Life is about the journey, not the destination, so the saying goes. What better way to embrace this mantra than by hitting the highway for a road trip, enjoying scenic stops and quirky roadside attractions along the way?
Even with the higher-than-normal gas prices right now, road tripping remains one of the most affordable ways to wander.
From blazing fall foliage beautifying the Blue Ridge Parkway to the craggy Oregon Coast where you can spot whales and a hot springs loop connecting mineral pools in Colorado, here’s 10 affordable U.S. road trip ideas.
Great River Road from Minnesota to Louisiana
The Great River Road traces the Mississippi River along its path from the headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota all the way down to New Orleans.
Pack some binoculars because there are lots of great birdwatching opportunities: The Mississippi River flyway is a migration route followed by 40% of North America’s water and shore birds. You can also learn all about eagles at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota.
The complete 3,000-mile route rolls through 10 states and intersects with another famous trip, Route 66, near Alton, Illinois. Along the way, nearly 100 historical sites, museums and attractions (many of which are free) tell the story of the Mighty Mississippi and its people.
For music lovers, the stops along the southern section of this trip are the equivalent of a greatest hits list, and includes Johnny Cash’s Boyhood Home in Arkansas, the famed Sun Studio and Elvis’ Graceland in Memphis, and the New Orleans Jazz Museum. When in Memphis, enjoy a free nightly light show that illuminates the Hernando de Soto and Big River Crossing bridges.
Historic Hot Springs Loop in Colorado
How does a spa-inspired road trip sound?
An abundance of thermal hot springs flow through the Western side of Colorado and an 800-mile Historic Hot Springs loop itinerary connects the burbling hot tubs, beckoning travelers to relax after a long drive. The route highlights two dozen destinations including vapor caves, the world’s deepest geothermal aquifer in Pagosa Springs, and Japanese-inspired cedar soaking tubs at Durango Hot Springs Resort and Spa. Iron Mountain Hot Springs even has an “Experience Pool” that rotates mineral blends and mimics famous hot springs like Iceland’s Blue Lagoon.
In addition to saving on international airfare by visiting top-notch hot springs at home, budget-conscious road-trippers will also find plenty of camping spots along the route, too.
State Route 12 in Utah
Utah is spoiled with many national parks, and there’s plenty of untamed beauty to witness in the crimson-colored, otherworldly landscape of fins, buttes, hoodoos and canyons.
Known as the “Mighty Five,” Utah’s national parks include Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion. If you’ve got the time, do an extensive survey of the southern part of the state and visit them all. But for a more concise sojourn, road-trippers can enjoy a scenic 124-mile drive along State Route 12, which links Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. Technically, you could drive the road in a few hours, but there’s so many detour-worthy parks and recreation areas along the way, including hiking paths in Escalante Petrified Forest State Park and exhibits at Anasazi State Park Museum, an ancestral Puebloan village that was likely occupied from 1050 to 1200 A.D.
As for the actual parks? Capitol Reef is known for geographic anomalies like the Waterpocket Fold, which is a wrinkle in the Earth, and Bryce Canyon features the highest concentration of hoodoos in the world.
You can sync up your trip with one of the free days in the National Parks (there’s usually five per year). Or, an annual park pass is $80 and grants you access to 2,000 recreation areas. Seniors can get a lifetime pass for $80. Veterans and Gold Star families can now get a free lifetime pass.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is nicknamed “America’s Favorite Drive,” and this ribbon of open road is especially fun to meander along in the fall when the leaves are changing colors.
The parkway spans 469 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, and the drive connects Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountains, with plenty of pull offs for picnicking and hiking.
Travelers looking to save on lodging will find several campgrounds along the route, including Crabtree Falls Campground, which is near a 70-foot waterfall. The parkway also has an events calendar with a variety of free things to do. Stop in at The Floyd Country Store in Floyd, Virginia, where you can order from a soda fountain and enjoy live music at the Friday Night Jamboree and other weekly jam sessions.
Peak to Peak Highway in Colorado
New England may get all the fame for its fall foliage. But after making this 55-mile drive in the fall, you’ll see why this Rocky Mountain state is nicknamed “Colorful Colorado.”
As Colorado’s oldest scenic byway, Peak-to-Peak skirts the lower ridges of the Front Range and is a great day trip. You can spot elk roaming Estes Park in the fall, try your luck at the twin casino towns Black Hawk and Central City, pan for gold in a creek, see what’s left of the Nevadaville ghost town and hike in Golden Gate Canyon State Park.
In Nederland, a quirky mountain town, rides on the lovingly restored 1910 Carousel of Happiness are just $3.
Road to Hana in Maui, Hawaii
Maui is an expensive island to vacation on, but travelers can offset the hotel costs by enjoying the island’s many free outdoors activities like beaches, hiking trails and waterfalls.
For a beautiful showcase of Maui, the Road to Hana is a daring 64-mile drive on Maui’s northern coast between Paia, a laid-back surf town, and Hana, a peaceful and secluded retreat. But don’t let the short distance of this road trip fool you. The road has 620 twists and turns and lots of narrow bridges, plus lots of stops that beckon, like waterfall pools, ocean overlooks and local fruit stands. Pack a swimsuit and towels. The out-and-back drive makes a nice day trip that’s easy on the wallet.
Highway 101 along the Oregon Coast
Oregon’s 363-mile stretch of coastline is known as the “People’s Coast” because Oregonians and visitors alike have public access to all of the beaches. In fact, Oregon’s is the only ocean-adjacent public coastline in the United States. Those making the drive along Highway 101 (i.e. the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway) can pull over at many scenic outlooks and state parks and watch for whales: These gentle giants visit Oregon’s shores from mid-December through mid-January and again from late March through the end of May. To celebrate the migrations, Oregon State Parks hold Whale Watch Week twice a year in late December and late March. Volunteers are stationed at more than 20 of the best whale watching sites along the coast, ready to help visitors spot whales as well as share facts about the marine mammals.
In addition to free whale watching, road-trippers can find lots of free oceanfront hotels along the coast, with nightly rates between $100 to $200. Or, for a road trip on two wheels, Escape Adventures runs six-day bike tours along the Oregon Coast, with an option to stay in inns or save money and camp.
Route 66 from Illinois to California
Arguably the most iconic stretch of asphalt in America, Route 66 (also known as “The Mother Road”) starts in Chicago and ends near the Santa Monica Pier in California.
The 2,400-mile drive is a historically significant one as it carried thousands of Depression-era migrants from the Midwest who went to California with hopes of better jobs. Several iconic, quirky and photo-worthy roadside stops make Route 66 an entertaining drive. Some of the most noteable free stops include the The Museum Under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the row of graffiti-covered Cadillacs standing upright at Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, and a turquoise blue swimming hole in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.
Florida Overseas Highway
A transportation wonder, the southernmost stretch of U.S. Highway 1 is often called the “Highway that Goes to Sea” as a network of 42 bridges connect’s Florida’s mainland with the Florida Keys. Take turns in the passenger seat as this 113-mile stretch of roadway has fantastic views of the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico.
The trip has lots of great free stops, including a self-guided tour of Art Deco architecture in Miami and swimming and birdwatching at Bahia Honda State Park. Snorkeling is great in the Keys, but because most of the reefs are several miles off the shore, you’ll need to splurge a little for snorkeling charters. Expect prices starting at about $25 for kids and $50 for adults.
Texas Hill Country
Wildflowers are in bloom in Texas each spring, making for pretty drives though the Lone Star State. (Give hat tips to Lady Bird Johnson who was a beautification champion and the Texas Department of Transportation that plants 30,000 pounds of seeds on Texas roadsides each year.)
While there are lots of wildflower loops you can drive in Texas, the Fredericksburg and Hill Country area is especially scenic with bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes, red poppies, ox-eyed daises and wine cup flowers that are in bloom in the spring. You can view the flowers from roadside fields and at Wildseed Farms, as well as at The Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site, where more than 400 wildflower species sprout up.
By Brittany Anas, for Newsy.
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