In the summer of 2018, my boyfriend, Matt, and I decided to go on a 17-day road trip through the western United States! We decided to drive from Los Angeles up through San Francisco and the Redwoods, stay a few days in Portland, and then head over to Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park before heading home through Bryce Canyon National Park and Grand Canyon National Park. All in all, we drove 4372 miles over the course of 17 days, and had the absolute time of our lives!
Now, you would think that a 4000+ mile road trip would require extensive planning (and… it very well might), but I specifically decided not to plan anything about our trip except for a tentative schedule. In 2013, I had gone on a 5-day road trip with a girlfriend without any plan whatsoever, and we absolutely loved the freedom of being able to decide that day where we wanted to go. One small, small detail about that trip slipped my mind when deciding not to plan for this trip though… I took that 2013 trip in late September, when campgrounds were empty and campsites were plentiful. Matt and I, however, were taking our no-plan trip in early August 2018, when the swarms of campers are out and schoolchildren had yet to go to back to school. Although everything ended up working out totally fine, there were a few near-tear-misses and stressful situations that could have been avoided with just a little bit of planning.
In this blog post, you’ll find our itinerary for our trip and a list of things that I would do differently if I had the chance!
Night 1: Dean Creek Resort
How did we end up there? Dean Creek Resort is located in Humboldt County, three miles north of Garberville, California. When we started from Los Angeles that morning, we had NO IDEA that we would end up in Humboldt County that night. Our original plan was to drive up to San Jose, stop for lunch and a tour of the Winchester House, and then head to a campground near Mt. Shasta for the night. That plan, however, quickly changed once we arrived in San Jose. We arrived with lots of texts from family members worried about the Carr Fire, which had claimed five lives on the day that we were supposed to arrive. We toyed around with the idea of driving past Redding and up to the Oregon border for the night, but the idea of driving towards the fire and smoke wasn’t too appealing. We decided on a whim to drive up the 101 to the beaches of Northern California and Oregon, and figured that we had to pass an empty campground and some point. Yeah… fast forward six hours later to me white-knuckling the steering wheel as we navigate a pitch-black two-lane road with no campgrounds in sight… Getting smoked out in Redding was sounding better and better as the night wore on. Eventually, we finally happened upon a campground around midnight, and I had never been more grateful to get out of a car!
Would I stay there again? In all honesty, probably not. It ended up working out totally fine and was a complete godsend, but I just kind of felt… uncomfortable there. About five miles before we got to the campground, we saw some guy practically sitting in the middle of the 101… hitchhiking? I’m not really sure, but he did not seem fazed that we were driving 70 mph about a foot away from him. We arrived super late and had a weird experience checking in, and then put up our tent in the dark, when no other campers were awake. Around 2am, someone in the vicinity began working on their car until about 4am – I’m not a skiddish camper, but there were some weird noises coming from that campground that night – enough to actually make me feel unsafe. It was also kind of expensive for a campground ($39 for a non-electric tent site). I don’t know, I could have just been on edge from the drive in, but I just felt weird there.
Also… fun story! About six months after we stayed there, I decided to watch Murder Mountain on Netflix (if you haven’t watched yet, WATCH. SO interesting.). Murder Mountain is a true-crime docu-series that tells the story of the Rancho Sequoia area of Alderpoint, California, also known as Murder Mountain from the 1980s Carson serial killings, and for present day disappearances and suspected murders. Me, being the curious true-crime-addicted weirdo that I am, google-mapped Alderpoint, and it is located ON THE SAME EXIT AS DEAN CREEK RESORT. I KNOW. Granted, it is located about 19 miles east of the resort, BUT STILL.
I will say though, it was located right off the 101 and on the south fork of the Eel River, and was absolutely BEAUTIFUL. It was also located only 5 miles south of the southern entrance to the Avenue of the Giants. The website now says that it is under new management, so the ~vibe~ might be a little better than when we stayed. If you’ve recently stayed at Dean Creek Resort and loved it, please let me know! I would really love to recommend it, as it was in the perfect location, but considering our experience, I’m not sure if I could do that right now.
Night 2: Elk River Campground
How did we end up there? Elk River Campground is located in Port Orford, Oregon, about two miles off of the 101. Like the night before, we soon found ourselves aimlessly driving the 101, searching for a campground with a free spot. Unlike the night before, however, there were plenty of campgrounds… just none with availability. We must have stopped at four different campgrounds before finally happening upon a sign for Elk River Campground. It was located about 2 miles off the highway, and with the luck that we had been having that day, we decided to call and see if there was availability before driving so far out of the way. Matt talked to the owner, and she said that they had a huge field that they allowed campers to set up camp on, and for only $10 per tent! We were immediately sold – we finally had somewhere to stay!
Would I stay there again? Absolutely. Elk River Campground was peaceful, quiet, and most importantly, cheap. They had lots of room for tents, free showers for campers, and deer that made their way through the campground. I’m not gonna lie, we had an interesting neighbor named Terry, who probably downed a handle of vodka to himself that night. When we first arrived, Terry was very welcoming; however, as the night wore on, I’m 95% sure that we heard him cussing out a tree, and I’m 99% sure that his girlfriend made him sleep outside that night. That being said, we left Elk River Campground with a good night’s sleep, a thankful bank account, and an appreciation for campgrounds without neighbors named Terry.
Nights 3 – 5: Portland Airbnb
How did we end up there? Okay, so remember how I said that I hadn’t planned anything except for a tentative schedule? Yeah, I just remembered that that isn’t exactly correct. I did plan three nights in advance – and that was three nights at an Airbnb in Portland! We grabbed this Airbnb about a week before heading out on our trip, so after two nights of frantic panicking when we couldn’t find a place to stay, we were SO GLAD that we had three nights actually scheduled!
Would I stay there again? Yes, definitely! Our Airbnb was located near NE 63rd Street and Fremont Street. It was a short drive to the Kennedy School and the Alberta high street area, and was surrounded by bus stops to get us all throughout the city. We spent a day driving down the Columbia River Gorge, and the location was perfect for hopping onto I-84. I would absolutely recommend our specific Airbnb, but it looks like our host has since stopped renting out his rooms. Although I haven’t stayed in any other Airbnbs in Portland, they were plentiful, and most are very cheap! We got ours for about $40 a night, and most of the others that I saw in the area were around the same price.
Night 6: Rocky Mountain Hi Campground
How did we end up there? Rocky Mountain Hi Campground is located 28 miles southwest of Glacier National Park, in Kalispell, Montana. Like all of the other campgrounds that we had stayed at on this roadtrip so far, Rocky Moutain Hi Campground was a godsend – we rolled up super late at night, with nowhere to stay, and in near panic. We had just finished an all-day drive from Portland and were desperate for somewhere to sleep. We had called earlier, and the front desk told us to find a spot in the overflow tent lot and pay in the morning. That night, as we arrived, we honestly had NO IDEA where the overflow tent lot was. We pitched our tent in a grass area, and had no trouble through the night, so we think we were in the right place? Regardless, we were super thankful to have found a spot, and it set us up perfectly for visiting Glacier National Park the next day.
Would I stay there again? Definitely!! We LOVED Rocky Mountain Hi Campground!! The campground was clean, welcoming, and had lots of amenities for overnight campers. They offered coin showers and laundry, and although we did not take them up on either, we appreciated the fact that it was there. It was a little on the expensive side ($27 for the night), but other than not knowing if we were in the correct spot or not, we felt extremely comfortable. It was located in a perfect spot to explore Glacier National Park and the surrounding area. Would highly recommend!
Nights 7 & 8: Apgar Campground
How did we end up there? We knew that we wanted to try for one of the many campgrounds in Glacier National Park while we explored the park. I had previously stayed at Apgar Campground the summer before, and had absolutely loved it. Its close proximity to Lake McDonald, West Glacier, and Whitefish proved to be very convenient, and it was the first campground that we encountered on our drive in from Kalispell. Now, if you have never tried getting a campsite in Glacier National Park in the summer, I have eight words for you: May the odds be ever in your favor. Glacier National Park has thirteen different campgrounds, only three of which can be reserved in advance. The rest, including the most popular campgrounds of Sprague Creek, Avalanche, and Two Medicine, are all first-come, first-serve. And boy, do they fill up fast. We arrived at Apgar around 9am, and were told that it was full. Now, I knew from the year before that just because it says full does not mean it is actually full. The trick is to troll around the campground, drive down every.single.loop, and see if you can spot anyone leaving. Fortunately for us, on our third loop, we spotted a couple leaving and were able to grab the campsite! The next trick is to leave one person at the campsite while the other pays for it down the road – while I was paying, about five campers stopped and asked Matt if he was packing up or just arriving!
Would I stay there again? Yes! Although Apgar Campground is located further from the Going-to-the-Sun Road or the east side of the park than, lets say, Avalanche or Sprague Creek, it is located at the base of Lake McDonald and next to Apgar Village. It is the first campground that you will hit on your way into the park from the west side, and because of this (and its size), will likely be your best chance of grabbing a site.
Night 9: Dispersed Camping at Sage Creek Trailhead
How did we end up there? We found this gem of a spot at 5:30 p.m. on a summer Saturday night. We had just driven all the way down from Glacier National Park, and we were exhausted. A quick Google search had told me that there were “plenty” of campgrounds along the Gallatin River near Big Sky, but on account of it being a Saturday night in the summer, they were all completely full. Like the beginning of our trip, we began feeling pretty desperate, but felt like there was no other option but to continue on to Yellowstone. We kept passing trailheads with the “National Forest” logo on it, and dispersed camping was in the back of my mind, but I was having trouble with my service going in and out to do any proper research. About 4(ish?) miles south of Big Sky, we saw about 4 RVs on the side of the road, tucked away behind some trees and bushes. We flipped a quick U, and sure enough, they were all parked at the Sage Creek trailhead! There was one other tent-camper there, and we asked her if she knew whether dispersed camping was allowed at this trailhead. She confirmed and invited us to pitch our tent next to hers. Home was found!
Would I stay there again? Yes! The area was SUPER nice, and the trailhead even had a toilet! We were actually pretty spoiled for “dispersed” camping. Lots of established campsites, and lots of room to spread out. Some more tent campers arrived later on in the night, and we all had a fire in one of the established fire pits. Matt and I decided that it was probably one of our favorite nights camping during our entire trip. It was in the perfect spot to explore both Big Sky and Yellowstone. And best of all… it was FREE.
Night 10: Canyon Campground
How did we end up there? Like Glacier National Park, the vast majority of Yellowstone’s twelve campgrounds are first-come, first-serve. Now, we had been told by our camp neighbors the night before that finding a campsite in Yellowstone wasn’t too hard, and that the Mammoth Hot Springs Campground almost always had campsites. We took our time getting to Mammoth Hot Springs (newsflash: Yellowstone is HUGE), and by the time that we rolled up around 3pm, there was one car in front of us who snagged the LAST CAMPSITE. It was a grade A bummer. But, all part of the adventure! We decided to exit the park at the Gardiner exit and see if we could find any dispersed camping (since we had such good luck the night before!). Alas, no such luck was found, but we did happen upon spots at Canyon Campground, about 16 miles north of Gardiner.
Would I stay there again? Sure. If I had the opportunity of staying inside Yellowstone National Park, I would absolutely take it, BUT if all the spots were taken, Canyon Campground is a nice option. Located right on the Yellowstone River, Canyon Campground is small, quiet, and cheap. Sites were only $7 a night – music to our ears! The only drawback was that it was pretty far from Yellowstone. Although it was only 16 miles from the entrance, the Gardiner entrance is pretty far from most of the famous sights in Yellowstone. Just know that if you stay at Canyon Campground, you’ll have a relatively long drive to anywhere else in the park. Other than that, we really enjoyed it!
Night 11: Lizard Creek Campground
How did we get there? We happened upon Lizard Creek Campground after spending the day in Yellowstone National Park. We wanted the opportunity to explore Grand Teton National Park the next day and, ideally, wanted to stay somewhere between the two parks. Enter Lizard Creek Campground: the campsite mecca between Yellowstone and Grand Teton. As we were driving, we saw the sign for Lizard Creek and almost thought it was too good to be true. We turned into the campground not holding our breath for a spot, and lo and behold, we grabbed one of the last few spots!! It was perfect!! We honestly couldn’t believe our luck.
Would I stay there again? YES. I would highly HIGHLY recommend Lizard Creek to anyone visiting either Yellowstone or the Grand Tetons!! It was a super nice campground located right on Jackson Lake – we ended up swimming all afternoon! There were tons of spots, but it was still very quiet and clean. It set us up so perfectly for visiting Grand Teton the next day, as it was located right off of John D. Rockefeller Jr. Parkway. Spots were kind of expensive for dry camping ($29), but I honestly thought it was so worth it. I can’t wait to go back one day!
Night 12: Airbnb in Orem, Utah
How did we end up there? We ended up staying at this Airbnb in Orem, Utah on a total whim. Our original plan was to make it all the way down to Bryce Canyon National Park that night; however, after exploring Jackson Hole that day and seeing all of the clean, clean tourists, we both decided that we would like to have our first shower since Portland that night, and we were ready to make that happen at all costs. Fortunately for us, Utah is full of cheap Airbnbs, and we were able to snag a room that night for only $25!
Would I stay there again? Definitely!! Melissa, the host, was very sweet and welcoming. The private room was comfortable, clean, and large! Melissa and her family were doing a little bit of construction on their home, and I’m sure it looks amazing now. It was close to I-15, close to UVU and BYU, and, most importantly, close to Thai Evergreen, which had the best orange chicken and Pad See Ew that we had ever had. I would highly recommend staying the night at Melissa’s Airbnb!
Nights 13 & 14 Dispersed Camping Outside of Bryce Canyon National Park
How did we get there? After our luck with dispersed camping outside of Yellowstone a few nights prior, we were very interested in checking out some more (free) dispersed sites for the rest of our trip! A google search during our time at our Airbnb the night before told me that there were a ton of spots right outside of Bryce Canyon National Park. Upon arriving at Bryce Canyon, we decided to see if we could get a spot before entering the park, and find a spot we did. The turnout for the dispersed camping is literally right in front of the national park sign, and there were so many different spots!! We grabbed the first one we saw, pitched our tent, and were off for the rest of the day!
Would I stay there again? Absolutely. Honestly, if you can handle no bathrooms/water, I would recommend staying here over the campgrounds in the park. It was located literally RIGHT NEXT to the entrance – you couldn’t get any closer even if you wanted to. Being able to camp for free was much more important to us at this point than any amenities that a campground could provide. Even though our site was right next to the dirt road, it was super quiet and we were left alone the entire time (other than a deer and her two babies!). Our second day at Bryce Canyon was spent pretty much at the campsite all day – we were so exhausted from traveling! We hung up the hammock and spent the day reading and drinking beers… it was the perfect place to rest up before our last leg of the trip.
Nights 15 & 16: Dispersed Camping Outside of Grand Canyon National Park
How did we get there? So, I knew going into this road trip that we would likely find some bomb ass dispersed camping spots outside of the Grand Canyon. I went to college in Northern Arizona (go Lumberjacks!), and we often would drive down forest service roads to find established free spots when the weather allowed. That day, I found a forest service road online as we grabbed lunch in Tusayan, and that night, we drove down the bumpy dirt road (in the rain!) until we found a spot. There were HUNDREDS of spots, and much to my surprise, they were almost all labeled! We were essentially in a free, ridiculously spread-out campground! We pitched our tent for the next two days and had a great time! The next night, as we laid in our tent on the last night of our summer adventure, we were treated to the sounds of a distant mid-summer Arizona thunderstorm and a pack of coyotes howling in the wind. It was honestly a night that I will never ever forget, and a great end to our road trip.
Would I stay there again? YES. Like Bryce Canyon, if you can deal without bathrooms or water, I would recommend dispersed camping over campgrounds near the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Each site was super spread out and we rarely saw anybody else. The only visitors we had were migrating cows and a few quick deer. It was a quick 10-minute drive to the south rim, and an even quicker drive to Tusayan. Next time you go to the Grand Canyon, save your money for an extra souvenir, and go dispersed!
WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY
It is kind of funny to think whether I would do anything differently if we had the chance… because we had such an amazing adventure! But alas, yes, there are just a few things that I would change if I were to go on the same 17-day road trip:
- Research just a teensy bit more – I know, I know, the whole point of the trip was to NOT research. But little bit of research would have gone a long way, especially once we realized how much our wallets loved dispersed camping. I think I would have researched the dispersed camping rules in all of the places that we went to – but especially Northern California and Oregon. When I asked Matt whether he would have done anything differently, he agreed that a little research would have been nice, as there were a few nights when we thought, “Oh, shit, where are we going to stay??” before finding our spot.
- Bring a bigger car – We took this road trip in my sexy Chevy Cruze. Although I LOVE my car, a bigger car (one that we could have slept in!) would have been very nice to have. Northern California and Oregon had tons of rest stops, and each allowed sleeping in your car for up to 8 hours. It would have saved us a few headaches and campground fees had we been able to pull into a rest stop and sleep in the back of a truck or van.
Honestly, those two are really the only things that I would change if given the chance! The opportunity to pick where you are headed that morning gives me such a strong feeling of freedom, and I really love it! We had such a great time, and I think about our trip all of the time.
If you have any questions about our trip or any of these campgrounds, please let me know! Happy trails!