The Most Important Lessons I Learned from Traveling to All 50 States

A United States map with a photo of Riley in each state, taken during her travels
A photo of me (or taken by me) in each state

Traveling to all 50 states is easier than you might think. All things considered, America is pretty small. You could take a train from New York to California and cover half of them in a few days. The trick is what you count as a visit. When I set out to travel to every state, I didn’t want to simply cross a border and call it good. I set out to do something in each one. Sometimes that was as simple as grabbing a bite to eat or pulling over and getting out of the car for a bit. Others times, it was an immersive trip to a remote national park. No matter which method I chose, I quickly realized two things:

Things don’t always go as planned

I missed a subway stop in New York City and thought I was going to miss my bus home. A few times, I planned trips with friends who canceled at the last minute. Weather is always unpredictable and unstoppable. A gas station in the isolated Northwest Territories closed before dinner, leaving me stranded until morning. Hotels with websites promising two beds only came with one small bed to share. I left my cell phone on a bus in Denali National Park. Going places in the off-season means fewer people, but also fewer services. Food is really expensive. But I wouldn’t trade any of these misfortunes for the experiences I had.

You never have enough time to do everything you hope to

Hawaii has seven national park sites; I was only able to make it to six. Road trips can be difficult to plan when you don’t know how much time you want to spend at each stop. Traffic can stop you from getting somewhere before closing time. You can’t hike every trail in a national park if you only give yourself a week. Taking pit stops for photo ops,  gas tank refills, or food takes precious time out of your travel itinerary. Basically, you have to live somewhere if you want to accomplish the impossible task of seeing everything. It’s the only way you’ll come close to having enough time.

All of this left me with one thought every time I returned home:

Inevitably, you’ll dream of returning someday

Ask anyone who’s accomplished a feat like traveling to all 50 states what they plan to do next and their answer is usually something like “do it all over again”. There’s a reason for this. They want to go back and see those things they didn’t have time for. They want to return and get a redo of the plans that failed. But most of all, when you travel you stumble upon things you never expected. You may change your itinerary to attend a festival you didn’t realize was going on (like when I went to Austin during South x Southwest). You find hidden gems that end up being the trip highlight for you to return to, and maybe even share with someone special.

The world is full of surprises, so take a deep breath and accept that things change, then take it all in.

For travel tips on visiting the fifty states, check out my posts from around the USA.