On the Road Again

Driving through the Marin Headlands near San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

Q: I am planning to drive cross country from New Jersey to California this summer (between July and August). Is two weeks enough time? Do you have any suggestions on hot spots to hit along the way?

— Chris Saksa,
Hackettstown, NJ

Adventure Advisor:

A: The mailbox here has lately been stuffed with questions about taking big road trips across the country this summer (coast-to-coast, Chicago-to-San Francisco, Florida-to-Seattle, to name a few), and how best to do them. How much time do you need? Where should you stop? Which roads are the best? Whoa. That's a lot to answer. With a cool 8.2 million miles of lanes in the United States to pick from and something like 700 million acres of public land to play on, your options are practically limitless. It's a big country out there, so get ready not to see it all.

Most of the questions have come from folks going east-to-west. If you're going west-to-east, plan to dawdle the first part of your trip, and then gun it once you're east of Chicago. Roads seem to get infinitely more congested east of the Mississippi and the outdoorsy sites fewer and farther between. Whether the sun sets in your rear view mirror or smack in your face, you need time to cover the 3,000-plus miles. I've driven cross-country a good dozen times and the absolute fastest I would wish on anyone is five days. It can be done faster—about 40 hours at 75 mph the whole time—but you'd arrive bleary eyed with a backache and wondering what the Rockies look like in daylight. Two weeks is an average amount of time, but you could do better. Three weeks would be ideal. Four would get you an A+.

As far as routes to take: If you're going in July or August, you can pretty much forget taking I-10 across the south of the country. I once made the mistake of following it in May and it was so ungodly hot that I had to stop in Phoenix to let the dog vomit. I was then berated by a lady with shrink-wrapped skin and a pink hat for not having dog booties to protect the pooch's paws from the asphalt. July? Your tires will melt.

If you're coming from the mid-Atlantic or New England and heading to the Northwest or even northern California, I'd highly recommend making your way over to I-90 to go through South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and points westward. The Midwest isn't exactly the best area to stop and play outside (though gems like the Apostle Islands do exist) but the driving is quite scenic. Once you hit Wisconsin, make a detour to New Glarus, about 30 miles south of Madison, to go have a beer and brat in a stube. Bring a road bike as the rolling green hills along Green County Road "C" are ridiculously pretty to tour.

If time is short, put in a couple of hard days to get you quickly to the Black Hills of South Dakota. That is where the really good stuff begins. There's excellent hiking and climbing in the Needles, camping under cool pines in the Black Hills National Forest, and of course Mount Rushmore, cheesy as it may be. Take a detour on the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway and bring lots of film for the waterfalls and craggy cliffs. Devils Tower National Monument is but a day's drive away, though climbing it in the heat of summer can be torture. Then there's Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park about another day's drive west (check out the Boiling River near Gardner, Montana, for a hot spring treat). There more thermal pools to be had in the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho, and hiking and climbing in the Snoqualmie Pass area in Washington. Mount Rainier, Mount Hood...The list goes on and on, and don't forget you probably have to save time to drive back as well.

If you're heading by a more southerly bearing, I-40 will take you through gorgeous parts of Tennessee and within striking distance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After some BBQ in Memphis, it's time to use the cruise control until you hit Albuquerque. It'll be hot, too hot in summer to do much hiking in the Sandia Mountains, but you can always head north for a daytrip of hiking and biking in the Santa Fe National Forest, or take some time to backpack into the Pecos Wilderness. On your way to Arizona, grab some carne asada with green chile at Jerry's Café in Gallup, New Mexico: Hands down the best New Mexican grub around. Flagstaff, a charming mountain town, is worth a stop as well if you're interested in bagging Arizona's highest summit, 12,643-foot Humphreys Peak. The Grand Canyon is about another two hours north.

And then there's Utah. I-70 will take you near the state's bonanza of natural wonders: Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion, Capitol Reef—all of them worth a week's stay. The trick is you have to get through Colorado first, and that means stopping off at Rocky Mountain National Park. Of course, once you get to California—if you do, I should say—all manner of good outdoorsy fun awaits, what with King-Sequoia, Mammoth, Yosemite, the Marin Headlands...

So how many days do you really need to drive across the country and which route should you take? All of them. Planning a trip of your own? [ask the AA]

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