The United States is a diverse country — in both its people and its scenery. That being said, there is no better way to see it than hopping in the car for a road trip. As president of the All Fifty Club, I hear first-hand from travelers who visit all 50 states about their favorite road trips and travel experiences. Many of the same places repeatedly make the greatest impression. This input, plus my own road trip experience, resulted in the development of some amazing itineraries for bucket list road trips that pack a punch in seeing major parts of America.
As a warning, these road trips are not for the faint of heart. Jam-packed with U.S. wonders, each of these incredible trips does require the following: at least 10 days, plenty of space on your camera, a reliable vehicle, a good dose of patience and (need I mention it?) lots of snacks. Even if it seems scary, the reward is irreplaceable. So, pick a trip. Each one will result in memories that last a lifetime.
Trip 1 — Canyons & Casinos
Major cities: Phoenix, Sedona, Las Vegas
Main attraction: Grand Canyon
Every list of the “natural wonders of the world” includes the Grand Canyon. And for good reason! Even amazing photography and vivid videography cannot replace the sense of awe and wonder you get from standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon in person. And even though the highlight of trip one is the Canyon, there are even more wonders to visit along the way.
Itinerary: Fly into Phoenix, Arizona, and stay for a day or two taking in the desert beauty by hiking at one of many parks such as Camelback Mountain or Hole in the Rock. After your stay in Phoenix, drive north on Interstate 17, then change to State Route 179 to drive through beautiful Oak Creek Canyon and the town of Sedona. Known for its red rock beauty, Sedona is a place to connect with nature. Take an off-road adventure with Pink Jeep tours, visit some art galleries, or see if you feel any supernatural vibes at a Sedona vortex, a supposed intersection of earth energy forces. Continue north and drive through Flagstaff until you reach the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Aim to arrive in the early afternoon to stop at the Visitor Center to get your bearings and watch a video about the formation of the Canyon. Then, get your first glance of the canyon by visiting the rim at sunset. Make reservations far in advance somewhere close to the park like El Tovar Lodge or Mather campground. The next morning, wake up early to view the park again in different light and watch the sunrise at the Canyon before visiting scenic overlooks via a shuttle or hiking between stops.
Your scenic view will continue as you drive Desert View Highway east out of the National Park and north to Page, Arizona, the home of Lake Powell. The stunning beauty of the rocks and water is mesmerizing. Tour Glen Canyon Dam before heading into Utah, which is known for its “Mighty 5” national parks — visiting them can be a whole trip in and of itself. However, on this trip you will have to limit yourself to Zion National Park, where you will take in the beauty for a day before heading for Las Vegas. Although you may want to try your hand at blackjack, the sights to see are the elaborate façades and decor of the hotels and casinos. Drive down the Las Vegas Strip and gawk at the hotels and the people. Watch the fountains in front of the Bellagio and walk through Caesar’s Palace. Las Vegas will be a stark contrast from the initial part of your trip, so be sure to reflect on all you have seen on the entire journey — the canyons and the casinos.
If you have more time, check out Bryce Canyon, Arches National Parks and Valley of Fire.
States visited: AZ, UT, NV
Trip 2 – In the Heart of the City
Major cities: Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New York City
Bring history and government alive by going to the major sites in American history. This trip includes three major metropolitan areas of the United States that every citizen should visit at least once. Although each city could be a trip on its own, we can only take so many trips, right? Thus, “In the Heart of the City” is a mega trip that takes you to all three: Washington D.C., the home of our federal government and a repository of so much history; Philadelphia, the founding place of our country; and New York City, the ultimate melting pot.
Be prepared to walk on this road trip, which begins in Washington D.C. Stay close to downtown so you can walk to the National Mall and see the monuments. Visit a Smithsonian of your choice. Love history? Go to the National Museum of American History. Love dinosaurs? Head to the National Museum of Natural History. Aviation is your passion? Tour the National Air and Space Museum. Contact your congressional representatives up to three months in advance of your trip to arrange for a White House or Capitol tour as they fill up quickly and require background checks. If this doesn’t work out, definitely walk or drive by each of the buildings and try to guess what decisions are being made inside. Traffic in the evenings is light so if your feet are tired consider driving around the city at night to see sites that were too far to get to on foot or Metro during the day.
Leave the city heading north to Baltimore and make a stop at Fort McHenry, the site that inspired the writing of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Continue on I-95 to Philadelphia and stand in the place that our forefathers formed our government of the people, by the people at Independence Square. See the Liberty Bell and, of course, eat a Philly cheesesteak. From there, it is just a short drive to New York City. I had a great experience staying in an Airbnb on Staten Island and taking the free ferry ride to Manhattan to sightsee. The ride gave our group the opportunity to wind down after a long day (or night!) in the city. Plan on spending at least a half a day at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Then, spend the rest of the day exploring the Wall Street area and the 9/11 Museum. For the second day in the city, head straight to the Central Park area and pick up a double-decker trolley ride. Although these types of rides are offered in many cities, in NYC it is great because it gives you a wonderful overall perspective of the buildings, the traffic and the layout of the city. In addition, the ride gives your feet a much-needed rest from the day before. Pick where you want to get off, but don’t miss getting a needed boost of energy from a cannoli or calzone from Little Italy. End the trip by successfully navigating through Grand Central Station then flying out of La Guardia airport — you will have made it through two of the busiest transportation centers in the country.
If you have more time, check out Edison National Park, Hagley Museum, a Broadway show, the United Nations or a baseball game.
States visited: MD, Washington D.C., VA, PA, DE, NY
Trip 3 – Buffalos and Bluffs
Major cities: St. Louis, Kansas City, Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Denver, Kearney, St. Louis
Main attractions: Gateway Arch, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Rockies
Many travelers remember “the one summer when we rented an RV,” so experience the fun of living in and driving a motorhome to see iconic American sites on this amazing trip through the heartland and the Rockies. The long, straight stretches of highway lend themselves to RV travel, but if driving a vehicle that big makes your uneasy, skip the RV. Either way, you’ll want to stare out the window as the landscape changes while you travel across the country.
“Buffalos and Bluffs” begins in St. Louis, MO, which pretty much necessitates a tour to the top of the Gateway Arch. Head north driving along the western border of Iowa until you get to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Stretch your legs at the Falls and turn west on I-90 across the state. In Mitchell, SD, stop at the Corn Palace. You may wonder why you stopped here, but this is the land of roadside attractions, after all. Eventually you will come to the Badlands, which will trigger memories of the Lion King — the part where Simba is dying of thirst in a barren dessert. Drive through the Badlands and exit through Wall, South Dakota, the home of Wall Drug. Don’t worry you won’t miss the signs. It’s a good stop for ice cream!
Next stop, Mount Rushmore. Leave lots of time to explore this American wonder. Time the visit so you can see the monument during the day and be able to see the light show once it gets dark.
Continue on I-90 out of South Dakota and into Montana. Head south once you come to tiny Route 89. Consider staying at Chico Hot Springs, a resort dating back to the early 1800s. Your excitement will build as you drive from Chico to the northern entrance of Yellowstone. Keep your eyes fixed on the sides of the road for animals — elk, black bears, brown bears, buffalo. The Yellowstone National Park Visitor center will equip you with what you need to know, such as when to expect Old Faithful to erupt. Even if you don’t stay at the Old Faithful Inn, it is worth taking a peek inside. If you are counting states, you are as close as you may get to Idaho, so take the short 12 mile drive to West Yellowstone via the West Yellowstone entrance/exit. Unfortunately, we did not take this short detour when we were there, so my husband has visited 49 states with just Idaho to go. Leave Yellowstone through the South Exit, and before you know it you will be in the Grand Tetons. Even in July you may see snow! Campgrounds abound or “rough-it” by glamping in a yurt or cabin. Drive down Highway 191 to Dinosaur National Park where you can see actual excavation sites. Beware – if you have young dinosaur lovers, this may curb their enthusiasm once they see what a paleontologist actually does all day.
Continue on until I-70 near Grand Junction, CO, and get ready for a drive of your life. The interstate will take you up and through the Rocky Mountains and spit you out the other side at Denver. By this time your senses and mind will be overloaded by what you have seen, so just hit the road until you get to the Archway in Nebraska, which you can’t miss because it is literally over the interstate. Get a quick education on settlers traveling west before you end up where “Buffalos and Bluffs” began in St. Louis.
More time? Take an excursion to North Dakota, the mining towns of Keystone, Deadwood or Lead, SD.
States visited: MO, IA, KS, NE, SD, MT, WY, CO, ID
Trip 4 — A Whale of a Trip
Major Cities – Anchorage, Denali, Seward, Juneau, Seattle, Portland
Main Attractions – Nature, Nature, Nature, Space Needle, Boeing Factory
While we are talking road trips, one of the recurring favorite road trips is one combined with an Alaskan cruise. The road trip portion of the adventure is so integral that I feel that it must be included in the best road trips of all time. Alaska is a breathtaking place to visit, so unique compared to other states in the U.S. Combine Alaska with Washington and Oregon, and it is a whale of an unforgettable trip.
Start the trip by flying into Anchorage. Your first surprise will be daylight or the lack thereof. On a summer trip we landed at midnight to a sunny sky, crawled into bed – only the room darkening curtains helped our bodies realize it was time for sleep. Rent a car to explore the area. Take in a hike to Flat Top Mountain, visit the Ulu Knife Factory, or watch fisherman catching salmon at Ship Creek. Drive north to Talkeetna and the Denali Area. Consider stopping at Trout’s Place and Windbreak Cafe to try some reindeer (really reindeer) sausage. A side stop is the Iditarod Headquarters where you can go on a short sled ride and meet dogs and trainers who actually race in the Iditirod. Spend a few days in Denali, then drive back through Anchorage to Seward. Cruises are by far the most popular way 50 staters see Alaska; the Inner Passage is highly recommended with port stops in Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway. Cruise excursions abound for whale watching and totem pole exploration. Most southbound cruises end in Vancouver or Seattle.
Our cruise ended in Vancouver. After renting bikes and exploring Stanley Park, we boarded the Amtrak Cascades train to travel from Vancouver to the Seattle area. The scenery was beautiful as most of the ride was right along the coast. We got off at Everett Station, north of Seattle, which made our train ride about four hours. After getting a rental car we took a short drive to the Future of Flight Aviation Center to see the Boeing airplane factory. Drive to the downtown area to explore Pike Place Market to see some fish being thrown to customers. Buy some chewing gum to stick on the Gum Wall, and grab a drink at THE original Starbucks if you want to brave the long line of people waiting to go in. Learn some interesting history of the area by taking the Underground Tour. A trip to Seattle is not complete without going to the Space Needle. Drive south out of Seattle to go by the Mount Saint Helens and Mount Rainier region.
Cross into Oregon to the Columbia River Gorge and Multnomah Falls, another place of amazing scenery and great hiking. Then head west straight through Portland to the Oregon coast. The beach has an eerie ocean mist and rocks extending into the sea that create a different atmosphere compared to other beaches. As soon as the sun goes down, people light campfires along the beach using charred logs that are already on the sand. Our next stop was Evergreen Aviation in McMinnville, Oregon. This is a humongous facility with its main attraction being the Spruce Goose, the largest plane ever built. Next door was the Wings and Waves Waterpark, which has a 747 on top of the building with water slides coming out of the plane body. To complete the trip, return to Portland and take in some of the organic, sustainable culture of Portland at a local brewery or coffee shop. Or smell the roses at the International Rose Garden, eat a donut at Voodoo Doughnut, or find a book at Powell’s City (block) of Books. Hopefully you will be fortunate to see an actual whale on the trip, during the cruise or off the Pacific Northwest coast, but either way you will have had a whale of an adventure!
States visited: AK, WA, OR
Trip 5 – Amuse Yourself
Major cities: Orlando, Cape Canaveral, Daytona, St. Augustine, Savannah, Atlanta
Main attractions: Disney World, Universal Studios, Kennedy Space Center, the beach, Coke and CNN
While the trips so far have been based around nature or history, trip five takes you to another world – the magical world of Disney and more. This adventure kicks off in Orlando. To tackle the amusement parks, you will need the most energy so dive right into the parks while you are fresh. Staying on-site, especially since it is just for a couple of nights, will be worth it to be close and able to use the Disney transportation system. Pick out a couple of parks to visit. Magic Kingdom is the classic Disney destination, and Universal Studios, outside of Disney, is ideal for Harry Potter and modern superhero fans.
Head to the coast and visit the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Rockets are still regularly launched, so you may be lucky enough to be there on a launch day. You can check out the launch schedule to plan in advance, but dates and times are subject to change. Then, drive north to Daytona Beach, one of the few places where you can actually drive on the beach. After getting some sun and sand or visiting Daytona Speedway, head north along the coast and visit the oldest city in America, St. Augustine. Drink from the Fountain of Youth (it can’t hurt, can it?) at the Ponce De Leon site. Continue north and see the city of Savannah, which is full of charm and mystery with moss draping from the cypress trees. Head east to Atlanta and stay a day to visit the World of Coke or tour the CNN Center.
More time? Visit Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Universal Studios Hollywood or Charleston, SC.
States visited: FL, GA
Road trips are all about making memories, and in the end, some of the greatest impressions will not be of the great sights I mentioned, but rather of the surprises that happen along the way. Seeing a prairie dog colony at a gas station, meeting a family from Japan at the Grand Canyon or discovering Wawa sandwiches at a bathroom break. May these trips create experiences that shape you as a person and develop a greater understanding of the different parts of the United States. I look forward to welcoming you into the All Fifty Club, for if you complete these five bucket list road trips you will be already halfway there!
Alicia Rovey is President of the All Fifty Club, an organization whose mission is to track, share and celebrate the accomplishment of visiting all 50 states. The club currently has over 4,600 members from all 50 states and 23 countries. Members range from college students to seniors, campers to those who prefer 5-star hotels. More information about the above road trips and the club can be found at allfiftyclub.com.