14 Beautiful Budget-Friendly Road Trips Across America

By   

View as:

Photo credit: Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

AFFORDABLE ESCAPES

From sensational coastlines and epic vistas to rugged cliffs and monumental national parklands, few things in life are more liberating than witnessing America's varied landscape on the open road. Annual passes to access national parks cheaply, gas price maps, picnicking and camping surrounded by gorgeous landscapes can make for an affordable trip. Picking which routes you want to explore? That's a bit tougher. Each of these stunning stretches offers ample opportunities for free or low-cost camping and sightseeing. Whether you stay close to home or enter totally new territory, America awaits.
Photo credit: bjul/shutterstock

OLYMPIC PENINSULA LOOP | WASHINGTON

Washington's alluringly diverse terrain -- from cityscapes and rainforests to mountains and coastline -- draws motorists and nature enthusiasts to the state. The 330-mile loop around the Olympic Peninsula, starting off on Highway 101 in Seattle, explores western Washington's varied ecosystems by circling the nearly 1 million acres of Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest with jaw-dropping beauty at nearly every turn. Within the span of a few hours, you'll witness breathtaking shorelines and waterfalls, the Olympic Mountains' magnificent snow-capped peaks, and the Hoh and Quinault rainforests.
Photo credit: Nelson Sirlin/shutterstock

TRAIL RIDGE ROAD | COLORADO

The highest points of the Rocky Mountains are accessible via one of Colorado's many stunning byways, Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. For generations, this 48-mile stretch of U.S. 34 over the Continental Divide was a trade route for the Ute, Arapaho, and Apache peoples.
Photo credit: Nelson Sirlin/shutterstock

TRAIL RIDGE ROAD (CONT'D)

Eleven miles of the "highway to the sky" are above the treeline. Motorists quickly traverse thousands of feet of elevation on the route, and the scenery changes just as fast. On the drive from Estes Park to Grand Lake, there are thrilling views of snow-covered mountaintops, meandering streams, lush forests, roaming wildlife, and awe-inspiring wildflower-filled meadows in midsummer. This is the place to plan for a backcountry hike along the way.

Bear in mind, Trail Ridge Road is one of several scenic highways that are not open year round. It is open only to pedestrians and bicyclists until the weather permits cars, usually in late May.

Photo credit: Zack Frank/shutterstock

BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY | VIRGINIA TO NORTH CAROLINA

Take an all-American joy ride through the wilderness of the South. The scenic Blue Ridge Parkway links Virginia's Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina and Tennessee. There are plenty of points along "America's Favorite Drive" for photo ops and leisurely hikes to stretch your legs as you slowly trace the mountain range through dense forests and Appalachian towns. History buffs can tour Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, in Charlottesville before heading to Asheville for some indie arts and down-home culture (plus the historic Biltmore Estate), then on to the Great Smoky Mountains.
Photo credit: Zack Frank/shutterstock

BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY (CONT'D)

Other stop-worthy points on this trip include: Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee, N.C., to experience 1760s Cherokee life through guided hikes, arts and crafts, and live performances; Linville Falls, a stunning three-tiered waterfall plunging into Linville Gorge (the "Grand Canyon of the Southern Appalachians"); and the famed Linn Cove Viaduct, an engineering marvel curving along the parkway's highest section. Pause atop Grandfather Mountain, where you'll find panoramic views from the Mile High Swinging Bridge. Fire up that country music playlist!
Photo credit: blutack/shutterstock

THE LONELIEST ROAD | NEVADA

Home to the dazzling Las Vegas Strip, Red Rock Canyon, and the immense Hoover Dam, Nevada is one of the most ideal places for a road trip. It's also a champion of affordable camping accommodations and phenomenal stargazing. The Loneliest Road, the state's stretch of U.S. Highway 50, earned its name because it passes through a predominantly desolate region. But the road following the Pony Express route -- skirting mining camps and crossing impressive forested mountain ranges along the way -- still boasts plenty of distractions.
Photo credit: Arlene Treiber Waller/shutterstock

THE LONELIEST ROAD (CONT'D)

Stop at Great Basin National Park to sample stunningly diverse landscapes. Hike the forests filled with ancient bristlecone pines, tour the Lehman Caves, and camp under some of the darkest skies in the country, enjoying the star-filled heavens.
Photo credit: 9785718@N05/flickr.com

GREAT RIVER ROAD | MINNESOTA TO LOUISIANA

The Great River Road passes through 10 states along the Mississippi River. You'll encounter many river-related attractions and designated interpretive centers, small communities, and thriving cities, as well as plenty of unexpected scenic attractions, from the rugged "Driftless Region" in the north with its deep river valleys and steep canyons to Mississippi's swamplands.
Photo credit: 149679949@N02/flickr.com

GREAT RIVER ROAD (CONT'D)

Whether you dedicate a day traversing just a portion of the byway or a couple weeks traveling the entire river, you're bound for small-town welcomes and national treasures. Make a point to stop at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, where more than 200 prehistoric, animal-shaped mounds built by Native Americans are preserved.
Photo credit: Alexey Stiop/shutterstock

TUNNEL OF TREES | MICHIGAN

Take the scenic route through the Great Lakes region by traversing M-119, Michigan's 27-mile tree-lined route running close to Lake Michigan. Emmet County's scenic path is affectionately nicknamed the "Tunnel of Trees," with hardwoods and evergreens jutting up from the road's edge and forming a beautifully enclosed pathway. This stretch is also ideal for bike rides. Wind along the forested path from Harbor Springs to Cross Village, both spots near the lake worth exploring. Extend the trip by journeying to other idyllic attractions nearby like Sleeping Bear Dunes and Mackinac Island.
Photo credit: Amehime/shutterstock

GOING-TO-THE-SUN ROAD | MONTANA

Cross exceptional northwest Montana territory by cutting through the expansive Glacier National Park, which covers more than 1 million acres, via the Going-to-the-Sun Road. You won't pass a single mile of this 50-mile stretch without encountering amazing views of abysmal ravines, deep-blue alpine lakes, glacial-covered mountain peaks, forests, and active wildlife.
Photo credit: Nelu Goia/shutterstock

GOING-TO-THE-SUN ROAD (CONT'D)

Stops to make while following the Continental Divide in the Rockies: St. Mary Valley, with the second-largest lake in the park and the stunning 100-foot Virginia Falls; Logan Pass, a 6,646-foot overlook for observing herds of mountain goats in wildflower meadows; and an off-the-beaten-path, 12-mile day hike on the Highline Trail. Afterward, you'll have your pick of drive-in campgrounds, backcountry chalets, cabins, and hotels.

Going-to-the-Sun Road is also subject to seasonal closings and may not open all the way to its highest point at Logan Pass until sometime in June or possibly July.

Photo credit: Bjoern Alberts/shutterstock

KINGS CANYON SCENIC BYWAY | CALIFORNIA

The backcountry road running through California's Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks is one of the country's most remote and beautiful drives. Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (Highway 180) is an enchanting 50-mile ride through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. With a name like the "Land of Giants," you can expect spectacular scenery like giant sequoias and huge canyons, including one of the continent's largest canyons, plus a dramatic range of elevation, from warm foothills to cold alpine peaks.
Photo credit: Doug Lemke/shutterstock

KINGS CANYON SCENIC BYWAY (CONT'D)

You'll pass through sequoia groves at a higher altitude before dipping into the valley with flower-filled meadows, waterfalls, and the Kings River. John Muir once deemed the magnificent park "a rival to Yosemite," and Ansel Adams photographed it extensively in the 1930s. Gas can be pricey in California, but you'll also find Sierra National Forest, Yosemite National Park, and Death Valley National Park within driving distance, so you can make the most of the road trip.
Photo credit: Mircea C/shutterstock

PARK LOOP ROAD IN ACADIA NATIONAL PARK | MAINE

Coastal Maine makes for a quintessential American summer getaway for all the reasons you'd expect: buttery lobster rolls, lighthouses dotting the rocky coast, charming towns with peaceful harbors, seaside coves, sandy stretches, looming pines, and other natural wonders. But one of the best ways to explore the easternmost U.S. state is through Acadia National Park. Maine's only national park -- with its woodlands, lakes, and jagged coastline -- can be circumnavigated via the 27-mile Park Loop Road.
Photo credit: f11photo/shutterstock

PARK LOOP ROAD (CONT'D)

Take in views of New England from the top of Mount Desert Island to stunning Bar Harbor below. Pack your binoculars to keep an eye out for bald eagles, nesting peregrine, and moose along the pine-fringed trail on a hike up Cadillac Mountain. Then hit Bar Harbor's shops and restaurants for some fresh-off-the-boat seafood.

Planning a trip to Maine during peak travel season can be daunting, but travelers can keep the journey wallet-friendly by venturing off the beaten path a bit. Staying in Lincolnville or Biddeford overnight can be more affordable than popular nearby towns like Camden or Kennebunkport.

Photo credit: Tristan Brynildsen/shutterstock

DINOSAUR DIAMOND SCENIC BYWAY | COLORADO TO UTAH

Explore this Utah-Colorado byway in the hunt for fossils. This route loops through some of the West's best dinosaur sites between Grand Junction, Colorado, and Moab, Utah, and it's close to other notable landscapes like Utah's Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, and Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.
Photo credit: Zack Frank/shutterstock

DINOSAUR DIAMOND SCENIC BYWAY (CONT'D)

Attractions along this circuit include a Colorado town named Dinosaur, the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum with a garden full of life-size dinosaurs, and exhibits on the wonders of the Moab landscape at the Museum of Moab. You'll also uncover several dig sites along the way, including a prolific fossil bed and research space at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry as well as live digs and a paleontology lab at the Dinosaur National Monument.
Photo credit: July Flower/shutterstock

NORTH SHORE SCENIC DRIVE | MINNESOTA

Minnesota might be known for its beautiful lakes, but it's also chock-full of national scenic byways, including Minnesota River Valley, Historic Bluff Country, and Gunflint Trail. The North Shore Scenic Drive along Route 61, however, attracts motorists to the vibrant green, lake-dotted state as it hugs the shore of the world's largest freshwater lake: Lake Superior. Visit Tettegouche State Park, and fish or boat on Lake Superior on the way from Duluth to the Canadian border. Just be sure to hit up Betty's Pies in Two Harbors for world-famous handmade pies and pie shakes.
Photo credit: joeborg/shutterstock

GEORGE PARKS HIGHWAY | ALASKA

The George Parks Highway -- more commonly referred to as the Parks Highway -- connects Anchorage and Fairbanks. This Alaskan stretch offers direct access to Denali National Park and Preserve, and there are many turnoffs for outdoor adventures like camping, canoeing, fishing, hiking, and picnicking to experience the wild frontier. For a pit stop with panoramic views, visit Talkeetna, an unconventional climbing outpost at the base of North America's tallest peak, Denali (formerly Mount McKinley). A cat named Stubbs has been its honorary mayor since 1997.
Photo credit: Gary Whitton/shutterstock

GEORGE PARKS HIGHWAY (CONT'D)

While you should definitely look for moose, bears, birds, and other wildlife on the drive, exploring the vast Denali National Park offerings on a tour will gives travelers a chance to keep their eyes peeled when they're not behind the wheel. Discover the region's gold mining history in Fairbanks, and stay up late for a glance at the midnight sun.
Photo credit: Pavel Vaschenkov/shutterstock

ROUTE 66 | PHOENIX TO ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

There's perhaps no greater American road trip than traversing America's famed Route 66. Many travelers think the best stretch of "The Mother Road" is in Arizona and New Mexico, where history and oddball Americana intersect. If you're flying into Phoenix, begin your journey by heading northwest via I-17. Stop at Montezuma Castle National Monument on your way through Coconino National Forest before meeting up with Route 66 (now I-40) in Flagstaff, and heading east toward Santa Fe.
Photo credit: Zack Frank/shutterstock

ROUTE 66 (CONT'D)

You'll pass through the Painted Desert's brilliantly colored badlands and canyons, Petrified Forest National Park, and Native American reservations before reaching Albuquerque -- where you can still spot neon Route 66 signs downtown. A "musical road" installed near the village of Tijeras lies just east of Albuquerque. Rumble strips on the highway are calibrated so the vibrations in your car play "America the Beautiful" while driving the speed limit (45 mph) heading east. If you continue on to Moriarty, you'll even spot some Route 66 relics like the Sunset Motel.

For more New Mexico territory, aim for Santa Fe. Santa Fe National Forest hosts an assortment of primitive and developed camping options, including desert, forest, and high mountain meadows.

Photo credit: pisaphotography/shutterstock

OVERSEAS HIGHWAY (VIA U.S. ROUTE 1), FLORIDA

The Overseas Highway connects the 113-mile Florida Keys island chain from Key Largo to Key West, and can be accessed via U.S. Route 1 -- whether you're starting in Miami or Maine. The drive to the southernmost island won't take longer than a few hours, so roll down the windows and take your time crossing over 42 bridges -- including the 7 Mile Bridge, one of the longest in the world -- and coral islets along "the Highway that Goes to Sea."

Magnificently clear ocean views, laidback beach bars, seafood dives, and other roadside attractions are plentiful as you make your way through paradise. Stop in the artsy town of Islamorada, where you can swim with dolphins at the historic Theater of the Sea, before reaching your funky final destination of Key West.

Photo credit: Andy Lidstone/shutterstock

OVERSEAS HIGHWAY (CONT'D)

In Key West, relax and enjoy the quirky shops and vibrant nightlife scene. Book a boat or seaplane to reach the 100-square mile Dry Tortugas National Park -- home of magnificent Fort Jefferson -- with seven small islands out in picturesque open water. Save money by pitching a tent at Leo's Campground (campsite rentals go for $44 to $58 per night).

Key Largo is also close to Everglades National Park. Consider extending the road trip to canoe/kayak and camp in a 1.5 million-acre labyrinth of wetlands, Cypress swamps, and mangrove forests if you can. Feeling really adventurous? Stay overnight on one of the elevated "chickee" campsites, which are covered wooden docks accessible only by boat.