Our six favorite U.S. van routes

Looking back on our two and a half years of van travel, there are six stretches we especially enjoyed.

All of this is highly subjective, of course. But people often ask us, “What are your favorite places you’ve been?” And we find that the same answers pop up. So, without further ado, our favorite U.S. road trips:

 

1. Dark Skies and Red Rocks

The Route

Great Basin National Park > Moab, UT > Capitol Reef National Park > Bryce Canyon National Park > Zion National Park > Las Vegas, NV

Why We Loved It

Piety and sin, all against a backdrop of dramatic desert with red rocks you won’t see anywhere else—and far enough from city lights for views of the Milky Way

Best Times to Go

Spring and fall, since winters are freezing and summers are brutally hot (and crowded)

Don’t Miss

 


 

2. Hipster Appalachia

The Route

Greenville, SC > Asheville, NC > Johnson City, TN > Great Smoky Mountains National Park > Chattanooga, TN

Why We Loved It

Vibrant towns filled with makers, artists and outdoor activities, all with a dash of Southern hospitality

Best Times to Go

Almost any time of year, although it can snow in winter at higher elevations

Don’t Miss

 


 

3. Gentle Giants and Roaring Reptiles

The Route

Pretty much all of Florida—start in the panhandle, work your way down to the keys, then take a different way back!

Why We Loved It

It’s warm year-round, with plenty of campgrounds, water sports and subtropical scenery—plus some of the best state parks for wildlife

Best Times to Go

Fall, winter and spring, because it can be oppressively humid in the summer (and you probably want to avoid hurricane season)

Don’t Miss

  • Grayton Beach State Park, where you can walk along white sand beaches far away from the spring breakers in Destin
  • Tallahassee-St. Marks Trail, which offers 20 miles of paved bike path and ends in the coastal town of St. Marks where you can grab a meal
  • Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park’s La Chua Trail, which is littered with alligators that you can trip on if you’re not careful
  • Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail, with 16 miles of paved bike path through state park land
  • Ichetucknee Springs State Park, for tubing, kayaking or canoeing with turtles, manatees and beautiful birds
  • Cedar Key, for a taste of old Florida charm on the gulf coast
  • Blue Spring State Park, where you can see lots of manatees just relaxing in the St. Johns River from multiple viewing platforms
  • Everglades National Park, which we sadly didn’t make it to (we had our little dog and it was just too hot!) but is supposed to have amazing wildlife
  • The Florida Keys, for amazing views, boating, beaches and tourist traps
  • Miami’s art deco historic district, for excellent architecture and people-watching
  • Also, be sure to eat some Cuban food while in Miami and to have a blackened grouper sandwich somewhere on the coast

 


 

4. Reverse Lewis & Clark

The Route

Portland, OR > Eastward along the Columbia River > Pendleton, OR > Coeur d’Alene, ID > Highway 2 to Glacier National Park

Why We Loved It

Expansive forests, cooling lakes and rivers, and endless opportunities for hiking, biking and scenic drives

Best Times to Go

  • Late spring, summer and fall, because winter is too cold (unless you want to ski near Coeur d’Alene)

Don’t Miss

  • Portland, OR, for fancy coffee, craft beer, food carts, Powell’s Books and an all-around Portlandia experience
  • End of the Oregon Trail, a cheesy-yet-educational museum in Oregon City where you can learn more about the journey of westward settlers
  • Eagle Creek Trail, a spectacular hike with swimming holes, sheer cliffs and waterfalls
  • Hood River, OR, which is the home of many Columbia River Gorge-area breweries
  • Pendleton Underground Tours, to learn more about this western town’s history, including its brothels
  • Hells Canyon and the Snake River, for camping and water sports, like rafting, kayaking or canoeing
  • Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint, ID, for biking and water sports
  • Kootenai Falls, MT, for a short hike with stunning views of sacred waterfalls and rope bridges
  • Flathead Lake, MT, for crystal clear water that’s perfect for lazing around or boating
  • Hike to Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park, MT, while there are still glaciers left

 


 

5. The Third Coast

The Route

Clockwise or counterclockwise around Lake Michigan, which takes you through Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan

Why We Loved It

Get a taste of large and small midwestern cities and enjoy incredible views of some of the Great Lakes, which look a lot like oceans

Best Times to Go

  • Summer and maybe early fall—we made the mistake of going in late May and it was far too cold and rainy

Don’t Miss

  • Chicago’s Lakefront Trail, for gorgeous views of Lake Michigan and great people watching
  • Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in IN, where you can hike, bike or relax and enjoy the faraway Chicago skyline—it’s connected to a state park as well, and not far from a cute town called Chesterton
  • Small “coastal” towns in southwest Michigan, with nice downtown areas and pretty views—just hug the highway that follows the water
  • Traverse City, MI, with microbreweries, water sports and a walkable downtown, along with state park camping along the bay
  • Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in MI, an easy day trip from Traverse City with scenic drives, dune climbs and nearby wineries (who knew?)
  • Pasty and cudighi, two “Yooper” delights inspired by European immigrants
  • Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in MI, with great hiking and beautiful views of the stunningly clear water of Lake Superior (there are boat tours, too)
  • Marquette, MI, a lakeside college town on the upper peninsula (U.P.) with a lot of character
  • Madison, WI, an artsy city with biking, good food and lots to see

 


 

6. Prairies to “Fourteeners”

The Route

Badlands National Park > Rapid City, SD > Cheyenne, WY > Denver, CO > Durango, CO

Why We Loved It

Wide open grassland and curious prairie dogs, leading to spectacular Rocky Mountain scenery, 14,000-foot peaks and outdoor adventure

Best Times to Go

Late spring and early summer have warmer weather and more greenery; Badlands National Park is an inferno in late summer, although the rivers will be moving more slowly in late summer if you prefer mellow paddling

Don’t Miss

  • Sage Creek Rim Road in Badlands National Park in SD, a less-traveled dirt road with excellent scenery and wildlife viewing
  • Black Hills National Forest in SD, with beautiful campgrounds, stunning lakes and, of course, Mt. Rushmore (that, in our opinion, is worth a quick drive-by, but nothing more)
  • Cheyenne Depot Museum, with history of the Union Pacific Railroad since Cheyenne is a train town (and a brew pub next door)
  • Fort Collins, CO, the home of New Belgium Brewing and nearby Horsetooth Mountain
  • Chautauqua Park in Boulder, CO, with hiking trails leading to the Flatirons and nearby access to forest land
  • Red Rocks Amphitheater outside Denver, CO, where you can see a show, take a hike, or both, among giant red rocks with a view of Denver
  • Frisco and Breckenridge, CO, for mountain towns that feel like the right blend of lived in and touristy
  • Salida, CO, for a colorful western town right on the Arkansas River, which is popular for rafting
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park in CO, where you can sled down North America’s tallest sand dunes
  • Pagosa Springs, CO, for a soak in natural hot springs at different resorts along the San Juan River
  • Three Peaks Deli in Durango, CO, for a legitimately awesome sandwich and friendly service
  • Mesa Verde National Park in CO, where you can tour ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings on paid tours or view them from afar on a scenic drive

 

There are still a lot of places we haven’t been, and a lot of places we enjoyed that didn’t make this list. We also didn’t include anything in our home state of California because, quite honestly, the whole damn state is beautiful and you’d spend all your time there!

What are your favorite road trip routes? Let us know in the comments. Happy travels!

  4 comments for “Our six favorite U.S. van routes

  1. 2017-07-04 at 9:21 pm

    This is a great list and very well written. Keeping it for our future routes. Glad we’ve already done 2 out of 6 , yet so many things left to visit. I agree that Florida has amazing State Parks. Thanks for sharing!

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-07-05 at 8:55 am

      Glad you enjoyed it, Coralie! Hope you’re enjoying WWOOFing

      • 2017-07-06 at 9:41 am

        Haha! We had to cancel the Minnessota Wwoofing because of really difficult climate conditions up there in the forest and lack of facilities offered from the host… but this is postponed at a sweet farm in Oregon,in August 🙂 (realistically easier conditions for a first,I guess). Take care, safe travers!

        • Tamara & Chris
          2017-07-06 at 10:38 am

          Sounds great! Let us know when you make it to California — we’ll be there starting September

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