US Travel – Eastern vs. Western United States

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Up to this point, the vast majority of our US travel has been to the western part of the country. It started back in 2009 when we were trying to decide on a destination for our first summer vacation.

At that point, Grant had never really been to Yellowstone National Park. I, on the other hand, had been several times with my family growing up. One of my dad’s friends worked for the park and actually lived inside the park and we stayed with them several times, both in the summer and winter.

I knew it was a place I wanted Grant to experience and pretty much insisted we go. We did not make a bad decision. In fact, Yellowstone NP and its neighbor Grand Teton National Park have become one of the very few places in US travel we actually want to return to over and over again.

See our articles on tent camping in Yellowstone and Grand Teton as well as our top tips for visiting Yellowstone.

Antler Creek at Sunset
Antler Creek at sunset in Yellowstone National Park

As much as we love the western US, we do actually strive to visit every state and almost every national parks site. I would say all park sites, but we’ll see. Realistically, there are few in Alaska, in particular, I’m just not sure we’re cut out for or have the money to get to.

The big regions, before this summer, we had not explored are the Great Lakes and New England. So, we forced ourselves to stay in the East.

Originally, we were going to try to get at least some of the eastern portions of the Great Lakes states as well. It turned out to just be too much. So, we focused just on New England. Grant had been to Maine but that was it. I had never been anywhere further than New York City… New adventures for both of us!

Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine
Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine

Updated June 2019

(Disclaimer: When we link to places you can buy our stuff or places we stayed, we are using special codes which earn us commissions on the sales at no additional cost to you. Please see our Review Policy  for more information.)

Distances in US Travel

You can look at a map and easily see that the Eastern states are much smaller than the Western states. That, of course, means shorter driving distances. Any trip out West means several driving days of 8-12 hours just for us to get “there,” assuming you are not making any intermediate stops in the Midwest. As much as we enjoy being out West, having to drive two or three full days to get there across some very boring Plains states is something that we have to factor into our planning.

Interstate 40 closely follows historic Route 66.
The view on the road in Texas is long and wide open.

Getting to eastern upstate New York, which is technically just outside New England, took us three days of driving, the longest of which was about seven hours.

We easily could have done it in less time if we weren’t seeing other sites along the way. After that, most of our diving days between sites were only two or three hours.

Out West, diving between sites would often be five or six hours, at least, which can make for long days. You also have to be aware of how far it is between services, especially in the desert.

Wide open spaces in the Western US
Wide-open spaces are characteristic of the Western US.

The shorter distances in the Northeast are good in that you can find a central location as a base and then take day trips from there. In fact, one of our day trips from New York took us to sites in Connecticut and Massachusetts. We even made it back to the campsite in time for dinner.

Types of National Park Sites

Traveling out West offers a new type of beauty around every corner. There are forests, deserts, mountains, valleys, canyons, lakes, geysers, lava formations, and more! Most Western states have several National Parks plus several monuments, historic sites, etc. and most are dedicated to natural beauty or unique geological foundations. Many of them are staples of US travel.

FDR's home
Many Eastern US NPS sites are homes with rich historical significance, like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, NY.

In New England, out of the 28 sites we visited, only one was a national park: Acadia National Park. The other sites focused on historical events or people. That does not mean those sites are not relevant or interesting, it is just a different kind of park. In particular, we enjoyed the two national park sites dedicated to the arts: Weir Farm National Historic Site and Saint-Gaudens NHS.

That said, there are only so many house tours you can do before they start to run together and many of the historic sites in the Northeast, in particular, focused on preserving houses.

 Wildlife

The western U.S. also has lots of wildlife such as bison, elk, moose, bear, wolves, mountain goats and all kinds of other big and small critters.

Bison crossing the Yellowstone River.
For whatever reason, the bison herd in Hayden Valley decided they would rather sleep on the other side of the Yellowstone River on this particular night.

One of our favorite things to do in Yellowstone is just drive, especially at dawn or dusk, and look for wildlife. There bison and elk are around every corner, but it is not unusual to see both black and grizzly bears. Other animals are a little more shy and harder to find, but if you’re lucky and patient, you might get a glimpse.

Check out Grant’s guide to finding and photographing wildlife in Yellowstone National Park.

This summer in New England, with the exception of one moose in Baxter State Park, the most exciting wildlife we saw was a couple of deer.

A bull moose hanging out in Sandy Stream Pond in Baxter State Park.
A bull moose hanging out in Sandy Stream Pond in Baxter State Park.

Camping

Another very interesting difference that we observed is how people camp. In New York, in particular, folks used their camper (trailer or fifth-wheel, in particular) as a second home. Many were left in the campground what appeared to be year-round and only used in the summer, or maybe even just weekends or a few weeks of the summer.

There were also lots of seasonal campers that would stay in a campground for the entire camping season, generally mid-May through mid-October. Many even stay in the same campground every single year.

One of the permanent residents at our campground in Copake. This is how permanent residence should be done at a campground.
One of the permanent residents at our campground in Copake. This is how permanent residence should be done at a campground.

We certainly have seen long-term campers out West, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen a campsite used as storage year-round. And most campers will stay in a certain location for several weeks and then move on to another place. There may be some that stay an entire season but we never ran into those folks. I have to attribute this to the fact that there is just so much that is interesting and different in the Western US that it is silly to just limit yourself to one place.

Another factor when camping is the amount of shade. The Eastern states tend to have more shade, whereas shade is sometimes difficult to come by out West. It is not as big of a deal for us now that we have a camper with an awning. When camping in a tent, shade is always something we had to consider. Case in point: the day that we spent driving across Kansas looking for a decent campground.

It took quite a while, but we found a shaded campsite in Lovewell State Park in northern Kansas.
It took quite a while, but we found a shaded campsite in Lovewell State Park in northern Kansas.

Final Thoughts on US Travel East vs. West

We really did enjoy our trip to New England. But, when it comes down to it, we have to admit that our heart belongs out West. We really do love all the different types of beauty that you can find. I suppose this is somewhat because we are movers. We do not take vacations just to sit in one place all day. We want to get out and explore and see new and different things. Truth be told, there is just more of that when you travel west.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who will disagree with us, and that is ok. The beauty of travel is that everyone can choose what interests them. Everyone can travel in a way that makes them happy. Travel style will likely evolve for many of us over time. Perhaps, one day, we will just want to sit in a random campground for the summer and relax… I don’t see that coming for a VERY long time though.

To read about our different experiences in US travel, be sure to check out our trip out West in 2014 and this summer’s trip to New England.

Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. We can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.

We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.

US Travel - Eastern vs. Western States
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