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Spring Break Adventure: Road Trips

3/16/17 by Lisa Collard

There may not be any two words that inspire more excitement in the soul of an adventurer than "road" and “trip.” Except maybe “spring” and “break.” Combine the two and you’re set up for something epic or magic, and if you’re lucky, both.

All you really need is a reliable vehicle, a GPS (paper atlas for back up is a solid choice for some areas where service is spotty), some research skills, and a sense of adventure.

What Kind of Road Trip Are You Looking For?

Don’t forget your kayak!
Don’t forget your kayak! Basheer Tome

The very first thing to decide is what kind of road trip you’d like to set out on.

Road trips can come in many flavors and styles. There’s the sporting road trip to climb, bike, hike, or paddle your days away; the cultural road trip to see art, historical monuments, battlefields, and Americana; or the concert tour road trip. Some people go with a theme for their adventure, like gorging on regional food, following the path of the Oregon Trail, or visiting alleged alien landing sites.

It can be tough to narrow down your options when you’re looking at a map of the entire United States, so we put together a few road trip itineraries that hit some of the best spots: a scenic drive down the California coast, a tour of Utah’s arches and canyons, a route along the Gulf Coast, a trip that hits the best beaches in the Southeast, and an inland adventure through the Rocky Mountains. (You can find these itineraries below.)

Set up Your Car

If what you’re seeking is balm for the soul and open space to clear the mind then diving deep into the backcountry could be your ideal trip. And if you are going off the grid for a few days, you’re going to want a sweet campervan. Figure out the best set-up and spend several glorious days far from traffic (and people), while getting to cover a lot more territory than hiking into the backcountry would allow.

If you’re just cruising from city to city or park to park, you’ll probably be okay with your regular ol’ car. An SUV is going to give you more space, but will eat up more gas, so you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons on that one. Either way, you’ll want to practice packing up your vehicle to make sure you have enough space, and plan to either sleep on a fold-down backseat, or set up a tent outside your car.

When packing your car, make sure you don’t bury your snacks (it’s best to keep them in the front seat so they are easily accessible), and you might want to keep your jacket on top of everything else, too. Sometimes the temperature in the car is very different than the temperature outside, so it will be nice to have a jacket if you step from your toasty vehicle into the cold desert night air.

Choose Your Companion Wisely

It’s also important to pick a good travel buddy. You’re going to be in a car (or van) with this person for days, maybe even weeks, on end, so choose wisely. Consider things like:

  • Musical tastes
  • Personality (Do you like to talk? Listen? Sit in silence?)
  • Adventure style (Do you have the same goals in mind for this trip? Do you both like to do the same activities, or are you okay going for a solo hike if not?)
  • Do you have the same budget in mind?
  • Are you a night owl or a morning person? What about your potential travel buddy?

Note: Sometimes a four-legged friend can be the best travel buddy.

No matter what type of road trip you choose, they all have one thing in common—the freedom of the open road. It’s always good to have a plan or loose itinerary, but even the most meticulous traveler starts to open up to the spontaneity that comes with stopping at a random roadside attraction, or going for a dip in a river because it sounds like a good idea at the time.

Where To Go

© Google Maps
© Google Maps

While some road trips have a very specific destination in mind, others are more of a tour of a region, hitting a few hot spots along the way. With that in mind, we give you five adventure road trip starter itineraries to inspire your wanderlust.

1. California Coastline: Start at Point Reyes National Seashore and then go south through San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH/US-1) all the way to Los Angeles. This trip can be extended both north and south if time permits. See map here.

Mileage: Approx. 370-550, depending on how much you extend the trip (or not)

Get a photo near the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco before your trek down the PCH.
Get a photo near the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco before your trek down the PCH. Basheer Tome

Road tripping the California coast has reached iconic status, and for good reason—with it’s stunning views and diversity of state and national parks, it offers a wide variety of outdoor adventure.

Begin an hour north of San Francisco at at Point Reyes National Seashore to start your journey relaxing at the beach with the elephant seals (just don’t get too close!). Head down towards the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, stopping just before you cross for the obligatory photo opp. Explore the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and then start your journey down the famed Highway 1. Be sure to stop at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, the oldest state park in California, and walk among the giants.

Often considered the most beautiful part of the Golden State, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is the next obvious stop on the itinerary. That being said, it’s popularity makes it expensive and often crowded, so consider the lesser-known Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for hiking and some of the best diving on the West Coast (but you might want a dry suit).

On your way south, stop by Pismo Beach or Morro Bay near San Luis Obispo. Take a walk on the beach or out onto the pier at Pismo Beach, and look for sea otters at Morro Bay.

Next up is the Santa Barbara area to launch a true adventure out to Channel Islands National Park. Snorkel and kayak your way around the "Galapagos of North America", and don’t miss paddling into the Painted Cave, one of the largest known sea caves in the world.

Add a little city life in your adventure by driving down to Los Angeles. A walk along Venice Beach is always an interesting experience, then go explore the Griffith Observatory and snap a photo in front of the famous Hollywood sign. If L.A. is your final destination, then you’ve made it! Otherwise, continue south to San Diego, or head east into the Mojave Desert to see the Dr. Seuss-like Joshua trees scattered among the boulders at Joshua Tree National Park.

2. Breathtaking Landscapes in the Southwest: From Flagstaff up US-180 W and AZ-64 N to the Grand Canyon, head north to Zion National Park via US 89, north to UT 12 to Bryce, and then on to Arches/Canyonlands. See map here.

Mileage: Approx. 600-670 miles

The arches at the Grand Staircase-Escalante are breathtaking.
    John Strother
The arches at the Grand Staircase-Escalante are breathtaking. John Strother

Go big or go home could be the motto of the this Southwestern route featuring some of the most spectacular national parks in America, and arguably, the world. Pro tip: make sure you hydrate for this itinerary. No matter when you go, it will be dry and hot during the days and the desert landscape can get cold at night.

Start off in Flagstaff, Arizona and drive about 90 minutes to the Granddaddy of all national parks—the Grand Canyon. This park alone could take up your whole vacation, but that wouldn’t be much of a road trip would it? Spend a couple days (or a few days, we wouldn’t blame you) hiking, paddling, and exploring one of the world's deepest gorges.

Then head northwest to Zion National Park in Utah. Rope up for some heart-pumping big wall climbing or lace up your boots and follow in the footsteps of ancient native people winding through narrow slot canyons and past massive sandstone cliffs. For mountain bikers, Gooseberry Mesa is a prime destination west of Zion and would be worth adjusting this itinerary to visit.

Next, drive northeast to Bryce Canyon National Park to wander through the largest collection of ‘hoodoos’ (odd-shaped pillars of rock left standing from the forces of erosion) in the world. From Bryce, hop on the All-American Highway Scenic Byway 12 to the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument. Hike through arches and past waterfalls, navigating up slickrock and through canyons along the Escalante River.

We recommend a stop at Capitol Reef because of the smaller crowds and the opportunity to roam the Waterpocket Fold, a wrinkle on the earth that extends almost 100 miles. But if you’re short on time, skip Capitol Reef and head straight to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks near Moab.

It’s hard to find any landscape more dramatic than the sweeping sandstone arches at Arches National Park. The hike up to Delicate Arch has one of the best ‘reveals’ in nature. Canyonlands National Park is divided into four areas, each with its own unique characteristics, and you can explore the park by foot, mountain bike, four-wheel drive, or even horseback.

This area is also a top pick for mountain bikers and rock climbers. There is loads of free BLM camping and plenty of spots to park your adventure vehicle, with particularly nice camping along the Colorado River along UT-128. If you have a bit more time, stop by Deadhorse State Park for a panoramic view of the gooseneck in the Colorado River from 2,000 feet up.

3. The Gulf Coast: Start in San Antonio, Texas follow I-10 to Lafayette then get on US-90 to Mobile, Alabama to I-10 to Pensacola, Florida. See map here.

Mileage: Approx. 810-875 miles

Kayak on Lady Bird Lake for a different view of Austin.
Kayak on Lady Bird Lake for a different view of Austin. Johannes Schneemann

Start a legendary road trip at the sight of a legendary battle at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. Tour the grounds and maybe see a live reenactment before checking out the artifacts in the onsite museum. After getting your history fix, drive to Austin for one of the most happening music scenes in the entire country. Rent a kayak or stand up paddleboard to explore Lady Bird Lake through downtown Austin to get a different perspective on the city.

In Houston, go just east of the city to the 23.5-acre Beaumont Botanical Gardens for a relaxing, lush environment—a theme on this trip.

Eventually, I-10 will take you out of Texas and into Louisiana. Get a taste for the state's bayou landscape and history at Niblett’s Bluff Park, where you'll find camping, hiking, and the remains of a Civil War fort. Spend some time on the dock by the calm water, surrounded by (you guessed it) lush, green trees.

Hot sauce aficionados must make the required pilgrimage south of Lafayette to Avery Island. Not just the home of Tabasco sauce since 1868, the island is considered one of the most beautiful places in Louisiana. Walk among the flowers at the 170-acre Jungle Gardens, and keep an eye out for wildlife like alligators, deer, and snowy egrets.

Continue east to Baton Rouge and cross the mighty Mississippi River. Go for a bike ride or a run along the 4.3-mile Baton Rouge Mississippi River Levee Bike Path to stretch your legs before heading onward to New Orleans, the ultimate spring break destination.

Have dinner at any one of the fabulous restaurants there, get a drink with several thousand of your closest friends on Bourbon Street, and hit the road after a Jazz brunch somewhere in the French Quarter.

Continue across US-90 for a scenic drive along the coast of Mississippi and Alabama, and maybe hit up a secret spot (or 10), until you get to Pensacola for some fun in the sun.

4. Beaches of the Southeast: Start at the Outer Banks of North Carolina and make your way down the coast to Charleston, South Carolina sticking as close to the coast as possible. A number of routes are available. See map here.

Mileage: Approx. 450 miles

Wrightsville Beach is known for surfing and stand up paddleboarding.
Wrightsville Beach is known for surfing and stand up paddleboarding. James Willamor

Water babies rejoice! This trip is all about surf and sun (with appropriate sunscreen, of course). Start off with the Outer Banks of North Carolina—the best place on the East Coast to surf. Some of the other attractions in the area are the sea turtle and wild horse populations, and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore with its famous lighthouse.

From OBX, head south and stop off at the only true coastal forest in the East, Croatan National Forest, for kayaking and fishing. Keep an eye on the ground as you walk through the forest, and you might spot a wild Venus flytrap or a pitcher plant.

A little farther south is Wrightsville Beach, a town known for its spacious beaches, clear water, and surfing (we hear the sunsets are too bad, either). The nearby uninhabited Masonboro Island is a pristine ecosystem and home to a variety of wildlife.

Next up is South Carolina's Myrtle Beach, a popular beach town that offers the classic spring break experience of drinking, sun, surf, and lots of scantily clad bodies. It's also surprisingly affordable for a beach destination.

Round out the sandy fun by finishing this road trip with the historic charm of Charleston, South Carolina. Explore Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor, where the Civil War started, or take a trip out to Edisto Island, where folkart and folklore are still alive and well with the locals.

5. The Eastern side of the Rockies: From Denver head west on I-70 to Silverthorne, go north to Wyoming, Take I-80 across to Rock Springs, then north up 191 to Yellowstone through Idaho to the Western Entrance. See map here.

Mileage: Approx. 680 miles

The jagged Tetons are one of many mountains to explore on the Rocky road trip.
The jagged Tetons are one of many mountains to explore on the Rocky road trip. Jeff Gunn

Starting in Denver, Colorado, take I-70 west through the mountains to Arapaho National Forest. Along the way, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking and stretching your legs. Pass through the historic mining town of Silverthorne on your way north, and stop for a lap or two around Dillon Reservoir before continuing on through the twisting mountain passes to the breathtakingly beautiful ski town of Steamboat Springs.

In Steamboat, there are plenty of peaks to climb and hot springs to soak your tired body (or tired bottom from sitting in the car). There are more than 100 miles of trails for mountain biking, with pristine singletrack and expansive views of the area. The Steamboat Bike Park has more than 50 miles of downhill riding, too.

From Steamboat head north into Wyoming to I-80 and plan a long day of driving across southern Wyoming where you’ll be kept company by the whistling wind barriers and tumbleweed blowing across the road until you get to the Tetons.

Plan to spend some time in Grand Teton National Park, conquering jagged peaks and gazing at crystal clear alpine lakes. Head into the backcountry, or float along the Snake River—there’s enough to keep you busy here for awhile. When you are ready to say goodbye, cross over into Idaho into the Teton Valley.

Idaho has been developing this area in recent years and has added some mountain biking and hiking trails to entice visitors to stay before continuing north to Yellowstone National Park. The West Entrance, on the border of Montana and Wyoming, is your best bet early in the season. Be prepared for unpredictable weather in the spring, and also be prepared for snow. But don’t worry too much about the cold—there are a number of hot springs in the area perfect for a good soak. Check the park service website to find out the best spots for the season.

Nothing will cure your wanderlust and clear the mind like a good road trip. So go ahead and get outside your comfort zone. Just don’t forget the snacks. The right mix of snacks can make or break your road trip!

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.