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How I Plan an Itinerary for a Trip | Using Lassen Volcanic National Park as a Walkthrough Example!

Updated: Mar 15

Research has shown time and time again that the anticipation of a vacation leads to a significant increase in happiness. See here and here for some fun articles with links to research.


There are so many different styles when it comes to planning holidays, but today I'm sharing some of my favorite tips for planning out where I'd like to go when I'm visiting somewhere new. This is specifically my method around planning for outdoorsy destinations, such as National Parks, or for road trips.


I hope you find something useful and put it to use for your next trip soon. There's nothing better than having a trip to look forward to!


I have a pretty easy process for planning out my days that follows these steps (click to jump to a section):


Let's get into the steps in more detail and plan out a trip together! I'm going to use XXX (Banff? Yellowstone, Great Smokey Mountains, Glacier national park, Lassen) as an example since I've never been and it covers a large area, but would love to visit one day.


Setting Up Google Maps Lists

Before we get started, if you're planning a trip for yourself now, go ahead and make a Google Maps list for your trip. This is going to come in handy and keep everything we need in one place. To do this, open the Google Maps app >> click "Saved" at the bottom >> click "+ New list" at the top >> give your list a memorable name.


Pro tip: If you're traveling with a partner or group, you can create a shared Google Maps list so you can all add places to one space.


I use Google Maps lists for everything, so already have a ton for different areas and categories. This is my method for tracking places in Google Maps.


  • Want to go: This list is pre-built into Google Maps and comes in handy for tracking places I haven't yet visited. I add everything I haven't seen to this list. What's nice about this list is that places added to it appear as green pins on the map, instead of the turquoise of other lists. This makes it super easy to pick out spots that you want to check out for the first time. Once I've visited a place, I'll remove it from this list and add a review if I feel so inclined. If it was a spot I really loved, I'll move it from this one to the Favorites list.

  • Trip/location list: I will usually create a new list for a specific trip or for an area I plan to explore, but it depends on the situation. A reason for creating a specific list is for planning with another person and using a shared list for the trip. It can also be helpful to track everywhere you plan to visit if your trip extends beyond one area, such as a road trip. This makes it easy to have one list for everywhere on the road and in between sites that you'd like to stop at during your trip.

  • Categories lists: Categories are my personal favorite way to keep my map pins organized. This makes it easy to search for places I've saved based on what I need. My most used category lists are: restaurants, trails, campsites (dispersed or reservation-based), and things to do (viewpoints, arcades, museums, etc.).


This system takes just a few extra seconds to add each spot to its respective lists. It may be overly complicated for some, but take what you need or just use one master list for your trip and call it a day!


Note: This is in no way sponsored by Google or Google Maps. This is just the app and method I've used for years. If you're an Apple Maps (or anything else) type of traveler, feel free to use that too.


1. Research Places to Visit


Once you've got a destination picked out (sometimes this is the hard part), it's time to start researching areas of interest. For nature-based locations, these will usually be things like waterfalls, trails, lakes, viewpoints, caves, and mountain peaks. For cities, this will include restaurants, museums, famous landmarks, historical sights, architectural highlights, and more depending on what you're interested in.


This is the fun part where you get to discover all the possibilities this new place has in store for you. Most of the pre-trip planning happens here; the rest is just organizing the places we find. The vacation anticipation is strong in this step!


Some of my favorite resources to use for this step are:

  • Blogs

  • National Park websites

  • Google maps

  • Asking my community


Let's go through each one with my example of Lassen Volcanic National Park.


Pro tip: I highly recommend saving any potentially interesting or note-worthy spots in your Google Maps list as you go through your research. That will save you from the dreaded "oh, what was that place called again?" and keep everything in one list for you.


Blogs


One of the main ways I get ideas for where to visit is through checking out blog posts. We may think the world of blogging is dying out, but it's still very much alive and thriving!


A quick online search of your intended destination will bring up dozens of sites with lists, itineraries, and loads of information. This is a great first stop for getting a feel of your options and how much time you'll need to explore an area.



Many of my trips have a National Park as my main destination or part of the itinerary. As much as I love backcountry trips and getting off the beaten path, National Parks include some of the most beautiful and special places we can visit!


The NPS websites (here's the one for Lassen) have so much valuable information, especially around events happening in the part and alerts around closures or permits.


Click around and read the different articles that pique your interest!


One the park's main page, I'll first scroll down to see the featured articles. Here's the current setup on Lassen Volcanic:



There's also a section on Ranger-led Snowshoe walks and Snow Activities, which are perfect for this season.


At the top of the page is the "Plan Your Visit" menu. Clicking this takes you to even more relevant articles and a list of "Top Things To Know" -- another great place to scan. This is where you'll find information about where you can go with your pets, cell service availability, and services and gas stations.


Under the "Plan Your Visit" menu, I'll always go through the hiking and camping topics to see what options there are and read a little more about them. NPS does a great job of giving recommendations based on the season and the difficulty level you're looking for. Their information is clearly laid out in table format, making it easy to find exactly what suits your travel plans.



I find it helpful to go through the entire list on the website because the maps you get at the visitor center usually don't include everything within the park. Anything that looks interesting will get saved to my Google Maps list.


Pro tip: When adding trails to the Google Maps list, add a note with some key information. I like to add the trail length, elevation gain, difficulty level, and whether or not it's dog-friendly. Add anything else you would find useful!


Another amazing resource on the NPS website is the "nearby parks" area:



On the site for Lassen Volcanic, there are links to Lava Beds National Monument, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon Caves National Monument, and more. These include information on the distance from Lassen to each of these places, as well as highlights of what you'll see at each. This is a great list to check if you're planning a road trip or going to be spending extra time in that area and have days to spare.


Google Maps


This may be my most-used method for getting ideas for places to visit on my trips. I spend a crazy amount of time zooming in and out and scrolling around on maps, searching for those hidden gems. I'm sure my time spent on Google Maps is higher than any social media app. 🫣


This takes a little practice, but ensures you're finding spots exactly where you intend to be and this is the best way to find places that might not be as popular to make it onto big blog posts. Some of my favorite road trip stops have been found this way.


You also have the added benefit of seeing reviews directly as you're searching. The number of reviews also gives you an idea of how popular that particular site is. Use this to cater your itinerary to your preferences -- do you prefer to hit the trendy, "can't miss" spots or would you rather get off the beaten path?


You can immediately save an interesting places to your list within the app, saving you an extra step and some precious time.


Google Maps also seems to "learn" what you like over time. This means that as you save places, leave reviews, and use the app to navigate to locations, it will start recommending places to you that it feels you would want to visit. This makes it even more useful as its results become more and more tailored to your likes and dislikes.


The best way to use this app to find places is simply to use the search bar to take you to the area you're traveling to, 'x' out of the search, then start scrolling around in that area. I find that when I start clicking on a type of location (campgrounds, for example), Google Maps starts showing me more of that same type. This is a great way to collect a bunch of campgrounds or trails or viewpoints all in one go.


Asking My Community


Another great resource is good, old-fashioned word of mouth. Since I'm in the travel and outdoorsy niche on social media, most of my community is also interested in those topics. I have tons of well-traveled people in my followers list, making it a useful stop when collecting information for a trip.


When I'm planning, I'll put out a few Instagram stories asking people for recommendations. If they have photos or blog posts they can point me to, even better!


If you don't have a social media network that could help spark some ideas, try asking around in person. You'll be surprised how many people have visited your future destination, especially with travel booming in the last decade.


By now, you'll probably have a hefty list of places to see. It's time to start putting everything together into a plan!


2. Pin Everything on Google Maps


Taking our list of viewpoints, trails, restaurants, and everything else, we're going to make sure everything is saved onto our Google Maps list for our trip. Hopefully you've been saving everything as you went through step one of researching places to visit!


If not, this is the time to add everything and do a final scan across the map for places you may have missed. This is also the time that I'd add any extra notes and information to my pins, especially for trails or places that require a reservation or are best visited on a certain day of the week or at a certain time of day.


As you're saving places to your map, check out the reviews and photos. This will help you rule out places that might not be what you're looking for. Unpin any of these spots that no longer interest you. Places that have amazing reviews or really align with your trip goals should get a special note marking them as "can't miss!"


3. Plan Days Based on Clusters of Pins


You can always add more later, but now you should have most of your spots saved to your map. It's time to zoom out a bit and see if we can find any obvious groups of pins that can all be tackled back to back.


Keep in mind that some spots will take up much more time than others. Trails can be several hours of time, while viewpoints can take just a few minutes. Your notes will come in handy for this here.


Here's what my map of Lassen Volcanic National Park looks like after tracking down some sites of interest:



Plenty of green pins that mark out the spots I haven't yet been, but think would be cool to see!


Taking this bird's eye view allows us to group the pins. I'm seeing a few areas off the bat:



We can start using these groups to plan out our days.


Pro tip: Just because pins are close to each other on the map, they aren't necessarily easy to navigate between!


Digging into these groups, I can tell that my bottom-right grouping isn't going to work for a single day. The bottom three pins in this group require driving into Drakesbad and the Warner Valley area from the southeast direction, making this a long distance from the road that winds through the center of the park.


Checking the NPS map of the park also helps with this. Here I can see Lassen NP is divided into five different areas:



In my experience, areas of the park as shown on their official maps will take at least one full day to explore. It's clear from this map the majority of sites and trailheads are located in the Southwest region of the park.


I have a few pins saved in the Warner Valley and Juniper Lake areas that would have to be tackled on separate days. A short trip to this National Park would keep me within the Southwest and Manzanita & Summit Lakes regions, while venturing out into the other areas would likely require longer trips and even camping or backpacking.


Also be sure to check the NPS site for any closures at this time! Looking now, I can see that many roads outside the main highway 89 through the park are closed in the winter. There was also a devastating wildfire in 2021 that has left many roads and sites closed for repairs even now in 2024.


With all this in mind, I would likely spend 2-3 days in the western area of the park hitting the main volcanic features and a handful of trails. Those days would be divided across the two areas: Southwest and Manzanita & Summit Lakes.


4. Find Accommodations or Campsites


The next step is to decide where you'll be sleeping during your trip. For road trips, you'll need to plan out how many miles you can drive each day and book hotels or find campgrounds at those intervals along your path.


For Lassen Volcanic NP, I would plan to camp at a few places along highway 89 that get me close to the sites and trails I want to visit. This is where the NPS website comes in handy again.


Access the campgrounds map by hovering over "Plan Your Visit" >> "Eating and Sleeping" >> click "Camping."



Based on my groups of pins, I'd enter the park through the Southwest entrance and plan to stay two nights at the Southwest campground. This would be my jumping off point for all my pins in this cluster, which includes most of the trails I'm interested in doing.


I have a few pins for short trails (<3 miles) in the Devasted Area along highway 89 (the smallest red loop in my map above). There's probably no need to spend a full day camping here, so I'd check off those pins on my drive from Southwest to the upper part of the park.


I'd plan to spend one night in either Lost Creek or Manzanita Lake campgrounds. This would be my final day where I check off the rest of my pins in the Northwest cluster on my map.


As you're planning this out, the NPS site has all the information in a table for you. Make use of their resources to save yourself time!




5. Identify Travel Route


Lastly, you're going to plan out your travel route. For road trips, there will likely be several ways you can order your days and check off all your saved sites.


🤔 Here are some factors to consider:

  • Which side of the road are the viewpoints predominantly on?

  • Will some days be more tiring than others? Do you want those at the beginning or end of your trip?

  • Is the drive more scenic from a certain direction?

  • Do you have any time-based reservations or limitations? Is anywhere closed on certain days?

  • Are there more busy areas that you can hit during the week instead of on the weekend?

  • Does the weather forecast affect certain areas or activities? Can you plan your hiking-heavy days for sunny days and museum days for rainy days?

  • How is the traffic going to be? Is it heavier in one direction at certain times of day?


An example from my past travels is the Pacific Coast Highway. I love doing this drive as a road trip and usually do it every couple years. When I was living in Seattle, there were two options for this trip:

  1. I could drive straight down to Los Angeles or San Diego on I-5, then take my time enjoying the PCH on the drive back home.

  2. I could take my time driving down on the PCH until hitting LA or SD, then head straight home on I-5 northbound.


Every time I did this trip, I took option 2. My reasons for this were three-fold:

  1. I prefer to be on the side of the road closer to the ocean for the best views along the drive. This makes the southbound drive on the PCH the better option.

  2. The drive along I-5 is super tiring and I'd rather have this boring leg of my road trip at the end. Doing this leg first makes me more tired for the rest of my trip, which is the fun part along the PCH!

  3. I really enjoy the north half of the PCH from Washington through Northern California. I want to be maximally excited and rested for this portion, so tackling it first makes sense for me.


Other people may have different preferences, so it's important to consider your options and feel out what makes sense for you.


With all this in mind, for my Lassen Volcanic NP trip, I would start out at home in Los Angeles and head north through the park. I'd enter through the Southwest entrance, visit the main volcanic features in that area, then work my way north before exiting through the Northwest entrance.



 


All this trip planning has made me want to head out on this adventure for real! I'm thinking a Lassen NP trip might be in my future for this year. 🔮


I hope you've found this useful and that this gave you some ideas for how to structure your trip planning. If you have any questions or want to chat about your upcoming trip plans, please reach out. I'd love to connect!


If you're interested in seeing an itinerary from a trip I took where I mapped out our days using this method, check out my Havasupai Itinerary post.


Thanks so much for reading and I'll catch you in the next one!


Happy adventuring,

A

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