12 short road trip routes that take in the best of America
There’s a beauty in road tripping the States that you won’t find anywhere else. The highways spill out in front you, tumbling from coast to coast. Back roads twist and turn from one mountain range to another, across state lines as valleys turn to plains turn to sea. Countless miles are outside your doorstep, and all you need are the right four wheels to take you there.
And sure, you can drop everything and embark on a months-long odyssey, but we’d argue that the best American road trips can be shorter — the ones that highlight the diversity hidden in the expanse, concentrating on one chapter of the story at a time. With a full tank and a long weekend, you’re ready to go. Here are some ideas.
— 1 —
Pacific Coast Highway
The Pacific Coast Highway — PCH, or California State Route 1 — winds for more than 500 miles down the Golden State’s coast. The most rugged, visceral, honeymoon-worthy, spirit-inspiring section, however, weaves from Monterey to Santa Barbara, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It’s here that the Santa Lucia Mountains give way just long enough for your four wheels to sneak between their grassy peaks and the ocean.
Drive north to south if you can (pulloffs to the beach and the Pacific on your right), and if the seaside cliffs are misty in the fog, stop for lunch — it’ll roll back out by afternoon.
Starting in Monterey, stop at Steinbeck’s famous Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, right on the water. Head south for the famous “17 Mile Drive” to the artsy Carmel-by-the-Sea, and then be sure to get a photo of the iconic Bixby Bridge in Big Sur. Hang with the elephant seals near San Simeon, and follow it up by chasing windmills (and hunting for aebleskivers) in the Danish village of Solvang. Go searching for old-school California vibes walking through Santa Barbara, and always, always, always end your trip with one last look at the coast.
Distance: 215 miles
— 2 —
Route 100 through Vermont splits the state in half, from near the northern border in Canada down south to Massachusetts. And while it’s certainly worth your time any season of the year, it’s best-known for being one of America’s most scenic autumn drives — the fall foliage is unrivaled.
But no matter when you go, you’ll find your trip down “Vermont’s Main Street” more diverse than you expected: Ice cream graveyards, awesome hiking and skiing in the Green Mountains, white-steepled churches, cozy B&Bs, and charming New England hamlets straight out of the past dot the route. It’s a road trip of centuries-old romance and high-elevation adventures — whichever you pick.
Start in Newport (a town with roots back in the 1700s), stay at a bed and breakfast in Hyde Park, and get your fill of cider in Waterbury. Take a gondola ride up to Killington Peak, and then stock up on the good stuff at Plymouth Artisan Cheese. Go spelunking at Smugglers’ Notch, hike the Long Trail to Mount Abraham, or hit some of the longest ski runs in the East at Stowe. Take it slow and easy, or take it hard and fast — just hit the road.
Distance: 200 miles
— 3 —
San Juan Skyway
With monikers like “the Switzerland of America” and the “Million Dollar Highway,” you know you’re in for something good. The San Juan Skyway loops through Southwestern Colorado, between and around 14 of the state’s 53 “Fourteeners,” through old mining towns, and even a national park.
A good starting point or this one is Ridgway, CO — nearly 7,000 feet in the air. Going clockwise from the top of the loop, make your first stop the Ridgway Reservoir (to see the comparisons to the Alps). Drop by Ouray for the hot springs and the turn-of-the-century downtown, and then get ready for limestone gorges, rocky switchbacks, waterfalls, and abandoned mines. Step into the Old West in Durango and Silverton (check out the narrow-gauge railroad that links the two), and consider a quick detour to the ghost town of Animas Forks.
From here, the trees start changing from aspens and spruce to ponderosa pine — if you don’t stop at Molas Pass, leave time for Mesa Verde National Park before climbing back into the San Juan Mountains. And last but not least, hit the slopes in Telluride (in summer, consider Keystone Gorge Trail), and end it all with a panorama from Dallas Divide Mountain — Google it, and you’ll see why. Or better yet, just get there and see for yourself.
Distance: 233 miles
— 4 —
Jackson, WY to Bozeman, MT
The scenic route from Jackson, Wyoming, to Bozeman, Montana, essentially means driving through two of America’s most beautiful national parks: Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Roads may be closed in winter and crowded in summer, so plan your trip for spring or autumn — you’ll thank us later.
Starting in Jackson, fuel up and head north to the National Elk Refuge. The Tetons will quickly emerge on your left, before Jackson Lake pops into the foreground, stealing your attention. You’ll soon hit Yellowstone’s South Entrance, and will find yourself traversing the eons-old Yellowstone Caldera. Follow the loop counterclockwise, passing Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Firehole River, Mammoth Hot Springs, and out the famous Roosevelt Arch.
Highway 89 follows the Yellowstone River all the way to Livingston, where it’s a quick hop on I-90 back to Bozeman for the night. With time to spare, hit up the Museum of the Rockies or get back outside to hike or bike the Spanish Peaks.
Distance: 250 miles
— 5 —
Apostle Islands, WI to Pictured Rocks, MI
This is truly the road less traveled, and the only good reason is that most of America rarely makes it up this far north. As a result, Apostle Islands and Pictured Rocks are more jaw-dropping than their name recognition would lead you to believe. On the shores of Lake Superior — taking on a Caribbean sort of teal — red sandstone caves and old-growth forest practically pop out of the water, and islands dot the expanse as far as the eye can see. There are only four national lakeshores in America, and these are two of them.
Starting in Bayfield, grab your morning joe and your Vacation fix — this place feels straight out of an old school movie, with local shops, bookstores, and restaurants being the only options in town. Then head to the islands, and make a day of hiking, kayaking to a sea cave, chartering out to an island, exploring a lighthouse, or just getting your toes in the sand. It’ll feel like too soon that you’re getting back in the car and heading east to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (also on the water), and then taking M-28 all the way to Munising.
You’ve made it — time for Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Rent a pontoon to take out to a visible shipwreck, explore the 40 miles of cliffside shoreline, hike to Miners Falls, or just chill on Twelvemile Beach. Yep, this is Michigan we’re talking about.
Distance: 250 miles
— 6 —
Route 12, Utah
They call it “A Journey Through Time.” They also call it “The All-American Road.” Utah’s Route 12 is famous for it’s top-of-the-world aspen forest (9,000 feet!), its Crayola box of colorful rocks, and its laundry list of national parks, national monuments, and state parks.
So for this one, allot as much time as you can. Hit the road in Panguitch (a historic town worth at least stopping for coffee), and wait for those two sandy arches you’ll drive through in the Red Canyon. Make a short detour to Bryce Canyon National Park (or just the 20-mile Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive) if you can. Otherwise, head for Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument (the Kaiparowits Plateau is one of the most remote areas in the entire country), hike to Spooky Gulch, or check out the actual “grand staircase” near Henrieville.
Make a stop at Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, or put pedal to the metal toward Boulder, Utah. Hop on the Burr Trail into Capitol Reef National Park’s backcountry, and then it’s head-first into the Dixie National Forest toward Torrey, Route 12’s terminus. If you’ve got four-wheel drive and you’re feeling good, cap it all off with a gravel-y jaunt down Hell’s Backbone Scenic Byway.
Distance: 150 miles (up to 120 additional miles, if desired)
— 7 —
Skyline Drive, VA
Skyline Drive bisects Shenandoah National Park, leading all on its course through the land of the Appalachian Trail, the fertile Shenandoah Valley, patterned Virginia lowlands, and abandoned orchards and farms. Start early in the morning, and you’ll be likely to experience a visual phenomenon dubbed the “fog ocean” — where the peaks of the hills poke out of thick, opaque fog, like islands peering out of the clouds.
Mile markers on the west side of the road make logistics a breeze, and its 75 viewpoints mean the relatively short jaunt will last significantly longer than expected. Starting at mile 0.0 in Front Royal, stop at the Shenandoah Valley Overlook at mile 2.8, follow the Shenandoah River around mile 21, and at mile 33, stop for a hike into Hazel Country, through the mountain laurel, and up to Hazel Mountain. Back on the road, you’ll hit Old Rag View Overlook at mile 46.5 and then Hazeltop Ridge Overlook (mile 54.5), where those classic smoky-blue peaks seem to roll into the horizon for the next 30 miles. Of course, at any point, stop the car and stretch your legs on one of the hundreds of trails surrounding you — this area is also meant to be explored on foot.
Distance: 105 miles (35mph speed limit)
— 8 —
Badlands National Park to Custer State Park
Almost inexplicably, smack dab in the middle of the plains rise tales of Earth’s past from its ashes. Crumbly, sandy red buttes start spotting the prairie, at first inconspicuous and unobtrusive until you find yourself driving down the surface of Mars. Welcome to Badlands National Park — a sort of in-the-air Grand Canyon. As you wind 31 miles down Badlands Loop Road, study each jutting pinnacle, spire, and tower. Notice how they all have the same pattern of grays, tans, yellows, reds, and pinks. The Badlands are nature’s ledger, bookmarking millions of years in its layers.
Stop for a quick bite in Rapid City, and then it’s off to Custer State Park. There’s a $20 entrance fee, but don’t balk — a visit here rivals any national park experience. Scoop Wildlife Loop if you have time (you’ll lose track counting the hundreds of prairie dogs, bison, elk, sheep, wolves, and goats), and then book it to the Needles Highway. Drive through the “eye of the needle,” and let the engine cool while you hike the Cathedral Spires Trail. You won’t want to miss it — being surrounded from all angles by granite pillars seemingly scraping the sky is a kind of embrace you’ve probably never experienced.
Distance: 120 miles
— 9 —
To get from Miami down to the Florida Keys, you’ve got to take “The Highway That Goes to the Sea,” the southernmost leg of US Highway 1. You’ll go over 42 bridges, including the “Seven Mile Bridge” — if you’ve ever seen a car commercial, movie, or photo of a bridge surrounded only by water, it’s probably this one. Once out of Miami and past Florida’s Turnpike, it’s the Overseas Highway for 125 miles. You’ll be jetting through Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key, and Key West in no time, with options to stop wherever time allows.
In Key Largo, head for Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary — you haven’t seen coral in abundance like this before. (It’s around mile marker 100, Key West being mile marker 0). Then snorkel at Pennekamp Park, hop on a glass-bottom boat, or book it straight to Marathon. This is where you’ll traverse the Seven Mile Bridge, situated between the Middle Keys and the Lower Keys. If you have time, stop at Pigeon Key, an island below the Bridge, or keep the kids happy at the Dolphin Research Center. Then it’s time for Big Pine Key, where you should be sure to take a siesta on the beaches of Bahia Honda State Park — they’re some of the best in the world.
The end of the line is Key West. Settle in to study the quirks of the Conch Republic (they have their own passport, kind of), stroll through the streets of the artsy communities, and watch the sunset at Mallory Square. In the morning, it’s back in the car and back over the water.
Distance: 150 miles
— 10 —
Twenty-five miles north of Seattle begins the Cascade Loop, a section of America so grand you could take weeks here. You’ll hop the Puget Sound Islands, cross the Cascades, and see lakes full of glacial powder, Bavarian and Old West villages, and the mighty Columbia River Valley.
It’s best to travel from east to west — counterclockwise — so there’s no neck-craning to see Diablo and Ross Lakes. Gratefully get off the I-5 and onto Highway 2, near Everett, and you’re soon past the San Juan Islands and deep in the Snohomish River Valley. Hike to Bridal Veil or Wallace Falls if time allows; otherwise, book it to Stevens Pass and the Tumwater Canyon. Past the aforementioned lakes, head toward Leavenworth (a Bavarian village straight out of a snow globe), the Columbia River Valley, and Lake Chelan — the largest lake in the state.
Next up is Winthrop, an Old West town, and then right onto the North Cascades Highway. If you don’t have time to seriously appreciate North Cascades National Park (300 glaciers!), stop the car for a hike through Heather-Maple Pass, and bring the camera. At the very least, don’t leave before snapping a photo at the Washington Pass Overlook. Finish the trip back in Seattle, or knock Rainier or Olympic National Park off your bucket list, too.
Distance: 440 miles
— 11 —
Great River Road
If the journey isn’t your destination, don’t take this one. The Great River Road is about seeing America unfold slowly. It’s about appreciating old industry towns against cypress swamps, limestone bluffs, and upland meadows. It’s about the lifeline of America, thousands of years depending on the flow of these waters. It’s about taking your time.
The GRR passes through 10 states (from the Mississippi headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf waters in Louisiana), hundreds of river towns, and cities like St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans (all of which exist for this very reason). Of course, you can do whichever section you like — or you can do it all.
Stick further south for barbecue, Civil War history, and the blues, or head up north to get off the beaten tourist path. Where Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois meet is known as the Driftless Area — glaciers never pounded their way through here, resulting in deeply carved river valleys, caves, and limestone cliffs that will contest any image you likely have of the Midwest.
Distance: Up to 2,300 miles
— 12 —
Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway
Thunder lizards. That’s what some call those giant, ancient creatures that once roamed these lands. Now their traces are here in spades, along with red-rock canyons, cottonwood-lined rivers, and incredible geological vistas stretching into the horizon. Driving the Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway through western Colorado and eastern Utah is, quite literally, a trip through the vestiges of the past.
The obvious start to this trip is in the town of Dinosaur, Colorado. Take the 31-mile Harpers Corner Scenic Drive before hitting up Dinosaur National Monument and the quarry north of Jensen, Utah. Hop on US-40 West to Vernal, and if time allows, check out the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum or the Ashley National Forest — it’s a coniferous forest living swell at over 9,000 feet. From there, follow the meanderings of the Price River to Elmo and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, and then get on US-191 to take on the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail. You wanted lots of dinosaurs, right?
Next up is the big ‘un: Arches National Park. Spend as much time here as you can — more than 2,000 natural arches sprawl outward and upward in these lands, and that’s not even mentioning the red-rock canyons, spires, and buttes. Afterwards, drive to the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita, which also operates as the gateway to Colorado National Monument. Take the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive to end your journey, or make a pit stop at Canyonlands National Park, just skirted by the southern edge of the loop.
Distance: 480 miles