Coast to Coast: 4 Epic Cross Country Road Trip Itineraries

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Route 66 sign
See the sights & experience American history in motion on a cross-country road trip. Photo credit: Pixabay

The great American road trip finds its way onto bucket lists for many travelers. Whether you choose to chase waterfalls, visit national parks, detour for scenic drives, track down quirky roadside attractions or drive the “mother road” on Route 66, your options are plentiful. Here are a few cross-country road trip itineraries to inspire your journey.

Choose Your Cross-Country Road Trip

From sea to shining sea, America’s landscapes beckon road trippers. To check a cross-country road trip off your bucket list, consider what you want to experience as you drive across this big beautiful country.

Looking for a hearty slice of Americana? Route 66’s the way to go. More interested in awe-inspiring landscapes? Consider the Great Northern Road Trip traveling US Highway 2 from Seattle to Maine with a detour into Canada. Seeking a taste of America’s diversity? Check out the Southern Pacific road trip from California to Savannah. Up for a coast-to-coast ride through the heart of America? The Loneliest Road from California to Maryland’s eastern shore along US Highway 50 delivers an ideal sample of what the USA has to offer. Whatever cross country road trip route you choose, there’s plenty to discover. Check out these sample itineraries and start planning your bucket list trip.

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1. The Great Northern Road Trip

For the ultimate scenic drive, it’s hard to beat the Great Northern Road Trip. Traveling west to east, this road trip route starts north of Seattle in Everett, Washington. The route is referred to as the Great Northern in honor of the pioneer-era Great Northern Railroad that parallels the western half of the route. The adventure follows U.S. Highway 2. In Washington State, US-2 is part of the Cascade Loop Scenic Highway and is sometimes referred to as Stephen’s Pass.

This remarkable alpine landscape is graced with waterfall-streaked mountains and gushing rivers. The largest of the waterfalls in Washington, Wallace Falls plummets 265 feet. Follow the hiking trail into Wallace Falls State Park at Milepost 27 for an up-close view of some of the waterfall’s most dramatic spots.

Further down the byway at Milepost 56, the Deception Falls picnic area brings you up close to the whitewater of the thundering creek. Before leaving Washington, you may feel as if you’ve left the USA for Bavaria as you enter Leavenworth. This picturesque Alpine town serves up all the bratwurst, schnitzel, accordion music and brews you can handle. It’s also home to the world’s largest nutcracker collection at the Nutcracker Museum.

SheBuysTravel Tip: 7 Fun Road Trip Trivia Games for Families on the Go!

View of St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park, one of the national parks in Montana.
St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park. Photo credit: Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development

From Peaks to Prairies

The landscape evolves as you enter the arid Columbia Plateau. Leaving Washington, US-2 bends north, rolling through the top of the Idaho panhandle before entering western Montana. In Big Sky country, the spectacular landscape features forests, mountain peaks and rivers. Schedule extra time to take in the splendor of Glacier National Park.

Before moving on, you may want to detour into Wyoming for some time in Yellowstone National Park. America’s oldest national park harbors abundant wildlife including brown bears, elk, bison and wolves. Colorful bubbling paint pots rise up from the earth in this mystical landscape.

As you leave the Rocky Mountains behind the landscape morphs into the windswept prairies of the northern Great Plains. Native American history rises from this landscape where the buffalo once roamed freely.

At the midway point of your road trip route, Minnesota’s Great Northwoods bring yet another landscape change. Continuing on you’ll cruise into Wisconsin. As detours go, a particularly scenic one takes you along the shore of Lake Superior along US Route 13 to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

From Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Canada

As you approach Michigan’s Upper Peninsula be sure to schedule some time to take the ferry to Mackinac Island. You’ll have to leave the car behind, as none are allowed on the island.

Exiting the Upper Peninsula, the route crosses the border into Ontario, Canada as you continue east to Montreal. A foodie’s dream, Montreal’s diverse population ensures a variety of dining options to supplement your road trip food. For a hearty indulgence, try poutines — french fries and cheese curds topped with brown gravy. Work off the calories with an urban hike up the trail to Mount Royal for panoramic views of the city.

You’ll dip back down into the USA in upstate New York near gorgeous Lake Champlain as you continue your journey into New England through Vermont’s verdant Green Mountains. Find your way to Ben & Jerry’s Factory in Waterbury for a tour and a taste of Vermont’s creamy goodness.

The granite peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains emerge as you continue east. Carve out some time to ride the Mount Washington Cog Railway. The world’s first cog railway chugs you up to the mountain’s peak at 6,288 ft.

The grand finale of this nearly 3,600-mile road trip route happens in Maine as you reach the Atlantic Ocean in Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. Linger here for lobster rolls as you celebrate your cross-country road trip!

2. From the Big Apple to the City of Angels

A road trip route from New York City to Los Angeles provides a mix of bucolic pastures, corn fields, urban centers and rugged western landscapes. Take a direct route from New York City to Los Angeles and you’ll cover nearly 3,000 miles.

But why not add a few days to your itinerary and take your time detouring to explore hiking trails in national parks along the way? As you head west out of New York, Interstate 80 takes you through the heart of Pennsylvania where picturesque farms dot the landscape.

As you move into Ohio leave I-80 behind in favor of local roads north to Cleveland. Take some time to explore the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. If you’re a fan of the holiday classic, A Christmas Story, visit Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood to tour the house where Ralphie lived with his comical family.

Meander along the shores of Lake Erie as you continue west toward Chicago. Spend a day or two exploring Chicago’s many attractions. Indulge in deep-dish pizza then work off the calories with a bike ride along the shores of Lake Michigan and spend the night in one of these great Chicago hotels.

As you leave Chicago behind, more middle-America landscapes emerge in the cornfields of Iowa. Located on the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, Omaha, Nebraska, is known for its pioneer history and cultural centers.

Farther west in the town of North Platte, train enthusiasts will enjoy observing the intense train action at Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard, the world’s largest railroad classification yard.

Continuing West to the Rocky Mountains

Pick up I-76 as you cross into Colorado. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore Rocky Mountain National Park while you’re here. Keep an eye out for moose, elk and mule deer as you roam the park.

If you’re good with detours, a drive along the park’s Trail Ridge Road reveals stunning vistas. The highest continuously paved road in the USA, Trail Ridge Road reaches 12,183 feet at its highest point.

Arches National Park
Don’t miss the iconic stone structures of Arches National Park. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Detours Through Utah

Keep the explorations going as you move into Utah on I-70. With five national parks and stunning state parks, Utah deserves a few days for taking in all its grandeur. Exit I-70 and pick up US-191 South toward Moab for a home base.

Nearby in Arches National Park, sandstone rock formations cover the landscape in a myriad of intriguing shapes.

Also in the area, Canyonlands National serves as a testament to the power of water. Here, a dramatic desert landscape carved by the Colorado River wows at every turn. Continue west roughly 145 miles to Capitol Reef National Park, where sandstone domes and the towering monoliths of Cathedral Valley take the stage.

Make your way to the All-American Road, Scenic Byway 12 for a drive through the awe-inspiring vistas of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In this vast desert, colorful sandstone cliffs soar above narrow slot canyons and seemingly endless slickrock. Along the way, you’ll discover prehistoric sites, abandoned old Western movie sets and many other ancient treasures.

Before leaving Utah behind, make time to hike through the fascinating hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park.

Then, continue southwest to Zion National Park where the Zion Canyon scenic drive winds through steep red cliffs leading to forested trails along the Virgin River. Just before exiting Utah, you’ll find Snow Canyon State Park. In this gem, lava tubes await adventurous hikers and petrified sand dunes replace mountains for summiting.

valley of the fire state park road
The road winds through the scenic Valley of Fire State Park. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

Westbound to Los Angeles

Moving into Nevada the fascinating landscapes continue at Valley of Fire State Park, known for ancient petroglyphs dating back more than 2,000 years. Stretch your legs with a hike along Seven Wonders Loop as you weave in and out of the rock formations in this otherworldly landscape. Soon the bright lights of Las Vegas take the stage, beckoning weary travelers to stay and play.

When you’re ready to move on, keep an eye out for alien evidence as you ride through the desert landscapes.

Arriving in California, the view switches to fertile farmland as you make your way to Los Angeles on the west coast of the continent. If you still have some road trip energy available, consider picking up the Pacific Coast Highway for another ultra-scenic drive up the California coast to San Francisco, where the Golden Gate Bridge punctuates the end of a successful road trip!

3. Travel the Loneliest Road from Coast to Coast

For a true getaway, consider a road trip route along America’s loneliest road. Running through the heart of the USA, this sea-to-shining-sea odyssey spans more than 3,000 miles. You’ll travel along US-50 as it passes through timeworn small towns, earning it the moniker “Backbone of America” in Time magazine.

San Francisco serves as the starting point for a west-to-east road trip route that leads you through a dozen states, four state capitals, Washington D.C. and on to Maryland’s eastern shore.

As the Golden Gate Bridge fades away in your rearview mirror, you’ll drive across California’s mid-section to the state capital in Sacramento. Along the way, you’ll ride through history as reminders of the California Gold Rush emerge.

From Sacramento, the road follows the historic route of the old Pony Express up into the Sierra Nevada leading to the shores of Lake Tahoe before crossing into Nevada.

Nevada’s Delightfully Lonely Road

The stretch of US-50 through the center of Nevada led to the highway’s designation as the loneliest road. You’ll likely have the road to yourself (except for the occasional coyote) as you drive into the seemingly endless horizon.

Mountains, sand dunes and a never-ending stretch of road keep you company on this journey. Ghost towns and abandoned mines reveal a touch of human history along the way.

In eastern Nevada, the Great Basin National Park is one of the least visited national parks in America. This high-elevation paradise harbors most of the Snake Mountains and is home to Wheeler Peak, Nevada’s third-tallest mountain. The park’s remoteness makes it an ideal place for stargazing after dark.

Detours for Scenic Vistas

Rolling east out of Nevada, Utah’s abundant national parks provide tempting detours. In Colorado, a classic stretch of a two-lane blacktop known as Million Dollar Highway snakes through the San Juan Mountains, the most rugged and wild peaks in the state.

From the Heartlands to the Sea

After crossing the Continental Divide atop the Rocky Mountains, the highway follows the Arkansas River along the Santa Fe Trail. Mountains give way to pastoral landscapes dotted with windmills, water towers, railroad tracks and small towns. It’s Americana at its best.

Moving through Missouri to St. Louis, US-50 crosses the Mississippi River into Illinois, Indiana and Ohio — America’s agricultural heartlands. Mountains return in West Virginia’s Appalachian backwoods, before retreating as you leave small-town America behind for the traffic and energy of Washington, D.C.

Your cross-country road trip route ends on a more subtle note than the nation’s capital as you continue on US-50 through Annapolis, home of the United States Naval Academy, to Maryland’s tranquil Eastern Shore. Celebrate your journey with some beach time in Ocean City, Maryland at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

4. Get Your Kicks on Route 66

Perhaps the most well-known road trip route in America, Route 66 delivers a mega-dose of Americana. Route 66’s starting point for an east-to-west journey begins in Chicago and ends at the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica. The original road trip route opened on November 11, 1926, connecting these two cities with 2,448 miles of roadway.

Route 66 passes through nine states: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.

Over the years, portions of the original route were replaced by interstates and America’s main street began to decline. Fortunately, in recent decades, historic Route 66 has been revived by communities along the route. Neon signs, mom-and-pop eateries, kitschy roadside motor inns and historic Route 66 markers serve as a reminder of days gone by along the “Mother Road of America.”

Don’t miss this stop in Tucumcari New Mexico!

drive-in sign in carthage, MO
A historic drive-in theater in Missouri along Route 66. Photo credit: National Park Service

Retro Rules on Route 66

Although Route 66’s starting point sits in Chicago, the town of Springfield, Missouri, is actually the birthplace of this famous road trip route. In 1926, city officials sent a telegram proposing the name of the new highway. John T. Woodruff of Springfield was elected as the first president of the Route 66 Association in 1927. A museum in the city’s main square is chock full of memorabilia and stories of Springfield’s unique connection to the beloved highway.

You’ll find plenty of Route 66-themed signs, eateries and motels throughout the city. Situated on Route 66, Springfield’s retro Steak-n-Shake serves up the chain’s iconic burgers and chili with a heavy dose of neon lights. Sleep your way into this nostalgic Americana with a stay at the Rail Haven. One of many roadside motor inns that were popular during the Route 66 heyday in the 30s and 40s, the Rail Haven Motor Court is comprised of eight sandstone cottages built in 1938. Schedule your visit for August and you’ll catch the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival.

Appropriately named for the iconic route it stands on, the Route 66 Car Museum’s nondescript exterior offers no clue as to the impressive collection housed inside. Let’s start with the real, honest-to-goodness Batmobile from the original series starring Adam West. “Holy car collection, Batman!” Another spirited row reveals the “ECTO-1” hearse from Ghostbusters.

Nearby in Carthage, amid a rural setting on a nine-acre plot outside of town, the Route 66 Drive-In theater still retains its charm from opening day in 1949. Bed-down in neon nostalgia at Boots Court Motel. Sitting at the crossroads of the historic Route 66 and US-71 in Carthage, this 1939 motel has welcomed road trippers for decades, along with famous faces like Clark Gable.

Detours for Nature

America’s western landscape is hard to resist so why not build a little nature time into your road trip itinerary? In Arizona, a detour takes you to the Petrified Forest National Park, where the Rainbow Forest shows off a fascinating display of colorful petrified wood. And of course, Arizona’s favorite attraction, the Grand Canyon National Park, is always a viable nature detour.

graffitied cars in cadillac ranch
Check out Cadillac Ranch, a unique sight you surely won’t find anywhere else. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Favorite Roadside Attractions on Route 66

Route 66 showcases an abundance of kitschy roadside attractions. Among the must-sees is the Gemini Giant in Wilmington, Illinois. Welcoming diners and Route 66 road trippers at the Launching Pad Drive-in, this 28-foot-tall spaceman was installed to acknowledge the space race between the US and the Soviet Union. In Lincoln, Illinois, a 24-foot-tall Railsplitter Covered Wagon features a statue of Abraham Lincoln reading a law book.

The whimsical Blue Whale in Catoosa, Oklahoma attracts children and adults to play and climb while getting a fun Instagram shot. Be sure to make a stop at Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, a public art spectacle where 10 classic Cadillac cars are buried nose-down in the ground. You can even leave your own artist touch using a can of spray paint available at the local Home Depot, which incidentally sells the most spray paint in America!

Pat yourself on the back when you arrive at Santa Monica pier. Be sure to take a selfie in front of the official sign marking the end of Route 66 to commemorate your journey!

end of route 66 sign
End of the road. Congratulations, traveler! Photo credit: Shutterstock

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