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"just this guy, you know?" "bland, banal & boring" -- ae6ip "insipid & uninspired" -- lenspoet "shallow & trite" -- The Laughing Ghod in the Corner

Road Trips in the 21st century: Route planning and navigation


Anatomy of a road trip

When we were kids, my mom would load us into the car, and head off for a road trip, usually a day trip. Often we would have no idea where we were going. Mom would randomly pick routes. We never used maps and we always tried to make loops.  There was no out-and-back for us.

My wife and I refined the idea for our early road trip vacations. We would select a midpoint destination, and how many days to allocate for travel there and back, but not the routes we would take. We would go until we were ready to call it a night. Where ever we were, we would randomly pick a motel, or campground, and spend the night. En route we would stop where we found something interesting, and eat at  places that seemed to be popular with the locals.

We joined AAA for the road maps, and discovered the travel guides.  Eventually, we got cell phones. We started using the travel guides to pick motels. We used the cell phones to call motels before mid afternoon to make reservations. This made it easier to find reasonable accommodations and more likely that there would be a room available.

Smartphones came along. The internet started to provide restaurant reviews, as well as tools to search for nearby restaurants. We started using the searches, sometimes relying on the reviews, to select places to eat.

Now, we pick a destination, make necessary reservations in advance, use route planning software, and online searches.  We still rely on paper travel guides and maps, though.

Tool evolution.

I learned to navigate in the 1960s. I planned longer road trips  using paper atlases and maps.  The maps were usually available for free or cheap from gas stations.  I did en route navigation with the same maps.

I purchased my first GPS receiver, a Garmin eTrex, when I started geocaching in the late 1990s.  It came with software that would allow you to download waypoints and navigate to them.  It was very good for the purpose, but severely limited.

When I bought a Honda Civic, I selected the package with a built-in GPS.  You could enter destinations and it would provide turn-by-turn navigation. I found, and continue to find, the GPS very limited because of the small display size.  I also learned that factory installed GPS quickly become obsolete.  While both of our current cars have factory installed GPS, it is not a feature we will look for in a future car. The introduction of GPS in smart phones makes this even less likely.

I now have an iPhone 5. As do all modern smartphones, it has a GPS receiver, and applications that use it. Nearly every app on the phone uses the GPS, for location services. I have four apps that are meant for navigation:

  • Motion-X GPS:  (app store) Meant to serve for outdoor navigation, with similar features to the eTrex. It does not appear to be actively updated. I use it for outdoor activities, but never for travel.
  • Apple Maps: (built in) I only have it because you can’t remove built in apps.
  • Google Maps: (app store) Meant for turn-by-turn navigation.  While it has some route planning capabilities,  it is better to do the planning online and download the route. I use this for multiple stop turn-by-turn navigation.
  • Waze: (app store) Open source app meant for turn-by-turn navigation. I use it for single destination routes. It has a real time crowd sourced database that can be very useful.

The GPS based navigation tools have a significant weakness: They rely on cell access, both for position accuracy, and to obtain the maps being used.

In 2000, I started using Microsoft Streets & Trips for route planning.  It had a very flexible interface, and many useful features.  It did not have the ability to download routes into a GPS for turn-by-turn navigation.  I upgraded it a few times. The last version I bought was 2009.  Microsoft discontinued it in 2013. As far as I know, there are no consumer level route planning software packages available with a similar feature set.  

There are online tools for route planning. After some exploration, I decided to use Google’s My Maps, because it seems to have most of the features I liked in Streets and Trips, and a simple UI, with the bonus that it can download routes to Google Maps on the iPhone.

I still use paper maps.  REI is a good source of trail maps.  AAA is my preferred source of paper road maps.


I took a ride.

We plan a trip.

We bought an RV in January. We have family in Montana. We have time. We took a road trip: (schematic)


We made reservations for two nights in the Madison Junction Campground in Yellowstone National Park. It is essential to make reservations for RV campsites in the park, or risk not having a place to park at night.

We waited almost too long before making the reservations. There was only one slot open with two consecutive nights, June 3 and 4. We made no specific plan beyond these dates, trusting to the early season to allow us to pick camp spots along the way.

We did make a vague sketch of a schedule. It would take 3 days to drive to Yellowstone from Mountain View. We would leave on June 1. We would go directly from Yellowstone to Butte, Montana. We both have family in Butte. We would spend an uncertain number of days in Butte, before taking 3 more days to return to Mountain View. We would be gone for roughly two weeks.

The four-day three-day leg: The west coast to Yellowstone.

Wednesday, May 31 – Home to Winnemucca, Nevada.

We left a day early. We would take four days and loaf.  We loaded the RV with consumables, essentials, and odds and ends.  We left around 10 AM, avoiding the morning commute traffic. I took a phone call around 11: My glasses were available. It was too late to turn around.  I would pick them up when we got home.

11:30 was lunch time. Tracy is on the route and a a good match for time. We skipped the Nations we usually stop at. We ate at the Big Bear Diner on the edge of town. We were careful to change drivers every two hours. Those breaks didn’t match meal times. Neither matched fuel stops. It was a long day, ending in Winnemucca.

I forgot my pillows.  We stopped at a Bath, Beads and Beyond, somewhere between Tracy and Winnemucca. Neither of us can remember where. I searched most of the store before I found pillows. Jeanne and Googie waited patiently in the RV.

I used the Sam’s Club app to find an RV park near Winnemucca.  We stayed at the I-80 Winnemucca KOA. It was a nice site, with electricity, close to the highway, but far enough away to avoid traffic noise.  We were off to a good start.

We would make a habit of waiting until after lunch to decide where the evening stop would be.  I would look up the nearest town in the Sam’s Club app and pick out an RV park that would take the dog, provide electricity, and have Wi-Fi.  I would call the park and make a reservation for that night.

All of the parks would have Wi-Fi, included in the cost of the stay, but the quality varied widely.  It was often sufficiently unusable that I would tether my iPad to my iPhone, using the iPhone as a hot spot. There was always good cell coverage, so this fall back always worked.

A few of the parks required an extra fee for the dog; but most didn’t.  None we looked into would deny a reservation because of the dog.  All had dog runs available or other areas where the dog could be walked.

Thursday, June 1: Winnemucca – Arco, Idaho

This was the least memorable day of our trip, and one of the longest. We would have preferred a shorter day, but no RV park between Twin Falls, Idaho, the earliest place to stop, and Arco, seemed appealing. We had lunch at a fast food Mexican place, in Elko, Nevada. We had dinner in Twin Falls. We drove through Craters of the Moon National Monument but did not stop. We stayed at the Mountain View RV Park and Restaurant. It was a nice place, directly on the highway, with electricity. The park was nearly empty. When we checked out in the morning, the owner convinced me to buy a Good Sam’s Club membership.

Friday, June 2: Arco – Idaho Falls, Idaho

We got a late start, and had lunch at Pickle’s Place, where we had hoped to have broasted chicken.  Their broaster was down, so I had the “atomic burger”.  

We don’t like to back track, but we didn’t want to miss Craters of the Moon, so we drove back and spent a few hours there. Many areas were overrun by wildflowers.

This still had the potential of being a very short day. We lengthened it by stopping at the EBR-1 Museum.  The Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 Museum and Photo Gallery describe our time there.

This was the closest we got to failing to make a reservation on the day we would stay. We got the last site available at the Snake River RV Park and Campground. When we got there, we learned that the park was full because of The Mountain Brewer’s Beer Fest.  Although we were afraid there would be loud partying, the camp quieted at 10 pm. It was the most crowded RV park we stayed at: two RVs parked next to each other would have their slide outs nearly touch.

We ate dinner at a Famous Dave’s BBQ. We parked the RV in the Walmart’s parking lot across the street.  At dinner, the battery in my blood sugar tester died. After dinner Jeanne bought a few sundries at Walmart’s, while I searched for replacement batteries with no luck.

Saturday, June 3: Idaho Fall – Madison campground, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming 

“The day the GPS died”.  It wasn’t the GPS’ fault, but I managed to screw up route planning twice using the software on my iPhone.  We wanted to stop at a Walgreens to see if they had the batteries, since the tester came from Walgreens.  Somehow, I managed to enter “Walmart”.  We were directed to a different Walmart than the one from the night before.  Fortunately, it was only a few blocks from the Walgreens. We found the batteries at the Walgreens. It was nearly lunch time, so we ate at the Hong Kong, a Chinese restaurant across the parking lot from the Walgreens.

We had forgotten the paper maps that Jeanne had picked up from AAA a few days earlier so I programmed my iPhone for our trip to Yellowstone. I have 3 different GPS apps on the phone, Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps. I had not used any of them for navigation before.  This turned out to be a bad day to do that.

We wanted to go through Grand Teton National Park, by way Jackson Wyoming, to reach Yellowstone. I plugged a route into Waze, and off we went.  We got as far as Victor, Idaho, where we had to turn at a T intersection.  The GPS said turn left.  Jeanne, correctly, pointed out that Jackson required a right turn.  Against all sense, we went with the GPS instructions, and ended up taking a back road to Ashton Idaho, and from there to the park. By the time we realized that we should have turned right, we were too close to Ashton to turn around.

In a way, this turned out to be a good thing, as it would have taken several more hours to go through Jackson and we would have arrived at Madison campground late and tired, having to set up in the dark.

Instead, we had dinner at Three Bear Restaurant in West Yellowstone, and drove into the park, refreshed, with leftovers, and plenty of sunlight to set up camp.  Setting up camp was a piece of cake, so we spent some time exploring near the river before settling in for the night.

For the next day and a half we would have no cell coverage, and no wifi access. We would also be “self contained” both nights, as there is no electrical or water service at the campground. This turned out to be very nice.

A day in the park

Sunday, June 4: Yellowstone NP with a brief excursion into Grand Teton NP.

A Day in the Park tells the brief tale of our experience in the parks.

The stationary leg: Time with family

Monday, June 5: Yellowstone – Butte, Montana

Tuesday, June 6 – Saturday, June 10: Butte, Montana

See A Small Town in Montana. It covers our trip from Yellowstone and our time in Butte.

The final leg: going home

Jeanne was becoming tired of traveling and wanted to take a fairly direct route home.  I still wanted to do some sight seeing. We compromised by taking US-93 from near Wisdom Montana to Wells Nevada and I-80 from there to the bay area.  We would take only three days.

Sunday, June 11: Butte – Twin Falls, Idaho 

We left the campsite around 10 am and stopped by my brother’s to say goodbye. We visited with them for a while, showed them the RV and got on the road. We cut across from I-15 to US-93 by way of Wisdom, Montana. We stopped in Wise River, where we made a lunch of leftovers. This route follows the Big Hole River. Both Jeanne and I had spent many days rafting on the Big Hole.  When I was younger, my mom would pack us up on many summer days and take us fishing on a spot near Divide. My mom and I could fish all day, but my brother would become bored and eventually throw rocks into the river, aiming for the spot we were fishing.

Just before reaching US-93, we stopped at the Big Hole National Battlefield. Some thoughts on learning Montana history and the companion gallery Photographs from the Big Hole National Battlefield were inspired by that stop. From there, we made our way back to Arco. Here we would start retracing our outbound route.

We tried Pickle’s Place again, this time for dinner. The broaster still wasn’t working, so there would be no broasted chicken for us in Idaho. We shared our table with three teachers from Florida whose vacations were chosen to gather data for the high school science classes they taught. We had an interesting discussion about the decline of American students, before leaving for Twin Falls. We spent the night in the Twin Falls 93 RV camp. It is near the edge of Twin Falls, heading south.  It was fairly full, but quiet. We arrived late and left fairly early.

Monday, June 12: Twin Falls – Winnemucca, Nevada

The first of our two day driving marathon, and the last night we would spend in the RV, the trip to Winnemucca was mostly uneventful.  I drove first.  About 90 minutes into my time, I started experiencing road hypnosis, so we changed drivers early, still on 93, a few miles north of Wells, Nevada.  At Wells, we intended to eat at the ChinaTown Restaurant Motel & RV Park, but the restaurant was closed for remodeling. We turned onto I-80 and drove to Elko where we had lunch at the Star Hotel. The Star serves Basque food, although without the wide range of dishes that normally accompany a Basque restaurant.

We were snowed on briefly, on a pass west of Elko.  The snow wasn’t sticking to the roads, although it was forming a dusting on the nearby grounds. Other than that, the drive was boring.  The stretch of I-80 between Elko and Winnemucca is one of the most boring stretches of interstate that I’ve driven.

Rather than returning to the same RV camp in Winnemucca, we selected the New Frontier RV Park. Situated near the previous site, it is newer and has cabins as well as RV sites.  We had a muddy back-in spot, with electricity.  Other than being muddy, the site was fine. We went into Winnemucca. Wonderful House, the restaurant we wanted to eat at was closed. This was the third failure in four attempts to eat Chinese food. We ended up at our second choice, The Pig BBQ and Pub.

Tuesday, June 13: Winnemucca – home

Our last day on the road was another uneventful day. Other than fifteen minutes of slow traffic in Sacramento, the roads were fine.  We were eager to get home, so we only stopped briefly in Sparks, Nevada for lunch. We had meant to eat at Cantina Los Tres Hombres, but we didn’t find it immediately.  Instead, we got takeout from Tres Hombres Carniceria  and ate in the RV. Once we were home, we immediately collapsed.  Unpacking the RV would have to wait until Wednesday.


We unpacked the RV on Wednesday morning. It took most of the morning.  Jeanne would spend the next two days cleaning the inside of the RV and washing much of the outside.

We’ve learned a few things.  We need to make checklists for loading the RV, setting up at a campsite, and leaving a campsite. We need to write down procedures for various things we do on the RV, such as periodically running the generator and switching between shore power and the generator. We picked up a few things along the way to make RV living easier, and a few more since we got back.  We keep lists of such ideas now.

Googie traveled well.  Jeanne would say that he was confused by the RV because it was too big to be a car and too small to be a house. He was mostly quiet and well behaved. He wasn’t much of a limitation on selecting RV parks to stay at, but he is a drag in national parks, since dogs are not allowed beyond the parking lots, even on a leash, except in the campgrounds.

Getting around once you’re reached a destination is cumbersome in an RV.  It is difficult to find places to park one. We’re still trying to decide how to overcome this. For now, we’re not ready for the hassle of towing a car, and will make do.

We are enthusiastic.  I already have ideas for four more trips and would like to take at least two of them this year.


A Day in the Park

We spent all of Sunday, June 4, in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. We attempted four stops, but only managed 3.


Sunday was the one day I slept in, so we didn’t get started until after 9 AM.  Our first stop was meant to be the Fountain Paint Pot Nature trail. We turned in to the parking lot entrance, to be greeted by stopped traffic. It was as bad as a major shopping center on Christmas eve.  We had to negotiate a loop to get out of the lot.  Cars in front of us stopped, waiting for other cars to leave parking places.  It took nearly twenty minutes to complete the loop, without finding any of the RV slots free.  We decided not to stop at any more popular destinations.

We drove part way into Grand Teton national park, stopping near the Jackson Lake overlook, the first good view of the Tetons across the lake.  I took a few photographs, which didn’t turn out.  We drove a bit further into the park, turning around between Leeks Marina and Colter Bay village.

We drove to the Lamar Valley trail head, where we stopped and ate dinner. From the trail head we returned to the campground. We had spent ten hours on the drive and breaks. I had done all of the driving. Traffic had been heavy, by park standards, and I made frequent use of pull outs.

We saw bison throughout the park.  We saw antelope in the Lamar valley and elk in Mammoth. We saw brown bears in three different parts of the park. We didn’t see the big horn sheep, moose, or deer that roam the park, nor did we see any grizzly bears.

My mom had taken the family to Yellowstone every year, starting when I was very young. We often stayed at the cabins, long since torn down, in the Old Faithful area. In those days, bears were encouraged to feed at the open dumps and were a common sight. Twenty years later, the NPS would change this, returning the bears to the wild state. Now the bears in Yellowstone are spread throughout the park, mostly in the back country. While black bear sightings are common, grizzly bears tend to stay away from the park roads.

Our first RV trip was to Yellowstone. We drove to Butte, and met my mom and brother. We drove to Bozeman, where we rented an RV. We camped in Madison campground, where we were joined by my sister and her family.  My mom slept in the RV, while the rest of us slept in tents.  It was the last time I slept in a tent.

Stopping in Yellowstone became a feature of my solo driving trips to Butte.  I would always spend a day in the park before driving the final leg into Butte. I would arrange it so that I arrived in the park the Tuesday after Memorial day. In those days, it was the least busy time of the summer season.  Weather was a risk. I experienced everything from snow storms to 100 degree temperatures in different years.

This time was different. When we checked into Madison campground, I talked briefly with one of the campground employees. He told me that the park had been busy from opening day, the park was always busy.  We certainly experienced that on our drive. I’m not sure that I’ll go back.  Yellowstone is no longer a special place to me.