The Ultimate 10 Day Coastal Maine Road Trip Itinerary

a beautiful sunset at five islands in maine

If you’re looking for the best way to experience summer on the East Coast, it’s got to be driving the beautiful coast of Maine.

With over 4,000 islands and the most coastline of any state in the United States, road tripping the coast of Maine is a bucket list item if there ever was one!

Taking a Maine coast road trip encompasses everything that is quintessentially New England in summer, from its seafood shacks to its charming coastal towns to its sandy beaches on the pristine Atlantic coast.

This road trip itinerary includes plenty of scenic Maine coastal drives, small towns worthy of day trips, and yes — plenty of beach time!

How This Maine Itinerary Works

This road trip begins in Southern Maine and ends in Northern Maine. It assumes you are within driving distance of Maine and are bringing your own car.

When I did this Maine road trip, I flew to Boston, Massachusetts from San Francisco. My friend came down to meet me in Boston, where we spent two days, and then we drove up to Maine from Boston.

If you do this Maine road trip from Boston, I suggest renting a car in advance from Boston Logan International Airport. They have the best rates and their location is convenient for the city. Compare prices on car rentals here.

From Boston to the first stop on this coastal Maine is only an hour and a half drive, so it’s easy enough to start your trip there. 

From the end of this itinerary, you could return your rental car in Bangor (the nearest airport to the final stop, Acadia National Park) or you could drive back to Boston if that’s better on your budget. 

One-way rentals are often really pricy, so while this definitely adds time and mileage to your trip, it may be worth it for the cost savings. 

The drive directly from Acadia National Park to Boston is about 5 hours with normal traffic, though it may be worse on weekends or holidays.

Where to Stay in Maine

This itinerary is crafted to be customizable to your personal travel style. Depending on how you prefer to road trip, you can adjust it.

I personally hate moving hotels every night, so I crafted this Maine itinerary with this in might, so that wouldn’t be strictly necessary.

However, if you do the itinerary this way, you may have to do a little more driving in between each stop and that may also involve a small amount of backtracking. 

Alternately, you could move hotels each night to keep moving without backtracking quite so much.

(No matter what, to some extent some backtracking is unavoidable due to the unconnected peninsulas and islands you’ll visit, particularly in Midcoast Maine.)

Here are two ways you could do it:

NightOption 1 (Fewer Stops)Option 2 (More Stops)
1Ogunquit or KennebunkportOgunquit
2Ogunquit or KennebunkportKennebunkport
3PortlandPortland
4PortlandPortland
5Brunswick or BathBailey Island
6Brunswick or BathDamariscotta
7CamdenRockland
8CamdenCamden
9Bar HarborBar Harbor
10Bar HarborBar Harbor

Your 10 Day Coastal Maine Road Trip Itinerary

Day 1: Ogunquit

Many boats in the marina of Ogunquit on a sunny day in Maine along the coast

Southern Maine is home to some of the few sand beaches along the Maine coast, which tends to trend rockier as it goes further north.

York, Ogunquit, and Kennebunkport are the three most popular beach getaways in Southern Maine – and in this itinerary, we’ll cover the latter two.

These three beach destinations tend to be quite busy with day and weekend trippers from New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, since it’s a relatively short distance from other points in New England.

A general rule of thumb: the further south you are in Maine, the busier it’ll be – with the exception of Acadia National Park, of course.

I didn’t get a chance to visit York on this trip, but I did get to see both Ogunquit and Kennebunkport.

I have to say that I preferred Kennebunkport, but my time in Ogunquit wasn’t ideal as the remnants of a tropical storm were blowing through (which is why I’m using primarily stock & other people’s photography in this section — my photos are really dark and gloomy!)

Drive to Ogunquit.

Coastline of Ogunquit with reeds and other plant life

The first destination on our whistle-stop tour of the Maine coastline is the charming seaside hamlet of Ogunquit.

Frankly, my experience with Ogunquit was subpar, simply for the fact that the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred made there be a total downpour during my stay in the town. It rained to the point of flooding: hardly what you want on a beach getaway!

However, I did get to eat a meal in Ogunquit and browse some of the shops and restaurants, so here is what I recommend you do when in Ogunquit.

Walk the Marginal Way.

Photo Credit: Dumphasizer via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

First things first: parking in Ogunquit can be a bit of a nightmare. The parking gets worth the further out towards Perkins Cove you drive.

As you drive towards the pier area, there is a very small municipal lot where you can park for $4 per hour… and that’s assuming you can find a spot! We had no such luck, and it wasn’t even a weekend.

More likely, you’ll have to pay $25 for a day pass for private parking. Alternately, you can park in a municipal lot up the road, also at $4 per hour, but then there is a lot of walking. We parked here at Obed’s Lot.

The Marginal Way stretches from the area near Obed’s Lot to Perkins Cove. I suggest parking at Obed’s Lot because it has a lot more space and the walk along Marginal Way along the coast is spectacular!

Admire all the beautiful buildings of Ogunquit on this peaceful coastal walk that passes Little Beach and Israels Head on a one-mile coastal walkway. It takes about 20 minutes to reach Perkins Cove.

Explore the Perkins Cove and Harbor area.

Grassy area looking over to perkins cove with boats in the marina

Once you arrive in Perkins Cove — either via Marginal Way or driving directly to Perkins Cove and parking — it’s time to explore the charms of Ogunquit, particularly the harbor area around Perkins Cove. Here are a few shops worth stopping in.

  • Whistling Oyster for whimsical and beautiful jewelry inspired by the sea
  • Perkins Cove Pottery Shop has gorgeous ceramic pieces for the home — it’s hard not to leave without something
  • Blue Whale Trading Company for beautifully curated pieces from local New England artists

Have the first of many seafood meals.

Wood house with white trim and planter basks and american flag and sign that reads "lobster shack" and "open"
Photo Credit: Jasperdo via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When it comes time for lunch, hit up The Lobster Shack – it has the best reviews of any restaurant in Ogunquit and good prices to boot given what’s on offer.

I didn’t heed my own advice as the Lobster Shack was totally full when we visited and we had to make alternate plans!

It was pouring rain and we couldn’t find parking downtown, so we hopped back in the car and headed to Rose Cove Restaurant. I ordered the fried haddock tacos and they were just OK. Honestly, I wouldn’t go back.

Walk along the Footbridge.

Photo Credit: JR P via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This manually operated drawbridge is one of the biggest draws to Perkins Cove — just look how cute it is!

Take a stroll over the bridge to complete your walk of Perkins Cove and see it from the other side for perspective (and photo opps!).

Spend the day on Ogunquit Beach.

Sandy beach of Ogunquit Maine on a sunny summer day with rippled sand and water

Time for your first of a handful of sandy beaches in Maine! The main (ha) reason why people come to Ogunquit is for its enormous stretch of sandy shoreline… an anomaly in the mostly rocky coastline of Maine.

The powdery sand and gentle waves mean that Ogunquit Beach is a great place for families who are looking for some calm water to wade in and soft sand to luxuriate on.

End the day with another meal.

Photo Credit: JR P via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

If you want more seafood, head back to Perkins Cove for one of the other delicious restaurants. Other recommended places in the area include Footbridge Lobster and The Trap.

If you want something different, the Front Porch has a wide variety of sandwiches and entrées for a break from seafood.

Day 2: Kennebunkport

Spend the day on Gooch’s Beach.

Allison Green, the author of the article, in a green bathing suit and reddish-brown hat sitting in the sand

I hope you didn’t have too much beach time yesterday… because it’s time for what is, in my opinion, one of the best beaches in Maine!

Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunkport is simply stunning. Lots of sandy coastline means that you can walk nearly a mile on the sand, the cool Atlantic water lapping at your ankles.

Note that the beach is on the narrow side and that during high tide, there can be very little room on the sand for towels! There is more room on the north side of the beach, as this is where the beach is wider.

Waves crashing on Kennebunkport beach on a sunny day in Maine in summer

Another caveat: parking here is rather pricy, at $25 for a day pass for street parking using one of the meters or the Passport app. We found it worth it, but if you are staying in a hotel in the area, you may be able to walk instead.

Parking here at Gooch’s will also allow you free parking access to Middle Beach and Mother’s Beach, as it is all one zone. So you can beach hop to all three Kennebunkport beaches… but frankly, Gooch’s is the best by a decent margin!

Have lunch at the Clam Shack.

Once you’ve soaked up a lot of salt air and need a break from roasting yourself in the sun, head back into downtown Kennebunkport for a delicious seafood meal at The Clam Shack.

Skip their lobster rolls: they’re trifling (who the hell puts a lobster roll on a hamburger bun?! Team hot dog bun for life).

The offending lobster roll.

But their fried clams are what they’re known for, and that’s absolutely what you should order.

Their fries and coleslaw aren’t half-bad, either!

Walk around the wharf and harbor.

The harbor area of Kennebunkport with a large sailboat and waterfront restaurant

Once you’ve had a filling meal, digest a little with a walk around the cute downtown area of Kennebunkport.

Since you’re already at the Clam Shack, start with a little wander around the wharf and marina area, where the Kennebunk River heads out to sea.

There are lots of beautiful buildings along this harbor area and the sailboats in the marina are beautiful when they bob in the waves.

Shop around the cute downtown of Kennebunkport.

a coffee shop in downtown kennebunkport maine

There are also a lot of shops and galleries you could explore. A few places we enjoyed were:

  • Dock Square Coffee House for an iced coffee pick-me-up after lots of time in the sun
  • The Candyman for homemade fudge, salt water taffy, truffles, and all sorts of other sweet goodness!
  • Fine Print Booksellers for a small but thoughtful selection of books that are perfect for beach reading

Drive to Point Walker.

the famous bush compound where the bush family summers in maine on the water at walkers point on a sunny day

Kennebunkport is famous for its Bush Compound summer home – you’ll see all sorts of Bush family regalia all over the town. They take it pretty seriously – even the Clam Shack is shilling Barbara Bush’s book!

If you’re curious to cast an eye on where the Bushes spend their summers, drive to Point Walker, about 10 minutes from downtown Kennebunkport. It’s absolutely stunning and you’ll be able to spot the Bush compound from here.

Have dinner at one of Kennebunkport’s finest.

The famous Alissons restaurant in Kennebunkport Maine which is known for its delicious and creative lobster dishes

Once you’ve had your fill of sightseeing, sand, and sun, it’s time to start thinking dinner. Luckily, Kennebunkport is a really thriving and bustling seaside town, and there are a lot of options.

So far, I’ve had you overdosing on seafood, so I’ll be sure to include a non-seafood option for dinner.

(And don’t worry – the next two days bring us to Portland, for a respite on seafood, before diving back into the seafood mania as we head up the coast!).

  • Alisson’s Restaurant: while I may be biased to the name, this gets the best consistent reviews in town and it’s located conveniently right in Dock Square. They’re famous for their lobster poutine, which is just as decadent as it sounds! They also have lobster pizza and lobster mac ‘n cheese. It’s as Maine as it gets!
  • Chez Rosa for casual, French-inspired seafood like moules frites as well as non-seafood options like beef bourgignon and French onion soup.
  • Old Vines Wine Bar for expertly curated wines and small plates so you can sample your way through a delicious dinner.

Day 3: Portland

Have breakfast at Becky’s Diner.

Photo Credit: Jimmy Emerson, DVM via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

One of Portland’s main institutions is Becky’s Diner, and you can’t go wrong following the crowds to eat one of th best, heartiest breakfasts in Portland!

Lines can be long, so arrive early and expect to wait. Don’t miss their wild blueberry pancakes!

Wander around the Old Port.

Becky’s Diner is a short walk from the Old Port neighborhood, so it’s time for a short walking tour of this charming part of town!

There are a lot of cool sights in this area; let me list a few favorites.

First, walk to the fisherman’s wharf area with lots of lobster traps and quintessential New England fisherman vibes.

If you walk from J’s Oysters via the back alleyway to Harbor Fish Market (also a great stop!), you’ll see this view that seems right out of a painting!

Another favorite area in the Old Port is the one stretch of street that remains cobblestoned with beautiful buildings surrounding it (pictured above at the start of this section).

You can find the cobblestoned street pictured above at the intersection of Fore Street and Silver Street but there are some other cobblestone streets around on the side streets in the area.

Getting hungry for a mid-morning snack? Grab Maine-style potato donuts (odd — and frankly not a favorite — but unique to Maine) at The Holy Donut.

Take a harbor cruise.

Cruising out on the water in Portland Maine in Casco Bay on a sunny summer day

There are a few short cruises you can take that depart from the Old Port that explore beautiful Casco Bay.

While there are many islands you can access from Portland, on this coastal Maine itinerary we unfortunately don’t have time for that – even with 10 days in Maine!

Instead, hop on a boat for a quick harbor cruise!

I suggest the Diamond Pass run by Casco Bay Lines which leaves at 11 AM and takes 2 hours, returning at 1 PM.

Grab a quick bite before your brewery tour.

Photo Credit: saramarielin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Next up on this itinerary is a brewery tour at 3 PM – but you don’t want to sample Portland’s best brews on an empty stomach!

Let’s grab a bite to eat in the Old Port area first so that you can remain conscious for the rest of this Maine itinerary!

There are a number of great restaurants in the Old Port area. Here are our top recommendations for you to choose from:

  • Duckfat for delicious French fries fried in — you guessed it! — duck fat. Double up on the indulgence by having it as poutine, Canadian-style with cheese curds and gravy.
  • Eventide Oyster Co. for tasty fresh oysters from all up and down New England as well as delicious lobster rolls
  • The Thirsty Pig for tasty homemade sausages paired with excellent local beers

Go on a brewery tour.

A beer tasting flight of four different color beers

Maine is burgeoning as a craft beer destination, and Portland is at the very heart of it! There are a number of breweries in Portland proper, as well as many breweries elsewhere in Maine that have pubs and offerings in Portland.

You could do a self-guided tour of a few of Portland’s breweries, but frankly, it’s a lot more fun to do a brewery crawl!

This brewery tour starts at 3 PM and will take you to several of the best breweries in Portland on a guided walking tour. You’ll get to sample several beers at each stop and see a great representative sampling of the Portland, Maine brewing scene.

Book your brewery tour online here!

Walk up and over Munjoy Hill.

the charming munjoy hill neighborhood of portland with a red obseravatory tower on the highest point

After all those beers, it’s time to sober up with a walk through one of Portland’s most scenic and beautiful communities: Munjoy Hill.

Yes, it is a hill, and it is a bit steep, but it’s really worth the walk as this is one of the coolest neighborhoods in Portland.

Once you reach the crest of Munjoy Hill, there is a cool observatory tower called the Portland Observatory. It’s a historic maritime signal tower that was built in 1807, and it’s the only remaining tower of this type made of wood known in the United States!

Bonus: there’s also a museum inside, and you can ascend the observatory tower for fantastic views over all of Portland! It costs $10 and includes a tour.

Note: If you do the brewery tour, you will arrive here too late to do the tour as the tower closes at 4:30 PM, but you can see the exterior and maybe head back here on another day if you want to ascend the top and do the museum tour

Head down to the water’s edge.

a pillar memorial in front of the water and islands at the edge of portland

Once you arrive down at the water, you’ll find the Cleeve-Tucker Memorial marking the end of Portland’s East End neighborhood.

Along the water’s edge, you’ll find a lot of cool food trucks here!

There’s also East End Beach (rather a small beach, but it is possible to go for a dip here) and Fort Allen Park, which offer incredible views over Casco Bay.

Have a delicious dinner in Portland.

As you can see, Portland is all about eating your way through the city!

I’ve already recommended a lot of places above, so you can choose from one of the other sections.

If you want other suggestions, I’d pick: Sichuan Kitchen for delightfully authentic “ma la” spicy Chinese food from the Sichuan province, Boda for Thai street-style eats, or Central Provisions for trendy cocktails and small plates.

Day 4: Portland

Spend the morning on Washington Ave.

mural at portland pottery on washington avenue in portland

Like its West Coast sister city of the same name, Portland, ME is becoming a hipster-topia.

Nowhere else is that more obvious than on Washington Avenue in South Portland!

Start the day with a delicious breakfast at Portland Pottery Café, a hybrid pottery shop and café.

Their biscuits and gravy is obscenely large and obscenely delicious!

They also have a selection of great sandwiches if you’re not feeling particularly breakfast-y. The Figgy Piggy is also delicious: fig jam, prosciutto, what could go wrong?

Alternately, you could get a bagel at Forage, which looked really vibrant and popular with locals.

a mead brewery with benches outside

After breakfast, wander down Washington Avenue and explore some of the cool small businesses that have popped up here. Here are a few favorites.

  • Maine & Loire: a wine shop with a great selection of wines, though at a high price (I wish there were more mid-budget options)
  • The Cheese Shop of Portland: exactly what it sounds like — a delicious local cheese shop with a great selection
  • Maine Mead Works for mead (a fermented drink made of honey water!) and Oxbow for beers, particularly their sours

Drive to Portland Head Light House.

allison standing in front of portland head light house on a sunny day in summer

Located in Fort Williams Park, the Portland Head Lighthouse is an absolute can’t-miss on any Maine itinerary. Of all the lighthouses in Maine I saw, this one was my favorite!

The lighthouse is exquisite and there is a coastal trail where you can see a few different viewpoints of the lighthouse with different compositions, which is great for photographers.

There is also a cliff trail that goes on the other side of it, and there is an area where you can walk down to the beach if you want to swim in the water with lighthouse views behind you!

rocky beach in front of portland head light house where you can swim if you want

There are also a handful of food trucks in the area: I saw one gelato shop and two lobster shack style restaurants selling seafood sandwiches and fried seafood.

However, I have you getting lunch at the next destination, so only grab something to eat if you’re super hungry or planning to skip the next destination on this list.

Parking is $2 per hour with a minimum of 2 hours (so effectively $4 – honestly, you won’t really want to spend more than two hours here, and even that is pushing it).

Have lunch at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth.

a small beach cove in front of one of the twin lighthouses at two lights

Two Lights is the name of both a lighthouse and a state park in the Cape Elizabeth area south of Portland.

Two Lights is so named because there are two lighthouses that look almost like twins about 300 meters from each other. You can see them at the same time, but they are not as close together as I expected.

picnic tables overlooking the ocean with some green lawn

If you want something to eat, I recommend heading towards The Lobster Shack at Two Lights.

Near the seafood shack, there is a small coastal path where you can walk out to get a better view of the lighthouses as well as a small cove where you could swim if you’ve brought your bathing suit.

Visit the Arts District and Portland Art Museum.

After exploring the Southern Portland area, it’s time to head back to downtown Portland: particularly the Arts District which is centered around the Portland Museum of Art.

This is one of my favorite areas in all of Portland. It’s artsy and funky, it’s full of great local small businesses, and there’s a lot of old-fashioned architecture given new life by the upstart businesses occupying there.

Here are a few of my favorite places in the Arts District area:

  • Speckled Ax for wood-roasted coffee — it’s quite unique, I haven’t had anything like it!
  • Yes Books for a wonderful selection of secondhand books
  • Flea For All for a great flea market on Fridays and Saturdays

After strolling around the Arts District area, you may or may not want to go to the Portland Museum of Art, depending on time, budget, and your interest in art.

The next activity on this list is also a museum, so you may want to opt for one over the other.

Portland Art Museum costs $18 and contains art ranging from 18th century works through to contemporary art.

Do a tour of Victoria Mansion.

a 200-year-old historic building in portland maine

The next place is a short walk away from the Portland Museum of Art but it feels a world away!

While the Portland Museum of Art is rather contemporary, the Victoria Mansion is elegant and old-fashioned, almost untouched over the last 200 years.

You can take a tour of the mansion – the final tour finishes at 3:50 PM (summer hours), or you can just check it out from outside if you are on a budget or are not interested in seeing the interior museum.

Tours are required and tickets cost $16. Booking in advance is recommended, particularly on weekends and rainy days.

Explore the neighborhood.

Rainbow houses in Portland Maine near Victoria Mansion

The area around Victoria Mansion is perhaps even more beautiful than the mansion itself! This is where I found virtually all of my favorite buildings in Portland.

Don’t miss the rainbow-colored row of townhouses (formerly carriage houses, I believe) which are just kitty-corner from Victoria Mansion. It looks almost like Rue Cremieux in Paris, minus the crowds!

Eat in downtown or head back to Washington Ave for drinks and dinner.

facade of a vietnamese restaurant with the words pho ga, bun cha, cong tu bot on it.

After a full day exploring downtown Portland, you have two areas where you could get a delicious dinner.

If you don’t want to leave the downtown area you’re currently in, here are the places I suggest: Bao Bao Dumpling House (a few blocks away from Victoria Mansion) or Sichuan Kitchen.

Alternately, you can head back to Washington Avenue for some more exploration of this charming part of town! There are a lot of great restaurants that are open for dinner here, many of which are Portland favorites.

  • Duckfat for poutine if you didn’t already have it at the other branch in Old Port.
  • Cong Tu Bot for delicious Vietnamese food like bun cha (pork patties served with herbs and dipping sauce)
  • Terlingua for Mexican food

Day 5: Mid-Coast Maine (Freeport, Brunswick, Harpswell & Islands)

Stop at the outlets in Freeport.

Allison wearing a black dress in front of a fake ll bean boot car

If you want to do a little morning shopping, head to the town of Freeport which is known for its outlets and massive L.L. Bean.

Take a photo with the giant Bean Boot — it’s cheesy, yes, but it’s a Maine must!

There are a number of good outlets, and I snagged a 40% off blazer at J. Crew, some of my favorite Smartwool socks from L.L. Bean… and tore myself away from the Loft outlet, because my credit card was weeping.

Take a stroll in Brunswick.

red building that used to be a fort called fort andross in brunswick maine

Brunswick is a delightful small city in Maine with a vibrant Maine Street (hopefully you enjoy the pun as much as I do) and great shopping and activities.

It’s home to Bowdoin College and as a result, there are a lot of businesses that cater to its large student population, and the town has a younger feel than other places in Maine.

There is a surprising amount to do in Brunswick! 

Take a walk by the Sea Dog Brewing Company on the Frank J Wood bridge (stop and admire the falls on the other side) to the Topsham side of town, and then take the pedestrian swinging bridge over the river back to Brunswick.

On your way back, walk past Fort Andross (and pop into the flea market there), or go shopping on Maine Street.

Grab something to eat in Brunswick before you go: I suggest Sweet Angel for Thai! It’s not on Maine Street, but it’s worth the detour. Currently, they are doing take-out only.

Take a hike on Orr’s Island.

rocks on the ocean on orrs island

After you’ve grabbed something to eat in Brunswick, it’s time to burn off that lunch with a hike!

Devil’s Back in Orr’s Island sounds intense, but it’s a relatively easy hike that is incredibly beautiful. It’s just 2.5-miles round trip with 200 feet of elevation gain, so rest easy that it’s not too strenuous!

Kayak around Bailey Island and stop at Cook’s for lunch.

kayaking in an orange kayak pointing torwards orrs island houses after leaving bailey island

If you haven’t exhausted yourself with all that hiking and eating, it’s time for one of my favorite things to do in Maine in summer: sea kayaking!

Luckily, you can rent kayaks easily at the rental company stand outside of Salt Cod Café, technically on Orr’s Island but located right next to the cool bridge to Bailey Island.

You could grab a bite to eat at Salt Cod Café, but I recommend saving your appetite for a delicious lobster feast at Cook’s after you kayaking!

Check out the Giant Steps and Land’s End for a great view.

the so-called giants steps in bailey island which are a series of steps going up to the water

Once you’ve returned your kayak and had a delicious lunch, it’s time to explore a bit more of Bailey Island. Luckily the island is very small, so it’s pretty easy to see the best of Bailey Island in a quick visit.

First, head to the Giant Steps. This is a short trail where you can see some cool rock formations: a set of volcanic rocks that look like a staircase that perhaps could have been used by a giant!

After, drive to the end of Bailey Island at Land’s End. Here, there is a small gift store, a memorial to drowned and lost fisherman, and stunning views of other islands further out in Casco Bay.

Finally, on your way back, be sure to stop at Mackerel Cove. This is one of the main harbors in Bailey Island and has an incredible view!

Grab ice cream at Pammy’s.

hand holding an ice cream sundae in front of a pink ice cream shop

I know this coastal Maine itinerary is full of food… but that’s the kind of traveler I am (and I hope you are too!)

It may seem crazy to say ‘dessert first’ but I think the vibe of Pammy’s is even more fun during the day.

When we went there was some live music and it was really pleasant to sit in the pink-painted Adirondack chairs and admire Pammy’s vision for her ice cream shop.

I got the coffee heath bar sundae and it was DELICIOUS.

Have dinner at Dolphin Marina & Restaurant.

Allison standing in front of the sunset at Dolphin marina making a silhouette

Finally, it’s time for dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in Maine: Dolphin Marina & Restaurant.

This is a spectacular place for sunset views because it’s out on one of Maine’s “fingers” and therefore is one of those rare East Coast spots that has a spectacular sunset view.

The food is also excellent. I had a jerk salmon sandwich with chili slaw and jammy roasted tomatoes – it was divine. We also split the crab cakes, which I could have eaten a half dozen of…. easily.

salmon slaw burger with jammy tomatoes

I suggest getting to Dolphin Marina & Restaurant about 1.5-2 hours before sunset. It’s really busy and it takes a while to get your table.

Luckily, there is a great bar area and you can grab a drink while you wait and there are plenty of places to walk and sit with a drink while you wait.

Aim to finish up your meal just before sunset so you can take a walk on the grounds and admire views like those above!

Day 6: Mid-Coast Maine (Bath, Wiscasset, Damariscotta, Georgetown)

Head to the charming town of Bath.

sign for bath brewing company in a brick building in downtown bath maine

Of all the towns in Maine to choose from, Bath is up there as one of the most charming.

Take a walk down Main Street, stop in some bookstores or shops, and peruse to your heart’s content.

If you’re thinking breakfast, I suggest just getting a small pastry from Cafe Creme or Mae’s Cafe & Bakery, because Maine’s largest lobster roll is waiting for you at our next stop!

Wander through Wiscasset.

Route 1 runs through it, and you could blink and miss it — but the charming town of Wiscasset is definitely worth the stop!

Wiscasset is one of those towns that is like a living museum. There are a lot of information placards throughout the city that showcase all the different architectural styles and buildings and their historical importance.

Another cool place to visit in Wiscasset is the Butter Mold Company. It’s a very unique place where they still make butter molds from scratch.

Bonus: everything there smells like cinnamon and apple pie. The owner is also extremely nice and great to chat with.

Grab one of Maine’s most famous lobster rolls.

people waiting in line at reds for a lobster roll

Wiscasset is best-known for its famous lobster shack, Red’s Eats. Frankly, there is always a huge line, and the price is not cheap.

The market price for a lobster roll was $35 when I went, compared to other places where it was $20-30!) – but their lobster rolls are massive, about double the size of other ones.

I made a mistake and didn’t wait in line at Red’s (I’m a bit contrarian about lines) and went to Sprague’s instead and got a crab roll. It was disappointing. Do as I say, not as I do, unless you also like disappointment.

Shop in Damariscotta.

street in damariscotta maine

There are a bunch of great boutiques and art galleries in Damariscotta. 

In fact, of all the places I shopped at in Maine (which was a devastatingly highly number), my favorite stores were in tiny little Damariscotta, and I even wrote a whole post on this charming small town!

There’s a great brand-new store called Wildings that I highly recommend. It’s hard not to leave with half the store! If you’re a millennial who loves plants, pots, jewelry, and quirky accessories, you’ll be hard-pressed not to leave without a maxed-out card.

Other things to do in Damariscotta include checking out the excellent bookstore and grabbing a cup of coffee at the adjoining café, walking around the pretty wharf, or visiting the oyster midden.

Wait, oyster midden? An oyster midden is a small ‘mountain’ of oyster shells left behind by the Native Americans who lived in this region for centuries. You can find one unperturbed midden at this park!

Have dinner at Five Islands.

a whole steamed lobster, steamed corn on the cob and a blueberry soda

From Wiscasset to  Five Islands Lobster Co. in the peaceful town of Georgetown, Maine is quite a trek… but it is worth it. It’s one of the most beautiful restaurants in Maine, hands down!

They serve delicious fried fish sandwiches and lobster rolls (get yours with cilantro mayo!), perfect onion rings, and exquisite steamed lobster dinners. 

sunset at five islands lobster shack with a beautiful sunset

The setting, though, almost edges out the food as the main draw. It’s one of the most beautiful harbors in all of Maine, with boats bobbing amidst a close cluster of, well, five islands.

One caveat: mosquitos LOVE this place, more than anywhere else I went in Maine. And according to the people I went with, it’s always that way. Bring lots of mosquito repellent and suck it up!

Day 7: Rockland

Visit the Olson House in Cushing.

black and white horse in front. ofa farmhouse

If you’re a fan of Andrew Wyeth, I strongly recommend making a detour to Cushing to visit the Olson House.

When we visited, a majestic black and white horse was just grazing in front of the house, and he came right up to us for pets and scratches!

This is where he painted his most seminal work, Christina’s World, as well as innumerable other paintings over his nearly 20 years living on the grounds.

The grounds and the house are currently closed for renovations, but you can still see the house from the field from afar, and you can visit his gravestone.

graveyard with old grave stones where andrew wyeth and his wife are buried

Cushing is a brief 15-minute detour off of Highway 1 on the way ro Rockland, so it’s not a huge sacrifice for a big art history lover.

However, if you don’t have much interest in Wyeth or pastoral landscapes, you can safely skip this part of the itinerary.

Have breakfast at a Rockland Cafe.

cafe in downtown rockland

Upon arriving in Rockland, it’s time to grab a bite to eat at one of the many cafés in this charming town.

There are a number of places serving breakfast pastries; I suggest Atlantic Baking Co.

Visit the Farnsworth Art Museum.

the interior of the excellent farnsworth art museum in rockland me

Rockland is considered the Art Capital of Maine and with good reason: the Farnsworth Museum is one of the best art museums in the country! 

The Farnsworth Museum has a rich collection of Andrew Wyeth works as well as gifts from the Wyeth family, recently bequeathed by Andrew Wyeth’s late widow and muse Betsy Wyeth, who passed away in 2020.

There is also a large collection of contemporary art by Mainers and other New England artists.

Stroll and shop down Main Street.

main street of rockland maine

Rockland is an arty little town and that extends beyond just the Farnsworth!

There are a number of excellent galleries and boutiques that are worth window shopping — or entering, if your wallet dares!

Grab a beer at Rock Harbor Pub & Brewery.

Once you’ve had your fill of Rockland, grab a drink and maybe a bite to eat at the Rock Harbor Pub & Brewery.

Don’t have too late a night — we’re going to wake up bright and early for a morning hike tomorrow!

Day 8: Camden

Take a hike in Camden Hills State Park.

allison at the top of mt battie

Camden is best known for its beautiful state park, Camden Hills State Park, just a few miles north of the city of Camden but feeling like a world away!

Camden Hills State Park has a lot of wonderful hiking trails available. You could hike up the trail to Mt. Battie (it’s about 3.1 miles with 800 feet of elevation gain).

You can also drive up to the summit if you’re unable to hike… no shame or judgment here: these beautiful views are for everyone!

At the top of Mount Battie, you’ll be treated to incredible views over Camden Harbor and the islands off the coast of the mainland dotting Penobscot Bay. It’s spectacular and you’ll absolutely want to spend some time up here, relaxing, meditating, taking pictures, perhaps eating a picnic lunch if you hiked.

From Mount Battie, you can even spot Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island off in the distance on a clear day!

For a much more intense hike, Mount Megunticook is an option. It’s a moderate hike, 3.8 miles roundtrip with about 1,000 feet of elevation gain (and then of course, just as much elevation in descent). Bring lots of water and a snack, and be prepared for Read trail reports here.

Unfortunately, during my visit to Maine I was having a chronic pain flare-up and wasn’t able to hike, but my friend has hiked Megunticook several times and insists it’s one of the most beautiful hikes in Maine.

Grab a bite to eat.

After your Camden Hills exploration, you’ll probably be hungry.

We wanted to eat at Merriner’s, which is excellent and came highly recommended by my friend, but we arrived too late (lunch ends at 2 PM!).

Instead, we had a Cuban sandwich next door at Camden Café and it was delicious – and the views of the harbor are impossible to beat.

Stroll and shop in downtown Camden.

shopping in a boutique in camden

Camden is one of the most charming small towns in coastal Maine and there is so much to do and see in Camden that I’ve written in a blog post here!

You should definitely spend some time walking around the Harbor area and the Harbor Park, shopping at some of the shops on Main Street and Bay View Avenue, and admiring Megunticook Falls in the harbor.

Take an afternoon swim at Laite Memorial Beach.

the beach at laite memorial beach with boats off in the distance, grass and a tree

If you’re feeling hot and sticky after all that hiking and walking and eating, it’s time to refresh yourself in the small but lovely beach just beside the harbor at Laite Memorial Beach.

It’s not the largest beach nor the most beautiful, but I loved going for a cool refreshing dip on the sandy/pebbly beach and bobbing in the water with sailboats off in the distance. It was magical.

Go sailing on the bay.

sailing past curtis lighthouse in the water near camden maine

Finish your magical day in Camden in the most magical way: on the sea on a boat cruise to explore the Bay and even get to see the beautiful Curtis Lighthouse on an island off the shore.

You may also get to see wildlife like seals, cormorants, porpoises, and more – and perhaps even some lobstermen pulling in their traps!

Day 9: Bar Harbor & Acadia National Park

Drive to Mount Desert Island and visit Sand Beach.

Let’s leave Camden bright and early to make our way to our final stop on this coastal Maine itinerary: Mount Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park.

Once you arrive at Mount Desert Island and check into your Bar Harbor hotel, it’s time to hit the ground running… or relaxing!

Since this itinerary has been pretty fast-paced, I think a little relaxation by the ocean is in order.

Although most of Mount Desert Island’s coastline is composed of rocky cliff faces (like much of Maine), there is one sandy ocean beach hidden inside Acadia National Park for all to enjoy!

Sand Beach is about a 20-minute drive from the Bar Harbor town center and is one of the first attractions along the Park Loop Road. The parking area tends to fill up quickly, so be prepared to scout for a parking spot.

The beach is staffed with park lifeguards to make swimming in the chilly water safe for all the brave souls that choose to do so. Though lately, Maine’s water has been warmer than ever before… a bittersweet side effect of the sad reality of global warming.

Sand Beach is the perfect spot to set up for a sunny afternoon with a picnic, beach chairs, and plenty of sunblock — that New England summer sun is no joke! 

Hit one of the hiking trails.

the iron rungs of the dificult beehive trek

If you’re not interested in swimming, there’s still plenty to do in this area, such as searching through tide pools and walking the shoreline to search for shells.

There are a couple of fun trails that take off from this area too. One of the nearby trailheads is for the Great Head Loop Trail, which starts on the east side of Sand Beach.

The shorter loop option is 1.6 miles around and offers spectacular panoramic views of the area, including a scenic overlook of Sand Beach.

If you want to add a more challenging hike to your Acadia itinerary on the first day, the trailhead for the Beehive Trail, a tough but rewarding 1.6-mile loop, is located right near Sand Beach.

It uses iron rungs to climb up the more difficult part of the trail. Be extremely careful here as some hikers have died. Do not descend the same way you ascended.

If you begin the hike, be prepared to finish it so that you do not endanger people who are coming up the iron rungs. This is not one for those with a fear of heights!

Stroll around Bar Harbor.

After soaking up the sun and relaxing the afternoon away, it’s time to head into town and enjoy all the cool things to do in Bar Harbor!

Bar Harbor is a charming New England coastal community with quirky boutique shops and amazing seafood restaurants.

Before dinner, take a walk along the Shore Path, which begins at the Town Pier. This short path offers beautiful views of the boats anchored in the harbor for the evening.

Have dinner at The Terrace Grille

Dine right on the water at this gorgeous restaurant!

The outdoor seating is decorated with beautiful yellow umbrellas and offers five-star views of Frenchman Bay and the Porcupine Islands. Not only are the views great, but the food is too!

Keep it classic with a boiled Maine lobster or indulge and order the Maine Lobster Bake.

The portion size is no joke, and definitely not for one: it comes with all the goods including New England clam chowder, steamed mussels and clams, over one pound of Maine Lobster, seasonal sides, and homemade blueberry pie!

Grab a cone at Mount Desert Island Ice Cream

Hope you saved room for dessert. Is any evening by the ocean complete without an ice cream cone? You already know the answer to that question!

The ice cream from Mount Desert Island Ice Cream is unlike any you’ve had before. Maybe it’s the premium flavors mixed with the ocean air, or maybe it’s the care that goes into every homemade batch. Yum!

Day 10: Acadia National Park

Drive the Park Loop Road

green trees along the road in acadia national park

Roll the windows down and let in that warm sea breeze as you head out to tour Acadia’s Park Loop Road.

The 27-mile road loops around Acadia National Park, and it is one of the best scenic drives in Maine, taking you from the ocean to the mountains and everywhere in between.

Set aside at least half a day to make the drive. There are lots of places to stop along the way, but here are some of the best sights.

Stop at Sieur des Monts.

leaves on the ground in a path in acadia national park

Sieur de Monts is the heart of Acadia National Park and one of the first attractions you’ll see when driving the scenic Park Loop Road.

This area is home to many sights, including the Sieur de Monts Spring, Acadia Nature Center, Wild Gardens of Acadia, Abbe Museum, and historic memorial paths.

See Thunder Hole with your own eyes (and ears!)

wild crash of water in. asmall rocky cove inlet

Thunder Hole is named after the booming sound like thunder that the ocean waves make as they slam against the rocky shore.

The force of the wave pushes air and settled water to the surface, creating a loud “thunderclap” made of water.

The small rocky inlet at Thunder Hole may not be as wild at low tide, so don’t be disappointed if you see it and it doesn’t live up to its name.

Check a tide chart and wait for some choppy water to come in with the high tide, and you’re sure to hear what all the hype is about.

Marvel at the views at Otter Point.

red rocky cove and sandy beach and trees.

Less than a mile past Thunder Hole, there will be a parking area for Otter Point.

This rocky shoreline is named after Acadia National Park’s spunky river otters. The most impressive feature at this stop is Otter Cliff, which stands an impressive 110 ft high!

This is a great spot to hang out in the sun and watch the ocean waves crash over the rocks.

 Lunch at Jordan Pond House Restaurant

After a morning of sightseeing, it’s time for a well-earned lunch break.

Famous for their mouth-watering popovers, the Jordan Pond House Restaurant is every foodie’s dream come true.

Take a hike around Jordan Pond Loop Trail.

After all that eating I’ve had you doing on this trip, It’s time to get a little hike in. Wouldn’t you agree?

The beautiful 3.5-mile loop trail around Jordan Pond is the perfect place. This scenic hike will take you along the shore of the pond, on a flat but rocky trail. Sturdy shoes are recommended for this trail.

Head home to end your time in Vacationland.

Whether you make the long drive back home or to Boston, or the shorter drive to Bangor to drop off your rental car and catch a flight, it’s time to say “see you soon” to Maine.

Make your plans to come back to Maine in other seasons. You’ve seen the glory of the summery coast. Plan to see the riotous fall colors or experience the desolate but sublime winter beauty.

Know that it’s not goodbye, but rather see you later: your first trip to Maine is just the beginning of a lifelong love!

The Perfect South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary: 7 Days of Wonder

Little-known fact: South Dakota is seriously awesome! So if you are considering a South Dakota road trip, I highly recommend it.

The first time I drove through the state, I was on a bit of an open schedule and spent five days there because I loved it so much. 

I was surprised by how much there was to do and see in South Dakota: it is an unassuming gem of the United States!

While road tripping South Dakota, you will have the opportunity to explore mountain pinnacles, ancient seabeds, and prairie land. 

Beautiful wilderness in custer state park - trees and sun setting over the mountains

Along the way, you’ll also have opportunities to learn about Native American culture and their history of stewardship over these beautiful lands. 

And of course, you will see one of the most famous landmarks in the US — and perhaps what South Dakota is best known for — Mount Rushmore.

In this South Dakota itinerary, we will primarily be exploring the southwestern side of the state: it’s where all the bucket list-worthy action is!

The main attractions on this road trip flow off Interstate 90, a significant route you may already be taking if you are on an extended road trip across the US. It is a straightforward route with insane views and beautiful experiences!

PLANNING FOR SOUTH DAKOTA AT A GLANCE: 

When to Go: Since some attractions close during winter, the best time to visit South Dakota is in summer, spring and fall. But if you're into winter sports, then consider visiting during winter.

Where to Stay: For this itinerary, you'll have sleepovers in Keystone, Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, Badlands National Park, and Deadwood. 

In Keystone, I recommend staying at Quality Inn Keystone near Mount Rushmore for budget travelers, or Holiday Inn Express & Suites Keystone, an IHG Hotel (boutique hotel). 

Near Wind Cave National Park, I suggest staying at El Dorado Ranch which is just a 20 minutes drive to the park.

While you're in Cluster State Park, I suggest staying at Sylvan Lake Lodge at Custer State Park Resort or Bavarian Inn if you prefer staying outside the park.

For an overnight stay near Badlands National Park, I recommend staying at Best Western Plains Motel (mid-range, best-rated) or the Peaceful Country Living Home (vacation rental by owner). 

And for Deadwood, Bullock Hotel is a great thrilling option.

How to Get Around: A car is a must-have for a road trip in South Dakota — there is just no way around it except if you want to spend a lot of money on private tours. If you don't know where to rent a car from, you can compare car rentals and prices from here. Alternately, you can rent an RV or campervan via RVShare and save on accommodations.

Best Activities: Don't want to drive or plan? Booking a few different activities can help you eliminate the need for driving around. You can book a Mount Rushmore and Black Hills Full-Day Tour, or this Private Devils Tower Tour and Hike.

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack:  A sturdy pair of hiking boots will serve you well -- I love my Ahnu boots. You'll want binoculars to spot all the beautiful wildlife -- I suggest these Nikon binoculars. If you're hiking deep in the backcountry (especially in Badlands National park since it's an Open Hike Park!), you'll want something enabled with GPS and satellite SOS, like the Garmin InReach Mini.

Road trip pro tip: Purchase an annual pass (AKA the America the Beautiful Pass) to save money on the entrance fees for the multiple locations in this itinerary run by the NPS!

How This South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary Works

This South Dakota road trip route both starts and stops from Rapid City, SD. This is because the most beautiful and interesting parts of the state are all clustered in the Western part of the state.

While you could fly into Sioux Falls, most of the sights you want to see are clustered around Rapid City, so you should just make your way there after you fly in.

You will definitely need to rent a car if you are flying into South Dakota.

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on RentalCars as the best site to rent with in the USA – it searches dozens of rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare car rentals for your trip here!

South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary, Day By Day

Day 1: Rapid City

Start your journey in Rapid City.

Arriving in Rapid City, with a roadside attraction with the word 'rapid city' on it

Rapid City is at the threshold of western South Dakota, about an hour from the border with Wyoming. 

Rapid City is the best airport to fly into if you are visiting South Dakota from a state that is out of driving range. 

While it’s a small airport, it’s the most central to all the most worthwhile things on this South Dakota itinerary.

Of course, you could fly into a different South Dakota airport, like Sioux City, but you’ll have to drive to Rapid City anyway to start this road trip.

So, if possible, start in Rapid City, in the western part of the state. This is where you will find the most enticing attractions of South Dakota!

It is a great place to fuel up and acquire groceries/snacks for your South Dakota road trip… after all, a road trip is not complete without snacks!

Plus, you can explore museums and parks in the downtown of Rapid City, too, which is a fun city worthy of an afternoon of exploration.

Explore the downtown.

A view of downtown Rapid City buildings and trees

Once you’re in Downtown Rapid City, there are a few cool places you should make sure you check out during your quick whistle-stop tour of the city.

One such spot in downtown Rapid City is the Perfect Hanging Gallery. You will find prints and unique gifts to enjoy — they make great souvenirs, for yourself or others!

Additionally, Armadillos Ice Cream Shoppe is not to be missed. They have unique flavors not found in most other ice cream shops, so be sure to try out the “flavor of the day.” 

If they have their black cherry “flavor of the day”, get it! It is one of their most celebrated.

I also recommend that you explore the Berlin Wall Memorial where you can see a piece of the infamous wall…. yes, in Rapid City, South Dakota. The world is wild.

The Museum of Geology is also pretty cool, and free! You can see, dinosaur bones, gems, and minerals. Plus, they have a really interesting exhibit on the geology of the Badlands.

Check into your hotel for the night.

the lights of Rapid City after dark in downtown

In and around Rapid City, you will find some of the central South Dakota attractions. There are day hikes and historical points of interest around every corner.

Plus, it’s easy to venture out from here, deep into the Black Hills and east to Badlands National Park.

Rapid City is your doorway to the incredible things in store for your SD adventure.

After exploring the city, check into your hotel for the night so you can rest up for future adventures!

You could also make your way to Keystone, SD which would set you up in a prime position to start your day in Mount Rushmore bright and early!

Where to Stay in Keystone

BOUTIQUE | If you want a cozy and comfortable place to stay while still taking advantage of the mid-range budget, then I recommend staying at Holiday Inn Express & Suites Keystone. With comfortable beds, large rooms, a swimming pool, and a hot tub, you can’t find anything better at this price. | Reserve on Booking.com | Reserve on Hotels.com

BUDGET | If you prefer spending money on activities to accommodation, then Quality Inn Keystone near Mount Rushmore is a perfect choice. It’s located in a prime location with stunning mountain views, and it also has an indoor swimming pool and a jacuzzi perfect for unwinding after a busy day of exploring. | Reserve on Booking.com | Reserve on Hotels.com

CABIN | Encompassed by the Black Hills forest, this highly-rated woody cozy cabin is the ultimate private escape in Keystone while still being near all the major attractions. The cabin gives the ultimate forest living — from waking up to deers, enjoying the fire pit at night to chilling on the deck, it can’t get any better than this. | Book on Vrbo

Day 2: Mount Rushmore to Wind Cave

Make your way to Mount Rushmore.

the faces of four presidents of the USA carved into a large mountain

Head west on Route 16 and enjoy the short 30-minute drive to view the most significant landmark of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore! You will have to veer off onto Route 244 to reach the park.

Mount Rushmore National Monument is a not-to-be-missed spot as you traverse in the footsteps of many thrill-seekers of the great American road trip. You will walk lovely boardwalks as you look up at the massive sculptures which have been carved into the side of the mountain.

You will see the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

There is a restaurant on-site, Carvers Cafe, but the real gem is Memorial Team Ice Cream, where you can sample Thomas Jefferson’s ice cream recipe.

A Note on Mount Rushmore

A further away view of the four faces of Mt Rushmore so that you can see the scale of the sculpture against mountain and trees

However interested you are in Mount Rushmore, it is important to note that this landmark is not without controversy. This article is a fascinating primer on the issues raised by the existence of Mount Rushmore.

To simplify an incredibly complex problem, there are two main issues at stake. Number one is the issue of the United States’ violation of their treaty with the Lakota (one of three Sioux nations). 

The story is a familiar one in US history. The USA agreed to the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, which gave the Lakota tribe exclusive use of the Black Hills. Less than a decade later, after gold was discovered, the US broke their treaty and overtook the land. 

The Black Hills are an important site to the Lakota, and particularly, the mountain on which Mount Rushmore was carved holds particular significance to Native Americans.

The mountain now named “Mt Rushmore” was once called Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain by the Lakota. It is indescribably vital for you to remember that this was once a mountain sacred to the Lakota.

The other issue at stake with Mount Rushmore is the story it tells. It was designed by Gutzon Borglum, a man with ties to the KKK, the same man who dreamed up the Confederate version of Mount Rushmore, Stone Mountain. 

So there’s that, plus the fact that Mount Rushmore celebrates four important but flawed presidents — two of whom owned slaves, and virtually all of whom displaced and disregarded Native Americans (including Lincoln) during their tenure– all while violating Native land rights.

This is not to condemn Mount Rushmore nor to say that it should not be visited, but that it should be visited with an open mind and critical eye, aware of the hypocrisies and nuances of the story, but also aware of its importance in our country’s history.

Check out the Crazy Horse Memorial.

The Crazy Horse Memorial under construction

I suggest that you balance out your time visiting a place like Mount Rushmore with sites that represent Native American culture, such as the Crazy Horse Memorial. 

You can reach the memorial by continuing west from Mount Rushmore on 244 and then heading south on 385.

Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest rock carving. Their mission states, “… to protect and preserve the culture, tradition, and living heritage of the North American Indians.”

It was conceptualized as a response to Mount Rushmore, a way of reminding people of the Native history of the land, a counterpoint to the four presidents on stolen land.

But it, too, has been met with controversy, and opinions about this memorial among the Lakota are split (this fascinating article explains some of the issues at stake.)

If you’re hungry, stop at Laughing Water Restaurant. Your visit to this restaurant benefits the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.

Head towards Wind Cave National Park.

inside one of the caves at wind cave national park. sedimentary rock layers in the cave.

As you head south on 385, you’ll make your way to Wind Cave National Park, which is the final stop on day 2 of your South Dakota road trip.

They offer cave tours in this unique cave formed by the wind. The tour will take you to an opening in the cave where you can feel the breeze that rips through this cave, which is pretty amazing!

The rock formations in the cave will also blow your mind, as well!

Find a place to stay the night.

Trees on the plains of Wind Cave National Park in the afternoon light with shadow

This park is a perfect place to camp for the night, too. There are spots open often. You could also stay in Buffalo Gap or Hot Springs.

If you’re not camping, there are a lot of accommodation options in nearby Custer, SD. 

I suggest El Dorado Ranch which is highly rated and just outside of Custer, close to Wind Cave National Park, about a 20-minute drive away.

Where to stay in Custer

RANCH | Get a chance to sleep on a ranch by staying at El Dorado Ranch. Seated on a 5-acre, this holiday home is large enough to host big families or groups of people who want to experience farm life while still having all the amenities they need in a home. Reserve on Booking.com | Reserve on Hotels.com

CABIN | If you love rustic finished-off with modern amenities, then you’ll love this lovely log cabin. There are lots of cabins in Custer but this one is my personal favorite for its large deck that offers amazing views on Crazy Horse Monument not forgetting how cozy each room feels — I am talking exposed wooden beams, various pieces of art, cute lighting features, I could go on and on raving about this cabin. | Book on Vrbo

MOTEL | If you wondered why I was raving about the previous cabin and you just want to stick to the familiar options, then Bavarian Inn, Black Hills is what I recommend. With 2 swimming pools (one indoor, one outdoor), and a chic interior vibe, this motel has a French charm of overflowing flower pots that can’t be found in any of the previous options. | Reserve on Booking.com | Reserve on Hotels.com

Day 3: Incredibly Scenic Drives

Continue your incredible South Dakota road trip with some of the most scenic drives of your life.

The Needles highway in South Dakota open road around rocks

The following roads are going to blow your mind. Now we’re really getting into the good stuff of this South Dakota itinerary!

One thing I’d like to note, it is virtually impossible to drive the entirety of these roads without doing a little backtracking, but I promise, it is worth every mile.

Optional: Make a stop at Jewel Cave National Monument.

It’s a little out of the way, but if you’re interested in caves and geology and the Wind Caves wasn’t enough cave action for you, Jewel Cave National Monument is located about 20 miles west of Custer.

It’s a beautiful cave system that you can take a tour of by lantern light, but it isn’t the best for those with a fear of the dark or for claustrophobia!

Drive the Needles Highway.

A road going through the Needles highway

From Wind Cave, head north on 385 and pick up Route 87- the Needles Highway. This is by far one of the most scenic drives I have ever been on, aside from the scenic byway in Custer State Park (your next stop).

You will pass Sylvan Lake and the highway’s namesake, the Needle’s Eye, a unique rock formation. You will also pass the Cathedral Spires.

Keep an eye out for Black Elk Peak on this road, which is the highest point in South Dakota!

The spires are a significant rock climbing destination in the US. Plus, you can hit the trail in this spot to get up and personal with these remarkable formations.

Take the Iron Mountain Road to Custer State Park.

Three pronghorn aka american antelope in a field

From the Needles Highway, you will hop onto Iron Mountain Road (Route 16-A) initially. 

You will head west on 16-A, then back on 385 North, where you will then go right onto Needles Highway again (87 South). 

Then pick up 16-A East again, where you will enter Custer State Park and can spend the night.

This route is kind of a roundabout way to get to Custer State Park. However, it will allow you to see all that these scenic routes have to offer.

Iron Mountain Road will wind you through glorious tunnels carved right through the mountains. I’ve never been on roads quite like these.

They like to describe Iron Mountain Road as 17 miles, 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, three pigtails, three tunnels, two splits, and four presidents.

Tip: You can enjoy a portion of Iron Mountain Road as you enter the park and then use it to exit the next day to see the entire road.

After exploring a portion of the road, enjoy the scenic route that winds through Custer State Park, too, for more tunnels and endless wildlife. The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway is 70 miles of engaging wonder.

You will 100% see bison and may even get stuck in a “bison jam” — the South Dakota version of a traffic jam — as the park is packed with them! 

Note: Do not get closer than 25 yards of bison (and 50 is safer). Take photos with a zoom lens.

There will also be a plethora of adorable prairie dogs. For even more animal-spotting, such as pronghorns and wild burros, tack on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway.

I’m pretty sure this will be one of your favorite days road tripping South Dakota!

Choose one of the many camping or cabin spots around the park to enjoy. Hit the hiking trails, swimming, fishing, or enjoy some time just straight chilling. It’s a great way to end the day.

Plus, when you wake in the morning, you will have the chance to head back out on the scenic roads as you make your way to another absolutely stunning South Dakota destination.

Day 4: Badlands National Park

Make your way towards the Badlands through the Black Hills.

Driving through the Badlands along Sage Creek Road, seeing hills of beautiful colors

Badlands National Park is your destination for your fourth day on the road in South Dakota! 

But first, you will finish adventuring on the scenic roads of the Black Hills National Forest before you head east.

Hop back on 16-A, Iron Mountain Road, and take it all the way up to Route 16. Then take the 16 Bypass to pick up Route 44 east.

Take a left from 44 to hit Sage Creek Road. This is another beautiful drive with spacious prairie views! There are more prairie dogs and bison that call this area home. You may also get to see Badlands bighorn sheep, too!

Note: Sage Creek Road is a dirt road, so take it cautiously, especially if you have a low-clearance vehicle!

Arrive at Badlands and take a scenic drive through the park.

Driving the badlands loop road, winding street on a sunny day in South Dakota road tripping

You will enter the park at the Pinnacles Entrance Station. From there, hop on the 30-mile Badlands Loop Road to enjoy many overlooks and incredible short hikes. 

Go check out our article on the Badlands for an extensive list of recommendations of what to do in the park!

One of the coolest things about the Badlands is that it is an Open Hike park. That means you can hike virtually anywhere unless otherwise stated. 

It also gives open reign for camping!

You can camp wherever you like in the park as long as it is half a mile from any trailhead or road. You should never camp within 100 feet of any water source.

There are also two campgrounds in the park, plus a lodge. Cedar Pass Lodge also has a restaurant that is open seasonally.

If you want, you can find free dispersed camping in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The camping is located just north of the Pinnacles Entrance Station. Once you exit the park boundary, make a right onto the first dirt road. You will find a plethora of free campsites here.

One crucial thing to note: The Badlands are named so because of the rapidly changing weather. It can bring rain and high winds at the drop of a dime. If you are going to camp, make sure you have a very sturdy tent.

Day 5: Wall Drug Store and Other South Dakota historical sites.

See a spectacular Badlands sunrise, then make your way to Wall.

Sun rising over the Pinnacles of Badlands National park

Because of the colorful majesty of the Badlands Pinnacles, you can bet it will be one of the most beautiful sunrises of your life!

The Big Badlands Overlook is an excellent spot for sunrise. Also, the Castle Trail or the Door Trail will bring excellent sunrise views.

The Castle Trail is about 10 miles out and back, but you don’t have to hike the whole thing to get the views you want. The Door Trail is 0.8 miles, giving way to a nice and short sunrise hike.

Trail sign leading to different viewpoints in badlands NP

From your glorious morning views, stop by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to learn a bit of history of the Badlands. 

Then, head north from the Northeast Entrance Station on Route 240. There, you can make a stop at the Minute Man Missle National Historic Site.

This historic site once was a major player in the Cold War Era. There are still over 1000 nuclear weapons under the ground of the vast prairie. When you come here, you will be able to learn about the history of the Cold War and check out the Delta-09 missile.

Stop in the town of Wall, home to Wall Drug Store, a historic roadside attraction famous for its free ice water and delicious donuts!

Then, begin heading west on I-90 to Sturgis where you can pick up US Alt-14, Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway.

Hop on US Alt-14 at Sturgis and begin heading northwest.

Sturgis is best known for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which was started by Native American bikers in 1938. It usually happens in August. 

For obvious reasons during the pandemic, we don’t suggest you attend (and you might want to stay clear of Sturgis for now), but keep it in mind for future travels.

You might want to check out the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame if you’re into motorcycles!

Personally, my favorite stop in Sturgis is Uncle Louie’s Diner! It offers by far the best pancakes in the state. Feel like a challenge? In this case, you should tackle on Uncle Louie’s Challenge.

“Eat a 6-pound burger and fries meal within 30 minutes, get it for free, and a t-shirt.” No one has ever completed this challenge. Classic.

You could also continue another 20 minutes on from Sturgis to the beautiful Bear Butte State Park.

Enjoy Gold Rush history with a stop in Deadwood.

The historic downtown of Deadwood South Dakota with bars and restuarants

Deadwood was established in 1876 when gold was discovered there. It is one of the most quintessential Gold Rush Era towns of the United States.

Deadwood was once home to some of the most infamous of the Wild West outlaws. You can find the graves of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, among others. You can even visit some of their graves at Mount Moriah Cemetary.

You can also enjoy the many luxuries that Deadwood provides, such as breweries, wineries, and spas.

Be sure to visit Buffalo Bodega Complex, the oldest saloon in South Dakota. You will find an Old West experience as you gamble and gobble down some juicy steak. You can undoubtedly spend a night here as they have a super active nightlife.

Deadwood is a great place to spend the night. There are numerous hotels and campgrounds to choose from.

For those brave enough, a stay at Bullock Hotel will surely excite your senses, and your nerves, as this hotel is said to be haunted! Supposedly, it is haunted by the ghost of the former sheriff of Deadwood, Seth Bullock, who built the hotel in 1895.

It has been said one can smell the smoke of his cigar from time to time. It is also said that there was a hanging in room 211. Sometimes the faint figure of the person who passed can be seen.

Day 6: Black Hills

Go north to Spearfish and enjoy scenic Route US Alt-14.

Waterfall in green oasis in Spearfish, South Dakota

Before you head northwest, grab a hangover cure in Deadwood at Nugget Saloon for “the world’s best Bloody Mary.”

In the morning, you may also want to hop on the George S. Mickelson Trail before hopping back on the road. It is always nice to get a nice stretch of the legs before spending a lot of time in a car.

You can make your way along the remainder of the Spearfish Canyon Byway scenic drive.

Spearfish Canyon Byway (US Alt-14) will be a great way to fill your scenic road trip desires. Take in the beauty of the Black Hills and all the great things South Dakota has to offer.

It will take you through a beautiful canyon with the option to view lakes and Bridal Veil Falls, Roughlock Falls (located 2 miles off the highway up a dirt road), and Spearfish Falls. Plus, you can see areas where they filmed Dances with Wolves.

There are numerous campgrounds, including the Spearfish Campground which lends itself to lovely creekside camping.

Day 7: Devil’s Tower & Back to Rapid City

Take an excursion to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

The mysterious rock formation of Devils Tower in Wyoming near South Dakota

While the Devil’s Tower is not in South Dakota, it is a worthwhile detour on your journey.

This structure was clearly once a volcano. Adventurers from around the world come here to challenge themselves on the rock climbing routes!

The Devil’s Tower was once known by natives as Bear Lodge. It was a major meeting place for many of the tribes in the area, including the Cheyenne and Arapahoe. 

Each tribe has a unique story about Bear Lodge. It was often a place to gather to honor the Great Spirit.

While it is not in South Dakota, it is only an hour from Spearfish and is just too cool to pass up!

To get there, you will take I-90 West to Route 14 West. On the way, you will want to stop at Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation, which is easily accessible right off I-90. It is a famous landmark, a sinkhole to be precise.

Known for an old Native American hunting tradition of chasing buffalo to their demise into the hole, you will find this stop quite interesting. 

The area was once home to the Shoshone, Hidatsa, Crow, Kiowa, Apache, and Cheyenne tribes, all of whom have contributed greatly to the area of the region.

You will also pass through the town of Sundance, WY. It is a great frontier town to make a stop in. You can even do some hiking in Bearlodge Mountain Recreation Area if you so choose.

After making your way to the Devil’s Tower, you can head back right where you started in Rapid City if you are finishing your trip up.

Whether you will continue on west from Wyoming to Yellowstone and Grand Teton or fly back home from Rapid City. Either way, you will have successfully seen the best of what South Dakota has to offer.

***

the pinnacles of the badlands of south dakota

South Dakota is an enchanting land of mountain peaks, prairie land, and pinnacles. You will see uncountable amounts of native flora and fauna. You will enjoy lakes, creeks, and waterfalls. Yes, South Dakota has it all!

As you travel through South Dakota, you’ll see the interplay of Amerian history writ large: the long, deep-rooted Native American connections to the land meeting with the “Wild West” history of pioneers. 

Monuments such as Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse speak to the uncomfortable truths of Westward Expansion, and it’s important to be mindful of what was lost — lives, land, languages, lore — as a result of European-American settlement on the Americas.

As always, I urge you to be conscientious of the land and its history. It is truly your honor and privilege to be able to travel, so approach it with an open heart and open mind.

Your Road Trip Checklist

road tripping through the green forest of south dakota

Before embarking, get your oil changed if needed, and check your tires and fluid levels. Here are a few things you should have in your car for a road trip:

  • One gallon of emergency water per person
  • Jumper cables, or better yet, a portable car jump starter. I highly recommend you get one with an air compressor and USB charging capabilities
  • Snacks, snacks, and more snacks!
  • Cooler for perishables
  • Metallic sunscreens to keep your car cool when parked
  • Knife
  • Tire plugs
  • First-aid kit
  • Road atlas — National Geographic makes a great one which shows the public land and camping spots.
  • Books and games
  • Emergency supplies for stranding: such as chains and tracks to help you get out if you are stuck.
  • Road flares
  • Extra clothes and blankets

If you get stranded:

  • Make sure your car can be seen by anyone coming to help. This is where road flares will come in handy. You can also keep the internal dome light on to help yourself be seen if it is nighttime. It doesn’t use a whole lot of battery power.
  • If your tires are stuck in the snow or mud, attempt to shovel them out. You can also place road salt under your tires to help melt snow. Tracks will also help will mud/snow.
  • Stay with your car. Heading out to seek help in cold/hot conditions can lead to hypothermia, frostbite, or heat-related injuries.
  • Be conservative with fuel, and fill up often, especially on long stretches of road. You don’t want to run out of gas.

Don’t forget travel insurance!
Travel insurance coverage helps you recoup your losses in case of emergency, accident, illness, or theft. I’ve relied on World Nomads for my travel insurance coverage for four years with no complaints, and I’m a happy paying customer. I recommend them highly to fellow travelers!

Get your free quote here.

Your 10-Day Colorado National Parks Road Trip Itinerary

4 of the 61 national parks in the United States are located in Colorado — some 5%! — and they just happen to be some of the parks with the most incredible views!

Colorado is home to Rocky Mountain National Park too, which is one of the most-visited national parks in the United States!

From epic outdoor hikes that lead to unparalleled views to fun activities like sandboarding on sand dunes (yes, we do have those in the United States!), Colorado’s national parks genuinely have it all — and you can see it on on a Colorado national parks road trip!

Throughout this post, you’ll learn the best route to take to visit all of the national parks in Colorado in just ten days! Be sure to save it for later because this is one post you’re not going to want to misplace!

PLANNING FOR COLORADO AT A GLANCE: 

When to Go: From beautiful sunny days, stunning fall foliage, to impressive snowy winters, Colorado is beautiful all year round. But if I had to choose one season, then I'd say summer is the best time to visit Colorado.

However, winter is also a great time to visit if you're into winter sports since Colorado is a haven for that.

Where to Stay: For this itinerary, you'll have sleepovers in Rocky Mountain National Park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, and Great Sand Dunes National Park.

For Rocky Mountain National park, I suggest staying at Woodlands on Fall River hotel (luxury), Blue Door Inn (motel), Coyote Mountain Lodge (budget), or this cabin for a homey feel. 

While in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, I suggest enjoying the magic of sleeping under the stars at either South Rim Campground, East Portal Campground, or North Rim Campground.

In Mesa Verde National Park, you can stay inside the park by opting for Morefield Campground if you're into camping but if not, then it has to be Far View Lodge as it's the only lodge in the park. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park can be visited without staying overnight but if choose to, then you can stay inside the park and camp on the dunes or at Pinon Flats Campground. If camping is not your thing, then you can choose to stay at Great Sand Dunes Lodge which is located right next to the park, or go a bit further to Alamosa town and sleep at either Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Alamosa, an IHG Hotel (boutique) or Best Western Alamosa Inn (budget).

How to Get Around: A car is essential to fully enjoy the National Parks of Colorado otherwise you'd have to rely on expensive tours. If you're renting a car, compare car rentals and prices from here. Alternately, you can rent an RV or campervan via RVShare and save on accommodations. 

Best Activities: Want to fully enjoy your Colorado road trip without the hustles of planning? Booking some activities will help you with that. You can book a full day tour of Rocky Mountain National Park from Denver so that you can just sit back and enjoy.

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack:  Colorado is all about hiking so a sturdy pair of hiking boots will serve you well -- I love my Ahnu boots. A dual-purpose phone mount and charger will come in very handy and you'll be happy to have a roadside emergency kit should your car break down while road tripping.

Know Before You Go: If you plan to visit multiple national parks in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass will save you a bundle! It costs $80 for an annual pass (for an entire vehicle traveling together) to all US national parks and federally managed sites.  

Colorado Itinerary, Day 1 – 3: Rocky Mountain National Park

Drive time: 1 hour 30 minutes from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park

Because you’ll most likely come to Colorado from Denver International Airport, the logical first stop is Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s best to spend around three days in Rocky Mountain National Park due to all that there is to explore!

Pick up your rental car in Denver (I suggest booking a rental car via a search aggregator like Rental Cars, which offers the best deals on your rental) and it’s time to hit the road — we’re heading towards the Rockies!

Below are some of the best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park over the course of three days. Pick and choose the ones that sound most interesting to you!

Sign at the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. Established in 1915

Take a leisurely drive on Trail Ridge Road.

Trail Ridge Road is one of the most unique drives available in the United States. It has the nickname of “highway to the sky” because of its high elevation and impeccable views of the Rocky Mountains from all angles.

Take a drive on this road to take in all of the views. There are occasional spots to stop off, too, so you can soak up the view and also take a photo if you’d like. It truly is unlike any other road in Colorado because it goes high above the trees, and the elevation is just shy of 12,000 feet.

The beautiful snow-covered landscape of Trail Ridge Road in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park

Go on a hike.

Rocky Mountain National Park is filled with tons of hikes for all levels. Here are a few of the most popular hikes, as well as some basic information about them.

  • Dream Lake Trail: This easy hike is approximately 2 miles and is out and back. It’s great for hiking between April and October and offers impeccable views. The elevation gain is slightly over 400 feet, so it’s not too terrible.
  • Emerald Lake Trail: For a moderate hike in the Rocky Mountains, this is the one to do. It’s about 3 miles with an elevation gain of just under 700 feet, located by Estes Park.
  • Sky Pond: If you’re up for a challenge, go on this challenging hike that’s also near Estes Park. It’s about 9 miles long with an elevation gain of about 1700 feet on this out and back trail.
Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park at the beautiful Dream Lake with still, glassy water reflecting trees and snow-dotted mountain peaks

Visit Alberta Falls.

One of the most beautiful areas in Rocky Mountain National Park is Alberta Falls. To get there, you have go on a super easy 1.7-mile hike! Because it’s easy, even children can do this hike to enjoy Alberta Falls at the end of it.

This is one of the most popular hikes to do in Rocky Mountain National Park because of the epic views. It’s known for its incredible aspen groves, so be on the lookout for those during the hike, especially if you’re road tripping Colorado in the fall!

The rushing cascading water of Alberta Falls, surrounded by trees and rocks

Search for wildlife in Moraine Park.

Moraine Park is an area of Rocky Mountain National Park that has tons of wildlife. It’s located near Estes Park and is filled with elk, birds, and other animals. Obviously, you shouldn’t get super close to the animals while visiting the park, but it’s a great way to see wildlife from a distance in the wilderness.

This is also one of the most popular spots to go camping. On the north side of Moraine Park is a campground right among the mountains. This can be a great place to call home base while you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park on this part of the trip.

Yellow flowers in a field in Moraine Park Colorado on a sunny summer day

Snap a photo of the view from Forest Canyon Overlook.

For the best views in all of Rocky Mountain National Park, head to Forest Canyon Overlook. This park observation deck offers extended views of the mountains and wilderness, and it’s truly unparalleled compared to other viewpoints in the park.

There’s a short paved walk to get to the observation deck. It’s not the biggest, so if you want to be there when there aren’t any crowds or other tourists, try to get there earlier in the morning. You might even catch the sunrise!

Scenery in Forest Canyon Overlook in Rocky Mountain National Park, view over the trees and mountains

Learn at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.

No trip to an area is complete without learning, and there’s no better place to do that than at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. This is entirely free to visit and is technically the park’s headquarters.

Inside, you can learn all about Rocky Mountain National Park and even chat with some rangers. This can be a great way to find out what’s going on in the park, and if there are hidden gems you might be able to check out, they would know.

Trees and mountains at Beaver Meadows in RMNP

Explore downtown Estes Park.

Estes Park is a town in Colorado that is known as the gateway to the Rocky Mountains. If you’re looking for a great place to stay while exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, this small town is it.

The town is filled with wildlife, has great views of the mountains, and is even home to the Trail Ridge Road. Be sure to take a ride on the Estes Park Aerial Tramway to visit Prospect Mountain! This is one of the best things to do in Estes Park.

A view of accommodations like cabins and lodges in Estes Park near the base of Rocky Mountain National Park

Where to stay in Rocky Mountain National Park

Unlike other national parks, Rocky Mountain National Park doesn’t have any in-park lodges besides camping. If you prefer having an actual bed, there are great accommodation options in both Estes Park and Grand Lake to consider. But since Estes Park is closer to the majority of the park’s most popular attractions and hikes, I recommend basing yourself here.

CABIN | Located just a few miles away from Rocky Mountain National Park, this beautiful cabin gives the most stunning views in the area. With a large deck that features a hot tub, you can be assured of having a relaxed time while thanking mother nature for the stunning mountainous views. On the inside, the cabin is equally beautiful! The visible wooden beams add a cozy and rustic touch while the large glass doors bring the views right in the living room. The kitchen is modern, the light features are beautiful — there is nothing not to love about this cabin in the mountains.

>> Check photos and reviews on Vrbo

LUXURY | If you’re looking for a luxurious stay, then I recommend staying at Woodlands on Fall River hotel. With ensuite rooms that feature a large kitchen and a living room, this hotel will give you a home away from home kind of vibe. And let’s not forget the cabin-in-the-mountain kind of look that will make your experience in Rocky Mountain National Park even better. On top of all that, this hotel is right on Front River and just a few minutes from RMNP.

>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

MOTEL | If you want something with a mid-range budget without compromising on quality and comfort, then I suggest staying at Blue Door Inn. The motel features a woody charming interior, clean rooms, a swimming pool to cool off the summer heat, and also offers beautiful mountain views from the deck.

>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

BUDGET | If money is a concern but you want a place that’s comfortable, clean, and convenient, then I recommend Coyote Mountain Lodge. The rooms are nice, clean bathroom, and comfortable beds — nothing special to brag about but you can’t get any better for that price. The best part is that it’s perfectly located near RMNP so you won’t waste time on the road.

>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

Colorado Itinerary, Day 4 – 6: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Drive time: 4 hours 50 minutes

For days four through six, hop on the road and get to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This can be quite a drive, but you’ll be going through some beautiful small towns along the way.

If you want to make any pit stops, consider stopping in Breckenridge or Buena Vista. Breckenridge is one of the top-rated places to visit in Colorado, and Buena Vista is a little past the halfway point of the drive.

Here are some of the best activities to fill your few days in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Rock formations in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park with a river below and lots of trees

Watch the stars (and even camp under them!)

Believe it or not, but camping under the stars in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of the best things to do while visiting! There are quite a few campgrounds to choose from, so you can pick the one that suits your needs best.

Some of the more popular campgrounds include South Rim Campground, East Portal Campground, and North Rim Campground. North Rim, in particular, is first-come-first-serve because it’s such a nice campsite!

Camping tent in Colorado lit up from within with stars above in the sky

Hike the S.O.B. Draw

The S.O.B. Draw is the hike to do while visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park! It’s only 2 miles long, but it’s one of the most challenging yet most rewarding hikes to do in the entire park and shouldn’t be missed if you’re up for the challenge.

It’s an out and back trail with just shy of 2,000 feet of elevation, which is why it’s such a strenuous hike. It’s almost straight uphill the entire time, and it’s incredibly rocky. Many people who have hiked it even refer to it as a total vertical climb.

Looking straight down into the gorge of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Snowshoe trek through the park

Are you traveling to all of Colorado’s national parks during the winter? Don’t worry – there are still great activities and fun to be had! One of those is snowshoeing through the park on the Oak Flat Loop.

You can either bring your own snowshoes or rent them nearby if needed. It doesn’t take super long to snowshoe the trail, but it’s still great fun, and honestly, the park in the winter is beautiful. Plus, there are considerably fewer visitors during this time.

Snowshoes for hiking in Black Canyon of the Gunnison in winter

Explore the North Rim

The North Rim is the lesser-visited part of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, but that’s why it’s so worth visiting.

There aren’t as many ranger services here, and it’s not as well kept as the rest of the park, and that’s why it’s often overlooked.

However, because there aren’t as many visitors, you can usually get a good chunk of the North Rim just to yourself so you can explore without crowds of people. What’s not to love about that?

River winding through Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Go on a ranger-led boat tour

Yes, there are actually ranger-led boat tours in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park! This is fun for both locals and tourists because it truly gives you a unique experience while visiting, and you’ll get to learn from a ranger along the way.

These boat tours are called the Morrow Point Boat Tours and are only about 90 minutes long. It goes right along the Morrow Point Reservoir, and you do have to make a reservation to go on the boat and pay a small fee.

Water going through Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Take the scenic route: drive through the East Portal

The best way to drive through the park is by driving through the East Portal. Take the scenic route by driving East Portal Road. Though it’s closed in winter, it’s pretty heavily trafficked in the warmer months because it is near some of the best camping and picnic spots.

Keep in mind that the road is very steep, but the views are rewarding. Other great drives in the area include the South Rim Road and North Rim Road. North Rim Road isn’t as high up as the other two, but the views are still incredible!

The east rim of the black canyon on an overcast day

Colorado Itinerary, Day 7 – 8: Mesa Verde National Park

Drive time: 3 hours

Now to Colorado national park number three! Next up is Mesa Verde National Park, which is about 3 hours from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Similar to the last long drive, there are a few points of interest along the way.

If you do want to make a pit stop, I highly suggest stopping in Telluride. Similar to Breckenridge, this is one of the best spots to visit in Colorado, known for its outdoor adventures. Right near Mesa Verde National Park is also Durango, a small town known for its scenic train rides!

Below are some of the best things to do during two days in Mesa Verde National Park.

sign that reads entrance mesa verde national park

Get up close to history on a cliff dwelling tour.

Park rangers run tours of the cliff dwellings so that you can get up close and learn more about them during your visit. This is easily the best way to get educated about the park while also having someone you can turn to if you have any questions about it!

Because these tickets tend to sell out quickly, you can only buy them two weeks in advance. If you know a tour is something you want to do during your trip to the cliff dwellings, be sure to call the ranger’s office and buy them the second they go on sale.

the cliff dwellings of mesa verde national park

Discover at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.

Located right in Mesa Verde National Park is a small museum called the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. If you want to know even more about the history or weren’t able to grab tickets to the ranger tour, this is the place to go.

This is one of the most historic national park museums and was built in the early 1900s, and it’s made from the same types of materials used to create the actual cliff dwellings. Inside, you can learn all about pueblo life.

the archaelogical museum in mesa verde where you can learn about the cliff dwellings

Drive the Mesa Top Loop Road.

Obviously, by now, you can tell going on a short drive through the national parks in Colorado is one of the best ways to explore them. In Mesa Verde National Park, that road is the Mesa Top Loop Road!

It’s only about 6 miles long but is incredibly scenic. Along the drive, you’ll also be able to pass by remains of old archaeological sites dating back to 550 CE! There are many spots along the road that you can pull off and walk up to them too.

views over mesa verde with trees and cliffs and wood

Wander the Far View Sites.

The Far View Sites are one of the most popular places to visit in Mesa Verde National Park, and for good reason.

This was one of the more populated parts of the cliff dwellings, and 40+ different villages have been found in this area!

These sites are even older than the actual cliff dwellings, which is why so many people like to see them. It’s a great look into the history and the way of life hundreds of years ago.

Some of the top places in the Far View Sites to check out include Pipe Shrine House, Far View House, and Coyote Village.

archeaelogical findings at far view in mesa verde

Eat dinner at the Metate Room Restaurant.

For dinner with a view, look no further than the Metate Room Restaurant. They have sustainable cuisines, and they offer some of the best views of the park from above. This restaurant has even won an Award of Culinary Excellence, so you know it’s good!

The restaurant is only open for dinner with limited hours, usually only 3 to 4 hours a day depending on the time of year. To guarantee a spot, make a reservation 24 hours in advance. Walk-ins are welcome, but the restaurant can’t guarantee you’ll be able to eat there.

Where to stay in Mesa Verde National Park

You can stay overnight in the park but there are only 2 options. Morefield Campground for camping or Far View Lodge but you’ll need to book in advance to get a spot.

>> Book Far View Lodge Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

Colorado Itinerary, Day 9: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Drive time: 3 hours 50 minutes

After Mesa Verde National Park, spend a day or two at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Truly, a day is all you need, but if you want to spend a night in the park, then you’ll have to plan for two days, making this an 11-day road trip instead!

The drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park from Mesa Verde National Park is just shy of four hours, but you can stop at either Durango or Pagosa Springs along the way for a break. Durango is easily one of the best places to visit in Colorado if you’re a fan of locomotives.

Here are some of the best activities in Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The undulating sand dunes of Great Sand Dunes NP in Colorado

Hike to the top of the High Dune.

High Dune Trail is the most popular trail in all of Great Sand Dunes National Park.

It’s only three miles with an elevation gain of just over 600 feet, but it’s rated as difficult. This is because trekking in the sand is a lot harder than you may think it is.

Despite being the most popular trail, most of the year, you’ll find that you may be one of the only people you can see along the route. This is what makes it such a lovely trail to hike. Plus, the views are incredible the whole way.

layers of beautiful sand dunes stacking against each other in the early morning light in colorado

Have a blast sandboarding.

The best activity, without a doubt, in Great Sand Dunes National Park is sandboarding!

Don’t worry; you can rent sandboards right near the park in the San Luis Valley because it’s such a popular activity. Keep in mind that you should rent them before arriving at the park.

If sandboarding isn’t your style, you can also go sand sledding. This is perfect if you’re traveling with children! These can also be rented, or you can bring your own sleds from home if you’d prefer.

people sandboarding and walking up a sand dune

Spot the Milky Way.

To get a great view of the Milky Way, stay until nightfall at the park. There’s something truly magical about seeing the Milky Way while surrounded by sand dunes.

It’s one of those experiences that you can honestly only have while at the Great Sand Dunes National Park! (Okay, except maybe the Sahara Desert)

Don’t forget to bring your camera too, because this is one view you won’t want to miss!

Camp in the sand dunes.

Believe it or not, but you can spend the night directly in the sand dunes if you want.

To do this, you can backpack and camp anywhere within the sand dunes by setting up your own tent, even just sleeping in a sleeping bag in the sand.

Keep in mind that there is wildlife at this park, so be careful with what you bring. You also can’t have more than six people in your group at a time, and only twenty groups can sleep within the park on any given night. Read more restrictions here.

Camping in sand dunes in Colroado with stars overhead

Visit Zapata Falls.

Zapata Falls is one of the best-hidden gems in Colorado, and it’s located right next to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s a beautiful waterfall with a 30-foot drop that is a lovely example of Colorado’s nature.

The Zapata Falls Trail to get to the waterfall is less than a mile, with an elevation of around 200 feet. It’s an out, and back trail ranked as easy, so it’s not super challenging to get to the waterfall.

Visiting in the winter? You may find a frozen waterfall!

man hiking to a frozen waterfall in a canyon

Where to stay in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park has no in-park lodges but if you want to experience the magic of the dunes, I recommend camping right on the dunes if you have the permit that allows you to do so or camp at Pinon Flats Campground.

But if camping is not your thing, there are a few accommodation types just outside the park to consider.

LODGE | If you want to stay just right next to the park, I recommend Great Sand Dunes Lodge. There is nothing fancy to write back home about but the rooms are comfortable enough, it has an indoor swimming pool, and you get some nice mountainous views.

>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

If you don’t find a spot in the above lodge, then you can make Alamosa town your base for visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s approximately 45 minutes to the dunes but it has a lot more accommodation options.

BOUTIQUE | If you want something familiar that you know will never disappoint, then stay at Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Alamosa, an IHG Hotel. Just like most IHG hotels, the rooms here are comfortable with a chic interior that will make you feel welcome.

>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

BUDGET | If you want to stay on the lower end of the budget with a touch of luxury, then I suggest staying at Best Western Alamosa Inn. Not a low budget per se but definitely a steal for this location and the amenities offered. All the rooms at this hotel feature a refrigerator, a microwave, and a coffee maker should you want to fix yourself a quick drink. And for active travelers, you’ll be happy to know that there is a fitness room to stay in shape and an indoor swimming pool plus a jacuzzi to unwind from.

>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

Colorado Itinerary, Day 10: Back to Denver

Drive time: 3 hours 50 minutes

On the last day, head back to Denver (or wherever you started your trip from). The drive is just shy of four hours, and the halfway point is none other than the fantastic Colorado Springs. This is one of the top places to visit in Colorado and is also one of the best day trips from Denver.

I can’t recommend enough that you stop in Colorado Springs on your way back, just because it’s a great town.

While you’re there, be sure to visit Garden of the Gods, an epic outdoor attraction so beautiful it’ll have you wondering why it’s not another one of Colorado’s national parks!

beautiful light falling on garden of the gods

At Garden of the Gods, there are a few different walking trails ranging in experience level, but each one will take you through the fantastic rock formations so you can check out the park. This is a super popular photography location, too, so don’t forget your camera.

Other fun stops in/near Colorado Springs include Pikes Peak (an epic spot for hiking or rock climbing), The Broadmoor Seven Falls, and Pikes Peak Highway, which will take you up the mountain without hiking. However, it’s often closed in winter due to weather, so keep that in mind!

What to Pack for Your Colorado National Parks Road Trip

I have a complete USA road trip packing list here you may want to go through before your road trip.

Travel guides

While I’ve given you so much useful information in this Colorado road trip itinerary, sometimes it’s hard to include all the little details due to time and resources constraints. However, travel guides do a good job at filling in all the spaces and that’s why I recommend taking this Fodor’s Colorado guidebook on top of my first-hand experience.

Phone Mount & Car Charger

It’s never safe to use your phone while driving or bother your front-seat passenger with navigation help and that’s why you need a phone mount. Also, you’ll need to take a car charger for obvious reasons but instead of taking 2 different devices, I recommend taking this dual-purpose phone mount and charger! I’ve used it on every single road trip I’ve gone to and I can’t imagine going to one without it.

Snacks

Road trips just go better with snacks and let’s not forget how quickly hanger can kick in especially if you don’t want to keep stopping just to get something to eat. Pack a few snacks — and not just the sweet ones but a mix of sweets and salty ones too.

Comfortable Footwear: Colorado national parks have a lot of hiking trails, so you’ll need to take sneakers or comfortable hiking boots (I love my Ahnu Sugarpine boots for women, and for men, I suggest the KEEN Durand boot.) You can go with sneakers but just make sure they have good traction and are comfortable to walk in for an extended period of time.

Bug spray and after-bite care

Nothing ruins an epic adventure in the wild like bugs — those little monsters just know how to change someone’s mood quickly but the good news is that you can protect yourself with this DEET-free lemon eucalyptus-based mosquito repellent — it’s great on even the most stubborn mosquitos.

Unfortunately, sometimes bugs are just too sneaky and they become hard to avoid. When that happens, use After Bite itch eraser to manage itches. It will instantly soothe your skin and you’ll be able to go back to enjoying the beautiful National Parks of Colorado.

Rehydration packets

If you’re like me who gets nasty headaches when dehydrated, you might want to pack rehydration packets. With the scorching sun, uncoordinated meal times, Impromptu hikes, salty snacks, there is no way you can avoid dehydration except if you take these Rehydration packets. I’ve been packing them for years for every road trip and they’re now a big part of my road trip tradition.

Sunscreen

Some people think that just because they’ll spend a good amount of time in the car driving that they don’t need sunscreen but they’re wrong!

While windshields protect against UVB rays (which cause sunburn), most do not block UVA rays, which cause aging and skin cancer. So for that reason, you need to pack and wear sunscreen even when you’re driving. And not just when driving but even when you hit the trails or spend the day on a beach. I love this sunscreen as it prevents my face from breaking out –( my skin is sensitive to chemical sunscreens) but since it’s a bit pricey, I use a cheaper one for the rest of my body.

And remember that it doesn’t matter which skin color or race you are — white, pale like me, Black, Latina, or Asian, you need sunscreen! Skin cancer doesn’t discriminate based on skin color.

If you’re hiking, don’t forget about your scalp either — I often end up with a burned scalp and it’s no fun, often leading to headaches. Buy a special sunscreen for hair and scalp to avoid this!


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The 12 Most Scenic Colorado Road Trips & Drives

If you love adventure and the great outdoors, then you’re going to love Colorado!

Located in the southwestern part of the United States, Colorado is an adventure lover’s dream, filled with beautiful hikes, epic mountain drives, and breathtaking viewpoints throughout.

One of the best ways to explore the beauty of Colorado is to go on an epic Colorado road trip, taking in the scenery and culture at your own pace.

These road trips in Colorado are truly unlike those anywhere else in the United States because of the amazing naturalness of the state.

Throughout this post, you’ll learn all about the very best Colorado road trips. By the end, you’ll want to chase your wanderlust all the way to Colorado!

The Best Colorado Road Trips

Below are all of the must-do Colorado road trips! They vary in length, but some of them are near each other.

You could easily do multiple road trips around the state in the same week if you plan wisely!

Trail Ridge Road

One of the best wonders of Colorado is Rocky Mountain National Park, and the easiest way to explore it is to road trip through it on Trail Ridge Road. This road has been a favorite among nature lovers since it was completed in the 1930s.

While on the road, you’ll be brought through beautiful cliffsides and epic views. It’s most commonly called the Highway to the Sky because it’s the highest continuous paved road in the United States and goes pretty high into the mountains.

Because it’s so high, it’s pretty common to get altitude sickness while doing this drive. Be sure to stay hydrated and pay attention to how you’re feeling along the drive just in case anything takes a turn for the worse.

The halfway point of the drive is also a great stop to relax along the trip. A great mid-way point is the Alpine Visitor Center, so be sure to keep an eye out for it along the way.

For an epic view that you won’t want to miss, be sure to climb to the top of the trail right near the visitor center.

To do this drive, start in Estes Park and follow the road until the end. Along the way, be sure to stop at both Medicine Bow Curve and Forest Canyon Overlook if you have the time.

If you want to get the most out of this drive, be sure to start earlier in the day because then you can also spot some local Colorado wildlife that often hide away as the day goes on.

You’ll also want to make sure to pay attention to the speed limits, especially because the road is cliffside for some of it.

Driving Distance: 48 miles

Recommended Road Trip Length: 2 to 4 hours

Pikes Peak Highway

Hairpin curve in the mountains with several cars going up the mountain and some light fog, on a popular Colorado road trip

Pikes Peak Highway is Colorado’s most popular and well-known road trip because of its incredible viewpoints. It’s one of the most scenic drives in Colorado!

Located right outside of Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak is a must-visit 14er in the state!

While many people with experience will opt to hike Pikes Peak to get all the fantastic viewpoints, it’s become more accessible to get similar views by road tripping the Pikes Peak Highway.

Because this highway can be pretty dangerous in the dark to it being cliffside, it’s only open to the public between 7:30 a.m. and 8:00 p.m., with the last ticketed entry at 6:00 p.m. The highway is also occasionally closed in the winter if there’s too much snow.

To do this drive, it’s pretty simple. After you pay for your entrance onto the highway, you just follow it. Be sure to stop at all of the scenic lookout points because each one is different than the other, and you won’t want to miss them.

In June 2021, the Summit View House is also going to open, which will be an excellent place for you to grab souvenirs or even a coffee on your drive.

Driving Distance: 19 miles

Recommended Road Trip Length: 2 to 5 hours

Independence Pass

Meadow along Independence Pass Road, in autumn road tripping in Colorado.

Another epic road trip in Colorado is driving the Independence Pass. The road is incredibly narrow, but the views are amazing and are a part of Colorado State Highway 82.

It’s the perfect road trip to do if you want to visit Aspen or Leadville, as it goes right between the two. Instead of just driving the pass, you could make it more of a loop and also visit Aspen and Leadville on your road trip.

Independence Pass is the highest road in Colorado that’s paved because the summit is just over 12,000 feet. As you might imagine, this pass is often closed in the winter due to snow and ice. Be sure to plan your trip wisely if you wish to do this road trip.

Similar to Pikes Peak Highway, this is a pretty simple drive as far as directions go. Just follow the road! However, this is a popular road trip to do, so you’ll want to pay close attention to the other cars, especially when the road gets narrower.

Along the drive, you’ll find a few pull-over spots where you can take in the stunning view. Don’t pass these spots by, or you’ll regret it.

A great nearby attraction that you won’t want to miss is the Independence Ghost Town that once served as a mining town back in the 1800s.

The Grottos Ice Caves are also nearby and worth stopping at if you have the time.

Driving Distance: 32 miles

Recommended Road Trip Length: 2 hours

Million Dollar Highway

Road against the edge of a mountain with lots of evergreen trees in the distance on a sunny day road tripping Colorado

The Million Dollar Highway is a stretch of U.S. Route 550 that goes through Colorado State. It got its name because it was not cheap at all to build, but it truly offers million-dollar views along the way.

Start the drive in Ouray and end it in Silverton to stay within the state of Colorado. If you’d like to explore a surrounding state, you can also follow it into New Mexico if you have the time.

A decent portion of the drive is up in the mountains, and it’s even more incredible if you can do the drive in the autumn because all of the trees change color.

The best part of the Million Dollar Highway is Uncompahgre Gorge, which puts the highway right against huge jutting rocks and a cliff face with no guard rails along the majority of it, so you’ll want to be careful while driving.

Along the way, be sure to use all the viewpoints to your advantage. One of the best spots to stop along the drive is on Red Mountain Pass. Make sure you don’t miss it!

Also, instead of just driving the road, be sure to take the time to explore Ouray and Silverton. There’s a fantastic train ride in Silverton that’s incredibly scenic, but this could add another day or two to your road trip.

Driving Distance: 25 miles

Recommended Road Trip Length: 1 day

Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway

Colorado River along the southern border of Arches National Park, Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway, Utah

One of the longer road trips in Colorado is the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway. It covers a good chunk of northwestern Colorado and was named because dinosaurs were rather prominent in the area during prehistoric times.

This road trip technically also dips into Utah, but it’s still considered a Colorado road trip because half of it is in Colorado, too.

The Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway is a great road trip for families in particular, especially families with children who love dinosaurs.

Start the drive by heading to Grand Junction, one of Colorado’s most scenic areas. This is where most people start the drive. Then, go to Fruita and Dinosaur, and then go over to Utah and complete the loop.

Along the drive, you’ll want to stop at some different places and landmarks that you won’t want to miss. Some great spots include the Colorado National Monument, Canyon Pintado National Historic District, and the Dinosaur Journey Museum.

On average, this trip takes about two to three days but can take longer or shorter depending on how often you stop along the way. For instance, this drive could easily be stretched out to even a bit longer if you wanted to spend more time exploring.

Driving Distance: 512 miles

Recommended Road Trip Length: 3 days

Mount Evans Scenic Byway

Red car going up a mountain pass on a sunny day with hills and mountains in the background

Next up is the Mount Evans Scenic Byway, which is a popular road trip from Denver, Colorado. It’s about 60 miles from downtown Denver.

Similar to Pikes Peak, Mount Evans is another popular drive to take that will bring you up one of Colorado’s 14ers.

Many people opt to hike Mount Evans, but it can be dangerous without experience. So, go to the top of a 14er by driving instead!

The easiest place to start this is from Idaho Springs, a mountain town west of Denver. From there, get to the top of Mount Evans by taking Highway 5. Driving to the top of Mount Evans is consistently ranked as one of the best things to do in Colorado.

Along the drive, you’ll be brought by beautiful lookouts as you go through the mountain. No matter what time of year you visit and do this drive, you’ll have genuinely excellent vantage points that you would not get elsewhere, so take advantage of them.

You do have to pay a fee of $15 per car in order to go on the byway, but it’s entirely worth it. The Mount Evans Scenic Byway is open 24/7, but it’s best to do the drive during the day because it can be a safety hazard if you go in the evening.

Driving Distance: 28 miles

Recommended Road Trip Length: 5 to 8 hours, or one day

National Parks Loop

Stone dwellings carved into a cliffside and surrounded by trees in Mesa Verde National Park

For a longer road trip in Colorado, look no further than the National Parks Loop. Colorado is home to quite a few national parks, so take the time to road trip and visit all of them!

Start the loop in western Colorado in Grand Junction. From there, drive to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and then to Mesa Verde National Park.

Continue onto Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and try your hand at boarding down the sand dunes! Then, head to Rocky Mountain National Park, the last stop on the loop, and make your way back to Grand Junction.

This could be done in as many days as you want and could definitely become a longer road trip depending on how many stops you’d like to make along the way. I suggest spending at least a day or two at each of the parks, so anywhere between 7 to 10 days is perfect.

Be sure also to purchase a National Parks Pass to save yourself money when entering each of the parks!

Along the National Parks Loop, you’ll also go through some other small towns worth exploring like Telluride, Durango, and Buena Vista.

Be sure to enjoy the small towns along the way and explore the rural side of Colorado too!

Driving Distance: 941 miles

Recommended Road Trip Length: 7 days

Denver Area Road Trip

Dakota Ridge near Golden Colorado a beautiful hiking area

Just because you’re visiting Denver doesn’t mean you can’t take a road trip to explore more of the area.

On this quick road trip from Denver, you’ll be brought through all of the best small towns and cities surrounding Denver.

Because they’re so close together, you could easily visit two a day to complete the road trip in as little as three days or spend one day in each place on the itinerary.

Start the road trip in Denver; from there, head north to Fort Collins and then make your way to Boulder.

Next, head south to Golden (stop and check out some of the beautiful hikes!) and also Idaho Springs. End the road trip by visiting Colorado Springs.

So many great places are waiting to be explored by you in these towns. Here are some must-visit spots in each town.

  • Denver: 16th Street Mall, Dairy Block, Confluence Park, Red Rocks Amphitheatre
  • Fort Collins: Horsetooth Reservoir, Boyd Lake State Park
  • Boulder: Flatirons hike, Pearl Street
  • Golden: Downtown Golden, Coors Brewery
  • Idaho Springs: Echo Mountain (in winter), Argo Gold Mill and Tunnel
  • Colorado Springs: Garden of the Gods, The Broadmoor

If you’d rather not do all of these places as a road trip, they also make excellent day trips from downtown Denver.

Each place is within an hour from Denver, so you could easily use Denver as a home base and do a whole bunch of mini road trips for nearby sightseeing if you wish.

Driving Distance: 262 miles

Recommended Road Trip Length: 3 to 6 days

Peak to Peak Scenic Byway

Peak to Peak Highway through the Rocky Mountains near Estes Park, Colorado

One of the most beautiful road trips in Colorado is the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway! To do this road trip, start in Estes Park to I-70.

If you love history, then you’re going to love this drive. It’s the oldest scenic byway in the entire state because it was built in 1918. It’s been a favorite among locals and tourists ever since.

The drive will bring you throughout the natural part of the state and will even bring you through some ghost towns. Plus, there will be some epic lakes along the way, so you’ll have plenty of viewpoints to look out and take a jaw-dropping picture.

Another thing to keep an eye out for along the way are the gold mine remnants. Tons of gold mines in Colorado used to be in this area of the state, and sometimes you’ll even find people panning for gold in the water.

Arguably one of the must-sees along the way are the aspen trees; however, they are only stunning in the fall when they’re yellow. So, try to do this drive in the fall to really get the most out of it.

Driving Distance: 59 miles

Recommended Road Trip Length: 3 to 5 hours

San Juan Skyway

Fall colors of the yellow Aspens along the San Juan Skyway north of Durango Colorado.

The San Juan Skyway is another beautiful road trip, and it’s even been mentioned in popular news outlets like Travel + Leisure for being one of the best spring drives in the United States — though fall with its golden aspens isn’t bad, either!

Most people will start this drive in Durango. From there, head to Mancos, Dolores, Stoner, Rico, Telluride, Ridgeway, Ouray, Silverton, and then finish by heading back to Durango.

There are tons of great places to visit along the drive, including Mesa Verde National Park, San Juan National Forest, and Bridal Veil Falls.

If you love skiing, you’ll want to check out Durango Mountain, and if you love hiking, visit one of the 14ers, El Diente Peak or Mount Wilson.

If you love scenic train rides, you can even finish out the loop by riding the train from Silverton to Durango. This is one of the most popular train rides in the state.

While you could technically do this entire drive in just 7 hours, I don’t suggest that you fly through it. There are so many epic places to visit and beautiful small towns that you should truly take the time to explore.

Too often, small towns filled with history are skipped for big cities. Don’t let that happen when driving the Suan Juan Skyway!

Driving Distance: 236 miles

Recommended Road Trip Length: 1 to 3 days

Gold Belt Tour Scenic Byway

Fall drive through Phantom Canyon in Colorado, USA with its brilliant yellow aspens

Another of Colorado’s state scenic byways that makes a great road trip is the Gold Belt Tour Scenic Byway. This road trip, like you may have guessed from the name, brings you through some of Colorado’s gold rush sites.

The best place to start the Gold Belt Tour Scenic Byway is in Cañon City, and then check out the Royal Gorge Route Railroad.

Be sure also to visit Phantom Canyon Road and Victor. Head back and check out Florence, and finish by looping back to Cañon City.

Similar to every other road trip, there are some great places that you won’t want to miss, like the Lowell Thomas Museum, the Ag and Mining History Museum, the Outlaw & Lawmen Jail Museum, and the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.

An absolute must-do is the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. It’s a highly scenic drive, and you’ll learn a lot about the area along the way while witnessing it for yourself.

Please note that there are also quite a few ways to do this road trip. It’s best to do it in about two days so that you can fully explore the area, but there are different ways to take in the views.

In fact, some people even opt to take a helicopter tour over the byway to get unparalleled views!

Driving Distance: 131 miles

Recommended Road Trip Length: 2 days

Highway of Legends

Highway of Legends winding through southwest Colorado on a sunny day

The Highway of Legends is a southern Colorado scenic drive that begins in Walsenburg.

From there, get on the highway and go to Trinidad, Weston, Stonewall, Cuchara, La Veta, and back to Walsenburg to complete the loop.

This road trip can easily be done in just a few short hours, but take at least a full day or two to explore it and see all that it truly offers fully.

For example, you won’t want to drive quickly through the Spanish Peaks, Cuchara Pass, Cuchara Valley, or the beauty in Cokedale or Trinidad.

Trinidad, in particular, is known for its interesting Victorian architecture that will make you step back in time!

If you want to lengthen your trip, then you can easily do so. There are tons of beautiful places to explore here, including San Isabel National Forest, La Veta Pass, and the Spanish Peaks State Wildlife Area.

There’s even a 14er that you can do if you feel up to it: Culebra Peak!

For a great train ride, be sure to check out the San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad, which brings visitors right through the San Luis Valley and La Veta Pass.

The views are absolutely incredible, and you can ride inside a vintage train, making the experience even more memorable.

The Highway of Legends is one of the best ways to explore some small towns in southern Colorado, so don’t pass up this road trip.

Driving Distance: 82 miles

Recommended Road Trip Length: 1 to 2 days

The Ultimate Road Trip Packing List: 50 Road Trip Necessities

Music blasting on the stereo, windows rolled down and hair mussed by the wind, singing with your road tripping besties: there’s nothing better than a road trip. It’s my favorite way to travel.

I’ve done road trips all over the world: from Brazil to the Faroe Islands, the American Southwest (Nevada, Arizona, and Utah) to Azerbaijan.

Nothing beats having your own set of wheels beneath you and everything you need in your car!

When planning a road trip, it’s crucial to consider not only what you want to wear and bring to your final destination, but all the little things that will make your road trip more comfortable along the way. That includes necessities, like an annual travel insurance policy and safety gear for hitting the road, as well as frivolities like road trip games and a killer Spotify road trip playlist

After all — on a road trip, the destination is the journey!

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Here are the things that I think are absolute road trip necessities, to help you plan and pack for hitting the open road.

Below is your ultimate road trip packing list for all occasions!

Note that this is a road trip packing list that assumes you’ll be staying in hotels along the way. If you’re also camping, you’ll need to add other items like a tent, sleeping bag, etc. — check out my car camping packing list which will tell you all the things you need to bring!

Road Trip Packing List: 50 Key Road Trip Necessities to Bring

Road Trip Essentials

These are the absolutely mission-critical items to have in terms of safety and physically being able to go on your road trip, and making sure you have the items on this list is one of my top travel tips for planning a long road trip.

They’re not that interesting, sure, but they are all the road trip essentials you need to remember, so be sure to scan this part of the road trip packing list carefully to make sure you haven’t omitted anything vitally important!

Car documents & driver’s license

This should be rather obvious, but you’ll need your driver’s license, car documentation, AAA card if you have a membership (or other similar roadside assistance program), and insurance papers ready for any road trip you take.

If you have an America the Beautiful National Parks pass, don’t forget that at home. If you don’t have one and you plan to visit 2 or more national parks during a USA road trip, I strongly suggest buying one. At just $79.99 for the year, it typically pays for itself after the third use and it covers 2,000 parklands in the U.S. National Parks system.

Make sure you double-check that you have all this information easily handy in case you need it on your trip.

If you are renting a car at your destination, make sure you get all the paperwork from the car rental office and ensure you’re sufficiently insured for the trip.

Travel insurance

If your road trip includes going to another state or country where you are not insured locally, you may need travel insurance in order to cover you in case of incident.

Double check with your health insurance plan and car insurance plan to ensure you’re within their coverage; if not, travel insurance will fill in the gaps.

Roadside emergency kit

You should already have an emergency kit in your car with things like a reflective triangle, rain poncho, emergency blanket, safety vest, safety whistle, etc. in case of an emergency.

But if you don’t, know is a good time to invest in a roadside emergency kit that also includes a first aid kit.

If you’re bringing your own car from home, you’ll want to make sure you have things like jumper cables, etc. in case you have a battery die on you on the road.

Car manual

Have your physical car manual handy or download an electronic version of it before you set out on your road trip — it’s essential in case any funky lights turn on and you’re not sure what they mean, or if you have trouble with some function.

Once on a road trip in Utah, I managed to lock the steering wheel of a rental car, and it was really counterintuitive to understanding how to unlock it. I almost got stuck out there for hours! Be sure to have access to a car manual, whether physical or electronic, before setting out on your road trip.

Spare tire & tire changing kit

Having a spare tire isn’t much good if you don’t have a jack or kit to change out the tire. Make sure your tire changing kit is complete (or buy your tire changing kit before you head out), and make sure you know how to use it!

Flashlight or headlamp

In case you get somewhere poorly lit after dark, have an emergency in the night, or just go on a sunset hike and need to light your way back, a flashlight or headlamp is key (and make sure to bring some extra batteries, too!)

I love a headlamp to keep my hands free when I’m hiking — a rechargeable one like this is a great travel must-have.

Any seasonal car gear

For the most part, this packing list is geared towards summer road trips, but if you happen to be planning a winter road trip, don’t neglect seasonal car necessities like an ice scraper, tire chains, etc.

Basic Road Trip Necessities

These are the little things that are easy to accidentally skim over and forget.

They aren’t as vitally important as the above, because they’re easy to replace on the road, but save time by packing these road trip necessities before you go!

Car cell phone charger

You will zap your cell phone battery FAST while on a road trip, so it’s essential to have a car charger.

I like this dual purpose phone mount and portable charger!

USB cords

Of course, it’s pretty hard to connect your phone and charge it and do all sorts of other necessary 21st-century things without USB cords.

Bring 1 or 2 more than you need, it’s always a good idea.

Handsfree phone holder

I recommended this 2-in-1 phone mount/charger above — if you don’t already have a phone mount, or you want one that chargers, this is clutch!

Coins & small bills

There are places in the world that still use only cash… shocking, I know.

When you are ready to hit the road, don’t get caught off guard without any cash for a park entrance fee, bathroom fee, road tolls, or little odds and ends along the way like buying tasty produce from a local roadside farm stand!

Paper map or offline map

Yes, paper maps still exist and not just as an Instagram prop… although they do make awesome Instagram props, too.

Or if you just want to use your phone, that’s OK too, but be sure to download all the offline maps using Google Maps or Maps.me

A killer road trip playlist!

OK, what good is a road trip without some awesome music? Be sure to have an epic playlist ready to go.

My friend Stephanie gathered all the best road trip songs — download some before you go in case you need some tunes when you don’t have any data or WiFi.

If you prefer podcasts, have your favorite shows downloaded and ready to go.

Road Trip Items for Hygiene & Travel Safety

In the current public health crisis, it’s important to bring plenty of sanitizing gear with you when you’re on a road trip. There are lots of high touch-point surfaces you may not think of immediately, like a gas station nozzle, which can be high-risk on a road trip.

Here’s what I recommend you pack for a road trip in 2021 in the current hygiene context.

Alcohol wipes

While there was a huge run on sanitizing wipes in the US, shortages are on the decline, but it’s still just as important to bring wipes with you on a trip, vaccinated or not!

It’s best to try to source alcohol wipes in a store from a brand you trust or from a verified brand seller on Amazon, such as from the Clorox store.

Use alcohol wipes on high-touch surfaces as needed and not excessively — soap and water should be your primary line of cleaning and defense.

I suggest you use these when not otherwise possible, such as when at a gas station or using a touchpad at an ATM or grocery store.

Hand sanitizer

Hand sanitizer as well is another great thing to have on hand when on the road, as sources of hand sanitizer cannot always be guaranteed and there may be times where it is difficult or less safe to go to a public restroom.

Again, it’s better to try to source hand sanitizer in a store from a trusted brand, but in the absence of that being possible, this brand available online looks to be safe, FDA-approved, and with a high-enough level of ethyl alcohol to be safe.

Spare liquid soap

Liquid or bar soap is still the gold standard for washing your hands and should be chosen over hand sanitizer whenever you have access to water.

Some gas stations, park bathrooms, etc. may not be well-attended, so bring some spare liquid soap with a locking top or a bar of soap in a Ziploc baggie just in case.

Be sure to wash your hands for 30-40 seconds, every part, in order to get the full sanitation benefits.

Face mask

When in places where distancing is not possible, you will need to wear a face mask to keep yourself and fellow humans safe.

Bring multiple cloth face masks and circulate them, allowing face masks ample time in the sun when possible (such as leaving them on your dashboard) or washing them in between uses in order to sanitize the masks.

Extra water

Not specifically hygiene-related, but worth putting in this section nonetheless.

Be sure to have a few gallons of extra water in your car for emergencies. Whether it’s replacing the water to cool down your engine or emergency drinking water if you’re stranded, it’s a cheap and simple thing to add to your road trip packing list with no downside.

Personal Comfort Road Trip Items

These are the little things when packing for a road trip that make your time much more comfortable on the road.

From snacks to sunscreen, travel towels to travel pillows, these are the little things that you probably already have at home that you should make sure not to forget on your long road trip.

Road trip snacks

There’s a funny quote about snacks for road trips… it goes like this: “It doesn’t matter how old you get, buying snacks for a road trip should always look like an unsupervised 9-year-old was given $100.”

I’m not sure who originally said it, but it’s true. Nothing ruins a road trip faster like hanger… so be sure to avoid it!

Have a good mix of snacks and not just sweet ones. I find that too many sweets on an empty stomach is a recipe for major headaches. Likewise, too many salty snacks and not enough water will also do you in!

I like having things like KIND bars, trail mix, granola bars, chips when I need something salty, RXBar protein bars, etc. for my trip.

Toilet paper / Kleenex

Don’t be caught off guard by a poorly stocked restroom! Bring your own toilet paper from home, or have a resealable pack of Kleenex with you.

Basic medicines

At a minimum, you should have motion sickness tablets, painkillers like ibuprofen/paracetamol, and something like Pepto-Bismol tablets for upset stomachs while you’re on the road.

Rehydration packets

Impromptu hikes, lack of schedule, random meal times, salty snacks, sunny days, hangovers from wine nights after driving duty is done: there are many reasons it’s easy to get dehydrated while road tripping.

I always pack some rehydration packets with me on my travels as I’m prone to getting dehydrated and getting headaches, and they’re a lifesaver. I recommend these ones.

Microfiber towel

I can’t express to you how much I love microfiber travel towels!

They pack up to nearly nothing and they’re super effective at soaking up moisture… plus they quick-dry so fast compared to standard home towels!

Whether you take a dip in a lake or river, are staying in a hotel or Airbnb that doesn’t provide enough towels, or need an impromptu picnic blanket or beach touch, a microfiber travel towel is a road trip must pack.

Bug spray

Nothing ruins a scenic sunset worse than being inundated by bug bites! For a natural DEET-free solution, try this lemon eucalyptus-based mosquito repellent.

After-bite care

Some bites are inevitable no matter how diligent you are with bug spray. Keep itchiness at bay with an After Bite itch eraser, which instantly soothes any bug bites.

Sunscreen

Did you know you should always wear sunscreen while driving? The windshield doesn’t protect you against all UV rays — while they protect against UVB rays (which cause sunburn), most do not block UVA rays, which cause aging and skin cancer.

Plus, you’ll want it for hikes, days out in the sun, beach days, and that sort of thing. This is the sunscreen I use on my face daily, and I use a cheaper basic sunscreen for my skin.

No matter what your skin tone or race, Black, white, or Asian, you need to wear sunscreen daily — and on a road trip it’s no different!

If you’re hiking, don’t forget about your scalp either — I often end up with a burned scalp and it’s no fun, often leading to headaches. Buy a special sunscreen for hair and scalp to avoid this!

Lip balm with SPF

Be sure to bring a hydrating lip balm that also has SPF on your road trip! Poor hydration and lots of sun can both cause dry, chapped lips which are no fun when traveling. I like the key lime Sun Bum chapstick best.

Sunglasses

There’s nothing worse than squinting through the windshield as the sun nearly blinds you while you drive! Seasoned roadtrippers know to bring your favorite sunglasses, plus a cheap spare pair as backup.

Travel pillow

You hopefully have someone to divide the driving duties with, so while you’re on a break from manning the road, you’ll want to have a comfortable way to kick back and enjoy your time off of driving duty.

This cozy memory-foam travel pillow also comes with an eye mask if you need to catch some Zs while another driver takes over!

Travel blanket

A cozy-soft travel blanket, whether it’s just a blanket you love from home that you don’t mind taking on the road or a specialty travel blanket, will make your time on the road that much more comfortable.

Also great for impromptu picnics, sunset hikes that get surprisingly chilly, and taking a nap while you’re off duty.

Insulated travel mug

I use and swear by Contigo travel mugs — they’re leakproof and pretty much indestructible and they’re inexpensive to boot. This one is vacuum-insulated and fits standard cupholders easily.

Reusable water bottle

Don’t waste plastic or money constantly buying new water bottles at obscene prices!

Get a reusable water bottle and either refill it from your extra-large water containers mentioned above (safer given the current situation) or fill up in sinks and fountains along the way.

This one is insulated, stainless steel, and convenient to drink from. Another good choice would be a collapsible water bottle like this one which you can take with you when hiking.

It’s a great zero waste travel item.

Tote bags

In case you need to buy groceries or other things along the way, bring some reusable tote bags to decrease your plastic footprint.

Day pack

Day packs are essential when hiking or leaving the car for a bit to do some sightseeing and needing to bring essentials like bug spray, sunglasses, water, and sunscreen with you.

This Osprey day pack is the perfect size and it’s designed by a company that specializes in ergonomic solutions for backpackers, so you know it’ll be comfortable.

Wet wipes

As opposed to alcohol-based wipes which are primarily for sanitizing things, wet wipes are nice to have on hand for a quick freshening up before proper showers or face-washing.

These biodegradable wet wipes are easy on the environment and your skin, with aloe vera and Vitamin E.

Vaseline

Vaseline is a traveler’s miracle, perfect for everything from fixing flyaways to helping super-chapped lips or hands (common when hyper-sanitizing!) to preventing chub rub, a summer affliction for the thicker-thighed ladies out there like me.

I always make sure I travel with Vaseline and while you don’t walk as much on road trips as on other forms of travel, it’s still such an easy addition to your bag that I say bring it!

Haircare

For ladies with long hair, a brush and hair ties are a must, especially on hot days. I also tend to take advantage of the fact that I’m not flying and thus don’t have to adhere to liquid restrictions when I’m road tripping by bringing my favorite shampoos from home.

Your hair care needs will vary depending on your hair length and hair texture, so bring whatever you know you need for your personal hair care, including any heat styling tools you want, because space isn’t an issue when road tripping!

Toiletries

Whatever toiletries you need from home, bring it on the road with you because the great thing about a road trip is no checking luggage! Here’s a quick list of toiletries you likely want with you.

  • Shampoo & conditioner
  • Body wash
  • Razor & shaving cream
  • Deodorant
  • Toothpaste & toothbrush
  • Face wash
  • Any acne or anti-aging skin treatments
  • Moisturizer
  • Body lotion-
  • Makeup

Comfortable clothing

When road tripping, think loose, comfy clothing that’s easily breathable which transition from car to outside easily.

For women, I suggest the following at a minimum for car/outdoor comfort. Yoga pants or leggings with a comfortable waistband, tee shirts with a sports bra, hiking boots or sneakers depending on activity, some sandals or flipflops for quicker rest stops: these are some road trip clothing essentials.

You’ll also want to bring layers like a jacket for any needed warmth, depending on the temperatures of your destination.

You may want to also bring some packing cubes (I like these from Eagle Creek) for your clothes and a laundry bag for dirty clothing to add a little organization to your trip, especially if you’re stopping in different destinations each night.

Rain jacket

I included this separately from the comfortable clothes section because I wanted to highlight and underline how important a good rain jacket is. Rain is inevitable at times, so might as well dress for it!

I love the Marmot PreCip rain jacket (there’s a women’s version and a men’s version). I used mine for years biking in all sorts of rainy NYC weather and it always kept me dry without making me too hot and uncomfortable like some other rain jackets can, due to the zippered arm-pits which provide ventilation.

This is key if you plan to do anything outdoors like hiking or other active day trips while it’s raining.

Umbrella

In addition to a rain jacket, grab an umbrella from home and toss it in the car in case of rain!

Kids Entertainment

If you’re hitting the road with kids in tow, you’ll want to be prepared for the inevitable “are we there yet?” with plenty of road trip games and entertainment for your little ones.

I’m childfree so I don’t know exactly how to handle this, but here are some tips for surviving long drives with kids!

Road Trip Electronics

These are the electrics odds and ends that you’ll most likely want with you on your road trip!

External batteries

The Anker external battery pack is a travel must. While you can charge your phone while driving, you may want to charge other devices — a camera, a drone, portable speakers, an e-reader — as well.

Or if you notice your battery is running low while you’re out hiking or sightseeing, you can just start charging right away without having to return to your car. It holds several charges on a single battery pack and will last days at a time.

Camera & extra batteries

For all my years of running this travel blog, I’ve relied on my Sony A6000 to take nearly-professional quality images. I don’t sell my photography, but I do love having wonderfully preserved memories, and this camera is the perfect middle-ground above a smartphone yet below the 5-figure kits that most photographers give.

Whatever camera you choose, be sure to have plenty of extra batteries and the battery charger as well — plus extra memory cards! I rely exclusively on 64GB Sandisk memory cards.

Laptop & charger

I bring my Macbook air and charger with me everywhere, but you may not need this set up if you don’t need to do any work while you travel.

Portable speaker

I love having a Bluetooth speaker with me on road trips. They’re great for when you find an isolated spot you want to chill with friends at (though of course, make sure to be a decent citizen and don’t blast your music when other people are around enjoying nature).

Kindle or inspiring audiobooks

I bring my waterproof Kindle e-reader with me everywhere, but I can’t read while people are driving or I get motion sickness badly! So I love listening to inspiring adventure books on Audible while I travel.

Portable WiFi device

If you need to work while on your road trip or want to have a WiFi device handy so kids can connect to their devices (and you can stay sane), a portable WiFi hotspot is a road trip essential.

I like this GlocalMe WiFi device which is compact and easy to set up. Note that it won’t work all the time, as there need to be cell towers around, but on the plus side, it doesn’t need to access a specific network so even if your phone does not have signal, it might!

Fun Road Trip Accessories

These aren’t strictly necessary, but these little items will make your road trip much more memorable and a whole lot more fun!

Instant camera

I love this Instax mini instant camera for printable memories on demand! It’s the modern version of a Polaroid and it’s a great way to preserve memories of your trip.

Because face it, how often do you develop digital photos?

Car cooler

There are two routes when picking a car cooler: one that’s powered by the electric unit in your car (like this one) or a standard ice cooler.

Either makes it possible to enjoy food that needs to be refrigerated on-the-go, ice-cold drinks, or keep essential things stored at fridge temperature.

Travel corkscrew or Swiss army knife

Because what good is end-of-the-driving-day wine or beer if you have trouble opening it?

This is the classic Swiss army knife by Victorinox, but if you just want a corkscrew/bottle opener, you can have a simpler set-up like this ‘waiter’s friend’ style corkscrew.

Just make sure that if you’re flying before starting your next road trip, you don’t want to pack it in your carry-on!

Picnic basket

Extra? Absolutely. But how cute and romantic is this picnic basket setup?

If you’re road tripping with a loved one and want to have romantic picnics, with the family and want to make special memories, or you just want some darn cute pictures of you and your friends enoying a road trip picnic, a picnic basket is an excellent choice.

Want something equally enjoyable but far more practical if you’re hiking? This picnic backpack is an excellent alternative.

Lumbar support

If you get back pain a lot — holler at my over 30 crowd — lumbar support for your car will be an absolute game changer!

Is it cute? No. But neither is being hunched over for days because you didn’t take care of your back, either.

Travel notebook & pen

This page-a-day travel journal is the perfect sidekick for remembering your travels and jotting down notes from the open road.

Tasty instant coffee

If you’re a coffee geek reading this, you probably want to throw something at me for the contradiction in terms that is “tasty instant coffee.”

But don’t stop reading! Joe Coffee, a NYC-based coffee shop, has delicious instant coffees which they dehydrate in small batches so that your cup tastes like a freshly-brewed one. Buy it online on Amazon here.

Better yet, they work in either cold or hot water so you can have an iced coffee or hot coffee fuss-free (most hotels you stay at should have an electric tea kettle).

Not sure how to make coffee on the road? Read my guide to the best travel coffee products — certified by a former barista!

Folding chairs

Plan to have some days where you just relax lakeside or riverside and enjoy the scenery, or even some beach days?

Folding camping chairs are cheap, easy to pack, and amp up your road trip experience to the next level.

Mad Libs & other games

Did anyone else play Mad Libs all the time as a kid on road trips and planes? To me, this is the ultimate childhood nostalgia game — and it’s really a load of fun!

Other fun road trip games include a deck of cards, Bananagrams, etc., though a lot of these are better suited for rest stops and hotel nights than the open road.

Quick Road Trip Checklist

Want the above list in bullet form? Find all your road trip essentials and necessities below!

Road Trip Essentials:

  • Car documents
  • Driver’s license
  • Travel insurance
  • Roadside emergency kit
  • Car manual
  • Spare tire & tire changing kit
  • Flashlight or headlamp
  • Any seasonal/winter car gear (scraper, chains, etc.)

** If car camping, check this car camping packing list and read my camping tips for beginners post.

Other Road Trip Necessities:

  • Car charger
  • Spare USB cords
  • Handsfree phone holder
  • Coins and small bills
  • Paper map / offline maps
  • An awesome road trip playlist (or Spotify, podcasts, etc.)

Road Trip Items for Hygiene:

  • Alcohol or bleach wipes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Hand soap
  • Face masks
  • Large multi-gallon jugs of water in case of emergency

Personal Comfort Items:

  • Road trip snacks (granola bars, nuts, chips, etc.)
  • Toilet paper & Kleenex
  • Basic medicines
  • Rehydration packets
  • Microfiber towel
  • Bug spray
  • Afterbite care
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip balm with SPF
  • Sunglasses
  • Travel pillow
  • Travel blanket
  • Insulated travel mug
  • Reusable water bottle (metal or collapsible for hiking)
  • Tote bags
  • Day pack
  • Wet wipes for face
  • Vaseline
  • Haircare products
  • Comfortable clothing
  • Rain jacket
  • Umbrella
  • Kids entertainment

Toiletries:

  • Shampoo & conditioner
  • Body wash
  • Razor & shaving cream
  • Deodorant
  • Toothpaste & toothbrush
  • Face wash
  • Any acne or anti-aging skin treatments
  • Moisturizer
  • Body lotion-
  • Makeup

Essential Road Trip Electronics:

  • External battery packs
  • Camera & camera batteries
  • Laptop & charger
  • Portable speaker
  • Kindle and/or Audiobooks
  • Portable WiFi device

Fun Road Trip Extras:

  • Instant camera
  • Car cooler
  • Travel corkscrew or Swiss army knife
  • Picnic basket
  • Lumbar support
  • Travel notebook & pen
  • Instant coffee
  • Folding camp chairs
  • Mad Libs, board games, etc.

The Perfect 7-Day Mighty 5 Utah Road Trip Itinerary (2021)

Anybody who loves the outdoors needs to visit the incredible state of Utah!

Utah has so many options including phenomenal national parks (five of them!), hot springs, ski resorts, and more!

Pack your bags and your camera because this 7-day Utah itinerary has all of Utah’s unique destinations laid out in the perfect order.

I’ve ensured you hit all the top attractions and snag some of those drool-worthy Instagram pictures you see plaguing your feed, as well as suggesting a few off-the-beaten-path gems, while road tripping the Mighty 5 in Utah!

PLANNING FOR UTAH AT A GLANCE: 

When to Go: With mellow summers and stunning snow-covered winters, Utah is beautiful all year round but since you'll be spending a tremendous amount of time in the outdoors, I suggest going in the months of April-May and September-October. But if I had to pick just one month to go, I'd choose October — the crowds are fewer, the weather is appealing, and fall foliage is in full swing. 

Where to Stay: For this itinerary, you'll have sleepovers in Salt Lake City, Moab, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Springdale or Zion.

For the first overnight stay in Salt Lake City, I recommend staying at Kimpton Hotel Monaco for a luxurious stay in downtown SLC.

Moab has several accommodations but for something exclusive, I suggest staying at either Moab Red Stone Inn or Moab Springs Ranch. And if you prefer glamping, Under Canvas Moab is unmatched when it comes to comfort and style.

And for a sleepover near Bryce Canyon National Park, Stone Canyon Inn or Bryce Canyon Log Cabins in nearby Tropic is what I recommend or you can even opt for camping within the park itself at any of its 2 campgrounds.

And as for your last days on your Utah road trip in Springdale, you can either choose to camp inside Zion but if you can't find a campsite or just don't want to, then you can stay at either Cable Mountain Lodge or Springhill Suites in Springdale. Both of these places offer incredible Zion views.

How to Get Around: You're definitely going to need a car while road tripping Utah. If you don't know where to rent one from, you can compare car rentals and prices from here. Alternately, you can rent an RV or campervan via RVShare and save on accommodations. 

Best Activities: Want to fully enjoy your Utah road trip without the hustles of planning? Booking some activities will help you with that. You can book a horseback excursion on a canyon trail ride, an ATV tour, a Bryce Canyon National Park guided Tour, or a Moab Sound and Light Show tour.

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack:  A sturdy pair of hiking boots will serve you well -- I love my Ahnu boots. A dual purpose phone mount and charger will come in very handy and you'll be happy to have a roadside emergency kit should your car break down while road tripping.

Road trip pro tip: Purchase an annual pass (AKA the America the Beautiful Pass) to save money on the entrance fees for the multiple locations in this itinerary run by the NPS!

When to Plan Your Mighty 5 Utah Road Trip

Empty road going through Zion National Park with mountains on either side and orange autumn trees alongside the road

Utah is incredible any time of the year. With tepid summers and gorgeous snow-covered winters, there is never a season that doesn’t reveal jaw-dropping landscapes.

But since you’ll be cruising the highways and spending enormous amounts of time in the outdoors if you’re doing a Mighty 5 road trip, I suggest the months of April-May and September-October.

Late September and early October is a great time if you want to see some fall foliage in places like Zion!). If I had to pick the best month to visit Utah, I’d pick October — fewer crowds, better weather, and gorgeous foliage!

Going in the shoulder season will allow some crowds to dissipate at the popular sites and puts you ahead of snow closures. These months are considered the off season for crowds, and the weather has never failed me during these months.

Tips for Planning Your Utah National Parks Road Trip Itinerary

green tent outside of the landscape of zion national park a beautiful red rock landscape in utah

Prep for the parks. This Utah road trip means you will need to pay for entrance to at least 4 separate national parks, 5 if you also visit the interior of Capitol Reef and don’t just pass through. Each park can easily charge a $30 admission fee, so if you’re planning to enter more than two parks, an America the Beautiful pass will save you money! Buy it online at REI.

Time it wisely. Spring and fall, in my opinion, are the best times to visit Utah! Skip summer unless you’re willing to handle the heat (and school vacation crowds), and winter unless you’re a confident winter driver as many parts of Utah experience snow.

Cell service is spotty. Don’t always count on having cell phone service while driving in Utah! There are many long stretches of highway with very little service. Be prepared by having your maps downloaded offline.

Places on the map are not always as direct or close as they look. There are many routes that, at first glance, appear to be doable… but when you plug it into your maps app, you find they’re rather far apart! I’ve omitted a few notable places from this itinerary for that reason, such as Monument Valley, which is hard to squeeze into a 7-day Utah itinerary.

Utah Road Trip FAQs

Allison visiting Mesa Arch in Canyonlands national park sitting in the middle of Mesa Arch

How many days do you need to visit the Utah National Parks?

There are five incredible national parks in Utah (hence their collective nickname, the Mighty 5!). One week in Utah is enough time to catch a glimpse of each of the five national parks, but to see them in full, you could easily spend a month in Utah’s national parks and not see it all!

What are the best national parks to visit in Utah?

All of them, but this itinerary focuses the most time on Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Zion National Park, with briefer part-day trips to Canyonlands National Park and Capitol Reef National Park.

How do I plan a road trip to Utah?

The first step is to determine your itinerary: where are you flying or driving into, and how many days do you have from there?

Below, I’ll offer a few different routing ideas for driving around Utah, but generally, this itinerary assumes you’ll fly into Salt Lake City and then have seven days to explore Utah by car. 

If you have longer, you can absolutely spend more time at each site, but 7 days is the bare minimum to complete a Mighty 5 road trip!

The Mighty 5: Your Perfect 7 Day Utah Road Trip Itinerary

Day 1: Salt Lake City

A view of the skyline of Salt Lake City with enormous mountains towering over the city.

Salt Lake City International Airport is a hub for flights and car rentals as well as the perfect starting and ending point for exploring Utah.

I suggest booking your arrival and departure tickets from here, as it creates the perfect loop for your 7 day Utah road trip. 

Another option would be to fly into Las Vegas, in which case, your route itinerary would look like the following: Las Vegas – Zion – Bryce Canyon – Capitol Reef – Moab – back to Vegas or SLC. 

You could also add on a few days at the Grand Canyon and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument as well Page, AZ easily with this kind of itinerary. 

If that sounds more like the itinerary you want to follow, check out my Southwest road trip post, which does a roundtrip from Las Vegas to Moab and back, touching all Mighty 5, the Grand Canyon, and Page’s landmarks like Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend.

However, for the purposes of this 7 day itinerary, let’s assume you’re flying into SLC, as it’s the easiest for routing purposes, plus SLC is a great airport hub!

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on RentalCars as the best site to rent with in the USA – it searches dozens of rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare car rentals for your trip here!

Salt Lake City is in the heart of Utah, nestled among the Wasatch and Oquirrh Mountain Range it is surrounded with fantastic opportunities for fun.

Here’s how you should spend your day in SLC! If you have two days, read our two-day Salt Lake City itinerary.

Check-in to the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Salt Lake City

This luxury hotel is such a delight for the eyes!

Swirling colorful carpet draws you into the warm space of the lobby while modern vintage furniture gives the Kimpton Hotel Monaco an inviting atmosphere.

The rooms are adorned in old-world style with flashes of flair from the 1950s.

Hotel Monaco is perfectly situated in downtown SLC, making exploring the city extremely accessible.

Book your stay online here!

Grab a coffee and start your day

Begin your morning by making the 3 block walk to Campos Coffee.

Snag a seat in their stylish cafe and order up a delicious cappuccino with a side of Cran-Apple Toast.

Campos coffee offers an inviting, wide-open atmosphere adorned with a steampunk theme. Enjoy a quiet morning here as the city will quickly wake up.

Wander around downtown SLC

Giant Mormon church with cherry blossoms blooming in the spring and other spring flowers

Salt Lake City is known for its outdoor squares and parks. Once you’ve properly caffeinated, head to one of the year-round farmer’s markets for food, fun, and Utah flair.

There are several downtown areas that offer farmers’ markets at different times a year. A couple of options include Liberty ParkSugar House, and Downtown Farmers Markets.

Most of these markets only take place on Fridays and Saturdays but if you’re lucky enough to catch one, they’re worth the visit.

Fresh fruits and vegetables line the streets along with homemade gifts and local artists displaying their talents. It’s easy to spend a few hours wandering the streets.

While you’re on foot, consider seeking out some of Salt Lake’s most known and gorgeously constructed monuments such as the Mormon Temple, the State Capitol, and Temple Square. There’s a ton of historical sightseeing in downtown SLC, so be sure to pack your most comfortable shoes.

Hit the hiking trails

View of Salt Lake City in the far distance from the trail to the Living Room on a partly cloudy day.

Salt Lake City is filled with tons of outdoor options as well!

One of the most fun and accessible hiking trails is The Living Room. Lying just 10 minutes from downtown, this 2.2-mile out-and-back hike leads to incredible views of Downtown and the surrounding landscape.

Sit above the horizon on “chairs” made from surrounding rock and enjoy the afternoon high above the city.

If you desire some trails that require a bit more of a time commitment consider looking into Mount Timpanogos Trail or summit Grandeur Point. Both of the trails lead to exquisite views.

If you’re visiting in the fall, the colors of the changing leaves along both trails are breathtaking!

I also have a full guide to the best hikes near Salt Lake City here in case you want to extend your trip a bit and do a day hike or two!

Grab a delicious dinner in the city

Head back to the city and clean up for dinner.

Salt Lake is filled with phenomenal restaurants that’ll please any palate. A few of my favorites are Settebello for pizza or Red Iguana for Mexican.

Settebello offers insanely delicious Neapolitan style pizza wood-fired to perfection with a fluffy, buttery crust. Their bruschetta is simple and delicious, piled high with fresh tomatoes on divinely toasted bread. 

If a cuisine south of the border sounds more enticing, Red Iguana is the hot spot for you. Dubbed as Utah’s “killer Mexican food,” they have all the specialties including chimichangas and indulgent Mexican desserts that go down well with a custom-made margarita!

Day 2: Moab

Sign for the town of Moab which reads "Moab Again & Again The Adventure Never Ends" with a desert landscape in a background.

Day two of this Utah road trip is all about hiking and soaking up some of Utah’s most iconic scenery in Moab!

3.5 hours south of Salt Lake via an incredibly scenic drive lies 3 parks that are so breathtakingly beautiful, it’ll take two days to explore.

Dead Horse Point State ParkCanyonlands National Park, and Arches National Park all lie within miles of each other but the landscapes of each are so totally different.

Here’s how you should spend your first day in beautiful Moab.

Start the day with a delicious breakfast

As you roll into the quaint city of Moab, consider stopping for breakfast at the Love Muffin Cafe to fuel your hiking day.

They have all the breakfast classics including breakfast burritos, quiches and scones set in a brightly colored, eclectic cafe.

I’ve also heard rave reviews of Moab Cafe. Although I’ve never personally visited, it sounds like it’s worth checking out!

Head to Dead Horse Point State Park

An overlook in Dead Horse Point State Park where you can see a bend in the Colorado River that has hollowed out a canyon, with red rocks in layers on the sides of the canyon.

Dead Horse Point State Park is the perfect introduction to the beauty of Moab.

It’s a sprawling 5,000-acre park set high among the desert landscape with towering cliffs and unrivaled views of the Canyonlands in the distance.

There are several pull-outs along the drive to the parking lot that are all worth the extra stops.

But to truly experience the spectacular sights, hike the Dead Horse Rim Loop Trail. This trail is a 5-mile loop that canvasses the rim of the canyon.

The most prominent view from the trail is hands down the overlook at the point of the Colorado River — it’s stunning!

Dead Horse Point also has a trail system for mountain bikers as well. If you’ve come prepared to bike, the park Intrepid Trail is a 16-mile single-track trail on dirt roads that offers the same unrivaled views with a bit more adrenaline.

Head towards Canyonlands National Park

A view of Canyonlands National Park as seen through the empty space of a rock arch, Mesa Arch, looking out onto the landscape.

Rest your feet and make the short 12-minute drive over to Canyonlands National Park to the park entrance at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center.

Canyonlands is a massive park that has 3 different districts. For the sake of time, I recommend visiting the nearest and most accessible district called the Island In The Sky.

Here, you’ll find a comprehensive visitors center with rangers who are more than willing to help you plan your afternoon. 

The Island In The Sky is the only paved district in Canyonlands National Park with easy access to well-marked trails; the Needles is beautiful but more remote and not quite suited for such a quick trip to Utah, and the Maze and the Rivers (consisting of the Colorado River and the Green River) are even more remote.

On your drive into the park stop at the Grand View Point Overlook. The overlook totally lives up to its name as it reveals jaw-dropping views into Monument Basin as you ascend via a scenic drive. You can also take the trail, which is an easy 1.8-mile hike.

Another iconic sight is Mesa Arch, a short and easy 0.7-mile trail that leads you to an arch that’s perched perfectly on the edge of Canyonlands Cliffs.

After a few dramatic photos of Mesa Arch, head over to Upheaval Dome, the last trek of the day. Upheaval Dome is attractive because of its odd geology and wild folklore that surrounds its creation.

An easy 2-mile wide trail takes you along the rim of the Dome and gives you a panoramic view of just how weird and wonderful the geology truly is.

Grab a drink to toast your hikes

After an entire day of hiking, you deserve a beer!

Back in the city of Moab is Moab Brewery. The perfect place to end your first day in the spectacular Utah desert. Moab Brewery is always fun, always lively, and always has plenty of beer!

The atmosphere is a fun mix of outdoorsman bar vibes. Kayaks hang from the ceiling and pool tables fill the corners.

You’ll find a massive selection of microbrewed beers including ambers, lagers, Hefeweizens and IPAs.

They’re also a full-service restaurant, so grab dinner and hang around for a bit.

Check into your Moab accommodations

A lit up canvas glamping tent with a dark night sky with lots of visible stars.

There are several different options when it comes to accommodations in Moab. These include hotels, Airbnb, glamping, and camping.

If you’re wanting more of the comforts of home, there are plenty of commercial hotels located in the heart of Moab.

For something more unique look into the Moab Red Stone Inn or Moab Springs Ranch. Both offer a more low-key, secluded fee.

As for glamping, Under Canvas Moab knocks it out of the park in terms of comfort, style, and entertainment, and is frequently cited as one of the best glamping lodges in the entire United States.

Book your stay at Under Canvas Moab here!

If you’re wanting to go all in and camp under the stars, there are plenty of campgrounds dispersed in and around the city.

To find these, I recommend checking out my entire write-up on Utah’s incredible dispersed campsites or by using some well-known campground finder apps including The Dyrt, iOverlander, or  rec.gov website.

Day 3: Arches National Park

Wake up early while the city of Moab is still sleeping and get a head start on Arches National Park.

Arches National Park is one of Utah’s top attractions and draws over 1.5 million visitors a year. Because of its popularity, it’s important to beat the crowds if you want to experience Arches in all its glory.

Start with a sunrise hike to Delicate Arch

A view of the famous Delicate Arch, a Utah road trip must, taken at sunrise with the light falling on the left side of the arch.

The iconic Delicate Arch should be your first destination and you should plan to hike it before the sun rises.

To make this possible, check the local times of the sunrise and plan to head out about an hour and half before this.

You’ll need a headlamp or flashlight for the first part of the 1.5-mile hike to Delicate Arch, as it will still be dark outside.

If you timed it correctly, you’ll reach Delicate Arch just as the sun begins to beam on its east side.

It’s an amazing experience to see the surrounding landscape wake up and to watch Delicate Arch glow under the newly risen sun.

Wander the Devils Garden

A nearly empty trail in Devils Garden in Arches National Park with red sand on the trail and views of the red rocks and arches around it.

After you’ve captured photos of Utah’s most iconic arch, continue driving on Arches Entrance Road until you reach the Devils Garden Trailhead.

This 7-mile trail can easily be broken up into something more manageable (2-3 miles) while still offering insane views of the otherworldly landscape.

Massive boulders, tunnels, and arches are the highlight of this trail, as well as its tranquility.

Devils Garden is much less crowded than the surrounding trails and offers a great opportunity to bask in the uniqueness of Utah in peace.

On the way back, be sure to stop in Fiery Furnace which has some of the best views and reddest rocks in Arches.

Snap some final photos of Arches

A trail leading up to a red rock formation which features a rock "balancing" on top of another rock, with the moon rising in the background.

As you meander your way back to the entrance, take this chance to capture some stunning photos at the multiple pull-outs spread throughout the park.

Balanced Rock, the Windows, Double Arch, and Petrified Dunes Lookout are just a few spots worth a quick stop.

You also should make sure to visit the longest arch in the entire park, Landscape Arch, which is accessible via an easy 1.9-mile out-and-back trail.

The day should still be early enough to capture the stunning lighting and natural beauty of the surrounding rock formations.

Grab lunch and gas before hitting the road

Highway 70 going through Moab with red rocks and desert landscape around it.

Stop off in Moab for a bite to eat and gas up the car before you hit the road again to head towards your next destination.

The afternoon will be spent driving to Bryce Canyon National Park. The 4-hour drive from Arches National Park to Bryce Canyon National Park is absolutely stunning.

You’ll leave Arches and head West on highway 70. As you leave the desert landscape of Moab you’ll be transported into the mountainous scenery as you head south through Highway 24.

If you don’t want to visit Capitol Reef National Park, you can shave an hour or two off your drive time by skipping Highway 24, instead going a more direct route to Bryce via Highway 72 and Fishlake National Forest. However, for the purposes of this post, we’ll go the scenic route so you can visit Capitol Reef!

Stop quickly in Capitol Reef National Park

the sign to enter capitol reef national park

With only 7 days in Utah, it’s hard to tackle all of the Mighty 5 and do them proper justice. 

This Utah itinerary focuses more heavily on the Southern Utah national parks, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pop into Capitol Reef on the way to Bryce from Moab!

We won’t have time to take on some of the best hikes in Capitol Reef, but we can definitely see a few of the most beautiful landmarks there that are easy to access by car.

As you near Torrey, be sure to stop off at Factory Butte, a stunning and off-the-beaten-path land formation that looks like it could be something out of Mars. It’s right off Highway 24 so you can’t miss it.

For a quick but scenic spin through the park, stick to the parts of the park near Torrey that are accessible via Highway 24, all centered around the Visitor Center. 

This includes the Fruita Schoolhouse, the Petroglyphs, Hickman Natural Bridge, and the gorgeous views at Panorama Point.

If you have a national park pass, as you should, then you can also visit a few places within the park within an easy drive. That would include Fruita Barn, the Gifford Homestead, and if you have time for a hike, the Cassidy Arch Trailis a phenomenal 3.1-mile out-and-back with one of the best views in all of Capitol Reef, rated as moderate.

Arrive in Bryce Canyon National Park

allison looking over the edge of bryce canyon and its orange hoodoos

As you turn south and head towards Bryce, the topography changes one final time into a mix of bright red cliffs, canyons, and hoodoos.

The first sighting of a hoodoo along a scenic drive is a great indication that Bryce Canyon is just around the corner!

The city of Bryce is a small, quiet town that lies minutes outside the National Park. Although limited on hotels and restaurants, it’s easy to find a place to have dinner and a warm place to sleep.

You can also stay in nearby Escalante, which is halfway between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon and is home to Yonder Escalante, a great accommodation choice with cute cabins and Airstreams available for rent.

Grab dinner and hit the sheets

Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm, Big Fish Family Restaurant and Stone Hearth Grille are a few restaurants that cater to weary travelers looking for a hearty meal.

As far as hotels, check out the Stone Canyon Inn or Bryce Canyon Log Cabins in nearby Tropic.

Each resort is immaculately maintained and offers stunning views of Bryce Canyon in a private setting.

Of course, Bryce Canyon is also brimming with campgrounds. There are two campgrounds inside the park, North Campground and Sunset Campground, as well as options for backcountry camping.

Day 4: Bryce Canyon

A brilliant view over the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. Hoodoos are vertical finger-like rock formations formed by erosion over time.

Bryce Canyon is purely about the landscape!

With the largest concentration of hoodoos and brightly colored cliffs, Bryce Canyon is a geologic wonder that resembles Mars. 

Hikers will adore the plethora of beauty that is easily accessible via the trails in the park! 

While the classic Bryce Canyon Rim Trail would be amazing to do, at 11 miles roundtrip, it’s not doable for this itinerary, so save it for a return trip. We’ve listed a few shorter day hikes that are better suited for one day in Bryce instead.

Do a hoodoo hike

the hoodoos of bryce canyon

There are several different ways to enjoy one day in Bryce in an adventurous and active way!

Hike the Navajo Loop Trail or Queens Garden Loop inside the core section of the park to experience the topography from within the canyon.

Navajo Loop is a personal favorite and you’ll enjoy absolutely stunning views from everywhere on this canyon trail!

… Or hop on a horse or ATV!

Man on a brown horse wearing a cowboy hat and looking over the canyon views.

If your feet are exhausted from the previous days’ hikes, no worries — there’s still plenty of ways to experience Bryce Canyon without needing to hike.

Hop on a horse for a horseback excursion on a canyon trail ride or pump up your adrenaline with an ATV tour!

Either is a great way to stay active and see the best that Utah’s Mighty 5 have to offer without overexerting yourself.

Book your horseback excursion on a canyon trail ride now!

Get the best sunset view in Utah

Sun setting over a canyon full of red and white hoodoo landforms.

As the sun begins to set, head to Sunset Point to watch the most phenomenal sunset cover the canyon.

It’s probably the best place to catch the sunset in all of Utah, with its hoodoos, red rocks, and wide-open skies.

As the skies begin to darken, catch the glory of the stars, as Bryce is part of the world-renowned International Dark Skies club.

Of course, if you’re too tired for sunrise — or you just want to double up on the beauty of Bryce — another option is to do an early wakeup call the following morning at Sunrise Point, which offers a great vista from a viewpoint better oriented for the rising sun.

Day 5: Springdale and Zion

Wake up early and start the 2 hour drive to Springdale, Utah.

What makes the Beehive State so unique is the opportunity to experience dramatic landscape changes over the miles and the drive from Bryce to Springdale is a prime example of this.

Start at the East Entrance of Zion

A sign which reads "Zion National Park, National Park Service" on the road leading to the national park with mountains in the background.

Head south down highway 89. From here, you’ll hit the East Entrance of Zion National Park first.

I recommend coming in from this direction because it allows you to drive through the entire length of Zion before hitting the main headquarters of the Park.

There are no words to describe the beauty of Zion. Sky-high mountains loom over deep purple slot canyons, multi-layered rock formations weave among the cliff sides, and wild animals can be seen crossing the street.

The beauty will captivate you all the way to the visitors center where you’ll catch a park shuttle to the epic water hike of The Narrows.

Hike to the Narrows

People hiking in knee-deep water in hiking sticks in a slot canyon with purplish rocks and pale green water.

The Narrows is by far the top trail in Zion for discovering the interior slot canyons, and it’s a must-see on the bucket lists of hikers everywhere.

Some visitors rent waders and gear from the nearby Zion Outfitters but I don’t see this step as absolutely necessary. If you’re wanting to save money, it’s perfectly acceptable to hike without being outfitted.

Waterproof hiking shoes, however, are absolutely needed, or you’ll be regretting it. Trust me.

Jump on the shuttle and head to the last stop, Temple of Sinawava. From here, make the 1-mile paved hike into The Narrows.

The beauty of this hike is you can make it as long, or as short as you desire. The entire trail will be water wading while you explore between two towering canyon walls that tend to change color as the sun orbits over.

Get in as much, or as little, hiking in as you like and head back to the visitors center to claim a campsite.

Grab a campsite or check into a hotel

Lime green camping tent contrasting against the red and orange rock landscapes of Zion with Watchman mountain in the distance.

The Watchman Campground is the only public campground in the park and fills up quickly.

This is a gorgeous, shaded campground sitting at the foot of the Mountains with a paved walking path along the Colorado River and within walking distance to the bustling city of Springdale.

If you can’t (or don’t want to) snag one of the limited campsites in Zion, there are plenty of wonderful hotels in Springdale.

I recommend Cable Mountain Lodge or Springhill Suites, with their stunning floor-to-ceiling windowed lobby with incredible Zion views. Another classic is the Zion Lodge which must be booked months and months in advance.

Head to the city and grab a bite to eat at The Spotted Dog (American), Zion Pizza and Noodle (pizza), or the Whiptail Grill (Mexican).

Shop around the many unique, handcrafted stores and head back to camp to enjoy a night under the stars or to your hotel for some creature comforts in a beautiful setting.

Day 6: Zion National Park

Grab a delicious cup of coffee before hitting the trail

Woman hiking Angels Landing, a ridge hike with a chain assist, with views of the valley in Zion National Park on all sides.

Wake up early and hit Deep Creek Coffee for a pre-hike meal and hand-crafted coffee. You’ll need the energy for this hike!

Today’s trail, Angels Landing, is a strenuous uphill hike to the tops of Zion so you’ll need to properly fuel your body.

If you’re feeling extra energized this morning, rent a bike from Zion Cycles and skip the shuttle!

You can bike to the trailhead of Angels Landing as well as the rest of the park. Although a big undertaking, it’s a great alternative to beating the crowds.

 Angels Landing is arguably THE top hike in Zion and for a good reason. This 5-mile trail climbs up and over the canyons of Zion and gives you a birds-eye view of the true beauty of the park.

Summiting Angels Landing is an exhilarating experience! As you ascend, you’ll be assisted by chains that are hanging off the sheer cliffside offering a heart-pounding experience.

Once at the top you’re greeted by the most epic view on earth. Catch your breath and enjoy the beauty before you.

Want a different view? Head up to Observation Point. While normally this is a harder hike than Angel’s Landing, the East Rim to East Mesa approach is closed due to the danger of rockfall.

 The easier route via East Mesa is still accessible though, and is only rated as moderate. It involves a 6.7-mile out-and-back trail with only 700 feet of elevation gain (the hard Observation Point trail involves well over 2,000 feet of elevation gain!). 

For this trailhead, I suggest you park at the intersection of Beaver and Fir Roads if you don’t have a high-clearance vehicle.

 Celebrate your summit with a drink

Descend Angels Landing and head back to town for a celebratory beer at Zion Brewery.

Located creekside to the Colorado River, Zion Brewery has the perfect patio to enjoy the afternoon while you recharge and reminisce.

Once you’ve had a beer… or three, cool off at the riverbank or tackle a shorter Zion hike around sunset for even more epic views.

Hit Zion Canyon Overlook Trail for sunset

For a great view worthy of the final full day of your Utah itinerary, head to Zion Canyon Overlook Trail for sunset.

It’s a super short trail, less than 1 mile out-and-back and rated as easy, though there is about 400 feet of elevation gain. It’s absolutely worth it!

Parking is limited so you may have to circle around for a spot. Give yourself some extra time to find parking if you’re going at sunset as it is a popular sunset spot.

Day 7: Back to Salt Lake City

Brilliant turquoise hot spring in the middle of nowhere in Utah.

The last leg of your journey will be spent making the 4.5-hour drive back to Salt Lake City.

Don’t let the longer drive intimidate you, there are plenty of stops you can make along the way to break up the drive.

A few options I recommend are visiting the ghost town of Grafton, stretching your legs at Cedar Breaks National Monument or soaking in the natural hot springs along the way.

As you head north to Salt Lake City, you’ll conveniently pass two opportunities to soak in Utah’s many natural hot springs.

Mystic Hot Springs and Meadow Hot Springs are both located off Highway 15 and welcome tourists to enjoy the soothing heated waters. It’s the perfect ending to your 7-day road trip across Utah.

I hope this 7 day Utah itinerary inspires you to get out and enjoy this beautiful and truly unique state!

What to Pack for an Utah Road Trip

I have a complete USA road trip packing list that you can go through before your trip to know everything to take but below is a rundown.

Travel guides

This Utah road trip itinerary is packed with so much useful information but Travel guides are useful resources to have for deeper insights as they dedicate more time and resources to research. So, to fully arm yourself with knowledge and tips before doing the mighty 5 Utah Road Trip, I recommend combining my personal experience with this highly-rated Fodor’s Utah travel guide.

Phone Mount & Car Charger

Though cell network is not the best while road tripping Utah, you’ll still need your phone whether it’s to check maps or take photos, so it’s essential to have a car charger. And for navigating, a phone mount is gold! It takes away the pressure of having to check your phone while driving (which you shouldn’t do btw) or even asking your front-seat passenger all the time. I honestly can’t imagine going on a road trip without this dual-purpose phone mount and charger!

Snacks

Road trips just go better with snacks and let’s not forget how quickly hanger can kick in especially if you don’t want to keep stopping just to get something to eat. Pack a few snacks — and not just the sweet ones but a mix of sweets and salty ones too.

Rehydration packets

Rehydration packets are life savers when it comes to road trips! From long hikes, fatigue, uncoordinated meal times, scorching sun, there are so many incidences that can cause dehydration.

I always carry some rehydration packets for every road trip I go on and they’ve been great at keeping me hydrated. There are quite many on the market but I recommend these ones.

Bug spray and after-bite care

Nothing takes away the fun of enjoying a scenic hike like bug bites. I know it and I’ve been there — nowadays I never leave home without this lemon eucalyptus-based mosquito repellent, it’s a natural and DEET-free solution that works well on even the most stubborn mosquitos!

Unfortunately, it is sometimes inevitable to avoid bug bites regardless of how committed you were to applying and re-applying bug spray every couple of hours. In that case, this After Bite itch eraser will instantly soothe any bug bites.

Sunscreen

Most people don’t know this but the windshield doesn’t protect you against all UV rays. While they protect against UVB rays (which cause sunburn), most do not block UVA rays, which cause aging and skin cancer and that’s why it’s important to wear sunscreen even when driving.

On top of that, you’ll need it on hikes, beach days, or every time you go under the sun. You could probably get away with a cheaper sunscreen but since my face is kind of sensitive to chemical sunscreens, I need something gentle and I found that in this sunscreen.

And unlike the myth that some skin tones and races don’t need sunscreen, I am here to tell you that you need it as sun cancer doesn’t discriminate based on skin tone. So whether you’re white, pale like me, Black, Latina, or Asian, you need sunscreen!

If you’re hiking, don’t forget about your scalp either — I often end up with a burned scalp and it’s no fun, often leading to headaches. Buy a special sunscreen for hair and scalp to avoid this!

Rain jacket

Do you hate hiking in soaked clothes? Me too! You could have the perfect Utah road trip itinerary but that won’t stop it from raining but that also doesn’t mean you should just waste your day and wait for it to end while hiding in your hotel room!

Get yourself the Marmot PreCip rain jacket (there’s a women’s version and a men’s version). I’ve used mine for years doing all sorts of activities, from biking to hiking and traveling.

And the best part about this jacket is that it keeps me dry when it rains without making me uncomfortably hot like other rain jackets due to the zippered arm-pits which provide ventilation.

External batteries

The Anker external battery pack is a travel must. While you can charge your phone while driving, you may want to charge other devices — a camera, a drone, portable speakers, an e-reader — as well.

Or if you notice your battery is running low while you’re out hiking or sightseeing, you can just start charging right away without having to return to your car. It holds several charges on a single battery pack and will last days at a time.

Read Next

I have so many posts to help you plan an epic trip through the Southwest, from general packing guides to quotes to inspire your trip to detailed itineraries just like this one for neighboring states!


Don’t forget travel insurance!
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Here are my suggestions for where to go next.

What to Pack for a Road Trip: The Ultimate Road Trip Packing List
Road Trip Quotes: The Best Road Trip Quotes & Instagram Captions
Arizona Road Trip: The Perfect 7 Day Arizona Road Trip Itinerary
Southwest USA Road Trip (Nevada, Arizona, & Utah): The Ultimate Southwest Road Trip Itinerary for 10-14 Days
Idaho Road Trip: The Best Idaho Road Trip Itinerary
Montana Road Trip: The Perfect 10 Day Montana Road Trip Itinerary

The Only Southwest Road Trip Itinerary You Need

Planning an epic road trip through America’s Southwest? You’ll be richly rewarded with insane Martian-esque landscapes, beautiful national parks, empty stretches of road, and stunning sunsets.

I’ve highlighted all the best on and off the beaten path adventures so you can create a Southwest road trip of your dreams.

This itinerary for the American Southwest starts and ends in Las Vegas, Nevada, taking you through six national parks and a handful of state parks and national monuments along the way.

Get ready for the USA road trip of a lifetime — this Southwest road trip is truly one for the bucket list.

How Long Do You Need For This Southwest Itinerary?

This Southwest itinerary should take you from 10 days to two weeks to complete.

However, if you were pressed for time, you could certainly condense it to a one-week road trip or hit a few highlights in just 5 days, though you would definitely need to cut out quite a few things.

As written, this road trip will take you through six national parks, three state parks, a handful of national monuments, and through hundreds if not thousands of miles of untamed landscapes. We saw one national park in Arizona and all five national parks in Utah.

If you were trying to condense this Southwest road trip into just five days, I’d make it go from Las Vegas to Zion to Bryce to Page to Sedona and back to Las Vegas via the Hoover Dam.

Extending this Southwest Road Trip

If you have even more time? There’s so much more to road tripping in the Southwest that you could tack on, or even go slightly beyond the Southwest itself.

You can also easily add on a little Western road trip from Vegas to see some of California’s famous parks (Joshua Tree and Death Valley come to mind) or swing up north after Moab to visit the famous Yellowstone National Park.

New Mexico with its beautiful White Sands National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park, plus its beautiful cities of Sante Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque, are also a great idea.

Personally, we swung north and east after Moab and went up to Denver and Boulder for a few days before heading back to Las Vegas to drop off our rental car.

However, considering the drive from Moab is about 8 hours, you may want to break it up with some time in Grand Junction or somewhere else in Colorado if you choose to continue eastwards. We just took the long driving day and took turns driving, but if you have only one driver, you may want to break up the journey.

Tips for Saving Money on this Southwest Itinerary

To save money, be sure to buy an Annual Pass for the national parks– you can easily purchase an America the Beautiful park pass online at REI.

For $80, you have unlimited entrances to all US national parks (and monuments, forests, seashores, etc — over 2,000 protected lands) for one vehicle for a year!

Seeing as national parks cost anywhere from $10-30 to enter, with most near the $30 side of the spectrum, you’ll definitely save money by buying an annual pass.

Another way to save money is to travel by campervan or RV, eliminating or reducing your accommodation costs.

There is free camping in BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land across most of the Southwest. I have a guide to free camping in Utah, which will cover most of this Southwest itinerary.

If you prefer the amenities of a maintained campground, you still won’t pay too much, as paid campgrounds are typically around $30 per night.

Finally, another big way to save money if you’re not going with a campervan is to book your car rental in and out of the same place — when I was researching, I found Las Vegas to have the best options, followed by Phoenix, which isn’t on this itinerary but would be an easy swap.

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on Discover Cars as the best car rental search engine – it searches over 500 trusted rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare prices for car rentals in Las Vegas here.

Southwest Road Trip Itinerary

Stop One: Las Vegas, Nevada

My Southwest road trip itinerary has you starting in Las Vegas for a variety of reasons: the first being that renting a car in Vegas is loads cheaper than renting in most other places along this American Southwest itinerary.

You can also rent an RV in Las Vegas and use that as your transportation and accommodation all in one!

The second reason being that flights to Las Vegas are often incredibly affordable — my flight from Vegas to San Francisco was only $32 on Southwest, which even includes a bag!

While in Vegas, check out the Seven Magic Mountains about 20 minutes outside of town – it’s a fabulous art installation by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, which will be dismantled at the end of 2018.

The Seven Magic Mountains installation, a temporary art exhibit 20 minutes outside of Vegas

If money permits, there’s no better way to get excited about the landscape you’re about to see than to take a helicopter tour from Las Vegas.

There’s a variety of helicopter tours you can take from Vegas, each offering a completely unique landscape. If budget allows, I strongly recommend taking a flight over the Grand Canyon.

You’ll get to see the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, and an extinct volcano on your way to the Grand Canyon — the 7th natural wonder of the world!

You can opt for an aerial-only flight (which is more affordable) or a canyon landing tour that stops 3,500 feet below the Canyon Rim, right next to the beautiful Colorado River. Both are a great choice — it depends on how badly you’d like to land at the bottom of the canyon!

Book your flight to the Grand Canyon — aerial-only or canyon landing!

But if you’re on a tight budget in Vegas and still want to ride in a helicopter, there are several more affordable rides you can do, including a nighttime flight over the Las Vegas strip!

A short helicopter flight over the Las Vegas Strip just after sunset as the lights come down over the city is an incredible experience, and one I won’t soon forget. I was surprised at how breathtaking it was even after having my breath taken away seeing the Grand Canyon… but the Las Vegas Strip did not disappoint!

You can opt for a night flight with a romantic dinner or for the more budget-friendly helicopter over the Vegas Strip tour.

With prices for the latter just around $100 per person, it’s a great way to experience the high life (literally) without breaking the bank or needing to strike it rich at the slots before booking!

Book your helicopter tour over the Strip — budget or with luxury dinner option

Recommended photo spots: Anywhere and everywhere, really! A helicopter ride will give you stunning views; The Bellagio, the W, the Wynn, and pretty much anywhere on the Strip are also great places for photos.

Recommended accommodations: The W is the funkiest boutique hotel in all of Vegas — perfect for the ‘gram! The rooms are over the top and ridiculously outlandish, the staff is amazing with their personalized recommendations and greetings, and the calm of the pool there compared to at the SLS (which you can also visit if you stay at the W) was an awesome oasis in the middle of crazy Vegas. Can’t rate highly enough! Check prices, ratings, and availability at The W here.

Stop Two: Valley of Fire

About 45 minutes from Las Vegas is what I deem to be the most underrated spot on this entire Southwest road trip: the Valley of Fire State Park.

I literally have no idea why this isn’t a national park — it’s so massive and the vistas are so spectacular that it surely deserves the title.

That said, the fact that it’s only technically a state park will serve you well, as despite its proximity to Las Vegas there were very few people at the park.

While you could do this independently, I actually did a day trip to the Valley of Fire with Pink Jeep Tours and I can’t speak more highly of it — I definitely recommend it if your budget allows.

We absolutely maximized our time there and got to see all the best parts of the park with expert narration (and a wicked sense of humor!) along the way. It was pretty much a perfect day out.

Since we had so much driving along the way later on in the trip, it was nice to start off the trip at a slow pace and not have to handle the driving and planning ourselves for the Valley of Fire.

As it’s just 40 minutes outside of Vegas, it’s an easy and logical day trip if you’re wanting to spend a few nights luxuriating in Vegas before heading out on your Southwest road trip adventure of a lifetime.

I’d recommend the tour, as it’s what we did and loved it, but you can also DIY a day in the Valley of Fire if you have budget constraints.

Book your Pink Jeep Tour online here!

Recommended photo spots: Rainbow Vista trail, The Beehives, Elephant Rock, Balanced Rock, pretty much anywhere with an open road!

Recommended accommodations: Overnight somewhere in Vegas; we loved our stay at The W (find rates & availability here) but there are a ton of other budget-friendly options available in Vegas.

You can also camp inside the park, first come first serve, but get here early if you plan to do that as spots go fast!

Stop Three: Hoover Dam

After visiting the Valley of Fire, you’ll need to route back via Vegas on your way to the Hoover Dam. This is right on your way to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon – no circuitous rerouting required – so you might as well see one of America’s biggest engineering marvels.

The Hoover Dam used to be the tallest dam in the world when it was first built, but it’s since been overtaken by a dam I’ve never heard of until researching this post, located in Tajikistan.

The most amazing fact (to me at least) about the Hoover Dam is that the concrete holding up is still not dry all the way through!

At its base, it’s a massive 660 feet thick — the equivalent of two back-to-back football fields!

Scientists say it’ll take 125 years for it to dry all the way through; at only 80 years since its construction, we’ve still got 30 to go.

The Hoover Dam from above on a helicopter tour – truly a sight to behold on a Southwest road trip

Recommended photo spots: The dam, obviously; the Pat Tillman memorial bridge

Recommended accommodations: No need to stay overnight – this is best done as a quick stop off on the way to Flagstaff and/or the Grand Canyon.

Stop 4: Flagstaff, Arizona (the Grand Canyon & Sedona)

Flagstaff is a perfect base for further road trips in the Southwest USA.

That said, Flagstaff on its own has plenty to write home about — don’t miss Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, with its beautiful landscape and exciting lava trails.

But perhaps the best thing about Flagstaff is its proximity to some of Arizona’s greatest attractions.

30 minutes through a winding national forest, you’ll find Sedona — one of Arizona’s most scenic places, and a must on any Southwest US road trip itinerary.

If you have time, it’s worth giving at least a full day for exploring Sedona, or even following my 2 day itinerary to exploring Sedona’s best sights.

For the purpose of this post, I’m suggesting Sedona as a day trip from Flagstaff, but you could easily spend more time in Sedona if you wish.

Check out the stunning red rocks arching into the sky, and be sure not to miss the opportunity to go for a hike or to visit the Church of the Holy Cross — a stunning chapel quite literally built into the side of a mountain.

I didn’t have time in Sedona to go on the original Pink Jeep Tour (the same company as I went with on my Valley of Fire tour) but if I did, I absolutely could have gone on this off-roading 2-hour scenic rim tour.

Book your 2-hour offroad tour of Sedona!

Sedona is great for a day trip, but the main attraction when visiting Flagstaff is the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, which is a mere 90 minutes away.

I picked the South Rim for this itinerary because it works better with the itinerary, but you could also add on the North Rim between Page and Bryce Canyon. (Here’s how to pick between the two).

No amount of preparation can truly ready you for the grandeur of what it’s like to stand at the edge of this canyon in person.

I even flew over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter a few days prior to seeing it from the edge.

While the helicopter ride was an absolutely amazing experience, truly nothing beats standing at its edge and seeing its vastness from ground level. If you can see it both ways, do! But don’t underestimate the power of seeing it from ground level with your own eyes. It’s breathtaking.

The easiest way to see the Grand Canyon is to drive there from Flagstaff, about 90 minutes each way, which is what we did.

However, I didn’t realize at the time that there was a really cool historic scenic train that runs right from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon! If you’re into train history and old, nostalgic train rides, this may be a really cool experience for you to have. You can book it online here.

Recommended Accommodation: When I was in Flagstaff, I stayed at the Hilton Doubletree in town. With free (warm!) cookies upon check-in, large rooms, and an in-house restaurant, it’s a comfortable and affordable crash pad between adventures and it’s much cheaper than staying in either the Grand Canyon or Sedona. Check prices, rates, & availability here.

Stop 5: Page, Arizona (Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, & Lake Powell)

Page, Arizona has some of the most spectacular sights in all of the American Southwest, all in a tiny little town.

For one, Horseshoe Bend, one of the most iconic photography spots in the entire Southwest US, is located a mere 3 miles down the main highway.

But the main draw to Page is the stunning Antelope Canyon. Broken into two parts, Upper and Lower, we opted for the Lower — having heard that it has more vibrant colors, as opposed to Upper which is famous for its sunbeams much-loved by photographers.

Upper is more popular (and thus more expensive and more crowded) than Lower, plus it requires advance reservations.

Chronic underplanners as we are, we opted for Lower, as we were able to book next-day tickets quite easily.

The information online is a bit out of date; there are now two tour companies operating tours to Lower Antelope Canyon.

Ken’s Tours charges $20 as far as I know, Dixie Ellis’ $25; plus the $8 tribal lands fee. We went with Dixie Ellis’ Lower Antelope Canyon Tours as the line was shorter and highly recommend the experience.

Be aware that this is an incredibly popular tour on everyone’s Southwest itinerary no matter what tour company you go with, and you will be waiting in line quite a bit – not to mention the waiting you’ll have to do in order to snap photos without people in them. However, it’s entirely worth the experience in my opinion!

Horseshoe Bend is a bit less crowded than Antelope Canyon, mainly because it’s more spacious. We actually went three times in the span of 24 hours seeking the perfect shot.

Sunrise is fantastic because so few people are there, although the sun rises on the opposite side of the bend so if you’re looking for sunbursts, you’re better off at sunset. Midday, you’ll see a wild array of colors that you can’t quite see during sunrise/sunset, so it’s worth a separate trip just for that as it’s not so far away from Page

At sunset
At sunrise

While sunset is the most crowded at Horseshoe Bend, it’s also the most magical. As a bonus, if you scrabble up the rocks a bit, you can quite easily get epic photos with no one else in the shot!

A clever way to escape the Horseshoe Bend hoards? Fly over it by helicopter (which seems to be a running theme of this post — sadly, I didn’t have the chance to do this, though. Next time!) You’ll also get to see Lake Powell — more on that in a second.

Finally, as if I haven’t written enough about Page to fill an entire blog post all on its own, you must check out Lake Powell.

This lake is simply stunning, with glassy blue water amidst a desert landscape. You can rent a paddleboard and check out the lake at your own speed, or go to one of the many viewpoints to see it from above.

Recommended photo spots: Horseshoe Bend, Lower/Upper Antelope, Lake Powell, Wahweap Overlook

Recommended accommodations: We stayed at Hampton Inn & Suites in Page – Lake Powell and highly recommend it. The rooms are large with plenty of space to work and relax in, with all the comfortable amenities you’d expect like a fitness room, a heated indoor pool, a Jacuzzi (perfect for sore legs after hiking all day!).

Breakfast was also delicious and included in the price of the room. It also couldn’t be any closer to Horseshoe Bend, just three miles and a quick five-minute drive down the road.

If you’re planning to visit Horseshoe Bend multiple times for the perfect photo like we did, it’s an awesome place to base yourself because as soon as you leave the parking lot you’re already on the road to Horseshoe Bend! Check rates, prices, & availability here.

Stop Six: Kanab, Utah

On the way from Page to Utah, you can go two different ways. We actually did both as we did a huge circle from Page to Kanab and back all in one day when we couldn’t go to Antelope Canyon as planned, so I can report on each way!

The first way, via I-89, you’ll pass a view of Lake Powell at Wahweap Overlook before making your way to the Visitor Center of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Park.

Stop off at the visitor center in Big Water, Utah and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to meet a man who discovered a brand new species of dinosaur! He is really lovely and fun to talk to, so definitely stop by if you can.

On the way to Kanab, you can stop off to do the Toadstools hike — a short one-hour roundtrip hike that ends in a truly Martian landscape. Quite off the beaten path of most people’s typical Southwest road trip itineraries, and well worth the stop!

“Toadstools” are formed when rain makes boulders fall from cliffs and land atop softer rocks, creating mushroom-looking rock structures. They look manmade but they’re entirely natural!

After passing Kanab, quickly grab lunch somewhere before making your way to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.

This little-visited park has sand dunes that look as if they’re straight out of the Sahara — all against the backdrop of some legendary Utah mountains.

This park is so close to Zion that I don’t know why it’s more popular, but you definitely should have it on your Southwest itinerary — all the better for you to snap some epic photos without the crowds!

With the clouds, it looked more orange than pink, but on a sunny day, I’m sure the sands are more true to their name.

If you go the other way from Page via the longer but more scenic route (I-89A), you can go over a beautiful mountain pass filled with lush evergreen trees and stop at the Vermillion Cliffs viewpoint and LeFevre Overlook.

There, you can see four plateaus that make up the “Staircase” of Grand Staircase-Escalante in a variety of hues — including chocolate brown, vermillion, and purple (two of the plateaus was unfortunately covered by some clouds when we were there!)

While you’re in Kanab, you’re so close to Zion, but I urge you to skip it — for now — in lieu of visiting it on your way back to Las Vegas!

Finally, Kanab is also a good stopping point if you are testing your luck for permits for the Wave in Arizona, as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center visitor center here is where you would need to get your permit.

Your chances are low, but it’s worth a try!

Recommended photo spots: Lefevre Point, Vermillion Cliffs overlook, Toadstools, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

Recommended accommodations: We didn’t stay in Kanab during this trip because we went back to Page in a giant circle (which we don’t recommend — it was only our poor planning that had us doing so!), but Canyons Boutique Hotel would have been a great choice if we did.

With a 8.9 rating on Booking, spacious rooms, nice décor, and a central location, it’s the best choice in town. Check prices, reviews, and availability here.

Stop Seven: Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon is truly one of the most memorable stops on any Southwest US road trip itinerary. For one, it has its distinctive hoodoos which you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world in such number and scale.

Hoodoos (also called “fairy chimneys”) form when the water from melting snow seeps into the cracks of the rock and freezes overnight. Bit by bit, the cracks expand until large chunks of rock fall away, leaving pillars in their place.

Hoodoos form all over the world, but there are thousands of them at Bryce Canyon, partly because the elevation is so high (around 8,000 feet!) that the melt-freeze cycle happens at least 200 nights per year

We just drove to a few different viewpoints in the park — Natural Bridge, Sunset Point and Inspiration Point — and then did the Navajo Loop Trail, which filled about a half-day in the park.

If you’re looking for a creative yet structured way to spend some time in Bryce Canyon National Park, you can do an ATV ride, a horseback ride through Red Canyon, or join a hiking tour.

Recommended photo spots: Queen’s Garden Trail, Navajo Loop, Inspiration Point, Natural Bridge, and Sunset/Sunrise Points.

Recommended accommodations: Bryce Canyon doesn’t have the most exciting options for accommodations.

We didn’t stay overnight here, as we just visited for a day, but if we had, something simple but comfortable like a Best Western is probably your best bet. Check prices, ratings, and availability. 

Stop Eight: Capitol Reef National Park

On your way to Moab from Bryce, you can take a scenic route passing through Capitol Reef via Highway 12, which I highly recommend.

The least visited of Utah’s staggering five national parks, it’s not quite as epic as Zion or Bryce but it has its own charms. It’s worth a quick stop as you pass through, at the very least.

Recommended photo spots: The cute barns and old schoolhouse on the main road, the Scenic Drive, Panorama Point, Cassidy Arch, Temple of the Moon and Sun, Chimney Rock.

Recommended accommodations: The best — and in my mind, only! — place to stay in Capitol Reef is in the Capitol Reef Resort. They have covered wagons and tipis for a themed stay, as well as standard rooms and cottages for a more traditional hotel experience. Book a stay at the Capitol Reef Resort here.

Extra Stop: On your way between Capitol Reef and Moab, you’ll have the opportunity to stop off at Goblin Valley State Park!

Frankly, we were exhausted and gave it a pass this trip, but it’s definitely on the list for my next Southwest itinerary!

Stop Nine: Moab, Utah (Canyonlands, Dead Horse Point, and Arches)

Ah, Arches National Park. With its famous Delicate Arch which is featured on the Utah license plate, this is one of the most famous national parks in the US, and a must on any Southwest road trip itinerary.

In addition to the Delicate Arch hike, you should also be sure to see the North & South Window arches, the Double Arch, and the Turret Arch.

If you want to dedicate two days to Arches, follow this detailed Arches itinerary which will explain exactly what to do with your time there!

The Devil’s Garden trail was closed when we visited, but you should definitely check it out if possible — it’s supposed to be a stunner.

Also near Moab is the Canyonlands National Park, which I actually preferred to Arches (blasphemy, I know – but I hate crowds). It was super immense, with really colorful rocks and huge canyons, and far fewer people.

There are two entrances to Canyonlands, both of which are quite far from each other.

One is Islands in the Sky, and this is the one that’s closer to Moab (and also Dead Horse Point State Park, another must-see on your Southwest road trip).

The other section, Needles, is rather far away, and suitable if you’re staying longer in Moab.

We didn’t get a chance to visit Needles on this trip, but we weren’t disappointed with the taste of Canyonlands we got at Islands in the Sky — not at all.

Other spots you can’t miss in the Moab area include Dead Horse Point State Park, a place much more beautiful than the name suggests!

It’s right on the way from Canyonlands – Island in the Sky, so it’s a good idea to go there for sunset after visiting Canyonlands in the late afternoon.

Here, the Colorado River winds and rips its way through a valley, like a combination of the Grand Canyon and Horseshoe Bend all in one.

It’s absolutely stunning at sunset, although sunrise is supposed to be even better. I never woke up early enough to see for myself.

Finally, the Corona Arch is a great sunset spot that’s a bit of a hidden gem compared to the crowds you’ll find around Dead Horse Point and Arches.

Make sure you arrive there with about an hour to spare, as the hike is one hour on a not super well-marked path, and make sure you leave before it gets too dark!

We missed the sunset by at least a half-hour and ended up walking back in the dark because we didn’t give ourselves enough time for this hike (#travelbloggerfail) but we at least made it in time for some super pretty cloud action!

Bring a headlamp if you do this hike, trust me — it’s not fun navigating back in the dark with just your cell-phone as a light source.

There are some other great things you can do in Moab if you have the time — as if having two national parks and a state park in your backyard isn’t enough choice!

For an adventure rush, go rafting on either class I and II rapids or III and IV rapids on the Colorado River or hit the ominously-named Hell’s Revenge ATV trail which crisscrosses a rugged terrain in ATVs until you hit the Colorado River.

Book a rafting tour (class I & II), a tougher white water rafting tour (class III & IV) or an ATV tour!

Not into heart-stopping adventure? There are also more leisurely ways to relax in Moab, such as taking a 3-hour jet boat cruise to Dead Horse Point State Park along a peaceful stretch of the Colorado River, checking out side canyons and marveling at the canyon walls which reach 2,200 feet above your head.

Alternately, if you need some R&R after several long days of driving and adventuring, there are tons of great spas in Moab catering to soothing tired and aching muscles! Sorrel River Ranch and Spa Moab are two great choices.

Recommended photo spots: Mesa Arch (sunrise is supposed to be fantastic as the sun will rise directly through the arch!) in Canyonlands NP as well as the scenic drive pulling over at the various viewpoints, Delicate Arch and the other arches (North & South Window, Double, Turret) in Arches NP.

Outside of these national parks, be sure to also visit Dead Horse Point State Park (please don’t miss this!!), and Corona Arch. Be sure to give yourself enough time in Moab, it’s stunning! At least 3 days is a good start.

Recommended accommodations: Moab is a bit expensive compared to other places on the Southwest itinerary. If you are looking for a decent but budget-friendly place, book well in advance as the best-priced places book up quickly.

For people on a budget, I’d suggest the Aarchway Inn is just a tiny bit outside of Moab and has gorgeous settings with that classic Utah red rock all around, a lovely swimming pool, and well-appointed rooms. Check out rates, reviews, and availability here.

If you want a world-class stay, try glamping! Under Canvas Moab knocks it out of the park in terms of comfort, style, and entertainment, and is frequently cited as one of the best glamping lodges in the entire United States.

Book your stay at Under Canvas Moab here!

Stop Ten: Zion National Park

I recommended skipping Zion initially and saving it for the end because it’s probably one of the most epic national parks in all of the United States, and you’ll want a cool place to stop on the long drive between Moab and Las Vegas.

It’s a great way to end your Southwest road trip with something memorable, and it’s a great stopover on the way between Moab and Vegas.

If you’re at all into hiking, the Angels Landing hike is truly a can’t-miss experience.

Climbing up 1,500 feet over a grueling two hour hike (the last half mile of which is up rocks, which you have to use chain handrails to ascend) is not easy — but no epic view really is.

I feel compelled to leave an important safety note about this photo.

Angles are deceiving – there was a larger chunk of the rock edge beneath me which is obfuscated a bit by the high camera angle of this shot. I scooted around while maintaining at least 3 points of contact at all times to be safe. I never stood close to the edge, only scooted on hands and knees.

Still, I posed for this photo 3 years ago — after seeing so many articles in the last few years about selfie deaths, I wouldn’t pose the same way now, but I’d choose to leave a few feet more room between myself and the first edge.

Please be careful when posing on Angels Landing and never do anything you don’t feel comfortable with, especially in pursuit of a good picture! You will likely be exhausted from the hike in the heat, so you won’t have the best balance or judgment. Be cautious and respect your body’s limits. Always be on the safe side.

If you have more time, be sure to check out The Narrows, a hike that can take up to a full day wading through water through a beautiful slot canyon. You can also opt to do a shorter hike and turn around before the endpoint.

We didn’t have time for this, as we were flying out of Vegas later that evening, but it’s on my bucket list for my return to Zion. There are some other shorter hikes in Zion that are also fantastic if you’re too afraid of heights to take on Angels Landing.

Recommended photo spots: the top of Angel’s Landing OR Observation Point (higher and harder hike), Emerald Pools, Watchman, the Narrows

Recommended accommodations: We stayed about 45 minutes outside of the East Ranger Station at Zion Backcountry Yurt, with insane views of the Milky Way surrounding us. Book way in advance on Airbnb (you can find it here).  

It’s also common to stay by the West Ranger Station, close to Springdale, but expect to pay a pretty penny for the privilege. The best combination of proximity, value, and high-quality amenities is at Driftwood Lodge about a mile outside the center of Springdale. Check prices, reviews, and availability here.

After Zion, head back to Vegas, return your rental, and marvel at all your photos from the trip of a lifetime!

IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t forget to travel with travel insurance, especially on a trip involving lots of driving and hiking! You want to be covered in case of an accident or medical emergency. I use and highly recommend World Nomads for their easy purchasing, extensive coverage, and low prices. Get your free quote here.

What to Pack for a Southwest Road Trip

Not sure how to handle packing for a long road trip? I have a full guide to how to pack for a road trip, but I’ll briefly go over the essentials here!

Essentials

Car documents and license: This should be rather obvious, but you’ll need your license, car documentation, and insurance papers (both car insurance and travel insurance) ready for any road trip you take.

Travel insurance: If your road trip includes going to another state or country where you are not insured locally, you may need travel insurance in order to cover you in case of an incident. I use and recommend World Nomads.

Roadside emergency kit: If traveling with your own car, you should already have one of these kits, including (but not limited to) a reflective triangle, rain poncho and emergency blanket, safety vest and whistle, etc. If renting a car, ask if they provide one and if not, bring your own roadside emergency kit that also includes a first aid kit.

Spare tire & tire changing kit: Having a spare tire isn’t much good if you don’t have a jack or kit to change out the tire. Make sure your tire changing kit is complete (or buy your tire changing kit before you head out), and make sure you know how to use it!

Flashlight or headlamp: In case you get somewhere poorly lit after dark, have an emergency in the night, or just go on a sunset hike and need to light your way back, a flashlight or headlamp is key (and make sure to bring some extra batteries, too!) I suggest a rechargeable headlamp like this — it’s a great travel must-have that I find myself using more often than I’d expect.

Car charger and phone mount: Navigating, picking tunes, taking photos: your phone battery goes fast on a road trip, so don’t forget a car charger. I like this dual purpose phone mount and charger! Don’t forget any and all USB cords you might need to for your charging needs!

A road trip playlist: I’d argue this is as essential as anything else on this list! Make sure you download it before you go so that you’re not dependent on data, as a few stretches of this Southwest road trip do go through service deserts.

Hygiene and Safety

Alcohol wipes: Be sure to bring some Lysol or alcohol wipes. These are hard to find currently in the current context, so I’d suggest buying alcohol prep pads, as these seem to be the safest source of 70% isopropyl alcohol wipes. Be a decent person and only buy one box. Do not hoard anything — these alcohol wipes are needed by many people with chronic health conditions such as diabetics. One box will more than suit your needs.

NOTE: Use alcohol wipes or prep pads ONLY on high-touch surfaces as needed and not excessively — soap and water should be your primary line of cleaning and defense. Only use these when not otherwise possible, such as when at a gas station or using a touchpad at an ATM or grocery store.

Hand sanitizer: Sources of hand sanitizer and soap cannot always be guaranteed, and there may be times where it is difficult or less safe to go to a public restroom. It’s better to try to source hand sanitizer in a store from a trusted brand, but in the absence of that being possible, this brand available online looks to be safe, FDA-approved, and with a high-enough level of ethyl alcohol to be safe.

Spare liquid soap: Liquid or bar soap should be chosen over hand sanitizer whenever you have access to water. It’s safer and easier to get ahold of proper soap. Some gas stations, park bathrooms, etc. may not be well-attended, so bring some spare liquid soap with a locking top or a bar of soap in a Ziploc baggie just in case. Be sure to wash your hands for 30-40 seconds, including every part.

Face mask: When in places where distancing is not possible, you will need to wear a face mask to keep yourself and fellow humans safe. I suggest KN94s as opposed to cloth masks when possible, as these offer you (and your fellow humans) the most protection. They’re the Korean equivalent of the N95, and they work quite well. Unfortunately, the N95 is still in short supply and should be reserved for health care workers, unless you’re lucky enough to already have your own personal supply of N95s from a previous need.

Extra water: Be sure to have a few gallons of extra water in your car for emergencies — especially since this road trip through the Southwest covers a lot of harsh desert climates. Whether it’s replacing the water to cool down your engine or emergency drinking water if you’re stranded, it’s a cheap and simple thing to add to your road trip packing list with no downside.

Extras

Snacks: I fully believe the adage “It doesn’t matter how old you get, buying snacks for a road trip should always look like an unsupervised 9-year-old was given $100.” Pro tip: mix salty and sweet — too much of one or the other is a no go. I like having things like KIND bars, trail mix, chips when I need something salty, RXBar protein bars, etc. for my trip

Toilet paper or Kleenex: Good for poorly stocked roadside bathrooms or other emergency needs.

Basic medicines: Any prescription medicine you need, plus motion sickness tablets, ibuprofen/paracetamol, and Pepto-Bismol tablets for upset stomachs.

Rehydration packets: I always pack some rehydration packets with me on my travels as I’m prone to getting dehydrated and getting headaches, and they’re a lifesaver. I recommend these ones.

Travel towel: Great for a quick dip, toweling off after a rain storm, having a spare towel in case of a poorly stocked hotel or Airbnb, a microfiber travel towel is a road trip must pack.

Bug spray: So necessary in the summer months! I love this lemon eucalyptus-based mosquito repellent. If I get any bites, I use this After Bite itch eraser, which instantly soothes mosquito bites.

Sunscreen: Did you know you should always wear sunscreen while driving? The windshield doesn’t protect you against all UV rays — while they protect against UVB rays (which cause sunburn), most do not block UVA rays, which cause aging and skin cancer. This is the sunscreen I use on my face daily, and I use a cheaper basic sunscreen for my skin. No matter your skin tone or race, you need sunscreen!

Lip balm with SPF: I love this key lime-flavored Sun Bum chapstick!

Sunglasses: Bring your favorite sunglasses plus a cheap spare pair as backup — driving without sunglasses = absolute misery.

Travel pillow: If you have someone to divvy up driving duty with, this is a comfortable must-have for kicking back and enjoying your time off! I like this cozy memory-foam travel pillow, because it comes with an eye mask if you want to take a quick nap!

Battery pack: The Anker external battery pack is a travel must. While you can charge your phone while driving, you may want to charge other devices — a camera, someone else’s phone, portable speakers, an e-reader — as well.

Insulated travel mug: A Contigo travel mug is leakproof and pretty much indestructible — and they’re inexpensive to boot. This one is vacuum-insulated and fits standard cupholders easily, great for early morning coffee to power up your road trip. It’ll also be a good thing to bring along on any sunrise hike to keep you warm!

Refillable water bottle: Get a refillable water bottle and either refill it from your extra-large water containers mentioned above or fill up in sinks and fountains along the way. This one is insulated, stainless steel, and convenient to drink from

Day pack: This Osprey day pack is a perfect size. Plus, it’s designed by a company that specializes in ergonomic solutions for backpackers and multi-day trekkers, so you know it’ll be comfortable.

Camera: For years, I’ve relied on my Sony A6000 to take nearly-professional quality images, and the photos you see in this post were almost exclusively taken on this camera! I truly believe this camera is the perfect middle-ground above a smartphone yet below the 5-figure kits that most photographers use. Don’t forget extra memory cards – I only use 64GB Sandisk memory cards.

Toiletries

Wet wipes: These biodegradable wet wipes are easy on the environment and your skin, with aloe vera and Vitamin E.

Vaseline: For fixing flyaway hairs to helping chapped or burned lips to soothing hands or chub-rubbed thighs (ladies, if you know, you know)… I always make sure I travel with Vaseline!

Haircare: Whatever you need to travel with. I just bring a brush and hair ties and shampoo, but your hair needs may be different than mine!

Other basic toiletries: Body wash, shampoo, conditioner, razor, shaving cream, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste, face wash, any sort of face cleansing or anti-acne products, moisturizer, body lotion, makeup, etc.

Clothing

Hiking Clothes: Depending on the time of year you do this Southwest road trip, you’ll want to bring either shorts or leggings, long-sleeve or short-sleeve hiking clothes.

Jeans and Ts: Good for non-hiking days and just basic walking-around-town days.

Comfortable hiking shoes: Absolutely necessary for tougher hikes and strongly recommended for even shorter hikes like Angel’s Landing. While tennis shoes may work, hiking shoes are safer.

Sandals: Great for being able to kick them on and off in the car and suitable for shorter walks to observation points, overlooks, etc. I use Birkenstocks.

Rain jacket: It does rain even in the desert! I love the Marmot PreCip rain jacket (there’s a women’s version and a men’s version) and I actually used mine twice on my Southwest road trip.

Dress up clothes: In case you want to have a few nice meals out, you’ll want to bring some nicer clothes as well.

Road Trip to Alaska: Top Sights Along the Alaska “Alcan” Highway

The Alaska Highway, or Alcan, is often listed as one of the ultimate North American road trip routes. We couldn’t agree more!

With winding mountain roads cutting through the remote reaches of British Columbia and Canada’s wild Yukon, this 1,390-mile scenic highway takes travelers all the way to beautiful Alaska. This road trip is unlike any other you’ve experienced before!

Quick Note: Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the border between the U.S. and Canada is currently closed to non-essential travel. While some Americans are permitted to travel on the Alaska Highway, you must have a legal, valid reason to do so. You must also follow all the laws of Canada while you transit through the country. Tourism and sightseeing is not a valid reason for travel, and this post is strictly meant for post-pandemic travel plans.

Please read this helpful page from the Canadian government website if you are planning to travel between the continental U.S. and Alaska via Canada to ensure you follow all laws.

An American and a Canadian flag side by side next to barren fields and a deep blue lake while driving the Alcan Highway road trip to Alaska

Originally built during World War II to connect Alaska with the contiguous United States, the Alaska Highway has seen drastic improvements since it’s opening in the 1940s.

No longer a treacherous dirt road, it’s paved and ready for your modern-day road-tripping rig!

This scenic highway begins in the town of Dawson Creek, British Columbia. With a population of about 13,000 people, Dawson Creek will be one of the larger towns on your route.

Load up on groceries and fuel, check over your road trip packing list, because you’re in it for the long haul!

Road Trip to Alaska: Alcan Highway Itinerary

Stop One: Dawson Creek (Mile 0)

Sign with three flags reading "You are now entering the World Famous Alaska Highway Dawson Creek BC"

Welcome to Dawson Creek, where your adventure officially begins! Brush up on the famous route’s history at the Alaska Highway House Interpretive Center.

Here, you can watch an educational film about the highway’s construction and explore some of the equipment used in the rigorous building process. This was no small project!

If you’re planning to spend multiple days in Dawson Creek, you’ll have plenty of time to take a trip over to the Kiskatinaw Bridge. Check out this bridge’s quality craftsmanship.

Built during the construction of the Alaska Highway, the Kiskatinaw Bridge was the first curved wooden bridge in Canada and is one of few that remain intact today.

Ready to hit the road? Dawson Creek features a fun sign marking the start of the Alaska Highway. This marker makes a great photo opp to commemorate the beginning of your road trip.

Let the journey begin!

Stop Two: Charlie Lake (Mile 52)

Logs and trees on the shore of a lake, which is still and mirroring the clouds above it.

The first scenic stop along the Alaska Highway is Charlie Lake. This magnificent lake sits right next to the road and is a convenient pull off to enjoy the views.

Don’t be shy, go take a closer look! There are two wonderful parks along the lake’s shore, Charlie Lake Provincial Park and Beatton Provincial Park.

Charlie Lake Provincial Park, on the west shore of the lake, offers some short scenic hiking trails, a boat launch, and a campground with full hookups.

Stretch your legs, take some memorable photos, and relax by the water!

Stop Three: Muncho Lake (Mile 462)

Jade green waters surrounded by some leaves and greenery with mountains and clouds in the distance on a road trip to Alaska

This next lake is definitely a sight to see while you road trip to Alaska!

Similar to Charlie Lake, you can’t miss this one because the Alaska Highway runs right along its eastern shore! Muncho Lake is a jaw-dropping jade-color. No filter needed!

With a backdrop of towering mountains and pristine wilderness, you’ll want to stay here for days, which is actually possible if you snag a camp spot.

Strawberry Flats Campground in Muncho Lake Provincial Park is a great place to spend a night or two. Most of the campsites here even offer direct access to the lake for fishing and the ultimate sunset viewpoint. You can’t beat that!

While you’re here, take a hike on one of the area’s awesome trails. The 3-mile Stone’s Sheep Trail offers hikers an epic view of Muncho Lake and the surrounding landscape. Be on the lookout: there’s always a possibility to see stone sheep and caribou!

Stop Four: Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park (Mile 496)

Woman with short brown hair in a colorful bathing suit in turquoise water at a hot spring in Canada surrounded by green grass and trees.

Bathing suit? Check. Towel? Check.

You’re ready to soak and relax at Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park.

As the second largest natural hot springs in Canada, there’s no wonder why this remote paradise is on so many traveler’s bucket lists! It’s a wildly spacious pool for soaking, but it’s also right in the middle of an incredibly beautiful boreal forest.

Make your way from the parking area to the hot springs using the boardwalk trail. You’ll feel like you’ve entered into a fairytale!

The Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park has a campground for those wishing to spend the night. Keep in mind, the sites tend to fill up quickly, so plan to arrive in the morning!

Stop Five: The Sign Post Forest (Mile 635)

Sign which reads "Sign Post Forest" surrounded by lots of signs from all over the world along the AlCan Highway

Looking for a sign? Well… Here’s over 77,000 of them!

Make a stop to walk through Watson Lake’s most popular attraction: the Sign Post Forest.

It’s encouraged to bring a legally obtained sign representing the town you’re visiting from! Make your mark on the growing forest and add to one of the posts.

This interesting tradition was founded by a soldier who decided to mark the distance to his hometown while working on the construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942. It’s said that he was homesick for his small Illinois town.

Interested in learning more about the history of The Sign Post Forest? The Alaska Highway Interpretive Centre is only a 5-minute walk away!

Stop Six: Whitehorse, Yukon (Mile 872)

Welcome to Whitehorse, the capital of Canada’s Yukon territory!

With a population of around 25,000 people, this is the largest town you’ve seen in a while. Whitehorse maintains a small-town vibe with friendly locals and rich history.

There’s a lot of fun activities to do in Whitehorse, and it’s often recommended that Alaska Highway travelers spend multiple days here.

Witness the Northern Lights

Green Northern lights above the lights of the town of Whitehorse, Yukon in Canada along the AlCan Highway

This spectacular light show is most commonly viewed in the wintertime, but it can make appearances during late summer and fall when the days begin to grow shorter. 

To see the Northern Lights, you’ll have to take a drive out of town to escape any bit of light pollution. The darker the better! Bring some hot chocolate and camp chairs to enjoy your evening under the stars.

Walk Under the Midnight Sun

For those visiting in midsummer, you may be able to experience the midnight sun.

Long summer days have a whole new meaning when you travel this far north!

Hike in Miles Canyon

Brilliant turquoise water on the Yukon River, surrounded by rocks and green trees

Explore along the Yukon River, and wander through the area’s most magnificent natural feature.

Here, you will see how the river’s powerful flows wore through the basaltic lava rock to form Miles Canyon.

Takhini Hot Pools

Another soak? Yes, please!

The beautiful outdoor pool at Takhini Hot Springs is the perfect place to relax for the day.

If you’re searching for a place to stay the night, there’s a nice campground with full hookups and a welcoming hostel right on location.

Explore the Local History

Become immersed in Yukon history at the MacBride Museum’s downtown location. Connect with the groundbreaking events that founded today’s modern Yukon and the people who originally inhabited the rugged landscape.

For some more on the mining history, the MacBride Copperbelt Mining Museum offers a fun and interactive interpretive experience. A great excursion for all ages!

There’s still more to discover! Visit the S.S. Klondike National Historic Site, and check out the fully restored riverboat. Before modern roads, riverboats connected the area to the outside world.

Stop Seven: Kluane National Park and Reserve (Mile 1,016)

Ice fields in Canada surrounded by tall mountains covered in green and orange foliage and grass.

After an exciting stay in Whitehorse, it’s back on the road toward Haines Junction.

Calling all mountain lovers! From Haines Junction, outdoor enthusiasts are urged to stop by Kluane National Park and Reserve.

Home to the largest non-polar ice fields in the world as well as Canada’s tallest mountain, Mount Logan, this park is a dream for mountaineers and front country users alike. Just from the road, visitors can view wildlife and the towering peaks of the Icefield Range.

Looking for a short hike to get your steps in? Head out on an easy ½ mile hike along the Soldier’s Summit Trail to witness the site of the Alaska Highway’s official opening.

For those looking to spend the night, the campground at Kathleen Lake offers tremendous views, and it’s a great basecamp for area hiking. Many people choose to spend multiple nights here because of the vast outdoor recreation opportunities!

As you explore Kluane, keep on the lookout for grizzly bears, black bears, Dall sheep, wolves, and mountain goats!

Stop Eight: Destruction Bay (Mile 1,083)

Soft blue water against beige sand in a bay in Canada, with larger hills in the distance and lots of cloud.

Wondering how this sweet little community along the Alaska Highway earned such an ominous name?

After a severe storm destroyed materials and buildings during the route’s construction, the name Destruction Bay seemed appropriate!

At the northern tip of Kluane Lake, Destruction Bay makes for a great place to pull off the highway and take in the views.

For those who have been fishing along the drive, Kluane Lake is a great place to put that license to use! Cast a line into the icy cold waters for a chance to catch one of the legendary monster trout.

Stop Eight: Delta Junction (Mile 1,390)

A family of three moose -- a mother and two babies -- crossing the road of the AlCan Highway with some pink flowers on the side of the road.

It’s the end of the road but the beginning of your next adventure.

From the end of the Alaska Highway in Delta Junction, AK, you now have to decide whether you will head north towards Fairbanks to explore the wild landscape of Denali National Park or make your way towards the coast in Anchorage.

Wherever you end up next, we know that adventure waits for you there!

Pin This Guide to Road Tripping to Alaska Along the Alcan Highway!

The Perfect 10 Day Montana Road Trip Itinerary (+ Optional Wyoming Stops)

With a host of mountain trails, trout streams, and downtown art scenes, a Montana road trip should be next up on your USA bucket list.

The state is home to several national parks, including Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and Glacier National Park.

This road trip also offers drivable access to the northern entrance of Yellowstone National Park in neighboring Wyoming should you want to extend your trip to be both a Montana and Wyoming road trip!

Are you ready for one of the best road trips in the USA? Let’s get going: here’s all you need to know to plan the best Montana road trip.

PLANNING FOR MONTANA AT A GLANCE: 

When to Go: There is no doubt you can visit Montana any time of the year but if your road trip involves visiting Glacier National Park (which it should as it's one of the state's highlights), then the best time to visit is in summer. This is because most roads and lodges in Glacier National Park close in winter due to snow and it doesn't make sense to visit Montana and skip GNP.

Where to Stay: For this itinerary, you'll have sleepovers in Billings, Bozeman, Bigsky& Yellowstone, Missoula, and Whitefish & Glacier National Park.

For your first sleepover in Billings, I recommend staying at Northern Hotel, a charming historic hotel with a touch of luxury. And while in Bozeman, I recommend staying at Kimpton Armory Hotel, a chic boutique hotel.

Missoula might not be a popular overnight stay area but if it makes sense for your road trip, then you can spend the night at Blossom’s Bed & Breakfast.

And for your adventures in Whitefish & Glacier National Park, I recommend staying at The FarmHouse Inn, a quaint B&B or Firebrand Hotel if you want to stay in the middle of everything.

How to Get Around: You're definitely going to need a car while road tripping Montana otherwise you'll have to spend a lot of money on private tours. In that case, you can compare car rentals and prices from here if you don't know where to rent one from.  Alternately, you can rent an RV or campervan via RVShare and save on accommodations. 

Best Activities: Don't want to drive or plan? Booking a few different activities can help you eliminate the need for driving around. You can book a Bighorn Canyon cruise, whitewater rafting experience, or river floating experience in Glacier National Park, or this 2-day Yellowstone guided tour if you choose to extend your Montana road trip to Wyoming. 

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack:  A sturdy pair of hiking boots will serve you well -- I love my Ahnu boots. A dual purpose phone mount and charger will come in very handy and you'll be happy to have a roadside emergency kit should your car break down while road tripping.

Road trip pro tip: Purchase an annual pass (AKA the America the Beautiful Pass) to save money on the entrance fees for the multiple locations in this itinerary run by the NPS!

How this Montana Road Trip Itinerary Works

An overcast day in Glacier National Park, turquoise water next to melting snow, surrounded by evergreen trees and mountains with little snow.

This Montana road trip is designed for people who don’t mind a few longer days of driving, but are truly all about the sights and hikes that this beautiful state has to offer!

Personally, I don’t like staying in a new place every single night, so I try to break the itinerary up a bit so that you have a few multi-night stays — typically 2 nights, occasionally 1 night or 3 nights in the case of Glacier National Park and Whitefish at the end.

Breaking up this Montana road trip with longer overnight stays in a place helps you get to really know each destination on this trip rather than just passing through in a car as fast as possible and ticking off the “main sights”, as many other road trips have you do!

I want this road trip through Montana (and Wyoming, if you wish!) to mix as much sightseeing as possible with a leisurely pace… so you don’t end up needing a vacation from your vacation!

There are a few places on this Montana road trip where you can “choose your own adventure” so to speak. When you stay in Big Sky, I give you the option to make a side trip to Yellowstone National Park. And of course, you could also visit Grand Teton National Park while you’re in Yellowstone, and extend the stay a little there, making this more of a 2 week Montana road trip than a 10 day one.

However, since you probably got here by searching for “Montana road trip”, this post is going to focus on the best places to stop on a road trip through Montana. However, I will note when a quick side trip or detour into another state would be a good idea, in case you are hoping to visit a bit of Wyoming as well on this road trip!

The Best Time of Year for a Montana Road Trip

Pink wildflowers blooming in an alpine meadow in a valley between peaks in Glacier National Park, a Montana road trip itinerary must-see!

Let me start off by saying that while the best time to visit Montana is really any time, the best time to road trip Montana is a little different: especially if you have Glacier National Park on your Montana itinerary!

While of course, you can visit Glacier National Park in the winter (and it’s beautiful and worthwhile!), many of the roads are closed which makes the whole ‘road tripping’ part a little more complicated.

Due to the high elevation of Glacier National Park (the highest part of the park, Logan Pass, is located at 6,646 feet above sea level!) and northern location near the border of Canada, heavy snow sets in rather early in Glacier National Park.

As a result, this road trip through Montana is at its best in the middle of the summer: think July or August.

This is when you’ll enjoy the best weather with a limited impact of snow (though a few trails in Glacier National Park may still have some patches of snow — it is Glacier National Park, after all!).

Early September is also a good time to visit Montana. There is no fixed date to when the roads and lodges close, but the later you get into September, the more you risk not being able to see as much of the park as you wish.

So, for that reason, I’d say late August is perhaps the best time to start this 10 day Montana road trip: that way, you end up in Glacier National Park right at the beginning of September, with little chance of closures interrupting your road trip plan.

Flying Into Montana

An airplane connected to a jet bridge with the mountains in the background as seen at a Montana airport

Flights are typically best through Billings or Bozeman. However, Missoula and Kalispell are worth looking into. 

Booking one-way flights from different cities versus a roundtrip might make sense if you need to save some time on the road. The state is large and there is a lot of ground to cover!

Year-round flights into Billings are offered from larger hubs including Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Las Vegas, Dallas and Phoenix.

Chances are you one layover away from the start of your trip. Seasonal direct flights are also available from Chicago and LAX.

We’ll assume you are flying into Billings for this Montana road trip itinerary as it is the most common arrival hub, but you may need to reorganize this itinerary if that is not the case.

Luckily, this Montana road trip goes in a circle once you leave Billings, so it’s pretty easy to adapt to your needs if your flight booking means you need to rejig the itinerary.

If you’re not flying into Billings, you may decide to skip it, as it’s a bit out of the way compared to the rest of the itinerary, and spend more time along the loop we detail in days 3-8 of these 10 days in Montana itinerary.

Renting a Car

A blurry red car driving past a landscape road tripping in Montana's Glacier National Park

If you’re flying into Montana for a road trip, you’re definitely going to need a car!

The best prices can be found by picking up and dropping off at the same pickup point, which will likely be Billings.

Keep in mind, though, that this means a 6-hour straight drive from the last point on this 10 day Montana road trip itinerary, Glacier National Park, back to Billings.

If that sounds tiring to you, you may want to look into one-way rentals between Billings and Kalispell, the nearest airport to Glacier National Park. It will almost certainly cost more, but it may be a whole lot more convenient.

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on RentalCars as the best site to rent with in the USA – it searches dozens of rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare car rentals for your trip here!

Montana Road Trip Map

Day 1-2 of Your Montana Road Trip: Billings

Welcome to Billings!

Since you’ll be driving a lot on this Montana road trip itinerary, we’ll get you out onto the hiking trails to stretch your legs as much as possible between each Montana road trip stop.

Take a Hike

View from rocks and trees above the city of Billings from a local hike around sunset

From Billings, several day hikes are within a quick drive from downtown. Moderate hikes include Phipps Park and Skyline Trails — pick one or the other to start your Montana itinerary.

The Skyline Trail

If you want to hit the trails pretty much as soon as you hit the road, about a 5-7 minute drive west from Billings Logan airport is the Skyline Trail. It is an easy 1.7-mile loop around the ridge of Zimmerman Park.

With sweeping views of the city below (and Bighorn, Pryor, and Beartooth Mountains in the distance) it’s a quick way to get your directional bearings before further exploring Billings. The trail is rated as easy, but take good hiking shoes and be prepared for a slight scramble.

City partnerships are currently in the fundraising process to build out a paved multi-use Skyline Trail extending for 7 miles between Zimmerman and Swords Parks.

Check in on the trail status before your trip, as you might be able to tack on a longer bike ride as trail sections are completed!

The Phipps Park Trail

Clocking in at a slightly longer 2.5-mile loop, Phipps Park Trail is located farther west from town and offers similar views of Billings. The trailhead parking is just past the Yellowstone Country Club off Rimrock Road and about 20 minutes or 10 miles from downtown.

Most of the trail’s 450 foot elevation gain is tackled in the first mile, and the shared trail is also good for running and mountain biking. If walking, plan for about 1.5 hours.

Bighorn Canyon

A Grand Canyon looking landscape with rocks with red, orange, and yellow tones creating a large canyon.

For longer, more difficult hikes head to Bighorn Canyon for the day. Located 1.5 hours from Billings, the national recreation area is a great spot for hiking around, or watersports on, Bighorn Lake.

The lake extends nearly 60 miles from Montana into Wyoming with the majority of the area in the Bighorn Canyon. The area is vast, over 70,000 acres, so checking in at the Fort Smith Visitor Center will give you the best information for the day.

One of the best ways to explore Bighorn Canyon without the hike is by taking a two-hour scenic boat tour of the canyon, learning about America’s third-largest canyon and its importance to the Native American people who have lived in this area for centuries, narrated by an expert guide.

Book your Bighorn Canyon cruise here!

You can also try your hand at fly fishing below the Yellowtail Dam or hit trail sections like Sullivan’s Knob Trail (easy at 0.8 miles), Upper Layout Creek (moderate at 1.8 mile), or Medicine Creek and South Pasture Loop (hard at 11.6 miles).

Check Into Your Hotel

The landscape of downtown Billings, Montana: buildings against greenery and plateaus

Since this Montana road trip itinerary places you in Billings overnight, we recommend you check into the Northern Hotel.

Dubbed as “unpretentious historic luxury”, the Northern’s renovated guest rooms feature warm, contemporary interiors, and a central location to the best drink and fare downtown.

Though the hotel’s restaurants serve up good food, plan to branch out and explore for dinner instead — the dining scene in Billings is too good to miss!

>>> Book a room at the Northern <<<

Enjoy the Brews

A benefit of staying downtown is walking from your hotel straight onto the Billings Brew Trail, Montana’s only walkable brewery trail.

The 1.5-mile self-guided tour covers the heart of historic downtown while mixing your choice of six breweries, two distilleries, and one cider house.

Favorites include Uberbrew and Montana Brewing Company, the state’s first brew pub.

Day 3-4 of your Montana Road Trip: Bozeman

Bozeman in the early fall, orange-pink college buildings surrounded by green and orange trees.

Bozeman will be your next stop from Billings.

At 2 hours due west on I-90, Bozeman has a college town vibe with growing art, music, and food scenes. It also serves as a launching point to the Gallatin River and Big Sky.

Whether passing through or staying the night, the best restaurants are centrally located downtown near the Montana State University campus.

I also have a full guide to visiting Bozeman in case you need more inspiration!

Check Into Your Digs

Architecture in downtown Bozeman, a hotel made of brick with a fire escape and distinctive arched windows

There are several chain hotel options to choose from, but your best lodging choice is the Kimpton Armory.

The Kimpton Armory Hotel has been renovated from its National Guard roots to restore its Art Deco design and new, comfy communal spaces set it apart from bland chain hotels in Bozeman.

It’s a lovely chic and central place to stay the night in Bozeman!

>> Book a room at the Kimpton Armory on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com <<

If you’re on a budget, Airbnb is your best bet.

Look for a location a few blocks north or south of W. Main Street. The neighborhoods here have a quaint, just-off-campus feel, with a short walk to the center of all Bozeman action.

Stroll the Downtown

A bunch of landscaped flowers in front of a large house in downtown Bozeman.

In fact, just strolling through the downtown and near campus neighborhoods is well worth it, especially with a cup of coffee.

Go-to coffee shops are Wild Joe’s Coffee or Treeline Roasting Room. Lean towards Wild Joe’s if you need some food alongside your latte.

Hit the Trails with a Picnic Lunch

A grassy creek or river landscape with mountains in the distance.

There are several hiking options near town, primarily to the north in the foothills of the Gallatin National Forest or south towards Big Sky.

Whichever direction you head, grab a lunch to go from the Bozeman Co-op. The local co-op grocer is near the above coffee stops on W. Main.

The Storm Castle Peak Trail

Storm Castle Peak Trail is located 25 miles south of Bozeman, with access from the Gallatin Road. This is the road that eventually leads into Big Sky so the peak hike is an easy stop on the way out of town.

Storm Castle is 4.6-mile out-and-back trail that rewards hikers with worthy views. Be prepared for an elevation gain of just under 2,000 feet, but with several accommodating and manageable switchbacks.

Bozeman Creek Trail

Also due south of Bozeman (but not on the way to Big Sky) is Bozeman Creek Trail. The 16-mile out-and-back trail is moderately rated with a turnaround point at Mystic Lake in the Custer Gallatin National Forest.

Elevation gain totals nearly 1,800 feet, and it is a popular dog-friendly trail. Despite the noted elevation gain, most visitors report the hike feels a bit steeper. Time your trip during wildflower season for the best experience!

Drinking Horse Mountain Trail & M Trail

Shadowy hills and mountains with lots of evergreen trees and yellow grass in the summer on a sunny day

If wide open mountain meadow trails are more your cup of tea, plan to hike north of town off Highway 86.

There are two trailheads on U.S. Forest Service land near Drinking Horse Mountain. The first, Drinking Horse Mountain Trail, is a short, but steep, 2.1-mile loop best tackled from May through September. Most hikers suggest going counterclockwise.

The second trailhead, located just across Highway 86, is for M Trail, a slightly shorter moderate climb with less elevation gain and views of the valley, city, and mountains to the south.

Enjoy the Culture

Circle back to Bozeman post-hike for music, arts, and dinner. Once again, downtown on W. Main Street is where you should start and stick around.

Several galleries are located on W. Main or one block off, between S. Rouse and N. 3rd Avenue including Visions West Contemporary, Altitude Gallery, and Thomas Nygard Gallery.

Keep an eye out for dinner spots while you gallery hop. South 9th Bistro and Dave’s Sushi are two of the author’s favorites.

Listen to Live Music

The view of the Bozeman skyline at night, with a purplish pink sky just after sunset, with all the buildings lit up for nighttime.

There will likely be a live-music option following dinner if you continue your exploration of W. Main Street. Try Haufbrau House, Rialto, and Live from the Divide (Northeast of Main on Peach Street) for current shows.

One great benefit of a college town is there is likely a good music option regardless of the night of the week!

Day 4-6 of Your Montana Road Trip: Big Sky & Yellowstone

Your next Montana road trip stop, Big Sky, is an hour south of Bozeman along the stunning Gallatin River.

The wide-open views surrounding Bozeman quickly narrow to continuous steep-sided gorge which winds for about 30 miles along Gallatin Road.

There are several U.S. Forest Service designated camping sites, as well as turnoffs for perfect fly fishing spots, if you wish to extend your trip up Gallatin Road awhile longer.

Get Oriented

A rolling highway road leading towards Big Sky Montana mountain resort, grassy fields leading to mountains in the distance.

Big Sky, MT comprises of a base village called Town Center and an upper mountain village connected by a steep 8 mile stretch of road.

In-town transportation is easy as the community boasts a reliable public bus route, complete with bike racks. Be sure to check the current schedule as route times change between seasons.

Relying on bus transportation makes it easy to get into town or up to the resort village and puts less pressure on deciding beforehand which part of town to stay.

The majority of restaurants and shops, including flyfishing and mountain biking outfitters, are located in Town Center. Particularly during summer months, not much will be open at the upper mountain village.

Go for a Mountain Bike Ride

A small river or creek surrounded by grass and a hill covered in pine trees.

Big Sky is the best spot on this Montana road trip for mountain biking at any experience level!

For beginners to intermediate bikers, check out the Mountain to Meadows Trail. The entrance begins at the resort base (upper mountain) near the Ramcharger Chairlift.

A short 10-minute uphill climb is rewarded with a downhill trail for the remainder of the 5-mile ride.  The trail averages 7% grade with a max 35% grade.

The trail ends right behind Gallatin Alpine Sports in Town Center which happens to offer very reasonable daily and weekly bike rentals!

Soothe Your Muscles

New mountain bikers will soon realize a host of ignored muscle groups are used during a ride.

If a yoga session or massage is in order stop, by Santosha Wellness Center in Town Center.

The studio offers a host of vinyasa and ashtanga classes as well as massage methods ranging from Swedish to Cranio-Sacral to Reflexology.

Grab a Bite to Eat

By now you’ve probably worked up quite an appetite — luckily, several delicious eateries can also be found in Town Center.

Favorites include Lotus Pad (Thai), Pinky G’s (Pizzeria), Hungry Moose (Market and Deli), and Blue Moon Bakery.

Hit the Hiking Trails

Lots of rocks in a shallow water pool surrounded by rocky mountains and green grass on an overcast day hiking

Apart from a range of mountain biking trails, Big Sky is also host to several fabulous hiking trails. Two popular outings are Beehive Basin and Cinnamon Mountain.

Beehive Basin

Beehive Basin clocks in at 7.1 miles out-and-back and has great views of Lone Mountain (which towers over Big Sky resort).

It includes stops at alpine lakes before the return trek to a convenient parking lot.

Cinnamon Mountain

Cinnamon Mountain is a moderate 8-mile out-and-back trail through a denser pine forest.

Both trails can be muddy after heavy rains and also hold snow in shadier spots, so plan around the weather.

Both hikes entail a consistent, steady climb and easy descent, so they’re great for less experienced hikers.

Take a Day Trip to Yellowstone

The orange and brown striations of Grand Prismatic Hot Spring in yellowstone national park with a steaming center that is bright turquoise blue.

If time for a detour is allotted, a good Montana road trip addition is a drive to Yellowstone National Park.

It’s a one-hour drive from Big Sky to West Yellowstone, which you can use as a jumping-off point for all Yellowstone adventures.

Important Note: If you are visiting Yellowstone in winter, road access is seriously restricted, so you will have to plan for snowcoach transport. Learn more on my guide to visiting Yellowstone in winter.

Day 7 of Your Montana Road Trip: Missoula

The architecture of downtown Missoula, what appears to be a college building

From Big Sky, continue your road trip in Montana towards Missoula.

On this particular Montana road trip itinerary, the city is the ideal afternoon stopping point before heading north to Whitefish and Glacier National Park.

You can stop just for lunch if you’re short on time, but we recommend staying the night.

Missoula is home to the University of Montana and, because of the connection, has a vibrant near-campus Main Street similar to that in Bozeman.

Grab a Lunch or a Hike

A hiking path above Missoula with wild yellow flowers next to the path, the city below, on a partly cloudy day.

Take in a long lunch downtown or pack a to-go snack for a quick hike before continuing on to Whitefish.

If you choose the quick hike option, check out Hellgate Ridgeline on Mount Sentinel. The brief 3-mile out-and-back trail features views of the city, valley, and river.

With a trailhead conveniently located near the campus and downtown, the hike can be easily paired with a quick lunch.

The hike is steep and strenuous but not long. Make it up to the “M”, a student-built Missoula landmark since 1908, or continue on for even better views.

Enjoy the Downtown

A building tower with an American flag on it raised above the tops of green trees on a blue sky cloudless day.

Missoula’s downtown district follows the Clark Fork River and is teaming with unique restaurant options.

Many include outdoor seating with views of the riverfront. Hob Nob, Bernice’s Bakery, Tamarack Brewing, Scotty’s Table, Catalyst Café, and Biga Pizza should spark your interest. 

While downtown, stretch your legs at Caras Park before getting back on I-90.

The park overlooks Brenan’s Wave, Missoula’s manmade wave installation in the Clark Fork River. It is an entertaining spot to watch surfers and kayakers take on a brief rapid.

Consider an Overnight Stay

If staying the night in Missoula makes sense on your personal itinerary, grab a room at the Blossom’s Bed & Breakfast.

Blossom’s B&B is in the Lower Rattlesnake Historic District near downtown. The comfortable rooms give you the sense you are staying at a friend’s or family member’s home.

“Wine down” on the porch with views of Mt. Jumbo. Amenities also include backyard games and guest bikes.

>>> Check out other Missoula hotels here <<<

Day 8-10 of Your Montana Road Trip: Whitefish & Glacier National Park

From Missoula, Whitefish and Glacier National Park are next up on this Montana itinerary, located within a 2.5-3 hour drive through the Flathead National Forest. Much of the drive is uneventful until reaching the shores of Flathead Lake.

The lake spans 27 miles and Highway 35, which follows the lake’s eastern shore, passes several privately-owned cherry orchards.

Many of the orchards operate roadside cherry stands during high season which lasts from June through August.

Check Into Your Whitefish Digs

The shores of Lake Whitefish near Glacier National Park, a popular place to stay for easy park access. The lake is clear with some ripples and a slight reflection of the mountains.

Whitefish is just 30 minutes north of Flathead Lake and your home base for all activities in and around Glacier National Park.

Whitefish is similar to Big Sky in that, while it may be more widely known for its ski resort and winter activities, the area doesn’t lack for summer fun. The town itself is about a 15-minute drive from the resort by way of Whitefish Lake.

The best places to stay in downtown Whitefish include The Firebrand Hotel and The FarmHouse Inn and Kitchen.  

On Lupfer Avenue, The FarmHouse Inn is a quaint B&B comprised of two guest rooms. One sleeps four and the other sleeps two.

It is centrally located and the onsite bakery and café churn out local farm to table meals and Czech pastries. This is your spot for gluten-free options and fresh-pressed juices. Hotel guests can also enjoy the backyard fire pit on cooler evenings.

>>> Book your stay at the FarmHouse Inn here <<<

The Firebrand Hotel sits right in the mix of downtown nightlife on the corner of E. Second Street and Spokane Avenue. The hotel’s vibe mixes urban sophistication with a node to Montana’s rugged Northwest.

Amenities include a rooftop patio and spa along with bicycle rentals in the summer months. The hotel also includes shuttle transportation to Amtrak and their sister property, the Lodge at Whitefish Lake.

>>> Book your stay at the Fireband Hotel here <<<

You may opt for the Lodge at Whitefish Lake if you prefer a quieter setting closer to the water.

The Lodge amenities include a lakeside pool, onsite yoga classes, and quick access to watersports and boat rentals from a private beach.

>>> Book your stay at the Lodge at Whitefish Lake here <<<

Grab a Bite

An aerial view of Whitefish Montana in the autumn with some yellowing trees.

There are several great breakfast, lunch, and dinner options in Whitefish.

Local favorites include Wasabi Sushi Bar, Jersey Boys Pizzeria, Tupelo Grille, and Amazing Crepes.

Head to Glacier National Park

An early morning light on a lake in the middle of mountains in Glacier National Park with a small island with a few trees on it in the middle of the alpine lake.

Whether staying lakeside or in town, access to Glacier National Park is an easy 35 minute drive to the Apgar Visitor Center.

Visitors are encouraged to avoid traffic and minimize impact to our collective natural resources by utilizing the park’s free shuttle service.

Shuttles leave every 15 to 30 minutes from the Apgar Visitor Center and take visitors to all of the best park sites.

Shuttle stops from the Apgar side include Apgar Village, Center, and Campground, Sprague Creek Campground, Lake McDonald Lodge, Avalanche Creek, The Loop, and Logan Pass which serves as the transfer to the east side of the park.

Want more information on Glacier National Park? Read my two-day Glacier National Park itinerary which will lay out exactly how to have the perfect time there.

Go for an Adventurous – or Leisurely! – Rafting Trip

Two rafts ahead on the Flathead River, which is calm, turquoise and surrounded by trees and hills on a sunny day in Glacier National park

One of the most popular things to do in Glacier National Park in summer is to take a rafting trip on the scenic Middle Fork Flathead, which has fun whitewater rafting that’s perfect for rafters looking for an easy to moderate level (class II and III) experience.

Book your whitewater rafting experience!

Of course, whitewater rafting isn’t for everyone, and if you’re in the mood for more sightseeing and relaxing rather than adrenaline-pumping, a lovely float trip on a calmer stretch of the Flathead River is a perfect option for you!

This is better suited for families of all ages, as whitewater rafting can be a little scary for younger kids.

Book your river floating experience here

Hit the Hiking Trails

Glacier National Park has 734 miles of hiking trails and something for all hiking levels, including day and overnight hikes.

Note that overnight hikes require reservations and park permits. Popular day hikes include the Highline Trail (11.4 miles), Avalanche Lake (4.6 miles) and Pitamakan Pass (15.4 miles).

The Highline Trail

View from the Highline Trail over Glacier National Park's glacial mountains and valleys, covered in trees in the middle of summer with very little snow.

The Highline Trail features views of Logan Pass and includes some technical areas of hiking, some which come with the safety of a cable railing.

Highline is one of the best hikes for catching a variety of scenery as you will see alpine meadows, creeks, avalanche ridges, and portions of the Livingston Range. The hike can be made shorter by stopping at Haystack Butte.

However, hikers should press on for views of the Grinnell Glacier. The overlook area for the glacier sits on the Continental Divide. If you chose to bypass the park shuttle, you can still access the trailhead from the Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot.

The Avalanche Lake Trail

A deep teal and turquoise glacial lake, surrounded by pine trees and steep mountains with some waterfalls coming down the sides from snow melt.

Avalanche Lake Trail is a shorter hike with equally breathtaking views. The trail follows Avalanche Creek until meeting with the alpine lake.

Views of waterfalls at the lake’s far end can be seen from the trail. The total elevation gain is an easy 600 feet.

The Pitamaken Pass Trail

If you want to take on a longer hike, shoot for Pitamaken Pass Trail. The hike swaps between forested and meadow trails while passing by Oldman Lake, Sky Lake Waterfall, and finally Cut Bank Basin’s alpine lakes.

You might even come upon bighorn sheep at higher elevations, especially nearing Bighorn Basin. The total elevation gain is a stout 3,300ft.

Trailhead access begins at the campground at Two Medicine by Pray Lake and is preferred as a counterclockwise route.

Grab A Set of Wheels

Sign which reads "West Glacier, MT" against a backdrop of a partly cloudy sky and green trees.

Another popular way to explore Glacier National Park is by bicycle.

Parking is available at Glacier Guides in West Glacier, MT where bike rentals are available.

From there, a 1.5 mile downhill trail takes you to the Apagar Visitor Center where trails continue within the park’s boundary. Access to the park via bicycle is also half the cost of standard admission, so it’s good for cost-conscious travelers!

Feeling a little intimidated to try biking in Glacier National Park all by yourself? This 6-hour guided cycling tour is a great way to see the park by bike without the stress of self-guiding.

Book your cycling tour of Glacier National Park here!

Optional: Tackle Other Hiking Trails

View of the lake of Whitefish with yellow and green pine trees in early autumn.

There are several hiking options outside the park boundary and closer to Whitefish.

Many of the best can be accessed in Whitefish Lake State Park near the Whitefish Mountain Resort base.

If you visit during the summer season, you might be able to jump on the gondola for a one-way trip.

From the resort base, try Journey Mountain (2.8 miles), Big Mountain via Summit Trail (16.1 miles), Danny on National Recreation Trail (7.2 miles), or Gray Wolf Ski Trail (17.9 miles).

Ending Your Montana Road Trip Itinerary: Kalispell or Back to Billings

View of rivers winding amidst yellow and green trees in early autumn in Kalispell, MT, a popular place to end a Montana road trip itinerary.

While some of the more frequent and better-priced flights are found out of Billings and Bozeman, it’s worth checking options in and out of Kalispell.

The city and airport are just 22 minutes south of Whitefish, and you can often find cheap connections to Salt Lake City.

Do a bit of research on one-way rental prices, consider the time (it’s a 6-hour drive back to Billings!), and check the best ways to get to and from Montana.

While we have covered some of the best places the state has to offer, Montana offers still offers so much to explore!

How to Extend This Montana Road Trip

Mountain peaks of the Teton Range reflecting perfectly in still lake water on a sunny day in Grand Teton National park
Continue this Montana road trip to Wyoming to add two more National Parks to your list!

Of course, there are several ways to extend this Montana road trip in order to see even more of this gorgeous part of the United States!

The most natural addition to this Montana road trip is spending a few days exploring Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.

From Big Sky, you can easily head down south to Yellowstone and spend some time in the park. I have a two day Yellowstone itinerary which you can simply insert into this Montana road trip itinerary between days 6 & 7!

If you want to extend your Wyoming explorations even further, overnight (or stay a couple days) in the Jackson Hole area, which is one of the prettiest parts of Wyoming and a perfect midway point between Yellowstone and your next stop, Grand Teton National Park.

I also have a two day Grand Teton National Park itinerary, which you can add after Yellowstone, before heading back up to Missoula. Just note that you may want to stop in Big Sky again on the way up, or you’ll be in for a long driving day (6 hours point-to-point without stopping, traveling via Idaho).

10 Day Montana Road Trip Itinerary at a Glance

An adult white mountain goat and its baby walking in the landscape of Glacier National Park with an alpine lake below and a mountain half-covered in snow, the rest clear of snow.
  • Day 1: Fly into Billings
  • Day 2: Billings
  • Day 3: Bozeman
  • Day 4: Bozeman
  • Day 5: Big Sky
  • Day 6: Big Sky (optional Yellowstone Day trip)
  • Day 7: Missoula
  • Day 8: Whitefish & Glacier NP
  • Day 9: Glacier NP
  • Day 10: Fly out of Kalispell or drive back to Billings

2 Week Montana and Wyoming Road Trip at a Glance

The sunset at Old Faithful, a geyser spouting into the air with the setting sun showing up in a sunburst behind the geyser in Yellowstone National Park
Add a few days to add both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks to your itinerary! I recommend staying in Jackson, WY if you do.
  • Day 1: Fly into Billings
  • Day 2: Billings
  • Day 3: Bozeman
  • Day 4: Bozeman
  • Day 5: Big Sky
  • Day 6: Yellowstone NP
  • Day 7: Yellowstone NP
  • Day 8: Grand Teton NP
  • Day 9: Grand Teton NP
  • Day 10: Missoula
  • Day 11: Whitefish & Glacier NP
  • Day 12: Glacier NP
  • Day 13: Glacier NP
  • Day 14: Fly from Kalispell or return your car in Billings

What to Pack for a Montana Road Trip

A road near Glacier National Park with greenery and some mountains with a bit of snow nearby

I have a full road trip packing list here, but here at the top things you shouldn’t forget!

Road Trip Essentials

Roadside emergency kit

You should already have an emergency kit in your car with things like a reflective triangle, rain poncho, emergency blanket, safety vest, safety whistle, etc. in case of an emergency.

But if you are renting a car and aren’t sure it’ll have the full emergency kit, now is a good time to invest in a roadside emergency kit that also includes a first aid kit.

Car charger & hands-free phone holder

You will zap your phone battery FAST while on a road trip, so it’s essential to have a car charger.

I like this dual purpose phone mount and charger!

Of course, it’s pretty hard to connect your phone and charge it and do all sorts of other necessary 21st-century things without USB cords.

Bring 1 or 2 more than you need, it’s always a good idea!

External batteries

The Anker external battery pack is a travel must. While you can charge your phone while driving, you may want to charge other devices — a camera, a drone, portable speakers, an e-reader — as well.

Or if you notice your battery is running low while you’re out hiking or sightseeing, you can just start charging right away without having to return to your car. It holds several charges on a single battery pack and will last days at a time.

Face mask, alcohol wipes & sanitizing gel

When in places where distancing is not possible, you will need to wear a face mask to keep yourself and fellow humans safe.

Bring multiple cloth face masks and circulate them, allowing face masks ample time in the sun when possible (such as leaving them on your dashboard) or washing them in between uses in order to sanitize the masks.

You should also bring alcohol wipes or sanitizing gel in case you aren’t close to a place where you can wash your hands.

Rehydration packets

Long hikes, lack of schedule, random meal times, salty snacks, sunny days, hangovers from wine nights after driving duty is done: there are many reasons it’s easy to get dehydrated while road tripping.

I always pack some rehydration packets with me on my travels as I’m prone to getting dehydrated and getting headaches, and they’re a lifesaver. I recommend these ones.

Camera & extra batteries

For all my years of running this travel blog, I’ve relied on my Sony A6000 to take nearly-professional quality images. I don’t sell my photography, but I do love having wonderfully preserved memories, and this camera is the perfect middle-ground above a smartphone yet below the 5-figure kits that most photographers give.

Whatever camera you choose, be sure to have plenty of extra batteries and the battery charger as well — plus extra memory cards! I rely exclusively on 64GB Sandisk memory cards.

Clothing & Hiking Essentials

A woman in the Montana wilderness wearing shorts, hiking boots, and a day pack with her hair in a ponytail on a summery day.

Comfortable clothing

When road tripping, think loose clothing that’s easily breathable which transition from car to outside easily.

For women, I suggest the following at a minimum for car/outdoor comfort:

  • yoga pants or leggings
  • jeans
  • hiking shorts
  • T-shirts
  • sports bras
  • hiking boots
  • sneakers
  • flipflops
  • warm sweaters

You’ll also want to bring layers like a jacket for any needed warmth, depending on the temperatures you expect on your Montana road trip.

Rain jacket

I included this separately from the comfortable clothes section because I wanted to highlight and underline how important a good rain jacket is. Rain is inevitable at times, so might as well dress for it!

I love the Marmot PreCip rain jacket (there’s a women’s version and a men’s version). I used mine for years biking in all sorts of rainy NYC weather and it always kept me dry without making me too hot and uncomfortable like some other rain jackets can, due to the zippered armpits which provide ventilation. This is key if you plan to do anything active on your Montana itinerary like hiking while it’s raining.

Proper Hiking Boots & Trekking Poles

This Montana road trip includes a ton of hiking opportunities, and you’ll definitely be happy with yourself for bringing along a pair of hiking boots!

I recommend these Ahnu boots for women and these Keen boots for men. Both are waterproof, comfortable, and provide lots of ankle support for harder hikes.

If you’re doing some harder hikes, you may also want to bring a pair of collapsible trekking poles with you!

Water Bottle with Filter

You always end up needing lots of water when you hike!

You can either carry liters upon liters of water, which can be heavy, or you can pack a backup water bottle and use your water bottle with a filter to refill anywhere along the trail — streams, rivers, springs, anywhere!

I use the Grayl for its ease of use and to reduce my plastic footprint: I love mine and highly recommend it!

Day pack

Day packs are essential when hiking or leaving the car for a bit to do some sightseeing and needing to bring essentials like bug spray, sunglasses, water, and sunscreen with you.

This Osprey day pack is the perfect size and it’s designed by a company that specializes in ergonomic solutions for backpackers, so you know it’ll be comfortable.


Don’t forget travel insurance!
Travel insurance coverage helps you recoup your losses in case of emergency, accident, illness, or theft. I’ve relied on World Nomads for my travel insurance coverage for four years with no complaints, and I’m a happy paying customer. I recommend them highly to fellow travelers!

Get your free quote here.

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