How To Plan A Killer Road Trip! Part 1

The Raven & the Rattler at Capitol Reef

So the great irony to this post is that these days, I spend very little time planning my road trips. After twelve 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!

Bowie copiloting with my Adventure Atlas. He’s lucky he’s cute.

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 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, recruiting co-pilots, packingthe fine art of Boondocking, my all-time favorite drives and lots of stories and photos from my past seven years on the road. As always questions, comments and suggestions welcome!

One of my all time favorite drives: Monument Valley!

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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23 Responses to How To Plan A Killer Road Trip! Part 1

  1. ldsiebs says:

    I love this post! You’ve inspired me, I’m going to buy my National Geographic Adventure Atlas today. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Me, too! I need that Adventure Atlas! You are my hero! We should meet up somewhere in the desert, shoot photographs and drink vodka 😉

  3. I thought of you the other day when I was in Albuquerque and saw an rugged looking off-road jeep with a license plate that said “Rattler” 🙂


  4. Rachael says:

    Brilliant post. So helpful. I will return to it when the next trip is being prepared.

  5. Pat Bean says:

    I find the more I plan, the more I see. But it’s also important to leave plenty of time for the unexpected treasures along the way, and don’t be afraid to change your plans or take frequent detours.

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  7. Great adventuring! Wish I’d done that when I was younger… 🙂

  8. Noel says:

    How do you handle the dogs at restaurants in a climate like NM? When I travel with mine, I usually bypass any meals inside unless it’s dark out, and cool, so he can stay in the car. Great blog!

    • I’d rather go hungry than leave my dogs in a hot car. If it’s over 70, it’s too hot! My dogs are good about being tied up, so that’s sometimes an option, if there’s shade. The Teardrop has been a godsend too- it doesn’t get hot the way a car does so I’ve been leaving them in the trailer with the popup open. The dogs have taken quite quickly to their new home on the road!

  9. Good information and very encouraging. My husband will want to read it, too. I also continue to love your pictures.

  10. You are my kind of traveler! I love your photos, and I love your style. The first year after my mother was widowed, she packed seven kids into a battered VW bus, hitched up an ancient Apache tent-trailer and we spent the whole summer on the road, traveling from one campground to another, stopping at every scenic viewpoint, state capitol, old battlefield, national park, historic viewpoint, tourist trap, and second cousin’s house along the way. Over the years, she drove us to the 49 states you could drive to, and kept us quiet by tossing comic books and Hostess Twinkies into the back seat when we got restless. Those travels helped shape who we are. Great post, great storytelling, great photos.

  11. That’s a pretty good plan! I’m going to try that for my next road trip!

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  16. sierrasue123 says:

    Just ordered my National Geo ad. atlas. Love you blog !!!

  17. the last photo is stunning and I want a National Geographic Adventure Atlas even though I have no road trip planned.

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  20. This is the life style we are going to pursue soon. Its time! We ll learn from you.

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