Top 5 Summer Road Trip Routes for Anywhere in America

49 Hudson

Americans don’t take enough road trips. Cross-country voyages are often spoken of fondly, almost with a pining nostalgia, as if driving coast to coast were a endeavor possible only in an era long past. The 50s are oft considered the golden age of the automobile, the point at which highways and consumer vehicles finally opened up the great expanse of North America to its affluent inhabitants. Loving road trips (or, at least, loving the idea of a road trip) is a prerequisite of being young.  Both youth and the young at heart romanticize the open road, perhaps because of guys like Kerouac or perhaps because they’ve spent so little time traversing its infinite tributaries. So why don’t we go on more road trips? Gas prices? Lodging costs? Limited leisure time? Fear? Or is the reality of driving 3,000 miles less appealing than the fantasy?

We’re here to tell you to stop reminiscing about the 20th century and start planning your next road trip for the summer of 2012. Gas is expensive, yes. You can curb costs by inviting along a few friends and splitting the price. Suddenly, $500 to cross the country becomes $100 a person. Lodging can be expensive, but it shouldn’t be. Don’t stay in hotels (or even motels). Hostels and campsites are everywhere and will host you for $0 to $20 a night. Hop onto one of my favorite websites, CouchSurfing.org, and find free lodging virtually anywhere around the globe. Paying for food is another easy fix. Buy a couple giant bags of trail mix for $7 apiece, and you’ll have food for a week. Theoretically, if you cram 5 people into your car and exercise the utmost frugality, your basic travel expenses for a coast-to-coast journey could stand at less than $150 a person. That should leave you plenty of money to see the sites, take your time and treat yourself to a few good meals.

Now that we’ve reassured you of the practicality of road-tripping, we’ll get you started with a  few ideas for routes. Keep in mind, every road trip will be unique, and there are no universal templates to satiate everyone’s wanderlust. With any luck, these suggestion will get you thinking about the boundless possibilities, but stay creative and feel free to Frankenstein together a more individualized route.

And please comment with ideas, tips or suggestions of your own!

USA Loop

Estimated Mileage: 8,700

Suggested Duration: As long as possible

This trip is for folks with plenty of time and resources who want to see it all. Start on any border or coast and follow the boundaries in a giant circle. Since NerdWallet is based in San Francisco, we’ll start there and go clockwise.

  • BEGIN: San Francisco, CA – Chinatown, Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Napa/Sonoma, CA – Hit up the wineries
  • Portland, OR – Farmer’s Market, Saturday Market, Rose Garden
  • Seattle, WA – Space Needle, ferry ride, world’s first Starbucks, underground tour
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Minneapolis, MN – Mall of America
  • Chicago, IL – Wrigley Field, Millennium Park, Navy Pier
  • Cleveland, OH – Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Cuyahoga Valley National Park
  • Boston, MA – Boston Common, clam chowder
  • New York City, NY – Times Square, Statue of Liberty, Ground Zero, Chinatown, Coney Island
  • Washington D.C. – White House, Capital Building, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial
  • Myrtle Beach – Sun and sand
  • Savannah, GA – River street, Forsyth Park, haunted pub crawl, Paula Dean’s Lady and Sons
  • Orlando, FL – Disney, Universal, visit a beach on either side of the panhandle
  • New Orleans, LA – Street cars, St. Louis Cathedral, Bourbon Street
  • Houston, TX – Bayou Complex, Johnson Space Center, Montrose
  • Albuquerque, NM – Hot air balloon ride, Petroglyph National Monument
  • Petrified Forest
  • Grand Canyon National Park
  • Los Angeles – Hollywood, Beverly Hills, beaches
  • Death Valley National Park
  • Yosemite National Park
  • END: San Francisco, CA

Southern Loop

Estimated Mileage: 4,900

Suggested Duration: 2-4 weeks

Here’s a plausible route for getting a taste of the South. Again, you can start at any one of these locations and wrap your way around.

  • BEGIN: Savannah, GA – River Street, Paula Dean’s Lady and Sons, haunted/historical tours
  • Jacksonville, FL – Beach, Riverside District
  • Miami, FL – Beach, Everglades
  • Orlanda – Disney, Universal, water parks
  • Honeymoon Island – Beach
  • Birmingham, AL – Statue of Liberty replica, Jazz Hall of Fame, Botanical Gardens
  • New Orleans, LA – Street cars, St. Louis Cathedral, Bourbon Street
  • Houston, TX – Bayou Complex, Johnson Space Center, Montrose
  • Austin, TX – Austin City Limits, Texas History Museum,  Mount Bonnel
  • Dallas, TX – Southfork Ranch, JFK assassination site, Mesquite Championship Rodeo
  • Dinosaur World in AR
  • Memphis, TN – Mississippi River, Beale Street, Graceland
  • Nashville, TN – Jack Daniel Distillery, Carnton Plantation, Belcourt Theatre
  • Snowshoe Mountain, WV
  • Washington D.C. – White House, Capital Building, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial
  • Virginia Beach- Sun and sand
  • Myrtle Beach – More sun, more sand
  • END: Savannah, GA

New England Loop

Estimated Mileage: 2,000

Suggested Duration: 2-3 weeks

  • BEGIN: New York City, NY – Times Square, Statue of Liberty, Ground Zero, Chinatown, Coney Island
  • Philadelphia, PA – Independence National Historical Park, Valley Forge National Historic Park
  • Niagara Falls
  • Acadia National Park in Maine
  • Rindge, NH – Cathedral of Pines
  • Salem, MA – Heritage Trail, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem Witch Museum, Witch Dungeon Museum
  • Boston, MA – Boston Common, clam chowder
  • Plymouth, MA – Historic tours, Burial Hill, Pilgrim Hall Museum
  • Newport, RI – Cliff Walk
  • END: New York City, NY

Southwest Loop

Estimated Mileage: 3,500

Suggested Duration: 2-4 weeks

  • BEGIN: Denver, CO – Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater, Denver Art Museum, 16th Street, Washington Park
  • Albuquerque, NM – Hot air balloons, Petroglyph National Monument
  • Santa Fe, NM – Santa Fe Opera, Southern Railroad, Loretto Chapel
  • Roswell, NM – Aliens!
  • Petrified Forest
  • Tuscon, AZ – Desert Museum, Saguara National Park, San Xavier Mission
  • Pheonix, AZ – Heard Museum, Piestewa Peak, Scottsdale Art Walk
  • Grand Canyon National Park
  • Los Angeles, CA – Hollywood, Beverly Hills, beaches, clubs
  • Death Valley National Park
  • Las Vegas, NV – Gambling!
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah
  • Boulder, CO – Pearl Street, Rocky Mountain National Park
  • END: Denver, CO

Northwest Loop

Estimated Mileage: 3,500

Suggested Duration: 3-4 weeks

  • BEGIN: San Francisco, CA – Chinatown, Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Napa/Sonoma, CA – Hit up the wineries
  • Portland, OR – Farmer’s Market, Saturday Market, Rose Garden
  • Seattle, WA – Space Needle, ferry ride, world’s first Starbucks, underground tour
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Grand Teton National Park
  • Denver, CO – Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater, Denver Art Museum, 16th Street, Washington Park
  • Boulder, CO – Pearl Street, Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Salt Lake City, UT – Temple Square, The Gateway, City Creek Center, Bingham CanyonCopper Mine
  • Yosemite National Park
  • END: San Francisco, CA