Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Before you can claim that you have visited all 3,143 counties, you will inevitably wind up completing a travel goal of much smaller proportion -- the 50 states. Depending on how you chart your travels on the county front, visiting all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, could take just a few years if you have the drive (pun intended), time and financial resources. Or it could take decades, especially if you've decided to tackle one state at a time. In my case, I aimed first to visit the states -- the counties I collected along the way were a happy bonus.
Estimates of the number of people who will eventually visit all 50 states in their lifetime is surprisingly small -- for U.S. citizens alone, it is less than 1%. The reasons vary from lack of interest in domestic travel to lack of opportunity and resources. If it's not on your bucket list, you're probably not going to get there. For those people who do make it their goal, traveling to each of the states is a rewarding experience, like sampling, little bits at a time, from an exquisite smorgasbord of American culture, climate and breathtaking terrain.
The "All 50 Club"
An organization known as the All 50 Club is dedicated to those who make this their goal. You can use their interactive map to chart your progress, or if you've visited 35 or more states, for a small fee, you can register to become a member, self-report your accomplishment and receive a certificate celebrating your achievement. Their website is a portal to a world of like-minded travelers who share this goal. There are tips on setting travel goals, resources with links to podcasts and travel-related websites, a membership directory, online merchandise and even a page simply labeled After All 50 -- a list of resources and ideas to propel you on your next journey.
It All Starts With One
Hitting all 50 states, plus DC, was an achievable goal for me, and I believed that it could be accomplished in a relatively short span of time. As it turned out, that assumption was largely true. It took 12 years from the day I left the starting gate to the day I crossed the finish line in Arkansas. Mind you, I had already been to seven states by way of incidental travel before I got started, so really, I was chasing down 43 states and the District of Columbia. Time and money were the only things standing in the way of getting the job done faster. Circumstances required that I plan each trip strategically in order to maximize my sparse resources. It was fun and exciting all along the way, even if it did feel like I was slowly chipping away at a gargantuan goal.
Naturally, the journey began with one -- my home state of Washington.
Next were the neighboring states; they were the easiest, of course. Oregon went to the completed column when I was six (my mother packed me and my brother up in the car to visit her friend in Portland) . . . Two states and counting . . . California and Nevada were picked up on a family drive to Disneyland in 1973; we returned home by way of South Lake Tahoe/Stateline . . . Four states and counting . . . Alaska became number 5 in 1987, but that's another story for another post. In 1988, I took a mini-road trip to Missoula, Montana, locking down Idaho in the process. By the age of 22, I had been to just seven states. After that, I got serious about completing all 50.
I kept a list of all the states and when I first visited them. I have them numbered in chronological order. Here's that document:
Making the Most of Your Time and Money
When you begin planning your methodical visit to all 50 states, you'll want to place heavy emphasis on methodical. If you have no plan and attempt to do it in a haphazard, random way, it will likely take you longer to get there. Here are some tips to help you realize your goal as efficiently as possible:
Download a blank map of the states. Use it to mark, in any way that makes sense to you, all of the states you've already been to. This will help you visually sort out those states or regions that are left unexplored. If you are unsure if you've been to a state, maybe because you may have passed through it as a child, or it was so long ago you can't remember the route you took, I recommend considering it as a new state altogether. You'll avoid any nagging doubt about your true accomplishment when you do get to that last one.
Determine how much time you can devote to travel. This is the number one bottleneck for most people in getting to all 50 states. If you're like me, you'll have, at most, a chunk of two weeks away from work at any given time to spend on the road. Knowing how much time you have lets you get down to the business of strategizing your travel.
The Low-Hanging Fruit. For those states that are relatively close to your home state -- within a day or two drive -- see if you can string them together in an easy, more-or-less linear route. This will save you time, especially if you stick to the interstates where speed limits are much higher and you can cover more ground in a single day.
Travel to Far-Flung Locales. If it will take you more than two days to drive to a cluster of states you have not yet visited, consider buying an airline ticket and flying into a city centrally located within the state cluster. Rent a car and spend each day driving in a different direction to pick up those extra states.
Hotels and motels can be a resource drain. Consider alternatives like Airbnb, VRBO or discount hotel sites like hotels.com where you can get the most bang for your buck. Also, there is a little known resource for road trippers that you can pick up at virtually any rest area, welcome center or 24-hour diner -- the HotelCoupons booklet. These publications are filled with hotel and motel coupons that can save you lots of money. They work especially well if you haven't made reservations ahead of time and you just need a cheap overnight stay somewhere on the fly. There's even an app for your smartphone.
Don't get frustrated that your quest is taking longer than you want it to. Instead, try to enjoy the immediate experience of each small journey and think of your travels as part of a larger, epic story that you are still in the midst of telling. Having more to see on the horizon is what creates tremendous excitement about travel; it makes it worth the wait and causes the heart to beat a little faster with anticipation about what's up ahead.
Harder to get to than other states, but not as difficult as you may think, there are lots of options ranging from direct flights to car travel to taking a ferry. By Air. Airline tickets from the West Coast are normally in the $400-500/RT range, but I have seen sales with RT fares as low as $250 to Anchorage. One way to stay a step ahead of the game is to set up flight alerts so that you can take advantage of the best rates when they are published.
By Way of the Alaska Highway (Alcan). You could also drive the Alcan Highway through Canada by way of British Columbia and the Yukon -- it may be a little cheaper than flying, but you'll have to give yourself about four days in transit each way after crossing into British Columbia from the United States. If you have the time, this is the option I most enthusiastically recommend. The drive is a non-stop reel of breathtaking vistas and landscapes and an experience you will fondly reflect on the rest of your life. Alternatively, you could cut your highway travel time in half if you just want to cross the border into Alaska and call it a day. Drive to Stewart, British Columbia -- it borders the small town of Hyder, Alaska. Crossing into Alaska from there is easy and rather unceremonious. There are no officials or customs booths heading into the US, as it is the one road in and out, but a Canadian official and customs declaration awaits your return. There are hotels on the Stewart side of the border. By Ferry. You can easily reach Southeast Alaska from Bellingham, Washington or Prince Rupert, British Columbia by hopping on one of the Alaska State Ferries. Don't take your car; you won't need it. Just get a walk-on pass instead. Tickets are a little spendy, however, and you'll have to pay extra for a cabin (otherwise, you can camp out for free on one of the recliners under the solarium). Travel times can easily be measured in days instead of just hours, but it is a great way to see the Inside Passage of Alaska, let someone else drive and just enjoy the scenery along the way.
There's simply no getting around the fact that you will need to fly to reach the 50th State. Fortunately, there are lots of great airfare sales happening at different times of the year. A random spot-check today of airline fares on any of the typical travel sites like Expedia and Flights.com show fares as low as $240 each way. On average, tickets are $175 cheaper for January and February. Hotels are cheapest from September through mid-December. Again, Airbnb and VRBO are great ways to save money on overnight accommodations.
A NOTE ABOUT COVID-19 re ALASKA and HAWAII: There are some travel restrictions in place to both Alaska and Hawaii at present. Hawaii requires proof of a negative test within 72 hours of your arrival, or a 14-day self quarantine. Alaska requires that you submit a travel declaration and self-isolation plan AND arrive with proof of a qualifying negative COVID-19 test or purchase a test for $250 when you arrive in Alaska and self-quarantine at your own expense until the results come back.
The District of Columbia
As far as American geopolitical entities go, DC is in a class by itself. Designated as a territory by Congress in 1790, it was created as a federal district to be the home of the United States capital. It is, however, neither a state nor a county, and therefore is very difficult to classify for those of us tallying up our state and county triumphs. Which bucket do we place it in? I guess it all depends on who you talk to. For me, I treated it as if it were a state. Here's why:
When you open up a road atlas, there's always a separate page for the District of Columbia, right along with the other 50 states.
Looking at a map of the United States, the District of Columbia is clearly carved out as a separate entity with thickly printed borders in a way that no city or county is, lending more credence to the notion that it is more state-like than anything else.
It is worth noting, however, that the U.S. Census Bureau treats the District of Columbia as a single county within its borders (see my post on The Extra Miler club for a copy of their U.S. county document).
. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!