If you plan for it, a U.S. road trip can mean spending equal time cruising through jaw-dropping landscapes and stretching those legs in the wilderness. Travel podcaster Adrien Behn lays the groundwork for a national park-fueled drive. Note: There will be brews and baked goods.
For years, I dreamed of embarking on the Great American Road Trip. Doing it during a global pandemic was not what I had in mind. But after a year of becoming too acquainted with the stains on my living room rug, it became clear that I needed to get out of the house. Since our unlimited travel options had shrunk down to domestic adventures bolstered by remote working, my partner, Sam, and I figured we would make the best of living somewhere else for a month, and have an adventure getting there in Sam’s blue Subaru (nicknamed Blubaru). We picked the opposite of our metropolitan life: rural, red, rugged Arizona. If you’re chomping at the bit to get out and explore, here’s one way you can do it safely, easily, and affordably.
The 411 on Road Tripping Safely
If you're vaccinated, put your vaccine passport in your wallet or download the digital options like Clear's Health Pass and New York’s Excelsior Pass (a noble pass indeed). If you are not vaccinated, get tested before you leave and have a record of your negative results. It is essential to research each state's mandates, which you can find at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website and each state's travel bureau website. The name of the game is flexibility — plan for plans to come undone and have other routes and options as backups.
Our smooth highway systems easily connect us to all corners of the country and all manner of landscapes, cultural hubs, and aesthetics — sin passport. Road stops are well stocked to satisfy cravings for caffeine and sustenance, offer affordable gas pricing, and (often) surprisingly clean bathrooms. On my travels, I found most attendants wearing masks and enforcing mask rules, as well as offering hand sanitizer.
With the advent of the vaccine and an uptick in travel, don’t automatically expect deals (or vacancies, for that matter) for hotels, hostels, or motels. All the hotels we stayed in were sealed with the Lysol sticker of cleanliness with workers wearing masks and gloves. When staying in Airbnbs, we coordinated contactless check-in and received our keypad lock and WiFi passwords before hitting the road.
Cell service on this route is touch and go. For the most part, highways are reliable, but be sure to download all the podcasts, music, and audiobooks to keep you entertained. For more practical matters, download offline Google maps, so you can always know where you are going even when you drop to one bar.
If You Only Do One Thing
Go to as many National Parks as possible. An annual National Parks pass will grant you unlimited access to all parks for the year. From the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon to the Florida Everglades, I highly suggest taking the most extreme nature bath of your life. On this particular trip, we were lucky to hit Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, and the Grand Canyon.
COVID precautions mean some parks are limiting capacity, requiring advance purchasing (for shuttles, etc.), like in Zion. Recreation.gov is the app to ensure you get tickets ahead of the crowd. Additionally, the AllTrails app allows you to search and find updated conditions, recommendations, tips, and difficulty levels for hiking routes.
Our Itinerary: Favorite Spots + Surprises
A lot of the actual driving was spent staring out on the I-40 highway and burning through every episode of Deadeyes available.
Hack your planning by pinning everything you want to do, where to go, and where you will be staying within Google Maps. You can label and download it offline for when service dips somewhere in Iowa, so you never feel lost. Sam and I chose the cities we wanted to visit and the parks we wanted to explore then worked our way backwards. We wanted to get to the southwest as quickly as possible, so getting there and back was optimized for speed, not scenery. Santa Fe was our first real stop on our way in. We chose cities on the way that would help us cover as much ground as possible and break up the trip. For our exit, we wanted to hit Boulder and Chicago, so we worked our way from Flagstaff.
We started in Brooklyn and drove to Indianapolis, which was roughly 14 hours with stops. From there we buzzed eight hours to Tulsa, Oklahoma. It took only nine hours to get to Santa Fe, where we indulged for a few days. After some good emotional space from Blubaru, we drove another eight hours to the Airbnb in northern Arizona where we lived for a month.
We took a different route on the way out to keep it fresh. We went from Flagstaff to Telluride, Colorado, an easy six hours. Another six sweet hours through the Rockies brought us to Boulder. From Boulder, we rushed to Omaha and, from there, Chicago, which took us seven hours. Then we braced ourselves for a 13-hour drive from Chicago to New York.
Indianapolis is an unsuspectingly delightful city. After a 13-hour drive from New York, Sam and I were weary-eyed and weepy. Joey, the manager at Indy Hostel, set us up in a two-bedroom apartment so our 11 p.m. arrival wouldn’t bother anyone else. Indy Hostel is locally owned in the up-and-coming Meridian-Kessler neighborhood built out of refurbished homes. Two separate houses offer a variety of housing, like a two-bedroom apartment, double private rooms, and a 12-bed co-ed shared dorm. They are limiting their capacity, but a few people were walking around in the community area with masks. They have a wrap-around backyard with a stage for comedy sets or small weddings. For breakfast, we indulged outside at the quaint Three Sisters for breakfast in artsy Broad Ripple, just north of where we stayed. If you have an afternoon to spare, check out the Kurt Vonnegut Museum (limited capacity at the time) or get your ticket in advance for the Newfields Museum of Modern Art and gardens. We grabbed Jack’s Donuts and paired it with Monon coffee as a road snack before another long driving day.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Santa Fe is one of the few cities that has a tenacious hold on its original architecture. Where concrete and steel make up most American cities, Santa Fe is still covered in clay. We splurged at The Inn of the Five Graces —not a hidden gem, but it does give the allure of seclusion and serenity. Each room is intricately decorated with embroidered and vibrant pillows, rugs, and furniture. We walked from the lobby into a labyrinth of rooms and courtyards that branched off to rooms. Our suite was a living piece of art, and I almost didn’t want to touch anything (but I touched everything). New Mexico is secretly good at wine. Hevre Wine Shop is a gorgeous space to sip on locally made wine and be in extreme bohemian elegance.
It’s hard to leave Santa Fe without redecorating your whole house. Rainbow Man is filled with native poetry and folk art; Turquoise Trail Jewelry is overflowing with gemstones, jewelry, and crystals; and Seret and Sons offers kaleidoscopic rugs and hand-embroidered throw pillows.
Zion and Springdale, Utah
Zion lives up to its name. The main entrance to the park is located in Springdale, a world of its own. It is a delightful stretch of crystal shops, hiking gear shops, and highbrow/ lowbrow dining options. We carefully weighed ours amongst the dozens of different kinds of rocks, crystals, and gems at Zion Rock and Gem and walked away with a six-pound amethyst. (Thank god for the car.) Protein coffee shakes from FeelLove are just what the doctor ordered to get to the top of the cliffs.
We had planned to do Angel’s Landing or the Narrows (which you need wet gear for), but due to COVID, the shuttle required tickets ahead of time, so we mised out (find them on the Recreation.gov app). Our day was far from ruined, though, as there are some non-shuttle options. We hiked along the Watchman trail, a three-mile hike on a switchback path that overlooks the entrance of the park and the nearby cliffs. Once our steps app hit 16,000, we ate our weight in steak and ribs at Switchback Grille, including a pyramid of onion rings which I happily devoured. For late-night drinks and dessert, Zion Brewery is conveniently located at the mouth of the park’s entrance.
We loved Springdale so much we came back for seconds. To avoid the crowds at the more popular trails, we hiked Kolob Canyon, the north side of Zion that led us through a magical evergreen forest and wavy red sandstone walls (and WAY fewer people). We celebrated at The Whiptail Grill Mexican restaurant, where we watched the full moon rise over the russet-red cliffs and ate the best nachos of our lives.
Bryce Canyon, Utah
Bryce Canyon did not have a quaint town attached to it, but it was jaw-dropping from the moment we started reaching down. One hike is to start at a lookout point that is a panoramic view of thousands of hoodoos. Hoodoos are specific rock formations that start as long elevated cliffs and over time break apart into tall slender columns with caps on their tops.
Sam and I did the Peekaboo trail, which is a three-parter. This 5.5-mile roundtrip hike starts at the lookout view of Sunset Point down to the desert sands of Queen’s Garden. Peekaboo was a thigh-killer but way less crowded than other park routes. It swirled us around for amazing up-close views of windows and unique hoodoo formations. There were moments I was convinced we were on Mars.
The eye-catching, creamsicle Vermilion cliffs were the backdrop to our drive down to Flagstaff. Flagstaff is a fun, artsy, hippie college town surrounded by evergreen mountains that make you feel like you took a wrong turn and drove to Oregon. You can’t throw an empty beer can (please don’t litter) and not hit a microbrew in Flagstaff. We had some bitter IPAs and burgers at Historic Brewing Barrel + Bottle House, an industrial-inspired microbrew.
The next morning we got up early for the 90-minute drive to the Grand Canyon. We got in around 9:30 a.m. and were able to snag a parking spot before the lot filled up for the day. The shuttle buses to different hiking points had sliced their capacity from 75 people to 15 due to COVID, and the lines were long. Again, Sam and I wanted to push ourselves, so we hiked six miles round trip to Skeleton Point. When we arrived, we both teared up at from the lookout point. The muted violet canyons were stunning. The next morning, after a deep sleep at our Airbnb, we hit the road for our two-day trip to Colorado, but not before we stopped at White Dove for a solid coffee and spectacular gluten-free blueberry muffin.
Boulder’s charm made it difficult to leave Colorado. Although we were in a big city, our accommodations sold us on the woods. Foot of the Mountain Motel is a cute-borderline kitschy log cabin that channels 1950 roadside motor lodging — but with stable WiFi. The motel was perfect for COVID precautions: no hallways, lobbies, or common eating areas. The property leads right to a hiking trail (obviously).
Although Foot of the Mountain is surrounded by a forest, it’s only a five-minute drive to Pearl Street Mall, an open-air, pedestrian-friendly strip with a rotation of hiking gear shops and microbrews. We chowed down at the industrial yet hip Oskar Blues Taproom with squishy pretzels, brisket sandwiches, and solid brews and had dessert at Gelato Boy. In the morning, Sam and I hit up Amante for exceptional espresso that could have helped us make it to the top of Flagstaff Mountain in record time. Instead, we used that caffeine hit to help us get to Omaha in under eight hours and then onto Chicago the next day.
Chicago was a good reintroduction to big city life. Sam took over planning for this portion of the trip and treated us to a stay at the Waldorf Astoria with a spacious suite and extremely comfortable robes. It was right in the center of downtown and a ten-minute walk to Lake Michigan. We walked past the Gold Coast neighborhood, lined with envy-stirring brownstones. We had dinner around the corner at Gibson’s Steakhouse, one of those places with photos of celebrities on the walls (whether or not they have visited). We walked around the art deco streets decorated with old gas street lamps of the North Wells neighborhood to Jeni’s ice cream. In the morning, we snagged some of Stan’s Donuts around the corner. Chocolate glaze lingered on our lips on our last day of adventure. Then we braced ourselves for a tight 13-hour trip to our own beds in Brooklyn.
What I Wish I Had Known on the First Day
Stay hydrated. That might seem obvious, but driving through different elevations, landscapes, and temperatures in a day can be a real shock to the system. If anything, you will avoid waking up at 2 a.m. to the sound of your partner hitting his head on the bathroom floor due to a dizzy spell and have to rush 40 minutes to the closest emergency room in rural Arizona. (True story.) Drink up.
When to Go/Weather
Spring and fall seem to be ideal times to take a road trip. Activities during the high summer season crowd out quickly and prices and temperatures rise. Spring and fall are also delightful because you see the flora waking up or leaves changing colors.
For National Parks specifically, try to work around national holidays because most parks are free then, and therefore swarming with humans. Spring break is also a doozy, so if it isn’t your only option, try to go a little bit before or after.
What to Pack
Hiking boots *clap, clap, clap* From National Parks to backyard treks, a pair of sturdy shoes will keep your feet protected and help you become your fiercest Cheryl Strayed for a few hours. On trails that are less traveled or still have snow, Converse just won’t cut it.