Best Road Trips for Hiking

One of the best ways to explore the USA is to hop in your car and head on the road. The United States has so many amazing road trips that will allow people to experience everything from culture to food to the great outdoors. So, what are the best road trips for hiking in the US?

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur
Alviso Marshes

California’s Highway 1

Best Road Trip for Hiking the California Coast

This is the ultimate California road trip. California’s Highway 1 runs along the coast for most of the state, but when people talk about driving Highway 1, they are typically referring to the stretch between Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

Overview

You can start on either end, but I recommend you begin in Los Angeles. Driving north means you will never have to worry about driving into the Sun. Soon after you depart the LA sprawl, you will find yourself in Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is the first of many Mission cities you will pass through on the coast. The town of Santa Barbara has a lot of things to do, and it is especially well known for its beach.

Continuing North, you have the opportunity to stop at the quirky Hearst Castle. If this is not your thing, there are some trails in the area. Keep your eyes peeled for Zebra! The next milestone is Big Sur. This is the crown jewel of the Pacific Coast. Not only does Big Sur have unparalleled views, but it also butts up to the Ventana Wilderness which offers some of the best coastal hiking.

North of Big Sur, you will find yourself in Carmel. From here you are only a short distance from San Francisco, but there is still plenty to see. Make sure you hug the coast all the way into SF.

When to Go

Contrary to belief outside of the state, California does have seasons. Winter can be very rainy on the coast and Summer has the potential to bring in the fog. Spring and Fall have the most consistent weather. 

See also: Winter Backpacking California

Road trips: Lake Sierra, Nevada
Road trips: Hot Creek Mammoth California

The Eastern Sierras

Best Road Trip for Hiking in the Sierra Nevada

This is another road trip that takes you from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The fact that this trip is less popular than Highway 1 makes it even more appealing. If you want to see the most dramatic section of California, this is the road trip for you.

Overview

Starting from Los Angeles, head north to Death Valley National Park. Death Valley is astoundingly diverse. You will get to see some towering dunes as well as some interesting rock formations. Once you have had your fill with the lowest point in North America, it is time to head up the Sierra Nevada.

The Sierras are beautiful from all angles , but on the Eastern side, they rise nearly 10,000 feet over only a couple miles. From the 395, they look like a towering wall. All along the highway, there are trailheads that will take you to some of the most beautiful alpine lakes you will ever see. The only cost is the climbing required to get there.

After you pass Mammoth Lakes, you have another 40 minutes or so until you turn onto Tioga Road. Tioga Road is without a doubt the single best road in California. It takes you over the Sierras through Yosemite National Park. Some of the best hiking trails in Yosemite start from off of Tioga Road.

When to Go

This is the ultimate Autumn road trip. The weather in the desert will be at its most pleasant. The Eastern Sierras have beautiful foliage in the Fall. One thing to watch out for: Tioga road closes at some point when it starts snowing. If you find yourself out there in the winter, you can continue North and cross over the mountains near Lake Tahoe.

See also: Backpacking the Crown Point Loop

Redwood Coast

Best Road Trip for Hiking Through the Redwoods

This trip could easily be done as an extension of the first road trip, but if you only have a short amount of time it is better to split them up. This trip offers all the awesome views and stops that the other trips have, but with a fraction of the other travelers. If you want a trip that offers a little extra isolation, this one’s for you.

Overview

This trip is best started from Redding, California. From Redding, you have easy access to Lassen National Park; a mini Yellowstone! After Lassen, make a quick trip up to Mount Shasta before cutting across the Klamaths to the coast.

As you drive south, you will pass by Redwood National Park, Eureka, the Lost Coast, and Avenue of Giants. Eventually, you will reach Fort Bragg and Mendocino. Mendocino is both a town and a county, and both are wildly underrated. The town has some great food and coastal views, and the county has wineries that will rival Napa.

As you get close to the Bay, there are still some great stops left on the trip. To the East, Napa and Sonoma will offer some great relaxation. To the West, Point Reyes has some of the best day hikes in Marin.

When to Go

Like the first trip on the list, this trip is best suited for Spring or Fall. I think Spring has a bit of an edge for this one since the area has been hit a bit harder by wildfire season over the last few years.

Road Trips: Smith Rock, Oregon

The Pacific Northwest

Best Road Trip for Hiking in the Cascades

This is another west coast classic. Unlike California, the Pacific Northwest is better known for its temperate rainforest than for sunny beaches. Don’t let that fool you, however, because there are still some pretty epic beaches. 

Overview

I am going to cheat a little bit here and suggest that you start this drive in Vancouver. I know this is not the USA, but Vancouver is such a cool city, and the surrounding area is so beautiful. If you cannot start from Vancouver for some reason, it is so close to Seattle that you will not be overly impacted. If you do have a chance to start in Vancouver, make a starting detour up to Squamish. Squamish is so close to Vancouver, but feels so much like you have gone deep into the woods. After you are finished with Canada, head across the border toward Seattle.

The first stop after Seattle should be the Olympic Peninsula. Getting to the peninsula from Seattle requires taking a ferry, which is always a cool experience. The Olympic Peninsula really feels like the end of the world but also perfectly embodies the Pacific Northwest. After you have made a loop around the peninsula, make your way back east to Mount Rainier National Park. Mount Rainier is a sight, and the park offers some really great hiking, especially during wildflower season.

As you near the Oregon border, you will come across the Columbia River Gorge. This river forms the border between Oregon and Washington and is also the site of some awesome trekking. Finally, finish your trip in Portland, one of the best food cities in the entire world! Not only does Portland have more food trucks per capita than any other city in the US, it also has some great fine dining restaurants like Han Oak.

When to Go

The best weather in the Pacific Northwest is definitely mid to late summer. This is also the best time to see wildflowers further North. However, Autumn can also be a beautiful time in the region as the larches add lovely color to the forest.

Oregon Loop

Best Road Trip for a Little Bit of Everything

Oregon is one of the most diverse and amazing states and extremely underrated . Because of the variety of scenery, you could spend a lifetime exploring what the state has to offer. Whether you are interested in forests, beaches, deserts or volcanoes, Oregon has something for everyone.

Overview

This loop starts and ends in Portland. Portland is an amazing city, especially if you love food. One of the cities most appealing attributes is the proximity to nature. Just on the outskirts of Portland is the Columbia River Gorge. The Gorge is home to some fantastic hiking trails and the tallest waterfall in the state.

From the Columbia River Gorge, make your way down to the Mount Hood area. This region of Oregon is full of lakes and woods and some truly spectacular vistas. As you depart, head south to Bend. Bend is a great base for exploring central Oregon. The region is famous for Smith Rock and the Three Sisters. From Bend, you get to the most remote and least visited part of the state by heading East. This is where you will find the desert of Oregon.

After you have had your fill of the desert, head back to the west, passing through Crater Lake National Park on your way to the coast. Finish your trip by driving up Highway 1 along the Ocean. In Oregon, the entire coastline is protected land, so you are guaranteed some beautiful views.

When to Go

This is another road trip with some gorgeous Autumn foliage if you don’t arrive too late in the Season. Summer is also a great time to visit, but you might want to skip the desert since it can get uncomfortably hot.

Cataract Falls, Oregon

Colorado Plateau

Best Road Trip for Hiking Through the Desert

This is the ultimate Southwest Roadtrip. You will drive past the most spectacular features in the American South West. If you haven’t seen the Grand Canyon, definitely make this trip your priority.

Overview

After leaving Phoenix, make your first stop at Sedona. Sedona is famous for its distinctive red rocks. Continue north until you get to the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is really just your first taste of what’s to come, but what a taste!

Head towards Page Arizona. This is where you have access to Antelope Canyon, Big Bend, and Lake Powell. Crossing the border, you now have the option to visit Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park.

After leaving Zion, finish your trip in Las Vegas. Even if you are not big into gambling or partying, Las Vegas has a lot of options for everyone. If you want more of the outdoors, Red Rock Canyon is spitting distance from the strip. Otherwise, Vegas has a diverse selection of food, shows and shopping.

When to Go

The Southwest is very uncomfortable in the summer months. Mid July regularly sees temps hit 100. Plus, summer is also the Monsoon season. In the winter, some of the roads can be closed. Mid spring and mid autumn will allow you the best of both worlds.

Teton Crest Trail
Barn at Grand Teton

Jackson to Glacier

Best Road Trip for Hiking in the Rocky Mountains

This road trip is generally taken with the intent to see Yellowstone. But there are two other incredible National Parks to visit as well. This is arguably the finest stretch of the Rocky Mountains. Even when you are not in a National Park, Big Sky Country will not disappoint.

Overview

Start your trip in Jackson. While it is most famous for being a ski town, Jackson is really cute and has some great restaurants. It is also the gateway to Grand Teton National Park. After a drive through Grand Teton, you will end up in Yellowstone.

Yellowstone is huge. It is the diversity in landscape as well as animals that drives visitors there every year. You could easily spend a whole week exploring Yellowstone, but there still so much left to see ahead.

The final stop on this trip is Glacier National Park. Glacier National Park has some of the most coveted backcountry campsites in the National Park system. If you have a chance and want to see more, the park becomes Waterton Lakes at the border with Canada.

When to Go

This trip is definitely most suited for the summertime. Even though it can be beautiful any time of the year, the weather in the Rockies is unpredictable and can change on a dime. Given the remoteness of some of the parks, it is best to play it safe and go in Summer.

Caveat – this road trip would also be an excellent skiing road trip!

Road trip: Jackson, Wyoming
Road trips: Sawtooth Highway Idaho

Idaho to Wyoming

Best Road Trip for Hiking Off the Beaten Path

If you have ever had any fascination with the American West, it is on this road trip where you will get to experience it first hand. Idaho and Wyoming still have the funky mountain towns that seem to almost hop straight out of movies. Everyone you meet will be extremely nice, and they will all be carrying guns to boot! But this trip is not only a cultural one. Idaho and Wyoming are both home to some incredibly dramatic mountain ranges.

Overview

Beginning in Boise, head around the Mountains up to Stanley. Stanley is the epitome of a western mountain town. It’s a great base for ghost towns, hiking and hot springs. Leaving Stanley, drive south through the mountains to Ketchum. Ketchum is a ski town, but also one of my favorite mountain towns I have ever visited.

After leaving Ketchum, the road toward the Wyoming border will pass by Craters of the Moon and Idaho Falls. This road will take you through remnants of an old lava flow and is super scenic.

Once you cross into Wyoming, instead of heading straight to Jackson, turn South and make your way to Pinedale. Pinedale is the gateway to the Wind River Range, but also prides itself on its mountain man history. After you have had your fill of the Winds, return back North up to Jackson.

When To Go

This is a great trip for late summer. After the snow has melted, there is ample opportunity for wildflowers. Like a couple other options on this list, this trip can also be modified into a winter ski trip.

The Big Island

Best Road Trip for Hiking in Hawaii

Of all the islands in Hawaii, I have a real soft spot for the Big Island. Not only does the island offer some classical paradise, it also contains 8 distinct microclimates! The Big Island is a special place where you can experience a little bit of everything.

Overview

Most people will begin and end their trip at Kailua-Kona. This is one of the two major cities on the island and has some of the best beaches. As you move south along the coast, you will find yourself in a very dry and hot part of the island. This is where you will be able to find the famed Black and Green sand beaches.

As you continue around the southern part of the island, you will drive through the Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park. You exit the park into Puna. It is no longer active today, but this was the part of the island where you could easily see lava before the eruption in 2018.

As you head north, you will arrive in the Eastern portion of the island. The Eastern Coast gets the most rainfall, but also has some of the most spectacular waterfalls. Before you head north and around, make a quick detour up to Mauna Kea. At 13,803’, Mauna Kea is the tallest point in Hawaii. If you want to head up there, just make sure you have a 4WD car and your rental contract allows it.

When to Go

This is really the perfect road trip all year round. The Big Island has so many micro climates that no matter when you go, there will probably be somewhere on the island to hit the beach, and somewhere else getting a bit of rain.

Elsbeth Weeks, Stanley, Idaho

Exploring the Great US Outdoors 

Backpacking Crown Point Loop

Backpacking Crown Point Loop

Backpacking Crown Point Loop – a ~20 mile (ca. 32 km) hiking trail in the Hoover Wilderness – makes for an awesome overnight hiking trip.

Backpacking the Four Lakes Loop

Backpacking the Four Lakes Loop

Backpacking the Four Lakes Loop, one of the premier backpacking routes of Trinity Alps. 16-20 miles through lush meadows and peaks.

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