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  1. #1

    Default PA to Missoula: round trip, 40 days, late May to June

    Hi all,

    Iím seeking some input and advice on a trip I am planning for late May into June (May 20 Ė June 27 right now). Iím capping it at 40 days.

    Iíll be picking up the rental car in eastern PA, then setting out in a counter-clockwise direction. I know that people advise, especially for late spring/early summer, going in a clockwise direction, but the places I want to visit are mainly in the Midwest, northern Plains and west, so I suppose Iíll just have to be prepared for cold nights and closed roads the further west (and north) I go.

    My budget maximum is $5000. So far, Iíve figured $1200 for car rental (including corporate discount), $1000 for fuel, and then Iíve estimated about $2000 in lodging, food, occasional laundry, emergency fund, etc. ($50/day). Iíll be camping about half the time, and staying in motels and with friends or family other nights.

    I am a woman and will be doing this alone, save for a few days in Utah when a friend will join me. Iím thrilled about the adventure, and have done my research, but any advice from experienced solo female travelers would be greatly appreciated!

    Here is my itinerary so far. Last time I checked, I was at about 7700 miles.

    Philadelphia to Cleveland, 1 night
    Cleveland to Nappanee, IN, 1 night
    Nappanee to Chicago, 1 night
    Chicago to Prairie du Chien, WI, 1 night
    Prairie du Chien to Minneapolis, 1 night
    Minneapolis to Pipestone NP, 1 night
    Pipestone to Sioux Falls OR Fort Pierre, SD 1-2 nights (havenít decided yet)
    Fort Pierre to Badlands NP, 1 night
    Badlands NP to Hot Springs, SD, 2 nights
    Hot Springs to Chadron, or Alliance, NE, 1-2 nights
    Chadron to Cheyenne, WY, 1 night
    Cheyenne to Lander, WY, 1 night
    Lander to Jackson, WY, 2 nights
    Jackson to Yellowstone, 3 nights
    YNP to Bozeman, MT, 1 night
    Bozeman to Missoula, MT, 3 nights (doing some work-related research here)
    Missoula to Craters of the Moon NP, ID, 1 night
    Idaho to SLC, 1 night
    SLC to Bonnevile Salt Flats, 1 night (undecided about this detouróyay or nay?)
    SLC to Helper, UT, 1 night
    Helper to Zion NP, 2 nights
    Zion to Canyonlands/Arches, 2 nights
    Canyonlands to Grand Junction, CO, 1 night
    Grand Junction to Monarch Pass, CO, 1 night
    MP to Lamar, CO or Dodge City, KS, 1-2 nights
    Didge City to Tallgrass Preserve, KS, 1 night
    Tallgrass to St. Louis, MO, 1 night
    STL to Nashville, TN 1 night
    Nashville to Smoky Mtn NP, 1 night
    Smoky Mtn NP to Roanoke, 1 night
    Roanoke to PA

    The goal is two-lane highways most of the time, interstates when I have longer hauls (such as Kansas to St. Louis, and Roanoke to PA).

    So what do you think? Does it seem like a reasonable amount of time and pace? Have I overlooked any major budget or route considerations?

    Iíve been poring over this forum for the past few weeks, and itís been enormously helpful to read your advice and suggestions for peopleís trips. Iím looking forward to hearing from you about mine!

  2. #2
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Green County, Wisconsin


    Welcome to the RTA Forum!

    Your budget seems like it is a little on the low side. For fuel, I think you need to plan for a minimum of $1500 - a trip that's 7,700 miles point to point will be at least 9-10,000 miles once you factor driving around parks, within cities, etc. Fuel at the start of summer is likely going to average around $4 per gallon. You'd have to have a car with pretty great gas mileage to keep your fuel to $1000 with those numbers.

    $50 per day to cover all of your other expenses also seems very low. You'd have to camp every night to keep things that low. Plan at least $10-15 a day just for food on a budget, and a campsite is often going to be $20-25. Throw in some ice, some firewood, and a park admission fee, and you'll have easily burned through $50. Something as simple as a a couple restaurant meals could easily blow your available, and budget motels are frequently going to require your entire days budget.

    Your route outline looks good, and I don't see any big problems with that part of your plan, but I'd crunch the numbers on your budget again.

  3. #3


    Thanks so much for your input on my budget. I've been trying to overestimate costs, but clearly not as realistically as I should be. I'll definitely keep those numbers in mind as I iron out my plans in the coming months.

    I am aware that campsites are in the 20-30$ range, but it seems to me that sites within National or State Parks are cheaper, usually half that. Is it harder to reserve, or even find last minute spots, at such sites? Then again, I guess no matter how cheap a site may be, I should still expect to pay more.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Green County, Wisconsin


    It's getting quite difficult to find even public campgrounds under $20 a night. National Parks are typically at least that much, as as state governments deal with budget cuts, state parks fees have been climbing. Even National Forest campgrounds, which used to be a go-to for cheap camping have been ticking up into the $15-20 range pretty frequently.

    If you want water or electric at your site, add even more to that.

    If you do find sites for under $20 these days, typically they are rustic/primative sites, that have at most a public water fountain and pit toilets. At least if you are paying more, many times these days you can at least get a nice shower building at the campground.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
    Melbourne, Australia

    Default Other options.

    When travelling on your own, there are other options for accommodation. Look into hostels. They are no longer, and have not for a long time, being referred to as YOUTH hostels. Some 30% of those whom I have met at hostels would fall into the senior citizens category - and in one hostel, years ago, I would say that it was more like 50%. In fact, the oldest person I ever met was a lovely 92 year old lady, who was travelling with her 66 year old daughter. She had been hostelling since she was 26, and saw no reason to stop now. They chose to take a private room.

    Whenever I stay at hostels I always choose to stay in a dorm, and meet my fellow travellers. Usually they are young folk, full of enthusiasm about their travels and keen and eager to learn about yours. A couple of things to check and make sure of when staying in a hostel.

    1) Make sure they have a locker for every bed, and that it is lockable with a padlock you carry with you. This is to keep your valuables safe. Lockers for which you have to pay before removing their key, are able to be accessed by the management, and I have never regarded these as secure.

    2) Never stay in a hostel which allows sleeping bags to be used by guests. These are a primary cause of bed bug infestations.

    3) If your first hostel experience is a really negative one do not allow it to colour your opinion about hostels in general. If I had taken the first hostel at which I stayed - Venice Beach CA, 2001 - as typical, I would never have experienced the many great hostels around the USA.

    This is probably the most comprehensive hostel site on the internet. But I never use their booking services, because even though they claim they do not charge a fee, they do charge the hostel. Most hostels will deduct this fee from your booking, when you book direct with them. You can usually find a contact on their site - most have a web presence.

    The other accommodation which you may like to look into is Couchsurfing. This is a wonderful community where folk host travellers, and return the favour when others visit their locations. It is a nice thought to bring something small for your host - not compulsory - or offer to do something in the home - clean the bathroom, wash the dishes, cook a meal, whatever.

    Whenever I use Couchsurfing, I usually look for someone in my own age range. Whenever I host someone, I do the same, and prefer members who have their identity and / or location verified. In fact I have only recently hosted a very active and youthful 60 year old gent who is backpacking his way around the world. I was surprised to have him hand me his sheets and towels all washed and folded. Just before leaving he'd been to the local laundromat to do his laundry, and included them.

    There are also many free campsites to be found, nearly all of which will be primitive and dry camping. However, it does not take a great deal to carry a few quart milk bottles full of water, and buy a shower next time you fill up at a truck stop. There are lots of ways to achieve your goal on your budget, you just have to find them, and implemant them. In fact, there is a whole forum devoted to it.

    As a solo senior female, these and other strategies have seen me travel well over 100000 miles across North America... on a shoestring.


  6. #6

    Default A few thoughts on sights and travel time planning

    Hello &,

    What a nice trip you're planning, and at what seems to be an entirely leisurely pace. I'm envious. I do have some suggestions for your consideration:

    While in the SD, NE border area, whether enroute to the Badlands or when leaving Hot Springs, I'd choose Chadron, NE over Alliance. Chadron is home to Chadron State College, the Museum of the Fur Trade, and the Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center. The latter two provide a great look at frontier life in a most difficult environment. Chadron is just west of the western edge of the Nebraska Sandhills, an entirely unique landscape covering 20,000 square miles of north-central Nebraska. I'd be much inclined to make a loop through part of the Sandhills. You could possibly do so most efficiently as you approach the Badlands from Pierre by dropping down US 83 from Murdo, SD to Valentine, NE, thence west on US 20 to Chadron. Whichever sequence you may choose, be sure to include Crawford, NE, just west of Chadron, on your itinerary. Crawford is home to Fort Robinson State Park, a very nicely restored US Army Cavalry post including a very nice campground. Heading south on NE 71/2 to US 385 just north of Alliance will bring you through some beautiful butte and mesa topography and to Carhenge just east of Alliance.

    While in Missoula, one of my personal favorite cities anywhere in the US, consider a breakfast at The Oxford in downtown Missoula. Listen carefully to how breakfast orders are called out. A glossary of terms is on the menu and on their website.

    From Missoula to Craters of the Moon is a great drive. I particularly like Darby, MT, and Salmon, ID. On this segment you have the option of jogging eastward just a bit at the MT-ID state line (Lost Trail Pass) to pass through the Big Hole, one of the most spectacular high elevation alpine valleys anywhere. I'd be tempted to leave Missoula late in the morning, drive east on MT 43 from Lost Trail Pass, visit the Big Hole National Battlefield, and overnight at Jackson, MT to take in the hot springs there. Leaving Jackson, you might go by Bannack, MT, Montana's first capital (for all of 18 months!) but now a very well restored ghost town and state park. Leaving Bannack, you can drive due south on Bannack Bench Rd (a gravel road) to MT 324 just east of Grant. MT 324 crosses the Beaverhead Range at the ID line at Bannock Pass and drops down to ID 28 at Leadore, where a southward jog will bring you to Craters. Weather permitting, you could venture off of MT 324 to Lemhi Pass, where Lewis and Clark first reached the Great Divide in 1806. There is a nice unattended visitor center at the Pass. The easier of two routes down the ID side brings you directly past Sharkey's Hot Spring, a very nicely developed hot spring. The BLM has built two large jacuzzi-style pools (sans pumps and bubbles), and a nice changing house and bathhouse. ID 28 is a few miles on down the mountain from Sharkey's. If I'd done Lemhi Pass and/or Sharkey's, I'd probably jog north to Salmon and drive south on US 93 along the Salmon River through Challis to reach Craters. Be advised that all of the distance from MT 324 near Grant, over Lemhi Pass, to ID 28 is gravel, and that a heavy snowpack may keep Lemhi Pass closed well into May. Phoning the BLM in Salmon or the National Forest Service in Dillon, MT should provide up to the minute road information for the Pass.

    In Utah, I'd most certainly take a drive over to the Bonneville Salt Flats. It's a bit over 100 miles from SLC, but it's a unique landscape and well worth the drive across the Great Salt Lake basin. You can shortcut the trip from Bonneville to Helper, UT (and avoid SLC traffic!) by jogging south through Grantsville and Tooele, around the western and southern edges of the Oquirrh Range, to catch US 6 west of American Fork.

    Back here on my side of the country (NC), your day's drive from the Great Smoky Mtn NP to Roanoke, VA is something of a stretch if you want to do it on 2-lane roads. It's quite simple if you're willing to access I-40/I-81 north, however. An obvious option is to make that a 2-day trip and drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Roanoke. At something like 350 miles with an average travel speed, including short stops, of 35 mph, the BRP route would be a fine 2-day drive from GSMNP. I'd spend the time to drive up Mount Mitchell (highest point in the eastern US, and a true drive-up), take the half-mile gravel trail walk to Linville Falls, and overnight in Blowing Rock, NC (or, camping at the Julian Price Memorial Park right on the BRP is a fine option--reservations available at, the clearinghouse for camping and lodging reservations to Federal facilities nationwide). Doughton Park a bit further north, near the NC-VA line, is another fine BRP campground.

    Lastly, I imagine you've looked into an annual pass the the National Parks. The math is simple, and generally one who plans to visit 4 or more fee-charged NPs will come out a bit better with the annual pass, which can be purchased at the first such facility you visit.

    Enjoy the planning and the RoadTrip!


  7. #7


    Thanks, Lifey, for the hostel and couchsurfing suggestions. Once I iron out my route, I'll definitely research both. I like the idea of couchsurfing when I'm in more urban areas-- I would definitely appreciate the guidance of a local in bigger cities like Chicago, or St. Louis.

    And thanks, Foy, for your input on my route! In addition to seeing as many National Parks as I can, museums (especially those that focus on the history of the west, and archaeology) are a priority for me. So Chadron it is.

    I'm excited to return to Missoula. About a decade ago I spent a summer between college-years working at Yellowstone NP. Towards the end of the summer, I quit my job early and drove up through Montana and into Canada, and west to Vancouver. Missoula was my first stop and I absolutely loved the town. I met some great people at a grocery store there who let me camp behind their cabin in the woods. I'm sure much has changed, but I'm looking forward to returning and exploring.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    Joplin MO



    & will probably not be able to take unpaved roads with a rental car.

  9. #9


    Quote Originally Posted by glc View Post

    & will probably not be able to take unpaved roads with a rental car.
    That is of course a great point, glc. As we have collectively discussed a great deal herein, there is a wide variety of terminology among rental car contracts. Some say "no unpaved roads" while others say "no trails or non-public roads". Given what must be ten of thousands of miles of state, county, Forest Service, and BLM roads in the Western states alone, one would hope a major company's rental contract would not preclude use on the very same roads used by residents, mail carriers, school buses, and law enforcement. In this case, both the MT and ID side of Lemhi Pass are a combination of state or county roads down low with Forest Service and BLM roads higher up. The several miles of gravel road from Bannack to MT 324 is a county road. & would be wise to confirm her contract allows publicly-maintained unpaved roads before assuming anything.

    Good catch, glc.


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