American Road Trips
8 Pro Travelers' Best Road Trip Ideas
Choose your own adventure, through Southwest desert, Vermont mountains and more
Who doesn’t appreciate winding drives through lovely countryside? But for a truly memorable road trip, choose a location and route that aligns with your passions. To help, we asked some well-known travelers to put together itineraries for specific interests, from a car enthusiast’s outing (your guide: Michael Strahan) to a spiritual journey (Deepak Chopra) to a biker’s odyssey (environmentalist and author Bill McKibben).
Find a journey that suits your interests, including…
Stunning national parks
Driver: Patricia Schultz, 69, author of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die and Why We Travel, coming in September
Where to: Utah
Tales from the road: I have a couple hundred favorite road trips, but I always come back to Utah, and the “Mighty Five,” which is what they call the five magnificent national parks you can visit on a hamster’s loop around the southern part of the state in roughly one week’s time. I had never really heard much about Utah until my junior year abroad in Spain, when a local student told me all he wanted to see of the U.S. was Times Square, New Orleans and “Oo-ta.” He waxed on about the incredible parks there, and he planted a seed. When I finally did visit, I felt like I was viewing them through his eyes.
Itinerary: Starting out of Salt Lake City, the first park you hit is Zion, the oldest and maybe most beautiful park in Utah, and that’s a big statement. Zion is huge and mystifying, and you understand immediately why it awed the travelers who left these rock faces and canyons with place-names like Angels Landing and the Great White Throne. Many visitors combine Zion with a trip to Bryce Canyon, which is more of a pocket park. Bryce has limestone hoodoos, or pillars, that are eroding over time, and you can go down into the depths to a trek called Wall Street, an unforgettable trail through towering natural skyscrapers.
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If you continue north from Bryce, there’s Capitol Reef, the second biggest of the Mighty Five but one that too often gets overlooked. It follows a 100-mile fold in the Earth’s crust and has everything you want in a national park visit: old settlements, amazing hikes, orchards where you can pick fruit in season, and some great places to stop and eat, like the Capitol Reef Inn & Café. Right off Highway 24, you come upon petroglyph figures on a sheer face that runs parallel to the road.
Canyonlands National Park is Utah’s biggest, and you could spend days getting lost in the 527 square miles of river canyons and mesas, but the Island in the Sky area is the most accessible by car. Pick almost any spot and just gawk at the miles of mesas and sandstone cliffs.
The town of Moab is a fantastic base for exploring this whole area. It’s considered the adventure center of the Southwest because there is so much to do: bike riding and hot-air ballooning and trekking and more. Families love to go with multiple generations because some people can meander on easy hikes while others do whitewater rafting on the Colorado River.
I don’t need to say much about Arches National Park. It’s legendary, with more than 2,000 red sandstone arches. Driving is the best way to see much of the park, but don’t just stay in the car. Balanced Rock needs you to get up close to take a look. The boulder on top resembles a mushroom cloud.
One of my favorite places to stay is Sorrel River Ranch. It’s the full dude ranch experience. There’s even a spa. It’s the kind of idyllic place you never want to leave.
A deeper consciousness
Driver: Deepak Chopra, 75, mindfulness guru whose latest book is Abundance: The Inner Path to Wealth
Where to: The healing energy spots of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert
Tales from the road: I’m mostly in New York City these days and I enjoy walking my 10,000 steps, but it’s noisy, and the crowds can trigger anxiety if you’re not self-aware. In Arizona, I feel the calm inside and out. The desert areas have been a sacred space for centuries for Indigenous populations, and you can still experience the mind-body power of those rituals and ceremonies in whatever way you choose, even if it is simply by driving and really noticing what’s around you.
Itinerary: The area around Sedona, to me, looks like it’s not on planet Earth. The towering red and orange rock formations have the same kind of cosmic energy and ability to uplift the spirit as sacred sites that attract spiritual travelers and pilgrims at places like Glastonbury or Stonehenge in England. Sedona is natural, though, not built, and driving around there is almost like visiting a vast open-air cathedral. You will find people meditating at different spots near Sedona. Airport Mesa, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock and Boynton Canyon are the most popular.
It's two hours from Sedona to Phoenix, with beautiful desert scenery. In the area of Carefree, where my company has a mind-body center, there are desert gardens where you can see native plants of the desert. The ancients, and those who follow their practices today, used herbal medicine and psychedelic mushrooms to reach higher states of consciousness. If that calls to you, great. But you can achieve these altered states through other contemplative practices as well: observing the senses, observing your thoughts, observing your surroundings and recognizing that, ultimately, reality is within yourself as much as it is out there. Whether you’re in Manhattan or Phoenix, the one thing that stays continuous is inside you. It is consciousness.
Driver: Lesley Stahl, 80, correspondent for CBS’ 60 Minutes
Where to: A loop through history and good taste in SoCal
Tales from the road: When Ronald Reagan was president, I was CBS’ correspondent at the White House, and part of the press corps that followed him on vacation. Reagan usually went to his ranch in the mountains around Santa Barbara, and we stayed in town, along the ocean.
In those years, my husband, young daughter Taylor and I drove along the Pacific Coast Highway, stopping at, for instance, San Simeon, where William Randolph Hearst built a sumptuous castle. Once, we got out of the car and walked down to the beach to watch massive sunbathing elephant seals with their fabulous floppy noses. Years later, Taylor got married at the beautiful Foley vineyard in Santa Ynez, and her husband now makes his own wine. She and her family continue our tradition of exploring the Pacific Coast.
Itinerary: You might start a trip in Los Angeles at Television City, where shows like Three’s Company and The Carol Burnett Show were filmed, and where CBS News used to have a bureau. While there, you could line up to be a contestant on The Price Is Right.
You might then head north along Highway 1 to overnight in Santa Barbara. Consider visiting the botanic garden, with its authentic Japanese teahouse. It might be fun to drive into the Montecito hills, where Oprah and Harry and Meghan live.
Spend the next morning exploring San Simeon and Hearst Castle (make sure you reserve a tour ticket well in advance). Stop along the way for glassblowing classes in tiny Harmony or, my favorite, whale watching along Moonstone Beach in Cambria.
Loop back through San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach to Lompoc, gateway to Santa Barbara wine country. Overnight in Solvang or Los Olivos (near where my daughter got married!).
President Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo, where he spent most of his vacations horseback riding, is closed to the public. But Young America’s Foundation offers students and supporters the opportunity to visit the property.
Back in Santa Barbara, you can also visit the Reagan Ranch Center Exhibit Galleries — which house the president’s blue Jeep Scrambler — before heading back to L.A.
Craft beer tasting and cycling (or driving) in the mountains
Driver: Bill McKibben, 61, environmentalist, best-selling author and cofounder of the global grassroots climate campaign 350.org
Where to: Vermont
Tales from the road: Route 100 runs through the absolute center of Vermont. You can cover it quickly by car, but if you’re in moderately good shape, you can have a much deeper experience over several days on a bicycle. The air is clean, and it’s just enough of a physical challenge that you’ll really appreciate a glass of beer when you reach your destination.
Itinerary: Start in Rochester, home to the best bike shop I know. The mechanics at Green Mountain Bikes will make sure your machine is in working order. Head north on Route 100 through the Granville Gulf, a 6-mile stretch between mountains that’s cool even in summer. You come out in the ski town of Waitsfield, which is also the home of one of the best breweries in Vermont. Lawson’s Finest Liquids has a beautiful taproom and one of the best India pale ales, the brew Vermont is famous for. Waitsfield and nearby Warren both have historic covered bridges, so this is a great area to spend the night.
Waterbury is the epicenter of beer culture. The place to have lunch is the Prohibition Pig in the center of town. It brews its own beer and carries many others. If it’s jammed, there are three barrooms on the adjoining corners.
If you’re cycling, you’re burning calories, so there’s every excuse to stop and eat. The Ben & Jerry’s factory offers great tours (when pandemic restrictions allow). A little farther on, you can get cider, and then taste many varieties of Vermont cheese at the Cabot Farmers’ Store. Spend the night in Stowe if you can, at the Trapp Family Lodge, and visit The Alchemist brewery, which produces what’s probably Vermont’s most famous beer. Heady Topper has a cult following around the planet.
Pedaling north, you’ll come to Morrisville. Head east and ride back roads for half a day through Craftsbury and eventually to Greensboro. You won’t find signs for Hill Farmstead, but ask locals for directions. The place perennially wins the championship as best brewery in the world, and it’s a magnificent spot to end your pilgrimage.
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Small-town Southern charm (and great photo ops)
Driver: Steve McCurry, 71, photographer whose most well-known photo is the striking 1985 National Geographic cover image of an Afghan girl
Where to: The Deep South
Tales from the road: My grandparents lived in South Carolina, and as a kid I’d visit every summer from Philadelphia. I loved the Sunday lunches with fresh corn on the cob, and sweet tea on the porch. I’ve always found people in the South open and easy to talk to, and that’s great if you’re taking photos. A few years ago, I photographed small towns along back roads in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas, and I fell in love with the South all over again.
Itinerary: A few hours south of Atlanta, taking rural highways through towns like Texas, Georgia, and Bacon Level, Alabama, you come to Auburn, Alabama, the home of the university. It’s a good place to spend the night and take great portraits of people. Nine times out of 10 people are thrilled to have you photograph them, but you have to open your door, get out of the car and strike up a conversation. “Is that your cow?” “Is that your car?” Then say, “I’m collecting an album on my travels and, you know, it’d be great if I could include you, because I think this place is really special.”
If you see a wedding or a parade, definitely stop and see what’s happening. But you don’t need an event. So many small towns have a town square, old churches or a town hall where people congregate. There’s usually a mom-and-pop store or an old movie theater, and a place that all the locals know is the best spot for breakfast. I met a reverend in a barbershop in Greensboro, Alabama, who was so charismatic, we could have hung out all day. But keep moving; there’s so much to see.
Spend a night in Tuscaloosa and you’re bound to stumble on a high school game like I did. Kids were having a football pep rally, and a moment like that is a photographer’s dream. Remember that humanity lies in a person’s face, so you actually have to get in close, especially if you’re shooting with your phone. To make people comfortable, share a few experiences with them first — “I’m driving the back roads” is usually enough — and keep talking while you take your shot. You want to catch people when they’re relaxed, not posing.
The Mississippi River has an energy all its own, and you feel it in a town like Vicksburg, Mississippi. Spend time down by the banks. Sometimes you find the most when nothing’s there. Arcola, Alabama, is a ghost town where there’d once been a plantation. What I love most is the feeling of getting lost. GPS doesn’t always work, so you actually have to stop and ask someone for directions. That usually ends up with a photo and a memory that you won’t soon forget.
A cool escape from the city
Driver: Michael Strahan, 50, cohost of Good Morning America, sportscaster and menswear purveyor
Where to: A jaunt through New York’s Hudson River Valley
Tales from the road: My buddies and I do car rallies to clear our minds from city life. It’s our kinda manly hangout time. I’m a car guy. Driving’s my thing. I’ve got a Ford GT, a Porsche Carrera GT and a 1971 Ferrari Daytona, so I love winding around cliffs and single-lane highways. Point your car north from New York City, and you’ll find some beautiful open roads.
Itinerary: We’ll head off from Manhattan at 7:30 or 8 a.m. and take the long, scenic way up the west side of the Hudson River past Bear Mountain State Park to West Point. Bear Mountain is incredible. The views of the Hudson are spectacular, especially when the leaves change colors, and you can hike part of the Appalachian Trail (and I do mean “you,” because I’m definitely not a hiker). The military academy has a visitor’s center and tours, and I’ve been there a few times; we did an NFL Fox Sunday broadcast there one Veterans Day. Even on a quick visit, it’s obvious our nation is in good hands.
You can spend a day exploring the Hudson Valley or a week — it’s up to you. Sometimes I’ll head a few hours north to the little towns like Hudson, which is bustling with coffee shops and historic homes and even has a jazz festival. People are starting to call it the Brooklyn of the north. Heading south along the river, you’ll find Rhinebeck, home to one of the oldest operating inns in America, the Beekman Arms and Delamater Inn. Hyde Park is home to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, with all kinds of objects from his life, and the opulent Vanderbilt Mansion. The town of Beacon has a famous modern art museum (Dia Beacon), and Storm King Art Center in New Windsor is a vast open space on rolling hills with acres of outdoor art by some of the most influential artists and sculptors.
It takes a lot to get me out of the car, but we’ll stop along the way at some random diner — the Eveready Diner in Hyde Park is a classic. I’ve also been known to sneak in a lunch at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park — which, let me tell you, is a delicious way to spend an afternoon — before heading back to the stresses of life in the big city.
Sunshine, desert and open roads
Driver: Wes Studi, 74, Cherokee actor whose film credits include Dances With Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans
Where to: Panhandle country in Texas and Oklahoma, from a start in Santa Fe
Tales from the road: My favorite drive is when you don’t see another car for an hour or more. That’s why I love heading northeast out of Santa Fe, where I live, and rolling up to where the panhandle of Texas meets the panhandle of Oklahoma. I used to drive a big Cadillac Eldorado, which is a heavy car but fun on those long open roads. Today, I have a hybrid that gets much better gas mileage. What I love about this part of the country is the lack of humidity, the mountains and, above all, the light. A person definitely needs a good pair of sunglasses out here.
Itinerary: Leave Santa Fe on the high road to Taos. That brings you through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, passing sites like El Santuario de Chimayo, which has a church where people go to get healed. Carson National Forest gives you stunning mountain views.
Taos has art galleries and design shops, but ancient places still exist, like the Taos Pueblo — it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the country, going back a thousand years. Leaving town is where the road gets interesting. U.S. Highway 64 snakes through steep canyons alongside the Cimarron River. I’ll usually find a turnout where I can marvel at the 50-foot boulders on either side of the road. You can spend the night in Cimarron. There’s a hotel there called the St. James, where Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill used to stay. I usually have breakfast with the resident ghost.
We’re in Santa Fe Trail country now, and what I love, as you travel through towns to the east, is the distinctive northern New Mexico cuisine. The green chiles, the sopaipillas, the chile colorado. It’s a combination of native foods and Hispanic flavors and pioneer flavors that have developed over the centuries.
At that point, the road flattens out as you hit the long stretch that gets you to Clayton. The Hotel Eklund is haunted, too, I think. It’s been there since the 1890s. Farther east you hit the Oklahoma border, with those two famous panhandles bumping into each other.
There’s not much on these roads: electric poles, fence posts, a herd of elk now and then. What I like is the sense of freedom. It’s a good time for planning, for reflecting, for thinking deeply about where you’ve been and all the places you still want to go.
A bit of luxury around the Great Lakes
Driver: Pauline Frommer, 57, editorial director for Frommer’s travel guides and publisher of Frommers.com
Where to: The posher pockets of Northern Michigan
Tales from the road: Wealthy people have been vacationing in Northern Michigan since the 1880s, after rail transportation first arrived. Later, the car titans built their summer homes there. But for most Americans, the region is still a secret. I remember going to music camp in the region as a kid. People I didn’t know were smiling at me and saying hello. Being a New Yorker, I was immediately suspicious, but I learned that the openness and friendliness was just a part of the culture in Michigan. It was like being on a different planet, but in a good way. In more recent years, I went to the National Cherry Festival and unwisely tried to compete at spitting cherry pits. The woman before me hit seven feet, but I could barely stop the pits from hitting my feet. Apparently, people practice. That was hilarious fun.
Itinerary: Fly into Traverse City, pick up a car and head north into the Leelanau Peninsula. This area, known for its cherries, is home to the National Cherry Festival in July. But I go for the grapes — and the wineries. It’s the Midwest’s decadent wine region. Black Star Farms looks like a Southern mansion. They have an outstanding restaurant, and a luxurious inn where you should stay the night. With the winds off the lake, the evenings get cool here, which is what some white wine grapes need but are no longer getting in other wine regions because of climate change. You can also visit cideries like Two K Farms, which makes hard ciders from more than 30 different apple varieties. Leelanau Cheese wins awards for its silky herdsman’s cheese. Mawby is a sparkling-wine house that brings unexpected bubbles to this part of the country.
I attended what used to be called the National Music Camp. Now it’s known as Interlochen, and they have incredible performances by major artists you normally only see in big cities, like Yo-Yo Ma. If you’re in that area, you really should go to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and see some of the steepest dunes on the planet, with Caribbean-blue lake as a backdrop.
There’s a yearly film festival in Traverse City, and a destination-worthy farm-to-table restaurant there called The Cooks’ House, where the food is locally grown or foraged. If you head north on Route 31 with views of Grand Traverse Bay, you’ll come to Petoskey, a resort town towards the north end of the Lower Peninsula. The Inn at Bay Harbor is a gorgeous place for a luxury stay, right on the water with all the services of a great resort. On the way, stop at the Music House Museum in Williamsburg, which has an astonishing collection of music boxes and early automated instruments.
Plan a short stay at Treetops Resort, too, especially if you’re a golfer. The last course Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed is one of several places worth playing. It’s called Masterpiece, and it really is one. Golf one day and fly fish the next. The Au Sable River is legendary for trout. You can get a guide to show you the best casting spots.
It’s about an hour from there to Mackinaw City and the ferry to Mackinac Island, where cars are not allowed. Everyone gets around by horse and carriage or by bicycle. You should stay at the Grand Hotel, which claims to have the largest front porch in the world. It’s where Somewhere in Time was filmed, and once a year people come from around the world dressed in character. Or you can just sit there sipping a cocktail as the sun sets over the water. It really is quite magical.
The above stories were told to David Hochman, a longtime contributing editor for AARP: The Magazine and AARP Bulletin. His bylines appear in The New York Times, Forbes, GQ, Food + Wine and many other publications.