7 Unique Road Trip Ideas Guaranteed to Make You Dream of the Open Highway

Road trip ideas for all levels of adventure; some short, some long – all unique.

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I love road trips. There is no experience quite like hitting the open road to parts unknown.  I have a bucket list of road trip ideas.

The open road is a blank slate for road trip ideas.
The open road beckons

Some of my most vivid and pleasant memories come from past road trips. I can still recall, for example, experiencing an approaching thunderstorm. I remember the overpowering scent of rain in the air and feeling the lightning’s electricity tingling the hairs of my skin. 

Then there was the time I dragged my kids out of our van, late at night, into the deepest, darkest night ever to explore Cadillac Ranch in the Texas panhandle. I am sure the startled armadillos remembered us for a long time too.  

60 years of road trips

I’ve taken a road trip almost every year of my life – and I turn 60 this year. That is a lot of road trips.

Growing up, my parents took us on a road trip every summer. Starting in Iowa, my home state, we would take off to Colorado or California to visit family. At first, my brother and I shared (or fought over) the back seat. As we grew older, we learned pre-GPS navigation, rules of the road, and how to pack up, and, finally, to drive a car. 

Love the journey more than the destination

 Most importantly, I came to love the journey as much as the destination; how to pass our time taking in the endless sky and ever-changing landscapes. Each year we would change up the route and the sightseeing, and my memories are packed full of those experiences.  

As an adult, I first took road trips with friends, then alone, and finally with my children in tow. 

I’ve traversed North America from coast to coast and all around in between, hitting 46 states and most of the Canadian provinces. I’ll never forget the year we christened our new-to-us 12-seat van (because my family of seven outgrew our minivan) with an epic 16-state road trip through the western US. Now THAT was a single mom adventure for the record books.

My children are now grown and enjoy their own road trips. These days, when we all manage to get together, talk often turns to recount stories from our family road trips. We fondly remember our travel together – the fun, the adventures, and the crazy disasters too.  

It is true; the best memories are born from extraordinary experiences. 

On my own again

And now it’s time for me to head out on my own again.  

Late last year, I commissioned a custom Dodge campervan. Glampervan has been hard at work on my Dodge Ram Promaster, turning her into a gorgeous, Gamped up van with bright purple accents. She has just finished her makeover, and I pick her up next week.  

The world is slowly starting to reopen after nearly two months of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. This mamma is ready to hit the road!

Now that I have virtually unlimited time and a van with every amenity of a hotel room, I will not pre-plan every detail of my travel. Yes, I admit it. I am a recovering over-planner. For decades I’ve carried an agenda book, made meticulously detailed lists, and dutifully checked off every item —every single day. But no more. Those days are behind me. I hope.

So – no itinerary. Instead, a general, revisable plan with road trip ideas aplenty, and a few anchor locations where I will meet up with friends and family.  

My new “rules of the road”

My general travel guidelines are:

  • No snow. I grew up in Iowa, lived for years in Chicago, but moved to San Diego in 2003, and I am so over snow. Over cold too. I’ll follow the warm weather., thank you very much.
  • Plan no further than my next overnight or extended stay destination. I plan to arrive at a place I want to explore, find a place to camp free or almost free, and stay put until I am ready to move on. Then I’ll pick my next destination.
  • Driving between destinations will be limited to less than 6 hours stretches, in the daytime. I’ve often done 12, 16 and even 24 hour plus drives, and just don’t need to anymore. I hope most driving days will be 3 hours or less. Night driving is no longer my friend (dratted aging eyes), and, anyway, I want to SEE the scenery, so I’ll keep my driving to daytime.

I do have a few roads, trails, and byways on my bucket list. I am not sure what order I will take them, but I will take them.

Bucket list of road trips ideas

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1- National Historic Trails.  

Our National Park Service has created an unparalleled National Historic Trail System, which leads to a massive source of road trip ideas. I’ve been eyeing it for years and will hit as many as I can in the coming years. I won’t through-hike these trails but will follow them in my van and stop, stay and hike segments. I am most looking forward to;

The Lewis and Clark Trail encompasses 4900 miles across 11 states retracing the path Lewis, Clark and Sacajawea took. Two great books covering the Lewis and Clark Expedition include the nonfiction Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose and the epic novel by Anna L. Waldo, Sacajawea (Lewis & Calrk Expedition)

The Oregon Trail, from Missouri to Oregon. I’ve read Oregon Trail-based literature since I was a child, heled my children play the nascent computer game, and am still fascinated by the flood of Conestoga wagons that fueled our western expansion.

The Nez Perce Trail (Nee-Me-Poo) Commemorates the 1877 flight of approximately 750 Nez Perce Indians and their pursuit by US Calvery over 1200 miles in the Pacific Northwest. If you are interested in learning more about the last days of the free Nez Perce read I Will Fight No More Forever: Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War by Merrill D. Beal.

Trail of Tears. The Southeast US is a region where I have not spent much time. The Trail of Tears covers the over 5000 miles traversed by the Cherokee people, between 1838 and 1839, as they were forcibly removed from their native lands and relocated to Oklahoma.  

There are 19 Historic Trails listed on the National Park System’s website. I hope to touch on all of them eventually.  

Map showing The National Historic Trail System. Find several road trip ideas here.
The National Historic Trails System. So many road trip ideas from one map.

2-Loess Hills National Scenic Byway 

This scenic byway runs from NorthEast Iowa down to near St. Joseph, Missouri. People think of Iowa as flat, and having grown up there, I can attest to the fact it is not.  

Even though I grew up in Iowa, I was unaware of this unique region, formed at the end of the last Ice Age. Loess is a specific type of soil, fine as flour, and the Iowa region is one of the only places in the world with enormous loess-formed dunes. The only other place with a comparable natural wonder is in Shaanxi in central China.

I first read about this area of the country a couple of years back when I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. So often, books influence my travel destinations. They light off a spark in my imagination that fuels my wanderlust.

3-The Great River Road

Starting in Minnesota and ending in the Gulf of Mexico, the Great River Road follows the mighty Mississippi. I’ve crossed the Mississippi more times than I can count, almost always when driving between Des Moines and Chicago. But I have never followed the river along its entire course. I will.

I quick video tour of The Great River ROad

4-The Civil Rights Trail

Not a trail, per se, but a collection of sites and destinations across 16 southern and south-central states, I hope to visit as many stops on the Civil Rights Trail as a can. I started this journey a few years ago when I met my daughter in Montgomery, Alabama, to attend the opening of the Peace and Justice Museum and Memorial. My few short days in Montgomery were unbelievable. There is so much history there – so much. I loved and absorbed every minute of my time there and can’t wait to continue exploring.

My daughter standing in front of a mural in Montgomery Alabama, an important site on the Civil Rights Trail, one of several road trip ideas.
My oldest daughter in Montgomery Alabama, a state with many sites on the historic Civil Rights Trail

I owe so much to the people who drove our Civil rights Movement. My family quite literally would not have been possible without the changes brought about by the movement. Each place I visit has a deep meaning for me.

5- Indian Mounds of the Midwest

Here is a perfect example where road trip ideas growing from a literary journey; where many of my travel dreams begin.

Last year I read a historical fiction book on the mound-builders, Peoples of the Lake by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W Michael Gear, as well as a nonfiction account of the Cahokian civilization. Now I want to see the mounds in real life. I’ll be sure to visit the primary sites in Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio, and probably more as I meander across the Midwest and South.  This Chicago Tribune article provides a good overview.

The Cahokia Mounds – the only World Heritage Site in Illinois

Here are a couple recommended books to learn more about this ancient civilization.

Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi (Penguin Library of American Indian History) by Timothy R. Pauketat

People of the Lakes (North America’s Forgotten Past Book 6) by Kathleen O’Neal Gear

People of the Morning Star by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6329095-cahokia?from_search=true&from_srp=true&qid=wGdyAzsVt3&rank=1

6-Prince Edward Island

I’ll make my way to Canada and hope to find the courage to cross the “World’s longest over ice-covered water bridge.” If you remember, I had a terrifying run-in with a large suspension bridge in France. But I continue to try and conquer my bridge phobia, and this is the bridge where I will test it. If all else fails – hey, I’ll take the ferry. But I will explore this beautiful Island and see the home of Anne of Green Gables.

Will I make it over this bridge??? Watch this one with the sound muted IMO.

7-The Dempster Highway

The Dempster Highway is an innocuous name for the ultimate road trip idea. The road begins in the Yukon and ends in Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. But I won’t stop at Inuvik. Nope, I plan to continue on the Tuktoyaktuk Highway all the way up to the Arctic coast. I MUST drive this road. It looks fabulous – in late summer.  

This arctic exploration won’t be my first road trip with Eve, but it will happen. My goal is to time it well so I can take in the Northern Lights as well as the open tundra.  

Driving the Dempster Highway in the winter – uh — NO!
Driving the Dempster Highway in the summer – YES!!!

I’ll likely also take in the Alaska Highway as it starts in the same vicinity as The Dempster Highway – as long as I am not up there in the snow — no snow for Eve or me.

Taking the road less traveled

I can’t wait to hit the road and make new memories. This time I may be traveling alone, but I’ll still be collecting experiences and making memories. I look forward to sharing those memories with you.

Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.

Ibn Battuta

Your turn to share road trip ideas…

Do you have suggestions for places I should go? Please let me know in the comments or shoot me an email.

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5 Comments

  1. What a great bunch of inspiration. I am especially interested in the bridge to Prince Edward Island, because it’s an incredible feat of engineering, but moreso because it leads to the home of Anne of Green Gables! I want to start planning my own road trip! In fact, I’m going to!

    1. Thanks! It will be a big deal for me to make it over that bridge, but I WILL!!! I am so itching to get out on the road. I hope things open up soon. I hope your writing is going well. Did we discuss Anne with an E? I have started watching it and like it a lot — it probably fed into me listing this drive.

  2. You can include visiting us when you’re exploring the Civil Rights Trail. Salem County, NJ has amazing stories to tell!

    Plus, we have two driveways. You can camp out right here, lol! I already have your spot picked out!

    1. I am so there! Thank you. I have spent a lot of time in NJ as I just retired for J&J. Time in Raritan and just over the PA border in Spring House. So many trips from Newark to various NJ destinations. I will for sure be out your way late summer or early fall as I will see my dad and brother in NY and my daughter and son in VA. Thanks!!!

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