Billy and I set out for a seven-day road trip in June 2016. We were originally going to venture into eastern Utah, but once the forecast started at 102 and continued to climb to 111 degrees, we opted out and headed up into the mountains instead.
I learned a lot about myself in seven (well, actually we only made it six) days in the car with a heavy dose of camping. Mostly, that I cannot hang and am incapable of camping two nights in a row, even with an air mattress and bathrooms with running water.
Here’s what else I learned.
Being in the desert (ie far from water) doesn’t mean bug-free.
Actually, quite the opposite. I learned this the hard way at Colorado National Monument. We were completely swarmed at dusk while we tried to “enjoy” dinner. The next morning, we started hiking shortly after sunrise, but by 9 am the bugs were out in full force again.
And, early summer doesn’t mean it won’t be incredibly hot.
Considering there was still several feet of snow in the mountains in May, I assumed that meant June would be relatively mild at lower elevation. That might be true in Denver (less and less each year, thanks global warming), but in the desert? Not so much. We were MELTING in Grand Junction, and canceled our original plans to go to Moab because the highs were over 110.
Camping is really hard.
Almost every night we camped, I woke up cold but also very damp. And by “wake up,” I mean “I woke up every few hours all night every night we camped.” We bailed (twice) on a second night of camping. The first time, we unashamedly left the campsite at 9 p.m. and just kept driving until the next town. The Dolores Mountain Inn was fantastic, if you ever find yourself in a similar spot in Telluride.
I realized that I just don’t sleep well camping, so I can’t do it multiple nights in a row without getting really grumpy. I’ve since made it two nights camping when we’re heading home on day three and I get to get back in my bed. Otherwise, it’s not gonna happen for me.
The only exception is renting a big ol’ camper van. We found one on Outdoorsy with a queen bed and slept like babies for multiple nights in a row.
I thought Mesa Verda National Park was kind overrated.
I think I over-estimated how interested in cliff dwellings I am. Also, the drive just to get to any archaeological site is at least an hour. I got so antsy on the drive back out of the park that I almost got a speeding ticket. The park ranger told me that he didn’t want me to be sorry, he wanted me to drive slower. And I almost sunk into the seat with shame/embarrassment. Way to cut to my core, park ranger.
A good cooler is a lifesaver on a road trip.
I rarely say this, but buy one now and don’t ever look back. Here’s my favorite. (Spoiler: it’s NOT a Yeti!)
I recommend a soft-sided cooler because it was much, much easier to pack around in the car. A good cooler will keep your food and drinks nice and cold, even if it’s really hot out. If you have lunchmeat or hot dogs packed for camping/road trip food, it’s especially important not to skimp. Keeping water and alcoholic beverages cold is a nice perk, too.
If you’re in a small town and your options are limited, look for the closest park.
In 2016, there wasn’t much in the way of lunch in Palisade. Instead of paying for overpriced, mediocre food, we saved our takeout budget for another day and drove to this park to grill up some hot dogs. We had a party for two in the giant “large group” pavilion since we were the only ones there! We saved a bunch of money on food for the day, plus got to relax in the shade and get out of the car.
The Million Dollar Highway is not nearly as dangerous as the Internet would lead you to believe.
I’ve driven it twice now (once by myself, once with Billy driving) and it’s nowhere near as death-defying as the Interwebs made me think. If you get carsick easily, it could be challenging at the beginning or end since those are the curviest parts.
However, I do recommend driving it south (from Durango) to north (to Ouray) so that you’re on the inside part of the highway, not on the edge. That’s a little more hair-raising since there are no guardrails (to encourage safer driving and so snow plows can get through).
When you’re almost to Ouray and you see a pull-out by a small waterfall on the side of the road, stop and look under the highway because there’s another ENORMOUS AMAZING waterfall that you can’t see from the road.
Body wipes and dry shampoo are surprisingly effective at making you a clean human.
If you’re doing a lot of camping, one XL Wilderness Wipe does a shockingly good job at making you feel like you just showered. If you have long hair, I also recommend bringing along a travel-size dry shampoo to keep the grease at bay.
Check local event calendars when you’re planning.
We made a last minute detour to Telluride (because Utah was an inferno) ad accidentally show up in during the Bluegrass Festival, which is arguably one of the biggest events of the year. I assume the festival will be back once the pandemic is under control (we went in 2016).
I don’t recommend showing up during the festival unless you plan on attending it too. Otherwise, you’re in for a lot of crowds. And a lot of unsolicited white guys playing guitar (ie: randos just attending the festival) while you try to eat lunch and tune out their drunken, off-key singing.
Packing and unpacking the car gets old. Unless you have a system.
We got so wildly disorganized that we were just throwing stuff in and out of the car at each stop. We couldn’t keep track of anything. Unpacking at the house was a total nightmare. I sweared never again!
When we hit the road in 2018 for our anniversary trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone, we had a system. It changed EVERYTHING. Packing and unpacking every other day was no longer stressful because everything had it’s place. It made unpacking at the end of the trip much less annoying (it’ll always be annoying because you’ll be tired). It requires a little more effort day-to-day, but ultimately saves you lots of time and energy.
If splurging on a camera that’s not your phone is an option, do it.
I got a lot of really great panoramas on my phone, don’t get me wrong:
In all seriousness, we got a digital camera as a wedding gift in 2017. This totally changed the quailty of our road trip pictures. This is definitely a luxury, not a must-have, but if it’s doable for you…do it! We’ve been able to print and display really high-quality pictures to help us remember our trips. You just can’t do that with a phone. Well, increasingly, you can, but I never have the most recent model of phone.
Don’t feel discouraged if you end the road trip with only more ideas for places to go.
Our first road trip took us to tons of new places in Colorado…and only inspired us to go to more places. That keeps happening on each road trip, and even though we sometimes feel bummed we couldn’t fit it ALL in, road trips are great inspiration for future ideas. There are endless options in the United States, so just keep planning!