Photos are not your primary objective.
I love Instagram. It’s a great platform for showcasing your best photographs and crafting inspiring messages without a character limit. It’s also notorious as being a platform for bragging — it’s a constant effort to appear that you’re happy all of the time.
Well, life isn’t always perfect. And if your primary objective when entering one of America’s many mindbogglingly-beautiful parks is to get that one sick picture that everyone is going to be envious of, your trip has already failed.
A photo captures what a place looks like. A photo does not capture how you felt in that moment, a California condor that flew by too fast for you to get your camera out, the laughter you had with your travel companions while you weren’t focused on your phones, or the deep, rejuvenating breaths you took as you stood on the edge of something incredible, feeling every particle of oxygen in your lungs like raindrops on your skin. Not everything needs to be or can be shared.My advice: yeah, take pictures. But make sure that only consumes 5–10% of your time somewhere. If you spend every moment documenting, you’ll forget to be present. And that would just be a tragedy.
Talk to rangers.
They seem a little intimidating in their uniforms. But they’re mostly just friendly, nature-loving people who have some of the coolest jobs in the world.
When I get to a national park, I go to the visitor’s center, pick up a map, and ask a ranger what’s good. They spend a huge chunk of their time in that park, and chances are they even live there in government housing. If anyone is going to know the great spots that have few other humans and a solitude, it’s them.
Don’t just ask them what the cool things to see are. Ask them what their favorite spot is. Get them to talk a little bit about their experience working at the park.
When I visited the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico, I learned from a ranger that the monument was one of many ancient dwellings in the Gila Wilderness. This made me want to return to this part of New Mexico someday and do more exploring off the beaten path. I also learned that in addition to wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions, the Gila Wilderness is home to a population of feral cows that escaped their owners many decades back…
Talk to strangers! (a.k.a locals)
Whereas tourists and travelers may only have a day or two carved out to explore a place, locals have been poking around for as much as a lifetime. Open up any traveler’s guide, and the recommended restaurants and tour companies and daytime activities will likely have been culminated from the individuals who paid the most money to have their businesses featured.
The locals will have genuine opinions on the best eats in town and the most laid-back cafés. Chances are, they like to go to places that aren’t totally swarmed with obnoxious tourists, which I’m sure you’d like to do, too.
Talking to strangers isn’t hard. Most people love being helpful. Find a common factor. Maybe you like their shirt or you noticed an interesting tattoo.
Most people wish they could spend more time traveling, and they’ll be interested to hear a little bit about your story, too. Sometimes, you don’t even have to initiate the conversation. My New York license plate, my New York Home-T, and my Ithaca College sweatshirt have prompted people to approach me.
There are creepers and murderers out there. But your chances of running into them are slim. Most people are just as ordinary and curious about life as you.
Oh, yeah, and if you ditch the selfie-stick, you’ll have to ask strangers to help you take a few good pictures.
Actually go for a hike.
Park your car. Put on a decent pair of shoes (yes, leave Crocs and flip-flops behind). Pack a bag with the essentials (water, food, sunscreen, map, camera). Go.
With a little advice from a ranger and the proper supplies, you can find a good hike with few other people and rewarding views. Sometimes it’s easier than you think.
Tourists come to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in rented RVs and by the busload. Last year, 5.5 million people visited the Grand Canyon, nearly 1 million more than in 2014. According to the park’s website, only 10% of all Grand Canyon visitors go to the North Rim, meaning the South Rim has a stupid amount of traffic.
Most of this traffic, though, isn’t following the “Photos are not your primary objective” rule. They get out of their cars, walk to the edge of the canyon, snap a few photos, jump in the shuttle bus, and go to the next view point to do the same thing.
It’s kind of amazing, but all I had to do to find some solitude on the South Rim was walk the super-easy, paved, flat Rim Trail. In between the viewing areas, the Rim Trail was surprisingly deserted.
If you’re up for it, finding some of the more strenuous hikes in the park are a great way to find solitude and rewarding views. If most people can’t even be bothered walk a flat, paved trail, you can bet almost no one would be willing to spend several hours hiking at a 13 percent grade to see a waterfall they could take a picture of farther down within sight of their cars. Just make sure you bring enough provisions. Don’t become a statistic.
Don’t spend stupid amounts of money.
No, you don’t need some stupid memento with your name etched into it for $10. And neither does your mom or your best friend. You know what your name is. So do they.
The primary expenses for my cross-country escapade have been gas and repairs when my van broke down in Colorado. And that’s how it should be. If you have the appropriate gear for it, you can save a lot of money by cooking for yourself and avoiding hotels (which I’ll elaborate more on in the next section).
Avoid the tourist traps and cheap souvenirs. Life is better with less junk to worry about. Keep your money in your wallet and take photos for free. And, the more money you have, the longer you can travel.
If you’re going to be doing some car traveling, download the free Gasbuddy app. Gasbuddy users self-report gas prices, and the app will help you search gas stations in your area and compare prices. Find the cheapest station in town, gas up, and take a moment to re-confirm or correct the prices. The app will also tell you how long ago the last person updated the prices so you can get an idea of how accurate they are. Don’t just search gas prices in the town you’re in. Take some time to search the towns ahead of you on your route. You might find it worthwhile to hold out until the next exit. This app has helped me save me as much as 50 cents a gallon.
Camping > hotels
Building off the last section, camping will be cheaper than hotels, if you’re resourceful. And they’ll offer much better views. There might not be running water, and there might be bugs and dirt. But when you’re sitting under the Milky Way with stars that feel close enough that you could reach up and pick them like cherries, those things stop mattering as much.
My van and I have made it to some pretty crazy places that we had all to ourselves, courtesy of freecampsites.net. Like GasBuddy, freecampsites.net is self-reporting, with users leaving the details and directions (usually in the from of GPS coordinates) on how to get to the free digs they found. Sometimes they’re just simple pull-offs on a highway or a truck stop. And sometimes they’re an hour drive down a dirt road into the wilderness, or a stone’s throw from the edge of a canyon.
This website is especially helpful for finding spur-of-the-moment digs during the busy summer season. In popular parks like Grand Canyon and Yosemite, people are booking official sites a half a year in advance for $25 a night or more. Freecampsites.net has plenty of listings for places within reasonable distances to these parks.
When you’re camping, be respectful of the wildlife and the area you’re in. Look up the local rules on Leave No Trace, figure out if you need a bear bag/box, and check if there’s a campfire ban in place. If you’re going to a place with few amenities and far from help, make sure you have everything you need before you go out there, namely fuel, food, and water. Free, clean water is pretty easy to find. I keep two water jugs in my van, and I’ve walked into a McDonald’s and filled one of them with water from a fountain machine without raising any eyebrows.
Research is a good idea, itineraries are not.
Don’t walk into a place knowing nothing about it. At least check the weather forecast so you can dress appropriately. You can start getting a sense of what places you want to see and how much money/water/food you might need to do these things.
Perhaps the only thing worse than under-planning is over-planning. If you block out your whole day, you’ll leave little room for life to happen. What happens when your van breaks down and you get towed to a town you weren’t planning on being in that day?
You can be miserable and grumpy about your situation. Or, you can chit-chat with your mechanic, find out that there’s a block party being put on by a local brew pub that night, go to the block party, meet a really awesome guy also traveling around in a van, and spend the next day exploring a National Park with new friends while your van gets fixed.
And then, a few weeks later when you arrive in California, you can meet up with that new friend and he can show you all the cool spots around his home. And you can have a study-buddy while you hang out in a café and write a blog post about how not to be a tourist.
Thanks for breaking down and spoiling my plans, van. Your idea of a good day was better than mine, anyway.
Raise your right hand and repeat after me: “I will not rent a Segway.”
I don’t think I need to elaborate on this one. Please, just don’t.