Road Trip Perfection: 7 Best States for a Driving Vacation

man on a road trip

Man on a road trip | Source: iStock

If you’ve been putting off taking a big summer road trip, this may be the year to hit the highway. Though gas prices are on the rise, they’re still far better than what we’ve seen for August over the past few years, according to AAA. At these prices, packing up the car and exploring the nation’s scenic highways and byways makes for the perfect budget-friendly family getaway.

But with so many jaw-dropping destinations, from the tropical beauty of the Florida Keys to the awe-inspiring glaciers you’ll spot from Alaska’s Seward Highway, deciding where to go is no easy task. Thankfully, the folks at WalletHub have made choosing the perfect summer or end-of-summer road trip destination a bit easier. They’ve ranked each of the 50 states on 21 different metrics, including parks and attractions, road conditions, toll costs, quality of roads, price of lodging, and number of fatal car crashes, to determine which are the best and worst bets for road trippers.

Connecticut, Alaska, and Mississippi all landed at the bottom of WalletHub’s ranking. Alaska, despite its many national parks, has some of the most expensive gas in the country, while Connecticut lacks the scenic byways road trippers love. Mississippi scores low in terms of the number of attractions and road safety. Near the top of the list are a mix of states with plenty of one-of-a-kind views and attractions, affordable gas and lodging, and decent roads.

Once you pick a destination, what can you do to ensure a successful road trip? Aside from making sure your vehicle’s in good working order and practicing safe driving, the key is to just go with the flow.

“I think the biggest hazard to a successful road trip is too much devotion to the clock,” Sally Childs, a professor of recreation studies and exercise science at Lake Superior University, told WalletHub. “A great road trip should only have one or two absolute goals (a safe return would probably be one of them). The rest of the focus should be on the journey .. we should just climb in the vehicle, point in the general direction, and go.”

Here are WalletHub’s seven best states for a road trip, along with our suggestions for can’t-miss scenic routes you’ll want to explore. Summer may be coming to a close, but you still have time to check out these stops.

7. Idaho

Craters of the Moon National Monument

Craters of the Moon National Monument | Source: iStock

Total score: 55/100

The trip: Ultimate Idaho Road Trip

If you’re in the mood for a truly epic road trip but don’t want to drive cross-country, head to Idaho, where you can take a 1,400-mile drive (about the distance of Chicago to Miami) and explore the huge variety of scenery this Western state has to offer. Starting in Boise, you’ll make stops at Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, Craters of the Moon National Monument, Shoshone Falls, and Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park, among other destinations. Check out Visit Idaho for the full itinerary.

6. Washington

The middle point of the Wallace falls hike.

Wallace Falls State Park | Source: iStock

Total score: 56/100

The trip: Cascade Loop

Visitors to Washington have their pick of scenic drives, from a loop around the Olympic Peninsula to a drive through the Chinook Pass, which serves as the eastern entrance to Mount Rainier National Park. But if you only have time to do one, choose the 400-mile Cascade Loop. Start your drive 25 miles north of Seattle and leisurely explore the islands of Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains. Hike in North Cascades National Park, relax on picturesque Whidbey Island, and visit a Winery in Wenatchee. Depending on how much time you have, you can stretch your trip out for a week or more or take just a few days to explore, according to Adam Sawyer at Northwest Travel & Life.

5. Minnesota

Light House at Split Rock

Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior | Source: iStock

Total score: 56/100

The trip: Lake Superior’s North Shore

A 150-mile drive up the rugged and scenic shore of Lake Superior is a not-to-be-missed trip if you’re in the North Star State. Start your trip on Highway 61 in Duluth, stopping at Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse. Spend a night at one of the quaint inns dotting the route, or camp in one of the area’s many state parks. Cascade River State Park is at roughly the halfway point of the drive and has some campsites with lake views. End your journey at Grand Portage National Monument, where you can learn about the historic fur trade industry and Ojibwe culture.

4. North Carolina

beach near ocracoke lighthouse, north carolina

Beach near Ocracoke Lighthouse, North Carolina | Photo by VisitNC.com

Total score: 56/100

The trip: The Outer Banks

Born romantics can take a quick two-day road trip through North Carolina’s Outer Banks, exploring sites familiar from the 2008 movie Nights in Rodanthe. Start your drive at Manteo on Roanoke Island, then drive down State Highway 12 and take in the stunning Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Spend a night at the Inn at Rodanthe, which was featured in the film. The next day, take the ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke, where you can tour the Ocracoke Lighthouse, before ending your trip in Wilmington.

3. Utah

Angel's Landing in Zion National Park

Angels Landing in Zion National Park|Source: iStock

Total score: 59/100

The trip: The Mighty Five

Utah is home to five stunning national parks — Arches, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. Utah’s Office of Tourism has several suggested itineraries if you want to experience them all, including the “Ultimate Journey,” a 10-day driving excursion that will give you time to explore all the state has to offer, including a 116-mile drive on Scenic Byway 12, which meanders through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on its way between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon.

2. Nevada

Sign board saying 'Extraterrestrial Highway'

Sign for Nevada’s Extraterrestrial Highway | Source: iStock

Total score: 59/100

The trip: The Extraterrestrial Highway

X-Files addicts will want to take the 98-mile drive on the so-called “extraterrestrial highway,” a stretch of State Route 375 from Crystal Springs to Warm Springs that’s popular with UFO hunters. Start your trip at the ghost town of Crystal Springs, about 110 miles north of Las Vegas, then head west until you hit Mailbox Road, which marks the access road to the off-limits Area 51. In the tiny town of Rachel, you can grab a bite and spend the night at the Little A’Le’Inn, an extraterrestrial-themed restaurant and motel.  

1. Oregon

Columbia River Gorge in Oregon

Columbia River Gorge | Source: iStock

Total score: 61/100

The trip: Columbia River Highway

Oregon has more scenic byways and tour routes than any other state, according to Travel Oregon. One of the most memorable is the 70-mile drive along the Historic Columbia River Highway from Troutdale, just outside of Portland, to The Dalles. Must-see sites include Multnomah Falls, Bonneville Lock and Dam, and Bridal Veil Falls. Or, get out of your car and hike or bike along the Historic Columbia Highway State Trail, which hugs the cliffs above the river.

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