Roadtripping Rules!

One of my all-time favorite roads into Monument Valley. 

This post is an oldie but a goodie. I thought I’d rerun it, as I’m in the midst of my eleventh cross-country road trip and I just thought of a new rule: Always roll down your windows!

When I get in the car, the first thing I do is roll down the driver’s side window. I don’t like feeling like I’m trapped in a little glass and metal box, breathing the same stale air. I’d rather be able to feel the breeze, work on my left arm tan (which is noticeably darker than my right arm) and smell the countryside, for better or worse, on hot days, cold days, and rainy days.

Windows Down, Life Elevated!

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.

Hello Alaska!

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.

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.

Two-headed dog at the 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. On a proper road trip, you should spend as much time out of the car as in it.

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 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 National Forests and BLM lands 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!

8. Always roll down your car windows! Don’t just see more of the world through your windshield, feel it, taste it, smell it through an open window. Freedom is in the air!

Sunrise over Joshua Tree National Park, California


Also see my How to Plan A Killer Road Trip posts on planning, budgeting, choosing copilots, packing and tips & tricks and my Boondocking 101 post on How to Camp For Free in Beautiful Places. Questions, comments and suggestions always welcome! 🙂

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.

34 Responses to Roadtripping Rules!

  1. Alice says:

    “There wasn’t any place as pretty as the one that lay ahead” A. B. Guthrie Jr.

  2. RoSy says:

    LOL on the two headed dog 😀

  3. I just re-introduced my girls to road tripping…Colorado to Michigan and back…Carhenge was a high light on our return

  4. Donna says:

    Thanks for reiterating your previous post on road tripping. The down turn in the economy dictates that living on the road is the only way I can retire, so I can’t wait to start my own journey even if it is 30 years later than I anticipated. I so love your wonderful Blog!

  5. Joni says:

    It was great to read that post again. And I WISH I could use the windows in my car!! I miss fresh as so much. I have a 12 year old car and once the driver’s side window would not work (i hate electric windows) and it cost me over $100 to get it fixed. Now all 4 of my windows are broken and there is no way I can afford to have them fixed. My dogs miss the wind in their faces too. Sometimes technology is not so great when you can’t afford to have it repaird. Give me a handle to roll my windows down any day!!! You don’t miss things like that until they are gone. Thanks for the repost.
    Take care

  6. umjm says:

    wise words. thanks for the blog. I look forward to every post.

  7. nutsfortreasure says:

    Life on the road is where my heart will always be. Keep on Truckin

  8. Thanks for reposting this blog. Makes me want to get to road-tripping sooner rather than later. We just returned from a very short road trip to visit friends in Colorado. Since time was a factor, we mostly travel the interstate. However, we did take time to stop at a little museum, The Santa Fe Trail Museum, in Springer, NM. Looking at the atlas you had suggested (which I subsequently purchased) we found a great paved and then dirt road over the mountains to reach our destination. On the way home, we found a country road to take part way back to Santa Fe. So much more scenic and interesting than the interstate. Thanks for suggesting the National Geographic Road Atlas – Adventure Edition.

    • Glad to hear you got yourself an Adventure Atlas! It’s by far my most valuable resource on the road. You’re very welcome. 🙂 M

      • Dear TBC,

        I found your blog through The Shunpiker, Ms. Marianne Edwards.

        I noticed your photo taken in Sierra Nevada and wonder if you can offer suggestions for backroads in that area. prefer gravel or dirt when I can find it.

        I just came from Northwest Montana (Seeley Lake area) and today am heading SW from Salmon, ID. I expect to reach NE California by the end of September. Average rate of travel (A.R.O.T. varies but I try to keep it under 50 miles/day).

        Nice photos!!

        My blog’s: Wahnfried Der Nomad (on blogger)

        Happy Trails!!

        MIke Herrmann

  9. hey mary, i promise to fellow all eigth rules as a roadsurfer!!. keep on roadtripping,your fan gary.

  10. Soody says:

    Hey there Mary,
    Just started reading your blog. I love your philosophy, photograghy and your furry children! I just got myself a little travel trailer and am chomping at the bit to get out there on the winding road- windows all the way down of course!! You are living one of my life dreams and I am inspired to get out there in the same adventurous way. You rock, woman. Don’t forget to howl at the full, blue moon tomorrow!

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  12. Michelle says:

    Found your blog & an inspired – love this post especially! Beautifully done – what a rich life!

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  15. ritaroberts says:

    Loved this post the first time Mary.Still as good reading it again. Thanks.

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