After three very full months across America’s highways and backroads, our big US road trip ultimately came to an end. Now the summer travel season has concluded too. So it’s now time for an update!
This summer trip is the longest journey we’ve embarked on with our now one-year-old baby. It’s also the biggest trip we’ve attempted since this dreaded pandemic began. Each has created its own unique series of challenges. Yet this lengthy road trip across the US ultimately proved to be so fulfilling.
During the six years we spent traveling the world to 100 countries, very little of that was actively roaming the US. There is so much of this huge country left untrodden to us. So while international travel remains difficult and complicated for us into 2021, we took it as an opportunity to more deeply explore our home country.
We are of the firm opinion that National Parks collectively make up the greatest assets to travel in the US. So armed with a National Park system pass, we set off to visit as many NPS sites as we reasonably could, all while checking out other interesting destinations in between. Having spent the bulk of the pandemic in flat Florida, we were particularly excited to hit the trails across the mountains of the American west!
In This Post:
- Shaping Our 2021 US Road Trip
- Travel Stats
- Best of US Road Trip
- Best National Parks
- Best Other NPS Sites
- Best US Towns
- Best Tourist Towns
- Best Hikes
- Best Hotels
- Best Regional Cuisines
- Best Local Breweries
- Where to Next?
Shaping Our 2021 US Road Trip
While the outdoors and National Parks were a big draw to this journey, there were a number of factors that ultimately helped to form our route. Reflecting back, it felt like some bizarro world of travel to us. A few years ago, I never would have never fathomed such a trip would be in our future:
- car travel, with a baby, on a budget, during a lingering pandemic, across the US.
Logging exactly 90 days from start to finish, this now the longest road trip we’ve ever taken anywhere in the world. Prior to this, the longest road trip we ever took was three weeks across South Africa. During all these years of travel, we’ve grown accustomed to moving around by bus, rail, plane, and ship. We’ve always reveled in the logistical planning of linking various public transit options to circumnavigate the globe. But when embarking on any lengthy trip in the the US, having a vehicle is nearly a requirement.
The many miles and long hours in the car during this trip was somewhat of an unfamiliar travel experience for us. The freedom of having our own wheels felt great. I had forgotten how much fun it is to take a scenic drive across curvy, mountainous roads. Being able to pull off the highway for random roadside attractions made it all better. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of driving across the US was the diversity of landscapes – transitioning from beaches to bayous to desert to mountains to farmland and everything in between.
That said, with so many miles on the road, we always greatly appreciated arriving to walkable destinations where we could simply park the car and roam around on our feet.
Another new-to-us travel experience was learning the ropes of traveling with a baby. Our daughter, Harper, turned one just as we departed for this grand adventure. So we celebrated by introducing her to the travel life! We loved having her along with us. She greatly influenced our journey, as we got to show her America the beautiful.
Since we wanted to limit her time stuck in a car seat, we planned short hauls every step of the way. Whereas in the past we wouldn’t blink an eye at covering a 12-hour drive in one day, such a distance would now us take a minimum of 3-4 days, with many stops in between. We limited our daily drive time to not exceed four hours in any given day. This gave us a welcomed chance to discover places we’d otherwise blow right past. We’re proud to have stuck to our 4-hour car limit nearly every leg of the journey, only breaking our self-imposed rule twice (6.5 hrs San Antonio Van Horn TX and 6 hrs Denver CO Pinedale WY).
For the most part, Harper was a great travel baby and seemed to enjoy taking in all the new places. This baby was born to travel! But there were bumps along the way. For instance, we learned the hard way that we absolutely could not give her milk before a twisty mountainous drive. Yet our biggest challenge is when she hit a sleep regression during the middle of our trip, resulting in lengthy middle-of-night wakings that lasted more than a month. Thankfully, that’s since ceased. But it left us exhausted almost every day from the time we got to Colorado in mid-May until we reached Ohio in early July.
We also navigated the ever-evolving pandemic conditions and its related restrictions, while trying to maintain personal safety standards of our own. During this trip spanning April-July, conditions changed as we traveled from state to state and week to week. Masking was commonplace one day and non-existent the next, only to return again down the road.
Cases lessened so much in some areas early in the summer, conditions often felt completely back to normal. Yet hitting occasional closures would remind us otherwise. Meanwhile pandemic-related staffing shortages were very noticeable, as “help wanted” signs accompanied lengthy delays nearly everywhere we roamed. The many travel-deprived Americans who hit the road only heightened this effect, as many destinations across the US saw record-breaking crowds.
We used these 40 US Road Trip Travel Tips for 2021 to help us deal with these changing conditions.
Finally, we set off to achieve this big US road trip on a budget, as we always do. This was certainly a challenge, as the US is a far more costly travel destination than most countries we tend to roam, particularly so with accommodation. Yet with much advanced planning, we managed to keep our total expenses to an average of about $100 per day for all three of us, inclusive of lodging, gas, meals, and attractions. We’re pretty happy with that.
A few tactics we used to help ease the financial burden were making very early hotel bookings, seeking low-cost destinations, using inexpensive motels, utilizing hotel rewards programs, cash-back offers on gas, national park pass, free activities, picnicking, and happy hours. Perhaps delving into such methods further deserves a forthcoming post of its own.
In the end, each of these limitations that helped shape this trip are also what helped to make it so gratifying.
Travel Stats – Roaming Around the US 2021
We sure packed in a lot during those three months!
Duration: 90 days
States visited: 22 (+DC)
Road miles traveled: 12,270 (19,747 km)
Hiked/walked: 408 miles (657 km)
UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited: 8
Total Nat’l Park System sites visited: 43, including:
- National Parks: 14
- National Monuments: 9
- National Historical Parks: 5
- National Seashores: 3
- National Historic Sites: 2
- National Parkways: 2
- National Trails: 2
- National Historic Trails: 2
- Other NPS Sites: 4
Number of places stayed: 56
Average length of stay: 1.4 days (changed accommodation 62x)
- Hotels/motels: 46 rooms | 61 nights
- Friends & family: 8 homes | 20 nights
- Home rental: 1 Airbnb | 7 nights
- Nat’l Park cabin: 1 cabin | 1 night
Avg cost/night of paid accommodation: $59.54
Breweries visited: 49
Awards for Best Places of 2021 US Road Trip
We tried to sample some of the best of the US, from its national parks to its brews. So this post is an attempt to recap some of the top spots from our perspective.
If you share similar travel interests as us, perhaps our favorites from this most recent trip may provide you with some travel inspiration or ideas within the US. As we began discussing our favorite destinations while the Olympics were airing, we thought it would be fun to give out our own bronze, silver, and gold medals for each places on this trip we enjoyed most.
So our first awards go to…
Best National Parks
There are a total of 63 US National Parks, and we’d love to eventually visit them all. Adding the 14 national parks we visited during this trip, my total tally of 32 now includes over half of the network. Prior favorites of ours include Grand Canyon NP (AZ), Zion NP (UT), and Glacier Bay NP (AK).
Meanwhile on this journey across the US, the many National Parks we roamed were all great. So it was a tough task picking the best of the bunch from this trip.
Arches National Park (UT): Incredible hikes through beautiful desert scenery to dozens of the namesake rock formations make this an awesome park to roam.
Badlands National Park (SD): The otherworldly landscape, vertigo-inducing hikes, and abundant big horn sheep make this well worth a trip to South Dakota.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park (NM): You must experience the largest cave chamber on the continent to fully comprehend its grandiosity and its beauty.
Grand Teton National Park (WY): With a location nearly connected to Yellowstone, it could be argued that the beauty of its mountain scenery may even surpass its neighbor to the north.
White Sands National Park (NM): The largest gypsum dunes found on the planet offer stunning views, interesting treks, wild sunsets, and even sand sledding.
Canyonlands National Park (UT)
Author Edward Abbey may have said it best, remarking that Canyonlands is “the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth – there is nothing else like it anywhere.”
When driving through the exotic terrain of Canyonlands, it seems there is canyon after canyon carving through the land here. Pictures don’t quite do this national park justice. Immersing yourself deep into this desert wonderland full of towering features is what really brings on the awe.
In the section of the park appropriately named “Islands in the Sky,” the views seem to go on forever. But we’re reminded they don’t since the scenery changes at every turn.
Meanwhile, the lesser-visited southern section of the park, known as the Needles, offers even more dramatic terrain to get lost in. The deep narrow canyons, towering spires, and varied landscape offered some of the most fun hiking trails we’ve ever trekked across anywhere in the world.
Yellowstone National Park (WY)
There are so many reasons why the first National Park in the US is often cited as one of the best. For us, Yellowstone is amazing for three main reasons: (1) geothermal features, (2) incredible wildlife, and (3) beautiful landscapes.
It’s those geothermal features that makes Yellowstone stand out on a global scale.
Nowhere else on planet earth has the breadth and abundance of geothermal activity as Yellowstone. In fact, over half of all the world’s known geothermal features are found in in this national park, containing more than 10,000! Bubbling mud pots, hissing fumaroles (steam vents), and colorful hot springs collectively are some of these interesting geothermal features scattered all throughout the Yellowstone.
But it’s the erupting geysers that really put on a show! Old Faithful is the most famous and most predictable with a beautiful eruption. Yet we were really wowed by Grand Geyser which spurts even higher. Other unpredictable geyser eruptions provided an exciting surprise to those who just happen to be in the right place at the right time.
A little luck is nice to have with geyser eruptions, as with the awesome wildlife spotting opportunities. Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states, with a total of 67 mammal species! It took us a week, but we eventually managed to spot each member of Yellowstone’s Big 5: bear, moose, elk, buffalo, and wolf.
They were found all throughout the park’s scenic backdrops from snow-capped mountains to scenic valleys, lush forests, beautiful lakes, and jaw-dropping canyons. All this varied terrain made for some great hikes, with some of the trails also flirting with the geothermal features. It’s all why Yellowstone is a well-deserved favorite within the NPS system.
Glacier National Park (MT)
It’s often referred to as the Crown of the Continent. Across a million acres of rugged wilderness on the northern fringes of Montana lays abundant wildlife, 175 mountains, 131 named lakes, and 26 glaciers – the park’s namesake.
During the week we spent at Glacier NP during early June, we were met with less-than-ideal conditions. Cold rainy weather was almost nonstop. The main Going-to-the-Sun Road in the park remained closed since they were still plowing the prior months’ thick snowfall. A number of the park’s 900 miles of trails were impassible due to snow cover and dangerous melting ice conditions. To limit crowding, the park instituted a restrictive ticketed-entry system that made it difficult to get around. To top it all off, the Canadian side of the park was entirely off-limits due to pandemic-related border closures.
Yet even with all the closures and gloomy weather, we both agreed:
This is now our favorite US National Park.
The rain could not damper the sense of awe as we roamed around the glacier-fed lakes and soaring mountain peaks. Instead, it just helped fuel the roaring waterfalls. Meanwhile road closures forced us to get creative, visiting more remote sections of the park where wildlife encounters were plentiful.
Grizzly bears and moose greeted us, as we nervously twisted through the curves of the Park’s awesome hiking trails. To rest our legs, scenic boat tours glided us across calm blue lakes as we learned about the local ecology. It felt particularly satisfying to end the days by sipping a frosty brew while yet another moose strolls on by with the magnificent backdrop of Glacier’s looming mountain peaks.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is nothing short of spectacular and already has us yearning for a return trip to see more of this natural splendor during a time when the sun is out, the trails are clear, and the roads fully open.
Best Other NPS Units:
While there are only 63 official National Parks, there are a grand total of 423 official units within the National Park System. In addition to the national parks, the National Park System further includes National Monuments (84), National Historic Sites (74), National Historic Parks (61), National Memorials (31) and more.
During this Summer 2021 road trip we visited a grand total of 43 NPS units. The aforementioned national parks tended to be our favorites. So here are our top picks for the best of the rest, among the other wonderful NPS sites visited.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore (NC): What’s not to like about historic lighthouses, towering sand dunes, remote beaches, and an island only accessible by ferry?
Devils Tower National Monument (SD): It’s one of the largest monolith’s in the world and the first national monument in the US. We were further intrigued by the deep Native American lore of this sacred site.
Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site (MT): This preserved 1860s-era ranch brings cowboy culture to life thanks to the most informative park rangers we encountered all trip. Visiting this unassuming NPS site was admittedly an afterthought. It turned out to be the most unexpectedly enjoyable NPS site of our trip.
Colorado National Monument (CO)
The sheer canyons, looming rock formations, and high plateaus feel like an extension Utah, rather than Colorado. It’s easy to draw comparisons to nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Yet Colorado National Monument stands on its own merits.
The 23-mile Rim Rock Drive provided an ultra-scenic way to see the park on a roadway that hugs the side of the steep canyons’ edge. Even though this harrowing route left me with white knuckles and sweaty palms, it was also one of the most fun and scenic drives of our trip. Having to dodge big horn sheep in the roadway only added to the wow-factor.
In between the cliffside curves, it was nice to able to stop at the many pullouts to soak in the views, learn about the crazy geology, or watch rock climbers seemingly defy gravity. Meanwhile, hiking trails along the canyons’ rims gave us an opportunity to carefully stretch our legs.
In our opinion, this “monument” should really be a national park. We’ve since learned that Colorado NM meets the criteria for national park status, as local residents and politicians are pushing for a change. It now has our support too!
Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park (WV)
We love this NPS site for its one-two punch of history amidst a beautiful natural backdrop in the West Virginia mountains.
At this scenic point where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet, a quaint historic town bears witness to important events that changed American history. History books note Harpers Ferry as the location of the last major event leading to the Civil War. It is often referred to as the place where the end of slavery began.
Harpers Ferry is most notable for abolitionist leader John Brown’s 1859 raid to free slaves and start a revolt across the US South. Even though his attempt to seize the Federal Armory failed, which caused him to become the first person executed for treason in the US, his actions are credited with fueling the flames that led to a divided country, ultimately achieving his vision.
Today Harpers Ferry remains preserved as a National Historic Park that delves into the town’s past, with many 19th-century buildings converted to museums. It helps bring the history alive. For us, roaming around Harpers Ferry feels like wandering through a past era. It’s one of those places that seems easy to visit in an hour or so, but can deserve an entire day (or more) to fully appreciate.
In our opinion, Harpers Ferry is a must-do for anyone exploring US history. But there’s also a beautiful natural side to uncover here. When visiting in 1783, Thomas Jefferson once wrote that Harpers Ferry is “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.”
Today the Appalachian Trail passes right through this scenic town, very close to its midpoint. For those of us not hiking the entirety of that famous 2,190-mile trek, Harpers Ferry provides a great opportunity for a shorter jaunt up to a view that Jefferson remarked as a scene “worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”
Chaco Culture National Historical Park (NM)
These millennia-old Puebloan dwellings are said to be among the most important pre-Colombian ruin sites in the US. This NPS site is also one of only 11 cultural UNESCO World Heritage sites in the US. Despite such accolades, these ancient Puebloan ruins sit somewhat hidden in the New Mexican desert, with few visitors embarking on the rough gravel road to get here.
But those who make the journey are rewarded by the ability to explore what is described as “the most sweeping collection of ancient ruins north of Mexico,” enjoying them nearly all to yourself. These Chaco ruins are not just a single site either. There are multiple preserved ruin sites spread across miles of beautifully rugged cliff-laden desert landscape, linked by a scenic drive and many interesting hiking trails.
Great Houses, where construction dates to the mid-800s, welcome visitors inside the structures to imagine what Puebloan life was like over a thousand years ago. While roaming the largest complex, Pueblo Bonita, we were amazed to find the once four-story structure had 600 rooms! You can still crawl around some of these rooms today to see the intricate masonry and ancient architecture from this bygone area.
It’s an eye-opening look at this ancient history that seems often forgotten here in the US. We learned a lot about this remarkable civilization, whose descendants can be found still living in the area today. It’s well worth the journey to this special place in the world!
Best Towns Off the Travel Trail
We visited several places that aren’t typical tourism destinations in the US, but we found them to still hold lots of travel appeal. Here are our favorites of this bunch.
Grand Junction, CO
Situated on the banks of the Colorado River, we found Grand Junction to be an underrated travel destination in CO. There’s a fun downtown that’s full of bars, restaurants, and breweries. It’s all surrounded by the Northern Hemisphere’s highest wine region, with many vineyards boasting sunny patios to sip on. This all lays in the shadows of the largest flat-top mountain in the world, Grand Mesa. Meanwhile, nearby Colorado Nat’l Monument boasts shear canyons, rock formations, high plateaus, hiking, and scenic drives.
This city surprised us a bit, as we drew favorable comparisons with Savannah and New Orleans. While Mobile is arguably a bit less polished and has fewer attractions in comparison to those two great cities of the south, Mobile still boasts loads of southern charm but without the tourist crowds. We’d like to return for Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebration, historically the first Carnival in the US. Yet we’d happily go back just to eat more oysters and indulge in happy hours along Dauphin Street.
New Ulm, MN
We enjoyed each of the random small town stops throughout the Midwest much more than anticipated. This was perhaps best exemplified by New Ulm, in which the midwestern hospitality came alongside German influence in this historic town.
Founded by German immigrants in the mid-1800s, the groundwork they laid is still evident today. A German restaurant, German bakery, and historic German brewery are all still thriving here. New Ulm even has its own Glockenspiel, which is one of the world’s few free-standing carillon clock towers and the first in all of North America. The Hermann the German monument, built in 1888, is an impressive remembrance of German ancestry that is also the 3rd largest copper statue in the US.
It’s one of 23 sites in New Ulm listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That list also includes the only surviving example of New Ulm’s seven early breweries, Schells. It further includes Minnesota’s oldest continuously used bar, the Rathskeller, now in operation for 165 years. We always appreciate a town where you can enjoy a drink in historic settings. And New Ulm delivers!
Roughly halfway through this grand road trip across the US, we looked for a city to pause our journey to relax and rest for a week. We chose Missoula. That may have been a mistake because there was a lot to keep us busy in this university town in Montana’s mountains!
We loved strolling through the pleasant city itself and along the banks of the Clark Fork River, which cuts right through downtown. That’s where surfers can hang ten on Brennan’s Wave, then dry off and grab a pint at one of the many breweries scattered all throughout town.
Missoula also has so many fun bars and restaurants, it was difficult to choose among them. So we loved being able to sample from over a dozen food trucks that roll into the weekly Downtown ToNight event at the riverside Caras Park, made complete with live music rocking on stage. Three bustling Saturday morning farmers markets further helped us to get a great taste of the city.
But we found Missoula is also an excellent hub to explore western Montana. To the South, delving into the Bitterroot Valley, we loved the scenic hikes through Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge and tracing the steps of Louis & Clark at Travelers Rest State Park.
To the North, wildlife abounds at the National Bison Range. But it’s statues that are plentiful at the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas. To the East, cowboy history comes to life at the Grants-Kohrs Ranch Nat’l Historic Site.
There are so many interesting places to check out in every direction from this fun Montana city!
Breaux Bridge, LA
This small town deep in the Louisiana bayou was such a pleasant surprise to us. Despite a population of only about 8,000, Breaux Bridge is so full of culture. Cajun culture!
Founded and planned by a widowed 33-year-old woman in 1829, descendants of the French Acadians expelled from Canada have been calling Breaux Bridge home for nearly two centuries now. And they’ve maintained their unique Cajun traditions, which is really what gives this area so much soul and charm.
The Cajun cuisine here is distinctively different, spicy, and delicious! It’s a novelty hearing the Cajun English dialect spoken around town, while also encountering occasional signs in French. Breaux Bridge boasts a quaint downtown full of antique stores, historic buildings, a smattering of restaurants, and loads of character.
Meanwhile the surrounding bayou environment provides an enchanting backdrop to this charismatic little town. Taking a boat tour across the murky waters of the Atchafalaya Swamp provides a great opportunity to spot gators and local birds here in what’s considered to be the largest wetlands in the US.
Breaux Bridge is also known as the Crawfish Capitol of the World. This reputation is celebrated throughout several restaurants serving heaping piles of the shellfish. Perhaps even more appealing is all the Zydeco and Cajun music that fills Breaux Bridge’s restaurants, bars, and dance halls. This little town in the bayou sure packs a punch!
Best Tourist Towns:
When visiting national parks and other destinations across the US, it’s inevitable to pass through several popular tourism destinations. Although they can sometimes be overpriced, tacky, and feel inauthentic, American tourist towns do have their place. If you can get past the goofy attractions and abundance of t-shirt shops, America’s tourist towns can be fun spots to let your hair down and enjoy for what they are.
For us, a good ol’ American tourist town is somewhere that plays up its notoriety, has appeal aside from its manufactured attractions, and is full of interesting places to eat, drink and play. So those are exactly the aspects we thought about when considering our favorites here.
Jackson, WY – This gateway town to Grand Teton NP (and subsequently Yellowstone) is in an idyllic setting in a mountain valley with loads of great restaurants, the famed Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, and the town square with its signature antler arches. While Jackson is great tourist town, steep prices prevent it from ranking higher on our list.
Frisco, CO – Located next to the bustling ski resort town of Breckenridge, Frisco provided a more quaint base for our explorations in the area. The pleasant main street has some great restaurants to dine at, fancy boutiques to peruse, and well-regarded craft breweries. But we also appreciated that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, as Frisco also has a fun dive bar slinging cheap pitchers of PBR. It all lays in the beautiful Rocky Mountain setting with no shortage of outdoor recreation in every direction.
Wisconsin Dells, WI – This is the epitome of a regional tourist town and we thought it was a fun visit in the Midwest. Many people come to the Wisconsin Dells for its numerous water parks. Instead, we thoroughly enjoyed its natural side by taking the beautiful boat ride into the cliff-lined dells themselves. Plenty of restaurants and bars greeted us back on land.
San Antonio, TX – Everything is bigger is Texas including its tourist towns, as the San Antonio CVB boasts a whopping 30+ million tourists each year. Many come to see the Alamo missions, regarded as Texas’s top attraction. We were a little taken back by the gaudy tourist traps lining the street in front of the historic site. But we did really enjoy strolling San Antonio’s pleasant Riverwalk, in addition to the UNESCO-listed San Antonio Missions Nat’l Historical Park. Meanwhile the Mexican mercados in the Historic Market Square gave us a wonderful taste south of the border, as we also loved all the Tex-Mex cuisine found all throughout the city!
Cody, WY – Among each of Yellowstone’s gateway towns (West Yellowstone, Gardiner, etc.), Cody was our favorite. It carries out a delightful balance of having great tourism infrastructure and attractions, without feeling overly touristic and also without the hefty price tags. Cody’s Old Town Trail was like wandering across an outdoor museum of frontier times. Meanwhile, the Cody Cattle Company’s chuckwagon dinner and show was loads of fun and at $35 was among the best value tourist attractions we did during our entire trip.
Savannah, GA – We find Savannah to be one of the most atmospheric and scenic cities in the US. We always enjoy strolling through the 22 squares across Savannah’s historic downtown amidst the many moss draped oak trees. Since this city can get quite hot during the summer, it’s always fun for us to grab to-go drinks for our strolls around town, since Savannah is one of the only cities in the US to allow alcohol consumption all throughout town. The party vibes are strong here in this city that also boasts great Southern cooking, all of which helps to make Savannah so delicious.
When we saw Roswell on the map along our road trip route, we had to stop! But we wondered, would it be worth the visit or is it a tourist trap? We’ve concluded – it’s both.
You may recall Roswell is the location of the supposed 1947 UFO crash. The city has since fully embraced its reputation with UFOs and aliens. Roswell’s welcome signs have flying saucers, the city’s visitor center snaps fun alien photos, and even the city’s lampposts lining main street shine green with alien eyes.
Even most local busin