How To Plan A Killer Road Trip! Part 1

So the great irony to this post is that these days, I spend very little time planning my road trips. After ten cross-country trips and dozens of regional trips, I’m a master. I just grab my keys (and my Adventure Atlas!) and get in the car and go!

But if you’re new to road tripping, or if your idea of traveling by car involves hitting the closest interstate for several hundred — or thousands — of miles, a little planning can go a long way towards making any drive into a Classic Great American Road Trip.

Road tripping with my beloved VW "The Flying Machine" in eastern New Mexico.

The first step to planning any road trip, be it a leisurely weekend loop around your home state or a cross-country epic is to buy a National Geographic Adventure Atlas. Accept no substitutes and never leave home without it!

The Adventure Atlas is a road tripper’s dream: easy to read, virtually indestructible and chock full of information about what to see and do off America’s beaten paths. In addition to charting the best scenic routes (always take the scenic route!) the Adventure Atlas has detailed National Park maps and marks trails, campgrounds, stop-worthy roadside attractions like the National Coonhound Cemetery in Cherokee, Alabama and quirky museums like the Prairie Windmill Museum in Shattuck, Oklahoma.

Shattuck Windmill Museum

Once you have your Atlas, sit down with a highlighter, pick a state or a region and start marking all the places you’d like to see someday. All those little red squares marking geologic wonders, historical spots, famous residencesgeographical oddities, museums and attractions are sure to whet your appetite for the open road. (Just now I highlighted the site of the first US Train Robbery in Adair, Iowa and Legend Rocks Petroglyph Site near Hamilton Dome, Wyoming, for future road tripping reference). Also take note of the thousands of state parks, state forests, recreation and scenic areas, BLM lands, National Forests, National Monuments, and National Parks marked in green. Roads through these areas are usually jaw-droppingly scenic and they’re also great places to stop for picnics, hiking and camping (look for the little green tents!).

Sweet *free* campsite in Olympic National Forest, Washington

Now, with your highlighter, start connecting your dots using as many of the scenic routes and back roads as possible and voila: a killer road trip route. Of course, where you’ll go and how far you’ll drive will depend on how much time and money you have to spend on the road. If at all possible, aim to drive no more than 4 to 6 hours a day and plan on making several stops every day. Remember: on a proper road trip you should spend almost as much time out of the car as behind the wheel!

Hopefully this post and my previous post on Roadtripping Rules will help get you started! Stay tuned for future posts on How to Afford A Killer Road Trip, route recommendations, my all-time favorite drives and lots of stories and photos from my past six years on the road. As always questions, comments and suggestions welcome!

My new ride "The Raven" descending from California's High Sierras into the Mojave

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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17 Responses to How To Plan A Killer Road Trip! Part 1

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