Six week road trip of the U.S...what should I see and do?
April 6, 2011 12:40 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to take a six week vacation, and I want to tour the United States. I'm based in Los Angeles, and I have a reliable car. I am familiar with most parts of the western and southern U.S., but I've never been to New England. I want to do this late summer (say, mid-August through mid to late September, but this is flexible). How can I make the most of the trip? What are the must-sees? Must-haves for the trip? Any tips for the road?
posted by allseeingabstract to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I should add that I have the budget for motel stays for most nights, but would stay with friends in certain cities, depending on where I go. I've done a road trip from CA to IL via New Orleans as well, so this isn't my first long-distance trip, but will certainly be my longest.
posted by allseeingabstract at 12:43 AM on April 6, 2011

Might be nice to time it with the fall crap in NE, if you're into leaves and colors and stuff.
posted by rhizome at 3:17 AM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

What does "New England" mean to you? Because it would be a shame to skip Eastern stuff that so doesn't count under a strict definition of the term (Philadelphia, DC, NYC.) You may want to swing into Canada (Toronto, Niagara Falls) since you'll apparently be driving from out west. And I'd stop in Chicago on the way in, though you say you've already been to Illinois.

Obviously, you'll want to spend some serious time in the greater Boston area. Be prepared to spend either lots of time or lots of money getting around - the last time we sent someone to Boston for work, garages were of the opinion that $40 for overnight parking was a great deal.

You probably already know how astonishingly boring I-80 is, but I fIgure it's a good idea to say this: it is astonishingly boring. There have been suggestions on AskMe before on enduring it.

Also, get yourself an iZoom for the tolls, unless you already have an EZPass. You want to order it in advance. I believe I ended out picking the Indiana program because of the lack of monthly fees, but it's been over a year so it's worth comparing deals.
posted by SMPA at 4:25 AM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you do decide to do the foliage thing, late September in the northern- and interior-most parts of Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont are probably the way to go. You'll see some color all over, but most of the region doesn't hit "peak" until October.

If you make it to Massachusetts (and I recommend you do!) consider driving along Route 2 in the western part of the state. I moved to the area last summer and had a stunningly gorgeous drive to Mass MoCA last August. It's just a really beautiful, New Englandy road. There's also outdoorsy kinds of stuff to do out there, like ziplines and rafting and things, though I haven't tried it, and adorable small towns and things. Route 2 goes all the way to Boston (which you should visit, parking costs be damned!), though it becomes a regular boring highway somewhere in the middle of the state.

I also love the White Mountains and the Maine coast. And parts of Cape Cod are great; Cape Ann, north of Boston, is really enjoyable to visit for a day (towns like Rockport, Newburyport, Gloucester; Salem is not on Cape Ann but very close and also worth visiting).

Oh, and maybe consider Montreal or Quebec (city)? They don't have to be all that far out of your way.
posted by mskyle at 5:18 AM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Boston, Acadia National Park in Maine, St John in New Brunswick to Moncton to see the biggest tides in the world then PEI or Nova Scotia to Halifax. Ferry or drive back or do New Foundland to see the most primordial landscape in the world. Then head west to Quebec City for beauty and french culture. Head down to amazing Montreal. Head south to the white mountains in New Hampshire and Vermont.
posted by blueyellow at 5:37 AM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Adirondacks. Aim for Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. Leaves start turning in the northern Adks in September, so you could see some color by the end of your trip. If you're interested in in "New England" (Adirondacks don't count as New England, but same trees/similar quaintness...) you really should try to catch the fall colors. There is nothing like it.
posted by Buffaload at 6:05 AM on April 6, 2011

Because you aren't coming in the fall foliage season, you might want to consider staying by the shoreline. Maritime New England has some truly unique things to offer. I'm not sure if you're looking for more of a city experience, but here are a few ideas. Keep in mind that there will probably be quite a bit of other tourist traffic in these areas, especially on weekends from the "regional" tourists. The nice thing about New England is it's very compact, so you can see quite a bit in a short period of time.

-New Haven for the famous pizza (pepe's, modern apizza, sally's). A good lunch stop if you are heading out from NYC.
-Mystic Seaport area - tall ships, huge casinos, a cute downtown area.

Rhode Island:
-You can go over to Newport if you want. I haven't been in at least ten years, so that's really all I have to say about Newport. Lodging in this area is likely to be very expensive. They do a big deal jazz festival in August, worth checking out if your timing is right and you like jazz.
-Providence is an option if you're already passing through. Some good shopping thanks to the RISD influence, and good food thanks to Johnson & Wales.

-From there you can do Boston. It's an obvious must visit, and you can easily do 3 days there. Side note: If you like beer at all, you should try to visit a brewery because New England has some of the best breweries in the country. Sam Adams and Harpoon in Boston can get you started, but there are a ton of options.
- Another option, especially if you skip Rhode Island, is Cape Cod. This is pretty much the vacation spot for southern New Englanders and "staycationers". Crowds and costs will be high in the summer, however, so it could be a bit of a time suck. Points North of Boston would also work, such as Marblehead/Rockport/Gloucester. These are good places to do a whale watch if you are into that sort of thing.

New Hampshire:
There's a tiny bit of coast here. This is another area I haven't been to in awhile. Just mentioning because you will be passing through. Portsmouth is supposed to be a good stop, but I couldn't tell you why.

-At this point, you will be in coastal Maine. I love it here, but the maritime thing might be getting old to you by now and there are potentially some better stops to the north. I recommend either just making one stop, or heading straight to Portland, ME.
-Portland, ME. for reference, this is just over a two hour drive direct from Boston. Portland is my favorite New England city, so I am mentioning it because of this reason. Worth it for an overnight stop, and you will find reasonably priced lodging here. There are lighthouses in the area, Portland Head is one of the most visited and you may even recognize it from photos.
- North of Portland, Maine starts to get a little less touristy and a little more real (although I haven't been at the height of tourist season). You could do a lot from here, such as head over to Bar Harbor/Acadia Nat'l Park, which I highly recommend. It really depends on how much driving you want to do at this point, there's a lot up that way, but note that the compact New England feeling dissipates quite a bit as you head north of Portland.

New Hampshire (again):
If you like the outdoors, you should head back through New Hampshire. There are a few 4,000 footers here, as well as the Mt. Washington climb/railroad/auto road thing. You could also do a hut to hut hike on the Appalachian Trail (see the Appalachian Mountain Club website). This is not too far a haul from Portland. There are also some rafting trips you can take out of North Conway, and a rock climbing school through Eastern Mountain Sports. There's not a whole lot else going on in this area, so give it a skip if you're not an outdoorsy type.

Alright, I think that's enough for now... just a few ideas, hopefully this was helpful! I'm a chronic New England vacationer (I live in CT).
posted by smalls at 6:07 AM on April 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you're planning to spend time in Boston (which I'd think you would, considering you're spending 6 weeks in New England), consider parking your car at a park and ride in outer Boston or the suburbs and taking the T/commuter rail into the city. Obviously, this will depend on your logistics, where you are staying and for how long, etc., but this can be significantly cheaper than garaging it in downtown Boston (parking at Alewife and Braintree on the Red Line, for instance is $8/overnight.)

Also, while driving in New England is generally a gorgeously picturesque experience, driving and parking in central Boston is an exercise in frustration with the general lack of a grid, narrow old streets and lack of street parking.
posted by andrewesque at 6:17 AM on April 6, 2011

I highly recommend the Jersey Shore so you can see that it isn't the MTV version. Cape May is especially nice, and you can see some good surfing in Ocean City and Manasquan.

Also, why not bring some camping supplies with you? Instead of a motel, you can find plenty of private and public camping facilities that have showers and other amenities throughout the East Coast.

The usual suspects like Philadephia, NYC, Boston, etc.

Also, Howe Caverns is very cool, and there are great wineries in the Finger Lakes area.

Another obvious stop would be Niagara Falls.

You can also take a car ferry between Bar Harbour and Newfoundland.
posted by rich at 6:35 AM on April 6, 2011

Cape Cod!

Also Rt. 100 in Vermont.
posted by LarryC at 7:09 AM on April 6, 2011

posted by Greg Nog at 7:37 AM on April 6, 2011

What kind of stuff are you into? Outdoor recreation (hiking)? Cities? Small towns? Historical stuff? Clubs and music? Restaurants? Ocean? Mountains? (or "hills" if you are used to western mountains :)
posted by thefool at 7:49 AM on April 6, 2011

I drove from Texas to upstate New York and then Maine and back last summer and it was a wonderful trip. I also recommend Acadia (lodging in Bar Harbor is expensive, just FYI) because it is beautiful, the hiking is good (and not particularly crowded - lots of people seemed to just be swimming), and it is beautiful. Plus, if you go to Maine you can eat a ton of lobster rolls (as Greg Nog pointed out). Oh, and blueberry pie.

Also, Vermont! I drove from Ghent, NY to Burlington twice and it is one of the most scenic drives I've ever been on. New England is really gorgeous in the late summer.

Seconding the recommendation for pizza in New Haven - it's incredibly good.
posted by vakker at 8:06 AM on April 6, 2011

Bring a tent and an air mattress. Campground tent spots (like KOAs) cost ~$20/night, and there's nothing like a comfortable night outside. Conversely, if the weather sucks, just get a hotel. As a bonus, you can cook your own food at a campsite - not always easy at a motel.

Maintain your vehicle. Get more frequent oil changes. Check fluids at every stop (that's radiator, oil, transmission, brakes, and steering). Take a quick walk around the vehicle now and then. I've had multiple cross-country breakdowns that could have been prevented.

Pack your own food, but be willing to stop for something new. Apples are great, sandwich supplies are in every grocery store, and on a long trip I'll buy a thing of gatorade powder to add to a water bottle.

Buy a damn atlas. A GPS is might be good to have as backup, but use your own brain for crissakes!

There's a lot of stuff between New England and the west coast including the music and literature of Portland, Oregon, the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado, BBQ in Kansas City... consider picking up a USA travel guide book.

New England has great hiking - the mountains here are different than the Rockies. They're less... rocky.
posted by jander03 at 8:13 AM on April 6, 2011

Oh, you know, I just realized you would be in New England potentially during the hottest days of summer! So you should take the Cog Railway up Mount Washington and then hike down it. Much easier than hiking up it, but still mildly-to-very strenuous, depending on which trail you take. Hot as HELL at ground-level means basically a crisp October day up at the top of the mountain.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:21 AM on April 6, 2011

Oh, yeah, seconding Mystic - you can see them gut fish like you would in the 19th century. You're also right by the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, which you can walk around (except for the parts that are still off-limits for security reasons.) The USS Constitution is also a fun visit, and they just fixed it up a few months ago. And hey, since you're already doing a four-day drive, why not take a detour through Dayton and the US Air Force Museum?

(Actually, there are approximately forty years' worth of military history things to see in the Northeast. I am literally just remembering all the random stuff I did as a teenager in the area.)
posted by SMPA at 8:35 AM on April 6, 2011

You might enjoy reading this blog - some friends of mine did a several-months-long crosscountry trip. They hit some offbeat attractions and did everything on the cheap, so they might have some tips that you would find useful.
posted by chez shoes at 8:54 AM on April 6, 2011

Meetups are fun, Portsmouth NH or Portland Maine should get some attendance. Portland includes some islands as part of the city; it's fun to stay at a B&B and bike around an island. Acadia Nat'l Park is beautiful. Katahdin is a manageable climb.
posted by theora55 at 9:40 AM on April 6, 2011

In Jolly ol' New England from mid August to late Sept you kinda can't screw it up. Unless you only go to the super tourist destinations (e.g., Hampton Beach in NH, Boothbay Harbor in ME), which are basically all style and no substance. And the style is boring. The White Mountains in NH are amazing (drive up the Kanc maybe?), the Green Mountains in VT are likewise beautiful (Camel's Hump is my personal favorite - unassuming little mountain with great views.) If you're doing VT, then Burlington is worth a visit, but it's kinda out of the way relative to the rest of the New England attractions.

Portland, ME is my home town, so I'm very partial. Fun town to spend a few days in. You can hang out in any one of a dozen nice coffee shops. Eat great food every night. Visit one or two of the islands. Hit some lighthouses and beaches. See a local band or three. Then drive north to Acadia and the Schoodic Peninsula. Gorgeous up there that time of year.

Have fun!
posted by that's candlepin at 11:52 AM on April 6, 2011

Some tips on road tripping (I spent 3 weeks driving 12,000 miles around America two summers ago):

-Bring a cooler. Buy fresh fruit/veggies and ice to have a healthy snack. It is incredibly hard to eat healthy on the road (especially for vegetarians). It is also very cheap. Once the ice melts, I filtered it through my tagalong Britta filter and drank it. Nice to have ice cold water in the middle of a hot summer day. Keep the cooler on the floor, in the shade.

-You CAN sleep in your car. Its free! I bought one of those big atlases at Walmart which lists pretty much every Walmart across America. You can call them up and ask if they are 247 ones. Then proceed to sleep in their parking lot. Of course, it depends on your size.. but I was able to get some good z's in my tiny ford focus. I was a 19 year old girl sleeping alone and felt 100% safe--if you're worried about safety.

-National. Park. Pass. Its expensive at ~$80. But if you are visiting more than 8 national parks, it is very much worth it. (Side note: Park rangers can and WILL give you a ticket for speeding down a mountain..)

-Audiobooks! Listening to music 24/7 after about 5 days straight made me tired of it. It was nice to listen to classics like the Swiss Family Robinson which you can get free online.

-Wet naps! For spills, a cheap bath, wiping your face, cooling down, etc. Very helpful.

-Because I rarely stayed in a place with electricity on mine, I found car phone/ipod chargers very helpful.

-AAA! If you don't have a membership, get one. You lock your keys in your car running in Moosetown, Oregon, they'll come unlock your car. Its a nice state of mind to have. AND discounts at a lot of hotels/motels.

-Finally, always keep your tank 1/4 full. It surprises me every time the enormous amount of people who are pulled off to the side of a road in traffic jam from an accident or rush hour or whatever because they ran out of gas.

The three weeks I spent alone on the road are still some of the BEST days ever. I was out west most of the time, and having never been in huge mountains before, seeing snow in the end of June--amazing.

Feel free to mail me if you have any questions regarding the roadtrip part. I am a HUGE fan. Driving from CT to WA (Sasquatch!) in May. The road calls..
posted by fuzzysoft at 12:44 PM on April 6, 2011

There are a lot of great suggestions here, but I would add a couple of general ones that I learned on my road trip across the US. My brother and I made the loop all the way around a few years ago.

Don't plan it too much. The best memories I have are the unexpected places that we just said, "why not?" and pulled over to take a look. It gets you out of your comfort zone as well, which is always a good thing.

Hotels, even national chains, are completely negotiable. Many times we pulled in at 1 am to a hotel were upfront: "We are traveling across the country, just staying for the night. We only want to sleep, won't cause any disturbance and will be out early in the morning. What can you do for us?" We slept at hotels that quoted $150/night for $40. Even the lowliest clerk at a Holiday Inn has the authorization to offer you the best available rate, i.e. the AAA, AARP, etc rate. The managers are even more flexible. Sleeping in the car and camping are great ways to save money, but sometimes you just need a bed (and free internet).

Lastly, let people know what you are doing. Pulling up somewhere and just saying "I am traveling around the country, may never be out here again and want to know what to see" will be greeted with masses of goodwill. We had all sorts of doors opened for us just by talking to people.
posted by roquetuen at 9:30 AM on April 9, 2011

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