Driving through the fiery foliage of New England, under the gray granite spires of the North Cascades and all the wide-open spaces in-between, I came to understand the mass appeal of vanlife. I’d followed a string of single-lane highways and country backroads threading together dramatic national parks and iconic cultural hotspots. I’d never felt so free or more connected to my home country. My partner and I explored 40 states in five months, and all were magnificent in their own right. But a few states stood out from the rest.
We quickly learned to differentiate between a terrific vanlife destination and states more suited to alternative methods of travel. For example, navigating the narrow alleyways of Boston and tight-knit communities of Cape Cod put Massachusetts low on our list while serene upstate New York almost made up for the headache of the Big Apple. As we traversed the United States seeking out scenic vistas, intrepid outdoor activities, and communities accepting of our alternative lifestyle, we were surprised which states came out on top. But although these destinations were clear winners, where we could spend months exploring at our leisure, the entire US is, overall, a van-friendly, road-trip-worthy destination.
So, what makes for a van-friendly destination?
It’s not just raw natural beauty and dramatic landscapes that appeal to vanlifers. We need BLM land and state parks for free camping. When you’re spending every sunset looking for a scenic place to sleep and often have to settle for grocery store parking lots, the romance of life on the road wears off quickly.
States with frigid or unpredictable weather don’t exactly generate enthusiasm for driving or exploring, either. After spending nearly a week trapped inside our van during hail, sleet, and snow at Glacier National Park in Montana, we concluded that retaining feeling in our fingers and toes can sometimes trump breathtaking beauty. Of course, opinions differ. If you’re on a mission to ski powder every morning and are equipped to handle frigid overnights in order to do so, Montana in winter may be your ideal spot.
And avoiding the dreaded middle-of-the-night knock (albeit a carefully learned skill) is downright impossible in areas unaccustomed to or unwelcoming of van-dwellers.
Our favorite states were packed full of worthwhile road trips, peppered with free scenic overnight parking, enjoyed tolerable weather year-round, and had a general attitude of acceptance toward the vanlife community. They were enjoyable and easy to traverse with our home on wheels.
If you’re looking to hit the open road in a van this summer, follow our route through these five impressive states.
The state that “created” vanlife is home to the single most beautiful stretch of seaside highway (Highway 1) in the United States, a whopping nine national parks, and a temperate climate year-round. California is the perfect state for vanlife.
Cruise the 900-plus miles of rugged coastline (if you can afford the gas prices) and spend a few days parked beneath the towering trees of Redwood National Forest before passing through salt-stained beach towns on your way to the scenic vistas at Big Sur. When you’ve had your fill of beaches, steer clear of the chaotic Los Angeles streets and head for the wilderness. On the topic of national parks, decide whether the dramatic glacier-sculpted landscapes of Yosemite or the desolate, wide-open deserts of Joshua Tree and Death Valley are more your style. No matter your choice, California has top-notch camping amenities. I recommend driving the California coast from North to South for the best views.
Vanlife in Florida is like California but with more bugs and no mountains. Every seaside town we passed through was equipped for surfers, which means unregulated parking lots and plenty of beach showers. This was a welcome change of pace for someone who had been showering sporadically from a solar-“heated” bag out the side doors of the van for months on end.
Granted, living in a van in Florida is easiest if you’re a beach bum at heart. You can pull directly up to the waves and spend the night parked in the pale sand on Sanibel Island. Or drive the 150 miles off the tip of Florida to the Keys. I recommend Largo or Big Pine instead of the more popular and crowded Key West. Round out your Florida road trip by kayaking through the thick mangroves, snorkeling with manatees at Silver Glen Springs State Park, and hiking through dense jungle vegetation in one of Florida’s nearly 200 state parks.
The emerald green canopy of western Washington and snow-capped mountain peaks provided a scenic start to our journey through our home sweet home. Although Washington’s dreary overcast skies can make long drives drag on, it’s one of the best states for vanlife because of the raw natural beauty and huge van-dwelling community that resides there all year. Two of our very favorite national parks, Olympic and Mount Rainier, are just outside the edgy, rainy, metropolitan center of Seattle, a city where vanlifers will feel right at home in its quirky neighborhoods.
If you’re looking for the perfect morning wake-up, visit Chuckanut Drive on the way to Bellingham (another van-friendly outdoorsy city near-ish to the Canadia border) and North Cascades National Park. With stunning stealth camping spots overlooking the electric blue Diablo Lake, at the base of a glacier at Cascade Pass, and staring straight at the snowy summit of Mount Baker at Artist Point, Washington is the most underrated vanlife destination.
4. South Dakota
Before we roamed the road in our converted Ram van, we would daydream of driving through the Wild West, sleeping under the stars surrounded by herds of bison and bighorn sheep. This overly romanticized view of America’s heartland wasn’t far from the truth in South Dakota. With enough space to feel immersed in the wilderness, we drove through the Badlands, the cowboy town of Deadwood, and past manmade wonders like Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial.
But the real highlights of South Dakota are the Black Hills and Custer State Park. Drive through the winding Needles Highway (Highway 87) filled with granite spires and set up camp at Sylvan Lake before hiking to the highest point in South Dakota, Black Elk Peak.
If seclusion is what you seek, you’ll find it in Utah. Between the burnt-orange iconic arches of its five national parks, you’ll find plenty of BLM camping far from the routes of traditional road trippers. With lower fuel prices than the popular West Coast states, Utah is a much more affordable vanlife destination if you’re looking to hang around long-term.
Starting in Zion National Park, you’ll hike epic peaks like Angel’s Landing before continuing to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (if you have a 4×4 vehicle), Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and finally Arches National Park. The Moab and Valley of the Gods region, in particular, offer welcoming communities of fellow van-dwellers.
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