Help us plan our trans-American odyssey!
August 12, 2013 10:05 PM   Subscribe

A friend and I are planning a month-long roadtrip down the West coast of the United States - starting in Oregon, and possibly going so far as to cross Texas and finish up in Louisiana somewhere - to take place sometime in the new year, and we'd appreciate some advice in re: must-sees and logistics.

First up, the big questions - is a month a reasonable timeframe for this kind of trek? We're both Australian, and so somewhat used to absurd distances, but regardless it'll be the longest overland journey we've either of us been on. And in terms of budget, excluding airfare, what would be a ballpark figure to save towards individually? 150USD/day? I anticipate the big expenses as accommodation, food, and petrol - anything I'm overlooking? And as to getting a car for the journey, would we be best off buying something at the beginning of our journey and selling it at journey's end, or going with some kind of a rental?

Logistics aside, we've got friends in Portland and SF, so will definitely be stopping there - but everything else is pretty much up in the air. We're both interested in "weird America" stuff, as a guideline, as well as music and eating heartily. Is a detour into Mexico worth it? Any other miscellaneous advice for the journey? Thanks so much!
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Where are you arriving (Portland, OR?) and departing from? Do you enjoy weird human-built stuff or natural wonder/quirk type stuff? Activities you like to engage in? What type of food? What type of music? Do you want a theme, or just to see a smattering of stuff along the way? How coastal do you want to stay / what length detours are you happy with? What do you think of, currently, when you think of the west coast of the US? For example, what made you decide on this trip initially?

A month should be fine. How much time per day are you okay with driving? How often do you want to stop in one place and do non-driving things? How do you feel about camping? Hostels?

Do either of you speak Spanish? What's your tolerance level for border crossing hassles and insane border security militarization theatre?
posted by eviemath at 10:16 PM on August 12, 2013

Be sure to check the Atlas Obscura!

You know, of course, that you could spend a month in either Portland or San Francisco and not be bored.

Do you like beer? There are many, many amazing beer experiences to be had on that journey. Oh so many. I could go on and on.

The Bay Area has an incredible variety of food to enjoy. Depending on what kind of food you like, you can spend a lot or a little and still be amazed.

There are many beautiful nature destinations on the way, depending on what time of year you are going. The Mount Shasta area is quite lovely if you wanted to detour that way while coming down I-5.

Driving down Highway 1 is slow but very scenic in most parts. I'm most familiar with the stretch between San Francisco and LA, which is generally quite scenic (but can be VERY slow).

Santa Cruz is just weird all by itself, but it does have a couple of kitschy and bizarre spots.

If you want to stay in hotels, you'll have a hard time on $150/day unless you stay in really out-of-the-way locations. Hostels or camping might be more doable.
posted by overleaf at 10:21 PM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We'll arrive via LAX most likely and then take a flight to Portland and start properly from there. It's a bit fussy, I know. Human and natural sights alike are interesting. We'd probably not be equipped to camp, but hostels are okay. No Spanish for either of us. How bad are the border crossings exactly? We've no "theme" as such in mind - just wanting to get in touch with the America that we meet in mediated form via popular culture in a more direct way. I've been to the East coast and some of the middle before, but my friend's never been at all.

We're able to stretch our budgets up and down somewhat, and of course we'll have a bit of a buffer cashwise. We'd be okay driving ~8 hours a day, but anticipate a few day or two-long stopovers in certain places.

Those beer links are tremendous!
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 10:34 PM on August 12, 2013

Oh, wow, you're going to have a blast! A month is completely reasonable for a road trip from Oregon to LA. Many great cities on the way: Portland, Seattle (not actually on the way), SF, Austin, New Orleans. Many great natural areas, too: Mount Rainier (again, near Seattle, so not really on the way); that whole drive from SF to LA (as overleaf mentioned), Lost Cost in CA & Big Sur; Death Valley.

Personally, I'd skip a day trip into Mexico, but that's one of those weird questions where if you hear "No" you're asking the wrong person -- but if you hear "Yes", get some serious specifics.

Not to diss Texas, but it might not be worth driving through there. "The sun has ris', the sun has set, and still I drive in Texas yet." It's big. You'll do some driving if you cross it. Although, worth saying twice, New Orleans is great.

The beers on the west coast are awesome, so do some reading about that and hit some breweries.

Consider buying some car-camping equipment when you get to the States. I think that a tent, sleeping mats, and a sleeping bag would pay for themselves quickly and would open up some options for you.
posted by agog at 10:40 PM on August 12, 2013

As for buying or renting a car? Buying a car seems like a bad choice for a month because of insurance and licensing rules. Renting could be crazy expensive for a one way.

A really nutty option might be renting a uHaul. That can be way more affordable than renting a car on a one-way journey. Crazy as it sounds, it's worth looking into, but, based on my experience, be ready for them to try to take your deposit. Good natured disagreement should work your way out this potential loss. As will paying attention to the condition of the vehicle when you get it.

A less nutty option would be to rent a car in Oregon, drive down to southern CA (maybe see Death Valley, too), and then drive back to Oregon. Then fly to New Orleans. That way you only have a one-way rental. Price it out. But New Orleans is great! I wouldn't miss it.
posted by agog at 10:43 PM on August 12, 2013

The greatest hits would be something like:

- Portland for it's whole "the dream of the 90s" vibe. I can't decide whether you should watch some Portlandia first or not.

[I'm skipping everything from Portland to SF because it's a part of the US I don't know well.]

- Hit at least one national park. A lot of people to Yosemite and the like from the Bay Area but there are many, many more along your route.

- For the drive down the California coast, take either the Pacific Coast Highway or the 101. The 5 is faster but dull. Actually dull doesn't begin to describe it. I've driven through parts of Texas and Ohio that were more lively than the 5 through the Central Valley.

- Rather than heading dead west from Los Angeles, I'd make a little southwestern side trip with Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon.

- It's hard to do if you're also going to Vegas, and will pale in comparison to a lot of other natural wonders, but Joshua Tree is fun as hell.

- If you have the time, from the Grand Canyon I'd take 40 and 25 through Flagstaff and up to Santa Fe. Then you could head down little rural routes south through places like Roswell to El Paso. When I was a kid my family did this road trip in about a week, maybe ten days, including all the way through Texas and ending in New Orleans, where we lived.

- Once upon a time you could cross into Mexico from El Paso and do some kitschy tourism in Juarez. Nowadays, though, I'm guessing not? The main problem with a Mexican jaunt is that the safe and culturally interesting stuff is not close to the US border at all. The best I can think of would be to make a short camping trip to Baja California from Los Angeles.

- Look, I'm going to tell you some honest truth. A lot of driving through Texas is boring. Alpine and Marfa are worth a stop, San Antonio is interesting, and Austin isn't out of the way. From Houston to Lake Charles is going to be boring, but you'll live.

- End in New Orleans. Obviously. Though TBH flights from New Orleans to Los Angeles aren't as cheap as I'd like them to be.

General questions/thoughts:

What are you going to do for a vehicle? Every time I've rented a car in Los Angeles, it's been stressed to me that I'm allowed to take it to Nevada, and that's it. I'm not sure you even get that much leeway renting in Oregon. You will have to make special arrangements to take a car from Portland to New Orleans, for sure.

There aren't a lot of hostels in the US, and especially not where you'll be traveling. You'll find them in the major cities, which will be Portland, SF, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, maybe Albuquerque or Santa Fe, Austin, and New Orleans. You might find one hostel in a city like Tuscon or San Antonio. There'll also be cabin facilities at national parks, though you may need to reserve far in advance and pay more than you'd expect depending on time of year.

You might want to look into cabin facilities at state parks along the way. This is probably the rural American equivalent of the "youth hostel". It's a private structure to stay in, but usually run by the state or the parks service, and very bare bones. There may be shared bath facilities (at least there sometimes were when I was traveling this way with family, as a child in the 80s), and the only kitchen might be an outdoor firepit.

Another good idea is couchsurfing. In more remote areas, people are very hospitable and eager to show off their town. Roving Australians will be an exotic experience, and you'd probably experience an aspect of American life you couldn't otherwise get. I'd definitely look into that for certain segments of the southwest where you're unlikely to find anything better than a seedy motel or a KOA campground.

That said, there's something charming about a seedy motel out in the middle of nowhere. Definitely do it at least once. There are also a lot of kitschy mid-century ironic/tongue-in-cheek motel experiences if you're more attached to your creature comforts. They're typically styled like B&Bs, but physically in a motel setup.
posted by Sara C. at 10:57 PM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

[I'm skipping everything from Portland to SF because it's a part of the US I don't know well.]

I will fill this in as I just did this very trip this summer! Between Portland and San Francisco as you might imagine, the main sights are all natural. (In general, while all the major cities on the West Coast, one of which I am from, are wonderful, I think that where the West really sparkles is the nature. Especially since you've been to the East, I think the stark, grander landscapes of the West are what really differentiate it. But I digress.)

- Mt. St. Helens: not strictly between Portland and SF, but it's doable as a day trip from Portland and is one of the coolest places I've ever been. It erupted in 1980 in the most destructive and one of the largest volcanic eruptions in US history, and because of the recency of the explosion you can still see the effects -- brush land that looks like the desert, fallen logs in a lake, etc. Very different and not your typical mountain landscape.

- Multnomah Falls and Columbia River Gorge: easy day trip or even couple hour getaway east of Portland. The Columbia River Gorge is spectacular and there are plenty of hikes if you are into that kind of stuff.

- Crater Lake: this is a bit out of the way, but is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been (and totally worth it in my opinion). It's in south-central Oregon and is the result of a volcanic eruption about 7000-8000 years ago, and is the lake with the bluest water I've ever, ever seen. As it's obviously in the mountains weather will vary wildly depending on what time of year you go, but if it cooperates I really recommend this.

- Redwoods: Tallest trees in the world. Their natural range is almost entirely in a narrow band of coastal California. In general, the farther north you go, the more spectacular the trees. I would specifically recommend Jedediah Smith State Park and Prairie Creek Redwood State Park in the far north of CA near Crescent City off the 101. In particular, the drive on highway 199 from Grants Pass, Oregon, to Crescent City is beautiful especially once you get close to the coast and enter the lush redwood forest. (Do not do this drive at night. I did. Just don't.) Further south, I also highly recommend Humboldt Redwood State Park a little bit further down 101.

If you do drive through Humboldt Redwoods you *must* take the Ave of the Giants detour (it parallels 101 and is in fact an old alignment of it), it is one of the most spectacular drives I have ever been on.

- Arcata and Eureka: Arcata is a quirky college town and Eureka a larger, blander town in Humboldt County. The Carson Mansion in Eureka is a fun quick photo op if you like almost comically elaborate Victorian architecture.

- I echo Sara C's advice, take either 101 or 1 down the coast, don't take the 5 unless you are in a rush, which with a month I would hope you wouldn't be. Do be warned that while highway 1 is the absolutely gorgeous Pacific route, it is SLOW and can be a bit taxing as in parts it is sandwiched right between the cliffs and the sea. (It's perfectly safe, just don't expect to speed down highway 1 if you are in a rush.)

- Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks: not between Portland and SF but I'll add them anyway. Yosemite is also spectacular and I can recommend a butt-kicking but amazing hike if you're into that stuff. Sequoia National Park has the biggest trees in the world, the giant sequoias, which are also almost exclusively found in California. I don't know if it's necessary to hit up both unless you're really into the nature stuff -- I'd definitely pick Yosemite as a priority (and Yosemite has sequoias too).
posted by andrewesque at 11:16 PM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also, what time of year are you planning to do this trip? As I sort of alluded to above, the West can experience a lot of climactic variation due to elevation/terrain. I don't think it really changes your trip a ton, but might help with some specifics (as a lot of national parks have differing access in different seasons, etc.)
posted by andrewesque at 11:29 PM on August 12, 2013

Response by poster: July-August, we're thinking.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 11:37 PM on August 12, 2013

Stay at Moon Stone Beach, a small intimate strip of coast in California just below Hearst Castle.

Try Jalama Beach for camping, super remote, super effing WINDY, just above Santa Barbara.
posted by jbenben at 11:56 PM on August 12, 2013

Just looking at for rental car costs, I'm seeing quotes starting at about $1350 from PDX to MSY (New Orleans) for a month. The price may change some depending on exact dates (I just plugged in Aug 13-Sept 13 as the date range), but I'd be very hesitant to buy a car for that kind of money and then try to take it on that kind of drive. I would definitely go with the rental (assuming you can't find a friend in the States willing to go on the trip with you with their car).

I would advise against trying U-Haul (as per agog's suggestion). They charge $40 extra for every day over 9 days of use included in their quote, which was already at $1300 for the same starting date, so it's almost certainly a worse deal. Besides, if you really want to drive a big unwieldy vehicle around the States, you'd be better off renting an RV. Then you can sleep in that if you want to save some money on lodging (though I'm not sure it'd actually come out less than a normal rental car plus hotels, especially if you ever wanted to stay at some hotels even with an RV). I have no idea what the pricing for an RV would look like though.
posted by Aleyn at 12:34 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

An RV isn't a bad idea, but you'd likely want the smallest one you could find, and you'd want to be sure you both feel confident driving it. And gas prices would be exhorbitant, but...compared to what you'd save on hotels and the convenience of sleeping on the road? Could really be worth it...if it's not too hot. Hm, now that I'm thinking about it, forget I said this. You'll want to sleep in air conditioning for the 2nd half of your trip.

Definitely before you leave create complete profiles with photos on both couchsurfing and airbnb, and get friends to vouch for you on both. They are good free web accounts to have in your back pocket even if you don't use them. Airbnb, in addition to having lots of cool listings for vacation lodging, also has the cheaper options where you can stay in someone's shared space or, definitely a step up, their spare room. The web site is great and the app is very useful. There's even a "need something tonight" feature that would work in the most populated areas.

Do not miss Hwy 1 down the California coast. 101 cannot compare unless agricultural land is a big interest of yours. Allow three days from Monterey (great aquarium there) to Santa Barbara (spend a day there). Enroute, take a half day and be a tourist at Hearst Castle.

The deserts around Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Anza Borrego are crazy beautiful but do please keep in mind that you have selected a southern route across the hottest part of the country--in the hottest part of the year. You might rethink this a bit. Expect to suffer a little. Top-notch air conditioning is a requirement.

I'd suggest Vegas and the Grand Canyon, but consider visiting the North Rim and then taking the more northerly route across, via I-70 and Utah (Zion National Park, Bryce NP--if you like funk look up Mystic Hot Springs--Canyonlands, Moab) and Colorado (the mountains are beautiful and cooler, and Rocky Mountain and Estes NPs). Then you'll head across Kansas (takes one long day of driving from Denver), which may be a step up from the desolation and heat of the Texas interstate you'd otherwise be on. Can't speak much to the route to New Orleans from there, but it's fairly direct.

Some general thoughts: I've driven across the US a few times (five days if all you do is drive all day, stopping only for gas and sleep). If I was enjoying a leisurely drive from Los Angeles to New Orleans, I really would want two weeks to actually see what there is to see. You might consider making Los Angeles your timeline's halfway point and mapping out the trip around that. All that said, after Vegas the trip is remote and small town until you hit Denver. It's beautiful, but if remote isn't your thing, consider this: end the driving portion of your trip in Vegas. Or take the time to drive to Denver. Either way, save yourselves the hours of boredom after Denver (again unless you are interested in agricultural land--in small doses it's really rather lovely). You can fly to New Orleans from either of these cities and arrive ready to play instead of road-shocked by the flatlands. I'll let someone else sell you on Kansas to Louisiana; if prioritizing my time I'd fly from Denver.

Have SO much fun!
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 2:39 AM on August 13, 2013

2nding the ave of the giants. I did it just after dawn after camping in a nearby campground (sleeping in the back of my pickup truck) and it was just incredible. Cool with morning fog and very quiet.

If you're willing to go up to Seattle area, the Olympic peninsula has lush temperate rain forests. Also, if you're up there anyway, Hurricane Ridge has a view into the Olympic Mountains and glaciers (while they're still there)

If you find yourself in South Dakota, check out Crazy Horse monument. It straddles the madness/genius line. More impressive than Rushmore, I think.

Yosemite National Park is well worth a trip - even just driving through Tioga Pass. It's incredibly beautiful.

Consider Las Vegas for a visit to the American id and Hoover dam for epic engineering (take the tour that goes through the maintenance tunnels!) and some beautiful Deco artwork.

I know Australia has plenty of reddish rocky landscapes, but Zion and Bryce in Utah are lovely. Bryce near sunset is incredible.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:12 AM on August 13, 2013

I saw people this past summer with rental minivans kitted out like RVs: kitchen area accessible by the back door, room for two people to sleep inside I think. They had California plates. If you're not up for camping though, I'd just rent a regular, small, economy car and go the couch surfing route. Or bed and breakfasts, or you might be able to get a farm stay somewhere in between Portland and SF: it gives a better sense of the local culture if you stay with someone rather than in a hotel though.

I would recommend focusing a bit. Spend some time in Portland where you have friends. Choose one of the following Portland to SF routes:

1. Coastal: drive all the way down the coast along Rt. 1. Stop at Oregon Dunes State Park, drive the Avenue of the Giants in Redwoods Parks, swing through Arcata and Eureka California, see Muir Woods park, including Point Reyes. This can take four days. A possible shortening: drive through Eugene OR instead of all the way along the coast. Eugene is awesome, and has this breakfast place, with a pinball machine, that may have been the subject of a mefi post at some point?

2. Inland: ftom Portland, drive up the Columbia River Gorge (I'd recommend the Washington/north side of the river). Head south in the center of the state, stop in Bend overnight and to eat. See Crater Lake the next day. Then head back to the coast to see the Redwoods Parks, and follow the route above.

Next, spend some time in SF. Depending on how much time you spend with friends in Portland and SF, we could be 3/4 of the way through your trip already, or 1/4 if the way. There's a lot of good food and music in both Portland and SF.

Option A: you're 3/4 of the way through and are just headed back to LA:

1. Take I-80 east through Sacramento (which also has good food). Stop for dinner and a walk around Nevada City, CA. Go through Donner Pass, stop and read the historical sign. Drive around Lake Tahoe. Detour to Reno if you're into that (meh). Take back roads south from Tahoe back into California, and drive down the center of that valley that is just east of the Sierra Nevadas - highway 100 maybe? I forget. Anyway, it goes past Mono Lake, and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, which is absolutely worth a look! There's a nice little town where Rt. 6 starts.

1a. Then you can drive through Death Valley, and stop in Shoshone. Detour to Las Vegas if you're into that, but myself, I'd drive around in the Mohave Desert a bit, maybe swing down to the Salton Sea area if you have time. You can look up Slab City if you're down there. Another detour: drice up the Imperial Valley to Empire Dunes, or all the way to the Colorado River. It's... instructive, re water use issues in the US southwest, but coming from Australia maybe nothing new. You can go to the border in Calexico. Walk across if you want to say you've been - it will take a long time waiting in line to get back to the US. Coachella is down in this area - do they still do that big music festival there?

1b. Head back toward the coast through the other national parks - make sure to see the Giant Sequoias, and Yosemite Valley is majestic. Crowded, but there's a reason so many people go there.

2. Take Rt. 1 down the coast from SF to LA.

Option B: you have more time. I'd recommend Option A, but if you rush, here's a very brief overview of some routes east.

Follow option A1 above. Instead of turning back toward LA however, head east. Puck either the Grand Canyon (northern Arizona) or Utah (various national parks across the southern half of the state and tbe Grand Staircase geological formation - it's absolutely amazing; but I haven't been to the Grand Canyon so can't compare the two). Stop in some little villages in northern Arizona and New Mexico to get a sense of the history and current culture of the area, or go through majestic Rocky Mountains if you take the more northerly Utah and Colorado route. From the Rockies onward, however, plan on driving between specific cities/stopping locations, rather than the drive itself being part of your vacation. It's long, boring, and will be tornado season, in a large region maybe kind if centered around Oklahoma. It might be more worth your time to fly from LA to New Orleans if you really want to get there. By the way, Memphus is not too far north of New Orleans and also well worth a visit.
posted by eviemath at 5:19 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Someone upthread mentioned cabins in state parks as an option - I agree, but bear in mind that these do not come with bedding or any other amenities - typically there will just be bare mattresses. Also, they tend to get booked up during peak months, certainly to the point where you shouldn't expect to just drive in without a reservation & reliably find a cabin. Buying a couple of cheap sleeping bags & pads is certainly a good idea, they would pay for themselves if they save you one night in a motel.

But, since you are looking for an American experience as much as anything, you really should look into renting an RV for the trip. You will find the RV crowd friendly, perhaps even excessively so, and you'll be exposed to a cross section of US citizens you won't meet otherwise.
posted by mr vino at 5:22 AM on August 13, 2013

Actually, you could spend the rest of your time under Option B in California! After points east, swing down to San Diego. You can wave at the US/Mexico border from there. San Diego has great food too. I'd recommend staying in one of the hip neighborhoods just inland from downtown. Eg., there's one that has an excellent Saturday farmer's market, at the corner of Normal St. and... something. There's also a bakery - in a neighborhood north of downtown near the military base - that makes a chocolate bread. I would go to San Diego just for the chocolate bread. After San Diego, you could drive north up the coast back to LA and your return flights home.
posted by eviemath at 5:35 AM on August 13, 2013

They don't usually care if you take rental cars to other states, but they DO care if you take them to Mexico.

The highway that goes past Mono Lake from Tahoe is 395.

Coachella is in April.

And I know you guys are Australian so the weather won't hit you as badly but I would still seriously reconsider driving through the American Southwest in July-August. Additionally all the nice parks and hotels and stuff in the pleasant areas of the West Coast will be booked solid or expensive as hell. Why not April or October?
posted by elsietheeel at 6:06 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

101 cannot compare unless agricultural land is a big interest of yours.

I think you're thinking of 5. 101 is actually pretty scenic and passes through a ton of towns with interesting stuff to see/do.
posted by Sara C. at 6:50 AM on August 13, 2013

We did Oakland-San Diego last September. Took our time, did it in like 4 , 5 days. Things I would not miss:

1. The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose.Sure its a tourist trap, but weird, oh yeah.
2. Monterey Bay Aquarium. Stay at Borg's and walk there.
3. There are 5 major league baseball teams in Cali, take in a game anywhere on your route.
4. Big Sur.
5. San Diego Zoo.

We took route 1, we skipped LA completely so we could get to friends in San Diego quickly, and we hit beaches everywhere we could all the way south.
posted by vrakatar at 8:25 AM on August 13, 2013

Rent a car, I got great deals on Hotwire.

There are chains of resonably affordable motels along your journey:

Motel 6
Super 8

These are clean and functional rooms. Not the Ritz by any means, but if you review with Trip Advisor, you can get select some nice, clean rooms with beds and showers. Some may feed you in the morning.

I can speak to the California part of your trip.

From San Francisco, head south. Hit San Jose and the Rosicruician Museum. Egyptian artifacts! Yay! Then if you want, the Winchester Mystery House.

Then, from San Jose, take 17 down to Santa Cruz/Monterey/Carmel.

Or if the museum isn't your gig. Take 92 from 101 and go to Pescadero to eat at Duarte's. Cream of Artichoke soup, Cioppino and finish with O'Lallie Berry pie.

Then onto Santa Cruz!

There's a Super 8 in Santa Cruz near the Boardwalk. For sure, walk the Boardwalk, eat some delicious amusement park food (fried artichokes!) Ride the rides. Especially the roller coaster. It's gorgeous!

In Monterey, do the Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row. Read some Steinbeck while you're there.

If 1 is open, take the Big Sur drive. It's breathtaking. Honestly, you'll just be agape!

Once done with that area head down 101 to Hearst Castle. It's much of a muchness. Then back south (1 or 101) to San Luis Obispo.

Save extra $$ and splurge on the Madonna Inn! It's a pink motel with each room decorated weirdly and differently. Be sure to see the Mens room in the main building, it's a thing.

On your way south on 101, be sure to spend a few hours in Solvang. Have Pea Soup at Pea Soup Andersen's. Walk the streets, eat cookies, look at windmills. For sure check out the Mission Santa Inés! In California you MUST see at least one old mission. California was settled by Spanish missionaries and they left behind a bunch of these little churches.

After this, you can hit Santa Barbara (I never have, so I got nothin'.)

Then do you LA thing. Anaheim and Disneyland?

You have a couple of choices for a Western Exploration. Up to 40 via San Bernadino (a lot of this is old Route 66 so it's worth doing.) You'll pass through Lake Havasu. The Motel 6 there is nice. Check out London Bridge!

At around Flagstaff you can make a left turn and head up to the Grand Canyon. Then back down to check out Sedona and the Red Rocks!

Head down 17 to Phoenix, AZ. Check out Montezuma's Castle to see Indian cliff dwellings.

In Phoenix, go to the Heard Museum, Casa Grande (America's Stonehenge) and eat the best Mexican food at Ponchos in South Phoenix. Have a cheese crisp, it's unique to Arizona.

If you go to Tiajuana, park the car at the border and walk across. If you stay on 10, you might want to take a detour to Carlsbad Caverns. It's amazing.

Another Mexican border town to explore would be Nogalas. Again, don't take the car into Mexico! Don't get too drunk in Mexico!

That's what I've got!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:52 AM on August 13, 2013

Fwiw, I'd recommend driving north through California, hitting the redwoods and then Crater Lake in Oregon, heading west through Idaho on your way to Yellowstone, making your way to Mt. Rushmore via Devil's Tower, and then down the Mississippi to Louisiana.

Otherwise you're driving through a lot of desert, and while you could hit Moab and the grand Canyon, then maybe Roswell for giggles, there's a lot of TX to get through (Big Bend is cool, though). Don't you have enough desert in Aus anyway? ;)

Really there's a lot to see and do either way, but personally I find the northern route a lot more interesting. You can see a whole lot of the USA in a month.
posted by polyhedron at 8:59 AM on August 13, 2013

This was my question about my particular Portland-SF trip, by the way, where I got a ton of useful suggestions.

I also forgot to mention, if you are into wine, wine country north of SF is the obvious choice, but the Willamette Valley south of Portland is also an excellent wine region. (Me, I'm more of a beer guy myself, but Portland will be great for that.)

Oh, a small packing tip since it looks like at least some part of coastal California will be on your trip in the summer. Ignore if you already know this, but coastal California, especially the northern part, can be quite cool in the summer. In particular, San Francisco has by far the coolest summertime temperatures of any major city in the US. It's very localized -- you can drive in about 20 miles inland and be in classic hot sunny summer weather while it's totally locked in fog at the coast. So, pack a sweater.
posted by andrewesque at 9:15 AM on August 13, 2013

And I know you guys are Australian so the weather won't hit you as badly but I would still seriously reconsider driving through the American Southwest in July-August.

And in the Texas/Louisiana portion, it will be really humid as well. That can be tough if you are not used to it.
posted by Quonab at 11:20 AM on August 13, 2013

Everybody has great suggestions on what to do. I'd absolutely skip driving through Texas and going to Mexico. If you're going to New Orleans, fly from your last stop on the West Coast. The American Southwest is HOT that time of year (but not humid) and they do have major, major thunderstorms (that usually roll through in a few minutes). I'd recommend Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands and Monument Valley 100 times over Texas. If you do the Southwest, you can always drive south to Phoenix or east to Denver (Rocky Mountains) to fly to New Orleans from there.

Also be aware that the California coast may be covered in fog that time of year. It tends to be there one day (or a few days) and gone the next. Going 10 miles inland will usually rid you of fog.

@andrewesque's trip looks closest to the one I'd plan. You could pretty easily do that trip in a week to a week and a half. I'd also put Yosemite as a must do.

Be sure to spend a few full days in Portland and several days in and around San Francisco.
posted by cnc at 11:56 AM on August 13, 2013

Look, I'm a Texan, I love it. BUT I was also forced into a car every other summer to visit my grandparents in CA, and let me tell you that is a stretch of long hot nothing that you will grow to loathe. If you had longer, I'd fill you in on Marfa and the Davis mountains and migas and not moving to Austin, but really all you need to do is check a map of the american southwest and notice that, routing the straightest path from CA to NOLA, El Paso isn't even a halfway point. There's so much awesome stuff on this thread to keep you rockin' on the coast (with maybe a side trip inland to Vegas or the grand canyon), I'd give yourselves a break and skip the Grapes of Wrath migration...
posted by theweasel at 12:48 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have no recommendation one way or another, but these guys rent regular vans outfitted as camper vans -- they have locations in LA and SFO.

If you like mountains, I recommend spending some time in Yosemite and/or the areas just around it. If you're there when Tioga Road is open (sounds like you will be), definitely go up there as well as Yosemite Valley. Mono Lake (on the eastern side of the Sierras just north of Tioga Road) is a trip. Just south of Tioga Road is the town of Mammoth Lakes and a bit further south is Bishop -- either can make a good base for exploring the Eastern Sierra Nevada. If you're in that area, I recommend a day hike into Little Lakes Valley -- incredible alpine beauty for very little effort. On the way to your hike, you can have pie at Rock Creek Lake Resort -- they only make a certain number per day so if you want pie, have it early :).

In Portland, the drive up to Timberline Lodge is relatively short (1-2 hrs) and gets you up to treeline very quickly. Views are amazing from up there.
posted by elmay at 2:23 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You're all just outstanding human beings, thank you for your wisdom!
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 9:54 PM on August 13, 2013

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