14 Beautiful Budget-Friendly Road Trips Across America
Annual passes to access national parks cheaply, picnicking, and camping can make for an affordable road trip. Picking which routes you want to explore is the real challenge. Each of these stunning stretches offers ample opportunities for free or low-cost camping and sightseeing. Whether you stay close to home or enter brand-new territory, America awaits.
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. Within the span of a few hours, witness breathtaking shorelines and waterfalls, the Olympic Mountains' magnificent snow-capped peaks, and the Hoh and Quinault rainforests.
Eleven miles of the "highway to the sky" are above the treeline. On the drive from Estes Park to Grand Lake, there are thrilling views of snow-covered mountaintops, meandering streams, lush forests, roaming wildlife, and wildflower-filled meadows in midsummer. 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.
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. 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.
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.
Home to the dazzling Las Vegas Strip, Red Rock Canyon, and the immense Hoover Dam, Nevada is an ideal place 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 forested mountain ranges along the way -- still boasts plenty of distractions.
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.
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.
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 nicknamed the "Tunnel of Trees," with hardwoods and evergreens jutting up from the road's edge and forming an 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 nearby attractions like Sleeping Bear Dunes and Mackinac Island.
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 ravines, alpine lakes, glacial-covered mountain peaks, forests, and active wildlife.
Stops to make while following the Continental Divide in the Rockies: St. Mary Valley, with the second-largest lake in the park and the 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. 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.
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 range of elevation from foothills to alpine peaks.
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.
Coastal Maine makes for a quintessential American summer getaway for all the reasons you'd expect: buttery lobster rolls, lighthouses dotting the rocky coast, towns with peaceful harbors, seaside coves, sandy stretches, 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.
Take in views of New England from the top of Mount Desert Island to 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. Staying in Lincolnville or Biddeford overnight can be more affordable than popular nearby towns.
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.
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.
Minnesota might be known for its beautiful lakes, but it's also chock-full of 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 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.
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, and hiking 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.
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.
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.
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 spot some Route 66 relics like the Sunset Motel. For more New Mexico territory, Santa Fe National Forest hosts an assortment of camping options.
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 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." Ocean views, laidback beach bars, and other roadside attractions are plentiful. Stop in the artsy town of Islamorada, where you can swim with dolphins at the 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 Fort Jefferson -- with seven small islands out in 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 adventurous? Stay overnight on one of the elevated "chickee" campsites, which are covered wooden docks accessible only by boat.