My family has a tradition of taking summer road trips across the U.S. We leave from North Carolina and drive out to California, stopping at highlights along the way. Then we head back along a different route, in a trip that usually totals around 8,000 miles—a lot of miles and a lot of fun.
This year, my family opted to stay home for the summer, so I decided to go on a cross-country trip anyway and bring a friend. My college friend Brockie and I ended up spending a month on the road, traveling in my minivan. Between the lack of showers and insanely high gas prices, it wasn’t what most people would call the ideal road trip. But it was one of the best months of my life.
From coast to coast
We left in mid-May, shortly after Brockie finished her spring semester. To start off, we headed south from North Carolina down to New Orleans, Louisiana. After squeezing back and forth through crowded alleyways until we found parking, we walked nearly the entire French Quarter. Next up was Baton Rouge, where we toured the old Louisiana State Capitol and nearly collapsed from heat exhaustion. (Walking 4 miles on hot pavement through a city in 100-degree heat turned out to be a bad idea.)
We spent several days in Texas, hitting Austin and San Antonio. Then we stocked up on food and water and drove to Big Bend National Park. The temperatures were brutally hot, limiting our hikes to the early morning and late evening. Neither Brockie nor I are early risers, but we managed to get up before dawn for a sunrise hike up the Lost Mine Trail.
Following Big Bend, we drove up to Arizona and stopped by Sedona and the Grand Canyon. At this point, Brockie and I were ready to get out of the desert. The next stop was the small town of Shelter Cove on California’s Lost Coast. It was Brockie’s first time seeing the Pacific Ocean, and we celebrated by playing ‘60s music on the black sand beach and dancing around in the rain, like idiots.
After a few days in the redwood forest, Brockie and I reluctantly left behind the lush greenery of Northern California and returned to the desert. We managed to hike four of Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks in a week (with no showers). Dusty and tired, we made it out of the desert and into Western Colorado, where we visited the small towns of Telluride and Ouray.
Finally we started the long drive back home, stopping in the Ozarks and Nashville on the way.
A glimpse into minivan life
Minivan life isn’t for everyone. It’s awesome as far as flexibility goes. But it still gets cramped and messy very fast.
Brockie and I are both very laid-back people, so we were happy with our simple yet chaotic minivan setup. We took the middle seats out of the vehicle and laid down the back seat, then put a queen-sized air mattress in the back. My minivan is really too narrow for a queen-sized mattress, so we couldn’t inflate the mattress fully, and the mattress popped up on the sides instead of lying flat.
Did we care? Nope. It didn’t matter anyway, because about halfway through the trip, the air mattress started to leak. Every night we reinflated it before going to bed, which was rather inconvenient. During long drives, bags would tip over into the collapsing middle, and quite often groceries spilled all over the mattress. But nevertheless, we made it work.
On nights where it rained, we kept the windows shut, making it extremely stuffy. Other nights we woke up to find that a whole swarm of flies had ventured through the rolled-down windows. (Parking next to a lake seemed like a good idea at the time.)
Would I do it all again? Absolutely. For me and Brockie, it was perfect. We had a lot of laughs shaking dust out of our hair, rolling around on our sunken mattress, and of course trying to get those stupid flies out of the van.
Beautiful (and not so beautiful) campsites
The awesome thing about minivan camping is that you can sleep almost anywhere. We could park the minivan, hop in the back, and comfortably sleep on the air mattress.
For much of the trip, we slept in campgrounds. I started planning our cross-country trip several months in advance, so I had time to reserve campsites at our major destinations, like Big Bend, Shelter Cove, and Redwood. In Utah, we primarily stayed in Bureau of Land Management campgrounds, which usually have open campsites and only charge about $10 per night.
However, Brockie and I were also on a tight budget. We ended up spending several nights at rest areas or truck stops. Other times we drove through the night, taking turns driving and sleeping. And yes, we spent one night in a Walmart parking lot. (It was simply convenient because we had to go grocery shopping in the morning before leaving town.)
Eventually, Brockie and I started to long for a real bed. We were lucky to stay with a friend in Texas on our way west. On the way home, we spent a couple of nights with friends in Western Colorado. It’s definitely helpful to have a few friends spread out across the country.
A black sand beach, an underrated national park, and a gondola ride
Although Brockie and I saw a lot of amazing places on our cross-country road trip, there were a few that really stood out. The first is the Lost Coast in California. The coastline there is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Between the black sand beach and the green mountain slopes rising from the ocean, I felt like I was in a different world.
I also loved Utah’s most underrated national park: Capitol Reef. It’s the park that everyone skips over, opting for Arches, Zion, or Bryce Canyon instead. But in my opinion, it’s Utah’s prettiest national park to hike. The canyon colors are so vivid that it’s like being surrounded by a sunset. My favorite hike there was the Cassidy Arch hike, which climbs up a canyon wall to a large arch and offers a stunning view of the landscape.
Southwestern Colorado will always be a favorite of mine, simply because I love the San Juan Mountains. Between the towns of Ouray and Telluride, it’s a hard toss-up as to which one is my favorite. I enjoyed hiking the grueling but rewarding perimeter trail in Ouray (with several waterfalls along the way), as well as visiting the hot springs and catching an outdoor evening concert. Meanwhile, in Telluride we had fun hopping on and off the free gondola sky lift, after browsing a local farmer’s market and taking a walk on the river trail. Both towns are beautiful and definitely worth a visit.
If you ever get the chance to visit any of these places, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.