I'm looking for some fun advice on planning a road trip!
January 7, 2018 5:27 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend and I were gong to go to Europe this summer, but can't afford the flight. I was thinking of a USA road trip this summer instead. We live in Austin, Texas. We have about $1,000 to $1,500 each. We want to be gone for 2 weeks. Some places we want to go, in no order, are Boulder, Colorado, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. What are some other beautiful areas along this route?

I have family in Boulder that we could stay with. I also have family in the polar opposites of the country that we could stay with - New Hampshire, and Los Angeles. I'm not sure if this could influence your advice or not.

I've never gone on a road trip of this nature before. The furthest I've gone is drive to Boulder in a day (and back to Austin after 10 days).

I'm not adverse to all day drives. I love driving, and my girlfriend can also help. So 10 - 14 hour trips are manageable.

Lodging is my biggest concern. Hotels chew up money like a cow eats grass. I've never done couch surfing or AirBnB, but I'm weary of the idea of staying with a stranger because I'd never want to put my girlfriend in danger.

Essentially, we want to go on an adventure worthy of a European adventure (a tall order, as I've never been out of the country save for a day in a Mexican border town (as a kid) and two weeks in Quebec). We love nature, blue skies, gorgeous scenery, and hiking.

Again, Austin is our launch point. And we can stay in Boulder with my as a hub point.

Do you have any advice about what other areas are worth checking out that are reasonably within this radius?
posted by ggp88 to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: * Pulls up chair and sits down *

So, have a look at this web site first. In fact, let me post that link right now and then continue in the next post so you can start right away.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:32 PM on January 7, 2018 [8 favorites]

Highway 40 see the Arizona Meteor crater. Stay in the Teepee motel in Winslow, Arizona, or however you do it, get on the road to the Hubble Trading Post, I think it is the 191, up through the Navajo Reservation. Taking a ride with the Navajo into Canyon De Chelly is a memorable thing. Just looking over the side is also amazing. Go on up to Monument Valley, Garden of the Gods past Mexican Hat, you can park and lunch along the San Juan River past Mexican Hat right under the Mexican Hat rock formation. Run on up through Blanding, Montecello, Check out Moab, but do not speed in the Moab area. Take a right at highway 70, or however you plan to get to Boulder, do not miss Thompson Springs, and the Sego Canyon Petroglyphs. It is just two minutes to some of the most amazing petroglyphs in the world, right off the road. It is just a train stop. I am not sure about getting to Boulder from Grand Junction, but there is a road over to cortez from Bluff Utah, which is south of Blanding along the San Juan River. Friends of mine own the restaurant just over the bridge on the left, going into Mexican Hat. The Black Family, they have a nice jewelry counter there, and stuff, and the food is really good, the cherry pie is excellent. Twin Rocks Cafe in Bluff is also a nice place to eat along there. The road to Cortez, Colorado is beautiful through that canyon there. The Hubble Trading Post I mention, is an amazingly evocative place, it is a national monument, the screen door slams, and you are on a wood floor, in what was a bar, the jewelry there is amazing, and the baskets and blankets. There is a feeling there very worth it. At Ganado where the trading post is, there is a park and swap meet that goes all the time. Lots of good stuff there. Anyway. If you got to Kayenta on a Wednesday, on the left, instead of righting toward Monument Valley, there is a morning to early afternoon market, it is a tribal market, with all sorts of great items, people to see, and ethnic things, and it is truly a real cultural event, there are native tobaccos, herbs, and healing stuff, jewelry, amazing to watch the whole thing.
posted by Oyéah at 5:47 PM on January 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If it were me, I'd do Austin > Boulder > Grand Tetons > Yellowstone > Glacier NP > ?? > Canyonlands/Arches NPs > New Mexico > Austin.

That would give you a couple of days in each location.

Lodging is my biggest concern. Hotels chew up money like a cow eats grass.

If you love nature, why don't you camp? I did a two week vacation from Milwaukee to Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Rocky Mountain National Park, and back for $900 including food, gas, lodging and miscellaneous.
posted by AFABulous at 5:49 PM on January 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm back.

So what that web site I told you about is - it's tied into a book that I used when I did a cross-country road trip some years back. Instead of pointing out specific sites and things to do, it picks a handful of coast-to-coast or border-to-border two-lane highways, and follows them. Those kinds of highways are best - they take you through small towns as well as big cities, and past all the weird freaky little roadside attractions and diners and shit that are the whole point of a road trip. The book is also pretty good about letting you know when there's a cool detour you could take, and also is decent about "and this next stretch of highway here for the next 40 mintues is just strip malls so hang in there". Here and there in the margins it even tells you about radio stations.

The web site is better for planning, though, because it covers each route in pieces - so you can kind of DIY yourself an itinerary. For example - it looks like if you're starting in Austin and heading towards Boulder, you could probably follow their Road To Nowhere itinerary part way - it follows Route US-83 all the way from Texas to Canada, but you could just follow it up to Kansas, where it intersects with US-50. And US-50 is also one of their itineraries - that one goes from Virginia across to San Francisco, and the Kansas-to-Colorado leg takes you past some awesome monuments and sights, and would probably put you near Boulder.

Or, you could follow their Southern Pacific Route west to Arizona, then follow the Border-to-Border route north from Arizona up to Vegas; or maybe turn off onto Route 66.

One advantage to small towns is cheap hotels. I'll grant that I was making my own trip in 2000, but I found a place for about $30 a night one night. If you're not averse to camping, you may also be able to find places to pitch tents (national campgrounds may be REALLY full up in summer though).

I don't think that the American Road Trip is exactly the same as a European Adventure - but it is its own thing, which does match the European Adventure in terms of....Epicness.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:49 PM on January 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: EmpressCallipygos, this website is pure gold! My heart is racing with excitement! Thank you so much! I'll come back once I have an idea of what adventure I'm leaning towards, but so far the Great Northern, Loneliest Road, and the Oregon Trail trails are really catching my eye!

The unfortunate thing is that I'm starting in Texas, which is in the mid section of all these trails.
posted by ggp88 at 5:52 PM on January 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Make sure to go through the desert southwest on the way to Grand Canyon. Some combination of Bryce, Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Mesa Verde. I'd go to the North rim rather than the South rim, as there is much more worth seeing near the North Rim.

If you plan well ahead, you may be able to camp at stops along the way to save money. Another thing we did on long road trips is to bring and subsequently stock up on non-perishable food. PBJ, trail mix, energy bars, fruit, beef jerky.
posted by cnc at 5:58 PM on January 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is a lot of amazing stuff to mentally chew on. I LOVE camping, but I'm not sure if my girlfriend does or not. So that's a maybe.

Do you have any knowledge/advice about couchsurfing and/or AirBnB?
posted by ggp88 at 6:00 PM on January 7, 2018

Try VRBO for places to stay as well. You rent a whole house or apartment for much less or comparable to a hotel. And then you have a kitchen to use.
posted by gryphonlover at 6:02 PM on January 7, 2018

Eastern New Mexico is quite a scenic drive. I don't know how you plan to get from Austin to Boulder, but I'd strongly suggest heading that way.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:03 PM on January 7, 2018

The unfortunate thing is that I'm starting in Texas, which is in the mid section of all these trails.

Oh, that's the beauty of the web site. It breaks things down further state-by-state - so you can start midway and follow just a part of it. In fact, there are places where some trails cross other ones and you can then follow part of one until it intersects with another, and then follow that new trail partway.

That's what I did for my own trip, in fact - I followed part of the "Lonliest Road" from New York to Ohio, cheated and took the Interstate over to Route 66, followed that part way to where i could pick up the Lonliest Road again, and followed that across to Nevada where I could then get to my final destination in Vegas.

That meander-y pattern is also part of the appeal of a road trip - you are totally in charge of whether you can detour and check out something that spontaneously catches your eye, or you can jump onto the big interstates when you want to get a bit ahead of yourself and make up for some time. You can blow off most of a day by a pool if you feel like you've been driving too long, or you can drive super-fast on a straight-as-an-arrow road in Utah when you realize you're the only one there, you see that the speed limit has just jumped up to 85 MPH, and "Where The Streets Have No Name" has just come on the stereo.

(Oh, also: The Joshua Tree is the best driving music for the Southwest states. I have tested this. It is law.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:41 PM on January 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Me, I'd probably drive to Las Cruces or Carlsbad the first day just to get the hell out of Texas (you can go through Ruidoso if you want to go up to 7000 feet and down again, or see Roswell.)

Then you can head straight up through Albuquerque, see White Sands, do the Sandia Peak thing, etc. Then go through Santa Fe, Taos, and Las Vegas (the other one, where they filmed part of Easy Rider.) Head up Colorado through Manitou Springs to Boulder.

That's a lot for two weeks! And you have to get back home again. Keep your tank above 1/2 full, gas stations are sparse.

I've never done AirBnB with a private room but it seems economical. VRBO/Homeaways are cheaper by the week. Also sometimes private campgrounds or state/county parks have cheap cabins (or yurts!) some of these might be only found on Google.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:05 PM on January 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've overall had pretty good luck with AirBnB in the past, as an older female solo traveler. The only trouble I'd had is when a reservation was auto-accepted, but when I arrived the "host" turned me away, as his place was no longer available- he wasn't able to end his account, for whatever reason. I think if you just contact the hosts, you can avoid this- plus you can get a better gut feeling about the people/place. Prepare for a lot of scrutiny if you haven't signed up on AirBnB's site yet. I recommend it, though. Everyone else had been super nice & accommodating.
This is a handy portal to campsite info, if not terribly direct. It can lead you to, for example, state park websites which often have maps of available lodging. I had good luck here, too, but perusing can be a time-sucker.
Dinosaur National Monument is SO COOL, if you go that route, as are many parks in Utah (recommended listening while viewing: Digable Planets 1993 "Reachin'"- trust me.)
Research hot springs on your route, too. Whichever way you go, have a great time!
posted by JulesER at 7:45 PM on January 7, 2018

Near Santa Fe, visit Tent Rocks. In Santa Fe, visit Meow Wolf. Based on my limited exposure, northern New Mexico is prettier than southern, although White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns are worth seeing. Unfortunately, there's not a lot between Austin and there worth stopping at. The Fort Davis/Marfa/Alpine triangle is kind of interesting; you can visit the McDonald Observatory and the Davis Mountains State Park (where you can camp). Balmorhea State Park has an enormous spring-fed pool that dwarfs Barton Springs, if you're into that kind of thing.
posted by adamrice at 8:42 PM on January 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hey, not sure Phoenix would be along your way, but depending on what you decide about the Grand Canyon, or the Southern route to New Mexico, it might. Anyway, I live in North Phoenix and often have folks spending the night on their way through. You’d both be welcome to crash at my place if you’re interested (and it’s convenient). And depending on the timing, a dinner out and a hearty homemade breakfast would be my treat!
posted by darkstar at 11:53 PM on January 7, 2018

Wyoming Rt.130, Saratoga to Centennial amazing drive .
From Vegas north on the US 93 the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge is semi tropical place to rest or camp for free.
Continue on 93 to Ely Nevada and Highway 50, lonely road east or west I prefer west to Austin
Idaho Route 78 is Oregon Trail country much better scenery on the south side of the snake river. Hopefully helpful fragments for your eventual trip.
posted by hortense at 12:04 AM on January 8, 2018

What time of year are you looking to do this? Since you're dealing with the high rockies in a lot of your options, time of year and weather are both going to have a significant impact on the trip.

AirBnb/VRBO are alive and well in the rockies, and I've generally had good experiences with them. I also rent a place in Colorado through both; let me know if you're interested in friends-and-family rates. If you're not skiers, you probably want to avoid the congestion and prices of ski resort towns until after mid-April or so.

If your girlfriend is up for camping, the mountain west has a ton of free dispersed camping in National Forest and BLM land.

For nature and blue skies, consider adding the Sand Dunes National Park to your itinerary. It takes you through a beautiful valley, and you can also swing by Bishop Castle, which is worth a stop.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:22 AM on January 8, 2018

I just started booking hotels for a summer roadtrip to the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and Glacier so this is on the top of my mind. Having just gone through the numbers, hotels are definitely the biggest expense. If you can camp or stay in cabins or small towns an hour or more outside each park your money will go farther. Be aware that some rustic campgrounds and cabins can be $300/night just because they're next to Old Faithful or some other wildly popular attraction. Anything near a national park (including campgrounds) are pricey and are booked up far in advance. I'm sure there are some exceptions but in the case of national parks, planning ahead is warranted.

Do you have any knowledge/advice about couchsurfing and/or AirBnB?
I've used both and my biggest advice would be to sign up for each now if you intend on using them. AirBnBs that are in personal homes (many nowadays are apartments bought specifically to be rentals) are usually cheapest, but often have owners that may be more weary of a newbie with no reviews staying in their place. Some offer "instant book" which means the homeowner doesn't have to approve you.

As a previous couchsurfing host in a big city I never said yes to someone who had no reviews/experience on the site unless they had a compelling story and specifically said no to anyone just looking for a free place to stay. The site has changed a lot since I used it as a cultural exchange (this change is why I stopped hosting) so maybe it's not as big of a deal now. But I'd advise if you want to couchsurf set up your profile now so it shows you've been a member longer and take the time to really add personal details when you request a place. I would be much more open to hosting someone who appears thoughtful and interested in my city/culture than some youngins passing through town who don't want to pay for a hostel.

Something I didn't consider until I made a spreadsheet of estimated trip costs was food. Self catering, bringing a cooler and stocking up will save a lot of money.

My budget is larger than yours but the way I planned my trip was picking one big thing I wanted to see (Glacier) and finding a really amazing splurge-worthy hotel. That hotel books up a year in advance so I found the two days that were available on the calendar, booked it, and then planned the rest of the trip backward from there. That's not to say you need to splurge, but maybe to make it feel more like the "big trip" you wanted to take you could find one amazing place that will feel more luxurious or that's "worth it" to you and then cut corners on other parts of the trip by camping/couchsurfing/self catering, etc.
posted by Bunglegirl at 8:39 AM on January 8, 2018

I've done tons of vacation rentals as opposed to traditional hotel rooms, but I'm going to suggest that it may not be the right choice for your situation--not due to any safety concern; I frankly feel safer at an AirBnB than at El Cheapo roadside motel. But in part because in my experience AirBnBs are generally NOT less expensive than a cheap motel room. If you shop around you can pretty reliably get at $50 or less for a motel. Although there are a handful of "spare bedroom" rentals out there in the same price range, outside of the major cities AirBnB listings tend to be suites/apartments/homes and are great value-for-money if for vacationing families but not necessarily cheaper than a basic motel room and somewhat higher on the hassle factor for a one-night stay.
Also, don't forget that a 4,000 mile road trip burns up a lot of gas unless you're driving a Prius or something and will eat considerably into a $2,000 trip budget.
posted by drlith at 8:47 AM on January 8, 2018

We did a similar trip, long long ago in our VW camper and a copy of "Roadfood." We stayed a couple of extra days at Mesa Verde, skipped Grand Canyon but visited Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Loneliest Road/Route 50 on the website.
posted by MichelleinMD at 9:13 AM on January 8, 2018

RobotVoodooPower: Me, I'd probably drive to Las Cruces or Carlsbad the first day just to get the hell out of Texas

If you're looking at prices, Las Cruces is cheaper than Carlsbad, and the only thing really going for Carlsbad are the caverns, which are a reason in themselves to stop there. But Las Cruces is another 1.5 hours farther (9+ hours vs 7.5 to Carlsbad). Also, those areas aren't particularly pleasant, temperature-wise, in the summer. Both are farther north than Austin, so maybe that's a pleasant relief for you and your girlfriend

New Mexico has SO MUCH to see! Yes, I'm a proud transplant and state cheerleader, but there's something everywhere, even if it's just a location or two. If you're looking for specific trail-type drives, here are 25 Scenic Byways in New Mexico. That landing page isn't helpful for navigating the state, but each subsequent page has a map and brief description of the routes. Here's a static PDF of the 26 routes in the state (1.79 mb, but lots of layers, so it might be a bit rough on a mobile device). The 26th route is a relatively recent addition, and a bi-state route, along a historic narrow-gauge portion of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad from Durango to Chama, New Mexico. It's an extension of the Cumbres & Toltec, a National Historic Landmark that offers a 64-mile day trip. C&T runs from Chama, New Mexico to Antonito, Colorado, and then the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is somehow associated (OK, I'll admit I'm hazy on how the two connect, but there's a second historic railroad in the southern Colorado region, adjacent to C&T.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. You've listed big locations, so I'm assuming you're looking for big sights, but that's (generally) not New Mexico. Carlsbad Caverns are impressive from what I've heard, and possibly the biggest thing you could see here. But interesting, unique and historic locations, we have plenty of that. For more unusual landscapes, there's Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument south of Santa Fe, and El Malpais National Monument is an hour and a half west from Albuquerque (15 minutes south of Grants).

If you like recent-to-older history, there's plenty of towns that are semi-frozen from their Route 66 peaks, because when I-40 was developed, they fell by the wayside. Tucumcari is trying to capture that neon glow, and has a couple museums. If you like quirky and you're in or passing by Albuquerque, I can't recommend Tinkertown enough. If you want to see a lot of rattlesnakes (while taking in a slightly Disney-fied Old Spanish Plaza), stop by the American International Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque Old Town. Head north to Santa Fe for more of that old Spanish heritage in and around the Santa Fe Plaza, and while you're there, go to Meow Wolf, it's wonderful and weird.

But if you're going farther south and you just want to get away in a living historic town, I'll plug Silver City. It's small, very walk-able and there are some beautiful old hotels. Then you can head up NM-152 through the mountains and get back on I-25 north to Truth or Consequences and maybe splurge to stay in a hotel with natural hot springs-fed hot tubs (Yelp link, because I can't recommend any personally, but I'll ask co-workers for ideas if you'd like to go here).

(More of my NM recommendations in a prior answer, in a question where more folks suggest great locations around New Mexico.)
posted by filthy light thief at 9:46 AM on January 8, 2018

Back with thoughts about AirBnB.

All things being equal, AirBnB is great. The prices can be cheaper than what you get in a hotel, especially if you're willing to go out of town a bit - which is great if you have a car. I very rarely spend more than $100 a night, and I almost always select a place where I'd have the whole place to myself.


The problem with AirBnB for a road trip is...the unpredictability. To get those great rates, you have to be looking in advance. If you tried rolling up to a city and looking for a place that same day, it may be a crap shoot as to whehter such a good space is even available.

And even if you did try planning in advance and making a series of reservations along the path of your planned itinerary, that would then hamper your itinerary; you'd have something in the back of your head the whole time like "gosh, i wish we could stay longer at this really cool museum we discovered, but we need to be across the state line by 5 to check into our Air BnB tonight so we have to go."

Mind you, if your plan instead would be to hit a few cities and stay put for a few days, and just drive in between, AirBnB in those cities would work. I did something like this with a Yosemite trip recently (2 days in one location, 3 in another), and with a road trip up the California coast (I stayed in a few different youth hostels as I hopped my way north). A consciously slow pace would also make this do-able; up the California coast, I was allowing myself entire days to drive distances that were actually only a few hours apart.

So depending on your style of driving and your style of road trip, I'd actually go with a mix of AirBnB and on-the-fly lodging. AirBnB is a great option if you know you're going to be hanging out by the Grand Canyon a couple days and you only have to drive from Tucson to Phoenix to get there for your check-in. But for the times when you're 50 miles outside Barstow on the edge of the desert and you realize need to stop ASAP because you're about to fall asleep, it's not going to help you much.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:16 AM on January 8, 2018

When car-camping with my husband, we would periodically find a KOA Kampground and stay in one of their "camping cabins" - usually one without a bathroom. They always have hot showers, often serve some kind of breakfast on-site, and frequently have a pool/hot tub. Depending on location, they can be pretty cheap, more than a campsite, but less than a hotel, and you don't have to setup the tent! The above-mentioned Silver City, NM has one that is great - nice views, and good facilities. The link takes you to a summer date I randomly picked, with a rate of 49.75/night for a basic cabin.
We also stayed at a really nice 'private' campground near Salt Lake, that was actually cheaper than a state campground, and with far superior facilities (and shade!! don't underestimate shade trees in the summer in the SW!). So as you are driving around, be on the lookout for private RV parks that advertise campsites. You might also consider getting a National Parks Pass for $80, the pass "covers entrance, standard amenity fees and day use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas", and can pay for itself in a few parks. For example, Grand Canyon costs $30 entrance fee, Zion is $25, so there's more than half your pass price right there.
posted by dbmcd at 12:50 PM on January 8, 2018

I guess you've made your decision not to go to Europe, but I feel kind of compelled to point out that outside of July and August you can get flights from Austin to London for $500 return per person, in case that changes your mind.
posted by ambrosen at 1:16 PM on January 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

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