Though Jack Kerouac first immortalized the American road trip in the 1950s in the classic novel “On the Road,” it’s undergoing a second renaissance at the moment, as routine lockdowns have made travelers even more anxious to explore the wide-open spaces surrounding the Rocky Mountains. I grew up taking cross-country trips with my family all across the West—somewhat begrudgingly, then, though I now find myself retracing the routes of my childhood with an entirely new appreciation. From the Million Dollar Highway to the Teton Pass, read on for the best road trips to take in the Mountain West.
1. Million Dollar Highway (Colorado)
The San Juan Mountains, Colorado (Image provided by Adobe Stock)
You’d be forgiven for thinking Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway referred to the drive from Pitkin County Airport to downtown Aspen, as high-rollers disembark private jets for even more private chalets. But our next selection is decidedly more rustic and off-the-beaten-path than the apres-ski trails favored by Elk Mountain revelers. The Million Dollar Highway in southwest Colorado leads from Durango to Ouray, passing through picturesque meadows of wildflowers as it ascends the jagged peaks of the San Juan Mountains, eventually reaching Coral Bank Pass (10,660 feet).
And it is due to this steep slope that the highway is considered one of the most dangerous roads in the world—though, thanks to increased precautions, there haven’t been any avalanche fatalities since 1992. The highway is also one of the Trails of the Ancients Byways: Archaeological evidence exists of the hunters and gatherers who traversed this region in 10,000 BC. We suggest you retrace their prehistoric footsteps on wheels, and we also suggest you make the drive soon because Rocky Mountain foliage is breathtaking this time of year.
2. Skalkaho Highway (Montana)
The Sapphire Mountains, Montana (Image provided by Adobe Stock)
Head to the Sapphire Mountains to drive the 54-mile Skalkaho Highway from the Bitterroot Valley to the Flint Creek Valley through Glacier Country in southwest Montana. Originally a Native American route, the Skalkaho Highway (also known as Montana Highway 38) weaves through some of the most remote areas of the state. Considered “Montana’s Loneliest Highway,” travelers should pack supplies, as there are no gas stations or restaurants to be found along this scenic pass. Indeed, labeling the Skalkaho a ‘highway’ is a bit misleading. Expect hairpin turns, unpaved roads, and an abundance of roadside wildlife (elk, black bears, coyotes, and more).
These vertiginous, winding roads aren't for the faint of heart, but they reward the intrepid traveler with spectacular views of the abundant wildflowers and lush meadows of the Sapphire Mountains in Montana's Glacier Country. Due to heavy snowfall, the seasonal road is only open from Memorial Day through November—so there's a brief window of time for visitors to observe the 7,260-foot Skalkaho Pass. It is a sight not to be missed.
3. US-89 (Wyoming)
Mount Moran in the Grand Tetons (Image provided by Adobe Stock)
Why settle for exploring one National Park when you experience two in a single afternoon? Our next road trip is the perfect way to explore both Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone, as drivers head north along Wyoming’s US-89. We recommend beginning your trip in Jackson Hole, setting off along the picturesque Moose Wilson Road in Wilson, Wyoming. Keep an eye out for wildlife crossings as you traverse Grand Teton National Park and head north up US-89, toward Moran, Wyoming.
The highway traverses the alpine deserts and canyons north of Jackson Hole in the same winding manner of the Snake River, with stunning views of the Tetons to the west and the National Elk Refuge to the east. Expect incredible views of Jackson Lake and Mount Moran as you drive north through Grand Teton National Park up to Yellowstone. Yellowstone's southern entrance leads into one of the most geographically diverse parts of the park: Canyons, waterfalls, and hot springs await.
4. The Mighty 5 (Utah)
Arches National Park Utah (Image provided by Adobe Stock)
The Mighty 5 includes in Southern Utah includes the unparalleled lineup of Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capital Reef, and Zion National Parks. Depart from Salt Lake City for a five- to seven-day journey through the five parks—all of which are spectacular and impressively diverse considering their relative proximity to one another in southern Utah. While you could choose to start your trip in Las Vegas, we recommend beginning in Utah in order to tackle the longest drive (to Arches) at the very beginning of the trip, before you run out of steam—literally and figuratively. And, similar to our previous excursions in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, travelers have the option to make the trip a loop, or end their journey in Nevada.
Regardless of your trip’s duration, travelers should book accommodations in advance. Many campgrounds and RV sites have been at capacity well into the off-season—a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen summer vacation rituals extend into fall. (This is only fitting, considering a side effect of lockdown is an inability to distinguish one day from the next). Regardless of when you visit, travelers will discover there’s no wrong time of year to explore these national treasures. And there’s no better time to hit the road than now.
5. The Devil’s Highway (Montana)
Mountains in Big Sky, Montana (Image provided by Visit Big Sky)
The Devil’s Highway from Big Sky to Bozeman is the perfect adventure through Big Sky Country in Montana. Starting in Yellowstone, head northwest towards the western exit of the park (be sure to check out the Emerald Pools along the way) to continue your journey to Big Sky, Montana. Given the unpredictability of traffic and road closures in Yellowstone, expect to arrive in Big Sky towards nightfall. (You always end up spending more time in Yellowstone than anticipated—especially if you plan on waiting for Old Faithful to erupt).
We recommend spending the night in a cabin at Lone Mountain Ranch for some socially distanced Western adventures—an early morning horseback ride is the perfect antidote to another day behind the wheel. Next, drive along the Devil’s Highway—US-191, formerly US-666 North—to venture up to the city of Bozeman for the evening. Bozeman’s downtown historic district still has the flavor of the Old West, despite the suburban sprawl that now surrounds the city. The road trip combines the best of city and country when it comes to western exploration, and we suggest visiting this fall for peak foliage.