hits everything pretty well, but I would consider altering it slightly to swing aroung the north side of Grand Canyon and stop in Page, AZ for a tour of Antelope Canyon. It's a photographer's dream.

Also the route from Phoenix to San Diego might be shifted north somehow so that you take in the Mojave and Johsua Tree, maybe.

Oh, and LA to SF should be done along the coast if possible.
posted by dzot at 11:03 AM on February 2, 2012

Response by poster: Okay, I've tweaked our map with some of these suggestions. More input is totally welcome. We especially appreciate the links posted so far.
posted by hamandcheese at 11:32 AM on February 2, 2012

Best answer: You spelled hostels wrong.

My favorite part of traveling is meeting people, and I have never met anyone in a hotel. I have met SO MANY COOL PEOPLE in hostels. Including Canadians who have given me beer.

So I can't recommend any specific hostels out that way, but I do highly recommend hostels in general. (biased fact, I am in a hostel right now)
posted by Folk at 9:01 PM on February 2, 2012

Nthing the Utah parks, but my personal favorite is Bryce Canyon, by far.
posted by ktkt at 1:18 AM on February 3, 2012

YES. Hostels.

If you only do one, stay at the one near Yosemite (and you ARE going to Yosemite now, right?) - it's got a good mix of group-and-private accomodations, it's only about 15 minutes' drive from Yosemite (so you don't have to fight for accomodations in the park proper), it's cheap, and it's one of the only hostels I've stayed in that actually serves wine in the restaurant. And I got into a fantastic conversation with a mathematician from Belfast and a geographer from Norway one night where we basically just sat around shooting the shit; that kind of thing just HAPPENS in hostels. It's fantastic.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:37 AM on February 3, 2012

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