Car culture is distinctly American. Sure there are storied brands from Europe; but America is a country stitched together by a vast network of interstate highways. It’s the land of drive-in movies, drive-through takeout, and drive-up service! We’re a people constantly itching for a new adventure. With lots of land and spectacular scenery, America is a fantastic place for a good old-fashioned road trip. Seeing as how the new normal involves adding a bit more physical distance, seldom has there been a better time to enjoy all the sights and sounds of America from the relative safety of our cars. Here, we profile some of the best regional road trips to consider this summer. The goal is to find places to go and things to see over the span of a long weekend or several days. Elsewhere we’ve looked at the great coast-to-coast routes. Now we’re narrowing it down a bit and keeping it manageable. Here are some short-distance US road trips to consider.
Myrtle Beach – Charleston – Savannah – Jacksonville – Daytona Beach – Cape Canaveral
Myrtle Beach, affectionately known as the Grand Strand, has been a favored vacation spot for generations. Starting here, there’s a great little road trip down the coast to Daytona Beach or Cape Canaveral. Enjoy some fun in the sun in Myrtle Beach before heading south on US-17 towards Charleston. Tour the classic antebellum city where you can see Fort Sumter National Monument and the Battery Point Gardens. Afterwards continue south to lovely Savannah. Walk the cobblestones on River Street and visit Forsyth Park with its charming fountain. A short walk will bring you to the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist. Departing Savannah, hop on I-95 to Jacksonville or stay on US-17 to arrive at a more leisurely pace. You can opt to hug the Atlantic coast, bypassing central Jacksonville. Make for Jacksonville Beach and work your way south on Florida State Road A1A. St. Augustine claims to be the “oldest city in the US” and the Spanish Colonial architecture is well worth the visit. Continue on the A1A down to Daytona Beach and further to Cape Canaveral. Explore the Space Coast and take the tour at NASA. Time it right and you might catch a rocket launch. It’s a great way to cap a lovely 3-day driving tour.
Desert Southwest Loop
Albuquerque – Petrified Forest National Park – Flagstaff – Grand Canyon National Park – Lake Mead – Las Vegas – Zion National Park – Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument – Glen Canyon
The American Southwest is the stuff of legend, literally (think Wild West shootouts and pioneers). Starting in either Albuquerque or Las Vegas, you can piece together a fantastic loop by combining I-40, I-15, and several branch highways. Innumerable detours and customizations are possible so consider this just a broad outline. Head west from Albuquerque with the down as you put the pedal to the metal on historic two-lane Route 66. Make a stop at Petrified Forest National Park on the way to Flagstaff. Turn north and venture to Grand Canyon National Park. Alternatively, stay on I-40 / Route 66 and visit the western Grand Canyon with its famous skywalk on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. It’s a short drive from there into Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Traveling northwest on I-15 out of Las Vegas will take you to Zion National Park. Piggyback on Utah State Route 9 to reach US-89 and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. US-89 will also take you to Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend, and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. These are arguably some of the best scenic and recreation areas anywhere in the world. Perfect stuff for a great road trip.
Rocky Mountain High
Denver – Leadville – Aspen – Maroon Bells – Carbondale – Curecanti National Recreation Area – Pueblo – Colorado Springs
If you’re feeling like you need to get above it all for a bit, you might be in the mood for some Rocky Mountain High. Start in Denver and use I-70 to reach the mountains where you can visit the famed resort towns of Aspen, Crested Butte, Breckenridge, and Vail. Less busy in the summer, these towns are every bit as gorgeous as road trip destinations. One option is to turn south on Colorado State Highway 91 at Copper Mountain and make for Leadville. Home of the popular Leadville Race Series, featuring grueling trail running and mountain biking, this is an outdoor paradise. Use US-24 to go south out of Leadville and turn west on Colorado State Highway 82 to Aspen. From Aspen take the short trip over to see the famed Maroon Bells. These twin peaks in the Elk Mountains epitomize a picture postcard. They’ll be the highlight on just about anyone’s road trip. Work your way back to State Highway 82 and continue on to Carbondale where you can turn south on State Highway 133. Pick up State Highway 92 and make for the Curecanti National Recreation Area. This beautiful and less-traveled place is a great road trip destination. On the return, US-50 will get you to Pueblo and you can then turn north on I-25 towards Colorado Springs and Denver. Rocky Mountain Majesty!
New England Pastoral
New York City – Gold Coast – New Haven – Mystic – Providence – Boston – Acadia National Park – Bangor – Mount Washington – Burlington – Lake Champlain
The rich rolling hills in New England are something all to themselves. There’s an aura here found nowhere else in the US. Town squares are dotted with plaques to Revolutionary War history and the whole place can seem very much unchanged from the last 250 years. New England offers several bites at the apple so to speak. A southern route lets you start from New York City. Make your way on I-95 into Connecticut. Tour the Gold Coast on US Highway 1 through Greenwich and Stamford. Stop in New Haven and wander around Yale. The Beinecke Rare Book Library is worth a visit. Stay on Highway 1 to Mystic for some pizza. Cool off with a swim at Misquamicut State Beach or Narragansett. Finally head north up to Providence and Boston. An alternative route is to start in Boston and either work your way along the coast on Highway 1 to Acadia National Park near Bangor, or track northwest into New Hampshire and Vermont. White Mountain National Forest and Mount Washington are amazingly scenic. In Vermont, work up near Middlebury and hike the Camel’s Hump on the way to Burlington and gorgeous Lake Champlain. The rustic towns along the way offer fantastic dining, antiquing, or general recreation. This is a fantastic fall tour when the colors burst across the hillsides.
Seattle – Portland – Salem – Albany – Eugene
The Pacific Northwest features lush green landscapes, dense forests, and plenty of mountainous terrain. Start in Seattle and explore the areas around Puget Sound. Head south on I-5 to Olympia. Get on US Highway 101 and use that to circumnavigate and explore Olympic National Park. Once you turn south, look forward to crossing the Columbia River and heading into Oregon. If you want a strictly coastal adventure stay on US-101, or instead take US-26 into Portland. Either option is great so it just depends on whether you want to remain rustic or go in for the crunchy. Should you opt for Portland, explore around a bit and then use the I-5 to continue south to Salem, Albany, and Eugene. In Eugene you can take Oregon State Road 126 through the Willamette National Forest. Several lovely mountain lakes are in the area including Blue River Lake, Clear Lake, or Detroit Lake, which is further north off Oregon State Road 22. This entire circuit will wrap you around to Salem; from there you can turn north back to Washington State. If you elected to stay along the coast on US-101, Oregon State Road 126 is a good place to turn off and head back to Eugene. This is a solid 3-4 day tour with excellent opportunities for camping.
A Night under the Stars
Salt Lake City – Central Pennsylvania – Southern California
One drawback to city life is never having the chance to see a vivid night sky. Rather than cosmic wonder, we are more used to the glow of neon lights and billboards. There are places where the darkness permits a full tapestry of stars to shine overhead. One such place is Antelope Island State Park, found just outside Salt Lake City. Set on the Great Salt Lake, it is recognized as an International Dark Sky Park so the views here are spectacular. You will see distant Salt Lake City glowing on the horizon, so it’s not the darkest of dark sky parks, but it’s easy to reach by car and a great short road trip. For those living in the Eastern United States, Cherry Springs Dark Sky Park in north central Pennsylvania is prized among the amateur astronomy community. It has a dedicated astronomy observation field and several medium-sized telescope domes where you can setup your equipment if you so desire. The weather can be a bit fickle so plan ahead, but the drive through the hills is well worth it. Finally, if you’re in the Los Angeles or San Diego areas, make a trip out to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Home to a local Dark Sky Community, there is normally always something abuzz. It’s a perfect way to spend a weekend.
Great Lakes Splendor
(aka Chicago to Milwaukee the Wrong Way Round)
Chicago – Michigan City – Bridgman – South Haven – Saugatuck – Holland – Grand Haven – Pentwater – Traverse City – Petoskey – Mackinaw – Escanaba – Green Bay – Milwaukee
Starting in Chicago, get yourself through the traffic and industrial areas near Gary on towards Michigan City. Cross the border into Michigan and consider stopping for a swim at Warren Dunes State Park near Bridgeman. Get on Michigan State Road 63 near St. Joseph and use that to hug the coast as you go north. Eventually you’ll want to get on the Blue Star Highway in order to stay close to the water. As you head north, make sure to stop in Saugatuck with its many art galleries. Holland features some nice restaurants and you’ll find another good swimming spot at Grand Haven State Park. Spend some time in Leelanau County at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Traverse City boasts dozens of activities during the summer along with some outstanding restaurants. From there you can keep heading north to the Mackinaw Bridge and cross over into the Upper Peninsula. Escanaba is a good place to stop and regroup before the big turn to the south towards Green Bay. Eventually you will find I-43 and that will get you into Milwaukee.
If you’re looking for a way out of the house this summer, do consider a road trip as a socially responsible alternative. Many of the routes we profiled should offer plenty of opportunities to spread out and not come into contact with too many people. Bring a tent and a cooler and you can have yourself a mighty fine time. No matter where you’re located, there are great road trips near you. Consider the suggestions here something of an inspiration to plan your own travel adventure. Get yourself out on the highway and see the spectacular patch of land called the United States of America!
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