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My wife and I are thinking of taking a road trip from northwest Ohio to "out west" - Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, etc. I've never been farther west than Indiana, so it's a whole new territory for me (my wife has when she was younger). We would both love to see Yellowstone and possibly the Grand Canyon & Yosemite. We both enjoy camping and moderate hiking, so we would love to include this as much as possible on our trip. We would probably have a 2 week time period.

My questions are:

  1. What supplies should we take? We've got the general camping stuff (tent, sleeping bags), as well as our vehicle, but what other things will help us do camping and moderate hiking & sight seeing? Any "emergency" items that should be pretty common?
  2. On a trip like this, are you able to just pick a spot somewhere and plop down to camp for the night? Or would we be limited to staying in campgrounds?
  3. Any recommendations on where to go (outside of the 2 mentioned above)? Since this is new to me, I'm open for pretty much anything.
  4. Do you know of any good routes to take from Northwest Ohio? Initially looking at a map, I pictured us going to Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, then head north through Colorado, Utah and Montana, then back east. I'm not sure if this is a good way, however.
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I'd seriously consider making this four questions. 1 - what emergency supplies are needed out west which aren't needed in the east. 2 - What non-campground options are there for the area. 3 - Recommendations. 4 - Good routes is kind of touch and go for TGO whether it's on topic or not. –  Russell Steen Mar 1 '12 at 15:13
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Can't we keep this AND have the 4 isolated questions? Studiohack has stepped up with a STELLAR answer to make this useful, and many people will see this from google search since it's worded in a nice, plain, general manner. I like it even though it's not the normal "answerable" SO/SE question. –  bmike Mar 2 '12 at 6:59
    
For 2: Get a Rand McNally Road Atlas ($5-$10 from Walmart), and it will show State Parks you can camp at along the way. It's cheap, legal, and you get a shower. –  xpda Mar 2 '12 at 16:31
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Dispersed camping (just pulling off the road and pitching a tent) is legal on most National Forest lands out west. (But not National Parks.) –  LBell Mar 3 '12 at 2:47
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2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

In two weeks, there's no way you can drive the route you propose, and have any time to actually see the parks you'd drive through. :(

In 2007, my wife and I did a 3-week trip to Yellowstone & Glacier (from Pittsburgh). In two weeks, your best bet is probably just Yellowstone (and Teton). It's the first and biggest (outside Alaska) for a reason! :)

Our trip including the Grand Canyon and Yosemite took five and a half weeks. There are so many parks around GC in Utah that you really want to take the time to see them all once you make the effort to drive all the way out there.

Driving to Yellowstone is a pretty straight shot out and back on I-90. There's lots of great stuff along the way: Wall Drug, the Corn Palace, the Badlands, Devil's tower, etc.

You'll want to make reservations at campgrounds in Yellowstone, as they tend to fill up in the summers. We were able to get a back-country permit after we arrived in the park, though. I haven't ever tried "just picking a spot somewhere", so can't comment on whether that's permitted generally. (Within the bounds of national parks, it isn't.)

As you can tell from the above links, the best piece of equipment we took besides our car and tent was our camera. If you don't have a DSLR and a zoom lens, a trip like this is a great excuse to invest in that.

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I highly recommend Glacier National Park, especially in September/October. –  studiohack Mar 2 '12 at 4:48
    
I appreciate the honesty. We are definitely going to rethink our plan. –  motoxer4533 Mar 6 '12 at 14:42
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I recommend visiting Yellowstone National Park (and Grand Teton National Park - they border each other and for $20 USD, you get a 1 week pass to both parks!).

Here's what I recommend:

  1. Take Interstate 90 across South Dakota (or go up through Wisconsin/North Dakota, then drop - much more scenic in Minnesota/Wisconsin, and easier driving in ND than SD) until you go through Gillette, Wyoming.

    Keep going until you arrive in Buffalo, staying on the interstate when it heads north until you reach Sheridan, Wyoming.

  2. Keep going another 20 miles on the interstate, past Sheridan, exit the interstate (Exit 9) for Ranchester/Dayton, Wyoming, and take Highway 14 across the Bighorn Mountains (very lush & green on the east side) which takes you through Bighorn National Forest.

  3. Immediately after Burgess Junction (smack dab on top of the Bighorns ~10,000 ft elevation), - Highway 14 splits into 14 and 14A - take 14A, as it is the prettier way to Lovell, Powell, and finally, Cody, Wyoming.

    • side note: If you're interested in camping instead of hotels, consider camping on the Bighorns, it gets perfectly cool at night and the campgrounds are usually very uncrowded. Camp at Porcupine Campground and if you have time for a short 1-mile roundtrip hike, try hiking to the gorgeous Porcupine Falls. Also, when in the Bighorns, look for moose, it is common to see at least one to four moose every time you cross!

    • Lovell is the first town you'll encounter after getting off the Bighorn Mountains. Visit the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area (very close to Lovell - highly recommend, a hidden jewel) as well as the park Visitor Center in Lovell - very helpful staff!), which features the biggest canyon in the Northern Rockies (over 1,000 feet deep), bighorn sheep, wild horses on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range (first wild horse preserve in the nation), as well as a scenic drive, boating, camping, beautiful hikes, archaeology, and other activities. It even has a lake with a small beach. This park straddles Wyoming & Montana, but the road doesn't go all the way through, so it is a perfect short drive north and back (~1-1.5 hours round trip), and another great place to stop for the night.

    • Consider visiting the (brand new facility in Fall 2011) Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center between Cody & Powell, a facility located at the old site for the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp, one of ten internment camps for incarcerating Japanese Americans during World War II.

  4. Next stop is Cody, Wyoming - the town founded by Buffalo Bill, the Rodeo Capital of the World, and the gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Cody is full of tourist attractions, a number of hotels/motels, the world famous Cody Nite Rodeo (every night from June through August), the large Buffalo Bill Historical Center (five museums under one roof - including a 5,000+ gun collection, Natural History, Art, and others), and other things. Yellowstone's East Gate is just an hour's drive west from Cody, you'll pass through Buffalo Bill State Park (a large reservoir on the western side of Cody) on the way, as well as pass through the pretty Shoshone National Forest.

Overall:

  • be BEAR-aware - most campgrounds have metal lockers to keep your food secure and safe - don't store it in your vehicle or tent. See this question for more info on dealing with bears: What precautions should I take to protect myself and my camp from bears?.
  • Relax! When on vacation, don't try to keep to a strict schedule. Instead, feel free to take your time and really enjoy the scenery.

  • Take LOTS of PHOTOS! You won't regret it. Guaranteed. Make sure you have plenty of batteries/SD cards/memory for your camera(s). Also pack some binoculars.

  • You may want to purchase an annual Parks Pass if you plan on visiting more than one or two national parks.
    • Have fun!

Driving Directions from Indianapolis, IN to Yellowstone National Park - showing the exact route I've suggested above. (Ignore the route until it gets to the WY-SD border, anything before that, I can't vouch for/recommend.)

Any questions or clarifications for this area that I've covered (Yellowstone/Northern Wyoming/Southern Montana), just leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer!

Cowboy up! :)

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I would say that you can add some spice to the route from IN to WY by cutting off the interstate for some or all of the trip. I would start with heading west to Hannibal, MO and meandering up the Mississippi and through Iowa before hitting 90 again. Also, highway 12 through SD and ND is fabulously rural. –  bmike Mar 2 '12 at 7:03
    
Thanks for all the info. We're actually thinking of heading South first, then running North to Yellowstone to camp and stay there for the remaining time of our trip. –  motoxer4533 Mar 6 '12 at 14:46
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