All Articles 8 incredible US road trips to take this summer

8 incredible US road trips to take this summer

Cue up "Life is a Highway" for these stellar drives.

Erika Owen
Shayla Martin
By Erika Owen and Shayla Martin7 Jun 2024 10 minutes read
Woman standing next to open car door with view of desert landscape, in Utah
Image: piola666/Getty Images

There is perhaps no journey more quintessentially summer than the road trip—windows down, snacks on deck, playlist in action. The U.S. offers up a world of landscapes to explore on four wheels, so we spoke to eight road-trippers on their favorite summertime routes, plus their biggest tips for fellow drivers taking on the same drive. From a national park–packed itinerary and a top-down cruise along California’s Highway 1 to a family road trip from Orlando to Houston, there is sure to be some inspiration for your next open-road adventure ahead.

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Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway

Late afternoon sunshine on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Image: Joel Carillet/Getty Images

Meet the road trippers:

  • Hannah Huber (she/her), William Farrell (he/him), and Jasper, the poodle
  • Hometown: Richmond, VA
  • Number of nights: 14

For this trip, we drove our Airstream from Richmond, VA through some of the Blue Ridge Parkway and dipped down into the Smoky Mountains before hitting our final destination, Louisville, KY. I built this route based on landmarks we wanted to see and less-traveled roads that allowed us to pull over and take in the views as we found them. We ended up driving through spots like Bristol, VA; Ashville, NC; Pigeon Forge, TN; and Nashville, TN.

Why it’s our summer fave: This route is stunning year-round, but the good summer weather makes it possible to explore adorable towns (big and small, many of which host quaint festivals in the summertime), local farm stands, and pretty scenery.

How we balanced spontaneity with planning: Traveling with an Airstream allowed us to comfortably stop for longer stints. My advice is to mentally tack on three to four hours to your drive time each day to allow for spontaneous pull-offs.

Our biggest tip for other road trippers: There will be lots of people on the road and lots of sightseers who are not thinking about the cars around them when they pull over. Stay alert and don't underestimate the steep and winding roads! Drive like you're cooking barbecue—take it low and slow.

Don’t miss: The Foothills Parkway Scenic Drive toward Pigeon Forge is a stunning view of the Smoky Mountains.

An art-filled route from Austin to St. Louis

Exterior of Crystal Bridges, in Bentonville, Arkansas
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Image: Courtesy of Crystal Bridges

Meet the road trippers

  • Lily Sullivan (she/her) and Megan McNeer (she/her)
  • Hometown: Brooklyn, NY, and Los Angeles (respectively)
  • Number of nights: 4

My friend Megan flew into Austin—I had been in Texas for a wedding—and we rented a car. The goal was to show each other our hometowns. We made our way to Dallas from Austin, and then to Tulsa, where Megan is from. Then we cut across to Bentonville, AK—home to Walmart's HQ—before finishing in St. Louis, where my family lives. Along the way, we were on the hunt for art in unusual or surprising places.

Why it’s my summer fave: This sounds so silly, but the spirit of America is alive on this road trip. There were fireworks stands on the roads. Everyone had hot dogs. It was quintessentially summer.

How I balanced spontaneity with planning: I try to have tentpole things that I want to do each day, and then allow for some time following my nose in between—like my mother would say: braking for yard sales. Megan and I have a similar way of thinking when it comes to travel, too. For example: We knew we would have to find three meals every day—some were nice places we made reservations for and others were a Jimmy John's at a truck stop.

Our biggest tip for other road trippers: Take more days to do the trip. We really breezed through Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, but I would have spent a whole day in Bentonville. We just drove in, visited the museum, had food, and drove out. That’s not usually how I like to experience places—I want more context. We were definitely too ambitious with the timing.

Don’t miss: Crystal Bridges. I first heard about the museum in college in a magazine profile talking about its history. An anonymous buyer was spending hundreds of millions of dollars on art and no one knew where it was going. When the museum in Bentonville was announced, I was like, I have to see it. I know what art museums are like in New York City or Tokyo, but I wanted to know what going to something like Dia Beacon feels like in the middle of Arkansas. And it was incredible—to start, there's this giant Louise Bourgeois spider to greet you, and the museum is on a river.

A road trip through the West’s national parks

Bison crossing in Yellowstone National Park
Image: Roman Lukiw Photography/Getty Images

Meet the road trippers

  • Lauren Herndon (they/them) and Laura Delarato (she/her)
  • Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
  • Number of nights: 14

We started in Salt Lake City and cut north through some of the national parks (Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and some national forests). Our road trip ended in Kalispell, MT, which is the closest major city to Glacier National Park and a great home base for exploring the park.

Why it’s our summer fave: This is a great trip for the summer because of the volume of things you can do. While you do have to contend with larger crowds, planning ahead and prioritizing some of the lesser-known national forests nearby really makes it stand out.

How we balanced spontaneity with planning: We planned to stay at least 2-3 days in each place we stopped along the route, which allowed for a good mix of pre-planned activities (making reservations in advance are crucial in the summer months) and the more spontaneous stuff that we learned about through fellow travelers and locals.

Our biggest tip for other road trippers: Read through all of the national park and forest websites for info on road closures, permit requirements, and more. Don’t sleep on the permits: visiting in the summer requires a lot of pre-planning to get those passes. I would also recommend reading reviews (filtering for most recent) for detailed directions to certain points of interest—Google can frequently send you to a different location.

Don’t miss: Take a float trip down the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. It was a breathtaking experience that gave me such a different look into areas of the park that you wouldn't normally see—plus, you're away from the crowds.

A slow drive on Route 66

Blue Swallow Motel, along historic Route 66, Tucumcari, New Mexico
Image: miroslav_1/Getty Images

Meet the road trippers

  • Megan Bannister (she/her) and Josh Petersen (he/him)
  • Hometown: Des Moines, Iowa
  • Number of nights: 17

My husband and I drove the entire length of historic Route 66, which spans 2,448 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, CA. While you can definitely do this trip in more or less time, we spent almost three weeks on the road driving through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

Why it’s our summer fave: Summer is the perfect time for a Route 66 road trip not only because of the beautiful weather but also so you can make the most of visiting attractions and businesses that have more seasonal hours. Plus, what feels more quintessentially summer than the classic Americana of Route 66?

How we balanced spontaneity with planning: I'm a big planner because I want to make sure that I have plenty to see along the way, but some of my favorite road trip memories have come from deciding to follow a sign or billboard on the side of the road. With Route 66, just be sure to plan ahead if you want to stay at the classic motels along the route—reservations in advance are a must.

Our biggest tip for other road trippers: Don’t feel like you have to commit to staying along the "original" route. Especially if you're short on time, there's no shame in taking a detour for convenience or cruising along the interstate for a bit to get to your next stop.

Don’t miss: Stay in a retro motel somewhere along the route! There are plenty to choose from depending on which state you're in, but some of my absolute favorites include the Boots Court Motel in Carthage, MO; the Motel Safari in Tucumcari, NM; and the historic El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, NM.

A road trip through Utah’s national parks

Hiker at Jacob Hamblin Arch, in Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument, Utah
Jacob Hamblin Arch
Image: kojihirano/Getty Images

Meet the road trippers

  • Andrea (she/her) and Jeff Stagg (he/him)
  • Hometown: Westfield, NJ
  • Number of nights: 9

We were living in Washington D.C. at the time and flew from Dulles to Las Vegas, before driving to Springdale, Utah, which was our base for Zion National Park. From there we went to Tropic for Bryce Canyon, to Torrey for Grand Escalante and Capitol Reef, then Moab for Canyonlands and Arches, and finally to Denver.

Why it’s our summer fave: Sunshine and blue skies plus the orange of those Utah national parks is magic—I felt like I was on another planet. Plus, we got to enjoy a Rockies game when we got to Denver.

How we balanced spontaneity with planning: We had our lodging reserved but kept flexibility for what each day looked like—do we spend more time in the park that’s nearby, or hit the road to the next stop? If the weather seemed right for it, maybe we'd take some sunrise photos. We also listened to our bodies when picking our hiking routes—sometimes your body says: do less.

Our biggest tip for other road trippers: We were not totally prepared for how bad the road is over to the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. It’s called Hole in the Rock Road (which should have been a red flag) and I seriously thought our rental car was going to fall apart; to say it was unpaved is an understatement. I would bring more provisions to that part of the park—it has zero services. More water and food would have given me comfort.

Don’t miss: Grand Staircase Escalante—do not sleep on it. It's not as well known as Arches, but those slot canyons are awesome.

A convertible-friendly Highway 1 drive

Aerial shot of Pacific Coast Highway 1, outside San Francisco, California
Image: Frederick Thelen/Getty Images

Meet the road trippers

  • Tatiana Uschakow (she/her) and Alex Hovi (he/him)
  • Hometown: New York, NY
  • Number of nights: 1

My brother and I picked up a rental convertible (definitely rent a convertible) from SFO, then immediately headed to Highway 1 on the coast, taking it all the way from the Bay Area down to LA.

Why it’s my summer fave: The majority of the route is right on cliffs along the ocean and it's just magical view after magical view. We stopped dozens of times to take pictures of the coast. You get sun, fog, cold, heat, beach, forest, and tiny towns—all the facets of California in one trip.

How I balanced spontaneity with planning: My coworker who grew up in Arroyo Grande gave me an extensive list of sights and restaurants. My brother and I went back and forth over email (he lives in Chicago) about the places we wanted to hit, but agreed to stop for anything along the way that one of us wanted to. There was a decent amount of decision-making about what to hit next while we were stopped in traffic or small towns.

My biggest tip for other road trippers: You will definitely lose cell phone service more than once, so having a paper map is huge. Bring layers, as it will get cold, even in summer. And be warned that around Santa Barbara, there will be cops looking for a reason to pull over a convertible (my brother's first-ever ticket).

Don’t miss: The turn-offs on the coast are must-sees. Yes, the actual driving down the coast is magical, but take as many scenic stops as you can to just stand, breathe in the air, listen to the ocean.

A family-friendly road trip from Orlando to Houston

Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, in Galveston, Texas
Image: DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images

Meet the road trippers

  • Lenneia (she/her), Jonathan (he/him), Ava (she/her), and Aria Elmore (3) (she/her)
  • Hometown: Orlando
  • Number of nights: 1

The south has a booming beach culture that mixes southern seafood cuisine with cool beach vibes—I love it. This route along I-10 is a great way to see the panhandle of Florida and the Gulf Coast’s beaches. We split it over 2 days, but you could extend it for much longer.

Why it’s my summer fave: Living in Orlando, beaches like Miami and Clearwater get a lot of attention, but there’s a special Southern culture–meets-beach vibe in the panhandle, so you're able to find shrimp and grits on just about every menu. You also see a lot of different terrain, from the Gulf Coast's beachy cities to Louisiana’s super flat land and Creole and Black cowboy culture. It's cool to see a multifaceted view of the South.

How I balanced spontaneity with planning: I have two young kids so we really can't plan too much because we don't know how it's going to turn out. We knew we wanted to experience a Gulf Coast beach so we booked a hotel right around Gulf Shores, AL, to stay overnight and enjoy the sand. I also wanted my kids to see where my parents went to school at Southern University so we headed to Baton Rouge to visit campus and see that culture. This route really awed me as a kid, driving from Atlanta to Louisiana with my family, and so I was able to tell my daughters stories from my childhood along the way.

My biggest tip for other road trippers: Be sure to check how close your hotel is to where you want to be. One of our hotels, the Courtyard by Marriott Gulf Shores Craft Farms, was in the Gulf Shores area, but not actually near the main beach where the boardwalk and shops are. We got there pretty late at night and spent a lot of time driving through a dark area to find our hotel. In hindsight, I would've done a little bit more research because we still had to drive about 20 to 30 minutes over into the main area of the beach.

Don’t miss: New Orleans is great, but Baton Rouge has a really deep history—it’s well worth a visit. Be sure to visit the campuses of both Southern University and LSU.

Driving Maine’s coast

Sailboat at sunrise, on Deer Isle, Maine
Image: Peter Knight/Getty Images

Meet the road tripper

  • Rebecca Fisher
  • Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
  • Number of nights: 12

My then-girlfriend and I drove from Philadelphia to Damariscotta, Maine, for their oysters in one big stretch up I-95 and I-84, before road-tripping along the water to Camden, Deer Isle, and then finally to Pembroke.

Why it’s my summer fave: Maine is such an incredible destination over the summer—it’s beautiful and there's plenty to see (and eat). Laid back and fun to explore, this is an easy trip for East Coasters.

How I balanced spontaneity with planning: We’d book two nights at a hotel and then leave two nights open to book last-minute. This gave us the flexibility to stay put for an extra two days—or stop somewhere in between on our way to our next stop.

My biggest tip for other road trippers: You can go decent distances without seeing anyone, so have a spare tireb and know how to change it. (A flat tire in rural Maine is no joke! AAA never showed up after we got one.) I also recommend getting a portable jump starter if you're going on a road trip, especially up north. Once you get North past Acadia National Park, you're going to be on your own on the road.

Don’t miss: Deer Isle, a beautiful little island off the coast of Maine, was pure magic and is a must seen. With charming scenic roads, sweet coffee shops, and a laid back atmosphere, I can't recommend it enough.

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Erika Owen
Erika Owen is a Brooklyn-based writer and self-described Iceland enthusiast. She is also the author of The Art of Flaneuring: How to Wander with Intention and Discover a Better Life, Lawbreaking Ladies: 50 Tales of Daring, Defiant, and Dangerous Women from History, and Fodor's Essential Iceland.
Shayla Martin
Shayla Martin is an award-winning travel and culture journalist based in Washington, D.C. Find her work in outlets including The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Coastal Living, Hemispheres, Veranda Magazine, and many more. She is also the founder of The Road We Trod, a bi-weekly newsletter that explores travel destinations through the Black gaze.