Roadtripping Rules!

Crossing Utah's Open Range

Everybody, at least once in their lives, should road trip across the United States. Say what you will about this country, politically, ethically, or spiritually, but geographically, America is an amazing place. Take at least two weeks to cross, stick to the back roads and small towns, explore the parks, sleep under the stars, and take a walk someplace new everyday. By the time you cross the big rivers, wide plains, hot deserts and tall mountains and reach the other shining sea you will be deeply proud of this country in a much more tangible way.

I took my first real road trip right after I finished college.  I gave away everything that wouldn’t fit in my two-door VW, packed my dog, my hiking boots, and a trunk-load of books and hit the road. That summer I put about 6,000 miles on my car, and several hundred on my boots, crossing the country, exploring the land, not in terms of states or highways but as Earth and Sky and everything that lives in between. I slept under the stars every night and hiked many miles in every place I visited.

Me & the Grand Canyon

Along the way I crossed the mighty Mississippi for the first time, fell in love with the infinite nothingness of the plains, was deceived by a mirage in the heat of the desert, journeyed back through time to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, watched the sunset with a 4,000 year old bristle cone pine, and was awed by a meteor shower over my first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.

Forest of the Ancients, Sierra Nevada, California

Since that first road trip, I’ve never stopped traveling and I’ve learned a lot along the way. Whether you are heading on a weekend excursion to a neighboring state or lighting out for the opposite coast here are a few Rules of the Road that will make your trip much more enjoyable and affordable:

1. Always take the scenic route. The United States is the most geographically diverse country on Earth, home to nearly every kind of biome under the sun, but you’d never know it from the interstate system, where everything looks the same: smooth grades, big billboards and fast food. Interstate travel is boring and dangerous. Avoid it at much as possible.

Country road through the Sierra Nevada, California

2. Take a walk somewhere new everyday. I almost always travel with two high energy dogs who are consummate  road trip professionals as long as they get at least one good walk a day. I’m a country person and an avid hiker so I usually seek out backcountry trails where the dogs can run loose, but walking is also a great way to explore towns and cities along your route.

Dogs roughhousing on the highest point in West Virginia

3. Pull over often. If you see something interesting on the side of the road — Stop! Road tripping isn’t just about driving. You have to get out of the car every now and then if you’re going to enjoy the journey. I’m not just talking scenic overlooks. Make a point of visiting weird local museums and road side attractions like the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, Wyoming, the Underground Salt Mine Museum in Hutchinson, Kansas and Carhenge (a replica of Stonehenge made from junked cars) near Alliance, Nebraska.

4. Slow down! I know this rule just reiterates the first three, but I cannot emphasize enough that road tripping is not about reaching your destination! I try not to drive more than 4 to 6 hours a day and I never drive after dark. Of course, you won’t always have this luxury (just this past weekend I drove 1,400 miles from CA to NM in two marathon days) but the slower you go (keep it under 55) and the more you stop, the more you’ll see and seeing the world is what roadtripping is all about!

5. Always eat local. You can get McDonald’s anywhere, so seek out local gems like The Fish Nest (all catfish, all the time) in Glenwood, Arkansas or Bobcat Bite (best green chile cheese burger in the USA according to the NYT) in Santa Fe, New Mexico for a real taste of the local cuisine.

When in the South...

6. Camp out. Not everybody is a camper, but if you’re looking to make your road trip more affordable, sleeping under the stars is a great money saver. Besides, unless you have the money for unique B&B’s, hotels are pretty much the same everywhere you go: 4 walls, bad art, questionable bedding and an evil TV. Why pay $100+ a night for that? Most National Parks and State Parks offer scenic camping for under $20 a night and many National Forests campgrounds are free! Every park is unique, most are beautiful and some are downright breathtaking.

7. See as many sunrises and sunsets as possible. From the right vantage, the rising and setting sun is the greatest show on Earth and witnessing those moments always makes me feel like I’m in exactly the right place at the right time – no matter where the road has taken me!

Sunrise over Joshua Tree National Park, California

Check out my previous posts on How to Plan a Killer Road Trip as well as anecdotes from my ten epic cross-country drives and dozens of regional road trips! Questions, comments and suggestions always welcome!

Also see my How to Plan A Killer Road Trip posts on planning, budgeting, choosing copilots, packing and tips & tricks.

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
This entry was posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Roadtripping Rules!

  1. Barneysday says:

    I thoroughly enjoy your pieces and your pics are wonderful. Your dogs are the luckiest dogs in the world. Keep up the great work!

  2. Great rules for a road trip! We’re planning quite a few this summer, in fact. No motels for us either and we always stay off the interstates as much as possible. Nothing like the feeling of freedom and adventure while out on the road…and the housework and laundry at home can be ignored. lol! Speaking of laundry…how do you handle that while on the road….handwash, find a laundromat, pack plenty of clothes and wear everything 2-3 times?

    Oh, and I just have to balk at the idea that the NYT is choosing which restaurant makes the best green chile cheeseburgers in the USA. First of all, does anyone else even know what makes a good green chile cheesburger that doesn’t call New Mexico home? I would trust a New Mexican to make that decision over someone in New York. lol! New Mexico Magazine claims that Sparky’s down in Hatch (where the best green chile is grown) makes the best green chile cheeseburger. Bobcat is good, but many New Mexican’s swear by The Standard Diner, Frontier Restaurant, Blakes, and the long standing green chile cheeseburger rivalry between The Buckhorn and The Owl in Socorro. My favorite is a local place here in the Sandia Mountains called Burger Boy. It’s a tiny place with only 6 tables and the folks there know all of us local mountain neighbors by name. They grind their meat every day and their green chile is flame roasted and is driven up from the green chile capital of New Mexico, Hatch!

    But to truly taste test the best of what New Mexico has to offer in the way of Green Chile Cheeseburgers one has to travel the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail:

    Yeah, we New Mexican’s are truly passionate about our green chile cheeseburgers!


  3. You wrote what I thought. Have you ever read the book, “Blue Highways” or “Travels with Charlie”? They are wonderful – like your blog!

  4. EilisDoe says:

    How can you go back home and make something different than vagabonding ?? I know, I am perfectly aware that if I go anywhere, I will never come back. Maybe this is the reason why I haven’t yet gone…..

  5. Chinook Country Chick says:

    Thanks for sharing these tips! I am inspired to hit the road this weekend. Love your blog!

  6. P. C. Zick says:

    I have traveled this country many times. Seems the older I get, I get caught up in the destination. I very much appreciate your reminder about what the journey is all about. It’s the moment and the appreciation of where we are in the present not where we might be at the end of the road. Thanks so much for putting it all in perspective!

  7. I just road-tripped through Moab myself- such a unique part of the world. Thanks for the gorgeous photos of a place I love!

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