From the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam, America surely is a blessed land, filled with topography only more breathtakingly varied than it is breathtaking.
Such stunning diversity is one reason why the Great American Road Trip is a dream for so many. But while most envision cruising from coast to coast to get the best of the trip, there’s much to be said about making the journey from border to border.
The longitudes of America trace some of the country’s most radical lines of variation, as the landscape and all the life within it ebbs and flows with the change of the climate. One route in particular will bring you from the snowcapped peaks of the Rockies to the sunbeaten sands of the Sonoran Desert all within just about 24 hours—that is, if you choose not to stop or sleep.
Of course, the whole point of such an itinerary is to take it in slowly: to see what cannot be seen anywhere else in the world, at all the strange pitstops along the way—and some of the more recognizable ones, too.
The borderlands trip begins at the edge of Canada, winding down from the rugged peaks of Montana to the deserted plains of Idaho, cruising through the crested and colorful Utah mesas and finally descending to the barren and blistering Arizona desert, arriving right at Mexico’s doorstep.
You’ll primarily take Route 15 through the collection of states, and while the roadway serves as a major artery, there are plenty of capillary paths that can be taken to explore a number of fantastic sites nearby, from the neon lights of Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon’s natural majesty.
The drive could take as little as a few days or as long as you’d like, but blocking off at least a week or two would set a nice pace to see all the sites. And if driving through the best of the country is on top of your bucket list, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better route.
Your southerly journey begins just next door to our northerly neighbor at Kootenai National Forest, a 2.2 million-acre Alpine wonderland spanning two U.S. states and the Canadian border.
Thick with fresh air from even thicker trees, the park is a postcard of pristine beauty and offers camping and a number of other recreations.
The many waters of Glacier National Park will lick at the eastern side of your view as you make your way south from the park along Route 93, crossing into the picturesque Flathead Reservation. The astoundingly clear Flathead Lake creates picturesque opportunities for boats’ shadows to penetrate all the way through the crystal-clear water and touch bottom.
Missoula marks the first city you’ll encounter, farther south along Route 93. With all the trappings of civilization and the University of Montana, the area offers plenty of more urban opportunities to break up the natural splendor.
Not long after leaving, you’ll encounter the town of Butte, another more-populated stretch that doubles as a good place to stop.
But just as you get used to seeing more people around, the route throws a curveball. You’ll leave man-made structures behind once again as the road leads you through the state’s famed Bitterroot Valley, where some of the country’s most gorgeous natural spreads are on offer.
Entering Idaho through the Bitterroot Mountains represents a literal boundary crossing. The Continental Divide welcomes you into the state, but the barrier doesn’t break up the line of natural beauty on the trip.
Wild Northern Idaho picks up where gorgeous Montana leaves off, with Route 93 flowing alongside the scenic Salmon River before ushering you through the whipsaw roads of the Sawtooth Mountains and all the rugged beauty they encapsulate.
Outdoor enthusiasts with more selective taste will feel welcome in Sun Valley, the famous ski resort town located at the southern base of the Sawtooth Range.
After sledding through town, you’ll make an abrupt eastward departure to connect to Interstate 15. Buckle up: you’ll be here for the next 1,000 miles or so.
The thoroughfare wastes no time delivering on all its road trip potential. I-15 will take you directly to beautiful Idaho Falls and offers a variety of ways to move still further east toward Yellowstone National Park and the glorious Grand Tetons.
Continuing south, however, will bring with it a distinct change of pace in the scenery.
Traveling down I-15 from the Idaho border, it won’t be long before you run into one of the state’s most distinctive features: the Great Salt Lake.
The largest body of salt water lake in the Western Hemisphere is ringed with things to do and places to see, including the pioneer town of Ogden, steeped equally in recreational possibilities and fascinating cowboy history.
Of course, the mountain-hugging town of Salt Lake City, found a few miles south, offers its own plethora of recreational opportunities, both urban and off the beaten path. And Provo, just about an hour farther down Route 15, is home to Brigham-Young University and all manner of college town accoutrements.
Still, after traversing through the trio of towns, the road opens up to the arresting beauty of the desert, with all its painted lands and strange sand-blown structures.
Embodying this idea of “the land that Time forgot” is the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. A 1.8 million-acre swath of prehistoric treasures, the park is home to an untold number of fossils dating as far back as 275 million years.
Equally-gorgeous Zion National Park is also just a stone’s throw away from the route.
The high desert is one of America’s most enchanted landscapes, and there may be no better showcase for its unique beauty than Northern Arizona.
As I-15 continues its southward journey from Utah, it cuts through the Sonora Desert directly to Flagstaff, a wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes and especially desirable for its fantastic rock climbing routes. (Squint and you may mistake the area for Colorado.)
Flagstaff also operates as a base of operation for many to make the westward trek to the Grand Canyon—the most sought-after natural destination in the country. From there, it’s an easy ride to the Hoover Dam and the much-less-natural Las Vegas.
Pushing south will bring you to the lesser-known but just-as-astounding red rocks of Sedona—towering spires famous for their mystical vibrations and inspiring views.
As you begin making your descent from the high plains, you’ll reach a cluster of population centers, including capital city Phoenix and desert town Tucson, both ensconced in a number of nearby mountain ranges, making the cities perfect jumping-off points to explore the desert more deeply.
Any farther, and you’ll need a passport.
Just 66 miles south of Tucson is the border town of Nogales, which spans both sides of the international line. It may mark the end of your American journey—or just the beginning of an epic adventure in Mexico. Buena suerte!