This is the year of the road trip and seeing more of America. There’s never been a better time for domestic travel and we’ve compiled the 5 all-time best road trips in the US for retirees.
The all-time best retirement road trips in the US include:
Almost everyone’s travel plans were put on hold in 2020. With global public health concerns, it’ll be a while before we’re jetting off to crowded international destinations.
According to AARP, “nearly a quarter of boomers (23%) who are making travel plans for 2021 did not travel at all in 2020”. Further to this, more than half (57%) of retirees are planning a trip this year.
And, of course, before you go off on your road trip adventures you'll want to make sure you have a good pair of sunglasses. We discuss this in Are Cheap Sunglasses Worth It?
1. Pacific Coast Highway - Hwy 101
Often considered the most scenic of America’s highways, it hugs the coastline with breathtaking views.
Although many travelers only drive the section between San Diego and San Francisco (approximately 600 miles), I suggest driving the entire route.
One of my most memorable trips was riding the entire coastal highway on a motorbike. Many years ago, a buddy of mine and I rode our bikes from Seattle to San Diego. An experience like none other as the entire spectacular coastline unfolded.
More recently, close friends of ours each made this epic journey. One evening, we got together for “wing night” sharing our experiences. One couple pulled their 5th wheel and raved about the parks and camping.
The other couple drove their sports car and were delighted by gorgeous views and the thrill of the open road. This is the perfect retirement road trip with something for everyone.
No wonder it’s often rated as the #1 most beautiful road trip in America!
Planning for the Pacific Coast Highway
The total driving distance from Seattle to San Diego (or vice versa) on the coastal highway is 1,841 miles. This works out to be slightly over 42 hours behind the wheel, not including any side trips.
In other words, unless you’re in a rush, you could easily spend a couple of weeks and still not see everything. If you travel north to south, you’ll be on the right side of the road to pull off for the incredible vista points.
The best weather is generally during the fall which also is less busy. Even so, you’ll want to book hotels or camping spots well in advance.
Sights Not to Miss on the Pacific Coast Highway
2. Route 66 (Illinois to California)
One of the first highways, completed in 1926, it traversed 8 states connecting Chicago to Santa Monica. Often referred to as the “Mother Road”, this was the primary highway across the country.
During the depression years, countless thousands migrated west seeking new opportunities. With the prosperity of the post-war years came the explosive growth of automobile travel. These were the glory days of Route 66 extending into the mid 1970’s.
By 1984, Route 66 was officially decommissioned. Newer faster interstates either paralleled or replaced the original highway. Today, approximately 85% of the original roadway remains in drivable condition.
Planning for Route 66
Route 66 is the most iconic of the best retirement road trips in the US and can be likened to a “purist road adventure”. Just you and the open road with all its twists and turns.
I was surprised to learn tourists from all over the world come specifically to drive Route 66! Many folks will drive the 2,400 miles within a week. For me, that’d feel like the “Ultimate Road Warrior Challenge”.
Not my idea of a fun and leisurely journey when you need to average 343 miles a day. That works out to six hours (or more) behind the wheel, not leaving much time for sightseeing.
The route is filled with nostalgia as it winds its way across America. Dotted throughout the drive you’ll come across historical gas stations, vintage diners, motels, museums, signs and so much more.
The best time to travel is in the spring or fall to avoid the intense summer heat. This is a drive like none other, one might even say a trip of a lifetime. For more comprehensive information, see TheRoute-66.com website.
Notable Sights on Route 66
There’re far too many sites to list everything. On your drive you’ll come across many “hidden treasures” such as a vintage neon sign burning brightly and other reminders of the glory days. Some to keep in mind include:
3. Blue Ridge Parkway
One of America’s best kept secrets, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a scenic two-lane highway twisting through rugged beauty. Connecting the Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Much more than a road trip, it’s a never-ending kaleidoscope of stunning natural beauty. At every turn, you’re greeted with breathtaking views and unspoiled nature.
Planning for the Blue Ridge Parkway
The total distance from the southern end of Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 469 miles. As speed limits are 45 mph (and down to 25 mph in places), this is a leisurely drive.
With so much to see and do, I’d suggest planning for a minimum for 3 days. Although, this could easily be extended to a week, or even two. Especially if you’re camping, hiking or taking advantage of the many recreational activities that are available.
The best time to travel is from mid-May to mid-October. The fall is the most spectacular with the leaves turning into autumn colors.
For more detailed information, BlueRidgeParkway.org provides comprehensive information.
Sights Not to Miss on the Blue Ridge Parkway
4. The Florida Keys (Miami to Key West)
The Overseas Highway (US-1) might be one of the most unique, beautiful and best retirement road trips in the US.
We were in Miami a couple of days prior to boarding a cruise ship. Initially, the rental car was to check out the nearby attractions.
It really was an impulse decision. We decided it would be neat to zip down to Key West for the day. We would be there in time for lunch, or so we thought. What a nice way to spend the day!
With the refreshing ocean breezes and surrounded with glistening blue water, it started off as a gorgeous drive. The 42 bridges connecting 34 islands and all those sleepy villages were a delight to drive.
Of course, we fell behind schedule and didn’t arrive in Key West until around 2ish. Not enough time to see much of anything, but the key lime pie was delicious! Retracing our steps made for a long day in the saddle.
My greatest regret, we hardly had time to stop and see anything at all. We’ve promised ourselves, next time we’ll experience all the stuff we missed.
Planning for the Florida Keys
Non-stop, the drive is around 3-1/2 hours, totaling 164 miles. As lamented above, a day trip doesn’t do proper justice to this amazing area. There are many interesting places to visit that we blew by.
The next time we visit, we’re going to plan on spending a week. Everything is so laid back and we’d rather relax and soak it in.
In addition to the many beaches, water sports abound. This includes snorkeling / scuba diving, swimming with dolphins, jet skiing and sport fishing.
The best time to travel is between March and May. These are the driest months with average temperatures in the 70s. This also avoids hurricane season which begins in September.
Sights Not to Miss in the Florida Keys
5. The Dakotas (North and South Dakota)
One of the best retirement road trips in the US, the Dakotas showcase prairie grasslands to desolate badlands. As two of the least populated states in America, the Dakotas remain an unspoiled panorama of natural beauty.
Beginning about 65 million years ago, North Dakota was a warm swampy area teeming with life. This has led to some of the most unique geographic formations and glimpse back in time.
The Black Hills are made of ancient rock and deemed sacred land by native Americans. But it’s more than just sheer beauty.
As your journey unfolds, the old west envelopes you. Towns like Deadwood or the Custer State Park bring the more recent past to life. The wild west in all its glory! And, of course, Mount Rushmore commemorating past presidents.
Planning for the Dakotas
While it’s only 550 miles in length, with so many unusual things to see and do, consider taking a week or possibly two.
Accommodations available include rustic cabins, campgrounds, “glamping” sites and upscale hotels. There’s something available for every traveler, regardless of their budget.
Plan your trip between May and September. Mount Rushmore puts on an evening light and music show telling the history of the monument.
Things to See and Do in the Dakotas
Closing Thoughts on The Best Retirement Road Trips in the US
The pandemic brought travel to a screeching halt and the majority of retirees are itching to do something. With international destinations fraught with restrictions, this is the year to explore America.
The open road beckons and we’ve shared five of the all-time best road trips. Which one is best? That depends upon what most interests you.
As retirees, we have the time and the means to rediscover the beauty of the US. Seldom is it about the destination, rather, it’s the journey itself that creates those lasting memories.