Help me plan a 4-week road trip in Western USA
August 16, 2016 9:16 AM   Subscribe

We are planning to do a 4-week road trip in Western USA, with some stops in the national parks for hiking/camping. More details below the fold.

We will be flying to the USA (most probably NYC) from Europe and this will take place from mid-September to mid-October next year. Our idea was to rent a car on the West Coast (or somewhere nearby, depending on the itinerary). This doesn't need to be a round trip; we can fly from NYC to Starting Point and from somewhere else back to NYC.

We are interested in: scenic drives, nature, outdoors activities, national parks, beaches, history (museums and such), quaint towns, good bookshops, good food and wine.

We are NOT interested in: Disneyland

We are thinking of hitting the following:

- the Pacific Coast Highway between LA and San Francisco

- Portland, Seattle (maybe?)

- Las Vegas (if only for the kitsch factor)

- Southern Utah and Zion NP

-Northern Arizona?

- National Parks: Olympia, Yosemite, Joshua Tree? We would love to do at least one multi-day hike (maybe in Zion NP), but day hikes are fine too.

We have done some research already but the information out there can be overwhelming. Right now we can't even figure out what is feasible for a 4 week trip during that time of the year. We want to get the best bang for our buck but we don't want to spend all the time driving.

Thanks in advance!
posted by lost_lettuce to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you can get a campsite, camp in Jedidiah Smith State Park. Amazing redwoods and a beautiful river that it might still be warm enough to swim in.
posted by mercredi at 9:37 AM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've only done the loop from Seattle to San Francisco and drove back up through Nevada and Idaho. That was a two week trip, down the coastal highway which starts around Eugene Oregon. It was a trip so good we've done it twice now, and plan to repeat next summer. Someone else can chime in on the southern part of California.

If I were you, I'd fly into Seattle, spend a day wandering around town and eating the many good things. The next morning drive down to Portland and stop at Mt St. Helens for the awesome exhibit and museum. You'll arrive in Portland early enough to wander around before the evening.

Definitely drive the coastal highway between Oregon and California - the route takes you through the redwood forest which is majestic enough to be bucket list worthy. So is the rest of the coastal highway to San Fransisco. If you like seafood stop at the charming town of Newport and ask the hotel receptionist for the little restaurant on the water.

When we did the drive we hit the road about 9 - 10 AM, drove leisurely with many stops for about five hours, and had enough time to explore the arrival destination with walks and stuff before dinner. You can cover a lot of extremely stunning terrain like this.

I don't know if Vegas is worth it, I've got several times and I'm not as enchanted with it as some are. If you have time - do it, but if not, don't worry about it. I know from having talked to many travelers that Yosemite is worth it 100%.
posted by tatiana131 at 9:40 AM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I recommend this web site a lot, I'm doin' it again -

Road Trip USA has a lot of "road trip planning" notes; their itineraries cover the full length and/or breadth of the USA depending on which route you take, but they break each route down into sections, and several of the routes cross each other, so you will find it very easy to cut-and-paste an itinerary for yourself based on what you want to do. Two of the pre-existing routes, the "Border to Border" and the "Pacific Coast", cover in part the area you are looking at.

I used that book as my bible for a couple of road trips in the past, and I have my own advice:

* I drove up only part of the Pacific Coast (from San Luis Obpispo to San Francisco, which is only about one-third the length of California) and it took me three days. I was going at a leisurely pace, true, but I think it also speaks to just how big this part of the country is. You're giving yourself four weeks, which is good, but it sounds like you are also trying to cover a lot of ground. I might consider cutting Portland and Seattle out of the equation and sticking to the California/Utah/Arizona portion.

* If you'd like to hit up National Parks and avoid extensive driving, another thing to consider would be to stay put in Moab, Utah for a few days. Moab is very close by two parks (Arches and Canyonlands), and is also close by some Utah state parks that rival them in beauty. It's also got a very active "outdoor activity" scene. It's also only a half-days' drive from Zion.

* Speaking of Zion, part of it is in Northern Arizona. And it's only a couple hours' drive from Zion to the Grand Canyon.

* Allow yourself more than just one day in Yosemite. I did that myself ten years ago and have been kicking myself so hard over that that I'm about to go back for a full week. (On a big trip like yours, two or three days would be fine).

* You'll be here in September and October, which is really good in terms of access to the parks; the "high season" is in summer, and after early September the crowds drop off considerably. It also won't be as bloody hot. But check the weather/seasonal closings in some of the parks nevertheless; there are parts of Yosemite where the roads close in the late autumn, and you never know when an early snow may cause them to advance the schedule a bit.

* I strongly endorse your plan to spend a day or two in Vegas for the kitsch factor. You may even want to fly into Vegas instead of New York; you'll be able to pick up the car there, and you'll be perfectly situated to make that the beginning and ending of a big loop that takes you around all the other places. That's what my own family did when I was 17.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:42 AM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you're willing to travel as far as Arizona, don't miss the opportunity to see Grand Canyon at the South Rim (there are various places you can visit along the south border, but the South Rim entrance will offer easy access and, at least from my own experience, a number of day hikes worth your time).

You can spend all day at Grand Canyon, but it wouldn't be unreal to spend the early morning there, drive from there to Hoover Dam, and then straight on to Las Vegas for your kitsch fix (directions mapped here).

Las Vegas to Zion is also only a few hours.

In the parks, take lots of water. They can be hot in the daytime into the end of summer. Also prepare for colder nights if you backpack or tent camp.
posted by mr_bovis at 9:50 AM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

You might also be able to get a seasonal pass for your vehicle that will allow you access to all national parks in the country. At $80 (if I remember correctly), it's a good deal if you visit a handful of parks, some of which can cost $20 or more per car.

You can get one at any national park entrance.
posted by mr_bovis at 9:55 AM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

That's late enough in the year that some spots (especially in Washington) might be getting less hospitable (but you shouldn't run into any snow). For that reason I'd suggest going north first as the weather is more likely to be amenable in September than October. I've done most parts of the trip as described individually, and might suggest something like:

* Drive north from LA on 101 to San Luis Obispo, possibly checking out some wineries, etc. Depending on what you want to do, eventually head over to Highway 1 and drive the rest of the way to San Francisco. If you want to see Alcatraz make your reservations now!
* Depending on how you break for beautiful seashore/wine country, either take Highway 1 through Point Arena/Fort Bragg or go up through Napa Valley/Alexander Valley and visit some wineries. Either way end up on Highway 101 going north through Leggett and go to the Chandalier Tree (the best of the three major drive-through trees). Drive the Avenue of the Giants and stop at Founder's Grove at least.
* Continue north on 101 through Eureka and spend a day or two in Redwood State & National Parks.
* Depending on your timeframe/the weather, you could go East to see Crater Lake in Oregon, but it would be a fairly inefficient route. The Oregon coast is beautiful and I'd probably just enjoy that drive and continue up 101 to Washington and Olympic National Park. If the weather's cooperative, Olympic would be a great place to do a multi-night hike -- maybe Seven Lakes Basin?
* Skip Eastern Washington/Spokane -- head out through Ellensburg then either hard south to visit the Maryhill Museum (HIGHLY recommended), or out Interstate 84 and end up going through Boise. In Twin Falls turn south on Highway 93 through Ely, NV and end up at Great Basin National Park. You'l be there at the perfect time of year. Camp at 11000 feet, see the Bristlecones, collect pine nuts if they're still around.
* From here it's easy -- Zion, detour to Bryce Canyon (you gotta go, but save your hiking for Zion -- in Zion you hike for the views, in Bryce all the hiking takes you down below the rim and you can only see less), back through Zion, down through Lake Mead/Valley of Fire, Las Vegas, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, back to LA.
posted by j.edwards at 9:56 AM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Las Vegas is fun for a night or two.

Angel's Landing and the river in Zion are two all time highlights for my hiking resume. Great stuff. the river water is cold. Sport sandals and neoprene socks would have been an improvement.

We dayhiked Telescope Peak in Death Valley. A great view from the summit, and you can see some of the old bristlecone pines. Not as memorable as other trips, but still worth it.

Best part of my trip out there was Chaco Culture National Historic Park. The ruins are beautiful, it's very quiet, and un-crowded, and the rangers gave great talks and tours of the ruins, some of which are almost 1000 years old. Darkest skies and best stars I've ever seen. The roads in and out of the park aren't great, but we got through with caution and a small sedan.

We did Vegas to Santa Fe in 10 days, but there is so much more to do and we skipped stuff that we could have done.

On a previous trip we hiked from the rim to the river and back at the Grand Canyon on the Bright Angel trail. Long-ish day, but totally doable, as long as you've done something similar as far as elevation gain, distance etc.

We used Google Maps driving times, and added extra time for lunch, rest etc. We found that to be a good method for estimating what was too much for driving.

We were able to book an open jaw flight, meaning fly into one city and out of another. This gave us more flexibility for route planning. I see you're thinking the same thing. Would recommend.

If you like climbing or bouldering at all, Red Rocks, just outside of Vegas, Joshua Tree, and Bishop, California are probably all on your bucket list. Bishop, especially, I found to be just stunning in terms of the quality of the routes, the stone, and the landscape. I mashed my hands pretty good on day one, and was just as excited about going back with my climbing partner on day 2 to photograph and chat with other climbers.
posted by thenormshow at 10:11 AM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you want to spend time in Washington and Oregon, I'd definitely do that first. Maybe fly into Seattle to start out. September weather there is usually really nice, with little rain, but it starts getting rainier in October. By mid-October you could find yourself getting rained on every day.
posted by Redstart at 10:13 AM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

One way car rentals can have big fees attached, so make sure it is worth your time and airfare savings to pay it. Also, be sure you have unlimited mileage on the rental.

I would suggest a round trip out of Vegas that goes to Death Valley, Zion, Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon and then stops at the Hoover Dam before getting back to Vegas. Then fly to the LA area where there are lots of airport options, so be sure to check "nearby" when you are searching for flights. From there, make a figure-eight that goes up to Yosemite, over to San Francisco, down to Santa Barbara and then down to San Diego. It is nice to be going south on the PCH. If it is not too much more expensive, fly back to NYC from San Diego. This does skip Washington and Oregon. If you really want to see them, take another flight up there with a third round trip from Seattle, Mount St Helens, Portland and then a bit east into the Columbia River valley (tons of waterfalls and quaint towns) and Mt Hood. The drives that you would save by flying are interesting enough, but you have to prioritize.

In LA, drive through Topanga Cayon and go to either Venice Beach or Santa Monica Pier. In San Diego, see the Cabrillo National Monument. In Death Valley, stop at Dante's View and Badwater Basin. I have done Death Valley in one long day from Vegas and the same with Hoover Dam. There are organized tours that will do this so you can relax and let someone else drive, but then you are on their schedule. Red Rock Canyon is another popular day trip from Vegas.
posted by soelo at 10:25 AM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Marble Canyon AZ
posted by A189Nut at 12:12 PM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

The North Cascades Highway is the prettiest highway in the entire world, and I camp in Newhalem at least once a year (note: it closes for the winter on September 19th). Mazama, on the other side of the Cascades from Seattle on route 20, is a beautiful tiny town with a surprisingly good bakery and also a lodge with a fabulous restaurant. Mazama is very outdoorsy, and you can rent bikes or horses or what have you.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:56 PM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Agree to consider starting in Seattle if you are interested in the Pacific Northwest due to rainy weather becoming more likely as the fall progresses. You could spend a day or two in Seattle, then visit Olympia and then Mount Rainier National Park and Mount St. Helens. From St. Helens it's about 2 hours to Portland, OR. Now from here you could do the coastal route, which is great, or take I-84 towards Idaho and maybe stop in Hood River and Boise. Getting to Utah this route is the longest part.

My husband and I did part of this trip and it took us about 7 hours from Portland to Boise, then about 8 hours to get to Moab, with a stop in Salt Lake City. But! Once you get to Moab it's easy. Arches National Park is right there, Canyonlands is like 30 minutes away. I'd spend at least one full day at Arches- there's a lot to see and some longer hikes. Then from there it's about 2 hours to Bridges National Monument (worth going to for a few hours) and then about another two hours to Capital Reef National Park. The scenery is gorgeous along these routes so it doesn't feel like it takes forever and there's fun overlooks and stuff to stop at along the way. After you see Capital Reef, it's another close to 2 hours to Bryce Canyon National Park, one of my favorites. I'd recommend a day or two here. After that there's Zion about 30 minutes away or so and that park is fantastic- also worth a day or two stop. Antelope Canyon is along the way after that towards Grand Canyon. If you want there's Petrified Forest National Park about an hour from the south rim of the Grand Canyon to the east. You can also drive towards Vegas and the Hoover Dam at this point or head towards California. If you go through Ely, Nevada to get to Great Basin National Park, be careful of speeding. The cops in that town are mean and seem to ticket for no reason (based on our bad experience there).

My husband and I did the Portland to Arizona and back drive in 2 weeks so you might be able to take that rough itinerary and work in other stuff to suit your needs. Just remember that California is friggin huge. My husband and I are planning two separate trips to California at some point, one for north and one for south California. Good luck! I hope you have an amazing trip.
posted by FireFountain at 3:30 PM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

You will definitely want an annual pass, which covers the entrance fees (but not any activity fees) at every site managed by the National Park Service as well as several other agencies (there's a list at the link). The entrance fees at any two of the major parks could cost as much as one annual pass, plus the people at the entrance gates tend to treat you like an insider when you show up with one.

Which parks? Three of the most historically and geologically significant would be Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. If you go to Yellowstone you should also plan to visit Grand Teton National Park. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is (reasonably) close to Zion and Bryce Canyon. The South Rim (where most of the tourists go and where some of the more famous viewpoints are) is a much longer drive. And Yosemite puts you in California where you could visit a number of other parks (and the PCH). Many of the parks along the Continental Divide from Arizona to Wyoming are separated by drives of a few hours, as are the ones in California, so really you could figure out what kinds of things you want to see and then pick parks based on that.

NB: as you get into October some facilities at a number of parks will start to close for the season, so you could already be narrowing down your options based on closing dates. NB (2): lodging within the parks is limited and already booking for next September. We booked our [rim view] cabin on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon last August, and found some of the lodging in Yellowstone was already booked up by the time we looked. NB (3): while some of the parks have lodging conveniently located in nearby towns (e.g. you could stay in Springdale and take a shuttle into Zion) you will spend less time just getting to things if you book lodging within the parks. Lines for the shuttle at Zion have been really long this year; lines for the entrance gates at West Yellowstone can stretch for over an hour. And at Mesa Verde you'd still be driving for two hours once you got through the entrance gates, so it's very strongly recommended that you stay within the park.

Also also: since you mention multi-day hikes, be aware that overnight temperatures will approach freezing in many of the high desert parks of Utah and Wyoming. My wife and I briefly considered camping at Great Basin or Capitol Reef National Parks during our trip this coming September, but we realized we neither own nor wish to purchase and pack the right gear to camp when it's that cold.

For comparison, the trip my wife and I are taking is 17 days: We arrive in Las Vegas and leave for the Grand Canyon the same day, and then it's: three nights at the Grand Canyon, one in Park City (via Cedar Breaks), two in Grand Teton, three in Yellowstone, one at Great Basin (via Craters of the Moon), one at Capitol Reef, two in Bryce Canyon (via Scenic Byway 12), two in Zion, and then one last night in Las Vegas. We planned around the moon (full moon while we're at the Grand Canyon; dark skies and astronomy programs at Great Basin and Bryce Canyon) and then we found out we'd be in Grand Teton and Yellowstone during the elk rut, so we rebooked one of our Yellowstone nights so we'd be at Mammoth. Remind me in October and I'll let you know how it went.

We considered a bunch of different itineraries (Moab for Arches and Canyonlands, Natural Bridge, Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest, and so on) but I really wanted to see the Grand Canyon and Zion, and my wife really wanted to see Yellowstone, so we planned around those major endpoints. We decided not to do all the red rock parks in one trip. We'll probably make at least two more trips to fill in just Utah, Arizona, and Colorado without just seeing All Sandstone, All The Time.
posted by fedward at 4:24 PM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for all your suggestions! (keep them coming, please) You have given some great ideas and also made us realise we need to look more into the weather concerns. Ideally we would push this trip back to early September, but we don't know yet if that will be possible.

We will also have to rethink about the areas we will be covering, and whether or not to skip some stuff. We would rather stick to a smaller area and have a pretty good sense of it than to mindlessly race through lots of ground.
posted by lost_lettuce at 2:40 AM on August 17, 2016

Start by picking out the hikes/sites you are most interested in and then plan around them. Add an extra day to each stop, so you can just explore or rest as desired.

Here's just some of the trails you can hike. Also, Horseback tours are a thing.


Bryce Canyon

Capitol Reef

Cedar Breaks

Glen Canyon

Natural Bridges

Zion Hikes

And a previous Ask.
posted by zinon at 6:50 AM on August 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

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