When the summer comes, so does the heat. Regardless of who you are, those dog days and triple digits will send you clamoring for cooler climes. Enter the iron stallion of freedom, your car. Those four wheels can take you to higher elevation, higher latitudes, and open water—all of which will help you cool off when the temps spike.
Here at Outdoor Project, we love road trips, and we’re always thinking of new ways to marry the outdoors and the open road. Beyond the classic drives like Yellowstone or along the Front Range, into the canyons east of Salt Lake City, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, or up California’s Pacific Coast Highway—all of which would be fantastic options for the summer season—these are creative alternatives that showcase, perhaps, routes lesser driven. Take a look and find inspiration for your own journey.
Highway 395 on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada offers many of California’s finest outdoor destinations, including four of its nine national parks and North America’s second-deepest lake. Those are just the big-ticket items. The bouldering in Bishop is world class. Sequoia and Kings Canyon offer the world’s largest tree by volume among its bounty, Mount Whitney is one of California’s tallest peaks, and there are countless hot springs and lakes on the way to Tahoe, one of California’s biggest and bluest. Go in late summer, and you might catch the beginning of the aspen turn.
Some of the most recognizable scenes in movie history were filmed in the desert Southwest, and that’s just one of the reasons to visit this monumental landscape. Descending the Colorado Plateau, this road trip follows winding state and U.S. highways from the San Juan Mountains through white and red sandstone canyons to St. George and Zion National Park. In between is the whistling wind and sagebrush of John Ford, and all of the fantastical scenery in between—Monument Valley, of course, but also Valley of the Gods, the Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Reflection Canyon.
The Atlantic Coast is its own milieu of sailing, crab pots, and lobster festivals, not coincidentally taking place in August in Rockland. Once you eat your fill of the crustacean, continue north to Acadia National Park and revel in the scenic ocean beaches along the way.
An oft-overlooked section of national scenery, the nexus of Wyoming and South Dakota offers an oddity of natural and human history that includes Devils Tower, Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, and the Black Hills. Custer State Park is particularly notable for its scenic drives, and among the backcountry camping in the Badlands are great opportunities to get out of the car and onto a bicycle. Don’t sleep on Wind Cave National Park either, just south of Custer State Park.
A tour of the Columbia Plateau showcases rolling hills of golden wheat carved by glaciers and cataclysmic floods, little alpine towns reminiscent of the Swiss Alps, river canyons of the Nez Perce, and the lively river town of Missoula, Montana. The Eagle Cap Wilderness offers beautiful alpine hiking, and the little community in Joseph offers galleries and breweries to enjoy as a roadside stop or between outdoor excursions, and Missoula is one of the great outdoor towns in the West. In between are the beautiful canyons and forests of the Snake River watershed, including Hells Canyon and Zumwalt Prairie.