How to start planning your South-West USA roadtrip: my itinerary and tips

April 30, 2016. D-Day. The day I was –finally- boarding a plane to go scratch off the #1 on my travel bucket list; the South-West of the United States of America. To say I was excited would be the biggest understatement in the history of understatements. In sixteen days, we’d travel through four of America’s states: California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. We had estimated to drive around 5500 kilometers, but it ended up being 6235km. Oops.

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But of course this trip required a lot of preparation. This isn’t a kind of trip you can just wing and see whatever comes your way. You need some kind of schedule. The easiest way to plan this, is to book everything through a travel agency.  But we didn’t want to be restricted by any organization that told us to be there at that time etc so we decided to work it all out ourselves. This way we weren’t going to lose time on things we didn’t want to see and could fully focus on all those things our hearts desired.

But boy had we underestimated the puzzle before us. Another hotel/place every night and many things to see along the way. The conclusion was quickly made: we’d have too little time for everything. 

To make things easier on ourselves, we decided to base our trip on one we found in a travel guide; Lannoo’s California & South-West America (Only available in Dutch). This itinerary matched what we wanted to do quite well, so it was a great foundation for our trip. Then we started taking out the places that didn’t interest us and tried to insert the things they didn’t do but we did want to see. It still requires a lot of work and it’s still quite the puzzle to figure out, but it helps a lot to have something to start from.

Lannoo's autoboek - Californië en Zuidwest-USA

This was the trip we ended up doing:

Date Hotel in Things to see
April 30 San Francisco San Francisco
May 1 Monterey San Francisco
17-mile drive
May 2 Santa Monica Pacific Highway 1
Santa Barbara
Santa Monica
May 3 Kingman Beverly Hills – Hollywood
Route 66
May 4 Grand Canyon Village Grand Canyon
May 5 Page Grand Canyon
Horseshoe Bend
Lake Powell
May 6 Blanding Antelope Canyon
Monument Valley
Mexican Hat
Valley of Gods
Natural Bridges National Monument
May 7 Moab Canyonlands National Park
Dead Horse Point State Park
Arches National Park
May 8 Torrey Arches National Park
Goblin Valley State Park
Capitol Reef National Park
May 9 Tropic Capitol Reef National Park
Bryce Canyon
May 10 Springdale Bryce Canyon
Zion National Park
May 11 Las Vegas Zion National Park
Valley of Fire
Las Vegas
May 12 Furnace Creek Las Vegas
Red Rock Canyon
Death Valley
May 13 Mammoth Lakes Death Valley
Mammoth Lakes
May 14 Midpines Mono Lake
Yosemite National Park
May 15 San Francisco Airport Yosemite National Park
May 16 San Fransisco

We were able to do everything we absolutely wanted to do, and even some less known places along the way. We did spend a great deal of time beforehand planning everything, but it was absolutely worth it. Being prepared is necessary for this kind of trip.

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In case you’re also planning a sort-like roadtrip, here are five main things to keep in mind:

1.       Accept that you can’t see everything.

When we first started planning, we wanted to see even the littlest thing along the way, but soon we realized that that would be impossible. You only have 24 hours in one day (sadly) and you do need to sleep a few of those in order to function properly.

We ended up making an itinerary with everything we definitely wanted to see and then for every day of our trip, we had a list of extras along the way we were also interested in, but didn’t need to see. In case we had some time left on our hands, we would be able to pick something off that list to do. This worked pretty well and made sure we never had a dull moment, but also had time to breathe. 

2.      Have a foundation to start your itinerary

We thought it would be possible to just start this trip from scratch, but that just isn’t. You’ll need a structure to start from, if only to be able to estimate the distances between the parks. Many travel guides come with enclosed trips, but you can also find many options online from people who have done this trip before you. Then it’s only a matter of making a few changes to turn it into your dream holiday. 

3.      Make a time schedule

Make a schedule which gives you the time you have to be at a certain point at the latest. This will prevent that you have to rush at the end of the day to make it to your hotel or last stop because you spend just a little bit too long at one park or in one place. 

Before leaving, we had already looked up the trails and viewpoints we wanted to do/see in every park and this way we could easily determine how much time we would aproximately need for each park. Also calculate enough time to drive from one place to another. You don’t want to mess up your schedule just because you made a wrong turn at a certain point. 

4.      Book well in advance

Don’t be tempted by last minute deals on flights. We had only about four months to plan everything, and while that’s enough to determine what you want to see, it’s already a bit too late to get the great hotel deals. Especially during the summer months. A trip like this should be booked at least six months in advance, and during summer I would suggest even a year in advance. Hotels do fill pretty quickly and you don’t want to end up in a shabby place.

For those interested, I can provide you with a list of all the hotels we stayed at. We didn’t have any bad experiences even though we booked quite late and lot of the good hotels were already full. It did give us some extra stress to figure everything out and some were of course a bit more expensive or at least less value for money due to little availability. 

5.      Get your hotel close to – or if possible in – the park

You save a lot of time by staying close to or in the parks (if possible) overnight. In the Grand Canyon for example we had a hotel in the Grand Canyon village and that way we were able to see the sunrise early in the morning as we only had to open our door and walk a few minutes to the rim. A unique and unforgettable moment.  The downside is of course that food is quite expensive there, but it’s worth it to save the time of driving out the park and back in it in the morning. We easily solved that by buying some sandwiches before entering the park, so there are always solutions. 

You do need to book early to get a hotel in the park, so back to tip number four. Or in our case of being a bit late, you need to be lucky that there are cancellations. We checked the website almost every day and a few weeks before our trip, there was suddenly a room available again. So if everything is full and you have to get a hotel outside the park, make sure you can still cancel in case something in the park becomes available again. 

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So that’s it for now. In the coming weeks, I’ll blog  all about my experiences during my trip. You’ll find posts about San Francisco, Los Angeles and the fabulous Las Vegas, but I’ll also discuss every park we visited, hotels we stayed at and many other tips.

Do any of you have extra main things to add to my list? Do you have anything about this trip you really want to read about?

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