8 Amazing Last-Minute Summer Road Trips in the United States

Embarking on a road trip across the United States has been instilled as an American pastime, thanks to iconic works like "Thelma and Louise" and Jack Kerouac’s "On the Road." In less romanticized terms, road trips can fill an itinerary with bucolic countryside scenery, natural wonders, and off-the-beaten-path adventures. Summer is the season of choice for most road trippers, so those planning a last-minute getaway should be mindful of larger crowds and attractions requiring advance planning. To get you started, we’ve assembled a list of eight amazing summer road trips across the country.

Bixby Creek Bridge, Hariesh Rajagopal/Unsplash

1. Eastern Sierra Mountains, California

The Pacific Coast Highway often steals the spotlight, running 656 miles along California’s shoreline. Though scenic, this route can be visited any month of the year and suffers from significant congestion in greater Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Instead, head inland to explore California’s rugged mountain and desert terrain along U.S. 395. The route begins on Lake Tahoe’s eastern shores in Nevada. The popular ski destination delivers summertime fun, including hiking, mountain biking, and gondola rides. Soon after departing Lake Tahoe, U.S. 395 cuts back into California, leading south to otherworldly Mono Lake. This high-desert lake dates back more than one million years and is nearly three times as salty as the ocean. Though the towering Sierra Mountains are clearly in view here, all eyes are turned to the lake’s rugged tufa towers, which are formed by calcium rising from the earth. Ahead, Mammoth Lakes has a multitude of outdoor activities and hot springs to soothe sore muscles. Drive onward to Kings Canyon National Park, where remote alpine wilderness and the world’s second-largest tree, General Grant, await. Kings Canyon is spared the summer rush, which bogs down neighboring Yosemite and Sequoia, making it the preferred destination for an impromptu last-minute trip.

2. Blue Ridge Parkway

Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Kirk Thornton/Unsplash

Traversing 469 miles through the Appalachian Mountains, the incredibly picturesque Blue Ridge Parkway leads from Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Despite its popularity in the summer, this route is prime for road trips. For starters, there are ample accommodation options along the route, including campsites and B&Bs, while nearby Charlottesville and Asheville have even more hotel choices. Additionally, large trucks are banned from entering the parkway and the speed limit is kept at a reasonable 45 mph. Beginning in Afton, Virginia, the parkway winds southwest through George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, where hiking and historic attractions abound, including Thomas Jefferson’s home, Poplar Forest. Continuing on, the parkway flattens out through the Plateau region, known for its farm tours and country music scene. Try the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia, to learn more about the region’s musical heritage and enjoy live performances. The mountain scenery returns in the parkway’s Highland section, where highlights include panoramic views from Grandfather Mountain, subterranean adventures in Linville Caverns, and a refreshing dip in Lake James. The final stretch of the parkway, the Pisgah region, is steeped in history and natural attractions, such as the palatial Biltmore Estate and Chimney Rock viewpoint.

3. Oregon Coast and Wine Country

Oregon Route 101, David Fulmer/Flickr

Oregon’s natural beauty is on full display in the summer, especially along its dramatic, rocky shoreline. Starting in Portland, head west toward Cannon Beach to explore the tide pools and spot puffins on Haystack Rock, which rises 235 feet from the sandy beach. During low tide, visitors can walk out to Haystack Rock, so time your visit accordingly. Next, trace U.S. 101 south along the coast. More than 300 miles of road lies ahead before the California border, with plenty of parks, sleepy towns, and stunning beaches along the way. If you have the time, trek down to the southern stretch of Oregon’s coast – magnificent scenery awaits at Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor and China Beach in particular. Otherwise, there are plenty of exceptional stops just south of Cannon Beach, such as Devils Punchbowl and Cobble Beach.

After exploring the coast, loop back to Portland via Route 20, which shoots inland from Newport to Albany. From here, follow I-5 north into the Willamette Valley – Oregon’s premier wine region. Compared to California’s glitzier Napa and Sonoma, the Willamette Valley still flies somewhat under the radar. With over 500 wineries on offer, embarking on a spur-of-the-moment visit here is certainly doable.

4. Coastal Maine

Marshall Point Lighthouse, Susan Bell/Flickr

Maine’s 230 miles of serene coastline are best explored with a set of wheels. Although summer is Maine’s high season, the abundance of B&Bs, hotels, rentals, and campsites make this a feasible, spontaneous venture spanning a few days or a week. Starting on the south coast in the town of Kittery, follow the twists and turns of Route 1 to the town of Lubec. Here, take in the best of Maine’s charming fishing towns and beaches. Just north of Kittery, Ogunquit and Kennebunkport are ideal stops for perusing local art galleries and boutiques, beachcombing, and noshing on fresh seafood. Ahead, vibrant Portland is home to one of the best restaurants in the United States, plus plenty of trendy bars and vintage shops. Heading up Maine’s central coast, more picturesque towns await at Rockport, Camden, and Belfast before arriving at the turn-off for Acadia National Park. The sizable park encompasses secluded lakes, a rocky coast, gushing streams, and dense forests, which can be easily explored thanks to an extensive system of well-marked hiking trails. Continuing on into the Down East region, you’ll leave much of the crowds behind, and be rewarded with more authentic fishing villages and deserted beaches before pulling off for Lubec, the easternmost point of the contiguous United States.

5. San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway, Colorado

San Juan Skyway, David Fulmer/Flickr

Outdoor enthusiasts and nature photographers should set their sights on this southwestern journey through the Colorado Rockies. The high-elevation region has far-from-ideal driving conditions until the snow has thawed in the summer months. Begin this 236-mile loop in Durango, a former mining town that has experienced a bohemian renaissance, yet retained its old west atmosphere. From here, drive west to explore the Puebloan cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. Just to the west, search for ruins among the weathered landscape at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, which contains the highest concentration of archaeological sites in the United States. To the north, drop in for a craft beer at Telluride Brewing Company or Smuggler’s Brewpub after trekking to Bear Creek Falls. Then, pay close attention while navigating the Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Silverton. The canyons are remarkable, but more importantly, this section of road lacks any guardrails. Finally, upon arriving back in Durango, kick back on a well-deserved ride on the historic steam locomotive into the San Juan Mountains.

6. Fort Lauderdale to Key West, Florida

Once things heat up in the summer, the crowds and hotel prices in Florida drop noticeably. Now that there’s more room to roam, make the most it and cruise along U.S. Route 1 from Fort Lauderdale down to the mangroves and sandy beaches of the Florida Keys. The ease of flying to Fort Lauderdale, plus its historic attractions and pristine beaches, make it an ideal starting point to take in some of Florida’s best coastline and cultural spots. Of course, Miami’s vibrant nightlife and dynamic cuisine merit a night or two of indulgence at the very least.

Leaving mainland Florida, you’ll first cross Key Largo, the longest of the Florida Keys. It’s worth a stop to explore the marine life, whether snorkeling, diving, or on a glass-bottom boat tour in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Continuing on, you’ll pass plenty of alluring beaches and glimmering bays on your way to Key West. A popular LGBTQ+ retreat, Key West hosts a mix of family-friendly fun and fetish festivals throughout the year, with nightly gatherings in Mallory Square.

7. Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, Alabama

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Craig’s Obsession/Flickr

Running 54 miles between Selma and Montgomery, this scenic byway follows the monumental five-day march undertaken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists in 1965. Demonstrators totaled in the thousands, and their historic efforts ushered the signing of the Voting Rights Act shortly after. This bold event followed the brutal attack of peaceful demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma by Alabama state police. Shifting back to present day, a road trip along the path (U.S. Highway 80) offers the chance to pay homage and dive deeper into the history of the Civil Rights Movement. The Lowndes Interpretive Center is dedicated to the peaceful demonstrators, and includes exhibits on those who lost their lives here during the march. In Montgomery, check out the Rosa Parks Museum, Freedom Rides Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which recognizes the thousands of lynching victims across the United States — the majority of which never received justice.

8. Traverse City to Pictured Rocks, Michigan

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Dennis Buchner/Unsplash

Once the winter has subsided, Michigan’s natural beauty truly shines, especially on the Upper Peninsula (usually referred to as the UP). Begin your journey north in Traverse City. Though it may be most well-known as Michigan’s cherry capital, this mid-size city punches well above its weight in terms of art and culture, plus it is conveniently located near wineries and Sleeping Bear Dunes. Head out of town along Route 31, which traces Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan northbound. A handful of quaint, lakeside towns, such as Charlevoix and Petoskey are worthwhile stops for browsing art galleries and enjoying local eats. Across the Straits of Mackinac, the UP’s dense forest and coastline beckon. Once across the Mackinac Bridge, head north toward Whitefish Point, known for its beautiful beaches and shipwreck museum. Be sure to pull over along the way to appreciate the gushing cascades at Tahquamenon Falls. Finally, shift course to the west, and finish the two- to two-and-a-half-hour drive to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Arguably the most scenic span of the Great Lakes coastline, Pictured Rocks boasts dramatic sandstone cliffs, lakeside caves, shipwrecks, and sandy beaches. Adventure seekers can rent a kayak or backpack the North Country trail, while boat trips deliver views of Lake Superior’s breathtaking scenery at a more leisurely pace.

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