A Cross Country Roadtrip to California

Grand Teton National Park

I've driven across the US 6 times on 5 different routes.  My version of the ideal cross country trip is to see as much as possible for the least amount of money. I try to camp as often as I can along the way. I thought I would post some general route suggestions for anyone who might be researching a trip of their own.

The Southern Route
If you're considering driving across country on the I-40 , chances are that you're planning a trip to the Grand Canyon. This is the wrong way to do it. You would be better off flying into Las Vegas or Phoenix and renting a car. Why you ask? Because the 1000+ mile drive between Nashville and Flagstaff is endless and terrible. If you feel the need to ignore my advice, avoid booking a hotel room in Memphis, Little Rock, Oklahoma City or Albuquerque for safety reasons and stay in a small town instead. All of these cities are notoriously dangerous. The Smokey Mountains in Tennessee are definitely worth a visit.  The east-coast beaches from Delaware to Florida are beautiful, with the lone exceptions of Virginia Beach, Newport News, Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach which are all cesspools of human misery.

The Middle Route
To be frank, the middle of America is empty and boring, no matter what route you take.  The middle routes across I-70 and I-64 both converge in Saint Louis, one of the scariest cities I've ever driven through.  On my first cross country trip ever, I had planned on stopping at the Saint Louis Arch. When I saw the surrounding neighborhood, I was afraid to get off the highway.  Oklahoma City and Kansas City are equally depressing.  On the other hand, the 750 miles of highway from Denver to  Las Vegas is one of the most scenic and surreal drives in the US, with literally hundreds of parks and more amazing hikes than you could finish in a lifetime.  The I-70 heads over the Colorado Rockies through Vail and Grand Junction and past Arches National Park. From I-15 South you’ll pass Cedar Breaks National Monument,  Zion National Park, Kolob Canyon,  Valley of Fire State Park,  Las Vegas, the Mojave Desert, Temecula Wine Country in California and eventually San Diego. 

The Northern Route
For a first timer who has never made a cross country trip, I would recommend the route from Chicago to Orange County by way of the Badlands and Yellowstone National Park. Here is my optimal route:  

Chicago Illinois-> Badlands National Park -> Mount Rushmore -> Devil's Tower National Monument -> Yellowstone National Park -> Grand Teton National Park -> Jackson Wyoming -> Lava Hot Springs Idaho  -> Cedar Breaks National Monument-> Zion National Park -> Las Vegas -> Newport Beach California

You can pick up an annual National Park Pass  for 80$ and get access to all of the parks on this list. They will probably still hit you with an extra fee for parking at Mount Rushmore.

The route from Chicago to Orange County California  is estimated at 36 hours one way, it'll take a hell of a lot longer than that. I would recommend splitting this trip up into 3 weeks if you want to enjoy yourself and see everything on this list. The return trip is always a nightmare. If you really haul ass and swap drivers, you can make home from anywhere in 3 days.  A word of warning: you are really going to be sick of the car by the end of your trip.

 I've had a few minor car issues on my travels, but I still don't recommend renting a car because the prices have gotten outrageous. For the price of a rental car for three weeks, you could buy 4 round-trip tickets to anywhere in the United States and still have plenty of money left over for hotel rooms.

Badlands National Park

Devil's Tower National Monument

Grand Teton National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Lower Yellowstone Falls
Newport Beach California

Zion National Park
The Strip. Las Vegas Nevada

Crystal Cove. Orange County California


  1. Quite simply, one of my favorite places in the world.

    Brian Head Utah

  2. I disagree. I 40 from Kingman to Oklahoma City is a beautiful drive. You travel through mountain and desert areas. A great stop on the way is the Painted Desert NP and the Petrified Forest in AZ. We also found safe and reasonably priced lodging outside of Oklahoma City. Also along the route you can stop at Flagstaff and take one of the country's most beautiful routes from Flagstaff to Sedona along Oak Creek Canyon.
    I will agree I 70 is unbelievable from Denver to Grand Junction. The trip through the Rockies is breath taking, especially in Glenwood Canyon. Do not miss Arches NP which is only an hour south of I-70. Take the route along the Colorado River to Moab. While in Arches be sure to see the Delicate Arch at sunrise.

  3. I love the drive through Sedona, but if I had my choice between Sedona on the Southern Route and Yellowstone on the Nothern Route, I'll take Yellowstone every time.


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