Summer is the perfect time to hit the road, and these road trip ideas and accompanying suggested hit-lists should help you start planning!
Why is summer such a good time for a road trip? To start, if you have kids, this is their vacation time. Usually, it feels like they have too much time off and you can’t find enough ways to entertain them. A road trip is a perfect solution because you’ll have fun, too.
Another reason a summer road trip is so great is you probably won’t have to worry about bad weather, you can turn on your car. Generally, most parts of the U.S. are sunny and pleasant. Usually, the worst thing that might happen is a heavy rainstorm, and you can just duck out of it by going to a restaurant and having a snack.
So, all you need now are some great road trip ideas! Where should you go?
PSST! FYI – there are lots of great road trip ideas and free road trip plans linked at the bottom of this page, so scroll down to see them all!
Summer Road Trip Idea 1 – Arizona and New Mexico
Why not hit the desert and guarantee a sunny vacation? The desert is beautiful and there are so many sights to see including:
- The Grand Canyon, AZ – the king of all road trip destinations. One of the world’s greatest natural wonders is a must-see. Pack a picnic breakfast and get there at dawn for an amazing view of the sunrise lighting up the canyon without the usual crowds. Shoot to get there on a weekday morning and you’ll practically have the place to yourself! Check out El Tovar, the famous lodge on the South Rim that boasts outstanding views and an excellent restaurant.
- Monument Valley, AZ – this is my favorite place to see out west. The formations really do look a lot like the things they’re named! Take a sunset tour to see the place light up with color – it’s like being in a Technicolor movie, the colors are so intense.
- Prescott, AZ – Get the feel of the Wild West by visiting Prescott’s Whiskey Row, a street lined with saloons and shops. Make sure to belly up to the bar at The Palace, the oldest saloon in the U.S. still in operation.
- Lake Powell, AZ – We went on a white water rafting trip down the Colorado River that ended in Lake Powell, and the lake blew my mind. After all that rushing brown water, we ended up in a crystal clear water-filled canyon! This is great place to snorkel if you want to check out the underwater canyon.
- Carlsbad Caverns, NM – These caverns are amazing and a nice break from all the hot sun you’ll be soaking up on this road trip. Go in the afternoon to check out the caverns and then stay on for the nightly bat flight that features thousands of bats exiting the cave at once. I recommend packing a snack to eat while waiting as well as packing a sweater or jacket as it’s very cool in the cavern and the desert gets cold quickly once the sun goes down. This is not recommended if you’re traveling with children and they are under 3 years old – they can’t go on the guided tours and strollers are not permitted.
- Route 66, NM – Need I say more? New Mexico has the longest stretch of the famed old road that remains as it used to be before highways started taking over.
- 4 Corners Monument, NM – I will never forget being able to stand on four states at the same time. Although this site seems like it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s still worth checking out for the sheer novelty of it. There is no other part of the US where four states connect.
Summer Road Trip Idea 2 – California Coast
Driving up the coast of southern California is a great road trip idea in the summer as you get all that “fun-in-the-sun” that southern California is known for. In keeping with the location, make sure your road trip is laid back and mellow and don’t plan too much each day. Also, stop as often as possible along the way at every beach you see and have a picnic or take a walk along the shoreline. You want to take advantage of all those beaches!
What should you do besides hitting every beach? This list of items is arranged assuming that you will be on a week-long road trip starting in San Diego and ending in Monterey, CA.
- Sea World, San Diego – You may wonder why I don’t list the famous zoo. Unfortunately, most people agree that just doesn’t live up to the hype. If you want to see a great zoo, go to the National Zoo in Washington, DC – the best in the country and the admission is free, too. Sea World, though, is a great place to visit for an entire day. Go on a weekday and you won’t have to deal with crowds. There are rides (Journey to Atlantis is the best), an aquarium, and great shows (Shamu is the top show to see).
- Torrey Pines State Reserve, San Diego – Hike the easy trails at this great park and see spectacular views everywhere you look. Bottlenose dolphins swim close the shore most of the time so you can easily sight them. Make your dinner a picnic nearby at the Torrey Pines State Beach and catch the beautiful sunset.
- J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles – If you enjoy art at all, this is a must-see museum with its incredible art collection. Even if you don’t go for art, you may just want to go for the beautiful grounds and views of LA sprawled below (the museum is located at the summit of a mountain).
- Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Los Angeles – It may be kitschy and touristy but that’s the fun of it! It’s really about checking out the outside of the theater, the stars’ footprints/handprints in front, and watching the various entertainers dressed up as famous stars and imitating them. The visit will last you no longer than 45 minutes, so this will be a brief stop along the way.
- Venice Beach Boardwalk, Los Angeles – Talk about characters! You will see every type of get-up and the weird thing you’ve ever seen. It’s extremely colorful and fun to take a walk and check out the action – especially on the weekends when it’s like a circus. There’s lots of cheap good eats to be had, too – so plan on hitting it when you’ll need a bite.
- Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara – Stop here for great views of the marina, the water and this beautiful town. There are lots of shops to explore and great restaurants, like Brophy Bros. Clam Bar and Restaurant, for fresh seafood. We watched sea otters playing in the water here.
- Route 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) – This route winds along the coastline of California. It’s a great drive with spectacular views and lots of picturesque bridges – the quintessential road trip.
- Cambria – Stay in Cambria overnight at one of the many oceanfront hotels and take a walk along Moonstone Beach in the morning. There are well-tended footpaths here that wind along the shore’s edge. There are also many great wineries only fifteen minutes away in Paso Robles – take a quick drive to check out their vineyards if you like wine. I recommend doing this the afternoon you arrive so that you don’t have to drive (far) afterward.
- Hearst Castle, San Simeon – For a peek into the over-the-top lifestyle of William Randolph Hearst, take a tour of his massive estate (165 rooms and it still wasn’t considered finished) in San Simeon. When you’re heading here you will be convinced you’re going the wrong way as it is in the middle of a very bleak isolated area that doesn’t fit your expectations. When you arrive, it’s like a mirage on top of the mountain where it is built. It’s well-worth the Twilight Zone experience of driving there, though, in order to see all the splendor of this lavish home. Take Tour One if you only have one day and not a lot of money to spend. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and entertaining. Keep an eye peeled driving to and from the castle – zebras from Hearst’s zoo run wild here and can be spotted from the road.
- Nepenthe, Big Sur – Located right off of Route 1, this Big Sur restaurant is more than a restaurant; it’s a destination unto itself with its shop and its patio that hangs suspended high above the crashing waves of the Pacific below, offering stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. The same family has been running the place since the late 40’s – both my mother and I visited it as young women! The food and the wines are excellent, as well.
- Point Lobos State Reserve – This gorgeous park is heaven for nature lovers with its many trails and vistas. The majority of the park is composed of beautiful tree-topped rocky outcroppings and the water here is an unreal-looking aquamarine blue. Throughout the park, you can hear the barking calls of the large population of sea lions that live on the offshore rocks nearby.
- Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey – This is the best aquarium I’ve ever seen. Instead of a few fish in a tank, you had entire underwater environments with predators swimming with prey, live coral, and underwater forests of sea kelp. The sea otters were my favorite with their own area where you could watch them dive and twist in the water. There are over 200 galleries and exhibits at this aquarium – easily a full day of entertainment. I recommend you go in the morning, break for lunch (they stamp your hand so you can return) at one of the walking-distance downtown restaurants and then return for the afternoon. Try to eat at one of the restaurants near the water and you’ll see more otters and other sea creatures from your table.
- Asilomar, Pacific Grove – This resort (also a conference center) used to be an old YWCA campground/retreat and has a very unique flavor. Located right on the water with gorgeous grounds with many footpaths to the beach, plan to spend some time exploring the many buildings and the property itself if you stay here. Fishwife Seafood Restaurant is walking distance and offers outstanding seafood that is all sustainable, preventing over-fishing/species extinction.
These road trip ideas should get you to start in planning your own vacation. Want another summer road trip idea? Check out my summer east coast road trip that takes you from the Thimble Islands of Connecticut up to Maine, the state known as “vacationland” for a reason!
Want another road trip idea that takes you through California? Like wine? Check out this California road trip plan that takes you from San Francisco through Napa and Sonoma Valleys to visit wine country and experience all the great things this area has to offer.
If you’re like many people, when you think of the summer, you envision beautiful beaches and fun boardwalks loaded with entertainment options, shopping, and plenty of treats like ice cream and candy. These beach road trip ideas/destinations on the East Coast fit the bill!
Two more great road trip ideas are to take a road trip through the South from North Carolina through Savannah, Georgia or explore the Brandywine Valley area in Pennsylvania and Delaware. These two road trips were originally designed as springtime trips, but both are excellent year-round!