Life on the road inherently comes with an abundance of adventure, excitement, and new experiences, but have you ever wondered what it would be like to take your run-of-the-mill road trip and crank it up a notch? Well, that’s exactly what I set out to do last winter. Starting from my hometown of Encinitas, California, to Bend, Oregon, I set out on a 5,000-mile road trip. While I knew a trip of this scale would have no shortage of obstacles to overcome, I had no idea of the undeniable adventure the next two months would have in store.
If you’re considering an epic road trip yourself, there’s no shortage of incredible routes to take. While I opted for a van setup, it’s not hard to find boondocking locations across the U.S. where you can pitch a tent and rough it. I’ve broken down my trip into stages, so you can see what traveling 5,000 miles in two months really looks like. I hope it inspires you to get out and plan your own unforgettable adventure.
MILE 0-125: I set off on my journey north at the beginning of October, with my first stop being the San Bernardino National Forest for a two-day backpacking trip with some friends. While this would typically be considered enough of an adventure on its own, it was merely the first of many stops. Given the season, the weather was perfect for a backpacking trip. We trekked eight miles to the summit of Mount San Gorgonio, where we set up camp for the night. After plenty of good laughs, scenic views, and aching feet, it was time to say goodbye to Southern California in search of the fall foliage further north.
MILE 125-575: My journey through Central California was relatively quick. Aside from a detour to Alabama Hills and Bishop and Mammoth Lakes (all beautiful places I had visited before), it was essentially a beeline to a park entirely new to me—Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is one of the most iconic and picturesque landscapes in America and a must-visit location for rock climbers like myself. I’ll never forget the feeling of driving through that park entrance. Initially, I anticipated staying in Yosemite for a week, just long enough to capture the vibrant fall colors. But before I knew it, nearly two weeks had flown by! I could’ve easily spent an entire month there rock climbing, hiking, highlining, and hanging out in the valley. However, I still had many miles ahead of me and eventually decided to leave Yosemite and continue my journey to San Francisco.
MILE 575-1,450: While I typically don’t spend much time in big cities, San Francisco has always had a special place in my heart. Since it’s close to Yosemite, I decided to drive west and spend a few days sightseeing, visiting friends, and indulging in the endless cuisine options before charging east to Death Valley National Park. It was still early in the season for Death Valley, so the days were too hot for my liking. After a day of hiking and getting photos, I continued to Las Vegas. I was going back and forth on whether I wanted to stop in Vegas or not, but after getting a flat tire just a few miles outside the city, I didn’t have much choice. Once I got my new tire, I headed to Valley of Fire State Park—a must-see anytime you find yourself near the area. The deep red rock seen in this State Park had me eager for what lay ahead: Utah!
MILE 1,450-1,975: That morning, I was back on the road and off to explore four of Utah’s iconic national parks. While I had visited Zion and Capitol Reef in the past, Bryce Canyon and Arches were two parks entirely new to me and ended up being my favorite stops throughout the trip. Arches National Park blew me away, and while crowded at times, the alien-like rock formations found in this region of the country are something one must see to believe. The abundance of free camping and public lands in Utah made my time there more enjoyable. I left Utah with a full SD card and a whole new appreciation for this state's natural beauty.
MILE 1,975-3,700: I was eager to visit and explore Colorado since I had spent little time there before this trip, and there were a few landscapes I wanted to photograph. Upon arriving, I headed straight for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. With an average of 307,143 tourists annually, it’s one of the least-visited national parks; however, the lack of visitors says nothing about its beauty. I spent just a single evening here watching the sunset and taking photos of the dramatic landscape before continuing my journey. I zig-zagged from Telluride to Great Sand Dunes to Colorado Springs before finally heading north to Rocky Mountain National Park. At this point in my road trip, I started feeling pretty worn out. I had seen so many unique landscapes in a short time and was eager to reach Bend.
MILE 3,700-4,250: So off I went, leaving Colorado behind after just a week and covering over 500 miles in a single day to spend a night at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Just a few months prior, I had attempted to camp at the Salt Flats but sadly picked the same day as the famous Festival of Speed, hosted at the salt flats. Needless to say, I was eager to finally spend a night surrounded by vast nothingness. It was nearly midnight when I arrived, and when I saw what lay just beyond the welcome sign, I was in complete dismay. While my trip did not coincide with the Festival of Speed, I was surprised to find the flats completely flooded. Once again, circumstances prevented me from driving on the flats. Luckily, there was a little peninsula of dry land within the park boundaries, and since the entire park is public land, I was able to set up camp for the night. When I woke up, I was amazed to see one of the most incredible sunrises above the lake that formed where the salt flats once stood.
MILE 4,240-5,000: Two months and 5,000 miles later, I was ready to get to Bend. My last day driving the remaining 600 miles was a race against the sun to get there before nightfall. I arrived late that night in disbelief that this incredible adventure had ended. I was tired from two months of non-stop travel, but I had made some unforgettable memories, and while I knew there would be many more adventures ahead, it was bittersweet knowing my trip had reached its end.
DON'T BE AFRAID TO GET IN THE CAR AND GO
Hopefully, my experience has inspired you to jump in your car and hit the road. Just remember there are a few things you need to do to prepare for a long journey. Here are my tips on making your road trip as safe, smooth, and fun as possible.
Prep your vehicle — Whether you have a custom van setup or take your everyday car, it’s essential to make sure your vehicle is up to the task. Confirm you’re up-to-date on all maintenance, your tires are good, and you have everything you need to deal with common issues like a flat tire or an empty gas tank.
Make a detailed plan — Spontaneity can be a great thing, but if you don’t have a solid plan for your trip, you may miss must-see attractions or destinations. Research before you go, so you can make the most of your trip.
Share your itinerary — You may end up driving through areas with poor cell service, so it’s vital someone knows where you plan to be each day of your journey. It’s also a good idea to check in with someone at planned intervals throughout your trip. If you fail to check-in, they’ll know something has gone wrong, and you may need assistance.
Bring emergency supplies — I hope you have zero issues during your road trip, but the reality is that you need to be prepared. Be sure to stock your vehicle with a standard emergency kit that includes jumper cables, some basic tools, a flashlight, extra batteries, a first aid kit, cell phone chargers, and plenty of water and non-perishable food.
While this wasn’t my first big road trip or grand adventure, it was undoubtedly one of the most impactful. The people I met, the places I saw, and the things I was able to experience embodied everything I love about traveling. I’ve always believed that life is about the climb, but when I started this journey, I set my sights on the final destination. I was quickly reminded it’s not about reaching the summit but about all the steps in between.
Outdoor and lifestyle photographer Christian Henkel has spent the last two years traveling the country to explore and document some of the world's most jaw-dropping landscapes. He's worked with outdoor and active lifestyle brands, including Billabong, Jetboil, Eureka!, Parks Project, Paradise Board Company, EPIC Provisions, Flock Goods CBD, and C7skates.