In pretty much all of our travels we learn (by experience) some important tips that we always pass on when people ask us (in person) for advice. It only seems appropriate to add such an entry here too. This is mainly for those who live in the east - or perhaps anywhere but the rural west - who are contemplating taking a similar road trip out there. If you live in the rural west, perhaps you'll be amused - or say to yourself, "duh," but read between the lines and maybe contemplate what the east is like?
For our definition of "rural west" we're mainly considering west of the Mississippi, but looking at a map, perhaps these tips best apply for states west of Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, etc. The definition of "rural west" doesn't apply once one reaches populated (IE coastal) California.
Tip #1: "Civilizations" in the rural west are far and few between. Just because a "town" makes the map doesn't mean you'll be able to get gas, food, and especially lodging there. One "town" we passed in WY had a population of 4. Therefore, get gas/food/bathroom breaks when the opportunity is there and be sure you can drive a couple hours at all times. You may not be able to eat at a specific time without a bit of planning and delay. Look for bigger towns for the basics.
Tip #2: Gas gets cheaper as you reach the bigger towns - and for a state to state comparison, use the website, US Gas Price Map. There's nothing worse than paying 20 cents more per gallon than you could have if you had waited 20 miles.
Tip #2b: If you need gas, but know it's cheaper shortly down the road, don't fill the tank... half full (or less) can usually get you to the cheaper gas.
Tip #2c: Gas tends to be unreasonably expensive IN the National Parks - so gas up outside of them or be prepared to pay...
Tip #3: Speed limits are faster in the west - even on the back roads (70mph is not uncommon for back roads) - so there's less of a reason to need to use highways unless that's the only road from point A to B. Hop off the highway and see some of these small towns. If the distance is shorter, you'll also save time. The views are certainly better and the lack of traffic is awesome.
Tip #4: Mom and Pop motels might be older, but are often quite adequate and tons cheaper than the chains if you're on a budget and don't need luxury - or simply want to support local. They don't always stay open for you to check in at late hours though. State Park campgrounds are also worth considering if you camp.
Tip #5: Local restaurants also tend to be quite good, so try them if you can. A big tip is if you see a lot of local cars outside, it's worth a stop. We've never gone wrong using that "sign." Without local cars it's usually worth passing - unless you're starving. Of course, this works in the east too...
Tip #5b: Have food/drinks in the car with you. Pretzel logs make a great, dry, snack that comes in handy when you realize you've misjudged where you might find a place to eat. Sandwich cookies were also a favorite with us - and string cheese. You'll be surprised at how good they taste when you realize you're at least an hour away from your next possibility...
Tip #6: Wyoming has to be the main state "where the deer and the antelope play." Towards evening you can't drive anywhere without seeing them - though they are most definitely in other states too.
Tip #7: If you want to find crowds in the west - stop at Wal-Mart. Everyone is usually there - well, that and the major National Parks. Incidentally, pretty much all Wal-Marts are set up similarly, so if you're used to shopping there, things are usually easy to find. You can locate stores easily by buying one of their Rand McNally maps and checking the front/back (depending on what state you're looking for).
Tip #8: It's almost impossible to avoid crowds in the major National Parks. To try to do so, get up and going EARLY when most folks are just getting up or eating breakfast. Hikes/drives/views are all MUCH less crowded before 9am. The "plus" to that is that's when many of the animals are active too. Also, eat "off hour" when you can - early or late. Weekdays are less crowded than weekends - and holidays can be atrocious.
Tip #9: If you want to camp in the major National Parks - and they take reservations - you usually need to make those super early - many times the first day they take reservations for the best spots. Some campgrounds are first come first served. Even the best of those fill VERY quickly though. In general, we absolutely love camping in the National Parks...
Tip #9b: Don't camp in some of the National Parks if you're afraid of bears... (we aren't). And DO put all your food in the bear boxes if it's recommended at the park. While the slides of many cars conditions after a bear opted to help himself to the food inside were neat - on a road trip, it would be awfully inconvenient to have that be YOUR car.
Tip #9c: National Park Campgrounds don't have swimming pools - and many do not have showers either. Those that have showers require that you pay for them - have quarters for most. If you're the first one showering in a while, expect cold water for the first minute or two that you've paid for. Campgrounds with less "accessories" tend to be MUCH quieter and less crowded... and you can still go to the other ones to use their showers.
Tip #10: There's no one or two states that have the monopoly on rude/inconsiderate drivers or people and there will almost always be one or two wherever you go. We like to laugh at them...(privately of course) and many still make our stories we tell to others. We have found higher concentrations of them in cities and on highways - and often wonder if the crowded conditions generally found there tend to bring out the "worst" in people or if it's just because there are more people - therefore making it more likely that you'll find those "special someones."
Tip #10b: It's rare to find those "special someones" at the LESSER (known) National Parks or Monuments - a NICE plus to visiting and staying at those places. It's also more rare (but not impossible) to find them on the back roads or in local restaurants or motels.
Tip #11: Heard the myth that the west is "dry heat" and you don't sweat? Well, it might be dry, but you still sweat... quite a bit on hot days too. Have water available at all times and don't even take a short hike on a hot day without it.
Tip #12: Many rivers in the west are dry in the late summer... still seems strange to us to pass over a "river" and see a dry bed. Since rivers are dry, so is the land. You really won't find natural "green" in very many places - only where they irrigate. Seems strange and it's definitely different. In many places you can literally drive for miles and miles and see lots of barrenness (with sage, etc). If you get bored easily, perhaps this will be a problem. For us, we enjoyed conversation...
Tip #13: Wildfires are common in the west - while you won't likely have issues with the actual fire, they can haze over views even many miles or states away.
Tip #14: Have flashlights with you. These are important if you camp, but they also came in handy in both Lava Beds National Monument and Carlsbad Caverns... unexpectedly so in both cases. Headlights are small and easy to either carry or wear.
Tip #15: Have hiking boots or shoes. Many trails are less developed in the west and require a good sturdy shoe if you want to go on them.
Tip #16: Slow down... not driving-wise, but mentally. Don't try to do a National Park in a day - or worse - two in a day. Take your time to actually SEE what you went out to see. Remember, you're on vacation. Be flexible, be open-minded, and be prepared to be astounded by nature's beauty of all sorts.