So You’re Planning a Roadtrip

Though it’s easy to make traveling purely about the destination (because we get excited about new places!), if you have the time to commit to a roadtrip, it’s an ideal way to refocus your travel around the act of traveling itself- that is, the journey. The way roads wind through landscapes, the roadside vegetation, the climate, the people-watching- these are all things I love about roadtripping. And as someone who’s made their way across the country via automobile a few times, I like to think I know what I’m talking about.

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Driving through Banff National Park in Canada

I’m planning a few roadtrips for this summer too- one from Wyoming to New Mexico, another from New Mexico to North Carolina, and then one from North Carolina back to Wyoming. Mapping out potential routes is almost more fun for me than the actual trip itself, but looking at Google Maps got me thinking: what advice do I have to aspiring roadtrippers? (I know you’re out there!) So below I have some advice organized by stages of the planning process, and then at the end I’ve included my abridged packing list to spark some wanderlust-y ideas for you!

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Southern Wyoming sagebrush prairie

Planning a Roadtrip:

  • Map out your route, starting with the quickest way between your start and end points. Are there nearby cities, national parks, historical sites, or other places you may want to stop that aren’t on this most direct route? If you’re planning on making your way quickly, try not to plan a day of driving longer than 8 hours. Though that doesn’t sound like a lot, when you throw in eating and bathroom breaks (and sightseeing!), that’s absolutely a full day. If you’ll be trading shifts behind the wheel with a partner or friend, you can of course do longer days, but even then be mindful of how cranky several full days of sitting can make your body feel. Also try to avoid large cities around rush hour– that is, unless you love traffic.
  • Get AAA! Or figure out if your car insurance company or car manufacturer offers roadside assistance. These programs are lifesavers should your car break down. In addition, AAA members get discounts at campgrounds and hotels all over the country. To note, if you’re roadtripping with a friend, only one of you needs to have AAA because they’ll provide roadside assistance to their members even if that member is a passenger in someone else’s car- of course speaking from personal experience.
  • Try to make reservations ahead of time, if possible. During the summer especially many campgrounds (both private and public) book up months in advance! Websites like reserveamerica.com allow you to search for campgrounds and pay online. If you’re considering a private campground, check for reviews on websites like yelp first to ensure the amenities you want are available, like potable water, toilets, or showers. KOA campgrounds aren’t the most scenic, but they often have laundry facilities and other conveniences available. For any campground, try to arrive before nightfall since it can be practically impossible to find your campsite in the dark. If you lean more toward hotels, consider setting up an account with a website like hotels.com, which gives you 1 free night at member hotels for every 9 nights you book through them. If you don’t want to shell out for hotels but still aren’t psyched on camping, check out websites like airbnb and couchsurfing, which allow you to stay with locals and within the bounds of your budget. If you’re bringing along a furry friend, you’ll need to check whether all the places you plan to stay are pet-friendly. Certain hotel chains are pet-friendly, but typically charge extra fees for the service.
  • If you’ll be traveling through or spending time in wilderness areas where predators like bears or mountain lions live, educate yourself about how to behave in these animals’ territories and what to do should you encounter a bear or mountain lion. For example, if you’ll be backpacking through grizzly bear country, buy some bear spray and learn how to use it. Being in bear country also affects the way you store any scented goods like food or lotions- here is a good list of tips for traveling in grizzly bear country.
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Driving through Big Sur on the California coast

Right Before You Leave:

  • Call your credit card company/ies to let them know when and where you’ll be traveling. I forgot to do this once, and when I tried to buy breakfast at a cafe in San Francisco the first morning I was there, my card kept getting declined. After a brief call to my credit card company I was able to use my card again, but only after I was a little annoyed and thoroughly embarrassed. Communicating your plans ahead of time will ensure your card works throughout your trip.
  • Get a phone charger for your car so you aren’t reliant on electricity, which is great if you’re planning on camping. This way your phone can charge while you drive!
  • Bring physical maps with you, whether you buy a road atlas or just print out copies of your directions from Google Maps. There will likely be many instances in which you won’t have cell phone service or LTE/4G to help you navigate.
  • Get a simple first aid kit outfitted with things like bandages, antibiotic ointment, alcohol swabs, tweezers, gauze, medical tape, and painkillers. You can find a complete kit like this at a drugstore or a store like Target or Walmart. You might also consider adding small packets of antihistamine medication (in case you struggle with allergies on your trip) or caffeine pills (if you get tired behind the wheel)- you can get these smaller packets at most gas stations. Obviously stock up on any medication you use regularly and bring that along, too.
  • Consider buying or borrowing jumper cables, a small jack, a spare tire, and a headlamp or flashlight. These items will seriously help you out should you encounter any car trouble.
  • While we’re on the subject of your car, schedule an oil change and get any timely maintenance your car may need BEFORE you leave, such as tire rotations/new tires, new belts, new brake pads, fluid flushes, etc. Your car can’t take care of you if you’re not taking care of it!
  • Make a fun playlist! Not only does this keep you excited about your trip, it will also prevent you from messing with your phone or iPod while you drive. Bonus: if you select songs to which you can sing along, this will keep you from getting sleepy behind the wheel (speaking from personal experience here, obviously). You can also utilize driving time to catch up on great podcasts or audiobooks.
  • Stock up on yummy snacks that won’t require refrigeration and won’t melt in the backseat like nuts, dried fruit, M&Ms, pretzels, veggie chips, granola, protein bars, jerky, little cups of fruit or applesauce, etc.
  • Tell someone you trust your entire itinerary in as much detail as you can provide including where you’ll be when, the route you’re taking, how to contact you, and where you’re planning to spend each night. Provide them with your car’s make and model in addition to your license plate information if they don’t already have it. If something happens and you aren’t where you planned on being, this person will not only know, but will be able to provide authorities with crucial information about your plans. Also tell this person where/when you anticipate not having cell phone coverage, if applicable.
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Bears Ears National Monument in Utah

On the Trip:

  • OMG you’re doing it! Take all the photos! Fill up your journal with tales of your adventure! Eat all the food! Stop at all the cool, weird, beautiful places!
  • Be mindful of possible delays on your trip like road construction, traffic, weather, and accidents. Many roads in more mountainous or remote areas close seasonally, so check the Department of Transportation’s websites for each state you’ll be traveling through for relevant information, especially if you’re traveling in the winter or spring. Additionally, if you’ll be driving anywhere at 5,000 feet above sea level or higher, no matter the time of year, bring a big coat and a warm hat. High deserts, prairies, and alpine areas and campgrounds can get below freezing temperatures even in the summer.
  • Some basic ground rules: don’t text and drive– use a friend, voice recognition software, or just pull over if you need to. In this vein, please don’t drink and drive either. Consider only drinking when you’re set up for the evening, or when you’ve arranged alternate transportation (e.g. walking, public transit, taxi, or designated driver).
  • Give yourself time to eat and move. Though it can be tempting to drive all day and eat fast food in the car, try to take a break for lunch, maybe eating at a non-chain restaurant. Websites like yelp and tripadvisor can guide you toward unique eateries. Take regular breaks not just to use the bathroom, but to walk and stretch. Our necks and shoulders can get particularly tight in the car- here are some useful stretches you can practice on your trip.
  • Only access sensitive information on secure WiFi. In other words, avoid checking your bank account balance or your email on public, non-password protected WiFi networks, like those at restaurants.
  • Trust your gut. If something seems off, it probably is. Don’t be afraid to pack up and leave because the guy in the next campsite is acting creepy, or to change your plans entirely when the motel or diner feels off. You’re not obligated to chat with or help someone if you feel unsafe or if you don’t have the time. This is your trip! You don’t owe anyone anything except to keep yourself safe.
  • Keep in touch with your trusted person! Tell them at regular intervals where you are and how you’re doing. Use a payphone or a landline if necessary. Send them amazing photos and make them jealous!
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Salt Lake City, Utah

Finally, here’s my abridged roadtrip packing list for this summer:

  • Journal + pens
  • Approximately 50 books
  • Cell phone equipped with some audiobooks + earbuds
  • Laptop + charger
  • Wallet
  • Sunglasses (maybe 2 pairs since I seem to always lose 1 on every trip)
  • Hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
  • Lip balm with SPF
  • Deodorant
  • Face/body wipes (I like Burt’s Bees and these Yuni shower sheets)
  • Scentless lotion
  • Dry shampoo (these two are my favorites)
  • Hairbrush/comb
  • Extra ponytail holders
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Toothpaste & toothbrush
  • Travel towel (like this one)
  • Toilet paper
  • Sandals for driving (wearing close-toed shoes in the car? ugh!)
  • Hiking boots + wool socks
  • Rain jacket
  • Warm jacket
  • Swimsuit
  • Comfy driving clothes (aka NOT JEANS)
  • Travel yoga mat (I have this Manduka one that folds up into a little square)
  • Camera + battery charger
  • Headlamp + extra battery
  • Sleeping bag + sleeping pad
  • Pillow
  • Swiss army knife or multi-tool
  • Camp kitchen like this one (including stove, gas canister, eating utensils, etc.)
  • Sponge + biodegradable soap
  • Paper towels
  • A few plastic shopping bags to serve as trash bags
  • Water bottles + Camelbak bladder
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Wide open roads in Wyoming

What does your ideal roadtrip look like? And what would you add to my tips or packing list? Let me know! Happy travels.

Love to all.

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Banff National Park, Canada

We got to Banff by driving up the west side of Glacier National Park, through the Canadian border, and up through Kootenay National Park in Canada. The highway that runs through Banff National Park is called the Trans-Canada Highway, or AB-1 (the “AB” is short for Alberta, the province).

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Driving through Banff National Park on AB-1

We stopped for dinner at the Juniper Bistro just outside of the town of Banff, which is located in the east-central part of the national park. The cafe is inside the Juniper Hotel, and has excellent views of the park thanks to a whole wall of windows. I’d say the food deserves the hype; my crispy duck was delicious. Plus our waiter was really helpful in telling us how to locate the climb Matt and I planned on doing while we were visiting the park, a multi-pitch sport 5.7 called Aftonroe.

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Another drive-by photo from AB-1

We stayed at the Grande Rockies Resort in Canmore, a town just outside Banff National Park on its eastern side. This place had a mean waterslide, and a very nice hot tub to boot.

The next morning, Matt and I awoke early to eat breakfast before our climb. In doing some additional research the night before, Matt had learned that the portion of the road you drive to get to the approach trail to the climb, Bow Valley Parkway or AB-1A southeast of Johnston Canyon Campground, is closed from 8PM to 8AM every day to protect wildlife. This meant we didn’t have to wake up super early since we couldn’t get to the approach trail until 8AM anyway.

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The view from the hike up to our climb, with Bow River in the foreground

We drove toward Banff, then got on AB-1A just north of town, and parked at a small pulloff to the left after driving about 8-10 minutes on AB-1A. A little overlook of Bow River was to the left of the pulloff. The approach trail started on the right side of the road, eventually crossing underneath some powerlines. It was a short hike (maybe 20-25 minutes), but very steep. We joked that Canadians must not approve of switchbacks. Already the view from the hike was pretty incredible.

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Matt on the hike up to Aftonroe

The last five minutes or so of the approach were filled with scrambling up scree. Finding the route was fairly easy since it’s the rightmost one on the wall. The rock in this part of the park is a very featured limestone, though in other areas it transitions to granite.

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One of the middle pitches of Aftonroe- slabby, heavily-featured limestone

The skies were mostly cloudy that morning, which didn’t bother us at all since that meant we didn’t have to constantly reapply sunscreen. We were the first climbers on the route, but three other parties began climbing after us. Aftonroe is popular for its scenery, accessibility, and easy climbing.

The rappels down were a little annoying; they took us almost as long as climbing up. Once when I pulled the rope, it coiled itself around a tree. Matt had to climb out to fetch it. Constantly pulling the rope also knocked off some loose pebbles, which tumbled past us and the other climbers to the ground, sometimes bouncing off our helmets on the way down.

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Spectacular views the whole way up!

At one point Matt had begun to rappel down another pitch while I was still at the anchor, and I saw what I thought was a large hawk coasting towards us. As it approached, I could just make out its white head and bold yellow beak. I shouted to Matt, “Look! Turn around! It’s a- a bald eagle!” We watched in awe as it soared past on some invisible current. Even from 40-ish feet away we could tell this eagle’s wingspan was enormous. It rested in a faraway pine for a minute or so, and then flew back past us, this time overhead, and then out of sight.

Afterwards I joked that this bald eagle probably didn’t understand its prominence in the country just south of its homeland. Do Canadian bald eagles have egos?

Eventually we rappelled all the way back to the ground, hiked to the parking area, and waited for Matt’s folks to pick us up. We got a late lunch in Banff at a little Cajun restaurant called Tooloulou’s, where Matt had the best catfish sandwich of his life, and John tried his first sazerac since the legal drinking age in Canada is only 18.

The next day we checked out of our hotel in Canmore and drove all the way to Lake Louise, which is on the west side of Banff National Park, west of the town of Banff. Lake Louise itself is an icy blue color thanks to the glacial silt in the water.

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Lake Louise & looming snowy clouds

From the lake, you could see the downhill ski runs in the trees above the Fairmont Chateau, a huge and fancy hotel on Lake Louise’s shore.

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John and Matt on the trail with Lake Louise, the chateau, and the ski area in the background

I planned for us to do the Plain of Six Glaciers hike, which begins on the paved trail that wraps around the shoreline of Lake Louise just in front of the Fairmont Chateau. We parked in a public lot and followed the flow of tourists to the lake. There were many signs for cross-country ski trails, which we saw before the signs and maps for hiking trails.

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Matt’s family on the trail before it splits off from Lake Louise

The Plain of Six Glaciers trail takes you up to the aptly-named Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, which was built in the 1920’s by Swiss mountaineers who had been hired by Canada’s Great Western Railway to guide tourists on expeditions through the Canadian Rockies.

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Matt in front of the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse

The Teahouse, surrounded by pine forest, doesn’t have any electricity or running water, so their supplies are flown in once or twice a season by helicopter. You can sit in their unlit rooms or out on the porch and order tea and biscuits, like we did, as well as other fare like soups and cakes.

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Inside the teahouse

They accept both Canadian and US dollars (there is a $2 fee for using a credit card since they have to manually write down your information, then run it once they’re back down at Lake Louise at the end of the day), so I paid with US dollars and received Canadian change.

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Our tea!

The well-marked and highly traveled though fairly rocky trail up to the teahouse is 4.3km long, with pretty steady elevation gain after the trail parts from the shoreline of Lake Louise. Horses are also allowed on the trail, though the horse trail splits off from the hikers’ trail a few times as the hikers’ trail narrows up against several steep rock walls, which can get slippery from snow-melt and rain. For the best views, or so we were told, you can continue an additional 1km to talus fields from which you can see Abbott Pass, in addition to those famous six glaciers.

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Socked in & snowy

Unfortunately for us, the weather hadn’t exactly been friendly that morning, and it began raining, then snowing as we finished our tea at the teahouse. The snow and clouds made it impossible to see any one of the six glaciers, but just through the fog we could get a sense for how massive the mountains around us really were.

A couple times on our way up we heard very loud, booming, echoing crashing sounds from the peaks to our left and in front of us. We could tell that the first one was an avalanche, with that telltale sound of cracking compressed snow, but the second one sounded more like thunder. After speaking with the waitress at the teahouse, she assured us there were almost never thunderstorms in that area of the Canadian Rockies, so it was definitely another avalanche. Because of where the trail travels, hikers are protected from avalanches, at least according to posted signs, from May to October each year.

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Matt’s parents and Matt hiking back down

The whole of the Plain of Six Glaciers hike, from the trailhead to the overlook and back, adds up to 10.6km with 365m of elevation gain, or just over 6.5 miles with just under 1200 feet of elevation gain. Next to the teahouse is a pit toilet and several benches and informational signs, so it’s a very well-developed area.

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John taking in the foggy view in front of the teahouse

After our hike, we drove to nearby Moraine Lake, which is south of Lake Louise by way of Moraine Lake Road. I had heard excellent things about Moraine Lake, so I wanted to make sure we stopped there quickly before leaving the park.

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Part of the view from Moraine Lake. See that icy chunk thing on the left? That’s a GLACIER!

The parking lot again was near the shoreline of the lake. There was also a restaurant, gift shop, and lodge all at the lake, so it was a pretty busy area. We didn’t have time to do any of the trails here, but we got out to take some spectacular photos, SAW A GLACIER (finally, right?), and bought some chocolate and matching t-shirts at the gift shop.

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Moraine Lake

Matt and I wore our Moraine Lake t-shirts (as well as our matching Deuter backpacks) to the airport the next day- it was adorable. We also think the t-shirts are kind of funny because they prominently say “ELEVATION: 6,183 FT.” which is actually more than 1,000 feet lower than where we live in Laramie.

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Matt at Moraine Lake

We had dinner in Banff on our way out of the park at a little restaurant next door to Tooloulou’s called Coyotes Southwestern Grill, and it too was delicious. I had sweet potato polenta with ratatouille, John had a thin-crust pizza, and Matt ordered the most tender of all beef tenderloins with fresh chimichurri sauce- yum!

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Crazy cloud formations in Banff

That night we drove back to Calgary, had some more doughnuts at Tim Horton’s, a Canadian institution, and went back to the hotel at which we’d previously stayed. Matt and I woke up super early (like before 4AM) the next morning to catch our flights, both of which ended up being delayed by more than two hours, but we eventually made it to Denver, and then back to Laramie.

Final thoughts: it is my destiny to open a teahouse somewhere. I’m open to location suggestions. Banff is one of the most beautiful places to which I have ever been and I can still hardly believe that it exists on this earth. If you even remotely feel an affinity for mountains, GO. NOW, before all the glaciers melt. Bring some warm jackets though, and maybe gloves. The next time we go, Matt and I would like to spend some more time climbing (no surprise there), maybe at Lake Louise.

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Majestic Banff

Love to all! Until the next adventure…