The American road trip is far from dead. It might just look a little different than it did before.
Eschewing gas-guzzling RVs but still looking for road trips that don’t involve roadside motels, travelers both young and old are reviving the camper van, new-and-improved for the digital era as #vanlife. The Foster Huntington-inspired vancation movement has spawned tens of thousands of social media posts, so many that insurance company Budget Direct looked at them all to see which destinations were the most popular for van lifers. Below you’ll find their favorites, as well as some of our suggestions for road trips to take when you’re there.
The outdoors-and-music capital of the South takes a rightful place among the 20 most popular vancation destinations, an ideal spot for those who either want to sleep among the trees or not pay for hotels. It’s also chock-full of scenic drives through the Blue Ridge Mountains, most notably along the Blue Ridge Parkway and I-26 at Sam’s Gap, where the Appalachian Trail passes under the highway.
If you’ve ever tried to find a parking space in New York City, you might find it curious that this city would be anyone’s idea of van destination, especially since if you park in the wrong place, you may wake up to find your van no longer has wheels. Nonetheless, the Big Apple still rated highly, and if you’re willing to drive a little outside the city you can take a lovely trip through wine country out on Long Island, or head toward the New York-Pennsylvania border and marvel at the gorges along the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway.
18. Richmond, BC
Either this Vancouver suburb ranked highly because people went nuts Instagramming dumplings in their vans, or because it’s almost as close to the spectacular scenery of British Columbia as the nearby big city. Its location at the mouth of the Fraser River makes for some of the best waterfront photo-ops in the region, and as a convenient — and often cheaper — stop on a West Coast road trip, it has become big with the #vanlife crowd.
17. Hamburg, Germany
Germany was the most popular country in Europe for van trippers with four of the top 11 #vanlife locations on the continent. Hamburg was the fifth-most popular destination, with plenty of scenic spots along the Elbe and Schwentine rivers, as well as medieval farmhouses and quaint countryside in Altes Land. It’s also not far from the highest concentration of theme parks in Europe at Lüneburger Heide, which, if they cost as much as US parks, makes the area a smart choice for van camping.
16. Bend, Oregon
The West Coast’s outdoors darling in Bend almost seems like it should be higher on the list, as it has begun attracting the spartan, one-with-nature travelers that look for alternatives to Mount Bachelor and other crowded areas. About 10 miles west, vans can roll through scenic views of the Deschutes River along the Cascade Lakes Highway — with roadside waterfalls to boot. Or take a few hours and head up to McKenzie Pass, a 128-mile loop with a jaw-dropping panoramic view of the Cascades and the lava flows that surround it.
15. Gold Coast, Australia
The surfing capital of Australia is a natural destination for a vancationer, as you’ll see no shortage of vans parked near the breaks at Kirra and Rainbow Bay. That said, the area is still worth exploring on four wheels, as you can drive up to Mount Tamborine and take a tour of a glowworm cave.
14. Munich, Germany
Munich clocked in as the fourth-most popular vancation destination in Europe, thanks in large part to its picturesque setting at the foot of the Bavarian Alps. The best out-the-window views will be along the appropriately named Romantic Road, about 40 miles east of the city. Here you’ll traverse a 220-mile stretch of fairy-tale scenery including Neuschwanstein Castle, which was the inspiration for Disney’s castle for Sleeping Beauty; multiple medieval walled cities; and plenty of wine country.
13. Denver, Colorado
As a jumping off point to the Rocky Mountains, Denver seems a logical starting point for anyone planning a vantastic road trip through the region. There’s no shortage of scenic drives here either, as even a short jaunt up to Red Rocks offers stunning views of the valley at every turn. For the ultimate Colorado scenery, make the long drive down to Telluride, and you’ll go through mountain passes, bright orange desert scenery, and even an abandoned motel that looks like a movie set.
12. Yosemite Village, California
This geotag is likely the most popular in Yosemite National Park, but may not encompass the entire thing. Twelfth seems surprisingly low for a place teeming with climbers sleeping in their vans before trips up El Capitan or Half Dome. Or for families camping out in any of the three Pines campgrounds. Still, a search of #vanlife posts in Yosemite will display an impressive collection of photos, few of which include the summertime crowds.
11. Milan, Italy
While the fashion capital of the world’s most fashionable country doesn’t seem like an obvious place for people who sleep in their vans, Milan still clocked in as the third-most popular vancation spot in Europe. A big part of its popularity may be its proximity to Lake Como, where a winding road slices through hillsides past opulent villas along the shore. Though the region is teeming with scenery, it’s not so much with campgrounds, which begs the question where any of these vans are supposed to park.
10. London, England
London was ranked as the second-most popular for van Euro-travelers. Like New York City, it’s a bit hard to fathom as a place to sleep in your van. But also like New York, if you venture a bit outside you can find charming drives though places like Surry Hills and the Cotswolds, as well as the white cliffs of Dover.
9. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
The three-state monster that is Yellowstone only ranked for its Wyoming geotag, though if you factored in all the tags it only would have ranked three spots higher. Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue with a van trip to Old Faithful, the prism springs, and Minerva Terrace, even if it does add to the crowds. Van trips here also afford the opportunity to visit Glacier and Grand Teton national parks. You know, since you’re in the neighborhood.
8. Moab, Utah
Sitting out on top of a van and gazing up at the desert stars in Moab is an experience one cannot duplicate anywhere else in the world, and that feeling of sheer isolation with nature is hard to achieve in a hotel. It’s also the perfect jumping off point for van trips into Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon national parks, which, though not ranked in this study, are just as cool of places to camp.
At first sight, you might think San Francisco ranked highly because of its popularity with van dwellers back in the free-love ‘60s. Then you’d remember that paying for a parking space in this city is now more than rent in a lot of places, and that the city’s #vanlife frequency is likely due more to its position as a stop for road trips along the Pacific Coast Highway, or up fabled US-101.
Kind of like the Gold Coast in Australia, you’ll see plenty of vans parked near most beaches in San Diego, almost all of which are topped with surfboards. But drive beyond the beaches and you’ll find one of the coolest roads in the country along Old Highway 80, which cuts through the towns of Pine Valley, Descanso, and Jacumba while traversing rolling hills and Southern California desert. It’s a way to see California the way it was, without having to leave your magic bus.
Like a lot of cities ranked highly on this list, Portland is a starting point for some of the most spectacular scenery in the country and an ideal place to park your van to begin the trip. Travel east on I-84 and you’ll parallel the Columbia River along what many consider the most beautiful stretch of interstate in the nation. Go the other way, and you’re only a couple of hours from the Oregon Coast, where you can park your van atop a cliff and get envy-inducing views of Haystack Rock and the roaring Pacific Ocean.
Without any question, Venice is the biggest mystery on this list. How does one even get a van INTO Venice, much less create some kind of #vanlife there? Is it a code for gondolas? Is it ironic? Or maybe it’s just a geotag for people taking road trips to the neighboring towns in the Veneto region. No matter the reason, Venice was the most popular spot in Europe, even though as far as we know vans don’t float.
Driving the Canadian Rockies along the Icefields Parkway is one of the world’s greatest road trips, so it’s no surprise van trippers flocked to Banff more than almost anywhere in the world. The Parkway is the most famous route, but as long as you’re van tripping check out some less-traveled roads like the Bow Valley Parkway, with riverfront views of Castle Mountain. And the Minnewanka Loop, which offers fantastic sunrise shots at Two Jack Lake.
The old Hollywood story about moving to California and living out of your van to pursue your dreams might be more than a cliché, if the van lifers tagging this city are being literal. If not, it may just be tourists starting a road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway, or surfers spending the morning in Malibu. Either way, LA is America’s top destination for van trips, movie star aspirations or not.
Perhaps the second-most surprising aspect of this study wasn’t that Vancouver topped the list, but by how much it decimated the competition. It was responsible for nearly four times as many #vanlife posts as second-place LA, and accounted for over two percent of posts overall. Not shocking, given even a morning commute over the Granville Bridge is one of the most scenic drives in North America. And the drive up to Whistler is even more spectacular. No matter the reason, van trippers seem to have fallen in love with British Columbia, and it would be pretty hard to blame them.
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