Nowhere in the world inspires road trips like the US. The scenery, the ease of travelling the open road and the sheer size of the country all feed a vast holiday style that has no equal: the RV world. The Recreation Vehicle comes in many shapes and sizes, but is part of a $140bn industry that touches just about every part of America. We’re aiming to chart as much of it as possible in the next 12 months.
We’ve invested in our own RV for the trip, and are forsaking our usual Florida stomping ground to head north and west in search of the sights, sounds and tastes of the open road for a full year. We’re looking for the national parks, forests and monuments and the immense vistas of states like Wyoming, Montana, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and the Dakotas, on a journey that – if we last the pace – will total around 15,000 miles.
We won’t visit many cities, but we will dwell on the scenic and picturesque, the wildlife and wilderness, highlighting the unique beauty that is essential to the “Why” of why we travel. Most of all, we’ll show you how to do the great American road trip and discover a whole new way to appreciate the States for yourself. Buckle up…
Part One: Florida to Minnesota
“Welcome to the UP,” smiled the cheerful toll bridge attendant at the Mighty Mac, the shimmering five-mile-long bridge that links Michigan to its Upper Peninsula (UP) and was dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World when it opened in 1957. Still the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere, the Mackinac Bridge marked our transition from the familiar world to the unfamiliar.
Susan is originally from Michigan and has a sound knowledge of the UP, but coming across the bridge in the passenger seat of a 36ft-long, 11-tonne Class A motorhome (a nine-year-old Winnebago Sightseer) was a whole new experience. In simple terms, with the 200ft drop into the chilly waters of the Straits of Mackinac seemingly only inches away from her right shoulder, it was borderline terrifying.
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Yet here we were, passing into (relatively) uncharted territory, two complete RV novices and our aged labrador, armed with an RV GPS, several map books, various videos of how things work and a surfeit of enthusiasm.
Happily, the RV world was ready for us. This is an industry that provides a wealth of purpose-designed campgrounds, technology and support. It has been in boom mode since the pandemic started, and offers arguably the best way to travel without having to worry about accommodation, restaurants and the age-old bugbear of finding a loo. You simply drive, soak up the scenery as you travel, stop at an RV-specific camp – of which there are more than 15,000 across the US – and use it as a base to explore further.
With all that in mind, we breezed through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana in a hectic week-long “shakedown” cruise to figure out what we could – and, more importantly, couldn’t – manage. We could repair a ceiling vent cover that broke in Indiana. We couldn’t fix the hot water heater that packed up in Kentucky and needed a technician when we reached Michigan.
We loved the backroads of Georgia, where we drove for miles without seeing another vehicle and soaked up the views of the famed red earth and little farms that eked out an existence from it. We hated the highway through Birmingham, Alabama, which seemed designed to shake our poor RV to bits.
Having taken out a membership at Harvest Hosts – an organisation providing overnight RV accommodation at farms, breweries and wineries – we were thrilled to stay at a pecan farm in Georgia; a charming winery in Tennessee; a lovely family farm in rural Indiana; and a brewery in Michigan, where we cheered our second week on the road with some excellent beer.
Crossing the Mighty Mac was different. This was where things got real, where the wilderness was right on our doorstep and we were a long way from home (1,427 miles, to be exact). But this was what we had set out to experience: the raw, natural side of the country.
To that extent, upper Michigan was the true launching point. Based at the Pictured Rocks RV Park in the town of Munising, we were at the gateway to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which is the stuff of scenic superlatives, equal parts Last of the Mohicans and The Revenant.
This rugged Lake Superior shoreline is lined with bizarre “painted” rock formations from minerals seeping out of the sandstone cliffs and swathed in deep pine and birch forests, where carpets of brilliant white trillium, blue hepatica and yellow marsh marigolds paint an arboreal masterpiece; you could easily imagine Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil gambolling through the undergrowth. Hikers and bikers are invited to explore extensively on land, while boat tours offer close-ups of the towering cliffs and sand dunes.
Towns like Marquette and Grand Marais offer their own take on frontier existence, the former still buoyed by 130 years as a major staging post in the massive Great Lakes iron ore business, and the latter as a pretty beach destination in summer and outdoor sports Mecca in winter.
Beaches, did you say? Yes, the UP is fringed with dozens of inviting sandy stretches, relics of the last Ice Age and ideal for a secluded paddle (provided you are hardy enough for Superior’s year-round frigid waters). This is where we dined on pasties – a tasty 19th-century leftover from the Cornish miners who were recruited en masse for the region’s booming iron ore mines – and succulent lake perch and smoked whitefish, hauled daily out of the Great Lakes and a year-round local staple.
Heading west, Minnesota took Michigan’s forested fantasy and ran with it on an ever-larger scale. Superior National Forest covers a whopping three million acres – roughly the size of Yorkshire – in a symphony of green, studded by pristine, picture-perfect lakes seemingly imported wholesale from Finland.
From the Red Pine Campground just west of mighty iron ore port of Duluth, we cruised along the North Shore Scenic Drive, marvelling at the waterfalls and overlooks that spoke to more Ice Age terraforming, and discovered Jay Cooke State Park, where the St Louis River has carved out a breathtaking series of waterfalls and rapids that cascade wildly into Lake Superior through a riotous landscape of rocky splendour.
Inland, we goggled at the enormity of the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine in Hibbing (childhood home of Bob Dylan), testament to 128 years of open-cast iron ore mining. Eight miles long and almost four miles wide, it reaches up to 535 feet deep and is dubbed the Grand Canyon of the North. Neighbouring Eveleth also had a surprise in store for us: a special mural dedicated to the town’s pivotal role in America’s national ice hockey league, which just happened to feature the 1928 figure of Louis Prelesnik – Susan’s grandfather.
That concluded the first month of our ultimate US road trip. But we’ve only just started, with the Dakotas, Montana and the majesty of Yellowstone National Park up next.
How to do it
- Before you move an inch, get a full demonstration of how to plug in your RV to electric, water and sewer outlets. Make a video of it and refer to it, often.
- Don’t freak out at the amount of noise an RV makes on the road. It will shake, rattle and roll, with all kinds of creaks, whistles and unexpected sounds. That is normal.
- Find an empty car park and practice reversing into a prepared space, which you’ll need to do in most campgrounds.
- Pack half the clothes you think you’ll need. Most RVs have less cupboard space than you think. But definitely take insect repellant and use it.
Best RV companies
Ready to try RVing in the US? There are three companies to look out for:
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