Special Report

The Best Road Trips to Take Before Summer Ends

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COVID-related lockdowns closed the borders of many countries, severely restricting our opportunities for international travel. Luckily for those who’ve got the travel bug, there are over four million miles of roads within the United States. That translates to nearly endless opportunities for road-tripping through a multitude of landscapes. Deserts, prairies, mountains, and seaside cliffs are just a few of the sights that a summer road trip can offer. 

Reviewing suggested itineraries on such sites as Condé Nast Traveler and Wanderlust Crew, as well as multiple travel guides, 24/7 Tempo selected the best summer road trips around the United States, with a few routes that dip into Canada (which is opening its border to fully vaccinated American travelers in August). Only trips longer than 300 miles were selected, because a road trip by definition involves more than an easy day’s drive.  

National Parks make perfect road trip destinations, and a few of the best routes will allow travellers to visit multiple ones in a single trip. A drive from Jackson, Wyoming, to St. Mary, Montana, for example, traverses Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks. Here are the most visited National Parks in 2020.

Click here to see the best road trips to take before summer ends

Some trips focus less on natural sights and instead offer a cultural experience. A drive from Nashville to New Orleans via Memphis is a musical immersion that provides dozens of opportunities to explore country music, the roots of blues, and the birthplace of jazz. A trip down old Route 66 will reveal small-town relics of the once-popular motorist thruway, including vintage gas stations, vernacular architecture, and old-fashioned diners — and be sure to keep an eye out for the strangest roadside attraction in every state.

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Big Island Loop Road
> Start: Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
> End: Mauna Kea, Hawaii
> Total miles: 300

This loop takes you along the west coast of the Big Island, down to the southern tip, then back up the east side to the Mauna Kea volcano. Along the way, stop at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, see the waterfalls and rainforest zoo at Wailuku River State Park, and relax on the black sands of Punalu’u Beach. The diverse landscapes, stunning flora, and lava fields will keep you occupied for days.

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Olympic Peninsula
> Start: Seattle, Washington
> End: Seattle, Washington
> Total miles: 300

A perfect round trip opportunity from Seattle, the Olympic Peninsula contains lush temperate rainforest, quiet beaches, and charming coastal towns. Spend a day exploring historic Port Townsend, then head into Olympic National Park where you’ll be greeted by roadside lakes and waterfalls, or take a coastal drive to the stunning rock formations of Neah Bay and Cape Flattery on the Makah Reservation. Don’t miss some of the world’s largest trees in the Quinault Rainforest.

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Blue Ridge Parkway
> Start: Afton, Virginia
> End: Cherokee, North Carolina
> Total miles: 312

Starting at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway winds its way through the Appalachian Mountains to the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina with more scenic overlooks than you’ll be able to count. Caverns, waterfalls, preserved historic sites, and diverse forests await. Stop at the Natural Bridge, Linville Falls, and Mount Mitchell — the highest peak on the Eastern Seaboard. For Appalachian cultural immersion, try the Blue Ridge Music Center or the Southern Highland Folk Center.

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Oregon Coast Highway 101
> Start: Seaside, Oregon
> End: Brookings, Oregon
> Total miles: 321

This single-state stretch of coastal highway could be driven in a day, but why cheat yourself? Dozens of state parks, recreation areas, and beaches offer rugged coastal views, historic lighthouses, forested hikes, sand dunes, and waterfalls that flow into the ocean. Don’t miss the Yaquina Head Marine Garden, the dramatic overlook at Cape Perpetua, and Cape Arago State Park. For an otherworldly experience, check out Thor’s Well, a rock formation that seems to drain the ocean water that washes into it.

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Natchez Trace Parkway
> Start: Nashville, Tennessee
> End: Natchez, Mississippi
> Total miles: 444

History buffs will love this culturally rich trip along the Natchez Trace Parkway, a historic trail first used by American Indians and then by the Kaintucks — boatmen who floated trade goods down the Mississippi in the early 19th century. Several ancient ceremonial and burial mounds line the parkway and multiple museums, including the Smith Robertson Museum, highlight black history in the area. Be sure to stop in Vicksburg — where tradition says the Mississippi Delta (not the same as the delta of the Mississippi River) ends — to check out the Civil War battlefield and the Coca-Cola museum.

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I-15
> Start: Las Vegas, Nevada
> End: Salt Lake City, Utah
> Total miles: 420

Who said that Interstate Highways have to be boring? From the neon lights of Las Vegas to the Great Salt Lake in Utah, I-15 provides a convenient passageway to some of the grandest sights in the Southwest. Stop to see the Hoover Dam at Lake Mead, and the stunning red rock cliffs and fertile river chasms of Zion National Park, or detour to see the rock spires at Bryce Canyon. Hiking and camping opportunities are abundant along the way in the Dixie, Fishlake, Manti-La Sal, or Uinta Wasatch-Cache National Forests.

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Alaska Pipeline
> Start: Homer, Alaska
> End: Valdez, Alaska
> Total miles: 519

At the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, Homer is a great place to spot whales and other wildlife. From there, the drive up the coast features volcano views, a historic Russian fur trader village, and a dump where hundreds of bald eagles tend to congregate. Pass through old gold-mining towns and fishing villages, then continue on from Anchorage to Valdez, witnessing mountains that rise to 14,000 feet, ancient glaciers, and the waterfalls in Keystone Canyon.

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El Camino Sierra
> Start: Joshua Tree National Park
> End: Lake Tahoe, California
> Total miles: 527

California Route 395 runs from the deserts of Southern California near Joshua Tree National Park into the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, passing by such well-known destinations as Death Valley, Mammoth Lakes, Yosemite, Mono Lake, and Lake Tahoe. If exploring jaw-dropping national parks isn’t enough, you can visit the Alabama Hills in Lone Pine, where dozens of Western movies have been filmed, or the ancient bristlecone pines in the White-Inyo Mountains — said to be the oldest trees in the world.

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Seafood Trail
> Start: Portland, Maine
> End: Prince Edward Island, Canada
> Total miles: 543

Route 1 follows the Maine coastline on what is sometimes called the Lobster Trail. From Portland, where lobsters and art are plentiful, head up the coast through Maine’s many idyllic oceanside towns to Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park. From there, the towns are fewer and far between, and the coastline is king. Cross the Canadian border in New Brunswick and drive along the Bay of Fundy, being sure to stop at the geologic wonder, Hopewell Rocks. Cross the massive Federation Bridge to Prince Edward Island, and end at Cavendish Beach, where more seafood awaits.

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Northwest National Parks Tour
> Start: Jackson, Wyoming
> End: Glacier National Park, Montana
> Total miles: 558

Starting in Jackson, head into Grand Teton National Park, stopping to hike at Jenny Lake amongst the towering peaks of the Tetons. From there, make your way to Yellowstone National Park. Don’t miss the rainbow waters of the Grand Prismatic Spring and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Detour to Bozeman or Missoula for refreshments, then head to Glacier National Park and take one of the most scenic drives in the country along Going to the Sun Road, where you’ll see alpine lakes, cliffs, wildflowers, and some of the last glaciers in the park.

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Wild West Tour
> Start: Taos, New Mexico
> End: Bisbee, Arizona
> Total miles: 579

The Wild West tour takes you from one of the oldest continually inhabited communities in the United States — Taos Pueblo, a pre-Columbian settlement — to the old mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. From Taos, head north for the scenic route through Carson National Forest, then south to Santa Fe, a city known for its arts and architecture. After visiting the famous Santa Fe farmers market, head to Caballo Reservoir then turn west on Route 152 to Silver City, through the Gila National Forest, where you can explore hot springs, ancient cliff dwellings, and high desert landscapes. In Arizona, stop at Tombstone, home of the O.K. Corral, for a gunfight reenactment before ending at Bisbee.

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Musical Road USA Trip
> Start: Nashville, Tennessee
> End: New Orleans, Louisiana
> Total miles: 600

For a total musical immersion, start by exploring the dozens of country music venues in Nashville. Hop over to Memphis to tour Elvis’s Graceland and his recording room at Sun Studio, as well as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Beale Street blues clubs. Then head down the Blues Highway (Route 61) to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and stop at the Delta Blues Museum and the Crossroads, where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar skills. End your trip in New Orleans, where jazz spills into the streets.

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Southwest National Parks Tour
> Start: Grand Canyon National Park (North Rim), Arizona
> End: Moab, Utah
> Total miles: 600

This epic tour of the Southwest takes you to five National Parks, starting with a breathtaking view at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. From there, head to Zion National Park for a river hike beneath towering cliffs. Don’t skip out on Bryce Canyon and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where colorful stripes of sandstone create a landscape straight out of a painting. Finally head to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks to view more mind-boggling geologic wonders. Who knew that red rocks came in so many shapes and varieties?

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Pacific Northwest Coast
> Start: San Juan Islands, Washington
> End: Brookings, Oregon
> Total miles: 687

From rainforest to sand dunes to oceanside cliffs, this drive has a bit of everything. Begin on Orcas Island in the San Juans by driving up Mount Constitution for a great view. Leave by ferry and head into Olympic National Park, where you can walk in the Hoh rainforest, one of the largest temperate rainforests in the country. Then take Highway 101 into Oregon, where the coastal scenery astounds at every bend. Stop at Sea Lion Caves, Ecola State Park, or the Oregon Dunes and don’t miss the cliff views at Otter Point and Cape Sebastian.

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Desert Rocks Trail
> Start: Prescott, Arizona
> End: Moab, Utah
> Total miles: 594

Beginning in the lively city of Prescott, Arizona, take route 89A through the Black Hills and stop for lunch and a 100-mile view in the historic mining town of Jerome, which is built into a steep mountainside. Head onward to Sedona for stunning red rock views and take a dip in Oak Creek Canyon. Fuel up in Flagstaff because next is a series of desert landmarks. After peering over the south rim of the Grand Canyon, head north to see the striped red sandstone formations at Vermillion Cliffs National Monument and Antelope Canyon. Drive east into the Navajo Monument Valley for iconic rock formations, and end by visiting Arches National Park in Moab, Utah.

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Michigan Coast
> Start: Holland, Michigan
> End: Potawatomi Falls, Michigan
> Total miles: 733

This trip along Lake Michigan and Lake Superior passes waterfalls, sand dunes, lighthouses, cliffs, and so many beaches. Beginning at the Big Red Lighthouse in Holland, skirt the coast and visit several more historic lighthouses and Sleeping Bear Dunes before stopping in Suttons Bay to visit one of the area’s cider makers. Then follow the scenic coast to the Upper Peninsula, heading to Tahquamenon Falls State Park. Seven potential waterfall stops lie to the west before you reach Potawatomi Falls on the Black River Scenic Byway.

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Pacific Coast Highway
> Start: Crescent City, California
> End: San Diego, California
> Total miles: 988

Highway 101 south from Crescent City takes you through some of California’s best giant redwood forests. In Leggett, hop on Highway 1 to the coast, where you’ll drive along cliffs of blooming wildflowers, and can stop at the Little River Blowhole, a sinkhole that fills with ocean waves at high tide. Hiking options along the way include the short Gualala Bluff Trail or a jaunt around Big Sur. Stop to marvel at the Golden Gate Bridge, and as you continue south, don’t miss the beach towns of Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and La Jolla.

Loneliest Road
> Start: Pueblo, Colorado
> End: South Lake Tahoe, California
> Total miles: 1,066

U.S. Route 50 runs coast to coast from Ocean City, Maryland to Sacramento, California, but the scenery peaks through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to the iconic Nevada corridor known as the Loneliest Road in America. Worthwhile stops are the painted rocks of Black Canyon in Gunnison National Park and the dramatic views at Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area. Finish off by exploring the high mountain peaks surrounding Lake Tahoe.

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Southern Gems
> Start: Charleston, South Carolina
> End: Nashville, Tennessee via New Orleans
> Total miles: 1,358

For an entertainment-themed road trip with endless bars, restaurants, and live music venues, take this Southern route that starts in the charming historic city of Charleston, with its cobblestone streets and distinctive Gullah cuisine. Head down the coast to Savannah and bask in the shade of picturesque oak tree tunnels at Wormsloe, then cruise to New Orleans for live jazz, street performers, and boiled crawfish. From there head up Route 61 — the Blues Highway — through Mississippi to Memphis and Nashville, stopping at the many blues museums and clubs along the way.

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Alaska Highway
> Start: Dawson’s Creek, British Columbia
> End: Fairbanks, Alaska
> Total miles: 1,459

Winding through the northlands of British Columbia, the Alaska Highway traverses the Rocky Mountains, then continues into the rugged Yukon Territory, touching on countless lakes and pristine wilderness. Don’t miss the Liard River Hot Springs and Muncho Lake in B.C., and Miles Canyon and the historic capital city of Whitehorse in the Yukon. The highway ends in the Alaskan Tanana Valley, but for an epic finale, continue on from Fairbanks to Denali National Park.

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Canada To Mexico
> Start: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
> End: Tijuana, Mexico
> Total miles: 2,300

If time is on your side, try this triple-country road trip that takes you from the diverse Canadian seaport town of Vancouver to the bustling Mexican beach town of Tijuana. On the way, stay a few days in both Seattle and Portland, dining and sightseeing. Stop at the 620-foot Multnomah Falls and the deepest lake in the United States — Crater Lake. Then head to Lassen Volcanic Park before exploring wine country, then hitting the California coast for a long and often scenic drive to the border.

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Route 66
> Start: Chicago, Illinois
> End: Santa Monica, California
> Total miles: 2,500

Before the Interstate, there was the Mother Road, Route 66. Spanning eight states between Chicago and Santa Monica, the former “Main Street of America” is dotted with Americana: vintage gas stations, diners, drive-in theaters, and a diverse array of roadside attractions. You won’t be able to miss the muffler man in Springfield, Illinois, the huge milk bottle in Oklahoma City, or Cadillac Ranch, in Amarillo, Texas. Natural wonders also abound, like the Petrified Forest in Arizona and the Amboy Crater in California.

Route 50
> Start: Ocean City, Maryland
> End: Sacramento, California
> Total miles: 2,862

Beginning on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and ending in California’s Central Valley, Route 50 reveals not only the incredibly diverse topography of the U.S., but also the distinctive regional cuisine of 12 states, from down-home Appalachian comfort foods, to the beef-centric dishes of ranch country, to the Mexicali delights of central California. Stop and appreciate the towering mountains, big skies, deep canyons, and lonely deserts that this country has to offer.

Great River Road
> Start: Bemidji, Minnesota
> End: New Orleans, Louisiana
> Total miles: 3,000

Following the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota through 10 states, the Great River Road National Scenic Byway traverses wild countryside, canyons, farmland, cities, and hundreds of small towns in the heart of America. Cross Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans off your bucket list in one trip, and visit some of the numerous Native American archaeological sites along the way.

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I-90
> Start: Boston, Massachusetts
> End: Seattle, Washington
> Total miles: 3,000

This trip across the northern United States follows America’s longest Interstate Highway. After exploring historic Boston, head up to Niagara Falls. Stop in Chicago and Madison for urban adventuring through museums, botanical gardens, and theaters. Stretch your legs at the Dells of the Wisconsin River, Sioux Falls in South Dakota, and Badlands National Park, then take your pic from Bighorn, Custer Gallatin, or Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forests. In Seattle, take advantage of some of the city’s world-class eateries.

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