School’s Out for Summer! 4 Sweet Summer Road Trip Ideas

Yearning for a seasonal adventure? Here are 4 charming destinations you'll love when you are ready to make your summer road trip happen.

Summer Road Trips
You can off-road in Cody, Wyoming. Hopefully you won't run into quite this much mud! Photo: Jill Robbins

Ready for the Summer? We’ve Got Destinations to Explore.

The kids are out of school, the sun is shining, and the often slower pace of the summer months is perfect for hitting the open road. Unlike travel squeezed in around school schedules or over the holidays, summer travel has a more unhurried vibe. The longer days give drivers more daylight driving hours, although I one thousand percent recommend using some of that precious daylight to make an unplanned stop when you see something interesting or simply think, “I wonder where that road goes?”

One of the drawbacks of summer road trips is that you’ll find lots of other people on the road with the same plan. However, the upside is that you might have more time and be able to prioritize slow travel. How nice is it to be able to really be present and absorb the place you’re in when you are having a summer adventure?

Whether your philosophy is “the more the merrier” or you seek to combat the crowds by choosing an off-the-grid destination, one of these TK summer road trips might be the inspiration you need to do that safety check on your car, load up, and explore.

Related: 21 Audio Books Perfect for Your Next Road Trip

Summer Road Trips
Surrounded by water, there is no shortage of water activities on a summer road trip to Door County in the summer. Photo: Door County

Point Your Road Trip Wheels North to Door County, Wisconsin

Located between the waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan, Door County was once a summer playground for affluent Chicagoans seeking to escape the city’s heat. Today, this 70-mile peninsula offers a bevy of activities all year round, although summer is especially beautiful. It remains a great place to enjoy being outdoors without sweltering temperatures.

I live in San Antonio, and despite my love of summer sun, the triple-digit temperatures are not my favorite thing, so Door County tops my list of road trip-worthy summer spots.

Surrounded by all the water, you are probably guessing that there are ample opportunities for water activities in Door County, and you would be correct! You can take part in all types of water activities near Door County’s beaches and waterways, including swimming, fishing, boating, paddleboarding, and even snorkeling and diving. The water will likely seem cold if you’re coming from the south and are used to warmer waters, but it is warm enough to swim safely. Research water activities ahead of time to see if you’d be more comfortable in a wet suit.

Related: Road Trip Fun for Kids and Teens at Great Wolf Lodge

Summer Road Trips
Take a summer road trip to this tower with spectacular views in Peninsula State Park. Photo: Door County

Summer Road Trip to Door County’s Parks

If you prefer to take in the water’s beauty without getting in it, Door County has gorgeous, scenic hiking and other opportunities to explore the outdoors. You can’t get very far without views of the water! Peninsula State Park offers everything from a lighthouse to explore to bike trails. There’s also Eagle Tower, a completely accessible viewing tower with gently sloping ramps that are both wheelchair and stroller-friendly.

One of the coolest things I did in Door County was to go stargazing. As a city dweller, I’m completely fascinated with the night sky in places less populated by light pollution. Newport State Park is the best place to see the stars in Door County. We put “International Dark Sky Park” into Google Maps when we were near the park and followed Newport State Park road into the park until we reached a dead end. Do not stop at the park entrance hut.

Once you’ve parked, take the paved path about 200 yards to the water. If you go before it gets completely dark, you’ll be able to see just fine, but if you go after dark, I recommend you make the trek without flashlights. I know that sounds crazy, but your eyes will quickly adjust to the dark, and you—and everyone else—will have a better experience if you keep light from flashlights or phones to a necessary minimum.

Related: 9 Favorite Travel Bags for Your Next Road Trip

Summer Road Trips
Sheridan Avenue in Cody, Wyoming has shops, lodging, places to eat, and more. And, walkable for when you’re ready to take a break from driving. Photo: Cody Yellowstone

Cody, Wyoming – The Gateway to Yellowstone National Park

Cody is 53 miles – about an hour’s drive – from Yellowstone National Park’s East Entrance. Yellowstone is a fantastic summer road trip destination in itself and the town of Cody is a perfect basecamp to explore the park. The drive from Cody to the East Entrance takes about an hour each way. Compliment the scenic drive with education and listen to the free Chief Joseph Scenic Byway episode on the Travelstory app. The episode lasts most of the drive, correlates with the scenery you will pass, and allows some historical context. Best of all the episode, created in partnership with Cody Yellowstone, does not require a cell signal, which is a good thing because you probably will not have one!

If you need another driving adventure, consider renting a UTV from Tread ‘N Trails in downtown Cody and exploring over 25,000 acres of public lands in a Polaris Side-by-Side UTV. The only requirement is a valid driver’s license and a sense of adventure. And, while a sense of direction is always useful, the UTVs are programmed with routes, and you’re likely to be within cell signal the entire time, even though the open skies and pristine, unspoiled scenery will suggest otherwise.

Downtown Cody has lots of options for shopping, dining, and places to stay, so once you’re ready to call it a day on the driving, this is an easy and fun place to explore on foot. From getting a slice of Old West history at the historic Hotel Irma to eclectic boutiques to a cool craft beer scene, strolling down Sheridan Avenue is an opportunity to build your own adventure.

Summer Road Trips
If you see a Buffalo on the road in Yellowstone National Park, wait for him to pass or get out of your way. Don’t try to steer around him. Photo: Jill Robbins

Tips for Driving in Yellowstone National Park

Although Cody is fun to explore on its own, it’s almost inconceivable to think of going to Cody and skipping Yellowstone. You are right there! Driving through Yellowstone is one of the best adventures you can have in your car, so heed this advice to have the best experience:

  • Accept that you are going to sit in traffic. Whether that’s a line to get into the park or a congested bear jam, there are probably going to be times when you just want to go but can’t because someone else’s car is in front of you. Everyone loves Yellowstone on a summer road trip. There’s traffic. Know it going in and be patient. There’s lots to look at.
  • Don’t stop in the middle of the road. While that might sound like dumb advice, it’s easy to get distracted by the gorgeous scenery, wildlife, or other activities around you. There are pull-out spots along the parks’ main roads, so make sure to use them.
  • Wildlife has the right of way. Seeing bison, bears, and other wild creatures from your car is breathtaking. But sometimes, bison are gonna bison. They will walk into the road, often in front of your car, without looking, as if they expect you just to stop. And that’s exactly what you should do. While maybe you could reason with an errant three-year-old who lurched out into the street, that doesn’t work with a bison, and really, it’s their space. We’re just looking.
  • Bring Snacks. Once you’re committed to driving through Yellowstone National Park, there aren’t many choices for where to stop and get food. If you’re doing a daylong road trip through the park and driving back to Cody, you’re probably going to eat breakfast before you leave in the morning and a late dinner after you’re back. Make sure you pack lots of things to eat in the car, especially protein-heavy snacks like jerky and energy bars.
Summer Road Trips
There isn’t a ton of space at the top of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, but you can peek out at the view and see for miles on a clear day. Photo: Jill Robbins

Meet Me In St. Louis

St Louis, Missouri has lots of urban fun. Whether you choose this Missouri city as a destination or see the Gateway Arch from Interstate 64 and think, “We should stop to check that out,” this is a summer road trip spot where you can pack in a week’s worth of fun or enjoy some highlights for an afternoon.

If you’re a national parks person, you can’t miss a stop at the country’s smallest national park, Gateway Arch National Park. Long the most visible, recognizable symbol of St Louis, the Arch is a tangible symbol of Westward expansion. You can ride to the top of the Arch, which is a fun, cross-it-off-your-travel-bucket list experience. The trams are in pods that seat four people and the ride takes about four minutes to reach the top. The observation area is narrow and on a clear day, you can see neighboring Illinois on one side and view the St Louis city skyline from the other.

At the base of the Arch is a very well-done museum that offers immersive exhibits that tell the story of St Louis’ role in settling the American West. Visitors can also walk around the base of the Arch to get a full sense of how massive it really is.

Fun fact: I lived just outside St Louis for five years and never went to the top of the Arch because I thought it was terrifying. I found the experience very mildly anxiety-inducing but I’m proud of myself for doing it when I visited last October. I it wasn’t the scary event, I’d made it out in my head to be, and I recommend doing it at least once in your lifetime.

Summer Road Trips
From ice cream to sushi to craft beer, St Louis, Missouri, has an amazing and eclectic food scene. Photo: Jill Robbins

What We Love Here: An Up and Coming City for Food

St Louis is also an incredible food and beverage city. While you might think the food is limited to St Louis style thin crust pizza and gooey butter cake – both legit examples of Midwestern yumminess – the city is a blend of food culture, brought in by recent immigrants and St Louis-born chefs who’ve trained and elsewhere and returned home. Eating in St Louis is a joy.

If you want to get your taste buds going, check out the short film The Flavor of St Louis. I recommend eating at each of the highlighted restaurants while you are in town, from freshly made sushi at Sado to an elevated veggie-forward experience at Vicia to the most to-die-for pastries at La Patisserie Chouquette.

Summer Road Trips
If this isn’t the perfect spot in Sugar Land for a selfie, I’m not sure what is. Photo: Jill Robbins

Under-the-Radar Road Trip Near Houston: Sugar Land, Texas

I’ll end my list of sweet summer road trip picks with – what else? – Sugar Land. A mere 20 miles from bustling, busy Houston, Sugar Land’s name comes from the product it was once best known for producing – sugar. Early settlers brought sugar cane plants to the area, which thrived in the fertile soil in the Brazos River floodplain. The area’s sugar plantations were eventually absorbed into the Imperial Sugar empire, which had its refinery and distribution center in Sugar Land for 150+ years. The old sugar factor still stands as a local icon and landmark, although sugar isn’t produced in Sugar Land any longer.

Sugar Land has a quaint and walkable town square lined with shops and creative places to eat. The town square always has something going on, from free fitness classes to live music. Even if there’s nothing going on, the space is picturesque and Instagrammable, with clever seating, fountains, and fun sculptures that make imaginative photo backdrops.

For a super quirky experience in Sugar Land, book a time slot at the Department of Wonder, which is an interactive, mixed-reality experience. The experience is a little hard to describe, but a great way to summarize it is “Stepping into a 10,000-square-foot video game and going on a quest.” Anyone who has ever had any type of Meow Wolfe experience will find some similarities in the Department of Wonder. Guests enter through a “lamp shop” and are given a lantern, which they’ll use to solve clues to open the magic portal.

The Department of Wonder has indoor play equipment, live actors, and lots of whimsy. There are adults-only sessions and kids’ sessions, both of which must be booked in advance. The adult-only sessions include cocktails, and the role players are a little more spicy.

Summer Road Trips
Summer road trip to Cullinan Park in Sugar Land. Photo: Randie Lin for Cullinan Park Conservancy

What We Love Here: Sugar Land’s Outdoor Spaces

Although you can park your car in downtown Sugar Land and have a world of fun things within easy walking distance, you’ll need to get in your car to explore Sugar Land’s green spaces. Even though Sugar Land is not the big city of Houston, it is still very much an urban area with carefully designed green spaces to get people outdoors and moving. Trust me, check out all the delicious food options in downtown Sugar Land, and you’re going to want a walk or a bike ride, if you’ve brought your bikes along on your summer road trip.

  • Cullinan Park: a 754-acre nature preserve with a four-mile network of soft, easy, shaded trails and a boardwalk over the lake, perfect for wildlife viewing. Warning: Heed the alligator signs! I didn’t see any, but they’re living in the park.
  • Brazos River Park: Three miles of paved trails, playgrounds, and public outdoor art.
  • Sugar Land Memorial Park: Peaceful paved walking paths, a pond with a self-service kayak rental kiosk, and monuments to military veterans. I also saw alligator warning signs here, but no gators!

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Jill is the oldest mom with the youngest kids pretty much everywhere she goes. She has a 29-year-old daughter... More about Jill Robbins