InTrans / Apr 29, 2016

Great American Adventures: The American road trip

Go! Magazine

Convertible on rural roadposted on April 29, 2016

Have you ever taken a road trip with your family or friends and wished it could last forever?

At the end of a long journey, some of us would throw in the towel if it came to spending one more minute in the car. For others, the journey is more appealing than the destination itself.

Some road warriors spend weeks—or even months—traveling across the United States, and we’ll be looking at some road trip tactics and ideas from those experienced travelers.

When it comes to the great American road trip, it’s time to say “goodbye” to the familiarity of your own bed and “hello” to new opportunities along the open road.

Highway in Arizona
Highway in Arizona. Photo from Wikipedia.

How do we do it?

There are countless strategies for mapping out the best possible cross-country road trip, but one traveler has it down to a science.

A postdoctoral researcher—specializing in the fields of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data visualization—named Randy Olson created an algorithm that was able to calculate the fastest possible route across the US, stopping in each of the 48 contiguous US states. Olson’s map focuses on the shortest distance between waypoints and includes 3 rules.

The first rule is that the trip must make at least one stop in all 48 states. Secondly, the trip only makes stops at National Natural Landmarks, National Historic Sites, National Parks, or National Monuments. Lastly, the trip must be taken exclusively by car and not leave US soil.

Olson calls his route a “near perfect solution” to taking a complete trip around the United States, and his journey accumulates to 13,669 miles of driving. Assuming there was no traffic, his hypothetical journey would take 224 hours—or about 9 days—of total travel time.

(He notes on his blog that, realistically, completing a trip of this magnitude would warrant about 2 or 3 months, which is no small commitment).

Some destinations from Olson’s map include the Statue of Liberty in New York, New York, The Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois, and the Grand Canyon National Park. Olson also created an alternate map focusing on popular US cities rather than national landmarks.

You can plan a road trip of your own using RouteXL, a road trip planner that takes desired road trip stops and maps them in the most optimal sequence (much like Olson’s algorithm for traveling all 48 states). RouteXL is free for up to 20 destinations.

Where should we go?

Now all you need to know is where to go!

Like many of those who embark on a cross-country road trip, you could dedicate your visits to national parks or monuments. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park—drawing over 10 million people annually—is the most-visited national park. 1

The Great Smoky Mountains can be found along the Appalachian Trail, which runs more than 71 miles through mountains. Most visitors, however, see the mountains from a scenic highway overlook, making it the perfect stop on a cross-country road trip. The mountains can be found on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.

The second-most visited national park is the Grand Canyon—which attracted 5.5 million visitors in 2015—followed by the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Yosemite in California, and Yellowstone in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Yellowstone was the world’s very first national park and is home to bison, bears, sheep, moose, and wolves.

Or, you could commit part of your road trip to visiting some of the top-rated US cities. Number one on many lists is New York City, New York, followed by Las Vegas, Nevada; Orlando, Florida; Chicago, Illinois; and San Francisco and San Diego in California. 2 You could also dedicate stops on your route to popular national historic sites like the ones found on Olson’s cross-country map.

Map for the optimal 48-state road trip
Map for the optimal 48-state road trip. Photo courtesy of Randy Olson.

What do we need?

Setting out on the open road for a few weeks or months is a way of life! Unless you want to manage the planning and expenses of hopping from hotel to hotel every night, it’s time to explore more budget-friendly options.

One option adopted by many travelers is to simply live from the vehicle they’re traveling in. Living from your vehicle can be a trade-off in terms of losing the comforts of everyday life, but over the years travelers have found useful hacks to make it work. Check out “tips for living out of your car” in “Related links.”

Another alternative for hotels is to find your lodging through a company called “Airbnb, Inc.” or Airbnb. Founded in 2008, Airbnb is a relatively new option for travelers (especially daring travelers willing to try new things). Airbnb is a website for people to list, find, and rent lodging.

Essentially, when you book your lodging with Airbnb, you’re renting someone else’s home for a cheaper price than the average hotel. It also gives renters the option to travel or simply occupy their home for extra cash when they aren’t using it! Airbnb tends to give travelers an “at home” feeling, as opposed to the typical hotel room travel experience.

If you’re renting with Airbnb, the list of road trip essentials becomes a shorter and easier to maintain since you won’t be preparing to live in your car. Just make sure to have plenty of snacks, your favorite book, and all the emergency essentials.

Also, check “Related links” below for a list of “road trip hacks” before you set out!

Related links

Try out RouteXL:

Road trip hacks:

Randy Olson’s blog:



By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer

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