There is nothing quite like a summer road trip. The freedom of setting out in a fully-stocked recreational vehicle with only a loose itinerary and nothing but the winding road and endless possibilities is, frankly, close to unbeatable. It offers a chance to live in the now while reminding us that this moment is at once fleeting and eternal.
With just a week left before Labor Day and the unofficial end of summer 2021, there’s just enough time to hit the road for one last hurrah. Here are ten road trips I recommend for travel this time of year.
Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway, South Dakota
Some of the most incredible roads anywhere make up the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. Mix in America’s most patriotic monument along the way and you have a never-to-be-forgotten road trip. This byway winds around spiraling “pig-tail” shaped bridges, through six rock tunnels, among towering granite pinnacles, and over pristine, pine-clad mountains. Highlights include Harney Peak, Sylvan Lake, the Needle’s Eye, and Cathedral Spires rock formations. Forming a figure-eight route, the byway travels through Custer State Park, the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, near Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and the Black Elk National Wilderness Area. Highways 16A, 244, 89, and 87 combine to create the route.
Scenic Byway 12, Utah
If you could choose just one road to explore in Utah’s red-rock country, make it Scenic Byway 12. It connects the hoodoo-filled wonder that is Bryce Canyon National Park with the monumental geology of Capitol Reef National Park and in between, it runs through the even wilder, 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. That means diversions galore including Escalante Petrified Forest State Park and the partially paved Cottonwood Canyon which runs through both Grand Staircase (don’t miss Grosvenor Arch) and Kodachrome Basin with its cylindrical stone “sand pipes.” On the north side of 12, divert to Hell’s Backbone Scenic Byway—44 miles of red-rock wonders on gravel. Cool outdoorsy towns pop up just when you need a coffee or a burger: namely, Escalante, Boulder (famous for organic chow at Hells’ Backbone Grill), and Torrey. Bonus suggestion: Red Canyon has Bryce’s beauty without its people.
Are you ready for a day (or two or three) at the beach? Why not spend it at Padre Island National Seashore near Corpus Christi, the longest stretch of an undeveloped barrier island in the world. In addition to its 70 miles of protected coastline, other important ecosystems abound including a rare coastal prairie, a complex and dynamic dune system, tidal flats teeming with life, and the Laguna Madre, one of the few hypersaline lagoons in the world. It is a safe nesting ground for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and a haven for over 380 bird species. It also has a rich history, including the Spanish shipwrecks of 1554. Many people come to the National Seashore to experience the beauty of nature in isolation. One way to do this is to travel down-island into the park’s most remote areas which are accessible with a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle.
If you’re looking for a loop without a single boring mile that connects hot springs, historic towns, ancient history, and geologic wonders, you’ve come to the right place. New Mexico has undoubtedly won the landscape lottery enjoying incredibly diverse and dramatic views yet only a fraction of the visitation that Utah and Colorado attract each year. Start in either Albuquerque or Santa Fe and work your way through the cliff dwellings of Bandelier National Monument, the sweeping views of Valles Caldera, and the lava fields of Malpais National Monument. Take care not to lose your way among the sparkling gypsum dunes of White Sands National Park—stay at a private campground near the town of Alamogordo—so you can find your way to Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces. From there, visit Historic Mesilla before heading to the village of Hatch, the Chile Capital of the world, for their annual Chile Festival (September 4-5, 2021).
Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, Louisiana
Starting on the outskirts of Lake Charles and ending at the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road is a network of scenic byways where you’ll find more than 400 bird species, alligators galore, and 26 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches. Also called “America’s Outback,” the Creole Nature Trail takes road trippers through 180 miles of southwest Louisiana’s backroads. You’ll pass through small fishing villages, National Wildlife Refuges to reach the little-visited Holly and Cameron beaches. Take a side trip down to Sabine Lake or drive onto a ferry that takes visitors across Calcasieu Pass.
Journey through Hallowed Ground National Scenic Byway, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland
Any route that connects Gettysburg to Jefferson’s Monticello and Madison’s Montpelier is so deeply steeped in history that beauty is a bonus. The two go nicely together here, though, as the corridor leads to battlefields—Manassas, Antietam, and Harpers Ferry, among many—as well as woodsy parks like Gambrill State Park in Maryland and Bull Run Mountains Nature Preserve in Virginia. One day you might be tubing on the Potomac or rafting the Shenandoah; another day doffing your cap in respect at Gettysburg then exploring any of a dozen historic towns. Warrenton, Virginia, alone has 300 historical sites. Try the pumpkin fritters at Farnsworth House in Gettysburg as you count the more than 100 bullet holes that riddle the Civil War–period building.
Moab/Bears Ears Loop, Utah
Utah is best known for the national parks stretching across its southern edge but just beyond those crowds, you’ll find empty roads and quiet lands with stunning rock formations that defy belief. In the southeastern corner of the state in the Bears Ears region, you can spend a lifetime learning about the Indigenous peoples who have long lived in and cared for these landscapes. From Moab, head south toward Bears Ears where large swathes of BLM land stretch across Cedar Mesa. At Natural Bridges National Monument, you can hike past cliff dwellings built by Ancestral Pueblo people. Spend a day in the nearby Valley of the Gods where a 17-mile unpaved road offers striking red desert views without a person in sight. Continue onward to Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation and visit the mind-boggling river bends of Goosenecks State Park—a recently-certified Dark Sky park.
Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia
What the Blue Ridge Parkway doesn’t have: billboards, commercial trucks, or development. What it does have: hundreds of miles of mountain and forest views as it winds smoothly and slowly (max speed is 45) between the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks. And countless opportunities to hike (369 miles of mountain trails), witness waterfalls, and camp in any of eight campgrounds! Because the road was built for scenic touring, its dozens of overlooks and picnic areas are strategically placed for maximum inspiration. Also along the way is Mount Mitchell, highest in the East (6,684 feet), Whitewater Falls (411 feet), highest in the East, and Linville Gorge, deepest in the East.
San Juan Skyway, Colorado
The mountain scenery is relentlessly stunning and there’s everything to do along the way (bike, hike, fish, camp, explore native ruins, and mining history). The aptly named San Juan Skyway ascends multiple passes higher than 10,000 feet as it loops through the San Juan Range while fourteeners loom overhead. The route links iconic mountain-sports towns like Telluride, Durango, and Dolores, the latter perched between the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park and the vast Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. The stretch between Silverton and Ouray is known as the Million Dollar Highway honoring the gold ore extracted thereabouts as well as the cost of building such a canyon-clinging ribbon of road.
Amish Country Byway, Ohio
The 160-mile Amish Country Byway boasts views of natural vistas along winding curves and over rolling hills. In addition, this charming country byway offers visitors a fine selection of Amish country cooking as well as sites featuring the culture and history of the Amish people. Celebrate the lifestyle of a place and people who defy modern conveniences while enjoying the simple pleasures of farm life and country living. The Amish Country Byway forms a spider-web of 13 state and federal routes throughout Holmes County, the largest Amish settlement in the world. US Route 62 bisects the county from the southwest to northeast corners, traveling through Millersburg. The Amish Country Byway offers experiences that many visitors enjoy over and over again.
We know that in September, we will wander through the warm winds of summer’s wreckage. We will welcome summer’s ghost.