Planning a Classic American Road Trip

There appears to be a rule that you cannot simply write about an “American Road Trip”, it has to be, “The Grand…”, “The Classic…” or some other superlative “…American Road Trip”. This confirms the exalted position that many writers have for such trips. Add the familiarity with the beauty of the country and the diversity of the scenery from daily exposure to it on television, and it creates a strong desire to drive down a desert highway in top down convertible.


As a Scottish landscape and travel photographer, albeit and amateur one, my simple goal is to take images that people like. A country that offers endless golden beaches, year-round snow-capped mountains, majestic waterfalls, cosmopolitan cityscapes and multiple cultures has got to be on my bucket list. Yet, the diversity available brings a wonderful dilemma, how do you choose where to go? I’ve read of photographers taking 3 years to document just one of the US National Parks, I’ve got 3 weeks to cover the whole country – no pressure then!


This is my first blog and I have set out with the idea of recording my thoughts, feelings and emotions as I plan my grand/classic/superlative road trip across America. At the end of the trip, I hope to have some beautiful images that people like and also provide a better understanding of how they were made.


My wife, Janette and I have read hundreds of blogs and travel magazines. We’ve looked at thousand of images. I’ve studied locations on Google earth and know exactly when and where the sun will rise and set at countless spots in North American next June. It was overwhelming for a long time but we found that methodically plotting all the locations with a sticker on a map started to bring some order to the chaos. A route started to emerge for us, we added in hotels, motorways and so forth and things started to take shape. Then came the hard decisions, we had places we wanted to go, that simply didn’t fit the preferred route and far too many places that did. We made some choices with the head, some with the heart and some with the purse but ended up with a route that we are really excited about.


Below I’ve used images by other photographers to show what I’m so excited, obviously I’ve not taken mine yet. I’ve linked in their websites, if you like the images please visit their sites and say “Hi” I’m sure they will appreciate it, I know I would.



We knew we wanted to start in the northwest and had considered Alaska for the Northern Lights. We ruled this out after I shot some images in Iceland last year. We are both fans of the TV series “Grimm” and Portland was a strong option for a long time. What finally persuaded us was the opportunity to photograph the spectacular urban Seattle skyline with the majesty of Mount Rainer in the background.


Cannon Beach

This is one of only 2 coastal spots on our trip. We have previously done a road trip through California and while there are many stunning locations there, we didn’t want to repeat anything. Cannon Beach itself is a long flat sandy beach facing west so its perfect for sunsets and Haystack Rock offers an interesting focal point as well as providing sanctuary for seabirds.

Palouse Falls

After our first big drive in-land we should arrive at Palouse Falls in plenty of time to see a golden sunset light up the land around this spectacular waterfall. More likely it will be dull and raining but I will still have the option of doing some long exposure photography to add silky smooth ribbons of water trails to the scene.


Steptoe Butte State Park

I had never heard of this place before I started to do my research. However, some of the images I’ve seen from here are stunning. It’s described as the Tuscany of North America with rolling hills and spectacular vistas. When I was in Tuscany, Italy it rained all the time, so we are hoping for more luck here.

Yellowstone National Park


The decision on whether to go to Yellowstone or Yosemite National Park was probably the biggest influence in our choice of route. We went for Yellowstone because of the diversity it offers beyond landscape photography, the wildlife in particular was a factor and the unique opportunity to see the power of the earth in the Geysers.


Grand Teton National Park

Having decided on Yellowstone this was almost a no-brainer. That said, images I have seen of the Barns with the mountains in the background are stunning and I just had to go here and get one for myself. I hope that I can do it justice.



At over 500 miles in a single sitting the drive from Jackson Hole down to Moab is the biggest drive in our trip. We did have a loop in here that took us to Mount Rushmore, Denver and the Rockies but was one of the choices we had to make with the head and the purse.


I think its fair to say that Mesa Arch being lit from underneath by the sunrise has become an iconic image for Utah, and its National Parks. I’ve read it is a bit of a scrum at sunrise to get the perfect shot, but I’m an ex rugby player and I can scrum it with the best of them. I bought an ultra wide lens (14mm) specially for this and practised multi-shot panos to make sure that I get the shot I want.


Monument Valley

This is the place that I am most looking forward too. In all the time I’ve known my mother-in-law she has had a picture of Monument Valley above her fireplace. She has never been there, and is not likely to go now, but she just loves the view and so do I. I’ve booked a room in the View Hotel for the night, but I’m not sure I will use as I’m so looking forward to the sunset, then seeing the stars above the Buttes and then the sunrise.


Page, Arazona


If Monument Valley is my favourite, then Page is Janette’s. More specifically Antelope Canyon, which she describes as the place with the bacon on the walls. Such a wonderful description, the colour of the canyon walls illuminated by the midday sun is indeed bacon red. Page is also home to Horseshoe bend and the sun will be setting directly opposite the viewing area when we are there.


Joshua Tree National Park

From Page we head back towards the west coast and pick up a little bit of Route 66 before heading off to Joshua Tree NP. We added this stop in for the unparalleled diversity of flora which adds a whole new dimension of photography for me.


San Diego

Sadly, this is the last stop on our trip. We stopped here for a night when we toured California, but took our sons to see the San Diego Padres (Baseball) and never got a chance to see the city. We’ve got options to photograph the cityscape, beaches, the Mexican border and the old naval relics here, but will probably take a few moments to breathe after our whistle-stop 2,700 mile journey.

You can see the map of our route by clicking here.

So that’s my first blog for my grand/classic/superlative road trip, please let me know what you think, I promise you wont offend me if you don’t like it. If you think I can improve for the next one drop me a note.





8 thoughts on “Planning a Classic American Road Trip

  1. Sounds absolutely fantastic John. I wish you and Janette well on your trip and look forward to following your blog and seeing the photographs.


  2. What’s your itinerary? I can’t see it anywhere (bit of a technophobe). We’ve done 2 USA road trips on the West and Southwest so just shout if you need any hints on good places for photos or decent hotels.


    1. Hi Pam, there is a link at the bottom of the post and the map is also on my Facebook page, but basically starting in Seattle, then down into Oregon, across to Palouse Falls, down to Yellowstone, then Grand Teton, the down Utah and Arizona before cruising through California to finish in San Diego. Might take you up on the offer as things progress. J


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