This is the year where you’re going to take that trip you’ve been dreaming about, sleep outside under the stars more and visit parts of the U.S. you didn’t even know existed. It’s the year you take a break from that stressful job for a bit, so instead of hearing of what’s out there you can just go see it for yourself. If I can do it then so can you.
You know that saying, “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”? Well I’m here to tell you that it’s 110% true. I’ve taken several trips all across the country, but each one has been a different route and another story to tell. Most of my journeys have taken me from coast to coast, but it doesn’t matter where you start or finish. It’s about the memories you make and the people you meet that gets you there.
There is so much unique, diverse culture and terrain we call the United States of America. Between the Gulf of Mexico to the North Pacific, the southwestern desert to the Blue Ridge Mountains, there’s too much to explore in a lifetime. I’ve put together a couple routes I have taken that have allowed me to explore new cities, national parks and towns. These weren’t originally apart of my journey, but lead me to my destination all the same. Whether you are from the east coast, the west coast, somewhere in between or far away, I hope this advice will get you on the path you desire (even if you don’t know it yet).
Tennessee to Washington Return, Summer Tour 2013, 10 days
DAY 1: KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE TO CHICAGO, ILLINOIS
- 8 hours and 540 miles of driving via Louisville and Indianapolis
- We started here because we could see the band Phish and stay with a friend in the city. We left early that morning, so we could get a local tour around town before the show that night at Huntington Bank Pavilion on Northerly Island.
DAY 2 – 3: CHICAGO, ILLINOIS TO GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK
- 21 hours and a long 1,420 miles of driving via Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota
- I remember driving throughout the night as a lighting storm was going on across the Badlands in South Dakota. It was a wild ride, but worth the effort to arrive at the Tetons early that morning, so we could have an extra day out west. We were able to get a campsite in the park, spend the day kayaking in Jackson Lake and sleep under the Wyoming stars that night.
DAY 4: GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK TO KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON
- Roughly 13.5 hours of driving 780 miles via Yellowstone National Park.
- We got up early to drive through Yellowstone. We arrived just in time to watch Old Faithful erupt, but didn’t have a chance to explore anything else. We then briefly stopped in the towns of Bozeman and Missoula, Montana before driving across Idaho and into Washington.
DAY 5 – 7: WASHINGTON
- Our prime mission was to see the band Phish at the Gorge Amphitheater, where we camped out for two nights in George, WA. We were fortunate to have some friends in Kennewick that we could stay with before and after the shows.
DAY 8: KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON TO STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, COLORADO
- 15 hours of driving roughly 950 miles straight.
- We drove through Salt Lake City, Utah and ate our first In-n-Out burger. We made it to Colorado and stayed with a friend in Steamboat Springs.
DAY 9: COLORADO
- We ventured into Rocky Mountain National Park before driving to Boulder, CO. After we walked around town for a bit, we saw Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration with Warren Haynes at Red Rocks Amphitheater. We left town that night because we unexpectedly had to get back to Knoxville the next day.
DAY 9 – 10: MORRISON, COLORADO TO KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE
- 20 hours and 1,370 miles of driving all night and day through Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky and into East Tennessee by 7pm.
Washington to California Return, September 2015, 10 days
DAY 1: SEATTLE, WASHINGTON TO NEHALEM BAY STATE PARK, OREGON
- 4 hours and 215 miles of driving
- We left late in the afternoon without any idea where we might stay. It was raining and midnight by the time we made it to the northern coast of Oregon. There were plenty of state parks to choose from. We were lucky and found one with an available yurt we could poach for the night.
DAY 2: NEHALEM BAY STATE PARK, OR TO PRAIRIE CREEK REDWOODS STATE PARK, CALIFORNIA
- 8.5 hours and 370 miles of driving along the coastal Highway 101
- A beautiful drive along the Oregon coast and into the California Redwoods. We found a campsite in Prairie Creek and caught a great sunset along the beach.
DAY 3: PRAIRIE CREEK REDWOODS STATE PARK, CA TO SAN FRANCISCO, CA
- Roughly 6 hours of driving 320 miles down the California coast
- We drove through Humboldt Redwoods State Park on the Avenue of the Giants. We continued along highway 101 down into the bay, where we had some friends we could stay with.
DAY 3-4: SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
- We explored the city, some parks and the Golden Gate Bridge
DAY 5: SAN FRANCISCO TO LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
- About 6 hours and 390 miles of driving via I-5
- We left early to make it to a Dodgers game by noon. We had a friend who lived close by, so it was convenient to stay with her for the night.
DAY 6: LOS ANGELES, CA TO SANTA BARBARA, CA
- 2 hours and 95 miles of driving
- We spent the day driving around the city finding the best food trucks in town. By the time we were full, we headed back up the coast to Santa Barbara for a concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl. We got down to some reggae with the Bob Marley family. After the show that night we found another state park outside of town to camp.
DAY 7: SANTA BARBARA, CA TO KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK, CA
- Roughly 4.5 hours driving about 250 miles via Sequoia National Park
- We spent the day driving into the Sierra Mountain Range, exploring Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. We found a sweet spot in the Sequoia forest where we camped under the massive trees in Kings Canyon National Park.
DAY 8: KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK, CA TO YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA
- 3.5 hours and 150 miles into Yosemite Valley
- That morning we found ourselves on the outskirts of Yosemite. We took advantage of the full day and saw as much as we could see of the famous park. We camped that night inside the park, only wishing we had more time to explore.
DAY 9: YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA TO CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK, OR
- About 9 hours and 520 miles to the rim of Crater Lake.
- We spent a little more time in Yosemite that morning, so it was a full day of driving to Crater Lake. We got to the park late, so we found a pull off along the Rim Drive and slept in the car.
DAY 10: CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK, OR TO MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, WA
- 7.5 hours of driving 400 miles
- It was the most uncomfortable night of sleep, but waking up for the sunrise over the lake was well worth it. We drove into Bend for breakfast, up around Mt. Hood and into Portland for lunch then found ourselves back in Washington in time to watch the sunset over Mount Rainier. We drove up to the Paradise Visitor Center to wander the trails as much as we could, before finding a campsite that night.
DAY 11: MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK TO SEATTLE, WASHINGTON
- From the campground in the park it was about 2 hours driving 100 miles back into the city.
- We got up early to beat the traffic just in time to return our rental car that morning.
Something I need to stress is that while we had a destination and a rough idea of how we would achieve it, every morning was a clean slate. We’d start by crawling out of our tents or off our friend’s couch and finding some biscuits and gravy – a personal favorite. Then we’d scrutinize the map to plan out how we could make the most out of our new day using knowledge we’d gained on the road thus far, i.e. tips from locals and visitor centers (gotta get that national park pin anyways), road closures, weather forecasts, etc.
Unless you’re the type of person who needs every minute of every day mapped out on your vacation, how much do Point A and Point B really matter? Leaving room for “error” is the fun part. The unexpected occurrences could turn out to be the best memories you make.
All images © 2010 – 2017 John Mason Harbison