Planning Epic Cross Country Road Trips in the US

Imagine the sun rising over a horizon of endless possibilities, the road stretching out before you like a blank canvas waiting to be painted with adventures.

This is the allure of cross country road trips. A journey that isn't just about the destinations but the countless stories that unfold along the way.

I've always believed that the heart of America lies in its diverse landscapes, bustling cities, and hidden small towns, each with its unique tale.

My road trip experiences, like a recent journey to Ohio, have taught me the value of planning and the joy of unexpected discoveries.

We missed booking our hotel early and ended up staying further from our destination than planned. This minor hiccup turned into an opportunity to explore an area we might have otherwise missed.

This is the essence of cross country road trips: embracing the unexpected while cherishing every mile.

From the scenic drive along the Pacific Coast Highway to the historic stretches of Route 66, this guide will help you navigate the best routes for your cross country road trips.

In this ultimate guide, I'll share insights and tips to help you plan your unforgettable cross-country road trip.

From the sweeping views of Glacier National Park to the iconic streets of San Francisco, from a scenic drive along the Pacific Coast Highway to the historic stretches of Route 66, and from the serenity of small towns to the surprises that await off-the-beaten-path, let's embark on a journey that promises to be as enriching as it is exhilarating. 

Green and red Trolley Car in San Francisco with people waiting in line to board.

Planning Your Journey: Key Steps for an Epic Adventure

​Embarking on a cross-country road trip is like painting your own masterpiece. It requires thought, preparation, and a dash of spontaneity.

Part of the planning phase involves choosing the best routes that cater to your travel desires, whether you're looking for a scenic drive or a fast-paced journey. Here's the best way to start crafting your epic adventure:

Early Planning and Itinerary Creation

​The cornerstone of any successful road trip is early planning.

Why? Because the best experiences often require a bit of forethought.

This is a lesson I learned the hard way on a road trip to Ohio. My hotel booking delay meant we stayed further from our destination than planned.

At the same time, it led to unexpected explorations and taught me the value of advanced planning, especially for popular destinations.

Early planning allows you to secure accommodations at your preferred locations, often at better rates.

It helps to snag reservations for high-demand activities and ensures you don't miss out on must-see attractions.

When creating your itinerary, be realistic about distances and driving times. The United States is vast, and what looks like a short drive on a map can be a whole day's journey.

Use tools like Google Maps to plot your route and estimate travel times.

Turned-on MacBook Pro with a google map of Washington DC area. This is a great location to include cross country road trips!

The journey is as important as the destination, so factor in time for those spontaneous stops and scenic detours.

Another item to consider is your mode of transportation. Will you be taking your personal vehicle or renting a car or RV for your long trip?

Regardless, you need to be sure your transportation will get you to your destination safely. It's always a good idea to refresh yourself on road trip safety before venturing out on your detailed itinerary. 

Identifying Personal Interests

​Your road trip should reflect your passions and interests. Are you drawn to the vibrant energy of major cities like New York or Los Angeles?

Or do you prefer the tranquility and charm of small towns?

Maybe you're captivated by the natural beauty of routes like the Pacific Coast Highway or the historic allure of Route 66. Either way, there are plenty of cross country road trips to consider!

Route 66 Roadside Attraction sign for the Blue Whale in Catoosa, Oklahoma with the blue whale in the background. Cross country road trips along Route 66 are epic fun with all the quirky roadside attractions.

Take time to explore what excites you. Dive into travel books and magazines for inspiration. Watch travel-themed TV shows and documentaries to discover hidden gems and gain insights into different locales.

The internet is an invaluable resource, brimming with travel blogs (like mine!), forums, and guides that can offer a wealth of information.

Don't forget to tap into your social network. Friends and family who have embarked on similar journeys can provide personal recommendations and tips you won't find in any guidebook.

Their experiences can help tailor your trip to your interests, ensuring that every mile traveled is a mile cherished.

In the end, your road trip is a personal narrative. It's a story you write with every mile you travel.

So, start with these key steps, and you're well on your way to creating a journey that's not just a trip but a collection of unforgettable experiences and memories.

Choosing Your Route: From Coast to Coast

A cross-country road trip is like a choose-your-own-adventure book, where every route offers its unique narrative.

Whether seeking awe-inspiring natural landscapes or bustling city streets, the U.S. provides a mosaic of routes to satisfy every traveler's taste.

Each route offers unique roadside attractions, from the quirky to the breathtaking, adding excitement to every mile.

Be mindful of time constraints when planning your route, especially if you aim to cover long distances or include multiple destinations.

Here's how you can choose the one that best suits your adventure.

North America Atlas Map spread out on brown wooden surface. Cross country road trips are made easier when using a map prior to heading out on the adventure.

Route Options

Here is just a brief list of route options to consider. You may find smashing a few of these ideas together would make an epic road trip!

Northern Route

A northern route is a treasure trove for those who revel in nature's grandeur.

Picture yourself driving through the lush landscapes of Glacier National Park, where the Going-to-the-Sun Road offers breathtaking views that make every twist and turn an unforgettable experience.

However, remember that some of these northern routes, like the one through Glacier, are only fully accessible in July due to weather conditions.

Southern Route

The southern route beckons if warmer climates and diverse landscapes are more your style.

Imagine exploring the vast expanses of the Grand Canyon or enjoying the vibrant cultures and cuisines of cities like New Orleans and San Antonio.

This route also offers the chance to experience the Everglades' unique ecosystems or the Gulf Coast's picturesque beaches.

Row of colorful houses in New Orleans.  Cars line side of street in front of homes. Opposite side of street has some horse head hitching poles.

Coastal Routes

The Pacific Coast Highway is a dream come true for ocean lovers. From the misty coasts of Washington to the sunny shores of Southern California, this route is a scenic journey along the ocean's edge.

A foggy view of the ragged Pebble Beach shoreline with homes in the background.

Classic Route 66

Route 66 offers a nostalgic journey through America's heartland, filled with classic Americana and historical landmarks.

We enjoyed the many roadside stops along Route 66 in Oklahoma!

"Welcome to Main St. of America" Route 66 sign attached to the front of a red brick building facade.

Washington, D.C. – A Historical Journey

Explore the heart of American history by including Washington, D.C. in your route. Wander through the National Mall, stand in awe at the Lincoln Memorial, and delve into the Smithsonian museums.

Extend your journey through the scenic Shenandoah Valley or along the Chesapeake Bay for a blend of history and natural beauty.

The National Mall in Washington DC. The Washington Monument in the background and it's reflection in the pool of water adjacent to it.  People walking and standing along the side of the refection pool.

The Atlantic Coast Route

Traverse the Atlantic Coast, where history meets the ocean. Walk Boston's Freedom Trail, experience Savannah's southern charm, and drive along the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

Discover New England's seaside towns and the scenic shores of Florida’s A1A highway, steeped in beauty and history.

A black and white horizontal striped lighthouse with three windows along the Outer Banks.

The Great Lakes Route

Circle the Great Lakes for a unique mix of nature and history. From Detroit's automotive heritage to Chicago's architectural wonders, this route is as educational as it is scenic.

The Great Lakes shores provide serene views and charming beach towns, adding a tranquil backdrop to your journey.

Mackinaw Bridge on a day with sky blue skies with some fluffy clouds.

Timing and Weather Considerations

​The time of year you embark on your journey can dramatically shape your experience.

  • Summer: Ideal for northern routes, summer offers the best weather for exploring national parks and enjoying outdoor activities. It's the perfect time to traverse the northern states, from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest, as roads and trails are most accessible.
  • Spring and Fall: These seasons are perfect for southern routes, offering milder temperatures and less crowded attractions. Spring brings blooming landscapes, while fall provides a tapestry of colors, especially in the Appalachian Mountains.
  • Winter: Some northern destinations can be magical if you enjoy winter sports or serene, snowy landscapes. However, be prepared for challenging driving conditions and some seasonal closures.

Every winter, we make a point of taking a winter trip to enjoy the breathtaking views that nature provides us. Our favorite is taking a winter trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where we snowshoe and explore ice caves and cliffs!

Person wearing red coat and black pants climbing an ice curtain at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Your route choice is more than just a path from point A to point B; it's a journey through the diverse landscapes and cultures that make the United States unique.

Consider these options, think about what you want to experience, and choose the route that calls to you. Whatever path you pick, it promises to be a journey of discovery and wonder.

Destinations to Explore: Cities, Small Towns, and Natural Wonders

Every cross-country road trip is dotted with destinations that capture the essence of America, from the bustling streets of its major cities to the serene charm of its small towns and the majestic beauty of its national parks.

The journey between these destinations is as important as the destinations, offering scenic drives showcasing the country's diverse landscapes.

The Statue of Liberty with the New York City skyline in the background.
  • New York City: A melting pot of culture, history, and excitement, New York City is a must-see with its iconic landmarks like Times Square, Central Park, and the Statue of Liberty. The city's energy is palpable, offering something for every traveler.
  • San Francisco: Known for its steep hills and classic cable cars, San Francisco charms with its vibrant neighborhoods, the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, and the historic Alcatraz Island. Don't forget to savor the culinary delights of Fisherman's Wharf.
  • Las Vegas: Amidst the vast deserts of Nevada lies the glittering oasis of Las Vegas, a city famed for its vibrant nightlife, world-class entertainment, and luxurious casinos. Beyond the iconic Strip, explore unique sites just a short drive away; you'll find natural wonders like the Red Rock Canyon, starkly contrasting the city's neon lights. Or the most visited dam in the world – the Hoover Dam. 
  • The Charm of Small Towns: Beyond the urban giants, the heart and soul of America often shine brightest in its smaller towns. Munising, Michigan, is a perfect example, serving as a gateway to the stunning Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Here, you'll find breathtaking sandstone cliffs and serene lakes. Gatlinburg, Tennessee, nestled at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offers a charming mix of natural beauty and mountain culture. Both towns provide a peaceful contrast to the hustle and bustle of big city life, inviting travelers to slow down, connect with nature, and enjoy the local hospitality.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park sign in front of a bright green foliage background.

National Parks and Scenic Drives

  • Yellowstone National Park: Known as the first national park in the world, Yellowstone is a wonderland of geysers, hot springs, and diverse wildlife. Its vastness captures the wild spirit of the country.
  • Acadia National Park: One of my favorites, Acadia National Park in Maine, offers serene mornings and picturesque landscapes that are nothing short of magical. It's a place where the ocean meets the rugged cliffs, creating a unique coastal beauty.
  • Great Smoky Mountains – Cades Cove: Nestled within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cades Cove offers a sublime experience of Southern Appalachia's beauty. Rich with wildlife, historical structures, and breathtaking views, it's a place where the past and present of the Appalachian wilderness are in harmony. 
  • Scenic Routes: For those who love the journey as much as the destination, scenic drives like the Pacific Coast Highway provide a visual feast. Hug the coast from Washington to California, with the ocean on one side and mountains on the other. And let's not forget the historic Route 66, offering a slice of classic Americana and a nostalgic trip through the heartland.

These destinations, whether bustling cities, quaint towns, or natural wonders, each tell a part of the grand American story. They're places where memories are made, and the journey becomes the destination.

So, take your time to explore and let each stop along the way leave its unique imprint on your journey.

On the Road: Accommodations, Food, and Surprises

The rhythm of a road trip is defined not just by the miles you travel but also by where you rest, what you eat, and the unexpected delights you encounter along the way.

Preparing for a long drive involves more than just plotting a course; it's about ensuring comfort, enjoyment and discovering the unexpected. Here's how to make the most of these aspects of your journey.

Lodgings and Meals

Choosing Your Accommodations

Whether you prefer the luxury of a hotel, the coziness of a bed and breakfast, or the rustic charm of camping, your choice of lodging sets the tone for your night.

Advanced booking is key, especially during peak travel seasons. For a more immersive experience, consider staying at local inns or vacation rentals to get a feel for the local lifestyle.

And for those who seek adventure and flexibility, the growing trend of RV travel offers a home on wheels, allowing you to stay close to nature and move at your own pace.

Savoring Local Cuisines

A road trip is also a culinary journey.

Each region of the U.S. has its own flavors and specialties. From the seafood of the Northeast to the barbecues of the South and the fusion cuisines of the West Coast, there's a palate for every taste.

Don't just stick to the familiar chain restaurants; dive into local eateries, food trucks, and farmers' markets. It's a chance to chat with locals and experience the region's culture through its food.

Unexpected Delights

Embracing Spontaneity

Some of the best road trip memories come from unplanned moments. It might be a local festival you stumble upon, a breathtaking viewpoint just off the highway, or a quirky roadside attraction.

Keep your itinerary flexible enough to embrace these surprises.

Openness to New Adventures

Be open to changing your plans based on recommendations from locals or fellow travelers. These spontaneous decisions often lead to the most memorable experiences of your trip.

Whether it's a hidden hiking trail, a small-town museum, or an impromptu music session at a local bar, these moments enrich your journey and leave lasting impressions.

A road trip is an amalgamation of the places you sleep, food, and the surprises you encounter. Each element plays a vital role in weaving the rich tapestry of your travel story.

So, as you hit the open road, keep an open heart and mind to all the experiences that await you.

FAQs: Cross Country Road Trips

What should I pack for a cross-country road trip? Pack for versatility and comfort. Essentials include weather-appropriate clothing, a first-aid kit, snacks, a cooler, and basic car maintenance tools.

Don't forget entertainment like music, audiobooks, and a physical map as a backup to digital navigation tools.

How can I budget for a road trip? Start by estimating costs for fuel, accommodations, food, and attractions. Consider more budget-friendly options like camping or cooking your own meals.

Tracking expenses as you go can also help you stay on budget.

Are there tips for road-tripping with kids or pets? For kids, pack activities to keep them entertained and plan for frequent stops. With pets, ensure they have a comfortable space in the vehicle, and bring their food, water, and favorite toys.

Research pet-friendly accommodations in advance.

How do I stay safe on cross country road trips? Regularly check your vehicle for maintenance needs, adhere to speed limits, and take breaks to avoid fatigue. Keep emergency contacts handy and inform someone of your travel plans for safety.

What are some eco-friendly road trip tips? Reduce plastic use by carrying reusable water bottles and utensils.

Stick to established trails and campgrounds to preserve natural sites, and consider carpooling or driving a fuel-efficient vehicle.

yellow Volkswagen van on road through an area with towering red rocks

Final Thoughts: Cross Country Road Trips

As we reach the end of this guide, it's time to reflect on the key elements that make a cross-country road trip not just a journey but an adventure of a lifetime:

  • The Importance of Planning: Early planning can make all the difference. It helps secure the best accommodations and ensures you don't miss out on must-see attractions.
  • Choosing Your Route: Whether you're drawn to the scenic northern landscapes, the diverse southern routes, or the iconic coastal highways, your route should mirror your interests.
  • Balancing Cities and Nature: Blend the urban excitement of cities with the tranquil beauty of small towns and national parks. Each offers a unique slice of American life.
  • Embracing Unexpected Delights: Stay open to the surprises along the way. Often, these unplanned moments become the most cherished memories of your trip.

Now, it's your turn to start planning your epic cross-country adventure.

Remember, every mile you travel is a story waiting to be told. So, hit the open road and embrace each experience!

Pin this for later:

Choose the image(s) that resonate with you to pin to your travel board on Pinterest!

Teal BMW car traveling along a rocky area on the left and water body on the right.
A grey truck traveling down a hillside road in the fall. Grasses are brown but trees have yellow leaves or are pine trees.
Old map with an old Arrow Camera resting on top of it.

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