People planning a vacation in the western United States usually make two big mistakes.
The first is that they spend too much time in Los Angeles. But there is so much more to do in the western United States than explore the bubble of rich homes and Hollywood clones, that we would argue you should skip LA completely.
The second mistake is that they assume Las Vegas is all about the gambling, and miss out on the geological wonderland and incredible natural surrounds. And while we’ll include Las Vegas in this itinerary, we do so as a base for exploring further out.
Western USA is an incredible region for a road trip, and travelers have a diverse range of exciting cities, coastal towns, and natural wonders to choose from when planning an itinerary. But being that there is so much to cover, we wouldn’t blame you if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
If you’re struggling with planning your route, use the following guide to fill two weeks worth of driving. These are the highlights of Western USA … not including LA.
Route for a Two Week Road Trip in Western USA (Not Including LA)
San Francisco is one of those cities that has a little bit of everything, so it makes sense as a place to start your road trip. From stunning landscapes to iconic monuments, along with a thriving arts, culture, and food scene, there are plenty of things to do and see.
The Golden Gate Bridge is obviously a must, though we recommend that you walk across it (taking care to watch out for cyclists who share the pedestrian walkways), and then make a stop at the visitors center.
You’ll find yourself at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which has a beautiful waterfront promenade, and excellent photo opps.
To get the most out of San Francisco, you should plan for 3 days to really experience everything. For help planning your time here, check out this three day itinerary.
Yosemite National Park
From San Francisco it’s a four hour drive to one of America’s most famous natural regions; Yosemite National Park.
With glaciers reaching back over 30 million years, ten waterfalls over 500 feet, yellow pine and oak forests and open meadows on the valley floor, Yosemite Valley is one of the most beautiful, and most photographed places on earth.
Enchanting and majestic, this magnificent panorama includes El Capitan, “the world’s largest monolith of exposed granite, the distinctive Half Dome granite formation, and Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America, measuring 2,425 feet from top to bottom.”
Scenic trails for hikers abound.
More info on the National Parks Service website.
Or … Highway 1
If you’re feeling more coastal than Yosemite, you can drive from San Fransisco down the country’s most famous and scenic highway; Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway.
“An exhilarating driving experience, this twisting, cliff-hugging, 123-mile (198-kilometer) route along the central California coast takes about five hours to complete at a leisurely pace.”
Stops along the highway include both the Big Sur Coast Highway and the San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway. Take in spectacular destinations like Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Point Lobos, Big Sur, Garrapata State Park, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Cambria and Morro Bay.
You’ll definitely want to spend some time at Redwood State Park south of San Francisco. The redwoods are massive, majestic trees. At Morro Bay, turn east and head toward Sequoia National Park.
Sequoia National Park
Cousins to the redwoods, Sequoia National Park is known for its giant sequoia trees. Crossing the valley and going up into the mountains to the park gives you a good sense of the vastness of California and the Central valley.
Though the park is known for so much more than just being home to the world’s largest trees.
Huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, and vast caverns spanning over 404,064 acres, this is one of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the United States.
There are dozens of small wineries on the trip between Morro Bay and Sequoia, though if you’re driving make sure you’re not drinking irresponsibly!
Onto Las Vegas
From Sequoia National Park, it’s a 6 hour drive to Las Vegas. You can get a perfectly good hotel room for very little money during the week; think around $60 a night for 5 star luxury.
But don’t be fooled – Las Vegas is about far more than gambling; in fact, we would recommend you save your money for travel and not even spend on the tables in the casino (you’ll contrast the complete lack of free casino games as opposed to the unlimited free games you can play at every online casino).
Las Vegas is in fact a great base for day trips. To the west, Red Rock Canyon will prepare you for Bryce National Park. And geological wonders are right at your doorstep in Valley of Fire State Park and Lake Mead to the east and northeast.
There’s also Hoover Dam to the south; straddling the Colorado river, since its completion in 1935, the dam has become one of America’s most famous national historic landmarks.
So instead of spending your money on gambling when you’re in Vegas, spend it on tours and attractions. You can still walk the strip and take in the general Vegas atmosphere once the sun sets.
Continue to Utah
After a 2-3 days in the Las Vegas area, head towards Utah. Skip Zion National Park; it’s very hot in the summer, ridiculously crowded, and the next park, Bryce, is much more interesting.
We don’t want to raise expectations too high but Bryce National Park makes a spectacular first impression. If you love the outdoors, Utah is hands down one of the best US states to be in.
There are five national parks across Southern Utah (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef), and these parks are collectively made up of thousands of natural arches, immense and impressive canyons, and “towering buttes and rock faces that have become a nation’s sacred natural treasures.”
On the way to Bryce is the small town of St. George, Utah. Just outside St. George is the Tuacahn Center for the Arts. They have a wonderful outdoor theater and put on classic plays. As part of your planning, check out their schedule for the dates you’ll be there.
Image: PiConsti (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr
The Grand Canyon
We have to admit that the Grand Canyon is so big that we have never fully experienced it.
It’s one of the world’s most powerful and inspiring landscapes; both immense and overwhelming, and the opportunity to stand on the rim of this vast canyon is without a doubt one of the most phenomenal encounters with nature.
There are options to take in the West Rim glass skywalk, and stay overnight at a ranch on native land. You can choose to travel on horseback, and witness the magic of a sunrise which most tourists will never understand.
You can walk down to the river but do so only in cool weather; it is much hotter at the bottom than at the top and people have been known to dehydrate tragically.
The trip from Bryce to the Grand Canyon is a great road trip in itself as you wind down toward a valley that you don’t see until you go around a curve. Then the valley opens up in an amazing panorama.
Read this post if you’re wondering which rim to visit (there are four rims, and each is a very different experience.)
Ending the Trip in Vegas
You can end your road trip in Las Vegas, where you can return your car rental and catch a flight. From the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas is a 4 hour drive.
If you’re dying to get to Los Angeles, the drive from Vegas is 4 hours. Though it may come as a culture shock after having spent so much time in the wild.
It’s important to estimate your driving times and distances when you’re planning out your trip. Also, give yourself extra time when planning out these drives, as the routes are very scenic, and will have many stop offs along the way.
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