USA overland travel guide

Storm over the Grand Canyon

The US needs little introduction; it’s the second-most visited country in the world and tops many a wish list. People visit for the famous cities and natural wonders, and to see firsthand the culture they’ve absorbed from so many songs and movies. Being such a big place with an excellent highway system and so much to see, the US is great for overland travel in its own right or as part of a wider North American trip – especially if you have your own wheels. Time for a road trip!

Travel to / from the USA overland

The United States and Canada share the longest international border between any two countries. In fact they actually share two borders, due to Alaska, with many dozens of roads crossing them, and the US also shares its long southern border with Mexico also with dozens of crossings. Public buses connect to the main cities across the borders in Canada and Mexico, and you can also enter the US by Amtrak train between Seattle & Vancouver, New York & Toronto, and New York & Montreal. As long as your paperwork is in order you shouldn’t have too much trouble crossing the land borders.

However, in my experience US border guards are looking for any excuse to ruin your day – when crossing from White Rock (Vancouver) back to Blaine during our US road trip, we forgot we had four oranges in a plastic bag that our friend in Victoria had given us that morning for the drive… when filling in the customs form, you tick ‘no’ to say you don’t have any fruit & veg, drugs, weapons, terrorist manuals, kryptonite, etc… but because we forgot about the oranges, and the guy spotted them, the logic was that we’d lied about the fruit & veg so they had to assume we’d lied about the drugs and weapons. Cue a full search of our vehicle, absolutely everything turfed out on to the floor and rooted through, the engine and seats and door panels being searched, a million and one questions… we were at that border for 3 hours before being sent on our way with a 100 dollar fine and no oranges. Good thing we’d hidden our drugs and weaponry in the roof panel of a public restroom near the US border before crossing a couple of days earlier… (only kidding Mum!) But seriously, don’t forget to eat your oranges. We also got held up crossing the border from Tijuana to San Diego on foot, something to do with my friend’s visa waiver form being crumpled… the rest of us got through, realised he wasn’t with us, and had to wait there as the guards wouldn’t tell us why they weren’t letting him through or when (or if) they would. He emerged an hour later grumbling about how it was only a 2-minute bit of paperwork that had needed rectifying, but he (and the rest of the long line of people waiting) had to stand there watching the border guards enjoying a pepperoni pizza before getting back to work!

You can also enter the States by boat from Canada; the main routes of interest for overlanders are between Prince Rupert (northern BC) & Juneau (Alaska), Victoria (Vancouver Island, BC) & Washington state, and Portland (Maine) & Yarmouth (Nova Scotia). There are also a number of short river and lake crossings in the Great Lakes region which are unlikely to be of much interest to overseas travellers; for a full list see here. Another interesting option is the regular Trans-Atlantic cruises from Southampton to New York.

Overland travel within the US

This is car country, and the classic way to see it is on a good old-fashioned road trip. Driving through the desert and over the mountains, camping out under the stars, the freedom of the open road; that’s the way to do it. If you don’t have your own wheels, you can also get around by Greyhound and other bus services (I have no experience of these), or by train (which looks and sounds pretty awesome).

Stormy skies and open roads, Colorado

The open road… taken somewhere in Colorado

The only fast and frequent intercity rail services in the US cover the heavily populated Washington – Philadelphia – NY – Boston corridor. Passenger trains in the rest of the States seem to be more of a tourist thing; fairly slow but comfortable, and surely a great way to see the country. I’d love to do the 3-day Chicago – San Francisco route. As ever, Seat61 is the best corner of the internet for rail travel enthusiasts and has a very thorough page on rail travel in the States.

Things to do in the US

I’m going to do this in two parts; firstly, things I can recommend from personal experience:

Go skiing. So far the only US hill I’ve ridden is Mt Baker

Go hiking.

The Narrows, Zion Canyon

Hiking the Narrows, Zion NP

The national parks. The US is blessed with some of the most varied and awe-inspiring natural beauty to be found anywhere on the planet, and its national parks are incredible; we visited Rocky Mountains NP, the Grand Canyon, Zion NP, Bryce Canyon, Redwood NP, Yellowstone, and Badlands NP.

Bryce Canyon, Utah

Bryce Canyon

The Grand Canyon. Standing on the North Rim was truly awe-inspiring, and the road there was a bit of an adventure too.

For film buffs, Oregon has a couple of iconic locations. Cannon Beach (near Astoria) was the Goonies beach (also in Point Break and Kindergarten Cop) and the Timberline Lodge (Mt Hood) was the (exterior) Shining hotel. Both doable as day trips from Portland if you have wheels (and lovely spots even if you’re not a film buff)

Chicago; a very cool city, my favourite among the American cities I’ve been to.

Gamble in Vegas. Las Vegas was not my kind of place at all – think searing heat, all-you-can-eat buffets and their families of obese occupants, vast halls full of not-very-wealthy-looking old people wasting their money in slot machines… all a bit depressing… but still, blowing 100 bucks in a few seconds at the roulette wheel is something I can say I’ve done.

Whiskey with an ‘e’

Skiing at legendary Mt Baker.

…and secondly, things I haven’t done but want to:

New York, New York.

New Orleans for blues, booze and food.

Skiing in the famous resorts of Colorado, Utah, and California.

Resources and Useful Links for Visiting the US

Flexible travel insurance from World Nomads, especially useful if you’re already overseas (this can be a crucial point, as I once found out the hard way in Bangkok). If you’re hitting the mountain, check out their snow sports cover.

Lonely Planet USA

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