Going on a 1,000-mile mountain road trip isn’t crazy, it’s eye-opening

Designed for fast cars, the America Adventure Rally is a week-long driving competition where teams solve clues to figure out their final destination. But this year, an RV joined the races.
Snowy mountain peaks and brown grassland at Grand Teton National Park

This story first appeared on Roadtrippers in October 2019.

Seeing a 22-foot-long, gleaming white, class-C motorhome make its way up the winding mountain road posed a lot of questions.

“You’re really going to take that all the way to Montana?” people asked. “Have you ever driven one of these before?” (My answers were yes and no, respectively).

It was day one of the 2019 America Adventure Rally—an annual driving competition where teams solve clues to figure out what route they need to take in order to arrive at a final destination—and all participants had just converged at the top of Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, Colorado to kick off the race. All we knew was that the correct route consisted of almost no major highways, and that we should end up in Whitefish, Montana six days later.

Some might think it’s crazy to drive more than 1,000 miles in an RV with no real plan. But this “crazy” trip brought me face-to-face with an undeniable truth: Even though towns may be small and roads are often narrow, America conceals immense things.

The man behind the curtain

The America Adventure Rally was first started by the United States Auto Club (USAC) in January, 2011. USAC—one of the sanctioning bodies of auto racing—wanted to find a way to both draw in new sponsors to the sport and create some after-season fun for drivers and team members.

“America Adventure was really started as a way for our sponsors and friends to have a great driving experience and do some team-building,” says Kevin Miller, president and CEO of USAC.

“The planning process is a real secret,” Miller says with a laugh. “It actually starts by linking some great places to stay—hotels, resorts, cabins, anything unique we can find. Once we have the hotels figured out, we then map out the trip based on entertaining or can’t-miss locations along the way, which we often find on Roadtrippers. We want to be sure and capture super unique places.”

Miller, who has worked in the automotive industry for more than 30 years and became president of USAC in 2007, is the brains behind the America Adventure operation. Not only does he plan the entire route—which differs every year—he also finds all of the stops and writes each clue.

Once the tentative route is mapped out, Miller then drives the whole thing himself—including all hotels and stops—in the “pre-run” phase. More often than not, Miller and his team will end up changing the route during this phase. Roads can be rough, places can be permanently closed, and, sometimes, the route just doesn’t quite fit his standards.

“Two years ago, I was pre-running from Memphis to New Orleans along the Mississippi and the feel of the route was just off,” Miller recalls. “So, I looked at some maps in a hotel room in Memphis and found the Natchez Trace Parkway. It ended up being an incredible find through several states and scenic civil war history. It totally changed the trip.”

Wrong turns

Driving down Flagstaff Mountain that first day—a line of 13 cars and one RV—felt exciting and energizing. We were a group of strangers, united by matching door decals and an appreciation for the unknown. Only six cryptic clues separated us from the first night’s hotel, and you couldn’t help but wonder if everyone would make it.

But sure enough, everyone did.

After stopping at a boutique chocolate shop, a 109-year-old carousel, and an ornate stone church in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, we all landed at the illustrious Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. Although the RV wasn’t the first vehicle to arrive at the hotel (faster times mean more points), I wasn’t concerned. With solvable clues, smooth roads, and picturesque mountain views, I thought to myself: If all days are like today, this trip will be a breeze.

The second day started off very much like the first, with a driver meeting followed by another set of clues. But upon leaving Estes Park, I quickly learned two things: Colorado has some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, and you may have to take a wrong turn to find them.

The route took us straight through Rocky Mountain National Park. Climbing higher and higher into the mountains, sitting tall in the seat of an RV with nothing but peaks and sky around me, it felt like driving along the rim of the world. Up there, the mountain sun seemed to give everything a thin, metallic coating of glory.

Coming down through the park, after passing small, wooded towns with names like Granby and Parshall, I made a wrong turn. At a fork where I should have gone left, I went right and ended up in the midst of the Medicine Bow-Routee National Forest. Luckily, with one bar of spotty service, I was able to figure out where the next hotel was and chart a route. Unluckily, that route took me through a narrow, backcountry dirt road. And not your typical soft gravel dirt road—this 11-mile stretch was so pocked with crater-sized holes and half-exposed boulders that even an ATV would’ve thought twice. But the sun was nearly setting and this was the most direct route to the hotel, so I went for it.

Those 11 miles dragged on for what seemed like days. Despite feeling every tiny dip and rock under the tires, the RV rolled on with a steady, even determination. When I was about three miles away from the end (and three minutes away from losing my sanity), the road opened up and rewarded me for my troubles. Covering the mountainside, for miles and miles, was nothing but golden-colored trees. The site was multitudinous, with an infinity of shades—saffron, amber, burgundy, ash, graphite. It stunned and silenced me, the kind of views that made you want to weep. In that moment, getting lost had absolutely been worth it.

Expanding boundaries

After arriving safely in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, I realized I needed to be more thoughtful when it came to mapping out future clues. Confirming the general direction with the USAC team in advance would make the trip less intense and less rocky on the RV. But I still didn’t want to know everything. Not knowing is important. Otherwise, there would be expectations, a plan, and no surprise golden hillsides.

The drive from Steamboat Springs into Wyoming (which, yes, I confirmed was correct) was marked by smooth mountain highways and scenes that demanded my attention. Pulling into Jackson on the end of the third day, I wasn’t prepared for its wild, spectacular beauty. It was magical in its vast expanse, an exceptional landscape of serrated mountains that ran the length of the horizon, separated only by sprawling meadows of golden grass. As I drove through the south entrance of Grand Teton National Park, a lone moose began to make her way across the highway. Her presence only added to the feeling of otherworldliness.

I felt that the outstanding views needed to be seen from outside the confines of my windshield. Numerous times I had to pull over along the side of Teton Park Road and put my feet on the ground in order to truly appreciate my surroundings. I had to somehow physically touch what I was feeling so connected to.

This is why people explore, and go on trips, and take RVs down backcountry roads and across state lines, I thought to myself. It expands the boundaries of our lives.

Holding my breath

The next morning, I awoke to a very different looking landscape. What was golden and gray the day before had suddenly become a blanket of pure white. Thanks to the snowfall and some unforeseen road closures, the next leg of the route from Jackson into Montana had to be changed. Originally planned to go north through Yellowstone National Park and into southern Montana, the USAC team rerouted the drivers west in Idaho and then up to Big Sky, Montana—making a point to stick to major highways for safety reasons.

In our daily drivers’ meeting that morning, we were told that there were still a few clues to be found near Big Sky, but the competition wouldn’t count for that day. What would count was everyone arriving safely at the next hotel.

There’s a lot you can prepare for—rerouting trips, checking weather patterns, paying extra for four-wheel drive—but Mother Nature tends to be quick to remind you who really has control.

About 20 miles south of West Yellowstone, after a relatively calm and gentle drive through the rolling farmlands and snow-dusted towns of eastern Idaho, I was hit with an irrepressible snow storm. Seemingly manifested out of nowhere, one minute I was driving along the tree-lined highway and the next, I was completely enclosed in white. The tire lines on the road had even disappeared, leaving almost no point of reference for where the pavement ended and everything else began. With no town for miles, and no safe place to pull over, the only thing I could do was slowly charge through it.

Eventually, a caravan of vehicles formed, as other like-minded motorists chose to brave through the white, and the dark tire lines appeared on the road again. I became fixed on those dark lines, following them for miles like a trusted beacon. Near the Idaho-Montana border, as trees and shapes began to solidify and the sun finally showed its face, I remember exhaling—completely unaware I had been holding my breath.

America the immense

After safely making it to Big Sky, Montana without any more whiteouts, I viewed the rest of the trip through a lens of humility and appreciation. As I drove deeper into Montana, heading first toward Helena and then on to the final destination in Whitefish, I thought frequently of the plodding opportunists who traveled before me. Those who dared cross such unpredictable, and often inhospitable, lands without highways, without defrosters, even without shock absorbers, in order to arrive here and help create these towns. My admiration grew.

The last two days on the road became less about the game and the clues, and more about absorbing the experience. I saw skies so big, it felt like the lid of the earth had been ripped off. I drove by roaring glacial waters the color of pure jade. I touched the soft, cold muzzle of a palomino lightly covered in snow. I experienced the immense beauty that fills nearly every corner of America. As is the case with many things in life, I was only now starting to acknowledge the value as it neared the end.

On the final night of the trip, at a stunning, rustic hotel on the banks of Whitefish Lake, all of the drivers met to tally their points and reflect on the past six days. And while the RV didn’t win the 2019 America Adventure Rally (or even place in the top five), I still received a sense of homage for finishing. Just like at the start of the trip, there was some disbelief, but now there was also applause.

An RV might not be the obvious first choice for a Rocky Mountain, all-terrain road trip, but that’s precisely why it made for the best companion. I came to realize I needed less from the world while driving it. I wasn’t tied to stopping at a rest stop or finding more ice for the cooler or even making it to the next hotel (I had a mini motel room in the back, after all). Driving the America Adventure Rally in an RV gave me more flexibility, more time. And best of all? I was free to roam.

All Photos by Amanda Bungartz and Anthony Tori

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