The start of a new year is an exciting time filled with possibilities, resolutions, and–if you’re like us–some new travel goals. The open road stretches out in every direction and distant locales call your name. Should you go east or west? National parks or bustling cities? If you’re one of the lucky members of #vanlife, you don’t have to choose.
Spend 2022 chasing perfect weather, exhilarating outdoor adventures, and immersion into different cultures across the country. From the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf Coast, we’re highlighting some of the top road trip destinations trending for van dwellers right now. Check out the quick guides below for five U.S. regions to add to your bucket list, along with a few recommended stops and campgrounds for each.
Wide swaths of stunning landscapes, plenty of free BLM camping, and a slower pace of life make the American Southwest perfect for van travel. In fact, road trippers ranked the Southwest as one of the top destinations of interest for the upcoming year in a survey by Outdoorsy. We recommend hitting Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah on your road trip to get a good feel for the variety of this region.
In Colorado, a wealth of outdoor adventure opportunities lies right outside the doors of your van. Hike a 14er–one of the state’s impressive 14,000+ foot peaks–in the Rocky Mountains, explore the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park, and ski in Aspen. For something a little more laidback, make some new friends over a craft beer in Fort Collins (or really anywhere in Colorado–the Centennial state has one of the highest concentrations of breweries in the country). Then enjoy a restful night among the conifers less than an hour away at Kelly Flats Campground. For more recommendations, check out our Top Van Destinations in Colorado.
Then ramble down to New Mexico–aptly nicknamed the “Land of Enchantment.” You’ll fall in love with the rich culture of this state, from the ancient rock carvings at Petroglyphs National Monument to the modern-day hot air balloon fiesta held in Albuquerque each October. For some of the most unique natural landscapes in the U.S., check out White Sands National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Stay for free near the caverns at Chosa Campground. Statewide, you’ll find delicious food, kind people, and top-notch rock climbing. For our favorite spots, check out “The Best Rock Climbing Locations in New Mexico.”
When it comes to road trips, Route 66 is iconic. Take this historic highway from New Mexico to Arizona. There, you’ll be treated to warm-hued desert landscapes including the Grand Canyon (which needs no introduction) and the lesser-known Red Rock State Park. Chavez Crossing Group Campground serves as an ideal home base for contemplating the red rocks as well as visiting the art- and wellness-focused city of Sedona. Other quirky small cities include Flagstaff and Tucson. If you prefer the peace of nature, head to Saguaro National Park, where you’ll be dwarfed by stately cacti that can grow up to 60 feet tall.
No American Southwest road trip would be complete without a stop (or a few) in Utah. This state is known for its breathtaking rock formations, starry skies, winter sports, and the Sundance Film Festival. Moab is a must-visit for van dwellers based on its location smack dab in the middle of multiple national and state parks, including Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Dead Horse State Park. Moab is also popular with mountain bikers and rock climbers. Stay in style at the Moab Valley RV Resort & Campground. The list of can’t miss locations in Utah goes on, but we’ll wrap it up with a nod to the iconic landscapes of Monument Valley. For our full guide to the best van camping in Utah, click here.
Sun, sand, and stars–of the movie variety, that is–make Southern California a destination that people around the world dream of visiting. The population density in the area, especially around Los Angeles, can be overwhelming, but van life means you can stay out of the fray and get the best of Southern California from the comfort of your home on wheels.
San Diego is a welcoming city for van dwellers that boasts 70 miles of coastline, trendy foods, and plenty of opportunities to socialize and meet new people. If you’re a surfer, you’ll love the warm water and excellent surf breaks in the area. If you’d rather watch, you can catch a good view of the action from the piers at Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach. Stay in your own little waterfront paradise at Campland on the Bay. If you can tear yourself away from relaxing on the beach, explore the sandstone seaside cliffs at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve or scuba dive at the La Jolla Underwater Park. About an hour north along the coast, you’ll find one of Southern California’s best beaches for a vanning day trip, San Onofre State Beach. Here, you can park your van right up against the sand, opening your back doors on an Instagram-worthy view of the Pacific Ocean.
For a totally different, yet equally pleasing, view, head inland to Joshua Tree National Park. The park gets its name from the unique spiky trees that dot the horizon. One can only admire the enterprising flora and fauna that survive and thrive in this drastic desert climate. In the spring, the landscape comes alive with a variety of unique blooms, earning it a place on our “Best Places to See Wildflowers Across the U.S.” list. To best enjoy the park, we recommend taking a walk on one of the many hiking trails (Hidden Valley Nature Trail is a quick loop that showcases the Joshua trees) or simply sitting atop a boulder and soaking up the tranquil atmosphere. Marvel at the sunrise, sunset, and twinkling stars from your home base at Black Rock Campground.
THE GULF COAST
Across the country, the Gulf of Mexico creates another region known for its spectacular coastline and relaxed vibe. This large area spans from Texas to Florida and accordingly is quite diverse in its offerings. You’ll find everything from vibrant city life in New Orleans to peaceful hiking trails in Gulf State Park. The Gulf Coast is best explored on the leisurely-paced, flexible type of road trip that a camper van allows.
Florida has been a favorite of RVers for generations thanks to its balmy weather and outstanding beaches. Get some R-and-R when you pull up to one of Florida’s many waterfront state parks, including Sebastian Inlet, Little Talbot Island, and Grayton Beach. We recommend camping at Grayton Beach State Park in the Florida Panhandle for fun-filled days spent hiking, paddleboarding on the lake, and enjoying the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. On the opposite end of the state, you’ll find the Florida Keys. These tropical islands are famous for their white sand beaches and resort-style amenities. Best of all? You can drive to the islands on the picturesque Overseas Highway–also known as the “Road to Paradise.” For more on the Sunshine State, check out our list of Florida’s hidden gems.
Keep the Third Coast nature tour going with stops at the family-friendly Gulf State Park in Alabama and the verdant Greenville Cypress Preserve Trust in Mississippi. Then change up the pace by heading to New Orleans, Louisiana. The “Big Easy,” as New Orleans is affectionately dubbed, is the place to get your fill of diverse culinary treats, jazz music, nightlife, and melting pot culture. The French-Quarter is a must-visit for admiring 18th-century architecture and munching on powdered sugar-dusted beignets. Van camp in comfort at the Bayou Segnette State Park less than 30 minutes from the heart of the city.
THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST
Looking to escape into the great outdoors? You’ll find pristine and jaw-dropping nature in the northwestern corner of the U.S. This region is known for its giant redwoods, dramatic rocky coastlines, and clear mountain lakes. The PNW would make a great road trip to start the new year off feeling refreshed and reconnected to what truly matters. Plus, with a wealth of free dispersed campsites, surveying the region won’t break the bank. For our recommendations, check out “The Best Free Campsites in the Pacific Northwest.”
Oregon offers something for everyone. Explore the state’s plentiful ghost towns or the hipster city of Portland. Try windsurfing the prime waters of the Columbia River Gorge or relax while fishing for Rainbow Trout and Kokanee Salmon in Crater Lake, aka the deepest lake in the U.S. After fishing, boondock nearby at the dispersed FR 960 camping area. For inspiring scenery including forests, waterfalls, and panoramic views over the Columbia River Gorge, take a meandering drive on the Historic Columbia River Highway. Other areas of interest include Mount Hood National Forest, Newport, and the Oregon Coast Trail.
For a wide array of outdoor activities year-round, head to Washington. Cycling, hiking, climbing, boating, kiteboarding, surfing, skiing, and snowboarding… You name it, Washington has got it. With tons of recreation-friendly areas in close proximity, you can easily fit multiple physical activities into a single day–if your sore muscles can handle it, that is. Stay at the highly-rated Dean’s Campground for access to Seattle, Tacoma, and multiple state parks. When it comes to nature, the Evergreen State lives up to its nickname with vibrant forest landscapes as far as the eye can see. Take in postcard-style views at Mount Rainier National Park, North Cascades National Park, and Olympic National Park.
THE GREAT LAKES
The Great Lakes region might not have the name recognition of some of the other places on this list, but that’s what makes it an exciting destination for 2022. If you’re an avid road tripper, you might have already visited the spots that are often circulated in the van life community, like California, Florida, and the PNW. Looking for something new? You’ll love the uncrowded lake beaches, bucolic campgrounds, and simple pleasures offered by the states surrounding the Great Lakes. Here, we’re highlighting Michigan and Minnesota.
Touching four of the five Great Lakes, Michigan certainly deserves a mention when talking about the Great Lakes region. Its perfect placement means it has the largest freshwater coast of any state in the country, making it a paradise for anglers. Camp at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for a ruggedly-beautiful landscape of sandstone cliffs, hardwood trees, and the calm teal water of Lake Superior. You can also take a boat tour on Lake Michigan to see the small islands and lighthouses of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore from the water. Then flip the view from one of the area’s many hiking trails.
While Minnesota only borders one of the Great Lakes, it is ideal for van life due in large part to the North Shore Drive. This scenic 142-mile highway straddles Lake Superior, offering ever-changing views of dramatic cliffs plunging into the water. Along the way, you can stop at multiple waterfall-filled state parks, the unusually-colored pink beach at Iona’s Beach Scientific and Natural Area, the popular Split Rock Lighthouse, and many more charming attractions. Lamb’s Resort is a notable campground along the way that features a 0.5-mile private beach. The state’s sole national park, Voyageurs National Park, is also considered the best place in the United States to see the northern lights.
Which of these regions are you adding to your 2022 bucket list? Let us know in the comments! For the adventure vans to take you there, visit Rec Van.