Crossing the USA east to west is a romantic and adventurous road trip, with different terrains, climatic conditions and four time zones all part of the experience. New York to San Francisco is a journey of approximately 3,200 miles (5,150 km) by the most popular route. Along the way, you will see some of the USA’s top cities, like Denver, Chicago and Philadelphia, and the country’s most stunning natural areas like Niagara Falls, Lake Tahoe, the deserts of Nevada and two famous national parks, Yosemite and Rocky Mountain.
This is not a trip for wintertime because of the potential of poor weather in Eastern and Central USA along with the potential difficulty of crossing the Rockies at that time of year. There are strictly enforced speed limits on the roads of the United States, with each state making its own rules. Often, even on open roads, the limits fall below what you might expect in other countries. This adventure is not a race and there’s plenty to see as you travel.
Stick with the limits you know because you don’t want a flashing light to appear in your mirror to spoil your day. You will see the distances between highlights and the time you can expect to take between them once you have reached the limits of a city, for example, and then the suburbs of the next. They are estimates with road conditions possibly adding to those estimates.
New York to San Francisco
20 Places To Visit On A New York To San Francisco Road Trip
1- New York
Unless you live in New York, your starting point will be in one of its boroughs where you have booked your hotel.
Manhattan is a popular place with many of its highlights among the top landmarks in the whole city.
You will want to visit several of them, including Central Park, the Empire State Building, Central Station and 9/11.
It is not an easy city to drive around but it is your starting point which you will want to record when you log your itinerary and start your diary.
Why not make your starting point the Times Square in Midtown, the junction of Broadway, 7th Avenue and 42nd Street, where New Yorkers gather to celebrate New Year?
Top Tour: Big Bus New York Hop-On Hop-Off Open Top Tour.
As long as you do not get stuck in commuter traffic, the drive to Philadelphia is a relatively short drive on Interstate 95, especially compared with some of the journeys that lie ahead.
This city was the capital of what became the USA until 1800, having first been settled over a century earlier.
The Constitution was drafted here after independence was achieved.
In common with many cities in the USA, there are modern skyscrapers but colonial architecture ensures that its history is not forgotten.
With a long way to travel, this is probably a fleeting visit unless you have no time limits on your road trip. If you plan on arriving after dark, here are some things to do in Philadelphia at night and ideas on where to stay in Philadelphia.
Distance from New York: 81 miles (130 kilometres)
Driving time from New York: 1 hour 25 minutes
Top Tour: Philadelphia Hop-On Hop-Off City Tour.
3- Niagara Falls
The road to Niagara Falls heads north to Syracuse before turning left two-thirds of the way there.
While by no means either the tallest falls in the world or ones involving a massive volume of water, Niagara is well-established as a major tourist attraction in North America.
There are three cascades, the largest of which, Horseshoe Falls, forms the border between the USA and the Canadian Province of Ontario.
The Falls are at their most impressive in late spring/early summer, which is a good time of year to be undertaking this road trip anyway.
They are slowly eroding, but the timescale is tens of thousands of years before they disappear completely.
If you have the time, you can also cross the border and visit the Canadian side.
Distance from Philadelphia: 415 miles (668 kilometres)
Driving time from Philadelphia: 6 hours 30 minutes
Top Tour: Niagara Falls in One Day: Deluxe Sightseeing Tour of American and Canadian Sides.
Your itinerary will reflect your interests; you can take detours on this journey and possibly stay overnight. Read this post for things to do in Detroit at night.
However, with so much to see further west, likely, you will head to Detroit, the centre of the USA’s automobile industry, without stopping and even go beyond halfway to Chicago, before booking accommodation.
Ford, Chrysler and General Motors have headquarters here, while the city is also an important port on the Detroit River.
The city is also the home of Tamla Motown and is recognised as a “City of Design” by UNESCO.
Distance from Niagara Falls: 252 miles (405 kilometres)
Driving time from Niagara Falls: 4 hours
Top Tour: Explore the undiscovered beauty of Detroit.
Chicago on Lake Michigan is due west of Detroit, and it is certainly worth spending a little time exploring this vibrant city.
It is home to the enormous Willis Tower, the largest structure in the Americas, several iconic museums, and plenty of large parks providing greenery in a city.
There are walking tours whose content varies between architecture to exploring downtown.
You might also like to take a short cruise to admire the city skyline from the water.
Chicago is home to many quality restaurants, and you’ll find lots of things to do in Chicago at night too.
Distance from Detroit: 283 miles (455 kilometres)
Driving time from Detroit: 4 hours
Top Tour: Chicago Architecture River Cruise.
6- Starved Rock State Park
It is worth making an early start to Starved Rock, heading west but slightly south as well, especially if you want to enjoy exploring Illinois’ most popular park, something 2 million visitors do every year.
The main feature of Starved Rock is its canyons.
You can expect diverse trees and plenty of fauna.
It has been a state park for over a century and a tourist attraction since 1930.
In 1960, it became a National Historic Landmark, with numerous archaeological studies subsequently looking at its Native American origins and the beginnings of European settlement.
You may not have time for fishing, but you will enjoy hiking one of the shorter trails and might even decide to camp for a night before the long day that follows heading west to Omaha.
Distance from Chicago: 99.7 miles
Driving time from Chicago: 1 hour 30 minutes
Omaha City is due west, the largest city of Nebraska, was another Native American region before Europeans arrived in 1800.
Today, it is home to several significant businesses in banking and insurance, but its appeal to the tourist lies elsewhere.
Its zoo is regarded as among the best in the world, while the Old Market in Downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Its diverse culture includes rhythm and blues, jazz, historic landmarks and museums.
Over 100 buildings are included on the National Register of Historic Places.
Distance from Starved Rock State Park: 364 miles (635 kilometres)
Driving time from Starved Rock State Park: 5 hours 40 minutes
Top Tour: Omaha Scavenger Hunt: The West’s Glorious Gateway.
8- Rocky Mountain National Park
The headwaters of the iconic Colorado River are in the northwest of the park.
It is a park of mountains, plenty of lakes and a huge variety of flora and fauna.
President Woodrow established it in 1915 and its qualities were recognised by UNESCO in 1976, deeming it a World Biosphere Reserve.
The Rocky Mountains is hugely popular, with several million visitors annually.
One of its visitor centres, Beaver Meadows, is a Frank Lloyd Wright creation and has become a National Historic Landmark in the USA.
This whole region is forest land, a great area to explore given the time if you are interested in pristine environments.
Distance from Omaha: 592 miles (927 kilometres)
Driving time from Omaha: 9 hours
North Platte (Buffalo Bill once had a ranch there) is at the midpoint and has hotel accommodation if you want to avoid a long drive. Download the 16+ National Parks Self-Guided Driving Tours Bundle.
The discovery of gold led to the settlement of Denver in the middle of the 19th century.
Today it is an excellent base for anyone wanting to explore the region, yet Denver has much to see.
Downtown is largely walkable, with Latimer Square one of its historical highlights.
Many historic buildings have been sympathetically converted into accommodation, bars and restaurants with lots of places to have fun in Denver at night.
Union Station dates back to 1914 but today it has been converted into a place of cafes, bars and restaurants where you would happily spend an evening.
Denver is certainly a place to pick for an overnight stay before a long drive in the morning.
Distance from Rock Mountain National Park: 81 miles (130 kilometres)
Driving time from Rock Mountain National Park: 2 hours
Top Tour: Downtown Denver Food Tour.
10- Ashley National Forest
Ashley National Forest is a National Forest found across two states, northeast Utah and southwest Wyoming.
The terrain is mountains, forests and lakes, with the forest as high as 13,500 feet (4,100 metres) in places.
Several landmarks are worth mentioning: the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area and King’s Peak in the Uinta Mountains.
Head for Vernal, where you will find the ranger headquarters to get more information.
Distance from Denver: 375 miles (598 kilometres)
Driving time from Denver: 7 hours 30 minutes
11- Craters of the Moon National Monument
This national monument is in central Idaho on the plain of the Snake River, where the average elevation is 5,900 feet (1,800 metres).
It dates back to 1924 with President Clinton agreeing its expansion in 2000.
There are three main lava fields within the National Park and an extensive area of sagebrush grassland.
The deepest crack in the rifts found there is the deepest anywhere in the world; 800 feet (240 metres).
You can see many volcanic features here and every kind of basaltic lava.
Distance from Ashley National Forest: 441 miles (711 kilometres)
Driving time from Ashley National Forest: 7 hours 45 minutes, mostly north
Top Tour: Guided Full-Day Tour to Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve.
12- Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is one of the world’s most famous national parks.
Most of the park is in Wyoming, extending into Montana and Idaho.
Ulysses S. Grant signed it into existence in 1872, the first national park in the USA and probably the world.
The geyser “Old Faithful” attracts huge numbers yearly as soon as the park reopens after winter.
The wildlife and the range of trees are outstanding.
It is thought that Native Americans lived there around 11,000 years ago, and there are many archaeological, historical and natural attractions.
Distance from Craters of the Moon National Monument: 196 miles (315 kilometres)
Driving time from Craters of the Moon National Monument: 3 hours 25 minutes southwest
Top Tour: Yellowstone National Park Self-Driving Audio Tour.
13- Bridger Teton National Park
The vast forested area within this nearby national park is among the largest outside Alaska. Forest covers all the land between Yellowstone through this park to the west and south.
The tallest peak in the park is Gannett Peak which measures 13,804 feet (4,207 metres). However, there are some 40 peaks over 12,000 feet (3,660 metres).
With plenty of snow and its melt, the park has plenty of rivers, streams, and 1,500 lakes. In addition, there are seven of the largest glaciers outside Alaska.
Distance from Yellowstone Park: 80 miles (144 kilometres)
Driving time from Yellowstone Park: 2 hours south
14- Salt Lake City
Brigham Young and the Mormons founded Salt Lake City in Utah in the middle of the 19th century.
The pioneers found a semi-arid valley and planned its development in what looked to be an unpromising region.
The top attraction in the city is Temple Square which is effectively the heart of the Mormon religion.
The complex is extensive and youngsters run free guided tours.
Although non-Mormons cannot enter the Temple itself, they are welcome in the Assembly Hall and the Tabernacle.
Distance from Bridger Teton National Park: 300 miles (486 kilometres)
Driving time from Bridger Teton National Park: 5 hours 30 minutes south
Top Tour: Tabernacle Choir Performance + Salt Lake City Bus Tour.
While Las Vegas is considered the world’s gambling capital, another city in Nevada, Reno, has become a popular tourist and gambling city.
It is also a city where several technology companies have made their home; Amazon, Google, Apple, Tesla, Panasonic and Microsoft are huge names worldwide.
It takes its name from the Civil War Union Major General Jesse L. Reno.
Distance from Salt Lake City: 518 miles (834 kilometres)
Driving time from Salt Lake City: 8 hours west
Top Tour: 1-Hour Distillery Tour and Tasting Flight.
16- Carson City
Carson City is just south of Reno and is the capital of Nevada despite being a relatively small city with a population just short of 60,000.
When silver was found close by, a settlement was formed, taking the name of Kit Carson, the legendary trapper and frontiersman.
The city limits now cross the border into California.
Take a walking tour of the historic part of the city, the Carson Trail, with 50 landmarks in a very compact area.
It was once an important railhead, and the Nevada State Railroad Museum tells its story.
There is also a short and scenic rail ride to Virginia City and back with a few hours before the return journey.
Distance from Reno: 32 miles (51 kilometres)
Driving time from Reno: 45 minutes
Top Tour: Carson City Crusade Scavenger Hunt.
17- Tahoe National Forest
This forest lies north of the lake of the same name, with the highest peak, Sierra Buttes standing at 8,587 feet (2,617 metres).
There are natural lakes and manmade reservoirs, including Boca Reservoir, where the locals enjoy recreational sports.
River canyons have been carved through the granite rock, and there are several mapped trails to enjoy, including a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Distance from Carson City: 75 miles (44 kilometres)
Driving time from Carson City: 1 hour 20 minutes, north then west
18- Lake Tahoe
This is the largest alpine lake in the USA, and it lies at 6,225 feet (1,897 metres) on the state line between Nevada and California.
At 1,645 feet (501 metres) deep, only Crater Lake in Oregon is deeper within the USA’s boundaries.
Lake Tahoe is a popular tourist destination for winter sports and summer activities.
It is certainly a great place to stay for a night, as long as you still have the time, before the last leg up to Sacramento and your final destination.
Distance from Tahoe National Forest: 9 miles (15 kilometres)
Driving time from Tahoe National Forest: 15 minutes
Top Tour: Tahoe Coastal Self-Guided E-Bike Tour – Half-Day | World Famous East Shore Trail.
Time magazine ranked Sacramento as “America’s Most Diverse City”.
It is the capital of California and is among the fastest-growing cities in the USA.
Its early history was Spanish, with many reminders still there today in its architecture.
There are several important museums in the city, including ones remembering the times of the railroad and another about the history of the Native Americans.
Even though you are so close to your final destination, it is worth spending some time in Sacramento if possible.
Distance from Lake Tahoe: 125 miles (200 kilometres)
Driving time from Lake Tahoe: 2 hours southwest
Top Tour: Downtown Sacramento Historical Food Tour.
20- San Francisco
The end of your adventure should be at Pier 39 in San Francisco Bay, where you can see two things in San Francisco that make the city famous.
Sit in a restaurant or bar at Pier 39 and look out at Alcatraz, a “must tour” place in the city.
The Golden Gate Bridge is not golden at all, but if you have the energy, you can hire a bicycle and cycle across to Sausalito.
Unless you have to fly away soon after finishing this road trip, hang around for a few days to enjoy its many highlights and check out these things to do in San Francisco at night.
Distance from Sacramento: 75 miles (140 kilometres)
Driving time from Sacramento: 1 hour 35 minutes south-west
Top Tour: San Francisco Bay Twilight or Sunset Cruise.
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