8 instagrammable U.S. road trips to take this summer
With warmer weather finally here, it’s the perfect time to hit the road and go on a trip. Whether you go on a weekend-long one or spend a week or two away from home, there are plenty of scenic and extremely instagrammable road trip routes to choose from. As they say, “it’s the journey, not the destination” — and road trips embody that perfectly. Depending on how much time you have and which area of the U.S. you want to explore, you can either begin from your current city or fly/bus/train to another one, then rent a car or RV. (Or you can always rent a trailer from places such as Happier Camper.)
According to Travel Channel’s Summer Travel Forecast survey among 2,078 adults aged 18-54, more than half of Americans don’t feel the need to take one momentous summer vacation. Instead, 53 percent plan to take weekend trips monthly or more and 55 percent said they’d prefer taking several summer weekend getaways versus a momentous summer vacation. As far as hopping in the car and getting away, 81 percent of respondents said they’d love to take a road trip, which increased to 87 percent among those with kids.
Jillian St. Charles, SVP of digital programming + video for Home and Travel at Discovery Digital Studios, thinks making time to take a break from busy work and life schedules is important. “Getting away from your daily grind — and yes, your screens and devices — even for just a few days, can give you a whole new perspective and actually make you feel refreshed,” she said in an email. “This is especially true in spring after feeling trapped indoors all winter.”
St. Charles said that one reason to choose a road trip is that you’re more in control of the timing and what you can do — and when. “If you want to stop and run through a field of wildflowers, you just pull over and go for it; keeping a schedule loose is not so easy if you’re flying,” she said. Plus, on non-holiday weekends in the spring, she said you may be able to get a last-minute campsite at a national or state park, or a hotel reservation in a small city, easier than you could in the summer. “Although a lot of people save weeklong road trips for summer, if you’re not bound by school or work schedules, the shoulder seasons of spring and fall offer just as much opportunity to get away — but with fewer crowds, better gas prices and (potentially) less sunburn,” said St. Charles.
If you need more road trip inspiration, here are some ideas to get you started.
California Coast, L.A. to San Francisco (or anyplace in between): Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1)
If you’re in California and have never driven the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as the PCH or Highway 1, it’s a must for your road trip to-do list. You can either go along the entire coast, from L.A. to San Francisco (or vice-versa), which is about 500 miles, or choose an end destination along the way. There are countless things to see and do, from the charming Santa Barbara Mission and nearby wine-tasting locations, wherein you can recreate scenes from the movie Sideways, to visiting Hearst Castle in San Simeon and the famous legendary prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco.
“I’d highly recommend the PCH (Hwy 1), especially with the spring foliage and flowers that you’ll find throughout the countryside of California and along the coast,” Ty Newcomb, a photographer who often road-trips, said in an email. “And, if you are coming from the East, I’d recommend going through Death Valley on the way to California; it’s otherworldly landscapes and unique geology are sure to impress even the toughest of destination critics and naysayers alike.” He said that Zabriske Point and Eureka Dunes are two must-see locations. “And if you’re lucky while you’re out exploring these spots, you’ll be buzzed by some very low-flying fighter jets that regularly rip through the valley,” said Newcomb.
Inland California, the western edge of Nevada and up to Washington: U.S. 395
Another road trip-worthy route that’s partially in California is U.S. 395, which extends 557 miles from the Mojave Desert at Interstate 15 and goes north up to the U.S.-Canada border near Laurier, Washington. Whether you stop by the Sierra Nevada and check out the tree tunnels or see (or climb) Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States there’s no shortage of picturesque landscapes. Or, you can simply pull over at night to stargaze. Plus, the route is iconic when it comes to backdrops for films, such as High Sierra.
“Route 395 is a popular passage to some of the most beautiful and varied terrain found off any U.S. highway, but there’s so much to miss if you simply drive through it,” Jan Vandermade, executive director at Visit Carson Valley, said in an email. “This winding and scenic highway skirts the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, entering the state of Nevada at Topaz Lake, and winding through the scenic region of Carson Valley before returning to California.” For perspective, Carson Valley is about 20 minutes east of South Lake Tahoe and about an hour from Reno. “We like to say it’s the valley of legends, offering an abundance of wildlife, picturesque landscapes, hot springs, historical sites, an estate distillery that rivals anything found worldwide, vast ranchland, the oldest bar and settlement in Nevada and outdoor recreation aplenty,” said Vandermade.
Casper, Wyoming: From Hot Springs, SD, U.S. 18 West, then U.S. 85/U.S. 18 South, then Interstate 25 North of Glendo Reservoir
From South Dakota, you can continue into Wyoming — via U.S. 18 West, then U.S. 85/U.S. 18 South, then Interstate 25 North of Glendo Reservoir — to cities such as Casper. “Located in the center of the state, Casper is a place that many people pass through on their way to Yellowstone and Grand Teton to see wildlife — including bison and grizzly and black bears,” Brook Kaufman of Visit Casper said in an email. Kaufman said Casper is also at the epicenter of the fastest and most scenic route from Denver to northwest Wyoming. “Sitting along ‘The Road to Yellowstone,’ Casper offers travelers a hearty helping of culture and spring activities, including fly-fishing the blue-ribbon waters of the North Platte River and playing on Casper Mountain (hiking, biking, bird watching and more).” She said now is a perfect time to enjoy the ‘Cowboy State’ before the summer crowds arrive. However, you can also wait until June 7-15 when the College National Finals Rodeo takes place. “More than 400 cowboys and cowgirls arrive here from 100 colleges/universities to try their hand at being named the best in the country,” said Kaufman.
South Dakota: Interstate 90
South Dakota is a state you may not think to drive through, but once you do, you’ll be glad you did. During a cross-country road trip last fall, I drove from one end of South Dakota to the other and there’s many scenic roads to take off of Interstate 90. For instance, you can visit the Corn Palace in Mitchell (yes, it’s a palace made from actual corn, decorated differently each year!); stop at Wall Drug, a quirky roadside attraction; and get off Interstate 90 and take the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway (and doing so at sunset is amazing). Of course, you have to see Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills, too, as well as drive through at least one of the scenic routes in Custer State Park (Needles Highway is full of hairpin turns and beautiful rock formations while the Wildlife Loop allows you to see everything from prairie dogs to roaming bison). Before you leave the state, you can stop and relax in Hot Springs, a small city full of, yep, hot springs.
The Maine Highlands in Maine: State Routes 3 & 15
If you’re looking for a road trip on the East Coast, Maine is a viable option. “One ideal spring road trip route is in the heart of Maine,” Melanie Brooks, grant manager for The Maine Highlands, said in an email. “You can start from the well-known coastal town of Bar Harbor — and feel the downtown excitement of all the seasonal shops opening — and then take State Route 3 to The Maine Highlands region in Bangor.” This way, you can enjoy the shops before the hustle and bustle of summer, she said. “After quiet time and a hike or walk in Acadia National Park, head to Bangor for delicious brunch, then take State Route 15 North to Gulf Hagas; spring is one of the best times to visit one of the many waterfalls in The Maine Highlands region.”
Shenandoah Valley of Virginia: Blue Ridge Parkway and U.S. 11 or State Route 42 (driver’s choice!)
If you’re looking for amazing scenery, the Shenandoah Valley (also known as “The Big Valley”) is 200 miles’ worth across the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains in Virginia. “Most people think of the Shenandoah Valley for its spectacular fall foliage, but I would argue that spring is equally, if not more, beautiful,” Jenna French, director of tourism & economic development for Shenandoah County Tourism, said in an email. “In late April and early May, when the red buds are in bloom, you can’t drive a mile anywhere within the valley without spotting the gorgeous contrast of fuchsia against the vibrant bright green of emerging leaves; even the interstate is lined with blossoming red buds.” One road you can take is the Blue Ridge Parkway; French suggested avoiding Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park and, instead, said to explore the small towns, like Woodstock, along U.S. 11 or State Route 42. “This will give you the authentic flavor of life in the Shenandoah Valley, along with outstanding farm-to-table restaurants, local vineyards, craft breweries, local arts and major attractions, such as Shenandoah Caverns, the Virginia Museum of the Civil War and more.”
Tennessee Mountains: U.S. Route 321
Becky Beall, travel journalist and founder of The Travel Voice by Becky, recommended a southern road trip route through Tennessee via U.S. Route 321. “For a mountain route, begin in Loudon County, Tennessee, which has beautiful lakes and waterways offering scenic views of the countryside,” she said in an email. “Billed as the ‘Lakeway to the Smokies,’ you’ll see backroad backdrops that are flowering in the springtime.” Then, she said you can follow this same route to the Smoky Mountains, driving through towns like Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg (the ‘Gateway to the Smokies’). “Not only do the springtime blooms paint a gorgeous picture of a treasured southern destination, but the path to Tennessee’s amazing National Park also meanders through miles of southern culinary creations, awesome attractions (including sips of moonshine) and lodging choices ranging from secluded chalets to mountain resorts.”
Coastal Mississippi (& Alabama & Florida): U.S. 90
While you may not immediately think of Mississippi when you think of a scenic coastal route, that’s not true when it comes to taking a road trip along U.S. 90. “Year-round, it’s an absolutely beautiful trip along miles and miles of white sand and stunning coastal towns that have yet to really be discovered,” Anna Roy, media relations manager of Coastal Mississippi, said in an email. Highway 90 runs alongside the Gulf Coast for most of the way from the Louisiana border to Alabama, and there’s 12 coastal communities you can stop and explore, from harbor towns to walkable downtown areas. When you’re not driving, you can go out on the water in a replica of a Biloxi oyster schooner and watch dolphins or take a Biloxi Shrimping Trip, where a variety of marine life will be caught and explained, from shrimp to blue crabs. Or, you can simply go kayaking or take a ferry to Ship Island. Suffice it to say, exploring the Gulf Coast will be a way to balance your road trip time with coastline time, too.
Beall said you can also continue your journey and drive toward Alabama and Florida. “Enjoy fresh seafood straight from the Gulf, choose beach-front lodging and watch the sunrise over glorious emerald waters stretching across Alabama and throughout Florida’s Panhandle,” she said. And for white-sand beaches, travelers can explore Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, AL, too.