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The Great American Road Trip: an Itinerary for Driving Cross Country

I’ve taken a handful of cross country road trips over the years.  However, there are still a few cross country road trip ideas that remain on my bucket list:  riding a motorcycle cross country, taking one of America’s historic highways the whole way from coast to coast (US-50 is the most likely candidate), driving cross country on one of the northern routes, and driving a back roads loop around the country.  During the summers of 2020 & 2021 – in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic! – I managed to cross the latter two items off my list.

Well, sort of…  While the majority of these trips were on back roads, I must admit up front that we did also do a fair share of interstate driving across the Midwest.  With my sincerest apologies to residents of the flyover states, the time constraints for these trips forced us to take the highway across some of the center of the country, leaving very little time for sight-seeing.  Like our time in Las Vegas, we were going to have to prioritize.

Twisty back road surrounded by mountains
It’s time to get out there and explore!

A Round Trip Itinerary for a Cross Country Road Trip

The Round Trip Road Trip

Technically, I’ve only done one coast to coast cross country road trip, and that was when I was 18.  All of my other cross country road trips have either started or ended in Pennsylvania (instead of the Atlantic coast).  While there is no formal definition for what qualifies as a cross country road trip, I feel confident that a trip covering 2,600 of the 3,000 mile span from coast to coast definitely fits the bill!  In fact, on our drive heading west, we zig-zagged our way across nearly 8,000 miles during just one road trip!

This post is going to examine routes to consider, destinations to include, and a few other great pieces of cross country road trip advice… so buckle up, because it’s going to be a long ride!

Generally speaking, there are three main routes to drive cross country:  northern, central, and southern.  Mostly self-explanatory, the northern route stays on a path across the northern states like Minnesota, Montana, or Idaho.  The central route follows a path across the middle states, like Kansas and Colorado.  The southern route stays mostly south, crossing states like Georgia, Texas, or Arizona.

In this post, like on my trip in 2020, I’m following a central route heading west and then a northern route heading east.

  1. Driving West: the Central Route
  2. Driving East: the Northern Route
  3. When to Travel (including insights on how long your road trip should be)
  4. Where to Stay Along the Way
  5. What to Take With You
  6. Additional Insights, tips, and road trip advice

Monument Valley back road

Plan a Cross Country Road Trip

As you might imagine, when planning a road trip that’s going to encompass 6,000 miles or more, you’re going to need a significant amount of time to travel.  Even in a situation like ours, where the first or last 1,000 miles or so are on the interstate, you can still anticipate at least 125 hours of time behind the wheel.  If you’ve never taken a long road trip – or even if you have – that’s a lot of time to be driving.  When creating road trip plans for travelers, I suggest limiting actual driving time (“butts in seats” time) to 6 hours a day; this allows you to still explore things you find along the way… and won’t completely burn you out to the experience of driving.

In my mind, there are two main categories of road trips:  trips in which you immerse yourself deeply into one region, and trips in which you experience a lot of different regions at once.  In the first category, immersing yourself deeply into one region, you spend your entire trip exploring all of the various things you can see in do in that particular region.  You delve into the intimate nuances which make that region unique, spending hours or even days exploring single areas.

A cross country road trip, by its very nature, is going to fall under the second category.  Instead of spending the majority (or entirety) of your trip exploring a single area, you are going to spend a little bit of time experiencing multiple different areas.  I like to call it an appetizer adventure:  you experience a proverbial sampler platter of a number of different regions of the country, getting a small taste of what that area has to offer.

Think of your cross country drive as a scouting trip of sorts;  you’re going to find areas where you’ll have a powerful desire to return and explore in greater depth, and you’ll also discover that other areas are places where you have no interesting in returning.   Do no go into the process of planning a cross country road trip expecting to explore many areas in depth.  Unless you are retired and/or have all the time in the world, you are going to find yourself disappointed if you go into your trip with this mindset!

As you might imagine, prioritizing the places you want to see is crucial to this process.  The very first hours of your planning process should be spent talking with your travel partner(s), discussing the places you absolutely must see, the places you’d really like to visit if there’s enough time, and the places you’re not particularly interested in visiting.  This will lay the groundwork for planning your route, and if you’re lucky, might actually make the process very simple.

Last thought:  While this itinerary will mostly follow my own recent trips, it will not be an exact match.  As I already mentioned, we had some time constraints that forced us to limit our itinerary a bit.  I’m going to add in a few destinations that we simply did not have time to explore, and let you decide what best fits your priorities!  As always, you can email me directly if you have additional questions!

RV bus driving west on a back road
Head for the sunset!

Driving West:  the Central Cross Country Route

In case you missed it, our trip started in Pennsylvania, so that’s where this itinerary will start as well.  From there, we drove nearly straight west across the middle of the country and then dipped south.

Pennsylvania

There are many things that I could recommend for you to see and do in my home state, and it’s highly dependent upon what your interests are.  Because I’ve dedicated a number of posts to the things you can do here, I’m going to focus on just a few broad highlights and options to consider.

Places to go in Pennsylvania

Fallingwater house Laurel Highlands Pennsylvania

Back Road Routes across Pennsylvania

West Virginia

America’s primary coal-mining state is well-known for its numerous mines and heavily wooded mountainous terrain.  Chock full of natural scenery, sweeping hilltop vistas, and twisting back roads, West Virginia is a great state to include on your route!

Places to go in WV

Back Road Routes across WV

  • US Route 50 – Another historic cross country highway, Route 50 cuts across the northern woods of West Virginia
  • US Route 250 – A zig-zagging route that runs diagonally across West Virginia, Route 250 cuts you through the heart of some of the wildest places in the state
  • US Route 19 – Though it runs north to south, this historical route cuts across some of the most beautiful parts of the state, including the rock climbers’ heaven, New River Gorge
The Talon back road in West Virginia
Photo Credit: The Talon

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Kentucky

The Bourbon State.  The Bluegrass State.  Home of the Kentucky Derby.  Another major coal mining state.  No matter what description you use, the bottom line here is that Kentucky is one of my favorite states on the East Coast, and is home to some absolutely gorgeous back roads.

Places to go in Kentucky

Natural Arch Scenic Area At Parkers Lake Kentucky In The Daniel Boone – image courtesy of US Forest Service

Back Road Routes across Kentucky

  • US Route 62 – a diagonal shot across the state, Route 62 cuts across the gorgeous heart of bourbon country and the well-groomed thoroughbred territory
  • Kentucky Route 80 – Cutting across the southern edge of the state, KY-80 is filled with scenic beauty and plentiful options for exploration

Missouri

Missouri is widely known as the Gateway to the West.  It’s largest city is home to the Gateway Arch, and because it sits centrally on the western banks of the Mississippi River, Missouri is often the first “western” state road trippers encounter.

Places to go in Missouri

  • St Louis:  the state’s most famous city sits on the banks of the mighty Mississippi and features numerous tourist destinations:  Gateway Arch, Budweiser Brewery, and the National Transportation Museum are a few highlights.  This will also be the first place you’ll cross Route 66 on your trip west.
  • Branson:  one of the cheesiest cities in the country, Branson is home to countless country and other live music venues, wax museums, and other various & sundry attractions.  Oh, and it sits at the northern edge of the Ozark Mountain wilderness.
  • Dogwood Canyon & Hickory Canyon State Parks:  relatively small but jaw-droppingly gorgeous (see what I did there?), these two parks offer lots to see and do for the lover of natural scenery
  • Mark Twain National Forest:  much larger than the previous parks, MTNF is home to thousands of acres of hiking, biking, fishing, camping, and densely wooded rolling hills
A waterfall runs down a cliff face into a green pool of water, with an enclosed stone bridge across it, leading to a matching stone lodge
Cedar Lodge at Dogwood Canyon Falls – image courtesy of Cedar Lodge

Back Road Routes across Missouri

  • US Route 160 – Running along the very southern edge of the state, Route 160 (who we’ll be seeing again..!) winds its way across the rolling foothills of the Ozarks
  • US Route 60 – Only a couple dozen miles north of Route 160, Route 60 also cuts you across the hills of southern Missouri, albeit in a slightly more “refined” fashion:  Less rugged, fewer hills, and more open panoramas… but still a far more interesting and relaxing option than US Route 50, which cuts across several metro areas and long stretches of open plains

Kansas

No sense in candy-coating the truth here:  Kansas is going to be one of the most boring, difficult states on this adventure.  That’s going to be nearly unavoidable, though, as it’s next to impossible to drive cross country without crossing one of the flat central plains states.

A hill slopes gently down towards a grove of trees under the setting sun in Tallgrass Prairie in Kansas
Image courtesy of National Parks Conservation Association

Places to go in Kansas

Back Road Routes across Kansas

  • US Route 50 – If you really feel inclined and/or dedicated to do the entirety of your cross country trip on back roads, US 50 is probably your best option – especially if you’re stopping in Kansas City for some BBQ!
  • US Route 400 – If you would rather have a rural route, US 400 takes you across the southern portion of the state, and connects with Route 50 in Dodge City

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(EDITOR’S NOTE:  The highlight lists from Colorado west will not include the most obvious tourist destinations that people are already aware of)

Colorado

Things are about to get really, really incredible… well, eventually, once you’ve crossed over the 100 miles or so of Eastern Colorado that looks a whole lot like Kansas!  Once you hit the mountains, though, the scenery is simply remarkable.  Colorado is easily in my top five for most jaw-dropping back roads in the country (bear in mind, I’ve not been to Alaska or Hawaii yet).  The state is just absolutely loaded with incredible scenery… more than I could ever hope to capture or describe.  Selecting only a handful of places to highlight (or roads to choose from) is going to be challenging from here going forward!  

Places to go in Colorado

  • Pike’s Peak:  one of Colorado’s highest peaks also features some of Colorado’s best mountaintop driving… and it’s very close to one of my favorite cities in the state…
  • Colorado Springs:  an awesome mountain city that is surrounded by utterly jaw-dropping natural beauty.  It also features several natural attractions in or near the city, and an awesome bohemian shopping district.
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park:  an unusual and lesser known National Park (I hadn’t heard of it until Wanderlust Photography published their blog about it) centrally located in the southern tier of the state, Great Sand Dunes offers the unusual combination of desert and mountain scenery.  The San Juan Mountains provide a gorgeous backdrop for the tallest sand dunes in North America.
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP:  I hesitated about whether to include Black Canyon on this list.  Though the view from the North Rim was both impressive and uncrowded (we were the only ones there), and the drive to get there on CO-92 was genuinely stunning… the place felt somehow menacing to us.  The winds whipped and howled through the canyon, and the steep drop-offs were dizzying to behold.  The drive back to the North Rim also featured several unmarked & unfenced drop-offs, and was confusing and poorly marked.  It added at least 90 minutes each way to get there.  So if you’re going to go see it, I recommend the South Rim, which offers similar perspectives and is much closer and more easily accessible.
  • Million Dollar Highway and Telluride:  I considered including the Million Dollar Highway as a route across the state, but the truth is, it’s one of the few places in America where the drive actually is the destination.  The scenic vistas are simply jaw-dropping – miles and miles of rugged mountain peaks and dense forests stretch in every direction – and the drive itself is thoroughly enjoyable, if perhaps a bit white-knuckle at times… There are also the historic mining towns of Ouray (pronounced “YOUR-ray”), Silverton, Durango, and Telluride, with their adorable downtown shopping districts surrounded on all sides by towering peaks.  I could spend weeks exploring here.

Back Road Routes across Colorado

  • US Route 50 – Cutting a consistently scenic path across the central portion of the state, Route 50 provides convenient access to many of the best destinations in Colorado while also providing a natural boundary of sorts between the Rocky Mountains to the North and San Juan Mountains to the South.
  • US Route 160 – As prefaced in Missouri, it’s back on US-160 again for an incredibly scenic way to drive across Colorado, providing easy access to Great Sand Dunes NP, a handful of destinations in the San Juan mountains, the Million Dollar Highway, and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument… plus is a great way to head towards Monument Valley.

Utah

As is the case with Colorado, it’s critical to remember that this trip is the sampler platter, not the full entrée.  There is so much natural beauty to witness in Utah that you couldn’t see it all in a week or more.  The state’s most familiar features are its red rock desert formations, Canyons and Arches, and of course the massive salt flats.  The scenery is ethereal and often otherworldly, and can often spring up at you out of nowhere.  Be prepared to stop often, and often stop unexpectedly as you traverse the Beehive State.

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Places to go in Utah

  • Monument Valley:  One of a handful of “bucket list” locations that I finally crossed off my list on this trip is Monument Valley.  I feel, to be completely honest, like we need to come back and explore the area more to get a better appreciation for it.  The stone pillars were incredibly neat to see, but it felt like it was over fast – I think we might’ve missed some?
  • Zion National Park:  I said I wasn’t going to include obvious tourist destinations, and here I am, a mere two states later including obvious tourist destinations.  But Zion is without question in my top five favorite National Parks in the country.   It will completely blow your mind the first time you drive through it.  If I had a nickel for every time my wife breathlessly exclaimed “Whoooaaaa…” as we weaved our way across the park, I could pay for someone to write this post for me!
  • Glen Canyon National Rec Area:  An absolutely massive park that stretches south across the border into Arizona, Glen Canyon has over a million acres of stunning desert landscapes and water features to explore.  The twisting shores of Lake Powell carve jaw-dropping curves into the brilliant orange rocks, and the iconic Rainbow Bridge is nearby as well.
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante:  Immediately adjacent to, and nearly double the size of Glen Canyon, Grand Staircase is yet another collection of diverse and awe-inspiring arid landscapes.  With arches, pillars, dunes, slot canyons, and a number of other features to discover, you could easily spend a week hiking across the depths of this enormous National Monument.
  • Little Sahara Rec Area:  In a state that is world-famous for its off-roading opportunities, the Little Sahara rec area is a hidden gem of sorts for thrashing your UTV or SXS.  Hiking and fat biking trails are also available, as are places to camp.
  • Lower Calf Creek Falls (and trailhead):   Not to overuse a cliche or anything, but the Falls are just absurdly stunning, and the moderate hike to get there ain’t shabby either!
  • Kanab:  One of several renowned outdoor adventurist towns in Utah, Kanab is a great place for launching a plethora of desert-based activities.  It’s also home to the BLM visitors center where you can attempt to get walk-in permits for The Wave in Arizona.  The town itself is really cool, with a handful of unique shops, restaurants, marketplaces, and museums.
Utah State Route 12 east sign dominates a disorganized cluster of road signs and billboards at the western end of the route
Utah State Route 12, western terminus

Back Road Routes across Utah

  • US Route 89 – Utah’s intensely rugged and deeply carved geography make it particularly challenging to traverse east to west using strictly back roads. US-89 weaves an unusual course into the state from Arizona, then heads east-west for a stretch near Glen Canyon and Grand Staircase, before turning north again.
  • US Route 6 – The aforementioned storied east to west transcontinental route winds its way across Utah, intermingling with several other well-known US Routes along the way.
  • US Routes 40 & 50 – I mention both in the same breath here because they run similar courses not far from each other across the state… though both will try to run you along the interstate for a stretch if you’re not careful!
  • Utah Route 12 – It’s not included in the list of The Best Back Roads in America for no reason!  Though short, Utah’s State Route 12 carves a panoramic path across some of the most rugged, mind-bending rock formations and desert geography that I’ve ever witnessed.

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Nevada

It was hard to skip over one of my favorite states in the country – Arizona – but again, for the sake of miles on a trip of this size, you have to make cuts somewhere.  Nevada is one of the most imposingly beautiful states you’ll ever visit.  It’s also contains some of the most desolate places you’ll ever visit – certainly some of the most remote places in the lower 48.  The landscape is often severely harsh and inhospitable, and will provide you with the longest “human-free” stretches of driving on your journey …. so make sure you have plenty of gas, and fill up whenever you have the opportunity!  But fear not, because those same imposing and inhospitable landscapes will also provide you with countless uninterrupted natural panoramas, stretching as far as the eye can see without a single man-made structure in sight.  It truly is a wonder to behold, and if you’re open to it, it might just change your perspective on humanity.

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Places to go in Nevada

  • Valley of Fire State Park:  Intense reds and oranges will fill your vision as you make your way into and around Valley of Fire.  The sandstone formations jut out of the ground in unusual angles all around you, and there is plenty of petrified wood to discover.  With an incredible Off-Road Park feeding into the northern edge of the state park, there’s no shortage of things to see and do here.
  • Nelson Ghost Town and Nelson’s Landing:  I found these gems by sheer happenstance while looking for outdoor activities for our adventure in Las Vegas a few years ago, and we absolutely fell in love.  The ghost town is super cool, populated by ancient-looking wooden structures, and the landscape is littered with old cars.  There is an old abandoned mine, and even an airplane… and let’s not forget about cliff jumping into the Colorado River at Nelson’s Landing!  An all-around amazing day trip!
  • Goldfield:  Speaking of old mining towns, Goldfield is another great historical destination in the desert.  For such a small town, it has a surprising amount of things worth seeing – historic saloons, museums, shops, and even a car forest!  Being fairly isolated in the sparsely populated center of the state, and surrounded by stark natural beauty, the area around Goldfield is also prime real estate for stargazing.
  • The Loneliest Road in America:  In addition to being one of the most direct ways to drive east-west across the state, US Route 50 in Nevada also sports the rather depressing moniker of being the loneliest road in the country.  It’s true in a lot of ways:  there isn’t much life in any direction at any point on Route 50, human or otherwise.  Once you leave Ely, none of the few small towns you’ll come across in the next 250+ miles heading west have more than 500 residents.  But, as I’ve already mentioned above, there’s incredible beauty in all of that loneliness.
  • Great Basin National Park:  One of the smaller, more remote – and maybe most underappreciated and unknown – National Parks in the lower 48, Great Basin sports some absolutely stunning mountain peaks and desert valleys.  Sitting at the eastern end of the Loneliest Road in America, Great Basin offers plenty of hiking trails, scenic drives, and snow-capped mountain peaks.  Make sure to swing southeast from there to pick up Utah Route 12 across Bryce Canyon, Grand Staircase, Escalante, and Capitol Reef!
  • Black Rock Desert:  In addition to being the home of Burning Man every August, the BRD is also a place to find incredible natural scenery.  Loaded with abundant opportunities for hiking, biking, and camping, this area is known as being one of the darkest – and best – stargazing spots in the whole country.
  • Paradise Valley:  Located smack in the middle of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest – a bit of a misnomer, as we didn’t see any trees until we drove up over the mountain pass – Paradise Valley is indeed an arid wonderland.  In addition to being a good spot for hunting out abandoned buildings, the desert valley is partially ringed to the North & West by a string of jagged mountain peaks.  The rugged terrain is perfect for dispersed camping opportunities, though the isolated nature of the area forces me to only suggest this for experienced campers.

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Back Road Routes across Nevada

  • US Route 50 – as mentioned above, Route 50 offers one of the simplest ways of driving east to west across this arid state.  I would be remiss if I did not repeat my advice:  MAKE SURE you always have gas in your vehicle.  There are countless places where you are going to be 30-50 miles or more from the nearest gas station, and it’s entirely plausible you could wait several hours before seeing another human.
  • US Route 6 – coming into the state joined with Route 50 from Utah, the two routes diverge in Ely, with 50 heading on a more northerly course towards Lake Tahoe, and Route 6 cutting south towards Tonopah and Mono County CA.  Nearly as lonely as Route 50, Route 6 is another place to not mess around with being safe – an overabundance of caution with regards to maintaining your vehicle and fuel is crucial.
  • US Route 95 – As with Route 19 in West Virginia, Route 95 deserves mention in spite of being a north-south route.  As one of my favorite back roads in the country, 95 is chock full of natural scenery, and it connects you with several of the best destinations in the state.
A winding back road in Yosemite leads the eye to the towering grey granite Half Dome mountain formation in the background
One of the most epic views – Glacier Point Road in Yosemite National Park (Half Dome in the distance) – in our nation’s most epic state

California

California is easily the most intimidating state on this entire list to try to tackle.  As the third largest state in the country, superlatives are abundant in my favorite state for back road driving.  I described California to my wife as having similar natural features as other states in the country – forests, mountains, deserts, rivers, the ocean, etc – but on grander, exaggerated scale.  The state’s terrain takes on mythical proportions:  the mountains are more dramatic, the deserts more dry, the coastline totally defies description, and the trees tower above you in startling size.  California has been lionized in American mythology, and with good reason.  I’m not even going to attempt to scratch the surface of everything there is to see and do – not to mention the countless amazing back roads to explore.  I’m only going to address a handful of things we saw and did on our cross country adventure, and leave the rest for you to fill in the blanks!

Places to go in Northern California

  • Mono Lake & Tufa Reserve:  Looking like an eyeball on the map, Mono Lake appears to stare back at you as you ogle open-mouthed at its mountain-lined shores.  In addition to its striking panoramas, Mono Lake also features a number of otherworldly Tufa Towers along its shorelines.
  • Mountain Gate Park:  Small and seemingly uninteresting on its face, this “park” – in reality, more of a rest area than a park – is a fantastic place for the hot and road-weary traveler to stop and refresh themselves in the frigid rush of the West Walker River.  Surrounded by steep and arid canyon walls, the melt-water river is shallow, clear, and crisp, its bottom lined with countless smooth stones for walking across.  Whether you sit on the shoreline and dunk your feet, or go whole hog and cross into its “depths,” it’s a relaxing place to rest up before continuing on your journey.
  • Monitor Pass:  This white-knuckle mountain pass winds its way east across the Sierra Nevada chain, providing countless dynamic panoramic vistas … for the passengers!  Drivers beware:  This road, while gorgeous, is dangerously distracting.  Keep your eyes on the road, and use the numerous pull-offs to do your viewing.  The Lake Alpine area in particular is gorgeous, and loaded with outdoor activities to explore!
  • Calaveras Big Trees State ParkCalaveras Big Trees is just one of many, many places in California where you can walk among towering sequoia and redwood trees.  We appreciated the approachability and relaxed nature of the park, and found plenty of things to see and explore while we were there.  The campgrounds were affordable, clean, spacious, and provided easy access to numerous scenic hikes, and the sky was dark enough at night to make viewing the Milky Way easy.
  • Yosemite National Park:  I know, I’m breaking my own rule about obvious tourist destinations, but come on!  How can I not include one of the most dramatic scenic drives in America and one of the most dramatic back road vista points in America, all within a park that is laden with a plethora of both?  I could spend at least a week there, finding new angles to capture the natural beauty of the landscapes, and I would strongly recommend you do the same.  If nothing else, make sure to do the drive through Yosemite Valley, and the drive up to Glacier Point.  Though they are less than a mile apart as the crow flies, it’ll take you about an hour to drive from one to the other!
  • Napa Valley:  More specifically, I suggest you drive the loop around Napa Valley.  Though a very short drive, you could easily spend a couple days meandering your way from winery to winery – the route is lined with several dozen excellent ones – and it’s ringed on all sides by absolutely stunning natural splendor.  The diversity of the scenery alone – the flat valley floor, surrounded by rugged green and sand mountain peaks, rows and rows of grape arbors capped at each end with gnarled prickly pear cacti, all lined by lush evergreen and palm forests – makes this drive worthwhile… And of course, it’s easily America’s most celebrated wine region.  Again, I’m breaking my own rule a bit by including a fairly touristy destination, but the beauty of the drive – and the back road nature of the route (and the small towns and villages along the way) make it more than worthy of inclusion on this list.  Oh, and just over the western ridge is Sonoma CountyANOTHER excellent wine region!
  • Russian River Valley:  Most widely known as an excellent wine and beer region, driving through the Russian River Valley makes me absolutely swoon.  The scenery, driving west from US-101 along River Road, is absurdly diverse and dynamic in a relatively short stretch of miles…. and it will leave you gawking nearly the entire way.  I’m building a full-length post specifically devoted to this drive, but I’ll say this – it’s the only place in the half-million or so miles I’ve driven where you can experience palm trees, vineyards, dense redwood forests, a deep winding river, rolling hills and mountains, adorable bohemian villages, AND a gorgeous ocean coastline … all contained within a less-than-30-mile drive.

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Back Road Routes Across California

  • CA State Route 4 – Twisting and winding its way across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, CA-4 starts near the state’s eastern border at Topaz Lake, and terminates near the western coast at San Pablo Bay.  In the interim, you’ll cross mountain passes, desert floor, dense forest, the scorched expanse of the Central Valley, and the dense congestion of East Bay.
  • CA State Route 120 – Though CA-120 barely makes it halfway across the state, terminating at I-5 in the middle of the Central Valley, it more than makes up for its short distance with its stunning scenery.  Starting near the bone-dry border with Nevada, 120 will quickly leave you gasping as you make your way past Mono Lake and into the jagged peaks of the Eastern Sierras.  Before long, the alpine beauty of Tuolumne Meadows is whizzing past, and you’ve found yourself crossing the heart of Yosemite National Park.  Wind your way down the foothills of the Western Sierras, across Don Pedro Reservoir, and into the spartan beauty of the Valley.
  • CA State Route 89 – Yeesh!  Another north-south route, AND another state route!  I’ll be honest – the US Routes aren’t great options for east-west crossings of California.  They are often multi-lane highways that cut quickly across the less-scenic areas of the state, and don’t make for enjoyable driving.  I digress.  CA-89 is a mountain lovers paradise!  Towering mountains line nearly all of this route as it winds north from Topaz Lake along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada range.  The road is just loaded with some of the most stunning mountain vistas I’ve ever seen in my life.  You’ll pass through a handful of kitschy mountain towns, along the eastern edge of Lake Tahoe, Donner Pass, across Plumas National Forest, and into the Cascade Mountains.  Don’t forget to stop at Lassen Volcanic National Park and National Forest.  The route terminates at the base of Mount Shasta.
  • US Route 395 – Like US Route 95 in Nevada, US 395 deserves mention here because it connects so many of the beautiful places in California.  It threads its way up the eastern edge of the state and the Sierra Nevada range, connecting one scenic spot after another like a spine holding the body together.  In addition to connecting so many beautiful spots, 395 itself is a rather fantastic drive even without stopping.  Start out at the bottom, just north of the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests, and roll nearly straight north through the arid valley that makes up one of my favorite back roads in the country.

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Driving East:  the Northern Cross Country Route

Heading home, I was finally able to hit up several northern states I’d never explored before.  My primary goals for the return drive were to explore Idaho, experience Yellowstone, and drive Beartooth Pass – all of which I was able to do!  NOTEThough we drove across the northwestern corner of Nevada and had our first campsite in Paradise Valley, there’s no point in duplicating the state in the list.  Instead, I’m going to start the list in Oregon, a state which rivals California in many ways, and would also make a great starting point for a east-bound cross country road trip!

Oregon

Officially the start of the Pacific Northwest, Oregon rivals its southern neighbor in biodiversity and geographic landscapes.  Though not as large, and often not as sunny and warm as California, Oregon is still an absolutely beautiful, enchanting and unique state to visit:  dense, lush forests grow right up to the very edge of the jagged Pacific Coastline, and the towering peaks of the Cascade Mountains separates the coast from a surprisingly vast and arid desert in the southeastern corner of the state.  National Forests abound, and there’s even a pretty excellent wine region!

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Places to go in Oregon

The gritty hot pavement of a two lane back road twists across the parched hills of eastern Oregon desert

Back Road Routes Across Oregon

  • US Route 20 – Starting at the Pacific Coast at Route 101 in Newport, Route 20 winds its way east through the heavily wooded hills of the Oregon Coast Range and the southern end of the Willamette Valley.  After passing through the city of Bend, Route 20 crosses the surprisingly desolate and remarkably flat expanse of eastern Oregon before joining US Route 26 near the Idaho border.
  • US Route 26 – Like Route 20, US Route 26 starts near the Pacific Coast at Route 101.  After a brief pass through the dense coastal woods, Route 26 cuts across the heart of Portland before heading east.  From Portland, the route passes in the shadow of Mt Hood and cuts nearly straight south past two remarkable state parks, then across a rolling scenic valley between Ochoco National Forest and John Day Fossil Bed before uniting with US 20.  Because the two routes run in parallel and join together at the eastern edge of the state, if you are making your way across Oregon, US 26 is clearly the better choice for an enjoyable drive.
  • OR State Route 140 – Though the route does not cut the entire way across the state, it does cut a very scenic path across the southern edge of Oregon.  Running east from Medford to roughly halfway between US Route 395 and 95 in the desolate southeastern corner of the state, the route’s scenery ranges from the Cascade Mountains, the waterways and woodlands of the Klamath Falls area, and into the desolate desert east of Goose Lake.
  • US Route 395 – Though not quite as beautiful as its counterpart in California, US 395 in Oregon similarly cuts through the arid, desolate beauty in central Oregon.  Winding a north-south course across the entire state, the route passes near or through several National Forests along the way.

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Idaho

Idaho is definitely the next-most intimidating state to write about on this list, after California.  That might seem a bit ostentatious for a state most widely known as the home of the lowly potato.  Merely brushing Idaho off as a bunch of boring farmland, however, would be to miss one of the most jaw-dropping states in America.  I had never really given Idaho much thought as a state worth visiting, and I almost wonder if that’s how they want it to be.  There’s really not much of a tourism vibe in the state, and I wonder if they want to keep their natural splendor a guarded secret.  I quite unexpectedly tripped over the allure of Idaho while working on a road trip plan for someone back in 2019, and the more I looked into it, the stronger my desire to explore the state became.  Even with a ton of build-up and seriously high expectations, the rugged mountains of Idaho did not disappoint!  Like California, picking which pictures to share – especially from the back road drone shots – was incredibly challenging.

A colorful sunset warms up streaks of fluffy clouds over distant mountains in Idaho

Places to go in Idaho

  • Sun Valley:  Technically considered a town, Sun Valley is more of a place or a geographic area… but who really cares what it is, aside from the fact that it’s jaw-droppingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful!  Near the top of the list of my favorite things we saw in Idaho.
  • Coeur d’Alene:  Apparently some of the most beautiful parts of Idaho are known by the names of the town that’s nearby?  Either way, if you’re venturing this far up north, this mountains and lakes area can’t be missed!
  • Snake River:  OK so given that the Snake River runs roughly 1/3 of the length of the western border of the state AND THEN meanders its way across the state over to Wyoming, it’s hard to pick a single place to link to here.  We cut across the river several times during our drive across the state, and it always provided us with gorgeous sightlines and panoramic views… and if you’re a fisherman, this one is gold!
  • Payette River: Since my Places for Idaho weren’t weird enough already, let’s toss another river into the mix!  Consisting of a North & South Fork that merge at ID-55 just north of Banks, the Payette River runs through some of the most beautiful, rugged parts of the state, making long stretches of its raging waters ideal for white-water rafting!
  • Sawtooth Mountains and National Forest: – OK, so I know that geographically this encompasses a pretty huge area, but between Sawtooth & the neighboring Salmon Challis NF, you could spend a full year exploring its beautiful mountains and dense evergreen forests without seeing everything the area has to offer.

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Back Road Routes Across Idaho

  • US Route 12 – As an oddly shaped state that’s much “taller” than it is “wide,” finding East-West back road routes across the state is surprisingly difficult.  That said, US 12 is an amazing option to consider, cutting an incredibly scenic path across the rugged northern third of the state.  Lewiston is the “biggest” city along the sparsely populated route, which eventually cuts through Nez Perce National Forest along the Lochsa River Valley, adjacent to countless natural hot springs.
  • ID State Routes 17, 21 and 75 – This is a bit of a tough one to weave together, since it doesn’t follow any of the routes completely, and it’s not the full Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway either.  This route, however, starting from where the two forks of the Payette merge and running east to west along the Southern Fork for most of the way, cuts through some of the most stunning canyon and mountain driving I’ve ever done.  The route is lined with abundant opportunities for hiking and mountain biking, natural hot springs, dispersed camping and much more… and offers you options to drop into additional outdoor activity havens like Sun Valley.
  • US Route 20 (and 26) – Eventually merging with US Route 26, US Route 20 cuts a long, often flat, often straight line across the southern tier of the state.  Running from I-84 south of Boise all the way up to the Wyoming border and into Yellowstone, US 20 is actually quite reminiscent of driving across Nevada:  vast open valleys (with stick-straight driving) surrounded by gorgeous jagged mountain peaks along the way.  You’ll also pass right by Craters of the Moon National Monument.
  • ID State Route 55 and US Route 95 – Running North and South from Boise to the Canadian border, this route will wind you through some of the most stunning open landscapes in the state.  Much of the route runs parallel to the Northern Fork of the Payette River, from the outlets on the southern edges of Payette Lake and Lake Cascade all the way down to Boise.  Continue further north across a handful of National Forests, Coeur D’Alene, and the fabulous Lake Pend before hitting the Canadian border.

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Snow capped granite mountain peaks tower over TA Moulton old barn in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park
Is there a more iconic Wyoming view?

Wyoming

Dear Western United States:  Please stop having so many absolutely gorgeous states.  Sincerely, no one ever.  Honestly, though, it’s a real coin-flip, choosing whether to head from Idaho into Montana or Wyoming.  Both states have long stretches of absolutely gorgeous mountain driving, and both also have long stretches of teeth-grindingly boring open plains to cross.  What sealed the deal for us was the opportunity to finally check Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks off the list, so we headed a little south into Wyoming and had our minds blown by all of the gorgeous rugged scenery the state has to offer.  The fact that we could shoot briefly up into Montana on Beartooth Pass definitely helped!  Although back road options are somewhat limited in this vast state, I’ve definitely enjoyed every time I’ve driven across it!

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Places to go in Wyoming

  • Yellowstone and Grand Teton:  OK look, I know that I said that I wasn’t going to hit the most widely known tourist destinations in each state, but honestly, how can I write about Wyoming and not include Yellowstone and Grand Teton?  Aside from taking up like 15% of the state’s total area, the mountains and hot springs in both parks just simply define the state.  Just don’t get caught in the traffic on US-191 (like we did) travelling from one park to the other.
  • Medicine Bow National Forest:  Absolutely stunning mountains surround deep blue alpine lakes and lush evergreen forests at this northern edge of the Rocky Mountain chain.  Often snowed-in well into the late spring and beginning again in early fall, the area can be difficult to access at times, and has a surprising lack of ski resorts.  That said, the gorgeous mountain vistas along many of the hiking trails are worth the extra effort.
  • Beartooth Highway:  Though it does briefly cross over into Montana at the northern edge of Yellowstone, the vast majority of Beartooth Highway and Beartooth Pass traverses the northern edge of Wyoming.  Crossing a vast brigade of mountain peaks and National Forests, this twisting road will take you on some of the most stunning cliff’s edge driving this side of the Million Dollar Highway!  Though it’s primarily about the drive – and the panoramic vista points at the pull-offs – there are a handful of drop-dead gorgeous dispersed campsites to be had… if you can find them!
  • Palisades Reservoir:  Surrounded by mountains and straddling the border between Wyoming and Idaho, this stunning man-made reservoir is situated just ten miles south of Jackson on the Snake River… and if that sweet alliteration doesn’t convince you to go check it out, maybe my drone video from there will!
  • Big Horn National Forest:  An absolutely sprawling park, filled with more mountain peaks, alpine lakes, densely wooded trails, and a boatload of other outdoor activities.  If you’re making your way across from Deadwood, Mount Rushmore, and the Black Hills, this is a great place to break up the drive and spend a day.
  • Curt Gowdy State Park:  Both little-known and little in size, what this park lacks in stature, it makes up for in scenery and activities. With spectacular rock formations, fantastic hikes, boating & fishing, horseback riding, an archery range, a waterfall, and a lot more, this park has something for everyone!

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Back Road Routes Across Wyoming

  • US Route 14 – Starting in Chicago and terminating in Yellowstone, this historic route weaves a drunken path meandering from one side of the state to the other.  Running parallel (and now concurrent) with I-90 for a stretch from the South Dakota border, it heaves north of the interstate twice (including around Big Horn) before levelling out on its way into Cody and towards the eastern gate of Yellowstone.
  • US Route 26 – Roughly following the original path of the Oregon Trail and North Platte River across the desolate central plains of the state, US-26 comes into the state in the southeastern corner near Fort Laramie, then slowly meanders its way northwest toward Grand Teton and the Idaho border.

A pair of Harley Davidson motorcycles enter Doane Robinson Tunnel, with the faces on Mount Rushmore clearly visible under fluffy clouds in a blue sky

South Dakota

Coming from the west, central South Dakota is where the Great Plains really begin in earnest.  Once you’ve made your way across the twisting maze of granite and pine that make up the Black Hills, the landscape flattens out rapidly.  The Missouri River cuts a massive gash down the middle of the state, looking almost like a piece of paper that’s been ripped in two.  Interestingly (at least to me), the Black Hills is the first – and only – place I’ve witnessed a mountain lion in the wild.  On the plus side, hey, at least it’s not North Dakota.  I kid, I kid!

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Places to go in South Dakota

  • Custer State Park:  Full of towering otherworldly granite formations and gnarly winding roads, this large park is a great place for outdoor activities, bikers, and sports car enthusiasts!
  • International Vinegar Museum:  OK, so this is one of those little oddball places that I love to discover.  Admittedly, I’ve not been there, and it looks relatively small, but if you happen to be in this relatively distant and obscure corner of South Dakota, it’ll certainly break up the monotony!
  • Badlands National Park:  Yes, I know, another tourist destination.  But the jagged ridgelines and brilliant orange and red colors of the geological formations here seem starkly out of place in an otherwise green, pastoral state.  Loaded with wonderful hiking trails and insane scenic overlooks, the Badlands definitely feels like they were plucked out of Utah and dropped into South Dakota by some “Wizard of Oz” like tornado.
  • Ingalls Homestead:  There are several different Laura Ingalls Wilder related locations spread throughout the Midwest, but quite a few of them are located in and around De Smet, SD.

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Back Road Routes Across South Dakota

  • US Routes 14 – Though the last 40-50 miles of the western portion of the route merges with I-90 near the town of Wall (home of the kitschy Wall Drug), it winds its way east to west across the majority of the state.  In addition to Wall, US-14 also passes through the capital city of Pierre and the aforementioned De Smet.
  • State Route 44 – Running nearly the full east to west length of the state and cutting across the Badlands and Black Hills, Route 44 is a great option for avoiding the highway on a cross country road trip!

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Golden hour at Split Rock Lighthouse in Minnesota
Image courtesy of Wanderlust Travel Photography

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Minnesota

You’ve now solidly entered the heart of the Great Plains, kids… the rugged aura of the wild west is a long distant memory in the rear view mirror.  While the pastoral miles of America’s breadbasket have a peaceful beauty to them, I recommend downloading a few interesting podcasts for each day’s drive to keep your mind active as the road stretches endlessly towards the horizon in front of you.  The Land of 10,000 Lakes (nearly 12,000, actually) is a nature lover’s paradise in many ways though, and is also home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

Places to go in Minnesota

  • Gooseberry Falls:  One of a long list of excellent parks on the western shore of Lake Superior (several of which are featured here), this relatively small park has a number of hikes, shoreline trails, and of course, a pretty gnarly set of cascading waterfalls.
  • Split Rock Lighthouse State Park:   Like Gooseberry Falls, what this Lake Superior shoreline park lacks in size, it more than makes up for in stunning natural beauty.  Featuring its namesake historic cliffside lighthouse, the park also has lots of hiking opportunities and waterfalls to explore.
  • Tettegouche State Park:  Can’t get enough of Lake Superior yet?  Who can blame you!  The largest of the Great Lakes shows its glacial history in its numerous lakeside cliffs, and Tettegouche State Park boasts some of the most stunning cliffs in the state.  As with most of the local parks, Tettegouche features a plethora of hikes, waterfalls, fishing opportunities, and even rock climbing.
  • Voyageurs National Park:  If you’re venturing towards the northern end of the state and the Canadian border, a stop at this large and secluded National Park is well worth your time.  The park features sprawling, often-interconnected water features and is a boating fanatic’s wonderland.  Be sure to stop and check out the rock sculptures at Ellsworth Rock Garden.
  • Kabetogama State Park:  This park is paradise for fishing, snowmobiling/ATV riding, hiking, boating and kayaking.  It’s a great place for slowly paddling your way northwards through the interconnected waterways, meandering towards the southern boundary of Voyageurs NP.
A two lane Minnesota back road stretches out towards the horizon under fluffy clouds in a blue sky
Minnesota might not have the most captivating landscapes, but the pastoral beauty of its back roads still make for a pleasant and peaceful road trip!

Back Road Routes Across Minnesota

  • State Route 61 – I can’t mention all of those glorious shoreline parks on Lake Superior without also mentioning the fabulously scenic lakeshore drive, can I?  Though the majority of Route 61 runs north to south, the section of the route running parallel to the lake takes a more southwest to northeast course… and while it terminates at the Canadian border, the stunning scenery along the way makes the detour well worth your time.  After all, it wouldn’t be one of the best back roads in America if it wasn’t!
  • State Route 210 – Given that this east to west route runs across the heart of Lake Country and through several state parks and state forests, finally terminating after weaving across Jay Cooke SP south of Duluth, I was shocked by the dearth of tourist information about the route online.
  • US Route 14 – For those who aren’t interested – or don’t have time – for a northern adventure, US-14 offers a good option for meandering across the southern end of this tall state.  The route passes through a handful of farming towns and villages, small cities, and passes near the stunning Minneopa State Park.

A red wheel of Wisconsin Cheese sits on a decorative wooden cutting block in front of shelving full of other Wisconsin products

Wisconsin

Cheese!  As the home to plentiful cheese & dairy products, as well as the state where Harley-Davidson and OshKosh B’Gosh started, you’ll definitely find plenty to do in this gorgeous northern plains state.  And because it’s the first state you’ll encounter after crossing the Mississippi River, it’s the “beginning of the end” of your cross country trip.  You’re now starting back into the eastern side of the country.

Places to go in Wisconsin

  • The Dells (Wisconsin Dells):  These fascinating riverside rock formations can only be accessed by boat, so make sure to review your trip options and choose your tour carefully!
  • Rocky Arbor State Park:  Not far from the aforementioned riverside rocks is Rocky Arbor, this peaceful park is loaded with campsites and hiking trails.  You can explore the woods, or hike down for a few views of the sandstone cliffs.
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum:  The world-famous author bounced around quite a bit during her prolific life and writing career, setting up camp in several locations across the Midwest.  This museum, near the Mississippi River in Pepin, is located at her birthplace.
  • Five Mile Bluff Prairie:  Located near Pepin along the Chippewa River, Five Mile Bluff offers hikers several sweeping panoramas of both rivers and nearly uninterrupted natural vistas.
  • Taliesin Estate:  Located in the southeastern corner of the state is one of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s architectural masterpieces, and was his long-term home and studio.  The site of a brutal multiple-homicide and arson attack, Wright quickly re-designed and re-built his destroyed estate before his own death.  Don’t forget to stop at the quirky Romeo & Juliet windmill while you’re there.
  • The House on the Rock:  Speaking of quirky buildings, the House on the Rock is a must-see attraction while you’re in the Spring Green area.  With a cantilevered section of the home extending more than 200 feet out over the valley floor below it, it’s an architectural masterpiece that you have to see in order to believe!  Sadly, both Taliesin and House on the Rock were closed due to COVID restrictions during our drives, or I would have more photos of each to share!
  • Apostle Island National Lakeshore:  A water-lover’s paradise, this chain of sandstone islands features plenty of stunning landscapes and rock formations, as well as a number of historic lighthouses.  While the islands are best experienced from the seat of a kayak, a sea kayak is the only safe/recommended method to explore the area.
Kayakers stare up at fire red stone cliffs from the water surrounding Apostle Islands
Image courtesy of Wanderlust Travel Photography

Back Road Routes Across Wisconsin

  • US Route 14 – Running northwest to southeast across the southern portion of the state, US-14 cuts across the capital city of Madison and Spring Green, but mostly runs across the scenic rolling hills of Wisconsin farmland.
  • US Route 18 – Heading nearly straight east to west from Milwaukee, US-18 runs across the southern tier of the state towards Iowa and South Dakota.  Route 18 also cuts across Madison, then diverts along a more southern and rural track.
  • US Route 10 – As one of only two US historic routes that includes a designated ferry as part of the actual route, US-10 starts on the eastern edge of the state on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Running along a more northern track, there are several short detours from US-10 to enjoy cities like Green Bay, Oshkosh, and Eau Claire while also relishing the diverse natural scenery.

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Illinois

And here we finally meet the states that were a bit more difficult to get excited about.  I’ll be the first to admit it:  I bag on the flyover states, and that’s not fair.  The midwestern states have plenty of interesting destinations to offer.  My feeling comes from the sense that the vast majority of the land is open, flat, and tends not to inspire words like “stunning” or “breath-taking” or “awe-inspiring.”  I digress.  The land of Lincoln does have it’s fair share of enjoyable back road drives, and several rather unique features worth finding and exploring!

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Images courtesy of Illinois DNR

Places to go in Illinois

  • Starved Rock State Park / Nature Preserve:  This long, narrow park and adjoining preserve along the southern shore of the Illinois River is loaded with excellent natural features to explore.  With a handful of elevated river overlooks, a bunch of waterfalls and hikes, and more canyons than Arizona, this small park packs a punch!
  • Matthiessen State Park:  Literally right down the road from Starved Rock is another small State Park that is full of natural beauty worth exploring.  With multiple bridges and waterfalls, you could easily spend a couple hours hiking the park and … soaking … in all the scenery! (Dad jokes are free for those who’ve made it this far!)
  • Peru IL:  I haven’t included virtually any “indoor” sights on this post, but the city of Peru has two that are worth exploring.  The Westclox Museum looks like it will be a fascinating place to spend a few hours perusing the displays (especially if, like me, you love old clocks).  A few blocks down the road is the absolutely jaw-dropping Hegeler Carus Mansion.  Given that Peru is just across the river from the two aforementioned state parks, you could easily spend a couple days exploring everything this part of Illinois has to offer!
  • Villa Katherine:  Speaking of absolutely stunning architecture, perched on the banks overlooking the Mississippi River near Quincy is the incredible Moorish-style Villa Katherine.  The building is currently used as the city’s tourist information center, and guided tours of the structure can be taken on an appointment basis.  Make sure to explore the city’s historic district and Log Cabin Village.
  • Lincoln Home:  As the first and only home that President Lincoln ever owned, this memorial site is a must-visit spot for any history buff in your group!

Back Road Routes Across Illinois

  • US Route 6 – America’s longest contiguous historic route runs nearly cross country (coast to coast), and is now mirrored by Interstate 80 in many states.  Cutting across the northern portion of the state into Chicago, Route 6 also runs through several of the highlighted locations above!
  • US Route 24 – One of America’s original federal routes, dating back to the start of the US highway system in 1926, runs the heart of the auto manufacturing corridor in Michigan west to central Colorado.  Heading west to east, the route crosses the Mississippi into the state at Quincy and heads northeast along the Illinois River to Peoria, where it makes a sharp turn to head directly east into Indiana.
  • US Route 50 – After leaving St Louis and hooking a left at O’Fallon, US-50 quickly opens up to become a mostly straight shot across the rural flatlands of Illinois corn country.

 

 

 

Sugar Creek runs through Turkey Run State Park in Indiana
Image courtesy of Daniel Schwen & Wikipedia

Indiana

The Hoosier state, like it’s eastern and western neighbors, is primarily known to travelers as being home to millions of acres of corn fields.  However, like all of the midwestern states, Indiana is home to a handful of hidden gems for travelers to unearth.  One merely needs to know where and how to find them!

Places to go in Indiana

  • Turkey Run State Park:  Though less than half a mile square, this tiny park is absolutely packed with diverse natural beauty.  Canyons, creeks, a covered bridge, camping, horseback riding and historical sites abound, with plenty of relatively easy hikes to explore throughout the park.
  • Shades State Park:  Just a few miles up the road, also along the meandering path of Sugar Creek, Shades State Park is another fantastic location filled with natural beauty and outdoor activities.  Sandstone cliffs set the scene for most of the hiking and water sports in the park, and it too sports a historic covered bridge.
  • Circus Hall of Fame:  This one is pretty self-explanatory!  Make sure to also check out the surprising Miami County Museum in nearby Peru.
  • Salamonie River State Park:  Another very small park located about 20 miles east of Peru, the real highlight of the park is the hike to the wide drop of Kissing Falls.  Make sure to also check out Hanging Rock National Landmark while you’re there.
  • Studebaker Museum:  Located in the heart of South Bend – home of the glorious campus of Notre Dame University – the Studebaker Museum houses three floors of displays featuring the historic cars manufactured there, as well as American car culture in general.

Back Road Routes Across Indiana

  • US Route 24 – Cutting a similar path across Indiana as it did in neighboring Illinois, US-24 parallels the Wabash River across much of the state, and will drop you close to several of the parks listed above.
  • US Route 36 – Like US-24, US-36 was one of the original federal highways commissioned in 1926.  Running mostly straight east to west across the most rural stretches of the state, it also brings travelers close to Turkey Run and Shades State Parks before crossing downtown Indianapolis.
  • US Route 50 – The southern option for crossing the state on a historical federal route, US-50 runs through largely rural and relatively isolated areas of the state, eventually bearing northeast towards Cincinnati.
Upper falls under a stone arch bridge near old man's cave in hocking hills ohio
The Upper Falls at Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills

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Ohio

The Buckeye State will be the final stop on our cross country road trip itinerary.  Ohio is a relatively interesting state on the East Coast, made up of an unusual mix of large swaths of flat open farmland to the north and west, and thick forests and rolling hills to the south and east.  When looking at a satellite image of the state, it’s almost as if there’s a slash running diagonally across the state, separating the two different geographies contained within.

Places to go in Ohio

  • Cuyahoga Falls National Park:  The only National Park in the state, Cuyahoga Falls is a relatively new, absolutely gorgeous place to stop smack in the middle between Cleveland and Akron.  The long and narrow park, centered around the Cuyahoga River, features numerous hiking trails and is most widely known for the cascading Brandywine Falls.
  • May 4th Memorial:  Though the Kent State shooting in 1970 might be widely known, it’s absolutely worth seeing the memorial and learning more about the history of the four students murdered and nine more injured by the US National Guard during protests against the Vietnam War.
  • The Ohio State Reformatory:  Most obviously known as the site where the vast majority of Shawshank Redemption was filmed, the prison is also home to paranormal activities/ghost hunting, events, and other tours.  Make sure to check out the Shawshank Tree (on private property, only view from the road!) and Shawshank Woodshop.
  • Mohican State Park / State Forest:  This large park area is host to a number of excellent hiking & biking opportunities, a large river gorge, sizable woodlands, camping, and a massive covered bridge.
  • Hocking Hills State Park:  One of the state’s largest and most beautiful parks – if you ask me, it should’ve become the state’s National Park over Cuyahoga Falls – Hocking Hills features absolutely stunning rock formations, cliffs, caves, waterfalls, wooded areas, camping, hiking, gorges and a boatload of other incredible outdoor activities.  This absolute gem of a park was definitely overlooked when the time came to nominate a National Park for Ohio.
  • Historic Roscoe Village:  An entire historic town, preserved in time, features guided tours by costumed “villagers,” plus preserved buildings, old-timey shops, and boat rides on the canal.

Back Road Routes Across Ohio

  • US Route 36 – US-36 weaves and winds its way across central Ohio, passing through a handful of historic farming towns and villages, while also completely circumnavigating the insanity that can be downtown Columbus traffic.
  • State Route 32 – Starting at the outskirts of Cincinnati and twisting its way east, OH-32 quickly transforms from its urban start to a very rural, very scenic way to cross southern Ohio.
  • US Route 250 – US-250 cuts a diagonal path across the state, starting at the shores of Lake Erie at Sandusky (home of the sprawling Cedar Point amusement park) and taking a rather scenic track across rural Ohio farmland before hitting the foothills of West Virginia

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A beautiful vibrant sunset glows over a back road where there is a silhouette of two kids sit taking a selfie

When to Take a Cross Country Road Trip

The question of when to take a cross country road trip can be a very tricky one.  In addition to the amount of time required to drive cross country, one also has to factor in things like climate, elevation, and local weather extremes.  It is especially challenging due to the fact that the climate in areas along the way can vary drastically during the exact same months.  Toss in the fact that most of the highlighted places will be very busy during the summer months, and picking a time to take this trip can be an unenviable task!

How long does it take to drive cross country?

The first step in the process of choosing when to travel is determining how long you have!  Driving cross country can take as long or as short as you want, based upon how much time you have to take it slowly and explore.  In April of 2021, I drove from Pittsburgh PA to Sonoma CA – almost 2,600 miles – in 63 hours, completely by myself.   I had virtually no time to get the drive done, so I spent no time stopping and enjoying the trip.  On my very first cross country road trip, however, after my best friend Dietmar and I graduated from High School, we took over five weeks to drive a loop across the middle & southern parts of the country!

My point here is that how long you need for your road trip depends entirely upon how much time your schedule will allow.  Once you’ve determined this most crucial fact, you can start to build your itinerary around this knowledge.  For example, if you are retired and have no time constraints, you can take as long as you want, drive as slowly as you want, and stop as frequently – and for as long at each destination – as your heart desires.  Conversely, if you still work full time and have two kids in school, your trip is going to be a lot shorter and more constrained by your time off work.

What I personally advise people who are working with limited time is the following process:

  1. Get together with whoever you are travelling with and pick your top 3-5 most important destinations or priorities – the absolute must-see locations along the way.  Allot these top priorities more time in each day to explore, with as little driving time on those days as possible.
  2. Pick secondary priority destinations – places you are interested in seeing, but won’t be devastated if you don’t get much time to explore them.  Allot these secondary priorities less time on location, with more driving time on these days.
  3. For the rest of the trip, which doesn’t matter to you and doesn’t involve destinations of great interest, these can be the days where you do the bulk of your driving.  If possible, what you can do on these days is try to pick a scenic route that allows you to pass through interesting areas without stopping to explore.  Seeing it through the windows of your car is good enough.

Once you’ve completed this rough outline of your trip, I’d recommend the following driving times for each of the three “levels” or categories of destination:

  1. Top priority destinations – limit your driving time on these days to less than four hours per day.
  2. Secondary priority destinations – limit your driving time on these days to approximately 6-8 hours per day.
  3. Unimportant areas – drive as much during these days as you are physically capable; for most people, this should be at least 8-10 hours of driving per day.

A distant car drives up a back road as it weaves its way up a distant hillside

A few thoughts on driving time:  I advise all of my road trip planning customers that when I say driving time, I mean butts in seats, behind the wheel actually driving time.  This does NOT include time sleeping, eating, getting fuel, using the restrooms, etc.   My personal rule of thumb is that you should factor in 30-60 minutes of non-travel time for each four hours of actual driving.  So if I say 8 hours of actual driving, you should anticipate approximately 9-10 hours of travel time.  If it’s 12 hours of driving, anticipate 14-15 hours of actual travel time.  You absolutely should give yourself at least 8 hours of rest each night.

The other driving time factor to consider here is that driving on back roads is substantially slower than driving on the interstate.  In my experience, when driving strictly back roads, you are going to average approximately 40 miles for each hour of driving time.  That is a rough estimate, but again, in my many years and many thousands of miles of driving experience, it has consistently been very close to exactly correct.  So if you are planning to drive 200 miles on back roads, anticipate it’s going to take you approximately 5 hours of driving.

LONG STORY SHORT (TL/DR):  If you are planning on driving cross country and back, or round trip, you should allow yourself at least 20 total days for your trip.  For a 6,000 mile trip, that means you’ll average 300 miles per day.  That’s a lot, but if you break it up well, it’s absolutely manageable.

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A man and his dog walk slowly under the brutal heat of the midday sun at Great Sand Dune National Park in Colorado
Do yourself a favor and don’t go to the desert in the heat of summer!

What time of year should you drive cross country?

Because the weather can vary so dramatically in different regions of the country, this too can be a very tricky question to answer.  This will be an especially important consideration if you are camping:  when you’re sleeping outdoors, the weather conditions you’ll likely encounter become a critical part of your planning process.  If you’re going to be sleeping indoors, weather becomes less important, but still worth considering.

If you are travelling with children, you’re immediately limited to the summer months for your trip.  It’s the only time of year that your kids will be out of school long enough to enjoyably complete a journey of this type.  If you are not travelling with children, you have a lot more flexibility, and quite frankly, should strongly consider avoiding the summer months if possible.  The summer months are going to be crowded by the aforementioned families with kids, and more importantly, are likely going to be unpleasantly hot in the vast majority of the country.

So when should you travel if you’re not going in the summer?  My personal favorite times to travel are late spring and mid-fall.  Most destinations will have the least amount of visitors in these timeframes, and generally speaking, they are the best times of year weather-wise.  Daytime temperatures in most of the country are pleasantly mild, and in most places, it does not get terribly cold overnight.  To be even more specific, if possible, you should try to plan your trip for either the middle of May or the middle of September.

A word of warning about these travel times:  You’re going to have to be careful when travelling in high elevations, or at the northern edge of the country at these times of year.  I’ve experienced severe snowstorms in the High Sierra in May, and I’ve experienced freezing rain and snow in Idaho in late August (granted, we were ALSO at a higher elevation when that happened, but still).  So if you know that you’re going far north, or up high in altitude, be prepared for a little bit of cold weather.  If you’re camping, you absolutely must be prepared to spend the night in below-freezing temperatures.

Aside from those two caveats, though, late spring and mid-fall are the best times of year to drive cross country!

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A drone photo captures the setting sun glows behind the towering granite peaks of Grand Teton national park
Our campsite at Grand Teton National Park wasn’t too shabby!

Where should you stay on a cross country road trip?

You have a couple basic options to choose from for overnight stays on a cross country road trip:

    • Hotels/motels
    • Camping
    • Bed n Breakfasts (actual BNBs)
    • AirBNB/VRBO
    • Friends and family

I’ve utilized all of the options over the years, and in some cases, a blend of more than one at a time.  Frankly, if you are flexible and can mix and match the options, based upon weather and financial considerations, that’s going to usually be your best option.  I give brief thoughts on each option below.

Hotel/Motel

A hotel or motel is most likely going to be the easiest and most comfortable option for you.  In most places, there are a number of options to choose from.  If you pay for a nicer hotel, you’ll get a clean room and comfortable bed, with a hot breakfast in the morning.  The biggest downside is the cost, and the inability to prepare meals unless you really pony up and get a suite with kitchen.  My personal favorite affordable chain hotels are Holiday Inn and Best Western.

Camping

Camping is the second cheapest option, and if you are willing to find dispersed or wild campsites like I typically do, will often provide you with some extraordinary scenery and surroundings.  I’ve written a couple posts about how to find excellent campsites already, so I won’t rehash that here.  The biggest downsides are the exposure to weather, and the fact that finding a campsite during daylight hours really limits how far you can drive each day.

Bed n Breakfasts

This is the option I’ve utilized the least, but it is one that I should probably start doing far more often.  True BNB’s were once a dying breed, though they’ve experienced a resurgence in popularity recently.  BNB’s are typically unique and enjoyable experiences, especially when you have a great host.  They are often found in historic buildings with incredible architecture, and many include one or more hot meals.  The biggest downside is that they are often the most expensive option per night.

AirBNB/VRBO

A modernized version of the old BNB system, AirBNB and VRBO are websites where property owners can offer up their homes – or a portion of their home – for rent to travelers.  There is an unfathomable amount of variety and diversity in the types of places and the types of amenities available to travelers, from the most bare bones single bedroom in the owner’s house to some of the most elaborate and unusual overnight accommodations I’ve ever seen.  Prices for places to stay can also vary dramatically, giving travelers a great deal of control over budget, amenities and quality.  The biggest downside, if you can call it that, is the amount of skill and experience needed to find and figure out how to choose the right places to fit your needs.  We’ve stayed in some real stinkers over the years, but we’ve mostly had really incredible experiences.

Friends and Family

Staying with friends or family members is, of course, the lowest cost option for overnight accommodations.  Not only will F&F not charge you (I should hope!), many will often also provide you with meals and – critically important on a long trip – a place to wash your clothing!  My very first cross country road trip, all the way back in 1999, was primarily spent staying with friends & family.  Even with paying for hotels and meals in quite a few locations, that particular trip – 5 weeks, 9,000 miles – only cost my friend and I around $900 each!

You should try to mix in at least one or two F&F stops spread out over the course of your trip for this exact reason, unless you have the space or interest in packing enough clothing for 2-3 weeks of travel.  F&F will also be able to provide you with excellent insights about local places you should check out, from restaurants and shopping to parks, museums, and other activities.  The biggest “downside” of staying with F&F is the logistical restrictions of basing a trip around where your friends and family live… and when they are available and can host you!

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A man stands in the middle of a back road in the desert of eastern California with the towering Sierra Nevada mountains in the background

What should you pack for a cross country road trip?

This might just be the toughest section to tackle.  In addition to being heavily dependent upon the time of year that you’re travelling, how long your trip will be, and the destinations you’ll be exploring, it will also vary wildly based upon the size and storage of your vehicle, where you’ll be sleeping each night, who is travelling with you, etc.  As such, my suggestions are going to be fairly generic in nature.  Though I do have a couple posts dedicated to gear for camping trips, my intent here is to provide you with a basic must-have list suitable for virtually any trip.

What I would recommend is start by working with a handful of categories, and working your way from there:

  • Clothing – pack enough for a full week of outfits, plus at least one or two “extreme weather” options
  • Shoes – spend a lot of time walking and hiking in your current boots and shoes before your trip to determine if they’re comfortable – on the road is not when you want to realize you need better footwear
  • Food/Food Storage – this is addressed in detail in my camping posts, but you’re going to want water-tight and long-lasting food storage options
  • Safety/Medical gear – though I list this fourth, having a medical kit, fire extinguisher, flashlight Fix-A-Flat, jumper cables, and other safety items easily accessible should be your first priority
  • Camera gear – in addition to the gear you’ll need for night sky photography, I also recommend having a nice zoom lens on hand for taking incredible landscape photographs – I use a Nikon 55-300mm lens
  • Tools – addressed in depth in my camping gear and motorcycle gear posts, just a few simple hand tools will get you through a lot of potentially unpleasant situations
  • Music/Entertainment/books – the drive and various attractions are going to be amazing, but I’d be lying if I said you’re not going to also have long and boring stretches of time to kill on your trip.  Having various forms of entertainment – especially if you’re traveling with family – will be crucial.  I recommend having books, magazines, playing cards, and a couple travel-size board games on hand.  Oh, and don’t forget your playlist!

Road trip tips, suggestions, and other travel advice

In addition to my own advice for taking a cross country road trip, I’ve gathered insights and suggestions from dozens of other road trippers over the last year

in anticipation of creating this post.  Though I’ve taken dozens of road trips and driven countless thousands of miles over the last 25 years, I certainly haven’t experienced everything.  I reached out to other travelers and collected their suggestions for taking long road trips.  One thing I’ve learned about people who travel a lot – they love to help other people get out on the road!

I’m going to start off with one of the most crucial lessons I’ve learned in all my years of taking road trips.

Download offline mapsLINK (make sure to click on Android or iPhone at the top) – I cannot stress the importance of this step strongly enough.  One of the very first recommendations I make to every road trip planning client I’ve worked with is to download offline Google maps.   Every cross country road trip will include driving in areas with no cell service.   If you’ve not prepared ahead of time by downloading offline maps for those areas, you might lose your route plans at the worst time possible.  If you aren’t sure where your cell providers don’t have coverage, start with this FCC Map, downloading maps in areas where no service is available.

A drone shot of a u-shaped two lane back road winds through the pine trees in eastern California's High Sierra region
US Route 50 winds through several valleys on its way across the High Sierra in Eastern California

Road Trip Advice

  • Have a general plan, but allow for spontaneity & choices along the way
  • Pack items that can serve multiple purposes
  • Get a car power adapter (turns your car’s cigarette lighter into an outlet with USB ports)
  • Bring reusable items (water bottles, coffee mugs) instead of disposable ones
  • Bring a water bottle with filter, or a filter straw
  • Build in time for stops at local shops, farmers markets, antique stores and other ways to incorporate local culture
  • Opt for healthy snacks (trail mix, triscuits) and avoid soda and candy
  • Bring your recreational wheels along:  MTB, bicycle, scooter, rollerblades etc
  • Visit more than just National Parks!  State and county parks often provide excellent natural scenery and local history.
  • Hang a shoe rack behind your seats for convenient and organized access to your stuff
  • Buy a camp toilet and keep TP in your vehicle
  • Utilize a small “grab bag” with a couple days’ of clothing & supplies so you’re not hauling your suitcases in at every stop, rotating stuff in or out as needed
  • Be sure to hydrate & consume electrolytes, especially in the desert
  • If camping, be sure to practice setting up your tent at night using only your headlamp, just in case
  • Drive less than 12 hours per day – 7-8 hours is OK, but 4-5 hours is ideal if possible
  • Buy a national parks pass before you leave!
  • Always stop to visit friends and family whenever they will be near your route
  • Ask older bikers where the prettiest local drives are
  • Don’t drive long distances at night – it’s not worth the risk, and you miss out on the scenery!
  • Eat your meals somewhere scenic whenever possible, whether by a window or at a picnic table or on an overlook
  • Get and maintain roadside assistance – AAA or some other similar service
  • Freeze bottles of water to use as ice packs and to give you something cold to drink
  • Search for weird local destinations on Atlas Obscura / Roadside America / Factory Tours
  • Be aware that there will be remote areas in the western states with no gas stations for 30-50 miles in any direction and plan accordingly – as old bikers say, don’t pass gas on a road trip!
  • Always double-check the weather conditions at the next day’s destination when you’re stopped at night
  • Watch for road closures and plan alternative routes if needed
  • Open a credit card a month or two before you leave, only use that card, then cancel it at the end of your trip to prevent fraud / identity theft
  • Be flexible – plans can change quickly due to unforeseen emergencies like a wildfire (or pandemic!)
  • Maximize your bathroom stops – get gas, walk the dog, buy fresh supplies, etc
  • Start your day early – beat rush hour traffic, maximize sunlight hours, etc

Check out our tips & tricks for back roads travel!

Don’t forget that there’s an entire category on our website dedicated solely to road trips!

And, if all else fails, you can always ask us for help.

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A drone shot of a back road winding down a hill towards the Pacific Coast in California
Enjoy your trip from coast to coast!

2 thoughts on “The Great American Road Trip: an Itinerary for Driving Cross Country

  1. Wow! This is excellent on so many levels! The road trip advice is really valuable no matter how long or short your trip will be!

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