The more I travel the world the more I have come to appreciate and fall in love with the American West. There’s nowhere in the world like it in terms of diversity – both of landscapes and people – and the sheer beauty.
Where else can you in one region experience one of the hottest deserts on Earth, the tallest trees, the most famous coastline, world class skiing, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and the sweeping canyons and rock arches of Utah? It would take a lifetime to explore it all, and then some, but the following road trips can help you get a taste of each of these incredible places.
The following are some of the best road trips in the western USA, from state to state. These trips follow a somewhat-logical loop, beginning in California.
The Golden State is one of the most diverse in the nation, with a world famous coastal drive, a wealth of national parks, and 25% of the state covered in desert. There’s so much to see, but a few road trips have the highlights covered:
Pacific Coast Highway
This might be the most famous road trip in the entire USA. Pacific Coast Highway takes you down the California coast, making a wonderful road trip full of picturesque spots. You’ll cover nearly 800 miles, and you’ll spend about a week on this trip, minimum.
- San Diego: Start your road trip in one of California’s southernmost cities, where surfers and great Mexican food abound.
- Los Angeles: Cruise 120 miles north to L.A., where you’ll find everything from skyscrapers to colorful sunsets over the Hollywood sign. Stop in Orange County on the way for spectacular beaches and Disneyland.
- Santa Barbara: Enjoy the views of the Pacific Ocean on the 95-mile drive up to sunny Santa Barbara, where you’ll camp overnight.
- San Luis Obispo: Continue on another 95 miles to stop for lunch in San Luis Obispo or another spot in SLO County like Pismo Beach.
- Big Sur: Drive 110 miles to Big Sur, where you’ll admire seaside cliffs and waterfalls, and camp among the tall redwood trees.
- Carmel/Monterey: Upon leaving Big Sur, drive 30 miles north to Carmel, where you can cruise the famous 17-Mile Drive through the Monterey Peninsula on the way to San Francisco, another 125 miles up the coast.
- San Francisco: Spend a day in San Francisco, where you can explore the funky Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, shop on Fisherman’s Wharf, walk around the Presidio, and more.
- Humboldt County: Drive the last 280 miles of the trip up to Arcata in Humboldt County, often called the “Lost Coast” for its complete lack of tourism. Walk along empty stretches of beach and enjoy the peace and quiet. Stop in Fort Bragg if you have the time!
Check out the full PCH itinerary here!
Most people don’t go on a trip just to see deserts, but they’re missing out! This 430-mile, six-day trip is as varied as it is beautiful.
- Alabama Hills: This is the place of old Western movie sets and incredible stargazing, where Mobius Arch, Boot Arch, and Movie Road are must-sees.
- Death Valley: The Badwater Basin, Golden Canyon, and sunrise at Zabriskie Point make Death Valley, 110 miles to the east, a stunning stop.
- Mojave National Preserve and Mojave Trails National Monument: 150 miles southeast of Death Valley is the third largest unit of the National Park System in the contiguous U.S.; highlights include Kelso Dunes, Amboy Crater including ghost town with iconic Roy’s Motel Cafe, and the lava tubes.
- Joshua Tree: Drive 90 miles south to see the famous (but dying) Joshua trees, Barker Dam, the Cholla Cactus Garden, and an incredible, starry sky.
- Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: Finally, drive 80 miles southwest to explore natural wind caves and take in amazing views stretching on as far as the eye can see at Font’s Point.
Read more about this California deserts itinerary here!
Nevada might just be one of the American Southwest’s most underrated places, simply because people don’t know much about it besides Vegas and Tahoe. While those are both awesome places, there is much more to explore in Nevada! A road trip like this one is the best way to discover the Silver State for yourself. With every stop mentioned below, it covers nearly 900 miles and takes about five days:
- Seven Magic Mountains: Check out this art installation of painted and stacked rocks lying between the mountains and Interstate 15, 25 miles out of Vegas.
- Las Vegas: Vegas makes a great girlfriends’ getaway, so it would be a perfect stop for a day or two if you’re road-tripping with friends!
- Grand Canyon: The Grand Canyon is a no-brainer. You can even take a helicopter tour from Vegas like I did!
- Valley of Fire: Camp at this state park, 50 miles from Vegas, and check out Seven Sisters, Elephant Rock, Beehives, and Fire Wave Trail if time allows.
- Historical Ghost Towns: Nevada is home to countless historical ghost towns which make for cool stops. Be sure to check out Belmont Mill (north of Valley of Fire) and Gold Point (northwest of Vegas).
- Hot Springs: Nevada has more hot springs than any other state, so be sure to incorporate a few of them into your road trip. Soldier Meadows and Black Rock (up north and west), Spencer (dead center), and Gold Strike (down south) look especially cool.
- Tahoe: From the northwest hot springs, drive south 170 miles to go stand-up paddle boarding on the crystal-clear water of Lake Tahoe or hiking in the hills surrounding it.
Utah is one of the best destinations in the U.S. for seeing the great outdoors. Here is a ten-stop itinerary for the lesser-known sights of southern Utah, spanning 550 miles and about five days:
- Dead Horse Point State Park: A unique road trip through Utah begins at Moab’s Dead Horse Point State Park, which is just as geographically impressive as the Grand Canyon, minus all the tourists.
- Canyonlands National Park: A short drive away, Needles Overlook at Canyonlands provides a scenic drive up to a 360-degree viewpoint of southern Utah.
- Bears Ears National Monument: Drive 115 miles south from Moab to just past and west of Blanding, where you’ll be able to check out the ancient cave drawings at Bears Ears.
- Valley of the Gods: Camp on the free public land at Valley of the Gods and wake up to awesome views of red rock formations.
- Goosenecks State Park: Only ten miles away, Goosenecks State Park offers a panorama of the Colorado River winding through the canyon below.
- Natural Bridges National Monument: For your last stop near Blanding, hike the three major bridges at Natural Bridges National Monument.
- Goblin Valley State Park: 130 miles away, you can stroll through the mushroom-like red rock formations at Goblin Valley State Park.
- Little Wild Horse/Bell Canyon: These two slot canyons, right next to Goblin Valley, resemble the more popular Antelope Canyon.
- Capitol Reef National Park: 70 more miles gets you to Teasdale’s Capitol Reef National Park, where you’ll see massive rock formations rising out of the ground.
- Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: Your last destination is Big Water, where you can spend a day hiking Coyote Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
For more tips and tricks, check out the full itinerary for Utah’s best secret places!
The destinations covered in this section, as well as some of the Nevada suggestions and the following Arizona suggestions, are included in my more in-depth American Southwest Road Trip itinerary as well.
Arizona’s abundance of natural sights means that you’ll see everything from waterfalls to massive rock structures on this week-long road trip, which covers almost a thousand miles.
- Sedona: Artsy Sedona is a famous spot for energy vortexes, and with great hikes like Devil’s Bridge, Bell Rock and Cathedral Rock, you could easily spend a day or two here.
- Havasu Falls: Southeast 205 miles lies the beautiful blue Havasu Falls, which is worth the permit and ten-mile hike required to reach it. Here’s all you need to know about making it happen.
- Grand Canyon: It’s a 200-mile drive to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, where you can enjoy the views along Desert View Drive, watch the sunset at Yavapai Point, and check out the lesser-known Lipan Point, spending the night in either Flagstaff or Cameron.
- Horseshoe Bend: Continue the sightseeing at picturesque Horseshoe Bend, another 120 miles north towards Page, where you can get some stunning sunset photos.
- Antelope Canyon: A bit east is Antelope Canyon, the world’s most famous slot canyon. Check out more info about Antelope Canyon here!
- The Wave/White Pocket: 60 miles away, the Wave sits at the Arizona-Utah border and requires a permit, but its neighbor White Pocket is much easier to see. (Read more about White Pocket here.)
- Monument Valley: Drive a couple hours east to Monument Valley, where the rock structures seem to rise up out of nowhere.
- Canyon de Chelly: 100 miles back down south lies Canyon de Chelly, a frequently overlooked spot, where you can take a guided hike through the canyon or head up to Spider Rock Overlook on your own for great views.
- Petrified Forest National Park: 110 more miles south toward Phoenix, the multicolored buttes full of fossils and wildflowers at Painted Desert are certainly a sight to see.
For more details on hikes, national parks and monuments, tours, and routes, check out the full guide to an Arizona road trip!
While winter isn’t typically road trip season, it certainly can be in Idaho when it means hopping between hot springs! This itinerary leads you to some of Idaho’s best springs over nearly 250 miles and five days:
- The Springs: From Boise, drive 40 miles to Idaho City, where The Springs, one of the more spa-like hot springs, offers a private jacuzzi with a server to bring you snacks and drinks.
- Kirkham Hot Springs: Continue 40 more miles to Lowman, where the Kirkham Hot Springs on the Payette River offers steaming waterfalls and incredible mountain views.
- Mountain Village Resort: The rustic Mountain Village Resort in Stanley feels like a winter wonderland when it snows. Staying at the hotel gets you free access to the spring-fed spa pools.
- Boat Box Hot Springs: A few miles outside Stanley, Boat Box — which isn’t a pool in the ground but a small metal tub that looks like a witch’s cauldron — sits right on the river.
- Sunbeam Hot Springs: Sunbeam Hot Springs, only ten minutes beyond Boat Box, is a single pool which has the potential for some peaceful solitude.
- Goldbug Hot Springs: Another 55 miles gets you to the famous Goldbug Hot Springs, different pools of varying temperatures which all have incredible views.
- Sun Valley: Back up towards Stanley, Sun Valley is a fun and friendly town with a few nearby hot springs.
Check out the whole guide to Idaho hot springs here!
For a more summer-oriented road trip from Boise to Stanley, including Craters of the Moon, check out my 5-days in Idaho itinerary! This is the perfect segue into the next stop – Montana, or east to Wyoming!
There is a reason why Montana is called “Big Sky Country.” See it for yourself with this 530-mile, week-long road trip:
- Big Sky: Big Sky boasts scenic hikes, biking, zip lining, whitewater rafting on the Gallatin River, horseback riding, a variety of spas, and two gorgeous drives (the scenic road through Gallatin Canyon and the Lone Mountain Trail scenic drive).
- Butte & Boulder: Drive 120 miles north to Butte, once nicknamed, “the Richest Hill on Earth,” to see the old mansions and Victorian business district, then head northeast 40 miles to Boulder to visit a natural hot spring.
- Helena: 30 miles past Boulder is the state capital, where you’ll see historic sites like Reeder’s Alley, the ornate Cathedral of St. Helena, and the Women’s Mural; then, follow a walking tour of the Mansion District or hike to the top of Mount Helena City Park for a panoramic view of the city.
- Hamilton: 160 miles west gets you to Hamilton, which maintains that old-school small town feel but is set apart by a buzzing downtown and bustling arts and music scene.
- Missoula: Drive north to the “Garden City” of Montana, where you can raft Alberton Gorge, stroll along the riverfront walking trail, hit up a food truck or Big Dipper Ice Cream, go shopping, or even check out another hot spring.
- Libby: 175 miles northwest of Missoula, Libby’s main attraction is the nearby Kootenai Falls, a waterfall overlooked by a long swinging bridge. Other adventures in Libby include riding OHVs (Off-Highway Vehicles) on miles of trails and cross country skiing in the winter.
- Optional Addition — Glacier National Park: If you’re feeling up to it, head to Glacier National Park to spend a few extra days taking in the incredible natural beauty of Montana! Read more about Glacier here.
Wyoming is the least populated state in the U.S., leaving a lot of room for things like skiing and snowboarding in Jackson Hole, exploring the Teton Range, and Yellowstone. The perfect Wyoming road trip hits all three of these spots. This adventure spans about 100 miles and takes six days*:
- Yellowstone National Park: Spend two days here to catch an eruption from Old Faithful, see Steamboat Geyser (the tallest geyser in the world), check out the travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, and visit two of Yellowstone’s best waterfalls: Lower Falls (which is nearly twice the height of Niagara Falls) and Tower Fall.
- Grand Teton National Park: Drive 60 miles south to Grand Teton National Park to spend three days. Visit Mormon Row (home to the widely photographed Moulton Barns) and the Menor’s Ferry Historic District, take a few picturesque drives, canoe on Jenny Lake, follow a scenic hike, and float or raft the Snake River. Be sure to enjoy a seasonal activity: swim at String Lake in the summer, take a horseback ride through autumn foliage, follow a ranger-led snowshoe walk in the winter, or watch elk, bison, deer, and moose migrate in the spring.
- Jackson Hole: 25 miles past Grand Teton is Jackson Hole, where you can ski in the winter or take the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram up the mountain in the summer, as well as visit the National Museum of Wildlife Art, which houses works by Andy Warhol and Georgia O’Keeffe.
*Reverse this if coming in from Idaho.
Oregon is special for its unique array of forests, rivers, coastline, mountains, and cool cities. It is home to some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, and the best way to see it is on a road trip.
The beautiful Oregon coastline is dotted with countless charming seaside towns, making a perfect road trip. See a handful of them by starting at the top and working your way down, spanning 230 miles over a week:
- Astoria: Spend a day in Astoria by strolling its Sunday Market (one of the largest in Oregon), following the Astoria Riverwalk, riding around town in the “Old 300” trolley, and climbing up the Astoria Column for 360-degree views of the city.
- Cannon Beach: 25 miles south lies Cannon Beach, known for colorful sunsets and towering rocks rising out of the ocean, where you’ll want to spend two days exploring the four state parks, walking along the beach, and taking a scenic hike to watch the diverse wildlife.
- Newport: Head to the friendly fishing city of Newport to go whale watching, grab a bowl of famous clam chowder, visit Oregon’s tallest lighthouse, and stroll through the underwater walkways at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
- Coos Bay: 100 miles south of Newport, Coos Bay is a great home base to explore Oregon’s diverse nature, as it is home to three state parks (Shore Acres State Park, Cape Arago State Park, and Sunset Bay State Park) and the Oregon Dunes!
Some of Oregon’s best cities are situated inland, so a more inland Oregon road trip is a great option. Start to finish, this road trip is sure to provide a balance of arts and culture, great food, and outdoor adventure! For this itinerary, you’ll be covering about 260 miles, and you’ll need about seven days to do it:
- Portland: Spend a day or two in Portland (the epitome of Pacific Northwest hipster-cool) by following a few of the amazing hikes, wandering through Powell’s Books, and hanging out in the gorgeous rose garden in Washington Park. (Oh, and eat lots of delicious food!)
- Salem: Head down 50 miles to Salem, the state capital, to stroll through the shops housed in the old Reed Opera House, take a riverboat brunch cruise on the Willamette River, or picnic in Riverfront Park.
- Corvallis: 30 miles south is the college town adjacent to Oregon State University, where you can follow the Corvallis Mural Map to see the town’s cool street art or rent a bike to cruise some of the 60+ miles of biking trails.
- Eugene: A second college town sits 50 miles further; here, catch a Ducks football game at the U of Oregon, wander through the Eugene Saturday Market, or swing by the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art to see artwork from China, Japan, and Korea.
- Bend: Drive east to wrap up your trip in Bend, a great mountain town with a fantastic food and drink scene where you can try anything from whitewater rafting to a helicopter aerial tour.
Typically, when Washington State comes to mind, people think of rain and the Space Needle, but from western cities on the water like Port Townsend to eastern ones like Spokane, Washington’s landscape and attractions are diverse. See all Washington has to offer with this 500-mile, week-long road trip:
- Olympia: Start in the state capital, at the bottom of the Puget Sound, by hanging out in West Bay Park and checking out the city’s unique food scene, which is quirky and progressive but not pretentious.
- Port Townsend: Drive 100 miles north to one of the coolest small towns in the U.S. Check out the Port Townsend Farmers Market (one of the best in Washington), take a free boat tour with the Northwest Maritime Center, and finish out the day by browsing the independent stores housed in old Victorian buildings on Water Street.
- Seattle: Drive 60 more miles to Seattle, where you’ll want to check out Pike Place Market, take a harbor cruise to see the city from the water, visit a unique museum like the Museum of Pop Culture, and eat fresh seafood at a waterfront restaurant.
- Bellevue: Once across Lake Washington, visit the Bellevue Arts Museum (where you can sometimes chat with the artists themselves), hang out in Downtown Park, and zip line through Eastgate Park with Bellevue Zip Tour.
- Leavenworth: In this charming town (modeled after a traditional Bavarian village), eat your way through the German sweet shops, hike the river trail at Icicle Gorge, stroll along the Wenatchee River at Waterfront Park, or visit the town’s quirky Nutcracker Museum.
- Spokane: Drive the last 180 miles to the eastern side of Washington to follow the Spokane City Drive, a self-guided tour of the best spots in Spokane, or follow the Spokane Sculpture Walk for an experience you won’t find in any other city.
From skiing in the mountains to hiking through hills and meadows, Colorado is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. This itinerary can be cut in half between Breckenridge and Rocky Mountain National Park if 12 stops is too long of a trip. (Each leg consists of half natural sights and half cities, so you’ll still get a full taste of Colorado with six stops.) All in all, this road trip covers more than 800 miles and takes about ten days.
- Mesa Verde National Park: See the mesa top villages and cliffside dwellings of the Pueblo people from hundreds of years ago by driving the Mesa Top Loop Road and Cliff Palace driving loop, or head to Park Point at 8,500 feet in elevation.
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: Highlights of this park, located 160 miles northeast of Mesa Verde, include Gunnison Point, Chasm View, Painted Wall, and Sunset View.
- Aspen: After you’ve driven 115 miles from Black Canyon to Aspen, hike Red Butte Trail for 360-degree views of the Aspen Valley, ride the Silver Queen Gondola to the summit of the mountain, stand-up paddle board at North Star Nature Preserve, and explore the waterfalls and ice caves along Grottos Trail.
- Hanging Lake: Stop 50 miles down the road to follow one of Colorado’s most popular hikes to this magical cliffside lake.
- Vail: Raft the river, drive an ATV, catch a cool seasonal event, check out a farmer’s market, or hike to a waterfall in this fun mountain town 60 miles northeast of Hanging Lake.
- Breckenridge: One of Colorado’s friendliest small towns, Breckenridge offers great hikes, tons of biking trails, cool events like the International Festival of Arts, and tons of sunny restaurant patios where you can grab a bite.
- Rocky Mountain National Park: Take a scenic drive (especially on Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the U.S.), hike to one of the park’s eleven waterfalls and two cascades, go four-wheeling, or take a horseback ride through Rocky Mountain National Park, located 100 miles north of Breckenridge.
- Boulder: Spend a day or two in Boulder by ordering beignets at Lucile’s, exploring Pearl Street and the Boulder Creek Path, hiking to the famous sandstone Flatirons, and attending a show at the historic Boulder Theater.
- Denver: Drive 30 miles to the state capital, which has plenty to explore, including the Lower Downtown (LoDo) neighborhood, Capitol Building, outdoor 16th Street Mall, Larimer Square, Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre, and the Denver Art Museum.
- Garden of the Gods: 70 miles from Denver is another national park where you can take a tour on foot, electric bike, or Segway, as well as go rock climbing and check out Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site.
- Colorado Springs: The last city of the road trip sits next to Garden of the Gods; spend a day exploring Seven Falls, hiking in Ute Valley Park, and driving the Gold Belt Scenic Byway.
- Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve: Your last destination, plan on camping here for a night so that you’ll have the chance to stargaze with no city lights to obstruct the view. But until the sun sets, sled down the sand dunes (some of which are hundreds of feet high) and (if your car permits) drive the adventurous Medano Pass.
New Mexico is perhaps the best destination to see both Spanish influence and Native American heritage, as well as incredible natural attractions like volcanic craters. This northern New Mexico road trip, which will allow you to enjoy a bit of everything this unique state has to offer, covers 475 miles and takes about five days:
- Albuquerque: Take a hot air balloon ride over Albuquerque with Rainbow Ryders, explore the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden, see a show at the historic Kimo Theatre, or visit the San Felipe de Neri Parish to see the authentic Spanish influence still present in Albuquerque.
- Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument: Drive 55 miles northeast to spend the morning exploring Kasha-Katuwe, a national monument protecting unique rock formations created by volcanic eruptions several million years ago.
- Santa Fe: Drive 40 more miles to New Mexico’s capital, nicknamed, “The City Different,” to see the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Museum Hill, the Santa Fe Plaza at the heart of downtown, and plenty of art markets.
- Valles Caldera National Preserve: Drive 50 miles west to Valles Caldera to spend the morning hiking or biking the million-year-old volcanic crater. After you’ve explored, head back to Santa Fe to spend another day.
- Taos: 70 miles northeast is Taos, and artsy adobe town with the best whitewater rapids in the state, nearby hot springs, and cool shopping at the Bent Street Shops.
- Aztec: Aztec, 210 miles west, is the location of the Aztec Ruins National Monument, which has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, containing thousand-year-old Aztec ruins, as well as hundreds of natural stone arches.
- Bonus: Head south towards Las Cruces to see the incredible White Sands National Monument. It’s not particularly logical for the rest of this road trip, but it sure looks worth it to me! Finish off in Las Cruces and head west into Arizona or south into Texas.
While an area as vast as the American West is tough to cover in a single road trip, or even a single lifetime, I hope this post helps you to pick a trip you’ll love. The best news is, you really can’t go wrong as all of these places are gorgeous, though some are better suited to certain weather and seasons than others.
Choose the best adventure.