Summer is road-trip time, and America is one of the best places in the world to explore by car. For many, this means seeing the country zoom by at interstate-highway speed. But getting just a bit off the beaten path can lead to vast vistas and roads built for pleasure, not business.
Here are six summer road-trip routes that get you away from the everyday bustle and into a more relaxing state of mind. They work well for travelers with either four or two wheels. Plan to spend at least three days exploring any of them at a leisurely pace.
It would be hard to pinpoint one section of the coast as the best, so why try? See it all. Highway 101 runs from Oregon’s northern border to its southern end, hugging the shoreline much of the way. The often-winding route is dotted with a string of well-tended state parks, each offering a different combination of hikes, tide pools, giant trees, sandy beaches and sometimes surfing. Many of them also offer RV, tent or even yurt camping spots (reserve ahead in summer).
Small- and medium-sized cities along the route (there are no big ones) offer a range of lodging, restaurants and shopping. Some of the most inviting: Cannon Beach, Newport, Florence, Bandon and Port Orford.
If you have a choice, head north to south so you’re in the lane closest to the water and can easily make the many scenic pullouts that will likely call to you.
Getting to Glacier (Montana)
Glacier National Park is known for its impressive peaks and snowfields — and roads that are very much part of the experience. Don’t miss Going-to-the-Sun Road on the U.S. side or the parkways in Waterton Lakes National Park on the Canadian side. Other beautiful mountain roads flank the park, including the Chief Mountain International Highway (bring your passport!).
The route to Glacier can be almost as beautiful as the park itself, with quintessential small-town hospitality to boot. Some visitors come via Yellowstone National Park, while others arrive from the east or west.
Although it’s easy to reach Glacier by interstate highways, alternate routes appeal to those who like uncrowded bendy roads through forests and past mountains. Consider, for example, leaving I-2 at Sandpoint in northern Idaho and taking MT 200 through small towns like Thompson Falls (a nice snack stop) to Highway 93 south of the national park. Bring your fly rod and get a fishing license: This is blue-ribbon trout territory.
Highway 12 (Utah)
Southern Utah’s five national parks are some of the nation’s most revered — but they’re also among the hottest in the summer. That doesn’t keep tourists away, but it should push them toward the Highway 12 corridor, which moves between low-elevation desert and the refreshing cool of high alpine landscape.
If you go from one end to the other, UT 12 takes you past two national parks (Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon). On the way, it rises along the flank of Boulder Mountain, which tops off at about 11,300 feet. Viewpoints on pine- and aspen-covered hillsides offer green, orange, yellow and blue vistas stretching toward Capitol Reef, the remote Henry Mountains, Canyonlands National Park and Lake Powell. To bump the average elevation even more, include a jaunt past Cedar Breaks National Monument (a “mini Bryce”), which sits at 10,000 feet.
The best way to do the tour is to take UT 14 from Cedar City (with a jog to Cedar Breaks) to US 89 to UT 12. Explore Bryce and take a few hikes or unpaved detours along the route northeast toward Torrey, just outside Capitol Reef. Lodging is most plentiful near the national parks.
Lake Superior North Shore (Minnesota)
Most vacationers wouldn’t want to tackle the North Shore Scenic Drive in winter, but its small towns, forests and miles of lakeshore views are glorious in summer. In order to fully appreciate it, load up your vehicle with bicycles, hiking shoes, kayaks, fishing gear and a picnic.
Don’t miss Split Rock Lighthouse State Park or Grand Portage State Park, which features the tallest waterfall in Minnesota. Cyclists can get off the main road and ride segments of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail (28 miles of the eventual 86 are completed, with more work in progress) to reach many of the same landmarks.
Start from the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in Duluth, with its Aerial Lift Bridge and exhibitions on the region’s shipping history. Head north on MN 61 to Grand Portage National Monument, a place with cultural as well as natural significance, or take a jaunt by boat to rugged Isle Royale National Park. Bring your passport to cross the Canada-U.S. border and continue your journey around Lake Superior.
Acadia and Schoodic Peninsula byways (Maine)
The Maine coast is lovely at any time of year, but its swimming holes, lighthouses and tide pools are most inviting in summer. Its biggest draw is Acadia National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi River.
From Ellsworth, take ME 3 toward Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island. To relax completely in the national park, hop aboard the free Island Explorer bus network, which connects it and other attractions with in-town amenities.
Much of the national park is on Mount Desert Island, but don’t miss the less crowded Schoodic Peninsula, with its lighthouses, rocky coastlines and traditional fishing villages, farther up the coast via U.S. 1.
Outer Banks (North Carolina)
The South is hot and sticky during the summer — which makes this a good time to head for the coast’s cooling breezes. North Carolina’s Barrier Islands are full of rich human culture in a pristine water-and-dune setting.
To drive from north to south, start at the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau office in Manteo, N.C., on Route 158. Then hop onto two-lane NC 12 and make your way through the Cape Hatteras National Seashore — the first to earn that designation — past friendly villages, historic sites (including the Wright Brothers National Memorial) and glorious beaches.
While the tourist infrastructure is robust here, remember that this is a two-lane road with water on both sides. Plan your trip well in advance and relax on the road. After all, a road trip is about the journey, not just the destination.