8 Best American Road Trips to Experience This Summer
Ahh, the great American road trip. There’s just nothing quite like it. From the freedom of the open highway and the roadside photo ops to the convenience store snacks and singing off-key along with the radio, summer road trips are truly memorable.
This year, as travel increasingly returns to some semblance of “normal,” road trips offer an ideal solution for many people. Road tripping is a safe, social-distancing-friendly method of travel, allows you to very literally cover lots of ground, is affordable, and allows you the freedom of choosing your own timeline and itinerary.
The benefits of a road trip are clear, so the only big decision to make is which road trip route you’ll take on first. We’ve rounded up eight of our favorites, ranging from national parks trips in a single state to epic routes that take you far away from the lower 48.
1. Utah’s “Mighty 5” National Parks
Utah is world-renowned for its stunning natural landscapes, ranging from soaring mountain ranges to ancient red rock formations. This road trip route allows you to experience many of the highlights, stopping in each one of the state’s national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef (easily one of the most underrated national parks in the U.S.), Arches, and Canyonlands. Fascinatingly, each of the parks is distinctly different and well worth a standalone visit.
Many people do this road trip as a loop from Salt Lake City, but you could also easily start in Las Vegas or Grand Junction, Colorado. Just know that Salt Lake is more centrally located, so if you base yourself out of Vegas or Grand Junction, you’ll have one rather long stretch of driving at either the beginning or end of your trip.
Regardless of where you start this Utah road trip, you’ll want a National Parks Pass. It’s just $80 for one year, and admission to a single national park costs $30-35 without it. Seeing all five parks (not to mention the countless other amazing sights in Utah) really deserves a full week, but you could do this trip in five days – one per park – if time is an issue.
2. The Overseas Highway (Miami to Key West)
Also often referred to as “the highway that goes to sea,” the Overseas Highway (U.S. Highway 1) connects the Florida Keys with mainland Florida. It does so in dramatic fashion, with 42 spectacular bridges connecting 44 islands.
This road trip spans just 113 miles in total distance but feels much longer – in a good way. As you drive, there’s so much to see. On your right is the Gulf of Mexico and on your left, the Atlantic Ocean. Birdwatching opportunities abound here and if you’re lucky, you may spot dolphins playing.
Each of the five main regions of the Keys (Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key, and Key West, from north to south) has a completely unique culture and vibe. So although you can technically make the entire Overseas Highway drive in about four hours, you shouldn’t.
Take your time, spending at least half a day in each area if possible. Highlights include the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, dolphin-watching in Marathon, and some of the country’s best beaches in Bahia Honda State Park.
3. Great River Road
There is perhaps no American river more iconic than the Mississippi. This road trip follows its path through 10 states and over 3,000 miles, starting in Minnesota and finishing near New Orleans, Louisiana (or vice-versa).
You’ll pass right through some major tourist attractions, including the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, but this particular road trip is more about visiting smaller, lesser-known places. Trail of Tears State Park, also in Missouri, has a heartbreaking story but is historically important.
The Chain of Rocks Bridge in Illinois is easily one of the oddest bridges in the country, with its distinctive bend in the middle, and the Buffalo Bill Museum in LeClaire, Iowa, is a can’t-miss.
Driving straight through, you could finish this road trip route in about 36 hours. However, take a week if possible – there’s a lot to see! Note that the Great River Road isn’t actually one highway, but instead a series of highways. They’re well-marked; look for signs with a green pilot’s logo.
4. Historic Route 66
Another iconic American road trip, Route 66 (AKA The Mother Road) takes you through spectacular scenery and many famous landmarks. Route 66 runs between Los Angeles and Chicago for a total of nearly 2,500 miles, and while you can drive it in either direction, we recommend driving from east to west. There’s just something about heading west on Route 66.
You’ll have another opportunity to visit the Gateway Arch, then hit Oklahoma City before driving across the Texas panhandle. Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, is a must-stop where you can (legally) graffiti the cars sticking straight up out of the ground.
Crossing northern New Mexico, you’ll see plenty of colorful Southwest desert landscapes, which continue into Arizona. You drive right through Flagstaff and the wondrous Grand Canyon, which is worth a full day or two. Finish near L.A. and take in the Pacific Ocean!
This is a road trip that you can really take as much or as little time as you want. It can be done in a couple of days, but there’s plenty to see if you want to make it a longer trek.
5. Pacific Coast Highway (San Francisco to San Diego)
The Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH, is one of the most recognizable and beautiful stretches of road anywhere in the world. As its name implies, the PCH runs directly alongside the Pacific Ocean.
And before we go any further, that brings up an important point: we recommend driving the PCH from north to south specifically so you’ll be driving on the right side of the road, closest to the coast. You can, of course, drive it from south to north, but you’ll be a bit further from the coast.
There are almost exactly 500 miles between San Francisco and San Diego, not counting traffic. If you’re extremely ambitious, you could do this in a full day, but trust us — you don’t want to. Take at least a couple of days to take in some of the highlights. Our favorites include the rocky beaches at Big Sur; Pigeon Point, the tallest lighthouse on the west coast; and any of the beaches between Santa Barbara and Venice.
Note that that PCH actually spans 1,675 miles from southern California all the way up to Olympia, Washington, so you can extend this road trip substantially if you prefer.
6. Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway spans 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina, traversing some of America’s most stunning natural scenery. Taking this road trip, you’ll experience sections of the Appalachian Mountains, Shenandoah National Park, and the Great Smoky Mountains.
The most popular (and thus, beautiful) stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway is the 384 mile leg from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Asheville, North Carolina. You’ll see a bit of everything: expansive mountain ranges, rolling green hills, roaring waterfalls, and plenty of wildlife.
There’s plenty to distract you, but don’t forget to stop every now and then to order some BBQ and listen to live music. You’re likely to find phenomenal versions of both in run-down-looking roadside stands.
While the distance isn’t particularly lengthy, the Blue Ridge Parkway is particularly slow-going. There are countless tunnels, hairpin turns, and twists, and the posted speed limit rarely exceeds 45 mph for more than a short stretch. That’s actually one of the biggest draws of the Blue Ridge Parkway; it very literally forces you to slow down and take in your surroundings.
7. Road to Hana
Admittedly, this road trip requires a bit of extra effort, but the rewards are tremendous. To drive the 64-mile Road to Hana, you’ll first have to travel to Maui, Hawaii. Of course, that means the vast majority of people won’t have access to their own vehicle and will have to rent one. It’s a big business in Maui so the process is simple but think carefully about the type of vehicle you rent.
Convertibles and Jeep Wranglers are a blast on the Road to Hana, but you may struggle maneuvering a full-size pickup truck on the extremely narrow roads.
The Road to Hana is famous for numerous reasons, and being narrow is just one of them. It’s filled with countless S-curves and blind turns, has a 25 mph speed limit, hugs sheer cliffs hundreds of feet above the ocean at multiple points, and is prone to washing out with heavy rain. But for all of its challenges, the Road to Hana is one of the most memorable drives you’ll ever take.
Plan to stop every several minutes – literally. At every turn, there’s a waterfall, beach, roadside fruit stand, or scenic view you’ll want to hop out to see. You can swim in many of the waterfalls, and there are short hiking trails in several areas. Also, bring cash because most of the roadside vendors don’t accept cards.
One more pro-tip: consider driving to the furthest point from town, then working your way backwards. This way, if you start to run out of time or weather becomes an issue, at least you’re headed back in the right direction.
8. Alaska National Parks
Alaska’s vast, rugged wilderness is world-renowned. Its remoteness and logistical travel challenges add to the allure of visiting, drawing people from all over the world. Keeping in line with that, The Last Frontier is home to a whopping 24 national parks, monuments, and preserves – and only a literal few are accessible by car.
Fortunately, some of Alaska’s crown jewels are part of those few: Denali, Kenai Fjords, and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
To visit these three incredible national parks on a road trip, it makes the most sense to fly into Anchorage and pick up a rental vehicle. Alaska is extremely friendly to campervan and RV culture, so consider renting one to save money on accommodations on your trip. In many areas, it’s perfectly legal (and even encouraged) to camp along the side of the road for free.
Note that each of the three parks is several hours from Anchorage, all in different directions. Driving long stretches is simply part of life in Alaska, but the tremendous scenery makes it enjoyable.
Start out in Denali National Park, home of the tallest mountain in North America. Standing 20,310 feet tall, you’ll see Denali for most of the five-hour drive from Anchorage. Once inside the park, vehicles can only travel about 15 miles in. Pick one of the several bus tours to experience more of the park and here’s a tip: the longer the tour, the deeper you go into Denali, the more you’ll see.
Up next is Kenai Fjords, on the Kenai Peninsula to the southeast. Kenai Fjords is predominantly a marine park, so most people park in Seward before taking a boat tour. If you’ve ever wanted to go whale-watching, this is certainly the place.
Don’t miss some of the park’s other highlights, though, like the easy one-mile loop hike near Exit Glacier or hiking across the enormous Harding Icefield, which extends one mile down into the ocean.
The final stop on your Alaska national parks road trip is Wrangell-St. Elias, the largest in the country. When we say it’s the biggest U.S. national park, we’re not exaggerating – Wrangell-St. Elias is six times larger than Yellowstone! It also happens to be home to the 10 tallest peaks in America and lays claim to the richest deposit of copper ever found. As the saying goes, last… but certainly not least.
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