USA Road Trip Ideas – A Summer Road Trip through the Northern USA
The Northern Route
Seattle to Boston on Route 90 passing through the Rocky Mountains/Yellowstone National Park/Rapid City/Mount Rushmoor/Madison/Chicago/Cleveland/Niagara Falls/Appalachian Mountains/Boston
The best time of year to see and enjoy the natural beauty of the northern states is during the summer months. This coast to coast summer road trip based on Interstate 90 is over 3,000 miles long and would take 48 hours of straight driving to complete. But we don’t want you to rush it – to properly enjoy the trip try to allow at least 4 weeks.
Depending on flights (from UK/Europe) you could start from Seattle, WA, or San Francisco, CA, or even Salt Lake City, UT. Starting from San Francisco will add about 400 miles but gives a chance to add Yosemite Park and Lake Reno, NV, to your trip.
Yellowstone National Park, WY
Each starting point will need at least a couple of days to enjoy and acclimatize before setting off. San Francisco may need a day or two more to enjoy depending on your interests. Seattle to Yellowstone National Park is about 12 hours driving (also passing through Montana and Idaho), so will take a couple of days to drive comfortably. The I90 passes through Spokane at roughly 4/5 hours, or you could travel a couple more hours to get into the Rocky mountains before stopping. That leaves about 6 hours to get to Yellowstone park which will need at least 3 days to experience, possibly more if you want to include Grand Teton.
Driving from San Francisco to Yellowstone takes at least 15 hours, so would make a nice 3 or 4 day trip with stops at Yosemite for a day, Lake Reno for a day and a visit to Salt Lake City for a day or two as well. Salt Lake City to Yellowstone is still a 6 hour drive. If you wish to camp at Yellowstone then book early as camp slots sell out quickly. Utah was also the focus of an episode of the popular program Russell Howard & Mum: USA Road Trip. Russel and his mum visited Survival Preppers and trained to survive the Zombie Apocalypse.
Tip: Plan and book visits/camping etc https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/index.htm
South Dakota National Parks
After Yellowstone, the route then continues on I 90 towards Rapid City and Mount Rushmoor National Memorial. As you pass, take in Thunder Basin National Grassland, Black Hills National Forest and Wind Cave National Park. After Rapid City I90 will take you very close to Badlands National Park. All the parks and Rapid city itself will take a few days to enjoy.
Tip: Purchase an annual pass to National parks at the start of your trip. https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm
Sioux Falls, SD
Rapid City, SD to Sioux Falls, SD (crossing the Missouri river as you go) is a 5-6 hour drive depending on weather and road works. Hopefully a summer road trip would not be impacted by blizzards! Stay a day or two in Sioux Falls IO,to enjoy the Falls Park, Great Plains Zoo and the Butterfly House and Aquarium. You can also drop down I29 to Sioux City for a quick drive into Nebraska and tick it off your state list!
After Sioux Falls, you can choose whether to head up to the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, MN or keep going towards Chicago. The trip to Chicago is around 573 miles and 9 hours of driving but you can break your trip at either Madison or Rockford. Either way, you will add Wisconsin to your state list.
Chicago is the fifth biggest city in the USA by population. There is a great website at ChooseChigago with the must see attractions. It also has suggested itineraries for newbies, or budgets, or music etc. I would highly recommend spending some time on the website so you can make the most of this fabulous city. Chicago also has a reputation as a great foodie city. Take a look at Enjoyillinois to make sure you don’s miss out.
From Chicago I90 heads on for another 1,000 miles towards Boston. The Chicago to Cleveland, OH, leg (5 hours) takes you through Indiana and Ohio. But, if you want to tick Michigan off your state list you will need to take a detour up I 80 to White Pigeon. I90 appears to hug the border of Indiana without actually crossing into Michigan at any point (according to Google maps!).
Niagara Falls, NY
The drive from Cleveland to Niagara Falls (through Pennsylvania) is about three and half hours. Whilst the city of Niagara Falls is actually in Canada, there is a bridge linking the USA and Canada over the falls and this has to be on your itinerary before returning continuing on to Syracuse (both in New York State). Niagara Falls is a state park rather than a National Park, so it is not included in your annual pass. Use Niagarafallsusa to make the most of your time here.
Tip: Purchase a really good cooler at the start of your trip to keep drinks, snacks and picnics at the right temperature. Check out our other Road Trip Essentials here
The Final Push
The latter part of your journey into Boston takes you through the beautiful Appalachian Mountain Range and the Catskill Mountains in particular. Whether its fishing, hiking, craft beer or dining, the Catskills have much for you to enjoy. With only around 4 hours left to get from Syracuse to Boston, MA, you can afford to slow down and devote some time to the East Coast.
From Albany, in the mountains, it is equidistant to New York or Boston, so you can finish your trip in either location or take in one on route to the other. This area is quite compact in terms of states, so you can easily touch Connecticut, Massachusetts and even Rhode Island if you drove down to New York and then back up to Boston. Drive up coast to Portsmouth and you can take in New England. From Portsmouth, drive into the corner of Maine! You would need another detour from I90 if you wanted to touch Vermont as well.
Both New York and Boston deserve time exploring. Parking is costly in New York, so if you plan to visit both, try Boston first and then give the car back in New York where you won’t need a car. Having paid a one-way fee to cross the whole of the USA, it would be annoying to have to pay another one-way fee just to get from Boston to New York or vice versa if you gave the car back for just a few days. I have seen some road-trippers argue that you can easily dedicate a trip to New York in the future. They would skip it from this itinerary and spend the time in Boston or on the coast.
Car Hire for a Northern USA Road Trip
I have mentioned the one-way fee above. For this trip you will be charged $500 plus local taxes by most suppliers, so budget around $650 in total. For all the many activities along this route you could have a lot of ‘stuff’. Camping, hiking, fishing, picnicking etc. I am a great fan of the 7 seat people carrier and would recommend it for this trip, even if there are just two of you. Any more people or for the more serious campers, it will be the best vehicle overall for swallowing up that ‘stuff’. A couple might get away with a mid-size car, with the boot to carry luggage and the rear seats for daily essentials.
Tip: Use our fleet guide to help you search the fuel economy of the different categories of car
The basic hire of the car is slightly cheaper if starting in San Francisco than Seattle – by about £5 per week, so not a huge amount. The one-way fee is the same regardless. The advantage of starting in San Francisco is that you get free additional drivers on the fully inclusive package. This applies for the duration of the rental regardless of which state you drive through. Starting in San Francisco does add 400 miles to the trip, so it is worth doing the maths to see which starting location works out better value overall with the flights etc. We do have 2 driver packages available offline that we can happily quote for to help with the sums.
Hiring a GPS device will be an expensive way to navigate. Either buy one on arrival, or borrow one to take with you. Google Maps is great for up to the minute travel info, but if you plan to use it the whole way, you will need a good data plan as you may not be able to use Wifi to download routes the whole way.
It goes without saying that a trip of this size and duration needs a lot of planning. We have a couple of links in our tips, and others in the main text for particular cities. Google Maps is a fantastic starting point for looking at mileage, possible attractions and facilities. TripAdvisor can give a flavour of a city and help you find the latest hidden gem. Many people like to blog about their own road trips across the USA. These can be invaluable for ideas of how long to spend in a place, what is worth the trip and what really isn’t.
The basic route along I90 will take you through 13 states whether you start from San Francisco or Seattle. Starting from San Francisco will take you through California, Nevada and Utah rather than Washington, Idaho and Montana.
- South Dakota
- New York
If you add in a few detours along the way, you can easily add a further 8. That is very nearly half the states in the USA.
- Rhode Island
- New Hampshire