How to see America in July?
December 5, 2012 8:45 AM   Subscribe

My friend who has never been to the US has four weeks for an epic road trip/vacation. The catch: it's in July. What are the must see sights that won't induce heatstroke?

Mefites! Inspired by Stephen Fry in America on BBC, my good friend and I want to take the great American road trip. She can take a week off in July 2013. She's never been to the US before and wants "to see it all." I'm from the Midwest, but there's so much to see I don't know where we should begin.

Things she definitely wants to see: NYC, Las Vegas.

She's also very interested in things like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, but heat is a concern. She's from India, so it's not like she can't stand high temperatures, but we also don't want to be miserable (for instance, I think New Orleans is amazing but would be insufferable in July. If you think otherwise, let me know).

Some ideas we have tossed around are the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, the great smoky mountains, Florida Keys, and Washington DC. Are there other gems (hidden or otherwise) that we haven't thought of?

Assume we have an unlimited budget. Any routes or online resources are appreciated. Thanks!
posted by BusyBusyBusy to Travel & Transportation around United States (32 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Yellowstone--nothing like it back home. Badlands in South Dakota, as well as the great sweep of prairie. The Rockies. Northern Peninsula of Michigan.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:48 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can she take a week or four? In the interest of doing more seeing and less driving, I'd pick a coast and stick to it. In the West, you could start in San Diego, and even pop down to Tijuana to check out Mexico for a day, then go up to LA, drive to San Francisco along the 1 (beautiful route along the coast through Santa Barbara), and hang out in the Bay area for a while. Then you could drive over to the Sierras, hitting up Tahoe and Yosemite before going north again to visit Portland and Seattle.

If Las Vegas is a big draw, you could head there from the Sierras and visit the Grand Canyon (I recommend the North Rim), but it will be super hot out there that time of year.
posted by Aizkolari at 9:00 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Need more information! Does it all have to be a road trip? Or can you do some flying too (given that the two "must see" places are at opposite ends of the country)? When you say "Pacific Northwest and Northern California, the great smoky mountains, Florida Keys, and Washington DC," do you mean you would do *all* of these? Because with NYC that's pretty much the whole perimeter of the country! Also, do both of you drive? How much are you comfortable driving in a day?

I went to the Grand Canyon and other Northern Arizona/Utah parks in August, and although it was incredibly hot (depending on the elevation - much hotter at lower elevations), it was worth it. You do have to drink a lot of water, though. Actually the main problem was everything was so crowded - LOTS of people go to the big national parks in summer. I would totally recommend a road trip that takes in Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon. They are amazing and unique and within a days or two's easy drive of each other. Moab was amazing but really too hot for me. Like a furnace. I'm from New England.

I did absolutely love the drive across southern Utah on Highway 12 - BREATHTAKING. But it was a good day's drive. And we were in Utah the whole time.

The drive up the California coast on Highway 1 is also amazing.
posted by mskyle at 9:00 AM on December 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

NYC is the only place in the Northeast on your list, but since it sounds like a major one and you only have a week for this, I'd recommend a New England/New York trip with, at bare minimum, a couple of days in NYC and a day+ in Boston (if you do the West Coast, you'll spend most of your time driving if you want to see a variety of places).

Coastal Maine is very nice temperature-wise in the summer, and has plenty of natural beauty and also plenty of kitschy Americana.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:02 AM on December 5, 2012

I think with just a week you're going have to be very very choosy. It's easy to spend a week JUST in NYC. We have great infrastructure, but don't underestimate travel times. It's a big country! Even flying from NYC to Las Vegas takes all day (or all night on a red eye). I don't even know that it would be plausible to drive that distance in a week, even with no stops.
posted by tealcake at 9:03 AM on December 5, 2012

My friend who has never been to the US has four weeks for an epic road trip/vacation

She can take a week off in July 2013.

Can you clarify which one is the amount of time? 'Cause a week long road trip to see New York and the Grand Crayon is a bit much.

Also, is there a particular city y'all will be starting in? That'll definitely matter, route wise.

As to the heat, most of the American South is humid during the summer, yet they're essential parts of the country. Skipping an entire region doesn't seem to make much sense if her goal is explore the country. Perhaps just a quick pass through Nashville, enjoy the scenery and food for a day or two.

If New York and Las Vegas are main points of interest, I'd recommend setting aside at least 3 days to explore New York and 2 for Las Vegas.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:03 AM on December 5, 2012

Unless you're going deep into the canyon itself, temperature shouldn't be a concern for the Grand Canyon. The North Rim (which I recommend), in particular, is thousands of feet above sea level, and doesn't get uncomfortably hot even in July. It's dry, though, and sunny, so be sure to drink lots of water and wear sunscreen.

If you're going to the Grand Canyon, you really should explore Southern Utah. Tons of amazing national parks down there (as mskyle mentions—Bryce Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands, etc.). For my money, it's the most beautiful part of the country.
posted by aparrish at 9:03 AM on December 5, 2012

I really wouldn't worry about the heat. It's July; everywhere but the West you're going to find high temps and humidity. I've spent time in New Orleans in August. It was pretty soupy, but we did like the locals - enjoyed a great breakfast and some coffee and walking early in the morning, retreated to the shelter of museums and home during the day to stay in the shade and rest, and hit the streets again in the relative cool of evening. The huge bonus is that the tourist crowds are much smaller, meaning you have the city to yourself in a magical way.

Las Vegas and everywhere in the Southwest are going to be baking hot. But there's AC in every business, and it's true that in the dry climate, you feel it less. It's not as exhausting as hot humid weather.

On a similar road trip in 1998, we visited some great spots - here's what I'd recommend.

Chicago - Milennium Park, get on the water for the architecture tour, Art Instititute, Field Museum, etc. A million things to do, free concerts all summer.
South Dakota - Badlands and Custer State Park
Montana - Bozeman, Yellowstone. Allow a good few solid days in Yellowstone; it's unimaginably huge. Nearly as big as many Eastern states.
Idaho - Grand Tetons - hike into the peaks.
Grand Canyon - do not miss. Try the North Rim - it's quieter, different, more high-plains-y. But go to the South Rim too. It's a long way around.
Utah/Arizona - Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands and Arches parks are all great and all different
Colorado - Mesa Verde
New Orleans
Little Rock/Hot Springs AK

As you can see I don't know much about the Northwest. I intentionally left California, Washington, and ORegon off this trip, because there were so many possible destinations I felt the West Coast deserved a whole road trip of its own.

The one thing that might want to drop from your list is the Florida Keys. For one thing, they are a timesuck - you have to make the drive to the extreme southern end of FLA and then hop down key to key on the highway that connects the islands. You'll find you want to stop at all of them and do different things. Key West deserves a couple of days at least. Then there's driving back. I think this could eat up more of a month-long trip than I'd want. And it's a terribly easy place to visit some other time when you have 4-5 days off - plane tickets/car rentals in Southern FL are often on sale for cheap. It's not the kind of thing you can only see on an extended road trip, in the way Western parks are. I think if I were in the Southeast I'd rather use the same amount of time to visit places like St. Augustine, Charleston, the OUter Banks, etc.

On the other hand, I'm a strong believer that you should see whatever you want, hell for leather. You'll make it work. There's no other time in life than on a trip like this that an 8-hour drive or a 6-hour roundtrip to see a spur destination for 2 hours is going to seem reasonable to you, so go for it, whatever it is. The memories are worth it.
posted by Miko at 9:06 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, confusing: my advice is useless if it's only for a week.
posted by Miko at 9:09 AM on December 5, 2012

Carlsbad Caverns is really awesome. I've been all over the US and to most of the National Parks, and it's one of my top 5. Yosemite and Yellowstone are both a given.

I am a person who absolutely HAAAAATES hot weather, but I managed just fine. Hot weather out west is not like hot weather in the rest of the country. It's dry, so less oppressive, and it cools off considerably once it's dark. In fact, if she's from India, I'd be worried about her being chilly at night while you're up in the mountain west.
posted by phunniemee at 9:10 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Las Vegas/Grand Canyon are close in proximity. It's actually cool at the Grand Canyon, it's pretty high up.

I've been giving some tips on a Western US Road Trip, I'll not link, just to make this go faster. I've done this myself and it's a freaking BLAST.

Start in Las Vegas. Yes, it's hotter than blazes, but it's VEGAS Man.

Side track a bit to the Grand Canyon. You can take helicoptor tours of it from Vegas, and it's pretty impressive from the air.

Or Start in Phoenix (YES! Hot!) But dirt cheap and stay in your a/c car and do a/c stuff. Like the Heard Musuem, Poncho's Mexican Food on Central between Southern and Baseline (the REAL Deal.) Be sure to check out the mural memorializing President Clinton's visit for a plate of Nachos. This was our Friday night regular place for 12 years. It's AMAZING (and cheap.)

Drive north on 17 to Sedona, then on to Flagstaff up to the Grand Canyon.

From the Canyon, go to Las Vegas.

Then 15 from Vegas to LA. Do Disneyland! The beaches! Santa Monica Pier.

Up PCH and/or 101. Stop in Solvang/Buellton for Pea Soup Andersons. See Mission Santa Inez. Take pictures in front of kitchy windmills. Buy cookies.

Stop for the night at San Luis Obispo, stay at the Madonna Inn. A pink hotel and every room is different.

Go up 1, see Hearst Castle. Then 101 through the San Juaquin Valley, grapes EVERYWHERE! Go to Monterrey/Carmel/Santa Cruz. In Santa Cruz be sure to ride the rides on the Boardwalk. Walk on the Boardwalk. See the Mystery Spot. Buy hemp clothes.

Take a side trip to Castroville to eat artichokes at little stands. Go to Pescadero to eat Cioppinno and O'Lally Berry Pie.

Then up to San Francisco, stopping first in San Jose for the Rosecrucian Museum and the Winchester Mystery House.

Do all the cool stuff there is to do in San Francisco.

Drive further up the coast, Napa, Sonoma, Calistoga, Yreka. Go to Oregon, Seattle, up across the boarder to Vancouver. Go even further into Canada to Whistler.

Your mind is officially blown.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:11 AM on December 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

I took a road trip across the southwest with my family (including my then-kindergarten age brother) in June or July about 15 years ago. I don't remember it being particularly hellish. That said, we're from Louisiana, which is not far from India in terms of "how cold is cold/how hot is hot".

I don't have recommendations (yet) for itinerary points in general -- I may pop back in on that later.
posted by Sara C. at 9:15 AM on December 5, 2012

I would also recommend Highway 1 in California - beautiful and lots to see along the way. Yosemite is incredible, and should be okay in the summer...if it is hot, you can hike the Mist Trail which goes by a waterfall and so you get cooling along the way, and you can also swim in the Merced River which is just incredible. If you go down the coast to Napa and San Francisco, the weather is not going to be overly steamy and may even be cool in SF.
posted by rainbowbrite at 9:20 AM on December 5, 2012

San Francisco temperatures in July are usually quite cool, with the average high temp in the 60s, Fahrenheit.
posted by wryly at 9:22 AM on December 5, 2012

Oh, one other thing: have you spent extended amounts of time with this friend before? (Just asking since you live in the U.S. and she lives in India.) Because a long road trip with a good friend can give you awesome memories that last forever but it can also make you drive each other CRAZY. Even both on the same trip. So maybe talk with her about bailout points/alone time.
posted by mskyle at 9:22 AM on December 5, 2012

Response by poster: To clarify, we both have four weeks. We are able to travel by any means, cars, trains, planes, mules, anything. Great suggestions so far, thanks everyone!

And we know each other very well, we are currently living together in India now.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 9:23 AM on December 5, 2012

* pulls up chair and sits down *

I drove from NYC to Las Vegas at that exact same time about ten years ago. There is a fantastic online resource (I used the paper version of this for my own trip) - Road Trip USA, which traces eleven different end-to-end routes across the continental US, following the smaller highways the whole way. That will give you PUH-LENTY of opportunities to find weird little kitschy Americana, because that is where all of that lives. The site also breaks each route into many pages, with each leg of the route getting its own page; and they're really good about telling you about spots where there's an interesting detour, and about "the next 30 miles is all strip malls so just keep driving".

New York to Las Vegas took me ten days, so a week does sound kind of ambitious; but on the other hand, I was going solo, so there was no one else to turn the driving over to when I got wiped out.

As for heat advisories:

* You're kind of right about New Orleans in July. But not so much because of the heat - it is the HUMIDITY. The first time I went to New Orleans was in August, and while it was dealable, it's not something I want to repeat. However, one-night-passing-through may be dealable.

* In way of contrast - the desert-based national parks, like Arches or Canyonlands in Utah, would be more comfortable due to low humidity. But that can lull you into a sense of false security and put you at risk of heat exposure if you're not careful. Fortunately, all it takes to avoid heat exposure is"wear a hat" and "bring a big horkin' bottle of water if you're going hiking in Arches and drink even when you think you don't need to." As long as you do that, you'll be fine. (Or, at least, don't do what I did and try to rely on one tiny little 16-ounce bottle of water. I didn't notice anything was amiss and was walking around feeling just fine until I glanced at one cliff face and hallucinated 200-foot-high flaming Hebrew letters on it for a split second, at which point I promptly got into my car, blasted the air conditioning and drove to the visitors' center to purchase four beverages and drink them all on the spot.)

* The heat isn't oppressive in the Grand Canyon or in Yosemite; the Grand Canyon is a bit less desert-y, and Yosemite is in a mountain-y area. I've also been to both of those in July on other trips, and it was just fine. Yosemite is GORGEOUS, in fact - the park itself is enormous, but most visitors concentrate themselves in one tiny little area, so it's easy to duck the crowds if you want.

* Vegas is also great fun for people watching, and could be a good "anchor" for your itinerary since it looks like a lot of your destinations are all in the southwest. My own family did an itinerary like that once - we started in Vegas for a couple days, then got a car and drove around to some of the western national parks, and ended up back in Vegas for two more nights and flew home. Rather than going all the way across country, you could start in Vegas and tool around in the southwest - you could get to the Grand Canyon, Arches National Park, Canyonlands park, Bryce Canyon, and some parts of Colorado or New Mexico or even to California fairly easily, depending on your route and what direction you go. There's also Zion Canyon in Utah and Big Sur in California. You'd have to abandon anything east of the Mississippi, but that'd still be PLENTY to see.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:24 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Custer State Park, and really the entire region around Mt. Rushmore (Rushmore itself is kind of eh, but worth seeing as long as you're there). I'm pretty jaded to much of the western US landscape (more drives than I care to count through New Mexico and Colorado) but it was stunningly beautiful. There's also a surprising amount of neat stuff to do -- little quirky museums to visit, etc. It was super hot when I was there (at or near 100 degrees) but that was highly unusual -- a few days before and a few days after highs were in the 70s. Also, there's a drive through Custer ("Wildlife Drive") that lets you get up close and personal with buffalo, burros (they say not to feed them but everybody does -- they'll stick their heads in your car window if you give them a chance), and lots of other critters native to North America that you rarely if ever get to see in the wild.

Something to remember about places like New Orleans: while it is hot (hoooooooooooot) and humid in the summer, if you're planning mostly indoor activities you'll be fine thanks to the joys of air conditioning. It will be scorching outside, but if you're just running from air conditioned car to air conditioned museum it's not terrible. (Though cars will get very very hot in the sun, so you'll need to cool them off for a few minutes before it's comfortable to ride.)
posted by katemonster at 9:30 AM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

And on preview - if you both have four weeks for this trip, you could EASILY do a whole loop around the country by cobbling together some legs from the "Road Trip USA" book I suggested:

1. Start in Chicago, and follow the old Route 66 to Los Angeles. That would get you to the Grand Canyon on the way, and you could easily detour to Vegas for a day or two.

2. Take the Pacific Coast (Highway 1) from Los Angeles up to San Francisco. On the way you will go through Big Sur (a GORGEOUS drive), and also be able to visit Hearst Castle.)

3. From San Francisco, you can head east to Yosemite for a couple days, then pick up the "Lonliest Road" route in the Road Trip USA book that would take you across Utah, which skirts south to take you to Arches and Canyonlands Park, and then across some funky parts of Colorado and Kansas.

4. When you hit St. Louis, you can either just head straight north to Chicago again if your time is short, or follow the Mississippi south to New Orleans. Or, keep going straight to Washington DC.

5. If you go to Washington DC, it'll be easy to head back north and follow the East Coast to NYC. Then loop back west and head back to Chicago.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:33 AM on December 5, 2012

Need some clarification - is your friend taking a week off, or four weeks off?

You may have to just ignore the weather. July is the warmest month of the year in most of the country and tends to be humid east of the rocky mountains.

Las Vegas is likely to be scorching, uncomfortably hot in July (105 degrees and up). Anywhere from the East Coast to the Midwest has the potential to be hot, humid and nasty in July. The Pacific Northwest will be beautiful that time of year - sunny most of the time and very likely comfortable temperatures. Northern and Southern California are also nice in July compared to the rest of the country. The North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon are OK temperature-wise, but it is monsoon season in the desert. Yosemite will be about 90 degrees with no humidity, and will have lots of shade available.

The US is a very, very big country, and if you're switching coasts, or even traveling from the north to the south, I'd build in more airplane and less car travel.

Focusing on major cities and National Parks, and I'm just throwing this off the top of my head:

* New York City (3-4 days)
* Train to DC
* DC (3 days)
* Fly to Chicago (3 Days)
* Fly to Yellowstone/Gran Teton (3 days) One day here will probably be to rest and do nothing.
* Fly to Las Vegas, but before enjoying Vegas...
* Drive to Bryce Canyon National Park (1 day), then North Rim of Grand Canyon, then Zion National Park (2 days) - the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is too far out of the way of the other (AMAZING) parks on this list. HOTHOTHOT!
* Drive back to Las Vegas (2 days) OVEN!
* Fly from Las Vegas to Seattle
* Seattle (4 days, with trips to Olympic NP and/or Mount Rainier) You may have to rest and do nothing for a day here.
* Drive to Portland (2 days)
* Fly to San Francisco (4 days) (include one day in Muir Woods and Napa here as well as a day to rest and do nothing).
* Drive to Yosemite (2 days)
* If you have time left, drive from Yosemite to LA (2 days).
* Fly home from LA.

Put another way, you'd be seeing seven major cities and eight national parks in a month. That schedule is pretty aggressive. If you need to cut something for travel time, cut Portland, because that gains you two days. (Though I love Portland and it will be BEAUTIFUL that time of year).

Obviously you'd be leaving a lot out, but it's a workable schedule that gets you a nice mix of major cities and all-world parks.
posted by cnc at 9:47 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

July is hitting the "high season" for Glacier National Park. Upside is you might get great weather, downside is everyone else might be there too. West side of the park (Kalispell/Whitefish) gives you a taste of the woodsy Pacific Northwest. East side of the park (St Mary/Browning) looks out over a thousand empty miles of prairie and high plains. Browning is also the seat of government of the Blackfeet Nation. Overall, you'd get to see a variety of "American" sights and a great National Park in the same general area.
posted by gimonca at 9:53 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, if you want to see a big, interesting U.S. city in July, but want to try and avoid weather possibly being too hot while you're travelling, it feels like the best choice could be Seattle.
posted by gimonca at 9:57 AM on December 5, 2012

I love the Southwest. I highly recommend the Grand Canyon. It's one of my favorite places in the world. The North Rim has less visitors, and the average high in July is only 77F, being at about 7000ft elevation. If you want more than just the views, you can take a day hike into the canyon, or even take a mule trip down.

If you'll be near Las Vegas, you should make the 2.5 hour drive to Death Valley National Park. It'll be blisteringly hot in July, but it's an amazing place with a more varied landscape than I realized. There's Badwater Basin, which is a salt flat with the distinction of being the lowest point in North America at 282 ft BELOW sea level. The Mesquite Flat Dunes are what a lot of people expect when they think "desert," and they fit the bill. A walk on the dunes around sunset is a beautiful experience. Then there's Scotty's Castle, a semi-finished vacation home/castle from the 1930's in the northern part of the park at 3000ft elevation. You can take a tour of the "castle" to learn about the fascinating history of the manor. There's even a spring which feeds a small stream on the site, which supports a more verdant landscape than you'd expect, with palm trees and a nice lawn for picnicking. You could even rent a Jeep and visit the Racetrack, which is a dry lake-bed on which rocks mysteriously move, leaving trails up to hundreds of feet long with no visible means of movement.

You can take the west exit from Death Valley, and get on California HWY 395 going north. This highway skirts the eastern edge of the Sierras, and you can visit Manzanar National Historic Site, a WWII era Japanese American internment camp, and learn about that sad era of US history. Farther north along 395 is Mono Lake State Park, a saline lake which sports a unique ecosystem of brine shrimp, birds, and Tufa formations. From there you can go west over Tioga pass into Yosemite National Park, one of the busiest National Parks in the US. But it still has breathtaking scenery, and if you can spare some time to take a short hike on a trail off the road, you'll lose most of the other visitors in under a mile.

If you're in southern Oregon, Crater Lake National Park is spectacular, and you can even take a boat tour to get dropped off on Wizard Island for a couple of hours and climb the cinder cone volcano which gives the island its name.

Zion and Bryce National Parks in southern Utah are worth a visit, and are just off the I-15 interstate heading toward Las Vegas. You could even visit Cedar City, UT and take in a play at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, which is held June through October. Arches National Park just outside Moab makes for a good driving tour, since most of the interesting arches are right on the road. You can hike the easy 1.5 mile trail right up to Delicate Arch, or take a longer 7 mi round-trip hike through Devil's Garden. If you're on the east side of Utah heading south, Monument Valley on HWY 163 on the Utah Arizona border makes for a scenic drive, and is on the way to the Grand Canyon.

Also in the Four Corners area is Mesa Verde National Park. Just outside of Cortez in southern Colorado, it features Cliff Palaces built by the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived there >1000 years ago. Chaco Canyon is in north-western New Mexico, it's a Unesco World Heritage Site, and contains a large number of remarkably well preserved Ancestral Pueblo buildings.

If you need to drive across Nevada, HWY 50, "The Loneliest Road in America" is a great drive. While not quite as lonely as it used to be, you get to experience the classic Basin and Range geography, and there are several Geological and Archaeological sites you can visit along the way. On 50, just west of the Utah Nevada border is Great Basin National Park, worth a visit even if all you do is take the short hike to the Bristlecone Pine grove, home of some of the oldest living things in the world.

To repeat what others have said: In the summer sun, especially in the Southwest, any time you exit the air conditioned car, have a hat on your head (preferably wide-brimmed, not a baseball cap), and a bottle of water in your hand. Take more water if you're going on a hike which will last you more than an hour. You can avoid sun burn by wearing sun-screen and/or wearing a LONG-SLEEVED lightweight nylon sun shirt and pants. I wear long sleeved shirts and pants when I'm backpacking in the bottom of the Grand Canyon in 100F temperatures, and it actually keeps me cooler than letting the sun beat down on my bare arms and legs.
posted by Calyx Valerian at 10:28 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've done any number (over 20, without bothering to count) road trips out west. Many of these were in July or August. If you look at my AskMe history, you'll see quite a few answers about where to go in Colorado, Utah, etc. Here are a few highlights, specifically for summer:

-Southern Utah/North Rim. You could fly to Vegas, head up I15, and then down to the North Rim, which is much less crowded. Then make a loop up to Page (antelope canyon), Monument Valley, Arches, Canyonlands, over to Capitol Reef, down Utah Highway 12 (do not miss this. Do Not Miss This. DO NOT MISS THIS!!!!!), to Bryce and Zion.
-San Juans, Colorado. As a side loop on the way up to Arches, head over to Durango (Anasazi cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde), Silverton, Ouray, and Ridgway, then west to Telluride, and back on the road to Arches. July is prime wildflower time; there's any number of rental-car-driveable roads to take you to amazing basins chock-full of every color in the rainbow.
-If you're up for the drive (and the drive up I15 from the Grand Canyon up there is 17 hours nonstop, ask me how I know), Glacier is another amazing alpine gem. It ain't the Hindu Kush, but it's green and amazing. However, it's a hell of a drive. Split it in two - stop in SLC and enjoy *that* scenery- and it's not as bad.
-If you want to really be insane and you're in California, drive through Death Valley. The sweat evaporates so quickly off your body that you almost feel a chill when you stand still outside the car. The raw, rocky countryside defeats the ego, though.

If at all possible, nap around midday when everyone's at the tourist spots. Sunrise and sunset are 1) more scenic 2) outside teh comfort zone of most casual tourists. During the three days before and after a full moon, you can see a lot of things at midnight.

Keep at least five gallons of water in your car at all times, and drink from a quart Nalgene; it'll force you to drink a lot more water. While you'll piss more frequently than you'll blink, there are worse fates.
posted by notsnot at 11:09 AM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

A note about Yellowstone in the summertime: traffic can be horrible. Many of the roads can be a single lane in either direction, and traffic can come to a complete standstill if people stop to take photos of a buffalo or other critter.

It's definitely worth seeing, just beware the travel times.
posted by Fleebnork at 11:12 AM on December 5, 2012

I was in Yosemite in July. The mountains are at 6000-8000 feet, and the valley itself is at 4000 feet. In the valley it was maybe 80, but up in the mountains it was closer to 60. So, if you overhead, just head back uphill, it shouldn't be a problem.
posted by zug at 11:36 AM on December 5, 2012

The Grand Canyon in July is not super hot. I went to the South Rim in late June this year, and it was about 85-90, which didn't feel too bad. If you do the Grand Canyon, I really recommend taking old Route 66 at least part of the way. There's some gloriously kitschy and thoroughly American things to see and do along Route 66. If you're coming from the west, I'd suggest getting on Route 66 at Kingman. It's a bit of a twisty drive at some points, but it's worth it for the views and the hilarity that is Oatman, AZ (an abandoned mining town that is now a bit of an Old Western tourist trap, complete with "shootouts" and wild donkeys roaming around). The rest of Arizona, however, can get super hot. I stopped in Phoenix for a bathroom break on the way back, and the temperature was 110 in the mid afternoon.

Also, depending on how many national parks you plan on visiting, it might be worth it to get an annual pass for your visit. I think buying entrance to any one national park gets you entrance to all others with the same pass for a week (at least, that was the case with the Grand Canyon), but since you plan to be driving around for four weeks, it might be more cost effective to just get the $80 annual pass, which will cover you and your road trip buddy as long as you're in the same car. If you plan to stay in any of the national parks overnight, reserve and book your lodging well in advance. Cabins and hotel rooms in the popular parks can fill up fast.

Roadside America can help you plan your route and will show you interesting sights along the way.
posted by yasaman at 12:56 PM on December 5, 2012

Came back to say that if it's possible to do so, squeeze in Carlsbad Caverns. We drove from I40 to I10 just to do it, and it was amazing.

Also, if you do a lot of National Parks, get a National Park Passport and be sure to have it stamped.

If you decide to do Las Vegas, Arizona and California, memail me and I'll give you some amazing, detailed stuff to do.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:57 PM on December 5, 2012

I hated old Route 66. Kitschy: yes. Maybe I just don't like kitsch. It felt like a run-down, goofy caricature of American-ness. Maybe we stopped in the wrong places (we saw A LOT of European bus tourists).
posted by mskyle at 4:21 PM on December 5, 2012

I would start with a week in Alaska (Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, Denali), then fly to Seattle and road-trip to San Diego for a week and a half or two weeks. Then fly to your must-see Midwest or East Coast city for the remainder of your time.
posted by charmcityblues at 5:00 PM on December 5, 2012

The new England coast. Newport, RI has nightlife probably more fun than las Vegas, the amazing mansions, beaches and restaurants. Water fire in providence, RI. Move north and with in an hour or two you have cape cod and Boston. North, less than a couple hours more, and you have Portsmouth, RI. Great town, strawberry banks and fun nightlife. Drive north a bit and see amazing coastal towns in Maine. Hit Brunswick, Maine or many others nice towns but Acadia national park is amazing. Drive west and hit Vermont for a day (and maybe a night in an inn on lake champlain) and then south about 4-5 hours to NYC. Out of everywhere I've been in the summer (including Florida and 113 heat in arizona) I remember liking NYC the least. The pavement, no breeze....

If you are interested in American history at all there is so much..Plimoth plantation, Sturbridge village, concord and the minute man trail, strawberry banke and shelnurne museum and so much more.

If you head there fell free to PM me for a few hidden treasures
posted by beccaj at 6:31 PM on December 5, 2012

See, y'all are doing something I wish I could do again so I may come back in a couple more times....

* CNC is correct that Las Vegas will be very hot in July; however, most of the "sights" in Vegas are going to be indoors, and there is copious air conditioning. There are other things in Las Vegas aside from casinos; but the time you spend getting from point A to point B won't send you into omgheatstroke alert or anything.

* Notsnot's tip about frequent peeing reminds me of another good rule of thumb I heard to make sure that you're getting hydrated enough if you're either in an unusually hot place or if you're exerting yourself more than usual - make sure you drink to the point that you need to pee every hour or two.

* New York City in summer can get surprisingly humid. Not quite to the point of New Orleans in summer, but...still pretty bad. However, the city is LOADED with a ton of free entertainment in summer - at least four different free concert festivals (I've seen Lou Reed, Dr. John, Glen Hansard and the B-52's for free), free theater in just about ALL the parks, free movies, free art shows...

Also, summer in New York is when you can get out to one of my favorite places in the entire world - Governors Island, which used to be an Army base. There's a free ferry to and from the Island departing from Manhattan and from Brooklyn; the north half of the island is part of the national park system and they have guided tours of the two forts dating back to the 1700's; then you can explore the grounds of some of the other buildings yourself (you can't go inside them, but walking around outside is fascinating). The rest of the island is part of New York's park system, and is packed with artists' displays, vintage baseball games...they're even renovating a section of the island this winter and setting up a grove of trees filled with first-come-first-dibs hammocks.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:39 AM on December 7, 2012

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