Ready for an adventure? Pack your bags, get your vehicle ready to go, and let’s hit the road!
As a world traveler who’s always on the search of the next bucket list destination, I realized I didn’t know my home country, USA, nearly as well as I knew many others around the world. I had traveled it some but for short weekend getaways or snowboarding trips but not much else.
When the time came to leave Vietnam, after living there for 3 years, we had our first pause in our travel plans for as long as I could remember. We knew the next step was to apply for our freelance visas in Portugal but knew those would take a few months to process. Instead of staying still and relaxing at my parents, we knew it was the perfect time to explore the US.
And what better way than in a van we converted ourselves?
I’ll dive into our van build and how you can customize your own house on wheels another day. Today is all about the trip, not so much the technicalities getting us ready for said trip.
A few tips to make your road trip excellent:
- Don’t rely on hotels, it’s fun to camp, whether in your car or a tent, and will save you loads of money.
- Know where to camp for free: Campendium and iOverlander were lifesavers
- Don’t get lost on the trails and use AllTrails instead. No need to pay to download the maps offline, just have the trail open you want to follow before you lose service and your GPS will continue to work.
- Save money on gas with GasBuddy. Another app that helped us find the lowest gas prices in the area, just know it’s not always 100% accurate.
- Genuinely like the person or people your road tripping with. Trust me, it’s a lot of together time and choosing the person you make the trip with isn’t something I’d take lightly.
- If you travel with your dog, use GoogleMaps to find dog parks in the area on driving days so your furry friend can burn his/her energy before a long day in the car.
We had talked about vanlife years before, both agreeing that we’d like to try it in the US, just never knowing exactly when that time would be. After getting back to Nashville, we quickly scourged the area for a van we could convert, finally finding Wanda, our 2003 Ford Econoline with the best paint job we could have hoped for.
After spending a few tiring months building her out and getting her ready, it was time to hit the road.
I’ll be honest here, Raf and I are not the planners it might seem we are. We both typically dream big and latch on an idea together and just go for it, hoping for the best along the way. That’s what this van trip was. We didn’t really know where we were going except west.
And I’m so happy we did it this way.
Not planning meant being able to go where we pleased, work around the weather, and spend more or less time in a place depending on how we felt about it. I’d highly recommend you not plan as much as you can get away with so you can build your itinerary while you’re in the midst of it.
The only thing we knew was we had to be back in Atlanta, GA for a wedding mid-November then back to Nashville two weeks afterward for Thanksgiving. That gave us 2.5 months to travel as much as we wanted. And it turns out, we wanted to travel a lot.
I’m talking 9,000 miles of road and 21 states.
We couldn’t see everything and we did have to make some big decisions on what to choose and what to pass on but we did see a lot- far more than I thought we’d see- and it was spectacular.
If you have some time to spare and want to see truly breathtaking sights, pull out your map and save these places for your road trip of a lifetime through the Western US.
Heading out of Nashville, our first big destination was Denver, CO. We passed through the midwest (Missouri and Kansas) as fast we could, and apologies to you from those places, I don’t feel like we missed out by getting through them quickly. It wasn’t the most exciting way to start our trip but we were eager to hit the mountains and that gave us the motivation to keep us going.
I’ll highlight the 11 states we spent the most time in and share my favorite parts of each of them. Keep in mind, we were traveling in a van and prioritizing nature, hiking, and national parks. Plus, we had our dog, Bandido, with us that we always strive to keep happy.
If you’re also traveling in a van or plan to sleep in your vehicle, use iOverlander and Campendium to find free campsites near you. We didn’t pay for a single night on our trip, minus the 2 nights we opted for hotels.
At a quick glance, our western road trip itinerary went like this:
- Colorado (again)
- New Mexico
Colorado: Widest Variety of Adventure Sports
We actually passed through Colorado twice on the trip, once at the beginning and again at the end. I’ll cover both times though here so all things Colorado stays together.
Our main highlights in Colorado were:
- Great Sand Dunes National Park
Denver is a really great city to spend the day in. If you’ve never been, an easy place to see the city, walk around, grab a beer and some good food is Larimer Square and 16th Street Mall. Probably some of the more touristic places in town but if you’re just here for a day, I really like walking around there.
From Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs aren’t too far away. We didn’t go to either of these towns this trip but I’ve been before and they’re both nice mountain towns.
Vail and Aspen are both high-end mountain towns that are seriously picturesque, especially in the fall when the aspen trees are bright yellow. Unless you have a much bigger budget than us, I’d recommend heading to these towns for hiking more than anything else.
In Vail, we loved (and struggled through) Berrypicker Trail. It’s straight up a popular ski slope and since we had only been at altitude for 2 days, it hit us harder than I expected. We made it up and enjoyed the challenge though. You get rewarded by being able to take the gondola down, too.
In Aspen, I highly recommend Maroon Bells. If you only have time for 1 hike, this should be it. You have to reserve a ticket in advance and take a shuttle to the park but in my opinion, it was worth the fee. It was more crowded than other hikes we did, but I understand why. There are a few different trails in the area. We opted for Crater Lake. It’s nice and not too difficult. You can always add on some distance too by following a backcountry trail and turning around when you’re ready to head back.
From Aspen, we drove to Jackson, WY. We opted for the more scenic route through NW Colorado, instead of driving back through Denver, and I’m so glad we did. We were really in the middle of nowhere most of the drive and it was fantastic.
But before I jump into Wyoming, at the end of our road trip, between Utah and New Mexico, we swung back into Colorado to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s exactly what it sounds like, except for a more mountainous backdrop than I was expecting.
We rented a sandboard for the day and that made the park so much fun. It’s also one of the few national parks that’s dog friendly so be sure to bring your pup along for the journey! In October the weather was chilly and the sand was cool but be careful with your pup’s paws in the summer- sand tends to heat up quickly!
Wyoming: Best (& Most Unusual) Wildlife
Our main highlights in Wyoming:
- Grand Teton National Park (and surrounding area)
- Yellowstone National Park
Our first real taste of Wyoming was The Grand Tetons. They brought me to tears the first time I saw them because they pop out of nowhere and gave me the most wonderful surprise. It’s really a treat to see these mountains in person. We stayed in Jackson longer than we expected but really enjoyed the town to be able to catch up on some work and take a break from a long previous week of driving.
Jackson also has a plethora of free campsites in the Grand Tetons National Forest that were all really wonderful.
Wyoming is for you if you love epic views and unusual wildlife.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t do any hiking in either national park (Grand Tetons or Yellowstone) because like most national parks, the trails are not dog friendly. Regardless, if you’re traveling with your pup, you should still drive through the parks and take in the views.
Between the Tetons and Yellowstone, get ready to see moose, bison, bears, and elk. Although maybe it was lucky, I seriously couldn’t believe the wildlife we spotted with just 3 days total in both parks.
Beware, it's probably colder here than you expect. We were greeted in early September by snow in Yellowstone so be sure to pack accordingly!
Montana: Most Views That'll Kill
Our Montana highlights:
- Yellowstone National Park (it’s split between Montana and Wyoming)
- Glacier National Park
- Flathead National Forest
We entered Montana through Yellowstone and headed towards Bozeman. Bozeman is a small yet cute town to spend a day or two. We enjoyed exploring their downtown, grabbing a bison burger, and some local beers.
From Bozeman, we decided to head north to Glacier National Park. This was a last-minute decision but one I am so happy we made.
The drive through Glacier was seriously epic. If you’re scared of heights you probably shouldn’t be the driver though as much of the “Going to the Sun” road is narrow with little room for error. We spent an entire day driving through the park, pulling over at nearly every turn.
The area around Glacier is stunning, too. We spent 3 nights in different parts of Flathead National Forest and had free mountain views and solo spots each night.
Standard Peak is a solid dog-friendly hike that we all 3 really enjoyed. Plus, you can stay overnight on the same road as the trailhead so you can use it as an off-day from driving, too. At the peak, you’ll get views of Glacier as well.
Idaho: Friendliest People
Our Idaho highlight:
- Coeur d’Alene (we didn’t actually spend much time here but it was recommended to us multiple times)
From Montana, we knew we wanted to go to Washington. To get there, we needed to pass through Idaho. To be blunt, I knew nothing about Idaho except they have great potatoes so I thought we’d just pass right through the state.
On the way, we needed to stop to work so I found a cute, dog-friendly coffee shop in Sandpoint, Idaho. I thought we would just stay for the day to turn in some work then head off but the locals had other plans for us.
In that coffee shop, we ended up making friends with a few locals that were interested in our journey. The most interested being an 82-year-old world traveler and adventurer who had made similar trips as us (plus far more) in his lifetime. He quickly invited us over for a hot shower, a place to sleep, and the promise of great stories.
We were skeptical and didn’t take up his offer immediately. The next day though, he called and said he had invited some friends over to meet us and to use his words, “be here or be cursed.” We went.
And I am so glad we did. Larry and his wife are salt-of-the-earth people who have treated us like family. We ended up staying 2 nights with them and loved them both. Since then we’ve kept in touch and really feel a deep connection with them. Sometimes strangers aren’t so nice but sometimes they’re better than you could ever imagine.
Also in Sandpoint, we did our biggest hike yet: Scotchman Peak. We were greeted by a moose on the trailhead, saw bear prints in the snow on the way, but unfortunately, didn’t see any of the mountain goats that are usually at the summit.
This trail is tough but fantastic. We hiked in tennis shoes which I would not recommend. The summit in October had about a foot of snow that quickly iced our toes. We made it but would have been far more comfortable had we been properly prepared.
Washington: Best Enchanting Forests
Our Washington highlights:
- North Cascades National Park
- Rockport State Park
- Olympic National Park
What I loved most about Washington was definitely the landscape, mainly the rainforest. I’ve spent a few months living in the Amazon Rainforest and it was the same... but completely different.
The hikes we did there, namely the Evergreen Trail in Rockport State Park, were simply fantastic. It wasn’t tough at all but was so unique with the giant Redwoods covered in moss, ferns, and mushrooms. We felt like kids in awe strolling through this area.
I’m happy we went to Seattle and drank all the coffee we possibly could, but it didn’t wow me like Portland later would.
After Seattle, we drove the highway around Olympic National Forest, stopping at the rocky beaches along the way. We also did a few coastal hikes but in our opinion, nothing topped the Evergreen Trail.
Oregon: Best All Around
Our Oregon highlights:
- Cannon Beach
- Smith Rock State Park
- Crater Lake National Park
We drove down the coast to Oregon and crossed the bridge to Astoria. We had a great lunch of clam chowder and watched seals (or maybe sea lions) play in the water next to us. It was a perfect welcome to what soon became our favorite state of the road trip.
From Astoria, we continued along the coast to Cannon Beach. This beach was gigantic and more dramatic than I had thought from pictures. It was also far, far colder with the wind ripping off the coast without prevail. Still, we loved it.
After Cannon Beach, we swung inland to Portland. Portland stands out as our favorite city from the road trip so if you have the time, I suggest you check it out as well.
Our favorite area in Portland was Hawthorne Avenue. There you’ll find a wide variety of thrift stores with great clothes and even better prices. Be sure to stop by Hawthorne Asylum for food pods with a wide variety of food and drinks. Be sure to save room for a donut at Blue Star Donuts, a local favorite compared to the overhyped VooDoo Donuts downtown.
I’d also recommend Mississippi Avenue for another, similar option, with more shopping and food pods.
After Portland, we faced another issue: stay on the coast or head inland. It was a tough one, and although I don’t know what the coastal route had in store, inland did not disappoint. The drive to Bend was full of snow-covered mountains, camping spots, and great hiking.
Namely, hiking at Smith Rock State Park. There are a few different trails at this park as well but we opted for the Wolf Tree Trail. There are harder ones in the area and had it not been so cold, we probably would have gone for them but this one was relatively easy but beautiful. The end of the trail especially provides great views.
If you’re in the area, visit Bend. It’s smaller than I thought but their downtown and greenway are especially picturesque.
Really though, the star of inland Oregon to us was Crater Lake. Crater Lake is exactly as described, a lake surrounded by mountains with a little island in the middle. What made it so special though was the snow. The contrast of bright white snow, clear blue sky, and deep blue water was better than expected. Although it was cold and most trails were closed, if you’re not there to hike, I really loved seeing this spot in winter weather.
California: Most Disappointing
Our California highlights:
- Redwoods National Park
- San Francisco
- Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1)
Here I am to possibly burst your bubble: California did not live up to its hype.
After visiting so many fantastic states, California left us feeling let down and honestly, disappointed. We had this idea in our heads that California was the mecca of vanlife and dog parents and people looking for a little bit of hippie-esque fun. That wasn’t the reality we found.
Overnight parking was tough and always done in parking lots or on the street, which after months of being in nature, wasn’t a change for the best.
Most beaches we came across, with the exception of Carmel-by-the-sea which was doggo heaven, were not dog-friendly. This is understandable but just didn’t line up with the imagine we had perceived of California.
To top it off, gas was almost $1 more per gallon than other states and food and drinks were also pricier, even just at the grocery store.
All of that considered, we cut out time in California short. Turning towards Vegas halfway down Hwy 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
I will say, it’s a beautiful state. The Redwoods, Yosemite and Hwy 1 are really spectacular but the state, all in all, didn’t match up with it’s neighbors. We were craving something more raw, less privatized, and with a lot more room for adventure.
Nevada: Most Likely to Take Your Money
….so we headed to Las Vegas!
Well, kind of. We did go to Las Vegas yet but not for those reasons mentioned above. We wanted to gamble a bit and see what the Sin City had in store for us before heading deeper into the desert.
Here we opted for a hotel and let Bandido stay with a Rover sitter so we had the night to ourselves. It was extremely fun bouncing around hotels on the strip.
My biggest suggestion: learn Craps before you go. It’s a great game, much more fun than Black Jack, easier to hop in than Poker, and way less mind-numbing than slots.
Let loose, toss the dice, and have some fun!
Arizona: Most Iconic Scenery
Our Arizona highlights:
- Grand Canyon
- Horseshoe Bend
- Monument Valley
After shockingly doubling our money in Vegas (definitely beginner’s luck), we headed to Arizona.
Arizona was a desert dream come true. After doing 1 hike in Sedona, we stretched our time there to do another before heading out of town. It seemed to me everywhere you looked, Sedona was surrounded by epic desert views. The sunsets here were especially rewarding.
I’d recommend both hikes to anyone willing to walk around 8 miles each time. Cathedral Rock Loop: Hiline and Templeton Trails and Boynton Canyon Trail were both great. The loop was much quieter than the other trail and provided fantastic views the entire time. Boynton was much more crowded but understandably so. Just be sure to take a slight detour and head to the Subway Cave for an extra special view. Even if heights scare you, I’d recommend pushing yourself on that one. It won’t disappoint!
From Sedona, we headed north to check off the Grand Canyon and Horseshoe Bend. Both of extremely well-known and popular but for good reason. Find a quiet spot and enjoy the views!
If you want to see giant cactuses, like ones in cartoons, head south to Tucson. We didn’t have time for this detour but would have potentially made time had I known we weren’t going to see them all throughout the desert.
Utah: Most Inconsistent Views
Our Utah highlights:
- Monument Valley
- Arches National Park
We really had one big reason to go to Utah and that was Moab. Monument Valley was a lucky bonus that I’m glad we included but not the reason we made the turn north.
If you want to visit Monument Valley, do note it closes earlier than expected. We were unable to enter in to drive the scenic loop after 3pm. Online it states it closes at 5pm but do to off-season and I’m sure pandemic restrictions, the time is now earlier.
We were definitely bummed that we weren’t able to do the scenic loop but just north of the entrance, further into Utah, we were able to get some great views to pull over for lunch. Also further up the highway is the iconic Forrest Gump viewpoint that really was just as beautiful in person, if not even more so.
Moab though was the jewel of Utah in our eyes. Again, we stayed longer than planned and really took it easy in Moab, enjoying the campsites and amazing desert views backdropped with snowcapped mountains.
In Moab, be sure to drive through Arches National Park. Again, we didn’t do any hikes in the park because we travel with our dog, but the drive was fantastic.
We opted to hike Corona Arch trail and would recommend you do the same. Great landscapes, few people, and dog-friendly. Need I say more?
There were some reviews on AllTrails making the hike sound more intimidating than it was. At times there is a rope to help you up a rock and right after a ladder to climb up, but both are short, and neither felt scary in our eyes. Bandido also handled these parts like a champ. We opted to take him off the leash for this since no one was around and to let him find his own way up, which he did, issue-free.
After Moab, we circled back into Colorado before heading south again to New Mexico.
New Mexico: Most Dog-Friendly
Our New Mexico highlights:
- Santa Fe
By this point in the trip, we were exhausted. We had been moving at a quick pace and had seen a lot. This state though was one I was looking the most forward to so instead of trying to rush it and do too much, we chose to spend more time in Taos and Santa Fe and really soak them up.
My favorite parts of New Mexico were absolutely the architecture and the food. Between those two things, we were content simply walking around town and taking it slow.
Taos Pueblo was unfortunately closed due to the pandemic but if it's open when you drive through, it seems like a really beautiful, historic place to visit. Otherwise, enjoy walking about Taos and Santa Fe. Both have plenty of shops, restaurants, and cafes to keep you entertained. Beware though, the price tags in Santa Fe were far higher than I ever imagined!
From there, we made the long drive back to Atlanta, spending a night in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Mississippi along the way.
As tired as we were, this road trip was seriously epic. We saw a lot, experienced a lot more of my home country than I thought possible in one go, and had a lot of fun living in the van and camping each night.
Save this road trip to add to your bucket list or grab inspiration from it, making it your own along the way. I will say, the US is a big, beautiful country with so much to see, doing it on land instead of air is the way the go.