Hitting the road: Locals share their tips for traveling this summer

Don’t feel like flying? Read about the experiences (and advice) of locals who hit the road this summer.|

Road trips — they can be fun, educational and culturally expansive.

Or they can be frustrating and downright difficult, once the rubber meets the road and your expectations do not align with reality.

In the summer, on weekends and at most national parks, it probably won’t work to “wing it.” There may be long lines to get in, waits at understaffed restaurants, detours around construction projects and fires, no vacancy signs and other unexpected roadblocks.

But many people from the North Bay who have tried it this year have returned with rave reviews. Hidden Valley Lake subdivision residents Lisa Valdovinos and husband Steve traveled in their own SUV to Tennessee and back this summer, visiting eight states in three weeks.

“It was the trip of a lifetime,” Lisa said. “We have always liked to travel, and nobody could with the pandemic.”

They drove an average of five hours a day so they could stand on the corner of Winslow, Arizona; follow the bourbon trail in Louisville, Kentucky; and explore all kinds of roadside attractions and national parks like the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore.

“Even the smallest town had something,” Lisa said. “We went to the World’s Only Corn Palace” (in Mitchell, South Dakota).

Exploring a place you’ve never seen before, trying a new outdoor activity or visiting a museum dedicated to one of your hobbies — these are a few of rewards you’ll reap for all that road trip research.

In order to help readers with their own road trips, we checked in with locals who have lived to tell the tale as well as travel experts for tips on how to move on down the road safely and sanely in 2021.

See you in the rearview mirror!

Choosing your route

This, of course, is the most important decision you’ll make, so give it some time and some thought.

New Yorker Karen Gershowitz, author of the book “Travel Mania: Stories of Wanderlust” (She Writes Press, 2021), suggests you zero in on a few things you really love to do instead of a specific place.

“What gets you really excited?” she said. “It could be gardens, baseball, crafts, railroads. ... Plan a trip around something you love, as opposed to the destination.”

Gershowitz loves arts and crafts and recently planned a road trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York state around that passion.

“I had to go to the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York,” she said. “And then there’s wineries up there, too. So we planned it around wineries and glass.”

If you are traveling during a busy time, she also suggests planning a trip that doesn’t include big cities. If you do go to a city, stay off the tourist route and do other fun activities that aren’t in the guide book.

“People tend to go to the places that they absolutely know about,” Gershowitz said. “And so does everyone else. So you are going to get frustrated. It’s going to be crowded and hot.”

Staying away from the crowds was part of the plan hatched by Jim and Gaylene Rosaschi this summer as they ventured out on a history tour of the West after sheltering in place for more than a year at their Santa Rosa home.

“We decided to take a road trip in our car and see some of the sights that Lewis and Clark saw when they explored territory in the western USA beginning in 1803,” Jim Rosaschi said. “This would let us see new places but not put us in crowded theme parks, busy cities or other places where social distancing is hard.”

Rosaschi suggested deciding on your route ahead of time, then figuring out how many hours per day you can manage behind the wheel. He advises keeping it under five hours so you are less tired the next day.

With the kids

Although scenic roads are more interesting, if you’re traveling with children, you might consider that this means more time in the car for them. And it gives you less time to enjoy spontaneous diversions along the way in addition to pit stops for meals, gas and restrooms.

“With children, there are always unplanned stops along the way,” Rosaschi said. “It might just be a stop in a public park to burn off some pent-up energy.”

For Gershowitz, it’s important not to drive more than 400 miles a day. Or you could tackle a long day of driving, then go shorter distances. Another strategy is to stay in one place for a couple days while taking day trips in each area.

“If I go somewhere central, what else can I see?” she said. “It’s not going to be as exhausting, especially because it is hard to find accommodations.”

Don’t be afraid to slam on the brakes and make a U-turn if you see something interesting, she said. That’s how she stumbled on a salvage yard with a collection of huge recycled art sculptures in New Jersey.

“It was an absolutely wild place,” she said. “But it was not in the guidebook, and we would never have known about it.”

The veteran road tripper also suggested avoiding national parks in the summer. Instead, check out some of the state and county parks, many of which have lodges.

“They are not as grand as going to Yosemite, but they are absolutely beautiful,” she said. “In Las Vegas, I found a state park called Red Rock Canyon. It was beautiful, and there were no people there.”

While planning your route, she strongly recommends getting a map and reading it closely to find interesting places 20 miles off your route.

That way, instead of heading straight for a tourist destination, such as a well-known wine valley, you may discover another attraction off the beaten path, such as a trail highlighting whiskey or hard cider purveyors and makers.

For her research, Carla Flaherty of Santa Rosa follows the My Home is California page on Facebook and subscribes to “Only in ...” lists for states she is going to visit.

“I read Atlas Obscura (an online travel magazine) and Roadside America (an app for roadside attractions and oddities) and anything else I can find,” she said. “The more you know, the more you will see.”

The Visit California website (visitcalifornia.com) also offers a 2021 “California Road Trips” guide, for free.

Lodging ins and outs

When the Valdovinoses set out on their cross-country trek, they had a reservation at the Grand Canyon, but after that, they planned to get a hotel wherever they landed that day. That strategy didn’t work for long, as they found themselves staying in substandard hotels in bad neighborhoods.

“We learned a lesson,” Lisa said. “We ended up reserving a few nights before we arrived at the next location.”

If you have an RV or tent for camping, you’ll have more options.

Dustin Rogge of Forestville, founder of Trailhead Vans, rents out three camper vans based in Santa Rosa and Lake Tahoe. This summer, he reserved a van for his own family to camp along the Central Coast and up in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

In Cambria, the family stayed at a state campground, then booked a more luxurious spot through Hipcamp (hipcamp.com), a peer-to-peer camping reservation service.

“Campgrounds get booked so fast and so early,” he said. “That’s one of the big constraints that I hear from my customers.”

Although the Hipcamp site was a bit more expensive, Rogge was able to book it at the last minute. The other benefit was that it had more character and amenities than a public campground, including a communal kitchen and fire pits, a swimming hole and a bespoke bathroom lined in wood.

Rogge, a professor of hospitality and business at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, also suggested crowd sourcing from your own social network to find lodging and other travel information.

“Then you are getting insight from people in your own social circle,” he said.

In the summer, Rogge tends to look for lodging on the periphery of popular spots and often stays in the national forests that surround national parks like Yosemite Valley.

A few years ago, Rogge and his family were on vacation in Lake Tahoe and needed to find a place with good air quality due to nearby wildfires. That’s how he discovered the Sierra Butte area, just off the well-worn path north of Truckee.

“Gold Lake is up there, which is cool, and there are some old-timey resorts like Sardine Lake Resort,” he said. “We went past Prosser Reservoir and drove for an hour, and that brought us up to that region.”

Fuel for the body

When Rogge was visiting Cambria this summer, the serious shortage of labor in the hospitality industry reinforced the importance of making reservations, even at restaurants during high season.

His family stopped by a nice bistro for dinner, and the owner said he had a table open but only one cook and two servers, so it was going to be a long time before Rogge and his family would get their food.

“I saw that over and over again,” he said. “This is the peak season for restaurants.”

To help ease the burden on restaurants and support them year-round, he suggested waiting until October, and preferably in midweek, to go to popular areas.

To find out where to eat in new places he doesn’t know, Rogge likes to ask the local experts and people who are dining next to him.

“If I’m having breakfast, I ask the people there where to have lunch,” he said. “If I’m having lunch, I ask where to have dinner.”

Also not afraid to ask questions, Gershowitz likes to hang out in parks and strike up conversations with the locals about what they like to do and where they like to eat.

“I’ve gotten more good advice and great places to eat,” she said. “It’s the little local gems. ... If I have one piece of advice for any trip, it’s to make sure you connect with people who live in the area.”

As long as you are respectful and show curiosity, people with hometown pride will be happy to share their town’s secret pleasures. They may even dine out with you at their favorite food truck.

If you’re headed to a National Park, Carol Castillo of Petaluma said it’s a good idea to stock up on supplies, especially food.

“Food service was quite limited at Crater Lake in June, and food from the ice chest ended up being our breakfast and lunch,” Castillo said. “We only ate dinner in the restaurant.”

What to pack for the trip

Some people pack only the bare minimum. Others pack everything but the kitchen sink. Remember that if you’ve forgotten something, you can always buy it.

“It’s not a disaster” Gershowitz said. “I think people tend to overpack rather than underpack.”

Here’s what she and others interviewed for this story deem essential for road trips:

  • Cooler and ice packs: An ice chest that is not too big and may fit behind a car seat is ideal for picnic lunches and staying hydrated. When you get to your lodging, it’s nice to pull out some appetizers and a cold drink while you unwind and unpack. And don’t forget to put the ice packs in the hotel refrigerator. Bring along plastic bags with slider closings to hold open packages and a drawstring plastic bag to use for trash in the car.
  • Plastic bin for breakfast items, snacks and dishes: If you don’t want to eat out three meals a day, bring a few treats and comforts from home. It’s also good way to avoid hunger pangs and unnecessary stops on the road.
  • Entertainment: To pass the time, bring along a Kindle, which can be loaded with audio books. For kids, pack a Frisbee or something small you can pull out at a park. You could bring a jar of treats to hand out to the kids every hour or so. And it never hurts to have a deck of cards when the hotel TV only offers three channels.
  • Folding chairs: These are perfect for picnics, stops by the river to dunk your feet and music festivals you happen to stumble upon. The lighter the better, and backpack chairs are easier to carry.
  • Beach towels: Use them to sit on by a river, then jump in with the dog and dry off.
  • Car shades: If you’re going where it is likely to be hot, bring a reflective shade to put on the windshield. This is especially important if you are traveling with a pooch.
  • Roving Rover: If you have a dog along, bring food, treats, a favorite toy and plenty of cold water in refillable bottles (placed in the ice chest) to cool Fido and yourself.
  • First-aid kit: Band-Aids, antibiotic ointment, alcohol and cotton balls are ideal for minor mishaps and bites. If you are going to somewhere buggy, bring insect repellent. And don’t forget your regular medications and vitamins.
  • A cellphone and chargers: Essential for GPS (if you car doesn’t have it), research on the road and taking photos if you are not bringing a camera. Check into roaming and text message charges if your phone does not have unlimited talk and text.
  • Dirty laundry: It’s a good idea to bring some laundry detergent, since this may not be available, plus a stash of quarters. A supply of travel-friendly laundry soap sheets comes in handy for washing small items in the sink, along with a twisted travel laundry line, which does not require clothes pins.
  • Travel folder and/or spreadsheet: Being able to access all your plans is a good idea, said Jim Rosaschi. He makes a spreadsheet listing dates of reservations, whether they have been prepaid or not, phone numbers, confirmation numbers and ideas for restaurants and things to do. This can save you time if something goes wrong and you need quick access to information. Leave a copy with family or friends so they will have a record, too.

Documenting the journey

Consider writing up your voyage as you go.

Flaherty of Santa Rosa writes and posts a travel blog, which allows her kids and friends to know where she and her husband are and what they are doing.

“When we get home, I use Blog2Print to print it,” she said. “And it becomes our memory book for the trip.”

The Valdovinoses posted their adventures on Facebook so their friends could follow them.

Alternative transportation

Of course, if you’re eager to get out and see the country but do not want to be in a car or on a crowded airplane, there are other choices.

Except for trips to Alaska and Georgia, Joan and Mike Mortensson of Sebastopol have not taken a plane together since they flew to the British Isles for their honeymoon in 1985. Their last rail trip, pre-pandemic, was to Colorado, Utah and Arizona in 2019.

“Now in 2021, we have resumed ‘training,’” Mike said. So far this year, the couple has chugged along by train to Denver in May and Portland in June. This fall, they plan an anniversary ride along the coast of Washington state for their anniversary.

Ellen and Brian Swedberg took a car trip from Santa Rosa to Paducah, Kentucky, last month, with their 30-foot trawler, christened Perfect Choice, strapped onto a big rig truck traveling a few hours behind them.

Starting in October, the retired couple will embark on a 6,500-mile boat trip along a route known as the Great American Loop, beginning at the Green Turtle Bay marina in Paducah.

“From there we will launch our boat in Kentucky Lake ... down the Eastern Tennessee River to Mobile Alabama, through Florida then counterclockwise around the eastern seaboard,” Brian said. “Ultimately, we’ll go through Canada and the Great Lakes, then down the Mississippi back to Paducah.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

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