Planning for successful cross country adventures

Yellowstone River
Pictured is the Yellowstone River in Montana. (Julie Geiss photo)

Some of my greatest pleasures in life have been traveling with friends and late nights spent around campfires together.

My infatuation with campfires became more evident after we had children and time around the fire bridged the gap between kids going to bed and adults finally crashing for the night. Tall tales, stories that began with “remember when,” and philosophical thoughts all had their time to shine like the glowing embers of a fire.

Travel writer Tim Cahill poignantly summarized, “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”

Thankfully, my husband and I have good friends with matching adventurous spirits that have joined us on many expeditions. Our children are close in age and have similar interests. Together we have hiked, biked and kayaked our way across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and two trips to Mount Desert Island in Maine.

When they mentioned they were planning a trip to South Dakota next summer, it was an easy decision to join in on the fun. This trip will be our second camping trip across the western United States. We learned many lessons as we traversed thousands of miles and plan on implementing changes beginning with our planning process.

Plan early

Two years ago, we were slightly overwhelmed with planning such a big trip. Our first mistake was not starting early enough. This time, we are dividing the planning into manageable steps and starting the process six months out.

The first step in our planning is to gather destination ideas from everyone. Of course, as parents, we have a heavily weighted vote. We try to choose several major points of interest and then leave time to fill in with minor attractions and local recommendations.

On our first trip, we knew we wanted to see buffalo herds at Custer State Park and visit Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. After talking to employees at our campground, we made a quick decision to add Jewel Cave National Monument to our itinerary while in the area. It turned out to be one of our favorite parts of the entire trip. Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave in the world and truly makes visitors feel like they are walking in an ancient ocean.

The second step is to judge the distance between the main points of interest and choose lodging. This is also a good time to work on a budget. I highly recommend talking to family and friends who have taken a similar trip. We received invaluable advice from our aunt and uncle who have camped across the country multiple times.


Our choice in lodging is definitely campgrounds; we save money and enjoy being immersed in nature. We started out as tent campers, but quickly moved on to a pop-up camper and then a pull-behind trailer.

There are many options to consider such as private campgrounds versus state or national parks. With national park campgrounds, we love being close to trails and the feeling of being a part of our nation’s iconic landmarks. Sometimes this means choosing location over luxury as many national parks do not have amenities like hot showers and flush toilets.

For example, we stayed at South Campground in Zion National Park for $20 a night. We didn’t shower for three days, but we woke up daily to majestic mountain views and drank our morning coffee along the banks of the Virgin River.

In general, national parks open the reservation window for their campgrounds six months in advance. However, there are some exceptions and it’s worthwhile to look at all the reservation rules.

Taking a chance

Most state and national campgrounds will have some designated camping sites that are non-reservable. They are generally filled on a first-come basis. My spontaneous husband likes this option, but I am more of a planner.

Also, it should be noted that we have attempted this once, and it ended with me simultaneously crying and praying at a gas station at one in the morning. I called the first campground listed in my google search and was surprised that not only did someone answer the phone, but they also had sites available.

It ended graciously well with a beautiful site along the Yellowstone River near a hot spring. He thinks this story supports his inclination to spontaneity, but I countered that sometimes divine intervention means 40 years of wandering. If we fail to plan, we plan to fail.

In this spirit of positivity, we take our first steps that lead to our next epic adventure.


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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at



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