The fall of 2013, I moved from Michigan to Los Angeles, CA. This was a great opportunity to see all the amazing sights the USA has to offer between the midwest and the Pacific coast! I moved with my friend Derek, and we wanted to see as much as we could in nine days of travel and keep it to the lowest budget. We packed all of our worldly possessions into his car, and camped and Couchsurfed our way across the United States!
*If you want to see a breakdown of gas, admission, and food prices, head to the bottom of the post!
Kalamazoo, MI → Papa Murph’s Campground, IL (3.5 hours)
Leaving from Michigan in the evening after saying our goodbyes to family, we needed to plan on stopping around dark. This only gave us a couple of hours to get as far as possible. We decided to make our first stop at a really cool little campground called Papa Murph’s Tavern and Campground. It’s right near the Starved Rock State Park, which was going to be one of our first sites. Interestingly, Papa Murph’s is actually a bar with a primitive campground behind it. As in, there’s just a field of grass that you can put your tent in, and no showers. But, you can bring your beer from the bar to your tent! The best part? It was only $8 for the night, so we had that much more to spend on tavern beer!
Papa Murph’s → Starved Rock State Park, IL → Devonian Fossil Gorge, IA (2.5 hours) → Cowboy Town, SD (6 hours) → The Badlands, SD
Starved Rock State Park – Admission: free, open 24/7. The park was beautiful, but small enough that we only needed to spend a few hours there before heading on to the Devonian Fossil Gorge, which would be our first big sight we wanted to see on our road trip.
Starved Rock → Devonian Fossil Gorge – 2.5 hours
The Devonian Fossil Gorge was very cool – the fossils are right at the surface of the rock, and there’s a little self-guided fossil hunt you can follow around the gorge.
Devonian Fossil Gorge → Cowboy Town – 6 hours
Cowboy Town admission: $12/adult
Next stop, the creepiest place I have ever been to – Buffalo Ridge Ghost Town. 1880 Cowboy Town is a “ghost town,” built in the 60’s, filled with animatronic puppets. So, if you’re afraid of creepy dolls, this place is the stuff of nightmares. From the horrifying dentist, to the museum to a busy saloon, these creepy puppets straight out of House of Wax re-enact stories from the Wild West in their odd mechanical gesticulations. Terrifying. but a must see. Plus, you don’t want to miss the buffalo grazing out front!
Cowboy Town → Badlands Interior Campground – 4 hours
Badlands Interior Campground – Tepee: $24.95, Camping: $16
We arrived in the Bandlands late at night, and thankfully we had reserved a prebuilt teepee in a small campground. After watching the beautiful sunrise (the featured photo of this post is the road next to the campground looking at the bandlands), we hiked through the formations in the early morning to beat the high desert heat. There are several beautiful trails where you can look out over the landscape. Be mindful of your safety! Bring plenty of water, clothes to cover your skin from the sun, and be wary of wildlife. There are posted signs for rattlesnakes and I was covered in biting sand fleas by halfway through the hike. Temperatures climbed to over 100 degrees while we were there, and the only respite was to sip cold beer while floating in the campground pool. The town of Interior, where the campground is located, has one small grocery store, a gas station that hasn’t changed since gas pumps were invented, and a bar featuring very average “buffalo burgers.”
Badlands → Mount Rushmore, SD (2 hours) → Devil’s Tower, WY (2.5 hours)
We planned to spend two days in the Badlands and leave in time the second day for the lighting ceremony at Mount Rushmore. We didn’t plan on having car trouble. But, the gears started to grind and we had to change our course of action. We headed out early on day four to get to a Cadillac dealership in Keystone, South Dakota (home of Mount Rushmore) so we could get the car looked at. We were told to keep dumping oil in the car in order to get her to Los Angeles to get fixed, and we were on our way.
Badlands → Mount Rushmore – 2 hours
Mount Rushmore – parking: $11/car
There’s a half mile trail that curves around the base of the monument that allows you to get a closer look at the President’s faces, and there’s a Sculptor’s Studio talk where an expert explains how the faces were sculpted!
Mount Rushmore → Devil’s Tower = 2.5 hours
Devil’s Tower National Monument – admission: $10/car – 7 days
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, anyone? As adventurous as we are, we opted to go for the leisurely 1.3 mile (2 km) paved trail that circles the base of Devils Tower. If you plan more time, there are other, longer trails that go through the forests surrounding the monument. We stayed the night at the foot of Devil’s Tower at the Belle Fourche River Campground. All camping is first come, first served. Cost: $12 per night per site. That night, we got caught in the middle of a thunderstorm. Even with the preparation of a thick tarp over our tent, lighting was striking so close to our tent we had to huddle in our car Googling “what to do when lightning almost hits your tent,” until the storm subsided.
DAYS 5 & 6
Devil’s Tower → Yellowstone National Park, WY – 7 hours
First stop – Old Faithful, of course. She erupts every 35 to 120 minutes, and there’s a sign nearby posted with the next approximate time of eruption. It’s faithful regularity makes it one of the most popular sites in Yellowstone. We only had two days to spend in the park, but we could have easily spent a week – it was our favorite part of the roadtrip. Wildlife, nature trails, colorful sunsets and bubbling geysers make the natural entertainment and beauty endless.
Yellowstone, WY → Salt Lake City, UT – 5 hours
Growing up in Michigan, Derek and I have both experienced our fair share of lakes, from the beautiful, clear shores of Lake Michigan, to the freezing cold Superior, to mucky inland lakes teeming with bacteria. Salt Lake is a lake I would never want to experience again. The picture below is of the beach. See the grey-ish purple tint? That’s zillions of brine flies, and while they don’t bite, they pile up disgustingly on the beach, dead and alive. We were excited at the prospect of being able to feel weightless in the water due to the amount of salt in the lake, but the fly infested beach and smelly water drove us away faster than you can say “mormons.”
Salt Lake City itself was beautiful – there’s lots of shopping and older architecture to walk around and see. We also had a respite from camping and couchsurfed with a lovely couple who offered us a spare bedroom and a shower.
Salt Lake City, UT → Horseshoe Bend, AZ (7 hours) → Grand Canyon, AZ (3 hours 40 mins)
Horseshoe Bend – admission: free
At the Horseshoe Bend, it’s impossible not to take an amazing photo. Any time of day is the perfect opportunity to catch the sunlight bouncing off the side of this incredibly shaped rock formation. There’s a short hike up the the edge, and parking is free.
Horseshoe Bend → Grand Canyon = 3 hours 40 mins
We arrived at The Grand Canyon late in the evening, just in time to catch the sunset and set up our tent. The next morning and afternoon would be dedicated to exploring.
The Grand Canyon, AZ → The Hoover Dam, NV (3.5 hours) → Los Angeles, CA (4.5 hours)
We happened to go to the Grand Canyon on a particularly cloudy day, and since you’re so high up, you’re at the same level as the clouds. They obscured the canyon all morning, but had cleared by mid-day and we were finally able to look out at the breathtaking view. Just like many of the sites along the way, the Grand Canyon is unlike anything else. Pieces of the Earth that date back to 5-10 million years ago are revealed in plain sight for us. To some, it’s just a big hole, but for us, it was unfathomable and overwhelming.
We planned to leave the Grand Canyon by mid-afternoon, get to the Hoover Dam by evening, spend a few hours there, and then head over to our final destination, Los Angeles. Unfortunately, just outside of the Grand Canyon, our 2005 Cadillac, after just two weeks of ownership from the dealer, completely broke down. Our plan to go to the Hoover Dam was scratched, and we spent the night in Flagstaff, Arizona waiting for a diagnosis. Long story short, we had to rent a car for the rest of the way, and return a week later to pick up Derek’s car with an entirely new engine.
Hoover Dam – parking fee: $7.00
Visitor Center: $8, Power Plant Tour: $11
We finally made it Los Angeles, and our roadtrip was complete. Other than the car breaking down, our roadtrip was full of adventure, beauty, nature, beer, and laughter. We managed to keep to a small budget (besides fixing the entire engine of a manual Cadillac), and camping brought us closer to the stunning and diverse natural monuments of the United States.
Below is a breakdown of the plan for anyone planning a U.S.A. roadtrip for themselves:
9 DAY ROADTRIP BUDGET
Papa Murph’s Tavern and Campground: $8/person
Badlands Interior Campground: $25/tepee, $16 camping x 2 nights
Belle Fourche River Campground (Devil’s Tower): $12/night
Madison Campground (Yellowstone): $21/night x 2 nights
Salt Lake City Couchsurfing: Free
Grand Canyon Village Mather Campground : $18/night
Starved Rock: Free
Devonian Fossil Gorge: Free
Cowboy Town: $12/person
Mount Rushmore: $11/car
Devil’s Tower: $10/car
Salt Lake City: Free
Horseshoe Bend: Free
Grand Canyon: $25/car
Hoover Dam: $7+$8/person
Note: We did consider getting an America the Beautiful National Parks Pass, but at $80, it added up to be just over what we would pay separately for each park.
About 3,000 miles, estimated combined mileage of 19 miles to the gallon, and about $3.80 a gallon at the time = about $600 in gas, $300/person.
Food, not including alcohol:
We tried to stick to a $30/day budget for both of us, made feasible by eating fruit for breakfast, getting cheap lunches, cooking most of our dinners over the fire, and going out to two or three nice meals. I’m not sure what we spent by the end (I may have splurged on ice cream a couple times…), but our estimated budget was $30 x 9 days = $270, $135/person
TOTAL FOR USA ROADTRIP: $559 per person for 9 days. That’s about $62 per day per person for food, lodging, gas, and admission.