By Andrea McHugh, Broadry
The good news: gas prices have been dropping for weeks. The not-so-good news: prices at the pump are still considerably high. While economists are optimistic the downward trend will keep up, wallets of Americans continue to be squeezed coast to coast. Pair that with disrupted air travel and it can be easy to get discouraged when it comes to planning an end-of-summer vacation! Enter the epic one-tank summertime road trip. Say goodby to canceled flights and luggage woes and hello to an open road adventure that won’t break the bank.
We’ve rounded up some awesome road trip itineraries featuring state parks, national forests, hot springs, canyons, mountains, lakes and lagoons so you can plan your ultimate one-tank escape. And, if you need an RV — we have the top recommendations in the area from RVshare.com.
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Salt Lake City, UT
Antelope Island State Park – 2 hours
Spend the night under a star-filled sky and your days traipsing Antelope Island’s bucolic backcountry where breathtaking views of lake and landscape stretch in every direction. Bring the binoculars as free-ranging bison, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn (antelope), and other desert animals roam park lands and cross trails – plus the millions of birds that congregate along the shores surrounding the island. Hike, mountain bike or explore on horseback, then cool off by taking a dip in the lake’s salty waters.
Fifth Water Hot Springs – 1 hour 30 minutes
Located in Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest in northern Utah (with some land extending into southeastern Idaho and southwestern Wyoming), Fifth Water Hot Springs consists of three scenic waterfalls and hot springs accessible via both the Three Forks Trailhead in Diamond Fork Canyon or the Rays Valley Trailhead.
As the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest is one of the most heavily visited in the entire National Forest System, you’ll find plenty of company across several soaking pools at Fifth Water Hot Springs during the heavily traveled summer months, particularly on the weekends (including a few who are known to break the law and soak in the buff!). The middle waterfall is the most picturesque and worth the trek for the ‘gram, but you’ll have the most room to soak at the lower waterfall. Insider’s tip: beat the crowds with an early morning visit, when the sun shines beautifully on sparkling falls.
Bear Lake State Park – 2 hours
While the Caribbean is best known for its brilliant azure waters, this natural wonder straddling the Utah-Idaho border and nestled high in the Rocky Mountains gives the tropics a run for its money. It’s not a fluke, it’s science. Minerals suspended in the lake’s waters are what help create its spectacular aqua-blue color, and a number of recreational activities on the lake are available year-round.
Bear Lake Funtime has a large fleet of watercraft rentals including Sea-Doos, ski and wakeboard boats, jet skis, and fishing boats. For something a little more zen, rent a paddleboard or kayak, and for the kids, head straight for the water trampolines.
Galveston Island State Park – 1 hour
Located on the western part of Galveston Island, this stunning park protects 2,000 acres of the upper Gulf Coast barrier island ecosystem, which makes it ideal for spotting coastal birds. But there’s plenty of room to play here, too. With both beach and bay sides, this island paradise is ideal for swimming, fishing, picnicking, bird watching, hiking, mountain biking, and paddleboarding.
Looking for a bargain? Families can enjoy kayak tours, beach and surf explorations, bird walks, nature field trips and fishing clinics, all at no additional cost to the $5 per person entry fee (and children 12 and under are free). The beachside of the park is newly reopened following a major redevelopment project that was started in 2019, so facilities are new or in tip-top condition in addition to 95 new campsites and 20 new shade shelters in the day-use area.
With 157 miles of shoreline, Lake Conroe offers plenty of room to roam, whether tranquil solitude or heart racing recreation is your jam. Visitors gravitate toward fishing, boating, swimming, waterskiing and other water sports on this 22,000-acre scenic lake just north of Houston, or they seek out the miles of walking and hiking trails.
The famed Lone Star Hiking Trail, considered the hiker’s “Jewel of Texas,” passes through Sam Houston National Forest. Though the breadth of the trail is 129-miles, plotting your trek can be as adventurous or as casual as you like as most sections are considered easy to moderate.
Lago Mar Lagoon – 40 minutes
What has crystal clear waters, family friendly activities, refreshing cocktails, breezy cabanas and tons of watercraft options…in Texas? Lago Mar Lagoon is a 12-acre man-made lagoon boasting 24 million gallons of water, making it the largest in the entirety of the Lone Star State.
This beach resort-style getaway is full of dining options and rentals including sailboats, catamarans, single and tandem kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and cutting edge electric stand-up paddle boards. Want to sit back and enjoy the sunset as a group? Rent a 12-seat Duffy electric ferry that glides across the water, which never exceeds more than 10-feet deep. Get your heart rate up by taking water Zumba or a bootcamp class, or get centered with waterside yoga.
Camelback Mountain – 20 minutes
At an elevation of 2,704 feet, Camelback Mountain offers a quick, manageable hike that rewards climbers with unbelievable views of the Phoenix Valley. As the name suggests, Camelback Mountain’s shape resembles the hump and head of a kneeling camel and whether trekking up or down, it’s hard to believe you’re just 20 minutes from downtown Phoenix.
Novice climbers tend to seek out the Cholla Trail on the east side of the mountain, but the trail is currently closed to accommodate improvements and reroute the trailhead. The Echo Canyon Trail is decidedly more challenging to the summit so only head here if you’re an experienced hiker with a taste for intense and difficult terrain.
Sonoran Preserve – 30 minutes
If you read the bestselling book Wild and you’re ready to put yourself through nature’s ringer, trails throughout Phoenix’s famed Sonoran Desert preserve system mostly traipse untouched, undeveloped desert. With 36 miles of trails across more than 9,600 acres, there are options for every level of outdoor enthusiast, from minimal elevation and even paved pathways to “double diamond” trails rife with loose rocks, ruts and extremely difficult terrain.
The Desert Vista Trail is considered the easiest of the three trailheads – the other two are Desert Hills and Apache Wash – and though beautiful anytime of year (yet oppressively hot in the summer), the flowering season, typically from late February until late May, is arguably the most majestic, with wildflowers as far as the eye can see.
Papago Park – 15 minutes
Before it became an uber-popular expanse encompassing The Phoenix Zoo, Desert Botanical Garden, SF Giants Papago Park Complex, multiple golf courses, a handful of intriguing museums, and a ton of other cool attractions, Papago Park was home to the Hohokam peoples. Later it became a reservation for indigenous tribes, a fish hatchery during the Great Depression, and home to German POWs during World War II.
While the picturesque red sandstone buttes here rise 1,700 feet above Phoenix, the area’s best known attraction came from Mother Nature. The popular Hole in the Rock is a trail that’s ideal for families as it’s easy, mostly flat, wide and short at just .03 miles. Dating back to some 6–15 million years ago, the Hole in the Rock is a popular spot for a family photo and can get crowded, especially around sunset, but it’s worth the trip!
Whitewater Rafting on Clear Creek in Idaho Springs – 30 minutes
Calling all experienced whitewater enthusiasts! With more rapids per mile than most commercially rafted rivers in Colorado, Clear Creek should be at the top of your “must-do” list whether seeking a fun introduction to this outdoor exploit or in search of an exhilarating ride in the heart of churning, frothy currents.
Just 20 miles west Denver, Clear Creek County is home to numerous rafting companies like Rocky Mountain Adventures, which offers beginners trips that welcome children as young as 7 years of age to enjoy Class III rapids on the Cache La Poudre River; Colorado’s only designated “Wild and Scenic” River. Typically the water is quite cold so wetsuits are standard (and for rent). We predict this is where you snap your perfect Christmas card pic!
Eldorado Canyon State Park – 40 minutes
How does a streamside picnic with panoramic vistas sound? Eldorado Canyon State Park is a 885-acre day-use-park that is internationally known for its 500 + technical rock climbing routes (technical climbing is when specialized climbing equipment, including ropes or belay, are used to ascending a mountain), but it also offers plenty of walking trails, plus hiking and fishing, all within a magnificent Colorado canyon.
Close to the bustling, buoyant city of Boulder, named the “Happiest City in America” by National Geographic, Eldorado Canyon State Park is a natural wonder all around but a visit here isn’t complete until you cross the picturesque pedestrian bridge over the South Boulder Creek. Kids will gravitate toward the nearby Streamside Trail, which offers a short and easy half mile (one-way) hike along the creek.
Boulder Flatirons – 30 minutes
Speaking of Boulder, “The Flatirons” are a must-see while visiting the Centennial State. These striking, reddish-brown sandstone formations known for their deep slant that make them appear as if they are jutting through the Earth’s surface are a well-known landmark. The likeness of The Flatirons have become synonymous with Boulder itself and interpretations can be seen on everything from logos and drawings to paintings and sculptures.
Luring hikers and rock climbers from near and far, rock grades here range from easy to world-class. The two-mile Flatiron Loop Trail is an exciting jaunt ideal for those comfortable with an easy-to-moderate hike. Just bring your camera as local wildlife includes elk, coyote, red fox and porcupines!
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