Road Tripping in the U.S.

Samantha Brown

In the United States, summer marks peak travel season. At least in “normal” times. We all know with the spread of COVID-19, nothing is normal. Maybe you had to cancel a dream European vacation or are rethinking whether you can still take that annual family vacation upstate. You’re allowed to mourn changed plans. But after a good cry, I wipe those tears and start planning something else. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s scientifically proven that just planning a trip makes us happier!

Did you know that 500 million acres of public lands in the U.S. are open? They may not have all the facilities up and running, but they are still welcoming people to hike, bike or camp. Visiting national parks and recreation areas this summer will be a great way to scratch that travel itch, so long as you continue practicing safe social distancing protocols.

Road tripping the U.S. is a bucket list vacation for people around the globe. From the Pacific Coast Highway to Route 66 and Highway 61, there are so many domestic adventures to be had. A little fresh air in the face—while blasting your favorite album from senior year of high school—will do your body and brain good.

Road trips provide a real sense of freedom. Nowhere is this more true than in America’s southwest. From the majestic Rockies and the Grand Canyon, to the Colorado River, Mesa Verde and Santa Fe: The siren call of the wild, untamed beauty immortalized in Hollywood westerns is something people dream of experiencing for themselves. With that in mind, here’s one of my favorite road trips to take in the USA.

The Best of the Southwest
Check a bunch of national parks and lands off your bucket list with this epic road trip that starts and ends in Phoenix.

First stop? The Grand Canyon—via I-17 through Flagstaff. Depending on your timeline, you can spend a night or two in beautiful Sedona. Get your palm read, hike one of the area’s famed vortexes, drink local wines and soak up that desert sunshine. If you dream of venturing below the rim, allot a few days for hiking or camping at the Grand Canyon. It’s recommended you don’t trek to the bottom and back up again in one day, so either bring your lightweight camping gear or just plan for shorter day hikes.

The Grand Canyon’s North Rim only operates seasonally (May 15–Oct. 15), so if the timing is right and you don’t mind the 4-hour detour, it’s a great way to experience the canyon without the busloads of tourists with selfie sticks.

Otherwise, head east on US 160 (swing through Monument Valley on the way!) to Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado. This incredible park offers a look into the lives of the ancestral Pueblo people who lived there from A.D. 600 to 1300. Today, the park encompasses almost 5,000 known archeological sites, which include 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the best preserved in the North America—it will blow your mind!

About 40 minutes east, you’ll find charming Durango, Colo. With a population of about 16,900 according to the last census, this old Wild West town boasts great outdoor adventure, history and culture. Plus, there are six breweries in town! For an unparalleled scenic drive, check out the Million Dollar Highway, a 70-mile strip of blacktop between Durango and Ouray. The road climbs up and over three separate passes: Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain Pass. The breathtaking views make navigating all those hairpin turns and sheer cliff drops worth the anxiety. If you’re there late September through October, the fall colors dazzle.

About an hour east of Durango, you’ll find Pagosa Springs. Its beloved thermal hot springs will reopen in stages throughout the summer (check for updates here), but there’s still lots to see and experience. You’ll find magnificent, accessible waterfalls in the area, including Treasure Falls, a 100-foot waterfall visible from US 160. Local legend states a group of Frenchmen buried a chest of gold in the area just before capture by Spaniards or Native Americans, and the gold remains unfound to this day. Enjoy the view from the highway, or take a short .25-mile hike to the Misty Deck where you can feel the spray from the falls. It’s an easy, family-friendly hike, perfect for stretching your legs.

Next, it’s on to one of my favorite cities: Santa Fe! I love Santa Fe not only for its desert beauty, but also the vibrant Native American culture and wonderful art scene. It’s also home to one of my favorite hikes, the Aspen Vista Trail. The walk is fairly moderate, but the views are anything but. From there, head to Albuquerque, where you’ll hop on historic Route 66 all the way back to Flagstaff. You’ll find loads of iconic sites along the way, including El Rancho Hotel and Winslow, Arizona (any Eagles fans out there?). The National Park Service offers a thorough list of Route 66 sites. From there, it’s back to Phoenix. Visit the Desert Botanical Garden; Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter escape, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale; and the Cosanti bells gallery.

This summer, road trippers should plan their travel in advance using AAA TripTik—a tradition that has guided generations of road trippers with paper and digital maps. The digital tool now includes updates about COVID-19 travel restrictions. Travelers looking for inspiration can search hundreds of pre-planned road trip routes at 

By Samantha Brown , Host of “Samantha Brown’s Places to Love"