USA road trip for nature lovers - visit Arches, Yellowstone, Aspen, Rocky Mountains National Park, and more. Itinerary for 2 - 3 weeks

American Road Trip for Nature Lovers

In North America, Trip itineraries, USA by Jurga25 Comments

We had just two and a half weeks for our family summer road trip in the United States, so it was a big challenge to create a good itinerary. We had a big list of places we wanted to see and we also wanted to have some time to explore, not just tick the boxes and say that we’d been there. On the other hand, when we travel far, we tend to just visit the landmarks and see the main highlights. Exploring in depth is not always easy to combine with three young kids, limited time, and expensive flight tickets…

The main highlights of this American road trip for us were Yellowstone and Arches National Parks. So we spent a bit more time in these two parks, and built the rest of our U.S. road trip itinerary around it.

We ended up covering a pretty big part of Western United States in just 17 days, and it was an amazing trip. Our trip started in Denver, we travelled through Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, and ended our road trip in Salt Lake City. We visited the Rocky Mountain National Park, Maroon Bells in Aspen, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Grand Teton NP, Yellowstone NP, and a couple of other incredible places. In this post I am sharing our American family road trip itinerary for nature and outdoor enthusiasts.

Our family’s American road trip itinerary featuring Arches and Yellowstone National Parks

TIP: Use this U.S. road trip itinerary as an example, as it gives you a good idea of the highlights you can see in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming in just 17 days. But there are many other incredible landmarks and beautiful National Parks nearby these places. So depending on your interests and time, you could easily combine a part of our American road trip itinerary with, for example, Bryce and Zion National Parks, Monument Valley, The Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde National Park, Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, etc.

American road trip for nature and outdoor enthusiasts. Visit the most beautiful National Parks of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming with this 2 - 3 week trip itinerary

 

Day 1: Arrival in Denver

It was a long day flying from Europe to Denver, Colorado. We arrived late in the afternoon, picked-up the rental car, and headed straight to our hotel outside the city. I had been to Denver in the past; it is a nice city. However, we don’t often stay in big cities when traveling with kids, so we skipped Denver altogether on this trip. But if you have more time, it’s definitely a place where you could spend an extra day.

  • Accommodation: We stayed in Golden, outside of the city centre of Denver. It’s conveniently located in the direction of the Rocky Mountain NP.

Day 2: Denver – Estes Park – Rocky Mountain NP – Grand Lake

We started the day with a very scenic ride following the Peak to Peak Highway. Recommended stop: Brainard Lake area, where you can make several walks.

Afterwards we continued in the direction of Estes Park. Recommended stops: Lily Lake and Saint Malo’s Chapel on the Rock. We also stopped at the rocky area just next to the road, where we made a beautiful short walk. Many people were practicing rock climbing here.

We had lunch in Estes Park and headed to the Rocky Mountain National Park. This beautiful park is worth a trip on its own, and in my college years I spent the whole summer in Estes Park combining a summer job with endless hiking. But on this trip we didn’t stay here long and headed straight for the main highlight of our day – Trail Ridge Road.

Trail Ridge Road, reaching as high as 12,183 feet (3,700m+), it is the highest paved road in any national park in the U.S. It’s a beautiful road, so don’t miss it if you ever find yourself in the area. The Trail Ridge Road is only open in summer. Count 2-3 hours for this road, a bit more if you also plan to do some hiking at the viewpoints.

  • Driving distance: 130 miles (210 km)
  • Accommodation: We stayed 1 night in Grand Lake. It’s a peaceful little town with a real vacation feel, and not as busy as Estes Park. But if you have a day extra, then add 1 night at Estes Park before coming to Grand Lake and do some hiking.
Brainard Lake on Peak to Peak Highway in Colorado

Brainard Lake

 

Day 3: Grand Lake – Independence Pass – Aspen

A long but very scenic ride today. There are several ways to get from Grand Lake to Aspen. We chose to drive via Hwy 82 over Independence Pass. This road is well worth it! Note: Independence Pass is only open in summer and vehicles over 35 feet (11 m) length are not allowed on this road.
Suggested stops: Leadville town, Twin Lakes and Grottos – Ice Caves picnic area where you can also make a short walk.

In the afternoon you have plenty of time to explore Aspen downtown and/or take the Aspen Gondola to the top of the mountain.

  • Driving distance: 170miles (270 km)
  • Accommodation: 2 nights in Aspen. Make sure you book your Aspen accommodation well in advance. Aspen is very popular all year round and affordable quality accommodation options are limited.
Independence Pass Colorado

Independence Pass

 

Day 4: Aspen, Maroon Bells and Aschroft Ghost Town

A visit to Maroon Bells, the most photographed mountains in the U.S., is without any doubt one of the highlights of this American road trip. For the very best views and no crowds go early in the morning. Make sure you arrive well before 8AM as parking is limited. Also, the road is closed for private vehicles during the day (8AM-5PM), and you have to take a shuttle bus instead.

You don’t need to walk far in order to see the lake. If you have just an hour, walk the Maroon Lake Scenic Trail. But if you have at least 3 hours to spare, you should really hike the Crater Lake Trail. Spectacular views are absolutely worth the 3,6miles (+-6km) round trip. This hike is not very easy, but can be done with kids. Here you can read all about visiting Maroon Bells and hiking the Crater Lake Trail with kids.

Aschroft Ghost Town is another nice place that is nice to visit in this area. Located just 13miles (21km) South of Aspen.

Other recommendations in Aspen: The John Denver Sanctuary, ACES (Aspen Center for Environmental Studies), also the Silver Queen Gondola if you haven’t done it the day before.

Maroon Bells Colorado USA

Maroon Bells

Crater Lake Trail near Maroon Bells, Aspen Colorado

Crater Lake

 

Day 5: Aspen to Moab (Arches NP) via Scenic Hwy 128

Another long day driving today. But then again – the roads are really scenic, so take your time and enjoy the ride. Suggested road to Arches National Park: scenic Hwy 128, Utah (take I70, then exit at Cisco). This road is probably one of the best kept secrets in the area, and you will not meet many other tourists here. Which is hard to believe as it’s one of the most scenic roads we have ever driven. I find that it’s even better than Monument Valley. Don’t miss!

Temperatures in Moab area are often over 100°F (38°C) in summer months. Coming from the mountains in Aspen, the shock could not have been bigger. We reached Moab at around 2PM and spent the hottest hours of the afternoon in the swimming pool of our hotel.

In the evening the temperatures were a bit more bearable and we made our first hike in Arches National Park. If you do just one hike in Arches, make it the Delicate Arch Trail.

  • Driving distance: 230 miles (370km)
  • Accommodation: 3 nights in Moab. Moab is the perfect base for exploring Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Our hotel – Aarchway Inn – has huge family rooms and is very conveniently located close to the entrance of Arches NP.
Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah USA

Delicate Arch is not to be missed!

 

Day 6: Arches National Park

Full day exploring Arches National Park. In spring or in autumn you could probably see the whole park and do at least 3-4 hikes in just one day. But visiting Arches NP in summer is a whole other story! We started our day early and hiked till 11AM. By then it was impossible to even get out of the car and we spent some time driving around the scenic loop and making short stops at the viewpoints. In the afternoon we went back to the swimming pool of our hotel. We returned to the park towards the evening to do some more hiking.

Here you can read our recommendations for the best things to do in Arches National Park in summer.

Landscape Arch in Arches National Park

Landscape Arch – Arches National Park

 

Day 7: Rafting on Colorado River (Moab) and Canyonlands NP

With temperatures of 106°F (41°C) and higher we couldn’t imagine dragging the kids for yet another day hiking, so we booked a half-day rafting trip on the Colorado River instead. Great experience and we could jump into the river to cool off once in a while. Kids loved it!

We spent the hottest hours of the day by the pool again and in the late afternoon we drove to Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands is divided into several sections; the easiest to visit – Island in the Sky – is just 45 minutes drive from Moab. We drove the whole scenic drive of Island in the Sky and stopped at all the viewpoints. If you want to do one hike here, Mesa Arch is really worth it. It was a short, but very scenic walk. Highly recommended!

In the evening we drove to the nearby Dead Horse State Park for sunset.

  • Driving distance: 100 miles (160km)
Rafting on the Colorado River from Moab in Utah

Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Sunset at Dead Horse Point State Park Utah USA

Dead Horse State Park

 

Day 8: Moab – Dinosaur National Monument – Vernal

There are several roads you can choose to get from Moab to Vernal. We drove via I-70, CO-139, CO-64 and US-40.

Suggested stop: Dinosaur National Monument. The visitor centre with a very impressive dinosaur quarry is well worth a visit, but make sure to also explore the area by car. The scenery is just beautiful and you can find some ancient rock art as well. You can get a small map at the visitor centre. You can find more info on the official website of Dinosaurland.

  • Driving distance: 220 miles (355 km)
  • Accommodation: 1 night in Vernal. Vernal is not a very exciting place to stay, but there are many hotels and restaurants in town and it makes it a convenient stop on the long stretch between Arches National Park and Yellowstone.
Rock art at the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah

Rock art at the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah

 

Day 9: Vernal – Flaming Gorge – Jackson Hole

A long drive again today, but with another incredible hidden gem along the way. Don’t miss the Red Canyon and Flaming Gorge Recreational Area! Incredible views, scenic roads, and practically no people at all.

An absolute must is the view from the Red Canyon Visitors Centre. From there you have to choose which way to continue North, as there are two roads around the Flaming Gorge. The road US-191 on the East side of the gorge passes the Flaming Gorge Dam. The road WY-530 on the West side gives you an opportunity to drive the scenic Sheep Creek Loop and visit the Dowd Mountain Overlook. We asked for advice at the visitor centre. They gave us a map of the area and told us to go West. It was definitely a good choice and we truly enjoyed the scenic Sheep Creek Loop. But if you cannot choose and have another hour or two to spare, drive to the Flaming Gorge Dam first, then return the same way you came, and continue in the direction of Manila.

In the late afternoon we reached Jackson. Jackson is a very charming town with many hotels, restaurants, and shops. It’s a good place to stay for exploring the area, but don’t use it as a base for visiting Yellowstone. The road from Jackson to Yellowstone goes through Grand Teton National Park and is very busy in summer. Jackson is really too far for day trips to Yellowstone.

  • Driving distance: 300 miles (480 km)
  • Accommodation: Jackson has many accommodation options. However, just as Aspen, Jackson is extremely popular and not a budget-friendly place to stay, so book in advance. You can find the best deals for Jackson accommodation here.
Red Canyon Flaming Gorge Recreational Area

Red Canyon – Flaming Gorge

 

Day 10: Jackson to Yellowstone National Park

The drive from Jackson to Yellowstone goes through the beautiful Grand Teton National Park. We would be staying here at the end of the trip, so we didn’t stop at Grand Teton on the way to Yellowstone.

We entered Yellowstone National Park at the South Entrance. It was quite busy here and the signs were warning travellers that all Yellowstone accommodation and camping facilities were fully booked. So make sure to book well in advance!

Planning a trip to Yellowstone? Read this guide about the best places to stay in and near Yellowstone National park.

On our first day in Yellowstone we explored the area around Yellowstone Lake, did some hiking, then got stuck in a major bison jam in the Hayden Valley, and were glad to reach our hotel at the Canyon Village in time for dinner.

  • Driving distance: 115 miles (185 km)
  • Accommodation: The best alternative to expensive and extremely popular Yellowstone accommodation is the town of West Yellowstone, just outside the park.
Bison crossing the road in Yellowstone National Park

Bison in Yellowstone

 

Days 11-13: Yellowstone National Park

We spent the following three days in Yellowstone National Park and visited all the main highlights and a few less known areas. Here you can read about our favourites places to see in Yellowstone.

Colorful Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park

Grand Prismatic in Yellowstone

 

Day 14: Yellowstone NP – Grand Teton NP

We did some more sightseeing in Yellowstone and in the afternoon we headed to Grand Teton National Park. We made several short stops, including a really nice area at Grand Lake, and a scenic drive to Signal Mount Summit (not really worth it in my opinion).

American road trip - driving in Grand Teton National Park

Driving in Grand Teton National Park

 

Day 15: Grand Teton National Park

The highlights of our visit to Grand Teton were a boat ride on Jenny Lake and the hike to Inspiration Point and Cascade Canyon.

Family U.S. road trip - hiking in Grand Teton National Park

Hiking in Grand Teton National Park

 

Day 16: Grand Teton National Park to Salt Lake City

We left Grand Teton in the morning after a short stop at the scenic String Lake. We chose the more scenic road to Salt Lake City, the US-89 past the Bear Lake.

In the afternoon we visited the Salt Lake City Temple Square, the headquarters of LDS church, the Mormon religion. Wow! What an impressive place, definitely a must if you find yourself in Salt Lake City. All the people we met there were incredibly friendly and eager to show us around and tell more about each building we visited. I don’t think I have ever visited such a warm place, they made us feel truly welcome.

  • Driving distance: 300 miles (480 km)
  • Accommodation: 1 night in Salt Lake City
Town of Afton in Wyoming, USA

Afton town in Wyoming, on the way to Salt Lake City

 

Day 17: Salt Lake City and departure

Salt Lake City was our last stop during this beautiful American road trip that brought us to some of the most scenic nature destinations in the U.S.

Temple Square in Salt Lake City

Temple Square is a must in Salt Lake City

 

Practical information for planning a summer road trip in the U.S.

  • Prepare your trip well and check if the roads you want to drive are open in the period when you travel. This is a summer-only trip itinerary, as some of the roads are not accessible in winter. We travelled end of July – beginning of August.
  • If you are coming from far, book your flights in advance. Transatlantic flight tickets in summer are extremely expensive.
  • Book your rental car in advance. Consider alternative pick-up and drop-off locations for the best car rental deals.
  • If you are traveling with kids, consider renting a van. If there is one country where you should rent a big car, it’s the U.S. It doesn’t cost that much more than a regular car, and your family road trip will be so much more comfortable.
  • Book your hotels for Yellowstone, Jackson, Aspen, Arches, Estes Park, Salt Lake City, and other popular destinations as soon as you can. We booked our Yellowstone accommodation more than a year in advance, before we even had our flight tickets. We used Booking.com to book our accommodation for this trip.

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US road trip itinerary. See Yellowstone, Arches, Canyonlands, Rocky Mountain National Parks and much more. Get inspired!

American road trip itinerary for nature lovers. Featuring Yellowstone, Arches, Rocky Mountain National Parks, and more... Get inspired!

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American Road Trip for Nature Lovers was last modified: July 16th, 2017 by Jurga

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Comments

  1. Hi,

    Great post. We really want to head back to the USA for another road trip & Yellowstone NP has long been a draw. We touched on Arches on a manic road trip back in 2006, but you can never tire of the wonderful American wilderness.

    I think this post is going to get our planning heads on for a day in hopefully not too distant future when we can head back.

    Regards,

    Janis & Gary

    1. Author

      The nature in the United States is just incredible, Gary. I wouldn’t mind going back to Arches either. So much to see and do!
      Glad to hear that this post inspired you to plan another trip! Cheers, Jurga

  2. What a great read! You have a way of describing places that really makes me want to go there! And great awesome shots!

  3. Oh Jurga – don’t you just wish there were more school holidays so you could fit more trips in – this one is a dream of mine! I love the sound of Moab, how fab. I’m saving this for a future dream trip!

    1. Author

      I am with you on those school holidays, Alex! Just yesterday we were talking here at home where would we travel next year, and in no time we had a list of 12 different destinations… So it’s always a choice between what we really want to do, how much time we have, how expensive the trip is, but also the time of the year. And that one is really tough as certain destinations are really not perfect to visit when we have school holidays… Would love to go back to the US, and also back to Canada for a longer road trip one day. Nature is so beautiful there!

  4. Such beautiful photos! Wow! This is a really lovely itinerary, a real dream trip for anyone who loves beautiful landscapes and nature. One for my bucket list, thanks for sharing!

  5. Phenomenal pictures! I would looooove to do a US road trip! I think your strategy of picking two must-sees and building your itinerary around that is really smart. I often get overwhelmed when planning multi-week trips, so I’m going to use that strategy to prioritize next time.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Amy! When you have limited time and three kids, you learn to prioritise. 🙂 I know how difficult it is to plan a good road trip, with a healthy balance between driving and sightseeing, and that within a certain time limit and a budget. With this trip I felt that it worked really well for us, so I decided to share our itinerary; maybe it will help someone else in planning their trip.

  6. Looks like an amazing trip Jurga! I would love to do this – I have a husband who hates road trips though I think that may be about to change in Australia so I will definitely keep this for future reference. You did a lot in your 17 days! Beautiful photographs as always ❤️

    1. Author

      You have to make at least one really good road trip in order to start appreciating it, Tracy. So I’m sure your hubby will change his mind after touring Australia for a while.
      For us, road-tripping is by far our favourite way to travel. You get to see so much! But it’s really important to have a good itinerary. We have done a few trips in the past which were either much too rushed = only ticking the boxes without properly seeing anything, or too much time = getting bored in a place in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. So good planning is essential to make the most of it! Check this post for tips on getting the most out of your travel experiences in Australia.

  7. This is such a helpful and detailed itinerary! Have bookmarked and will use this for our next trip to the states!! Thanks for sharing – you pictures are all always, amazing!!!

  8. Wow, your photos are amazing!! when visiting the US, I almost only ever went to the cities and haven’t seen much of the beautiful nature there. I’ve always wanted to visit different National Parks and Yellowstone is my number one pick. I would love to go to Aspen as well. I’ve only been to Denver when visiting Colorado, and I wanna see so much more!!

    1. Author

      We’re just the opposite – we hardly ever visit big cities when we travel. The National Parks in the U.S. are so worth a trip, Kristine!

  9. Wow, you covered so much in such a short time! A road trip through the US is high up on my bucket list. When I finally do it, I’m going to follow your itinerary. Planning it must have been a mission though.

    1. Author

      Yes, Sara, planning a good trip itinerary takes a lot of time, and this one was no exception. But the biggest benefit is that you get to make a trip you really want to, and see so much in a short time.
      Glad to hear that you found some inspiration, I can definitely recommend this trip to anyone who loves nature.

  10. This is such a comprehensive guide!! Thank you so much because I am DYING to go on a nature road trip to the US! Yellowstone and Aspen has been high on my bucket list for ages, and your pictures look stunning!

  11. Your photos are AMAZING!!! So crisp and clear! I’ll have to bookmark this page so I can better plan my road trip for this summer. I have nothing booked though. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Author

      Thank you, Ann. Good for you that you can start planning your summer trip on such short notice. Enjoy it! Traveling with kids during school holidays, we always tend to plan ours long in advance…

  12. Wow, and another great poste. So happy we found you, lot’s of inspirations and with also having little twins this is definitely again a possible trip rather sooner then later. But SA will still be first I guess .
    Thank you for sharing
    C

    1. Author

      Thanks Corina. Always happy to hear we inspire other families to travel more and explore deeper! South Africa is great with kids, as is an American road trip. My heart still goes to South Africa though, kids will love all the wildlife encounters! Enjoy!

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