Sure, you can just load a bag in the car on a Friday afternoon, pick a scenic byway, and go. But what’s nice about charting your path ahead of time is scoring great deals, making sure you don’t miss iconic sights, and knowing exactly what gear you’ll need along the way, whether it’s boardshorts, a down jacket, or both.
Highway 101, California
Start in San Francisco, with San Diego as your final destination. It takes just eight hours to drive the 500 miles via inland Interstate 5, but stick closer to the coast on Highway 101 and you can stretch the trip to a few days or longer, with some choice stops along the way. Low-key Wolff Vineyards, in San Luis Obispo, has wine tasting, live music, and food trucks on Friday nights all summer. El Capitan Canyon, outside Santa Barbara, rents beachside cedar cabins and safari tents (from $170) and has beach cruisers to borrow, the occasional yoga class, and nearby surfing, sea kayaking, and hiking. When you get to Encinitas, stay at Surfhouse, an eight-room hotel (from $120) that opened a block from the beach in 2017 and offers surf coaching from local pro Damien Hobgood.
Have more time? Driveway Highway 1 instead—this slow-paced road hugs the Pacific Ocean nearly all the way down the California coastline.
Highway 385, Nebraska
Surprisingly, Nebraska makes for an ideal road trip—you can leave Denver, Colorado, for a long weekend and enjoy 250 miles of endless sand dunes and grasslands of western Nebraska. Check out Highway 385, the so-called Gold Rush Byway because hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gold traveled the route every day in the late 1880s. Chadron State Park, Nebraska’s first state park, has 22 cabins for rent, tent and RV camping, and access to 100 miles of hiking trails. In Alliance, don’t miss the replica Stonehenge made from cars or the coffee and cinnamon rolls at Newberry’s Common Ground, and stay the night in a renovated Airbnb loft called UpTown Suite ($125), just off the main street.
Have more time? Tack on another 200 miles and stay on Highway 385 until you hit South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest to visit Mount Rushmore and explore the area’s growing mountain bike scene.
Highway 50, Nevada
Nicknamed the loneliest road in America—you can go more than 100 miles between gas stations—the roughly 400 miles of Highway 50 across Nevada may be desolate, but there’s plenty to do in this vast desert landscape. Start in Reno and head east, spending a couple of days traversing the state. Stop off in the old ghost town of Austin for a soak at the primitive Spencer Hot Springs, where you can find free dispersed camping in the surrounding area. Or book a room at the Miles End Lodge (from $128), a bed and breakfast in nearby Kingston with a wood-fired hot tub, and don’t miss the prehistoric pictographs in Toquima Cave. Great Basin National Park, in Baker, might be the country’s most under-the-radar national park. You can navigate underground caves, forage for piñon pine nuts, or take a ranger-guided hike under the full moon. And don’t miss the chance to spot distant galaxies from the park’s solar telescopes. Great Basin was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2016 by the International Dark Sky Association.
Have more time? Venture another 200-plus miles into Utah and drive the 72-mile Burr Trail, a rugged paved and gravel road that crosses into Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Highway 93, Alberta, Canada
Also known as the Icefields Parkway, Highway 93 connects Banff National Park to Jasper National Park. Start in Calgary and spend a few days traveling nearly 600 miles to Jasper and back. You’ll drive along the Continental Divide, passing glaciers, waterfalls, and stunning valleys packed with bighorn sheep along the way. You can stop to camp or hike at countless points, but be sure to check out the 7.5-mile trek to high-alpine Helen Lake or the views of the Saskatchewan River’s headwaters from the Parker Ridge Trail. In Banff, pitch a tent, rent a canvas A-frame at Two Jack Lakeside Campground, or book a room at Lake Louise’s Mountaineer Lodge (from $135), which is adding a bike-tuning station this summer. In Jasper, Bear Hill Lodge has in-town cabins (from $193) with fireplaces and access to a sauna. Bonus: There’s no cellphone service along this route, so download a playlist for the car and enjoy being disconnected.
Have more time? Start in Spokane, Washington, cross the border into Canada, and hit up Radium Hot Springs on your way.
U.S. Route 1, Maine
Hit the road in Boston and drive 275 miles to Bar Harbor, Maine, taking I-95 to picturesque and coastal Route 1. Spend a night at Portland’s swanky Press Hotel (from $220) or Kennebunkport’s kid-friendly Lodge on the Cove (from $162), then push on to the riverside town of Bath. Collect picnic supplies at Bath Natural Market for a detour to lunch on the white-sand beaches of Reid State Park before catching a few waves. In Camden, stop at Camden Hills State Park to camp, mountain bike straight up from the sea, or hike to the top of Mount Battie for views of Penobscot Bay. Once you make it to Bar Harbor, explore Acadia National Park and toast to your journey with a pint of New Guy IPA at Atlantic Brewing Company.
Have more time? Venture 100 miles farther to Lubec, Maine, the easternmost town in the United States. From there, you can reach Campobello Island, in New Brunswick, Canada, for a visit to historic Roosevelt Campobello International Park, the summer retreat of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.