14 Beautiful Budget-Friendly Road Trips Across America
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.