My family and I just finished a 4,200-mile, 7 state road trip. A few nights we stayed in hotels. More often we camped. Sometimes camping was a luxury tent with a fireplace and running water (Thanks Under Canvas!). Sometimes camping was our trusty tent deep in the backcountry of a National Park or on the banks of the river we were rafting. This isn’t our usual trip, but after cancelling a trip to Italy in March and after being in lockdown mode for several months, we wanted to get out of the house. And while 2020 is a terrible year in most regards, it seemed well suited for a good, old fashioned road trip. So we plotted our itinerary on Google Maps, made a few bare bones plans, loaded the car and hit the road. Here’s a bit about the trip and what things are like out there right now. Hopefully, you can use it as inspiration for a Kerouac-style adventure of your own.
We’re trying to get our daughter to all 50 states before she graduates from high school, so any trip in the US usually involves trying to check off a new state or two. This time we got 3: North Dakota, Montana and Idaho. On our way north, we visited Badlands National Park in South Dakota as well as Mt. Rushmore where we stayed for a night. We left early the next morning and drove to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. This is the rugged land where Teddy went to disappear after losing his mom and his wife on Valentine’s Day 1884. The campgrounds are closed due to COVID, so we got a backcountry permit, which is basically just telling them the dates you’ll be there and what trailhead you’re departing from, so they know where to look if you don’t come back. We shouldered our packs, hiked in several miles and then found a good spot a few hundred yards up a hillside and away from the trail. Sunset, moonrise (the picture at the top of this post) and sunrise the following morning were all pretty amazing. We didn’t see any other people, but we had three buffalo visitors while we were watching the sunrise.
After exploring the park a bit the following day, we drove to Whitefish, Montana where we enjoyed the town for a few days and did some hiking in Glacier National Park. From there we drove to Oregon where we met up with friends from Washington, rented two whitewater rafts and started a four-day river rafting trip down the Wallowa and Grande Ronde rivers. The first few hours were a little hairy as we learned to read the river, row the boats and avoid large boulders, but it quickly became second nature. Each day consisted of rafting for about 15 miles and then finding a place on the shore to camp. Like us, our friends enjoy a good meal, so we left the dehydrated meals at home and instead had things like Dutch Oven lasagna, breakfast burritos with all the fixings and fish tacos made with freshly caught trout. We’d talk and play games around the campfire and then get up the next day, load the boats, shove off and do it again. It was a really fun experience. After reaching the pullout, we loaded the cars and drove to a BNB in Joseph, Oregon for some much-needed showers and a few days of hiking and exploring. That’s where we parted ways with our friends and started heading towards home via Hells Canyon and Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho and then Yellowstone National Park and Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming before eventually making it back to Nebraska.
In case you’re wondering…
Was everything busy? Not terribly so. International travel is shut down, so more people are choosing road trips for sure. But many others are choosing to stay home altogether, so it didn’t seem overly busy, with the exception of a few National Parks that are always busy regardless.
Are the national parks open? Yes and no. Most parks are at least partially open, but many have closed their campgrounds and lodges. Visit www.nps.gov to check on a park your considering. And if you don’t have a National Park Pass, you need one. It’s an incredible deal. $80 per year if you’re under 62 and $80 for life if you’re over 62.
What about gas stations, hotels, restaurants, etc.? All open for the most part, but they may have reduced capacity or certain requirements like wearing a mask.
Did you wear a mask? Yep. Anytime we were using the gas station, checking into a hotel or generally around the public, we wore a mask to try to limit the risk that we’d catch anything or spread it if we’re asymptomatic. Most places have signs requiring it or at least strongly requesting it.
How much can/should you plan? We made reservations for things like our raft rental and some of our lodging. It was pretty bare bones, however. We often made hotel reservations in the car by looking at Google Maps and figuring out how far we’d get that day. We never had a problem finding anything.
Tips for staying safe
Don’t go if you’re sick. Sometimes the symptoms of COVID are mild, sometimes not. We traveled to some pretty secluded places and didn’t want to be stranded far from medical care. If you’re not feeling well, stay home.
Watch for travel restrictions. We traveled through a number of states, so we checked ahead of time to make sure that they didn’t have any travel restrictions. Just google “current state travel restrictions.”
Design the trip with social distancing in mind. We chose to drive our own car rather than fly. We chose camping where we could instead of hotels. We wore masks when we were around people. We met up with friends who we knew have been social distancing for several months. We chose places that were secluded and activities that were solitary. There are plenty of ways to have a great trip and still be a little cautious.
Bring along some PPE. We brought masks, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer. Again, a bit of caution is a good thing.
Pack snacks and food. We brought snacks for the car and food for when we were camping. We ordered takeout a few times, but only ate in a restaurant once toward the end of the trip. It had a large outdoor seating area and there was only one other patron there. With a little planning, it was easy to avoid large crowds.
If you want to hit the road from the comfort of your own home, here are a few great road trip books that I’ve enjoyed and you might as well. Safe travels!
- The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
- Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac