Check out this list of family-friendly unique and classic routes up, down, and around America’s most scenic states.
By Maryann Jones Thompson
When I hear “road trip,” I think “The West!” Yes, I’m biased. And yes, there are great car journeys to be made around America and in other parts of the world. But bang for the buck, there are few spots that’ll stack up to what the western U.S. states deliver in terms of natural scenery, roadside attractions, traveler conveniences, and – most classically – vast expanses of desert, prairie, farms, ranchland, and majestic, glorious emptiness.
Like most Californian kids of the 70s and 80s, I grew up taking car-based vacations with my family all over The West. I remember hopping out of the car into a black hole of stillness in the Mohave Desert on a nighttime drive to Lake Havasu. Watching the prairie grass glisten for hours driving across Nebraska and South Dakota. Seeing the intense blue of Crater Lake and Tahoe – and even loving the endless gray of the Oregon and NorCal coasts.
Point being, The West will wow your kids too. Bribe ‘em to put down their phones and turn off their videos for a bit of each day’s driving and let them get bored looking out the windows at the horizon, the lines on the road, or more likely, epic vistas that have served as a tourist magnet for more than a century.
25 Ideas for Unique Road Trips
Here are ROAM’s recommendations for unique and classic road trips through the Western U.S. that’ll captivate the entire family.
Pacific Coast Highway – California’s Highway 1 a must-do, once in a lifetimer. But it’s a crowded, curvy route. Best to take your time and not go in summer – or break it up. If you’re in a hurry, do a short chunk: The trip from San Francisco to Morro Bay is the prettiest, in my opinion. But if you’ve got kids who get carsick, you can shorten it further by jumping on in Monterey and jumping off at Hearst’s Castle, with an overnight at a Big Sur campground or hotel to break up the curviness. If you’ve got a week, this San Diego-to-the-Oregon border itinerary from Roadtrippers covers a lot of tip-top stops.
Highway 395 Up the Eastern Sierra Old school Angelenos never take “The 5” to Tahoe. “395 is faster,” my parents would say. Is it faster? Maybe, maybe not. Is it one of the most scenic road trips in America? Absolutely. Mono Lake! Mammoth! Whitney! Lone Pine! Mohave! The rocky outcroppings, tumbleweeds, and high-desert scrub framed by Sierra peaks will look classically “western” to most visitors because the area was the setting for most Hollywood cowboy movies and TV shows. This Lonely Planet itinerary lays out a week from Tahoe to Death Valley, but it would be easy to continue to LA or Vegas from there.
Best of the Golden West – Jump in with the U.K.’s Rachel Ifans on a “greatest hits” road trip from Northern California south to the Sierras, beaches, and LA then on Route 66 to the Grand Canyon and Vegas!
Tree-lined Drives – California offers many arborial excursions worth taking: See coast redwoods on the Redwood Highway from SF to the Oregon Coast (or in just a few days near Humboldt), giant sequoias on the General’s Highway through Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and Joshua Trees on- and off-road in its namesake park.
San Diego to the Salton Sea – It’s a very quirky journey from the beaches of San Diego to the beaches of the Salton Sea. From La Jolla, Legoland and the San Diego Zoo, you’ll climb to the Gold Rush mountain town of Julian and then descend to the picturesque desert of Anza Borrego – a place stargazers love even more at night. Keep driving to the surreal Salton Sea, an abandoned and drying-up lake with a lot of art installations and post-apocalyptic scenery to fill up an Instagram feed.
California-Yellowstone – This isn’t as far as it sounds. From LA head to Vegas, hit Bryce, Zion, Salt Lake City, Jackson Hole, and end at Old Faithful. This trip takes only 15-16 hours straight through or about a week to do comfortably. From SF, travel times are about the same. Add another week to come home heading south (the Rockies, Santa Fe, and the Grand Canyon) or north (through Montana, Idaho and the northwest.)
LA to the Grand Canyon – The Day family lays out the perfect trip from home in LA to the Grand Canyon via Calico and more fun Route 66 roadside attractions.
All of Route 66 – Dream of driving the Mother Road from beginning to end, Chicago to LA? Independent Travel Cats provides a comprehensive article with everything you ever wanted to know about the entire route.
Best of the Southwest – Here’s another amazing way to hit many of the famed formations of the southwest. Land in Phoenix, head to Sedona, Flagstaff, and the Grand Canyon. Then continue north/east to the Painted Desert and eastern Utah (Grand Staircase, Arches, Moab) and Western Colorado before arriving in the Rocky Mountains and Denver.
Utah’s Mighty 5 – I love California but I believe that if there’s only time for one road trip in the western U.S., do Utah. It’s the least crowded, most magnificent, and all-around amazing. Check out Earthtrekker’s guide to the Mighty 5 – Bryce, Zion, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches national parks – and this young teacher’s wanderings around Utah for the in-depth expedition we all dream of.
Best of New Mexico – Matador Network delivers a something-for-everyone New Mexico itinerary that hits many of the Southwest’s most popular destinations, from Santa Fe to the Blue Hole to Taos to Carlsbad Caverns to Roswell. I’d consider adding a day to hit another incredibly alien spot, the Bisti Wilderness.
The Volcanic Legacy Byway – Kids AND parents can get behind the idea of a volcano-based trip. Lava? Fossils? Cone-shaped peaks? Yep, yep and yep. Along the 500-mile Volcano Legacy Byway from Northern California to Oregon, there are lakes, waterfalls, big vistas, and small towns to hang around. The “official” two-state route between Mt. Lassen, Mt. Shasta, and Crater Lake could easily be extended north to Washington for “more volcano” with stops at Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helen and Mt. Rainier.
All Over Oregon – The Beaver State truly has it all – from incredible mountains to raging rivers to picturesque beaches – oh, and hipster food and beverage, too. Follow the Wiginton family’s three-week itinerary through Oregon’s top spots, including Crater Lake, Bend, Portland, Astoria, and Cannon Beach.
Washington Loops There’s a ton to see in Western Washington alone. Consider a northern loop from Seattle to Bellingham, passing Edison and Chuckanut along the way. Return via the San Juan Islands, Anacortes, and a trip over Deception Pass to Whidbey Island. Another loop from Seattle will circumnavigate the Olympic Peninsula, and a stop in the Hoh Rainforest – an area made famous by the “Twilight” vampire movies. Another incredibly scenic loop near the Oregon-Washington border could start in Portland and take in Cannon Beach and Astoria, Oregon, head to Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula, moves east along the Colombia River to Mt. St. Helen and then return to Portland.
The Loneliest Road in America – Take Highway 50 east from Lake Tahoe and you’ll drive across Nevada’s waistline, also called “The Loneliest Road in America.” Where will you end up? That’s the best part! You’ll cross into Utah at the precise middle of nowhere! Or you can turn right at Ely, Nevada, you’ll continue on some lesser-known lonely roads. NatGeo presents a photo guide to the former Gold Rush superhighway.
Across South Dakota – There are not many states that deliver roadside attractions like South Dakota. From the Big Sioux in the east to the Black Hills of the west – or vice versa – ROAM recounts the best stops for families along the way.
The Dinosaur Trail – If you or your child has a soft spot for dinosaurs, Montana’s got a string of 14 paleontological sites that you’ll want to see.
Big Skies of Montana – The Big Sky State is really big so there’s a lot of ground to cover. Check NatGeo’s list of unique scenic drives and Moon’s week of highlights to hit everything from Custer’s Little Bighorn to the outdoor paradise of Whitefish to the Mammoth Hot Springs of Yellowstone to the “Going to the Sun Road” in Glacier.
West-to-East Idaho Idaho actually has 30 scenic byways but Afar says most tourists will be fully entertained with the trip from Boise to Sun Valley, with historic mining towns, fishing, hiking, wildlife watching and tons more outdoor recreating along the way.
The Alaskan Highway Driving 3,000 miles on the “Alcan” (Alaskan-Canadian Highway) from Seattle to Anchorage is a trip no one will ever forget. Read this LA Times recap of the incredible journey to the Great White North in an RV (that’ll take 351 gallons of gasoline, if you please…)
Backcountry Alaska – Afar lays out a fabulous see-it-all weeklong Alaskan route from Anchorage to Denali to Wrangell-St. Elias, and a lot of adventure along the way.
Dalton Highway to Alaska’s North Slope Yep, this is the big one. You’ll need a car that can travel on gravel but if you make this 500-mile journey from Fairbanks to Deadhorse on Prudhoe Bay, you’ll get an idea of what the Ice-Road Truckers see in the winter.
Maryann Jones Thompson – July 2020
After a thousand years in publishing as a business journalist, ghostwriter, content strategist and market researcher, Maryann brings her experience traveling as a backpacker, businessperson, expat and mom to writing and editing for ROAM.
© ROAM Family Travel 2020 – All rights reserved
Incredible golds, oranges and reds of the coast, high desert and mountains.
Locals' favorite family-friendly lakefront destinations
Same coast. More value. Fewer crowds.
25 unique & classic must-drive vacations for families
Considerations for responsible travel during COVID-19
Gotta get away? Check these ideas for COVID-19 trips
Armchair trips for active families.
Take the grandparents on a cross-state odyssey of Wild West vistas & outdoor majesty
Your one-stop-shop for 2020 family vacation ideas from all the top travel writers.
First-rate recreational activities to tackle in the Second City