Can a Big Western Road Trip Be Done in an Electric Car?
Electric vehicles are becoming popular among the environmentally conscious, but are they realistic for road trips to more remote destinations? I took my Tesla to Utah to find out.
I was driving a stranger’s Subaru Outback, a beloved beater with 150,000 miles on the ticker, through Escalante, Utah, an outpost on the edge of Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. I’m from Nebraska, where the older generation prides itself on unlocked doors and other overly trusting gestures. Still, I was taken aback by my current turn of events.
Why was I driving a stranger’s Subie to dinner? My Tesla Model 3, which my wife and I had driven from Los Angeles to Utah on a trip to see the Beehive State’s famous five national parks, was in dire need of a charge. Of the two rustic lodges in town with Tesla destination chargers, the Entrada Escalante and the Canyon Country, the Entrada’s hookups were buried in too much snow for my low-clearance car, which led me to the Canyon Country Lodge. We plugged in, headed to the front desk, and asked for the restaurant. The attendant smiled, then demurred, suggesting that we didn’t want to eat here, that the chef was too new, that the lodge was still “figuring out” dining. But had we heard about the Devil’s Garden Grill across town and its world-class menu? We had. It’s near where we’d just tried to park, only to be defeated by piled snow; however, I explained, we must eat here, mediocre mountain Mexican food or not, and we must eat here for a good long stretch, because my car needed many electrons to make it the 64 miles to Torrey, our starting point for the next day’s tour of Capitol Reef National Park.
Before we knew what hit us, I was taking her keys.
When my family moved from New York to Los Angeles last summer, perhaps the biggest draw was easy access to the outdoors. My previous work in New York, as the digital director of Popular Mechanics, had allowed me to test vehicles that could get us out of the city and into the Hudson Valley to hike, but without our own car, we couldn’t take a weekend in nature on a whim. It was nothing like becoming car-owning Angelenos, with the marvels of the West waiting off the highway.
Like many environmentally conscious outdoor enthusiasts, we longed to leave the several metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions per car per year behind. We moved to California right on time: electric car sales in the U.S. topped 300,000 between 2018 and 2019, driven largely by the rise of the Tesla Model 3, Elon Musk’s long-promised $35,000 electric car, which remains the best “affordable” electric vehicle (or EV) on the market. My wife and I had considered buying one ever since I attended Tesla’s launch event in 2016, and the company’s growing network of superchargers—typically found everywhere from mall parking garages throughout metropolitan areas like L.A. to rest stops dotting the lonely miles of interstate in South Dakota—made it realistic to make an EV our primary car. The Ford Mustang Mach-E, GMC Hummer EV, and numerous other Tesla rivals now loom on the horizon, setting the stage for the 2020s to become the decade that electric driving goes mainstream in America.
But going electric isn’t simple for outdoor enthusiasts. EVs are great for the contained commutes of the city: I charge at the office during the eight-hour workday (which is about how long a full charge requires on a 240-volt charger) and at public superchargers when I’m out on weekends (which requires between 30 and 60 minutes, depending on the battery’s level of depletion). Living in an apartment building meant I couldn’t install my own charging system, like many EVs drivers do in their garages. In addition to superchargers, which somewhat resemble gas pumps, Teslas can also plug into destination chargers—usually grey or black boxes marked by the Tesla T—at hotels, campgrounds, or other businesses. These juice up your car at the same rate as a home charger.
According to Tesla’s app and website map, there are currently 16,858 superchargers in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. While stations are easy enough to find along well-trafficked routes, EVs, with their charging times and still limited battery ranges, are not ideal for the stretched-out road trips required to reach isolated campgrounds and remote national parks. Our Model 3 has an official range of 240 miles, and supercharging on the interstate—while much faster than using a home charger—still takes significantly longer than a gas fill-up. Charging times and range anxiety are major concerns for any hiker, biker, or climber longing to trade the old gas burner for a zero-emissions vehicle.
We decided to put these worries to the test. Last fall we made the easier, sub-300-mile drives to Califorina’s Joshua Tree and Pinnacles National Parks, where the relative proximity of Tesla superchargers in nearby towns like Salinas and Twentynine Palms quelled our fears. Then, for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, we decided to put the Tesla to the ultimate test, taking it on a 1,000-plus-mile mission to Utah, to find out whether an electric vehicle could tackle the state’s handful of national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches.
The first thing you should know before you fly down the highway in an EV is that a mile isn’t really a mile. While my Model 3 Standard Range Plus packs a battery EPA-rated at 240 miles, that number is a guess at best. The energy required to travel this distance fluctuates based on your speed, elevation change, acceleration, and other factors. The crucial bullet point is that the number of miles remaining on the battery typically overestimates how far one can drive, especially at freeway speeds. If you love long road trips, splurge for more battery range. The long-range version of the Model 3, for instance, comes with a 322-mile battery, though you’ll pay several thousand dollars more for the privilege.
Even so, when I planned our trip, I knew that getting to Utah wouldn’t be the problem. Superchargers line the major interstates in Los Angeles and dot Interstate 15 to Las Vegas and beyond to make the passage possible. That would get us as far as Saint George, Utah, the jumping-off point for Zion and the interior of southern Utah. Here’s where things would get dicey. Bryce Canyon National Park, our next stop, lies more than 70 miles from I-15. Retreating to the interstate after our visit there would mean a long drive out of our way to Capitol Reef. Carrying on the 112 miles without a recharge would mean tempting fate through the Utah interior. The only workable solution was to stay only at the few hotels with Tesla destination chargers, plug in overnight, and begin each day’s journey with a happy battery.
The plan succeeded at stop one, the La Quinta outside Zion. The next day, we beheld the Court of the Patriarchs and climbed the Canyon Overlook Trail to its moving final vista at dusk, then set out for Bryce with plenty of battery. After a long stop for dinner, we were late getting into the Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn, a sprawling complex of lodges spread over multiple acres. This was a mistake. Two Teslas occupied the only available charging stalls, a fear that had lingered in the back of my mind during our drive. And because destination chargers, which use the same 240-volt standard as home chargers, dispense a maximum of 30 miles of range per hour, those cars would be there all night. A third Tesla parked next to them was also late to the party, and its driver ran a cord into a 110-volt wall outlet for emergency juice. Every Model 3 comes with a 110-volt hookup for just such a dire situation, though if you want to charge at some other kind of outlet, it’s up to you to buy the adapter.
When I checked the weather and saw temperatures falling to below zero overnight, tension squeezed my shoulders. Extreme cold is so tough on the Tesla’s battery that below a certain temperature threshold, the car displays a snowflake next to its battery-power icon and reduces its estimated remaining mileage. I watched the range drip from 20 to 19 miles as I circled the lots.
At the front desk, I explained my predicament to Heather, a cheery local, who pointed out several places marked “EV” on a placemat-size map of the grounds. There was one right behind our building. A premature sense of salvation arose. Upon investigation, these extra chargers were electric hookups for RVs—four-foot-tall posts standing in the middle of overflow parking lots.
I managed to find a lonely white RV post sticking its head above a snow drift, barely within reach of plowed pavement. The 20-foot cord barely reached the 110-volt plug—my only choice, since I didn’t have an adapter to plug into one of the more powerful outlets. Over an entire night, the Model 3 gained only a dozen miles of charge because of the limited voltage and the car’s need to keep itself warm. It was enough juice to avoid the worst-case scenario—the battery dying entirely overnight—but it didn’t get us enough to make the next leg.
The other Teslas were gone by breakfast, and we stole enough charge over bad eggs and OJ to spend the day gazing across the alien architecture of Bryce from its panoramic points and hiking among the ruddy snowcapped hoodoos. When we climbed back out of the canyon, it was decision time. The charging snafu had put us behind schedule. One hundred and twelve miles of lonely, supercharger-less Highway 12 stretched out between us and the next stop, Capitol Reef, while backtracking to the interstate would turn it into a 200-mile trip. It was time for more improvised EV logistics: we planned to get halfway down the highway, to Escalante, and eat dinner for as long as it took to get enough charge to safely continue toward Torrey, the gateway to Capitol Reef.
Which is how I came to drive a stranger’s car. As we got comfortable at the Devil’s Garden restaurant, the waitress apologized that she and the chef were alone that night. I explained our situation and why slow service would be no problem. She knew our new friend from the other lodge, of course, and gave us a handwritten note to leave in her Outback. I ate half of my comically oversize pork burrito and nursed my 4 percent beer (Utah law) for a couple of hours before we drove the Subaru back across town. I handed over the keys, but the Tesla still had only 80 miles on the battery, not enough to take off safely. We killed a few more minutes in front of the lodge fireplace before heading off into the darkness.
By day, Highway 12 is one of America’s greatest drives, a twisted cable carved out of the high country. On December nights, it’s an exposed windblown thoroughfare. The scariest part, though, was trusting the car. The Model 3’s navigation estimates the battery percentage left after you reach your destination based on the speed limit and elevation of your route. Unlike my vehicle, I don’t have a detailed topographic map of Utah in my brain, so when we began a steep climb around Boulder Mountain and the battery ticked down by ten “miles” over two road miles, I had to take Tesla’s word we’d regain range on the descent and wouldn’t be stranded at midnight on a frozen highway without another vehicle in sight.
She didn’t let me down. As the car promised, we pulled into the Broken Spur Inn with about 15 miles on the battery. This time, to much relief, neither of the destination chargers was taken.
Once we reached Capitol Reef, the biggest stress was behind us. Canyonlands and Arches, our fourth and fifth parks, were located within a short drive of a supercharger in Moab. For EV national-park visitors, that is key. Tesla has already placed superchargers near big-name destinations such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon, and surely other automakers will follow suit now that companies like Ford and GM are going electric in a serious way.
Meanwhile, visiting the less renowned or farther-flung parks, forests, and monuments requires courage and planning. I’ve stalled on plans to visit Death Valley because, well, it’s a valley of death for charging stations. The few electric hookups available are those at RV sites, and after our anxiety-inducing experience in Utah, I bought a NEMA adapter so I could pull a higher voltage and charge faster at one of these connections if we ever needed to in a pinch. In the meantime, I continue to refresh the map of Tesla superchargers in hopes that Elon Musk and friends will finish the long-planned station in Visalia, California, which would make it much easier to climb into Sequoia National Park. But the West is big and open, and with so many urban superchargers left to build in urban areas in the U.S. and abroad, the company has no concrete plans as of yet to add stations that would allow drivers to reach remote national parks such as Big Bend, Great Basin, or Glacier.
When I talked or Tweeted about our trip, a few people said it’s proof that EVs aren’t ready to fulfill most people’s needs. I disagree. Electrics already have the range and capability to tackle the errands, commutes, and close-to-the-highway road trips that make up most American driving. It’s when you want to venture into the wilderness that you run smack into early-adopter problems. Inevitably, you’ll wind up thinking how much easier things would be in an old-fashioned gas guzzler. But driving off the beaten path has always required a little risk, an adventurous spirit, and, occasionally, turning to a friend when you get yourself in trouble.