Where should you drive for the best American road trip? What is there to see out there on the highways and side roads?
The best American road trips have great scenery and plenty of opportunities for fun. The challenge is finding the best road trips for your family – or for yourself.
What are the best American road trip destinations?
America has plenty of road trip opportunities. Some of the best include the Pacific Coast Highway, Miami to Key West, the Great River Road to Louisiana, and New England’s rocky cliffs and fall foliage. The midwest also provides delights with Duluth and Ely.
We’ll offer details on the best places to go to experience some of the more fun things the American highways have to offer.
We’ll also look at where to go for local culture, the best views, and the most fun you can have on 2 or 4 wheels.
We’ve traveled more than a few highways and made roadside stops.
We’ll also take a look at modern trends for road trips to see what’s new out there for a long journey.
Best American Road Trips
California’s Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco
The views on California’s Pacific Coast Highway lead our west coast list.
Amazing sights include Morro Bay, and the ever photogenic Bixby Bridge, which is the location of many well-known car commercials.
The cliffs of Point Dume also provide an excellent view of the Pacific Ocean and have good paths leading to higher views without your car.
You can also see McWay Waterfall, which is one of only two waterfalls in California that are direct to the beach.
There are even beaches you can drive on if the weather is bad – or you want to practice off-roading.
The route isn’t all about the ocean, though it’s pretty close.
You’ll also cross the ever-popular Golden Gate Bridge and have at least a peek at California’s redwood forests, which are a sight to behold in themselves.
Though this isn’t that long of a road trip at just over 600 miles – you could spend, days, if not weeks, exploring the California coastal culinary culture and taking in views of the blue Pacific.
We recommend at least 4 to 5 days, especially if you want to take it slow and rest in multiple places.
Want to see some surfer culture? Take a stop in Mendocino Bay, where Big River also merges into the Pacific Ocean for quite the picturesque view.
Cascade Loop in Washington
You’ll find lots of culture and beautiful views along the Cascade Loop.
Starting near Seattle, Washington, you’ll want to absorb local arts, cuisine, and history before leaving the city and entering an even more natural area.
The total trip is relatively short at 400 miles, but Washington really packs it in.
For half the year, the North Cascades Scenic Byway provides excellent access to trails for a day hike or camping adventure, so bring your tent and cooking tools.
The Byway also has the scenic North Cascades National Park with plenty of trails to walk and nature to behold.
The Cascade brings you to plenty of small towns, including Leavenworth, which has a Bavarian them, which is quite unique for a west coast city.
The entire trip has the consistent presence of mountains and water, so either bring your skis with you or be ready to rent some.
You don’t get a much better view than being in the mountains headed downhill.
Oregon Coast Highway 101
Stretching from Astoria down to the California border, the Oregon Coast Highway provides similar rugged oceanic views to the Pacific Coast Highway.
One of the coolest parts of the Oregon Coast Highway is that it’s entirely accessible to the public, so there are few to no limits on which beaches you can go to.
If you can see natural beauty, you can get near it with no problems.
The Samuel Boardman Scenic Corridor provides some more wild, rugged views with easy-to-drive terrain.
Like the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll find lots of small towns and culture to experience.
Got a 4×4 or off-road vehicle? There’s an entire recreational park in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area to make a fun, off-the-beaten-path trip in a safe place, especially if you get tired of being on pavement.
The Oregon Coast also has opportunities to see historic lighthouses, like the Heceta Head lighthouse.
Lighthouses provide great views and a bit of history about Oregon’s port cities and culture.
Yosemite to Death Valley
You’ll notice that many of our favorite road trips go through National Parks.
The west coast has an abundance of natural beauty, and Yosemite National Park must be mentioned as part of that
Start with the highest waterfall in America at Yosemite Falls, and make your way to the peak of El Capitan, a 3,000-foot-tall stone peak.
You’ll gradually find your way to Redwood National Park and the Sequoia forests of the tallest redwood trees you’ll ever see – including General Sherman.
The Yosemite National Park also provides access to upscale private lodging and of course natural camping areas – so you can pick the one you want depending on your outdoor skills. Either way, you’ll get to enjoy the pristine California beauty.
When in Yosemite, be sure to find the Tunnel View.
This is a great place to pull your vehicle to the side and take in the entire park in one scene.
Have your camera ready.
Napa, California and Sonoma are synonymous with wineries.
You’ll find yourself on long, curvy country highways surrounded by semi-hidden vineyards.
Each winery has its own unique take, and many are upscale and often attract visitors from around the country.
There are many cave tours available at the wineries, with enough spacing between to take in your surroundings.
Sonoma County itself is loaded with family-owned shops, and supporting local businesses while cruising through small towns in wine country sounds like a very relaxing experience.
Touring wine country is a great way to have some spontaneous and planned adventures, as you’ll have plenty of time to slow down and take in locally made wines, bread, and crafts while exploring the Pacific coast.
Is it part of the 48 contiguous states? Nope.
Is it totally worth the trip, even if you opt to rent a car? Absolutely.
While Alaska doesn’t exactly have California or Oregon weather, it makes up for that in wild views and gorgeous scenery.
You also have the option of reaching Alaska via the Alaskan highway that reaches from northern Seattle through Canada – or you could fly in to save time.
The Alaskan trip is a bit more unique in a couple of senses.
You are more likely to encounter wildlife, at a distance, including moose, elk, and caribou – and there is a bit less available for lodging – at least compared to other trips.
If you are into the outdoors, you should certainly bring your fishing and camping equipment along.
Lakes are abundant – and big.
This trip has the potential to be a bit longer at just under 1,400 miles, but Alaska and Canada’s wild beauty is worth every mile.
When you get to Alaska, you’ll also find plenty of other places to visit.
Want to enjoy the outdoors, nature, and some small and big towns – or at least by midwestern standards?
Northern Minnesota provides many, many lakes and opportunities for scenic drives, including the Duluth Scenic Highway, which overlooks the largest freshwater lake in the world: Lake Superior.
Drive a bit further north through the pine forests and get to Ely, for fishing, campfires, and dog sledding.
A bit further north and you’ll find yourself on the Canadian border, taking in the northern lights in the Boundary Waters.
These drivers are especially pretty during the fall when leaves start to turn fiery orange, yellow, and gold.
You could see more colors in the sky near the Boundary Water, as the Northern Lights have been known to show up from time to time.
Coming from a midwest perspective, bring warm clothes and emergency supplies.
The state can get rather cold especially in the winter – to be fair, we would recommend having an emergency kit in your vehicle regardless of location.
Aside from Duluth, St Paul, and Minneapolis, Minnesota is also a great place if you don’t want an especially long trip, but you want to enjoy the quiet, natural beauty.
Michigan’s Light Houses
Want a fun, scenic road trip with minimal crowds? Northern Michigan and Mackinac Island have numerous lighthouses in small towns.
While you are learning about the history of northern Michigan and lake country, you’ll get the opportunity to visit small shops in the area.
You’ll also find yourself within easy reach of a place simply called the “Upper Peninsula” which is full of natural beauty in itself.
Curiously enough, this peninsula isn’t connected to Michigan by anything but water – rather, it’s part of Wisconsin, which is an odd history in itself.
While you are there, it might be worth a drive south to historic Detroit to visit the old Motor City.
Like the west coast, Wisconsin has lots of state parks from its southern border with Illinois all the way up to Copper Falls State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Wisconsin is a bit different from California in that the most refined parts of their culture include craft beer and some of the best cheese you’ll find in the US.
Seriously, you won’t have to plan too much.
Use your smartphone’s app to find the best cheese curds and beer in an area.
You won’t be disappointed – and it’s better than buying from a grocery store.
Be sure to include Door County on your trip. Door County is a bit of lake country and has plenty of rustic charm while having some upscale offerings.
The winding roads also provide a fun drive.
North Dakota might be more scenic than you think.
The Old Ten Scenic Byway brings you to numerous inexpensive roadside attractions as well as plenty of small-town summer festivals. Horses and other eye-catching livestock are also often seen on farms.
When you are in North Dakota, be sure to check out the Assumption Abbey.
It provides an unexpected beauty and elegance in North Dakota.
To be honest, North Dakota and other upper Midwest states tend to rely more on natural beauty, camping, and the low cost of the trip.
You’ll likely spend significantly less exploring Minnesota, North Dakota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa than you would the west or east coast because of the price of restaurants, gas, and lodging.
Chicago is a major metro, but could certainly be a big part of a midwestern road trip.
Chicago has many, many museums, sports stadiums, and lots of restaurants.
What Chicago lacks in natural beauty it totally makes up for by offering many activities throughout the day.
That said, Chicago still has beaches with great views of the skyline. If you want to combine a midwest feeling with the big city – and sand, check them out here.
People looking for a blend of getting away from it all and being not far from the city can also find lots of camping places near Chicago, which is a nice Midwest benefit.
East Coast Road Trips
Miami to Key West
The best part about traveling to Florida – especially south Florida, is that there is plenty to do, and lots of colors to take in.
Miami itself has loads of color, design, and even museums to look at while passing through.
You’ll also have many opportunities to eye the Atlantic ocean and many public beaches to visit.
Keep headed south till you literally can’t and get to Key West, Florida. Sandy beaches await – along with tropical drinks and palm trees.
This is a perfect getaway from cold weather, as it will be just about always warm and sunny. From there, adventures are limitless with snorkeling, glass-bottom boats, and reef tours.
Thankfully, this drive also isn’t very long at just over 100 miles, so you could easily head north too.
Regardless of where you are traveling from (admittedly probably Florida!) Charleston provides southern hospitality and charm with beautiful architecture and an ocean nearby.
Historic Fort Sumter is also fairly close, along with other Civil War sites that might interest those interested in southern history.
Blue Ridge Parkway
You might not think about it – but the southeast does have mountains.
The Blue Ridge Parkway winds through the Blue Ridge mountains and touches Virginia, North Carolina, and connects with the Great Smoky Mountains and the Shenandoah National Park.
There are plenty of small towns and shops to visit along the way and many restaurants for traditional southern cooking.
New England is prettier than you might think.
In the summer, you can enjoy clean public beaches. In the fall, explosions of colorful leaves rival the midwest.
Try visiting Portsmouth, New Hampshire for a fresh seaside dinner.
Maine is also gorgeous in the early to late fall and offers ample opportunities for hikes.
Maryland’s Ocean City and Washington DC are well worth visiting for the history, and of course, fresh Maryland crabs.
Maine itself makes a nice, leisurely road trip.
Dotted with lighthouses on its eastern coast, Maine also has beautiful forests for a quiet trip, along with many campsites to stay at, and historic bed and breakfasts.
Maine offers good views of the Atlantic, though its rocky coastline lends more to elevated views than beaches – though you can indeed find a nice clean, sandy beach.
Southern Road Trips
Some might call Kentucky south, some might call it east. We call it unique.
Kentucky is home to the bourbon trail. Like wine country, the Bourbon Trail offers easy access to rolling green hills and whiskey distilleries.
These make learning about whiskey-making interesting in the backdrop of the rural countryside that makes it best.
The Gulf Coast Road Trip
A southern road trip wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the gulf coast.
Thankfully, it’s readily accessible in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana through New Orleans, and Texas.
The Gulf Coast offers more access to fresh seafood, some serious nightlife in New Orleans, and loads of farm country and city.
You’ll also have access to beaches all over, in many cases, without the crowds of more touristy beaches in Florida.
Many of the beaches along the way are quiet and calm with few waves, which are perfect for young kids.
The Great River Road Trip
This is probably the longest road trip we’ll suggest, and it brings you south.
Start near the headwaters of the Mississippi in Minnesota.
Pass through St Louis and see the Gateway Arch and load up on old-fashioned BBQ.
Of the nearly 2,500 miles of road trip, there is so much to do we can’t include all of it here, just know that you can follow the river all the way to an ocean.
The best part might be ending in New Orleans, with plenty of French culture, beaches, and great food.
Given the sprawling size of Texas, there are unlimited possibilities.
Especially with multiple major metros, sports teams, coasts, and lots of history.
Texas even has a smaller, less busy “version” of the Grand Canyon if you want to see beautiful, natural rock formations without too much tourist hubbub.
We’ll call the Grand Canyon south.
The Grand Canyon is a rather popular family road trip complete with hiking opportunities and plenty of natural sights that kids will understand and marvel at.
With surrounding states in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona, you’ll find plenty of small-town entertainment in the area too on the way to and from.
How long should I take for a road trip?
To keep a leisurely pace, try to plan an extra day for your road trip.
That way, you’ll have plenty of time to explore, disconnect from home, and find yourself in the moment without thinking about rushing back right away.
Some road trips like the Alaskan highway take longer because you are literally covering more distance, so consider consulting with a map program to see the actual miles you put in.
It’s also a good idea to ensure your vehicle is in proper maintenance to avoid serious delays because of an engine malfunction.
When Is The Best Time Of Year To Take An American Road Trip?
If you have kids, summer or spring break is a great time to go on a roadtrip.
Kids might also appreciate some eastern road trips with beaches and fall colors.
The rest is up to you – the midwest will be cold in the winter and the south will be hot in the winter.
Bring extra layers and sunscreen!
When booking lodging, try to find deals for last-second bookings. You’ll probably make a last-second booking or two when driving and getting tired.
Get plenty of rest – it makes travel easier.
Which American road trip destinations are the cheapest?
While staying in hotels, eating, and using plenty of gas on the road you are probably wondering which trips are most cost-effective.
The easy answer is the south, where gas and lodging typically cost less than other parts of the country.
Of course, if you have to travel to get to the south, you might want to consider traveling a little closer because the extra miles won’t help your fuel budget.
We also suggest looking into rewards programs and fuel discounts to help along the way.
Thankfully, paying a bit more for gas is still probably hundreds of dollars cheaper than taking a flight way too early in the morning or way too late.