We had crossed into North America as we left the poor, English-speaking country of Belize and entered Mexico at its southern-most border and while we weren’t far from the heady, busy, flamboyant resort of Cancun, in miles at least, we might as well have been on the far side of the planet. Mexico here, in the country’s tropical south, is verdant, poor and relatively lightly populated.
Six months later we pulled to a stop on the shores of the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay, as far north as you can drive in North America and more like a giant industrial complex than the raw, natural magic for which most of Alaska is known.
That was back in 2012 and after spending 12 months in North America, we had to ship our vehicle out of the country. It’s a pretty normal rule; foreign vehicles brought into a country on a temporary import visa need to be moved on.
The following year we returned and hired a Chevy Suburban but not for just any old trip. What we had planned for ourselves and a few mates was an ice roads trip, in winter, north through the Yukon and Northwest Territories and across the Arctic Ocean to the small Inuit village of Tuktoyaktuk. It was one hell of an adventure.
Then in 2014, we bought a second-hand Ram 2500 and fitted it with a Four Wheel Campers slide-on unit. It’s the rig we have used ever since, returning every year until COVID-19 put a stop to such shenanigans; we’re planning on returning in March 2022.
In the meantime, we’ve also helped a few mates who have come to join us for a month or so, hiring RVs and 4WD vehicles with a camper on the back. The choice is pretty endless and while hiring a vehicle in the States allows one generally to go into Canada, some companies have restrictions on entering Mexico. Check first and make sure you have the appropriate paperwork for such cross-border jaunts!
On our adventures, we generally spend 2-4 months in North America, each time wandering its byways, staying away from the major highways as much as possible and enjoying small-town USA and Canada, much more than the big cities, which we shy away from. In all, we have spent over 60 weeks touring those three countries, clocking up 80,000km in our quest to discover the continent’s secrets. And sure, we’ve been to New York, LA, Mexico City, Toronto and a host of other major cities, but they are not the focus of our travels. It is the natural lands of North America that are, for us, the real delight and attraction.
After our first two sojourns, the next four months of American peregrinations were spent wandering the south-west of the USA, where we lost ourselves in the more remote country and environs of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas before coming back into Utah, now our favourite state in the Lower 48.
Along the eastern edge of the Sieraa Nevada range
The fourth phase of our adventure had seen us wander back down into Mexico, savouring the delights of the La Ruta del Tequila (The Tequila Trail) and the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, which was the first route traced by the Spaniards in America and ran between Mexico City and Sante Fe in New Mexico. We spent some time in the historic town and World Heritage Site of San Miguel de Allende, once an important part of the Royal Road, before heading to tumultuous Mexico City.
Wedding procession, San Miguel de Allende
Our plan was to see the Teotihuacan Pyramids, with its mighty Pyramid of the Sun and smaller, but no less impressive, Pyramid of the Moon, both dating back to 100BC. Somehow though, along the way, we got involved in a parade of striking schoolteachers with literally thousands of armed police and paramilitary around, while the next day we enjoyed a much more colourful and friendly lesbian and gay march with hardly any police presence at all.
Turning north, we crossed back into the USA and the state of Texas, where we took a tour of the impressive King Ranch, which once owned sprawling properties in Oz and introduced, among other innovations, the Santa Gertrudis breed of cattle to northern Australia. Still the biggest ranch in the USA, stretching across nearly 400,000ha, it runs 35,000 cattle and 200 fine quarter horses, along with vast areas of cropping and wilder areas for recreational hunting and bird watching. There’s a town, complete with school, on the property, while many of the workers are fifth-generation homegrown cowboys and workers.
After wandering north through Washington DC (well worth a visit) and New York (we were glad to leave it after a week), it’s just a veritable hop, step and a jump to Canada and we headed to Nova Scotia and pretty Prince Edward Island.
Picturesque Prince Edward Island
On our return the following year, we began our adventures with a camping foray to spectacular Meat Cove and then caught the ferry to Newfoundland and headed to the Cape Spear National Historic Site and the most easterly point of the North American continent.
Campsite at Meat Cove
Over the next month, we headed north and then west, passing over the great shoulder of Lake Superior, where we crossed the border back into the USA and into Minnesota, finding the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River in the pleasant Lake Itasca State Park. For the next few days, we wandered the badlands in and around the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, revelling in being back in 'The West', finding some dirt roads and rougher tracks to explore, discovering remote, or at least remoter campsites, and enjoying the wildlife - bison, pronghorn antelope, mule deer and big-horn sheep, among others.
Pushing ever onwards towards the setting sun, we found ourselves among the high peaks of the Rockies with the fabulous Glacier National Park to enjoy, then the Cascade Mountains with its impressive Mt Rainer. Turning south from the most westerly point of the lower 48 states at Cape Flattery (like our Cape Flattery in Qld, it’s named by that eminent navigator and explorer, Captain James Cook), we found our way through the back blocks of Oregon and magical Idaho, camping on the mighty Snake River and well off the beaten track on the edge of the McGraw Creek Wilderness Area.
Crossing into Wyoming, we headed for the Grand Teton NP, surely one of the most impressive landscapes on the planet. Rugged jagged peaks, their sides slashed by glaciers, rear up abruptly from the plains and make up the 65km long Teton Range, the youngest mountain chain in the Rocky Mountains with snow-capped peaks reaching up to over 4000 metres. Driving some of the back roads here — once again along the edge of the upper reaches of the Snake River — we came across large herds of grazing bison, wandering groups of elk and small mobs of deer and just one or two other vehicles. All with a backdrop of impressive mountains; it was pure magic!
The following year, we were back wandering through the magnificent and verdant Black Hills of South Dakota and marvelling at the manmade carved Mt Rushmore with its four gigantic heads of past US presidents. Nearby is the carving of Chief Crazy Horse, which is being chiselled out of a 2000-metre high mountain. It's worth seeing, none more so when, twice a year, you can join the 'Volksmarch' and walk out onto the outstretched arm of Crazy Horse.
Then we followed the Beartooth Highway — a National Scenic Byway and an all-American Road, a combination that means it is truly bloody spectacular! We were in luck and headed over the 10,947ft (3337 metres) Beartooth Pass, and while it was summer, the road had just opened and in places, snowbanks over three metres high still crowded the road.
Subsequent travels have seen us repeat some of our journey of 2012 wandering the wet damp seashore of Washington state, along the coast of Oregon, and standing and gazing in awe at the mighty redwoods and sequoias that dominate the southern coast of that state and northern California.
Our last foray saw us back in Utah. With more national parks than any other state and with such outstanding enclaves as Bryce, Zion, Arches, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands, along with a host of forest, vast recreation areas and national monuments, this is a state where you can lose yourself and hide from civilization for a week, a month, or even longer.
We walked the trails in Arches NP to awe-inspiring rock bridges, while in Canyonlands we ducked and weaved our way down the White Rim Road to camp beside the Colorado River, our overnight site overlooked by tall red cliffs and overhung by verdant cottonwood trees. In Bryce, a frosting of snow dusted the rich red cliffs and hoodoos (the strange pillar like formations of the park), while in Zion we kinked our necks trying to look upwards to the crests of the sheer, imposing rock faces. In Capitol Reef, we hiked canyons to once-verdant homestead paddocks and camped below the vermilion-coloured cliffs of the Waterpocket Fold.
In the adjoining Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a vast area that links many of the nation’s finest national parks and national recreational areas into a contiguous 1.1 million hectares of protected lands, we followed in the footsteps of one of the most incredible endeavours of the settlement of America's Wild West.
We travelled past the natural stone amphitheatre of Dance Hall Rock, and along the two-track to Hole-in-the-Rock. Suddenly, we were at the trail’s end. When you stand on the edge of that high cliff at Hole-in-the-Rock and look down to the waters of what was the Colorado River, and is now the backwaters of the man-made Lake Powell, the full enormity of what they did is impossible to comprehend. Even then, most people are in complete and utter awe of what the pioneers achieved and that is reflected in the visitors book that is found nearby; 'unbelievable', 'crazy', 'stupendous', 'stupid', 'awesome' and 'terrifying' were just some of the single-word comments listed.
We set up camp at the parking area just a stone's throw from the awesome canyon and again had the place to ourselves. With such awesome scenery, great 4WD trails and backroads, along with some fabulous camping, it's no wonder we’ll be going back once more in 2022!
Info & Travel Planner
We love travelling in North America. There are heaps of things to see and do. The people are friendly; food, beer and fuel are cheaper than in Australia, as is camping and access to the parks.
If you are planning a trip to the USA and staying less than three months, a Visa waiver can be organised online.
Longer or multi-entry stays are best handled with a full visa.
Travelling by vehicle in the USA is easy and pain free. Highway speed limits vary from state to state and from 60mph (100kph) to 85mph (135kph).
Getting some wheels
Hire or buy?
Check out Tonto Trails who hire fully set up 4WD pick-ups with slide-on campers fitted or fully set-up 4WD Sportmobile rigs.
If you are planning on touring for longer than, say, three months buying a second hand rig is definitely a good choice. You'll be surprised at what you can get for $10,000–$20,000. Start at Craigs List in the city you want to buy in.
You’ll need an address to organise insurance and rego of your vehicle. If you haven’t got a friend or relative in the USA, many of the good RV parks will furnish a PO Box — at a cost of course.
Storing a vehicle while you are away is pretty straightforward, although the costs vary a lot; big cities can be expensive while smaller country towns and the occasional farm will set you back $60/month or so.
California is the most stringent state for vehicle inspections with annual vehicle smog and safety checks. Other states aren't so strict, especially in the rural areas. Our vehicle is registered in rural Arizona and has never seen a smog or safety check.
Spring (April–May) is good for touring the desert country of the south-west of the USA and is less crowded than later. Summer comes late in a lot of the high country or up north in the states bordering Canada, along with Canada itself. Access off the main roads and highways at these times can be restricted due to deep snow, so it's best to be flexible.
Winter is a popular time to head to Mexico, especially Baja when it can be crowded with ‘snowbirds’ (the equivalent of our grey nomads, but a nicer name) from Canada and the US.
One of our camps in Baja, Mexico
Late or early in the travelling season you’ll also find many of the national parks and state parks closed
Saving money on a Pass
In the USA, if you are going to visit more than just a couple of national parks, national monuments, national historic sites, or national forests or Bureau of Land (BLM) land, it would be a good idea to buy a 'National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass'. For just $80, it’s great value.