Choosing a destination, or destinations, is either the easiest or hardest part of the planning process. If you're stumped as to where to go, we recommend breaking each location down into four main areas to simplify the process:
- Best Time to Visit (What is the weather like? How are the crowds?)
- Distance (How far are you willing to travel to get there?)
- Activities Available (What is there to do there?)
- Unique Features (Are there interesting geologic, cultural, or environmental aspects?)
There are countless travel books out there with diverse recommendations on places you should see, along with thousands of locations that are hardly ever mentioned. So how do you sift through the endless options?
Develop a Location Profile
Prioritize the Four Main Areas. Select which is the most relevant to you:
Here's your Location Profile
It can be quite challenging finding a place that has both good weather and few people. National Parks tend to draw a lot of attention so we recommend you look closely at the National Forests and other land agencies.
Instead of travelling during high volume months (typically July/August), schedule your trip for a shoulder season. Mid-September through mid-October is often the best weather window and has much lower visitation.
Try to visit crowded areas mid-week to keep the numbers down a little bit. Autumn and Spring are also good times for you to travel.
Go ahead and hit up the high volume National Parks in busy months. Just remember to get your reservations and permits early to secure your spot.
Want to Travel Far? - The world is your oyster! Hit those foreign travel books hard in search for your perfect destination.
Want to Stay Close? - You're in luck! Between the National Parks, National Forests, and State Parks there is bound to be a quality location close to home. Take a close look at our pre-made GoogleMap of the National Park lands and you might be surprised!
One method for narrowing down the options is to look at Time Circles. Print out a map of the U.S. and draw circle with your home as the center. Look at what is available within two hours, six hours, and 12 hours.
Spread that map out and see where you can go. But remember that miles = higher cost while you are planning.
Drive to your hearts content! You're not going to be able to eliminate anything this way, unless you want to go far away intentionally, then eliminate closer options. This might be a good method for the weekend warrior who hits up local spot often and is looking to break away for a bit.
Choosing a location based on activity can be a great way to narrow things down fast. If an area doesn't have what you are looking for, cross it off the list and move on.
Prioritize what you want to do most. Maybe there is a great spot for backpacking but it doesn't offer the best climbing. A Tour Style trip where you visit more locations might be a good approach. That way you can see more and do more, but the cost will be a little higher. Tip- Get up early for the days activity, then drive in the late afternoon/evening to the next spot.
Focus on the unique aspects of the park instead of what there is to do. This approach really favors folks who enjoy hiking and auto-touring. There is a lot to see via day hikes and drives.
You might be more of a lay-on-the-beach kind of traveller. Awesome! Check out areas that support your chill nature.
One of the greatest joys of the road trip is seeing new and interesting sites. We recommend a full schedule when planning, but don't be afraid to skip things if you get held up on the road.
Pay attention to what each place has to offer. National Parks might be a good choice because they often showcase the most unique spots.
National Forests are home to some pretty rad areas and are often overlooked. They usually don't house the crown jewels of the area but that isn't as important for your trip.
Good news! You can really focus on what's close to home. That means lower trip cost and getting in touch with your local roots. Focus on areas less than eight hours away.
Hopefully you now have a clear idea of what you want from this trip. Now it's research time!
There are countless ways to find locations: guidebooks, blogs, forums, friends, maps. Use whatever format works best for you, but keep your Location Profile handy for reference. That way you can be sure your wants are being met. Check out my new Pacific Coast Road Trip Guide for some inspiration.
To help you get started check out this GoogleMap we've put together that includes National Park, National Forest, and National Seashore/Lakeshore lands. There is a lot out there!
Take some time to figure out where you want to go, then move on to Part 2 - Map Your Route
See you then!
-Views the full GoogleMap here.
-Look up average temperatures for the areas you are considering here.
Road Trip Planning Series
Planning a trip? Read all three articles in this series to learn about where to go, creating a route, and budgeting.