11 Scenic American Road Trips to Take in the Spring
The weather is warming up, and late winter rains have turned trees and grass to green and encouraged wildflowers to bloom. It’s the right time to take a drive, either in a favorite place or a new destination with unfamiliar landscapes and roads. Whether your preferred scenery is mountains, deserts, forests, plains, or coastal views, there’s a road trip that will make you happy. If you enjoy historic sites, regional food, wineries, or nature, you can plan a journey around your interests.
We’ve put together a few suggestions, many of them beginning at a place worth exploring before setting out on your drive. Others cover national parks during this ideal time of year before summer crowds arrive and after winter’s cold and snow are gone. Wildlife is abundant in the parks, with migrations and births, so watching for birds and other creatures will add to the experience.
There’s flexibility built into these suggested itineraries, with possible extensions if your schedule allows. It’s always a good idea to download your route from Google Maps to use offline, or pack a paper map just in case you find yourself out of range. While it’s fun to “play it by ear” on road trips, a bit of planning makes things run more smoothly. On that subject, you’ll naturally make sure your vehicle is ready for action or if you’re renting a car, make a reservation so you’ll get the one you want.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
The scenic drive through Joshua Tree National Park covers about 70 miles if you drive straight through, but plan on spending at least four hours because you’ll want to take detours for enjoying panoramic views, climbing on massive rock formations, strolling through the cactus garden, marveling at an oasis, and finding the perfect Joshua Tree for your photos. This spring is expected to be a good one for wildflowers, after winter’s abundant rain.
There are several ways to enter the Park, but let’s say you’re starting in Palm Springs. Drive East on I-10 for about an hour to Cottonwood Springs Road (exit 168) and the park’s south entrance. Your first stop will be the Visitor Center for a map, and then on through the Colorado Desert environment, around sea level. You’ll see ocotillo, with its tall branches tipped by bright red blossoms. Stop at the Cholla Cactus Garden and walk among its paths, but not too close to the prickly plants.
Soon you’ll see the “tree” that gave the park its name, coined by early Mormon settlers who likened its branches to arms outstretched in prayer. Take a side trip to Keys View where its 5,000 foot elevation provides a striking panorama. As you wind through the park on its well-paved roads, you’ll notice campsites, picnic tables, wildlife, and an increase in elevation to the cooler Mojave Desert environment as you head towards the west entrance on Highway 62 in Joshua Tree Village. The highway meets I-10—west towards Los Angeles or east towards Palm Springs.
Miami to Key West, Florida
This drive, preferably in a convertible with the top down, covers about 150 miles, but the timing depends on your stops along the way. Take US-1 south, heading through historic Coconut Grove, past University of Miami, and on along either South Dixie Highway (US-1) or Ronald Reagan Turnpike (toll road), past the farms of Homestead, to Florida City and US-1 South which turns into the Overseas Highway. Look for Mile Marker 126 to help you count down the distance to Key West. Key Largo will be the northernmost of the Keys and possibly your first stop.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first undersea park in the country, offers snorkeling, scuba diving, glass bottom boat tours, and more. Islamorada begins the middle Keys, a favorite of fishing fans and a place to browse for souvenirs. On to Marathon Key, actually 13 islands, known for loggerhead turtles and its Dolphin Research Center. South of Marathon, US-1 crosses the Seven Mile Bridge which links Marathon with the Lower Keys.
Enjoy the view of the surrounding waters as you drive across the bridge, and look over at the original railroad bridge, severely damaged in 1935’s hurricane, commemorated in the Hurricane Memorial in Islamorada. On the other side of the bridge, Bahia Honda State Park is partially open while recovering from the effects of Hurricane Irma. You may want to stop and explore the wildlife at the National Key Deer Refuge before reaching your destination of Key West. Enjoy the ambience of this unique town, stroll along Duval Street, or visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Skyline Drive takes you 105 miles through the Park along the crest of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. About an hour and a half from Washington, D. C., this road trip through nature would be a perfect contrast to the capital’s museums and monuments. Waterfalls, spring wildflowers, hiking trails, wildlife, picnic areas, and 75 scenic overlooks will add hours of enjoyment to your park visit, so take your time on this popular road trip.
Entering at Front Royal on US-340, one of the park’s four entrances, the road climbs to Dickey Ridge (mile 4.6), where the Visitor Center provides exhibits, maps, and an orientation film. Mileposts on the west side of the road beginning with 0.0 at Front Royal help locate points of interest along the way. They continue to 105 at the southern end of the park at Rockfish Gap. Take your time and stop at the well-marked scenic overlooks, starting with the Shenandoah Valley Overlook at mile 2.8, where you can see the Shenandoah River, as it winds through the valley. See it also at Hogback Overlook at mile 20.8, where you’ll also be able to view the Alleghenies and Massanutten Mountain.
Continue enjoying the panoramic views from the various overlooks, stop for a short hike, or learn more about the park at the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center, milepost 51 across from Big Meadows, an open area with campgrounds and spring wildflowers. At the Bearfence Mountain parking lot, hikers can take a trail to the summit for a 360-degree view. Where Skyline Drive ends at Rockfish Gap, the Blue Ridge Parkway to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, a trip of nearly 500 scenic miles, begins.
Grand Teton National Park to Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana
Since these two national parks are less than a hundred miles apart, it’s possible to visit them both with one road trip. Of course, truly exploring the parks would require at least a few days, but depending on your schedule, you can take advantage of this two-for-one vacation. Grand Teton National Park, at about 300,000 acres, is near the Wyoming town of Jackson, with Jackson Hole Airport located within the park at the base of the Teton Mountains. Just north, Yellowstone National Park covers over two million acres, with its famous geysers, mudpots, and hot springs.
Spring in Grand Teton sees the annual wildlife migration, with elk, bison, deer, and moose heading for their summer homes. The park’s mountains, valleys, forests, and rivers come alive after winter, and wildflowers begin to bloom. Be sure to stop at one of the six visitor centers in the park to learn about its history, wildlife, and environment. You may want to spend a night before setting out on the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway towards Yellowstone.
Heading north, you’ll be entering Yellowstone at the southernmost of its five entrances. You’ll pass Lewis Lake, waterfalls, and arrive at the Grant Village Visitor Center. Be sure to check the park’s website or convenient app regarding road conditions, especially in early spring. Head west to the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center to learn about the geyser and see it erupt. Watch for the park’s abundant wildlife that includes bighorn sheep, bison, elk, moose, deer, black bears, coyotes, and mountain lions. If time allows, you can continue your national parks road trip by heading further north to Glacier National Park in Montana.
Seattle, Washington to Newport, Oregon
Seattle is a popular destination and fun to visit, so our road trip begins here. After dining on seafood, strolling through Pike Place Market, and seeing the sights, head southwest towards the Oregon coast and the lovely town of Astoria. The trip begins on I-5 and is about 180 miles, passing enormous pine trees, green forests, and towns, taking about five hours until you cross the four-mile Astoria-Megler Bridge spanning the Columbia River and enter Astoria, where you should spend the night and take some time exploring in the morning.
The historic town is set where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean, and the Maritime Museum’s displays show the challenges of ships navigating the area. Once a center of fur trading and canneries, Astoria’s historic homes still stand, and the town almost seems lost in time. Don’t miss the view from Coxcomb Hill and the Astoria Column, dedicated in 1926 to honor Astoria’s early settlers.
Set out from Astoria along US-101 heading south along Oregon’s coast, and plan for many stops along the way at observation points, towns, state parks, beaches, or simply to enjoy breathtaking views of rugged coastline and crashing waves. Ecola State Park, with its sandy beach, tidepools, picnic areas, and hiking trails would be an appealing place to stop. Other beaches, wildlife preserves, and fishing villages will beckon you along the way, turning the 133 mile trip from Astoria into a full day. Relax in Newport, visit the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and dine on fresh seafood at sunset as you decide on your next stop. Willamette Valley wineries? Portland? More coastal towns? State Route 20 heads inland and US-101 continues south for your next adventure.
Rapid City to Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Rapid City is not only a great destination in itself, with art galleries, life-size bronze sculptures of presidents, restaurants, and historic sites. It’s also the gateway to Mount Rushmore, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, and Badlands National Park, where this road trip will take us. Fossil beds, rugged mountains, wildlife, and striking rock formations create a unique environment.
The park is 75 miles east of Rapid City, and South Dakota Route 44 is the scenic road through open prairie, farms, small towns, and ranches along Rapid Creek, a tributary of the Cheyenne River. You’ll drive through the Buffalo Gap National Grassland before reaching the entrance to Badlands National Park, two miles north of the town of Interior on Highway 377. From there, the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway (SD-240) takes you through the park along 31 miles of stunning scenery that includes buttes, cliffs, spires, and overlooks where you’ll be amazed by the stretch of landscape before you.
Plan to spend several hours to experience the varied terrain and scenic beauty of the park. Hike one of the many trails and stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to learn more about the park. Don’t leave without a stop at Pinnacles Overlook, especially striking at sunset. For your return to Rapid City, take SD-240 north to the town of Wall and then head northwest on I-90 for a quicker route.
New York, New York to Cape May, New Jersey
There’s always something to do in the Big Apple, and after you’ve done your favorite things, had your fill of the best pizza and bagels, and feel ready to get behind the wheel and hit the road, plan to head south along the Jersey Shore. You’ll probably leave the city via the Holland Tunnel to cross under the Hudson River to New Jersey. Stay on Route 78 and then take I-95 after you cross Newark Bay. After Perth Amboy, take the Garden State Parkway for a more scenic drive closer to the coast. Whew! You’ve made it out of the city.
The entire route is around 160 miles, and you’ll pass through some well-known beach towns that are worth a jaunt off the Parkway, so allow plenty of time. Asbury Park is where Bruce Springsteen got his start, and other beach towns, long popular as summer getaways, are Belmar, Spring Lake, Point Pleasant, and towns on Long Beach Island, a narrow barrier island that parallels the coast. For a more scenic route closer to the ocean, take Route 9 when it branches off around Toms River. Atlantic City, home to hotels, restaurants, casinos, beaches, and its historic boardwalk is next along your route. Its Steel Pier amusement park offers rides, games, and food.
Nearing the southernmost end of New Jersey, you’ll reach Wildwood with Adventure Pier, 1950’s style motels, diners, and retro-style entertainment. Just a bit further, but seemingly a world away, Cape May offers Victorian-style homes, quaint cottages, boutiques, galleries, and history dating back to the 1600’s. Walk among its historic buildings and spend a night in one of its inns or bed & breakfasts before returning to New York or continuing south.
New Orleans to Baton Rouge, Louisiana
After the music, parades, nightlife, restaurants, fun, and beignets of New Orleans, think about a road trip to Louisiana’s capital. It’s only about 110 miles, but with so much history and beauty along the way, you should plan on making it a full day trip. Take I-10 west out of town, and after about an hour, you’ll reach your first suggested stop, Destrehan Plantation, said to be the oldest plantation house in the area. Visit for a tour and a lesson in our nation’s history.
From there, take I-310 south to LA-18, a scenic road that hugs the Mississippi, curving along with it to Evergreen Plantation, about an hour away. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the complex covers 37 buildings, including 22 slave cabins, and a walking tour is available, with reservations advised. Continue on LA-18 along the river, and if you wish to make another stop, Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie boasts a Greek-revival style house surrounded by a canopy of live oak trees.
Continue on scenic LA-18, and stop along the way at cemeteries, churches, and picturesque places that catch your eye. Cross the river at Route 70 after White Hall and take the I-10 north for about an hour to Baton Rouge. Enjoy some time in the city, and perhaps spend the night after your long day of driving and touring antebellum plantations. For a faster return, take I-10 east, or continue west on I-10 to Lafayette, Lake Charles, and beyond.
San Antonio to Austin, Texas
If you happen to be in San Antonio in April, don’t miss Fiesta Days from April 18-28 for parades, flowers, food, and entertainment, but the city is fun all the time, especially in spring. Enjoy the River Walk and restaurants while you plan your Texas-style road trip to the state capital of Austin. Wildflowers and the spring landscape make this meandering drive a beautiful, if not the quickest route to Austin. Head north on I-10 out of the city, and then west on I-410 to TX-16 north (Bandera Road) for a scenic drive through Hill Country.
The town of Bandera, home to dude ranches and farms, was once a center for cattle drives, thus its title as “Cowboy Capital of the World.” From there, head north on TX-173 and TX-16 to Fredericksburg, a Texas city with a German heritage dating back to its first settlers in the mid-1800’s. Wineries and authentic German cuisine make this an attractive stopping point. If you have time, stop in Enchanted Rock State Natural Area to see its pink granite dome and striking rock formations.
Austin is about 80 miles east on US-290, but if there’s time for one more detour, you might want to visit Pedernales Falls State Park just six miles north of US-290 about halfway to Austin. Known for entertainment, food, and nightlife, Austin is called the “Live Music Capital of the World.” You may want to spend a night to see what it’s all about. When it’s time to leave, you can take a direct route back to San Antonio on I-35 south, making the trip in under two hours.
Phoenix to Flagstaff, Arizona
Spring is lovely in Phoenix, with April temperatures in the mid-80’s and heading higher as summer approaches. Flagstaff, our destination at 7,000 feet of elevation, sees cooler temperatures in the low 60’s during spring. The drive begins on I-17 north through the Sonoran Preserve and continues through the desert landscape for nearly one hundred miles before reaching our first suggested stop, Montezuma Castle National Monument.
These well-preserved prehistoric cliff dwellings were the homes of the Sinagua people for over 400 years. Continue northeast on I-17, then take AZ-179 north to Sedona along the Red Rock Scenic Byway, about seven miles of stunning scenery that includes rugged sandstone rock formations tinted red by the presence of iron. Spend some time in the small town, explore the shops and restaurants, or hike among the rocks to feel the energy some refer to as vortexes.
Take AZ-89A north towards Flagstaff, but don’t miss Slide Rock State Park, especially during wildflower season. In a bit more than 30 minutes, you’ll arrive in Flagstaff, set in the world’s largest Ponderosa Pine forest. Explore the historic downtown on a walking tour and rest there for the night before heading back to Phoenix or on to Grand Canyon National Park, Wupatki National Monument, Petrified Forest National Park, or one of the other national or state parks accessible from the gateway of Flagstaff.
Monterey to San Luis Obispo, California
No list of scenic road trips would be complete without one of the most beloved—California’s Big Sur and Highway One. Reopened last year after damage from a mudslide, the famed trip takes drivers along the state’s central coast between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains for 90 miles of breathtaking views. We begin in Monterey, about two hours south of San Francisco.
If there’s time to spend in Monterey, we highly recommend the 17-Mile Drive that will take you around the peninsula for both coastline and inland landscapes, world-famous golf courses, pine forests, fabulous homes, and the iconic Lone Cypress. Stop at the Cypress Point Lookout for a view of the coast and the Point Sur Lighthouse.
Join Highway One in Carmel for your drive south along Big Sur. You’ll come to the Bixby Creek Bridge, where there are turnouts for safe parking while you snap a photo. As of this writing, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is closed for repairs, but you can still stop nearby to view the McWay Falls. The highway continues past Hearst Castle in San Simeon and on to the college town of San Luis Obispo, past wineries, beaches, cliffs, and all the way to Los Angeles and beyond.