The Absolute Best Summer Drives In The U.S. For Wonder, Nature, Culture, & Freedom

May 5, 2021

I have explored every continental state in the United States, most of them done by the time I was a teenager. People always assume my family was jetting around and had a lot of money to spare when they hear about how well traveled I was. The truth is, I only flew on a plane once before the age of 19, and it was a short flight to see my dad graduate from Basic Training. All of my travels around the United States have been via car. We were always taking road trips, and it’s not because we had money. We didn’t. But my parents saw taking a drive around the state as travel, just as much as people who took cruises or flew to faraway resorts. In fact, my parents seemed to prefer this mode of travel, so it made it so that even when they were struggling financially and supporting five kids and a dog, there was still travel in our life. When we were on the reduced lunch program at school, we were exploring locally and in nearby states. We packed food and snacks, camped, and adventured frugally by sticking to the outdoors.

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When we weren’t struggling as much, we took cross country road trips for weeks at a time, exploring every corner of the country. We pulled off when we saw a cool sign, we stopped when food looked interesting, and we got out when a place was new and we wanted to learn about it. Because of this, I was able to live traveling and see all of this country, with a few exceptions. The regions I haven’t explored in the continental U.S. are the southern tip of Florida, the southern tips of the Southwest states, and the northern peninsula of Michigan.

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This is all to clearly illustrate the fact that I am well versed in road trips and drives in the U.S.A. I have done nearly all of them, and while there will always be more to explore, I am grateful for the beauty and unique natural spaces I have seen in my life while driving. I think everyone should be able to experience that, and with this summer still leaving people feeling cautious in regards to travel, what better way to dip your toes into the exploring lifestyle than taking summer drives around the country? Here are just a few of the best ones:

Winner: Salt Lake City to San Diego

This is the ultimate summer drive if you love warm climates! Drive from Salt Lake City to the coast, passing through Park City, St. George, Las Vegas, Long Beach, Oceanside, to finally San Diego. Having lived in Utah for a spell, we used to take this drive fairly often to visit our family in California. It’s one of the most satisfying drives in the country, starting out in the high mountains of Utah (bonus points if you start in Logan, Utah in Cache Valley—the most beautiful place in the state, and where I was born), passing through bright red and orange deserts in the south of the state, getting to the dusty wilds of Nevada’s wilderness, driving down the oceanic edge of California, and ending up in the lush, tropical hills of San Diego. This drive is seldom sought out because it’s so specific, but it’s the most magnificent drive you will ever take in the States. There are so many beautiful drives in the country, but this one highlights some of the most extreme changes in climates, elevation, and scenery that you can find. It’s such a nature-centered drive, but there are some really fun stops along the way that are more urban.

When you first start out, make sure to explore Park City if you haven’t, and maybe drive up the canyon to Sundance for some beautiful hiking. Take the ski lift (they run in the summer and offer the craziest views), and make sure to take plenty of pictures. Hike to waterfalls, grab sandwiches at the top of the mountain, and consider zip lining down!

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As you make your way to St. George, stop along the way at all of the beautiful National Parks! Zion is right along the way, but if you want a little detour or have more time, it’s worth noting that Bryce Canyon and Arches National Park are not that far away and are completely worth the extra time. Stop in St. George and enjoy the best desert hikes of your life among the red rocks and tangerine-colored wilderness. Walk around the cool downtown and grab some cactus pear soda pop, and grab dinner with the best view of your life at Cliffside Restaurant. Chow down on heirloom tomato toast, berry salads, fire roasted veggie pastas, and mushroom farro. If you want something holistic and inspired by the mysticism of the desert, go to Xetava. The architecture alone will leave you feeling spiritual, but their colorful food is stunning!

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Las Vegas is also a great place to stop at, and remains one of the most fun cities I’ve been to. The water show at the Bellagio alone is life-changing, so it’s a blast to fill up on delicious food here in one of the food capitals of the world (there are so many great all-vegan spots like Violette’s Vegan, Pots—an Egyptian eatery, and comfort food spot—, and The Modern Vegan), go dance with international street dancers, and bring a drink to the terraces overlooking the fountains to get a good spot. Stay for at least an hour, as they change songs with every show and it’s completely free to watch.

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Walk the strip and enjoy the huge movie theaters, live music, and coolest shops. The hotels are also more affordable than you’d think, with management expecting people to make up for it with purchases from their gift shops and restaurants. When you’ve had your fill of the city, drive through the ghost town regions towards the coast, stopping as you see good ones.

Finally, when you make it to L.A., continue on to Santa Monica, and drive down the coast. These towns are beautiful and even the touristy ones have the best views. Get out and swim as you feel so inclined. If Disney is your thing, this is when you’ll be near Anaheim—but in COVID times please be cautious. If you don’t want to pay to go in, or don’t feel comfortable being in the park, but want to experience Disney in California, Downtown Disney is a great option. It’s just shops and restaurants outside the park that Disney owns. This might be a good spot to get souvenirs and a bite to eat! For crispy Brussels sprouts, guac, vegan chicken sandwiches, vegan milkshakes, and fries of all kinds, go to Black Tap!

Disney_Land

After this region, keep driving down highway 1. Stop at Balboa Island, Huntington Beach (very touristy, but great for body boarding), San Clemente, Laguna (my favorite), and if you want to take a ferry, Catalina Island! Oceanside is a beautiful place to get out and swim, and Carlsbad is not far down the road (perfect if you’re into surfing). Del Mar is a great place to pull over and watch for dolphins or watch the sun go down thanks to its very open views. Make sure to stop at La Jolla right before you get to San Diego, as its an absolute dream for marine life, good food, and artsy vibes.

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For food in these regions, some great places are Sanchos Tacos (grilled to order veggie tacos and chips and salsa right on the beach!), Pur Bowls (acai bowls and fresh juice), Taco Loco (every type of vegan taco, fajita, burger, bowl, and salad imaginable), Aubergine or Green Tomato Grill (buddha bowls, kale salads, sweet potato wraps, galore!), Plot (roasted cauliflower with seaweed sauce, stir fry, and kombucha), Luna Grill (authentic Mediterranean food), Big Foot Natural Cafe (vegan mac, jackfruit tacos, vegan cubanos and tuna melts!), Kensho (vegan sushi!!), Wahoos (a California chain that I grew up going to, but so delicious—build your own plates and tacos complete with tofu or veggies), and Pacific Hideaway (turmeric cauliflower, pineapple guac, grain burritos, and the best views at this fancier clean eatery).

When you make it to San Diego, be prepared for the sandy and windswept coast to give way to tropical jungle-like hills, lush mountains, and so many fruit trees. Views open up to the Pacific Ocean, and the beaches are the best for swimming in the state. It’s truly the dreamiest place to end up.

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Play at Coronado, explore the Gaslamp Quarter, enjoy nature and art at Balboa Park, hike at Tecolote Canyon Natural Park (or for more forests, go north to Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve), watch the sea at Point Loma, and walk around the historic district. Feast at one of the many delicious vegan restaurants here in the beach city of California—from the famous Cafe Gratitude, to the plant-based El Avocados, to the East Asian eatery Grains!

From the mountainous inland of Utah to the desert to the paradise by the sea, this drive will get you in touch with nature, new areas of the country, and the natural shifts in landscape. Bring your camera or watercolors to capture it along the way and spend some intentional time. This drive can be done in two days (with one stop in Las Vegas), but I recommend taking your time, and spreading it out to truly take in the regions. The best way to do it is to stay in Sundance, St. George, Las Vegas, Santa Monica (or just L.A. in general), Laguna, La Jolla, and San Diego. Take as much time as you like at each location and in between, but those are the best places to spend the night.

Other Incredible Drives:

Yellowstone

The Yellowstone Loop – Think mountains, wildflowers, and lots of hikes! Start in the famously beautiful canyons of northern Utah, explore the sweeping wilds of Yellowstone, and circle through the greenest views on the way back down.

Bellingham, WA to San Francisco, CA – From the artsy city in the north to its larger equivalent in the south, this is a granola’s dream road trip, starting in the hippie-est place in WA, passing through Seattle, Portland, and ending in San Fran.

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Blue Ridge Parkway (north to south route) – Drive from Shenandoah National Park to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. This is a mountain-lover’s dream, and as someone who lives on it, I can confirm that it’s just as lush in person!

Maine to the Florida Keys – A super long drive (one that I’ve never gotten to the end of—someday I will!), but one of the most beautiful in the country, passing through the pine-studded mountains of the weathered northern coast, the exciting cities of the Northeast and D.C., the blue mountains of VA and NC, the tropical beaches amidst foodie cities, to the paradise on the edge of the Caribbean!

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Chicago to Cape Cod – Explore one of the coolest cities in the country, explore the wooded Hiawatha Forest on the tip of Michigan, drive along the Great Lakes, through the beauty of upstate New York, and toward the coast to the surreal and windy Cape Cod.

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Olympic National Park – Drive from Port Townsend to Port Angeles, enjoying the rainy coast along the way. Turn south and do Hurricane Ridge—one of the most scenic drives in the world with rugged mountains, icy lakes, and clouds along the road. Turn north towards Lake Crescent and swim in the most picturesque lake you will ever see, with the cream-colored lake inn sitting on the sandy shores of this bright blue mountain lake. Even better if you stay here in their cabins, or continue towards the coast to visit the rainforests of Forks!

Madison, WI to Boulder, CO– Madison is one of the most underrated cities in the world. Enjoy the lakes and best farmers market you’ve ever been to (trust me), then make your way to Blue Earth, MN—home to the Jolly Green Giant. There isn’t much there but the giant green statue is worth the drive. Drive through cornfields and the cutest little towns, stopping as you see them in the corner of Iowa and through Nebraska. Eventually you’ll end up in the hopping mountains of Boulder. Get some hiking in, get a taste for the art scene, and spend lots of time outside.

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The Bethany Beach to Inland Loop – This one is fantastic for a taste of under-visited places on the East Coast (though they are frequented by vacationing locals). Start in Bethany Beach (one of my favorite beaches in the world), drive to the artsy Asheville (make sure to eat at Plant—the best eatery you’ll ever go to), round up through national forests and the colorful mountains of Roanoke in Virginia, explore Shepherdstown in WV (my partner went to school there and it’s unbelievably artistic, quaint, and outdoorsy), and end in the most culture-filled city in the U.S.—D.C.! This is perfect for those who love to swim in the sea, hike, and walk through art museums. If you have the time, try to fit in Charlotte as well, as it’s one of the most beautiful and vegan friendly cities on this coast!

NOLA to St. Augustine – Enjoy the culture of New Orleans before driving through the islands long the southern states. Play at Pensacola (the best beach for swimming in the region), before heading across Florida’s inland north to St. Augustine, where you can explore the centuries old fort and learn all about pirates!

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Puget Sound to Coeur d’Alene– Start in Anacortes or somewhere close by, and drive towards Concrete and the middle of the North Cascades. Stop by Cascadian Farms, get some hiking in, and smell the pines. Stop at Diablo Lake for its crazy turquoise water, then continue down to Winthrop and Twisp—a cool Western town and a little adorable town in the foothills, respectively. Drive south to Chelan for serenely warm lake water and amazing wildflowers, before following the Columbia River east to Spokane (look out for amazing flowering foothills and mountains). Coeur d’Alene is not much further, and the drive at this point is just filled with pine covered mountains and sparkling lakes. When you get there, enjoy the local food, farmers market, and crisp air.

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Photo: Emily Iris Degn

Emily Iris Degn
Emily Iris Degn is a multilingual travel and freelance writer, editor, professional artist, model, and published poet. She is from the San Juan Islands, but currently lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her incredible partner and dozens of plant babies. She is also an ecofeminist activist, and works to focus her professional work on those issues. You can find her in many spaces on Instagram: @emilyirisdegn @wildearthgoods @happyvegansfeed @emfallstoearth @emilydegnart OR at Em Falls to Earth.

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